Monday, August 31, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part VII

The day of our 8th anniversary we took it easy: we got up late, had a slow breakfast, sipped some tamarillo and passion fruit smoothies, and then the driver from Alam Sari Keliki (where we were staying) took us toDenpasar (the island's main city), where a car from the resort where we'd spend our last two nights in Bali would pick us up.

And now, some background information. This was NO ordinary anniversary (yeah, I know, none are, but this one less than any others). It was the EIGHTH one. It was also our last Asian trip before moving continents. A worthy celebration required planning. More than a month before this day, after hours spent searching, comparing, reading reviews, looking at maps, checking finances and consulting with friends, I found IT: Alila Villas Uluwatu, a newly opened design hotel perched on cliffs overlooking the Indian Ocean at the southernmost tip of Bali. I arranged for a special dinner menu at their most romantic cabana. I let them know it was our anniversary trip, so they'd take extra care with dinner and the room. I booked a "Health Concerned" style for the mini-bar. And a "Champagne and Berry Bath" for our day of arrival. And I didn't tell my habib a single tiny word about any of this. Or, more accurately, I lied and told him we were staying at a beach hotel on the eastern coast of the island. Best of all, I managed to keep my plans a secret until the very end.

Guilt (about lying to him) and excitement (about what I had arranged) had to be kept in check for the plan to hatch, and I played my part masterfully, if I may say. So, when the car that picked us up in Denpasar looked somewhat nicer than it should, when there was not just a driver but an escort, when they offered us wet towels to refresh ourselves and bottles of cold mineral water, when my habib saw there was a rather fancy magazine in the seat's rack, when we drove off in a completely different direction than we should have, when we were welcomed by the manager, didn't have to carry our luggage and were escorted by staff past a really nicely designed outdoor area to our door, my habib might have thought it was somewhat more than he expected, but he never doubted we were going to the other resort I had told him. ;-)

Finally, when our escort opened the door and my habib walked in, it all added up and it dawned on him: we were somewhere else. And this is the surprise he walked into as I screamed "Happy 8th anniversary!", hugged him and kissed him in his total amazement. (happiness faces like his at that moment - and the rest of the day - are some of the best rewards, ever)

And so, everything that had been planned more than a month in advance started unfolding as it should. There was a flower arrangement on the bed. We enjoyed some delicious and refreshing fruit mixes from the bar, snacked on dates, popcorn, cool cucumber and nuts, swam in our own pool, enjoyed the sun, relaxed in our own pool-side cabana... About one or 2 hours before dinner, the staff from the hotel prepared our "Champagne and Berry Bath": they filled the bathtub (which had views of the pool, of the cabana and the horizon beyond) with aromatic oils, and rose petals, placed a cold bottle of champagne on one side, two champagne glasses, as well as strawberries and a cup with chocolate powder to coat the strawberries with.

After the delicious bath, and maybe a bit too happy from drinking a full bottle of champagne, we headed to "Cire", one of the two restaurants of the hotel, for our anniversary dinner. They were expecting us and took us to the pool-side sunset cabana, with beautiful views of the infinity pool, the horizon, and the hotel. An incredibly gracious and charming host congratulated us on our anniversary, made small and pleasant chat, and wished us a nice dinner. Which it was. So nice, in fact, that, contrary to what I usually do, I completely forgot to take pictures of what we had and devoted myself to enjoying every single scrumptious and delicate dish, toasting to many things (including to the sweet Australian couple that told me about Air Asia, whose cheap plane tickets had made this anniversary trip possible), and being happy while the sun set.

As if that were not enough, after dinner we got back to our villa to discover not only how gorgeous it looked at night, but that the staff had left some sweets and tea to wish us a good night.

Because, you see, what's the point in working hard (both at the office and at your relationship) and saving money if you're not going to take some days off, splurge, and celebrate you're lucky, you're happy, and you're in love?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part VI

Our fifth day the morning was somewhat rainy, but we nevertheless went to Ubud to do a bit more exploring, to buy tickets for a night performance of Kecak (you'll see later what that's about) and have a nice lunch.

I must say, as much as the rain was a bit of a bother, it gave Ubud a different light, especially when we came upon this small shrine next to the central market, packed with typical flower, fruit and incense offerings from the locals:

Afterwards, we went to buy the tickets for the Kecak performance to a temple (Pura Dalem Taman Kaja) on a really quaint side street, and were relieved to see that, despite the threat of rain, the performance was still on.

Since my habib wanted to buy some puppets, and I was dying to go see the monkeys at Ubud's Monkey Forest (what can I say, I enjoy nature and animals), we each went our way. Now, I know I had already been to Alas Kedaton (and the experience with the bats was absolutely priceless and unforgettable), but Ubud's monkey forest was much bigger, had three temples within (including one for cremations) and, even though our guidebook warned against aggressive monkeys, all the ones I saw behaved really well. Well, there was one that clung to my clothes and wanted to climb me, but I didn't get to find out its real intentions as it ran away the moment it saw a dog approaching,LOL. There was a stream, too, and a bridge out of a fantasy novel. Needless to say I was very happy there.

And you have to take a look at this adorable young monkey at one of the temples. (by the way, it still beats me how we can go ga-ga for young wild monkeys and how we'd faint if someone served us "young monkey foot", and still send millions of other intelligent young earthlings, like piglets or calves, to their death to satisfy our palates as veal or roasted suckling pig ).

After my "walk in the wild", I met my habib at a café where I had a delicious vegan cocoa smoothie, a fantastic avocado sandwich, and a sinful RAW VEGAN CHOCOLATE cake (how come I didn't take a picture of that?). Full and happy, we went to Pura Dalem Taman Kaja for the Kecak (pronounced "Kechak", by the way) performance. The Kecak Dance is probably Bali's most famous ritual dance, where at least 80 bare-chested men do a very particular kind of a cappella singing accompanied by physical movements (a spectacular recording of this kind of dance can be found in the film Baraka ). It did rain and, since the canopy over us was letting quite a bit of rain through the sides, we all had to pull our chairs closer to the centre of the temple's patio which, unintentionally, made the performance much more intimate and personal than it would have been otherwise, and it finally shattered any misgivings I might still have had about rituals being turned into performances for the general public. Yet another unique gift from Bali to us unsuspecting mortals:

Next day we were moving to a different resort on another part of the island, to celebrate our anniversary, and to surprise my habib like he never expected...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part V

Our fourth day in Bali, being the day of the sun eclipse (it wasn't going to be a full eclipse in Bali, just a partial one) we decided to go try to find some temple fairs and visit just two sacred sites. And we were lucky Dewa, the amazing driver and guide I mentioned before, was available.

First, we set off towards Kawan village where, I had read, an important temple fair was going to take place. Of course, there being as many temples as there were, halfway to Kawan we spotted some ceremony taking place during the eclipse at Bangli village, at Pura Malangting. They explained it was a kind of market ceremony. The women were carrying huge baskets with offerings on their heads, while some of the men carried instruments or banners. And, suddenly, everyone started pouring into the street and a colourful and musical procession started.

I took these videos both inside the temple and during the procession:

After that, and thirsty for more, we drove past more hills and rice paddies until we reached Kawan, where another ceremony was taking place at Pura Dalem Pingit.

This one was different: they had built a new building, and this ceremony was to obtain the blessing of the gods for it. The ceremony I was after would take place at night, and we'd miss it, but this other one certainly made up for it.

Happy, mystified and grateful we had caught two really interesting rites, we then headed to the town of Tampaksiring, to visit Pura Tirta Empul, a sacred place Balinese visit every once in a while for a ritual cleansing at the temple's waters. The reservoir from where the water sprang forth provided for a strange spectacle, with the black sand pushed into strange shapes by the springs underneath. As much as it's become a heavily touristy attraction, with plenty of camera toting intruding bastards (excuse my French, but I prefer not push my camera up someone's nostril while they pray just for an intimate mug shot) happy to break every single basic norm of respect for a sacred place, it was a pleasant experience.

To finish, we went for Gunung Kawi, arguably the oldest ruins in the island. Built for some king and his wives in the 11th century, these shrines, carved from the mountain walls, are definitely different from everything else, are imposing (they're quite big), and you can even see a very particular kind of Balinese orchid growing there, an orchid that definitely looks from out of this world.

Finally, for our cultural event of the night, we went to Ubud, to watch a Barong dance by the Sekaa Gong Semara Kanti troupe at Padangtegal Kaja (a temple). The story, rooted in Balinese mythology, is a bit too convoluted to retell here, but believe me, the performance was equally enjoyable without a knowledge of the storyline.

And, if there is one memory that will always stay with me from this trip, it's this dance. Or more precisely, the first scene you see in the video I've embedded below. I was happily filming the performance, as I had done before, when this beautiful, majestic being, the Barong, came into scene. And then, when it charged ahead towards me, with its jaws quickly snapping open and close, making a strong acute wooden sound, with the intense music of the traditional gamelan orchestra adding to the magic of the scene, I was lost, my whole self was dragged into the moment; I kept holding my camera, but nothing existed but the Barong and the music, the Barong was real, it was alive, and all I could do was stare in disbelief and awe exactly as you would do if you saw a dragon flying at you from across the street. I was so fortunate to witness that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part IV

yet another image and video loaded post, sorry! unavoidable, though.

Next day (a Monday) we decided to take no tour (as good as the previous one had been, we were exhausted), and went to explore the city of Ubud on foot.

First stop: Ubud Palace (or, more accurately, Puri Saren Ubud). A beautiful structure from the 19th century, the place was full of small corridors, flowers, statues (including some really unusual ones), mysterious corners... I loved the fact that the locals dressed the statues with skirts and adorned them with flowers, giving them some sort of living air.

Second Stop (actually, there were many small stops in between, darn fascinating town!): The Water Palace (Pura Taman Saraswati). Gorgeous. Water, waterlilies, a majestic Angkor style (well, in its magic, not literally in architectural style) entrance, and a treasure of images inside, including Balinese working on traditional costumes for dances that we'd happen to watch that night and the next two! Priceless.

Third Stop (I can hear you wondering, or fearing, how many stops there were in total): Pura Dalem Ubud Kaja. Actually, not that many people stop at this temple, but just take a look at these three photos and tell me YOU wouldn't have stopped and stared:

Fourth Stop: Sungai Cerik (River), Sungai Cerik gorge and Pura Gunung Lebah. Another visit to a not so visited temple, sitting in the middle of the jungle (in the middle of the town!) next to a gorge; peaceful, different (so many temples, and so many different styles!), water, green, just the sound of nature... it was one of my favourites, I must say.

I couldn't help but try to capture it all (probably unsuccessfully) with this video:

Fifth Stop: Penestanan. It was a hot day, yet I couldn't control myself and I wanted to keep exploring. After the gorge, we went up some steps to a part of town called Penestanan . Remember, we were still in the town, but the presence of nature all around was overwhelming! The steps were worth a visit by themselves, I felt, and then the walk up there, across some rice fields and finishing at lonely but quaint Pura Desa Puseh, was really relaxing (if a bit sweaty, because of the heat and humidity).

Sixth Stop: The Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). This museum gave us way more than we expected: a drawing by Miguel Covarrubias (a Mexican whose drawings, paintings, documentary and book about Bali are world famous and who, along with other artists, made Bali popular in the 30's), more unusual statues (like one of a monkey with a huge phallus), a delightful square fountain, and even a dance lesson (of a sort of dance we were going to witness that very same night). A definite must, for us.

Here's a short video of the dance lesson. Delightful is the word.

Seventh and Final Stop, the pièce de résistance: A Legong performance at Ubud Palace. After smothering our bodies in mosquito repellent, we sat down to watch a series of dances performed by the Sadha Budaya Troupe. A total of six dances and two musical interludes. We were totally enthralled by the enveloping vibrant music and the tremendous skill and energy of the dancers.

We left, back to Keliki, surprised, satisfied, and barely believing this had been just our third day on the island.

Monday, August 17, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part III

The pictures and videos in this post will practically speak for themselves... and you'll probably hate me for the number of vids and pics, which might take a while to download...

After a nice and early breakfast, we got ready to leave the hotel for the day's tour with our driver, Dewa, who introduced us to our first surprise even before leaving the hotel: a beautiful flower that opens during the night and early morning, and grows at astonishing speed from underwater. Yes, we were set for an interesting day and, as with the flower, the surrounding countryside was charming us way before we even got close to our first destination.

We finally arrived at Mengwi, where our very first important Balinese temple awaited: Pura Taman Ayun. Floral and incense offerings adorned the bridge over the moat, and the place was quiet and relaxed; we enjoyed some small towers and sculptures, but we were NOT prepared for the views we'd get from one of the higher platforms: a row of towers of a design we'd never seen in all our travels, and which made us, once more, marvel at the diversity of human sensibility; we walked all around, in awe at the beauty and harmony of the place...

Up the mountains, we reached the second wonder: Candi Kuning, next to lake Beratan. Do I need to bombard you yet once more with words that will probably sound cheesy and which won't portray what we saw?

The lake, the temple, the ceremonies... our senses were completely alert, taking in all these new sounds and images.

Afterwards, as if to demonstrate that religion was not the only way to beauty, Dewa drove us around the most beautiful rice terraces I had ever seen, the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. The reflection of the sun on the water, the different colours and the lines marvelled us. I really had to try not to take too many pictures.

So, we had temples and nature. And what did I need to make it really perfect? Animals. Dewa (who, by the way, explained to us that Dewata is the Balinese word for "Bali", and that it means "God's", hence the name of this series of posts) took us to Alas Kedaton, a sacred monkey forest. And, surprisingly, even though it was unbelievable how cute and well behaved the monkeys were, it was bats who stole my heart.

The bats weren't physically restrained in any way, they didn't look drugged either, and I dare think that they were simply domesticated and enjoyed being fed. I held one of those beautiful, unique creatures, and when it looked at me with its huge, round, intelligent brown eyes, I was filled with utmost wonder and tenderness. It was a transforming experience.

And the day wasn't over yet. We visited one more temple: Pura Tanah Lot. It's famous for its striking seaside setting (to protect the island from spirits), for gorgeous sunsets and, unfortunately, for immense crowds aware of the temple's fame.

Being the explorer I am, of course, I soon found a way to a small cliff far enough for placid contemplation of the sea and temple. Beautiful.

Dewa, who is probably the nicest and best guide we've ever met, took us back to the hotel, just in time to refresh and head to the night's cultural activity, courtesy of my habib's passion for theatre: "The Sarifice of Bima", a traditional Balinese shadow puppet performance, in Ubud.

I must say that the play had one or two improvisations probably meant to amuse foreign kids, but which seemed really badly thought and done but, aside from that, we definitely enjoyed the story by candlelight.

After the performance, we relaxed at a nearby café, with really nicely done pizza and surprisingly good Balinese beer (so good, in fact, that was the only brand I'd keep ordering during our entire stay).

And that was all in one day. Our second day in the island. And the next days were as good or even better.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

8 @ Dewata, Part II

Yes, this is part II, of... SEVERAL. But Bali deserves several and more: it offers nature, temples, culture... and aplenty. So be patient; I hope you'll find something of interest in each post.

Bali welcomed us on July 18th in a relaxed, low-key way. The driver from the hotel was waiting for us, drove us from Denpasar (where the airport is) past a slightly annoying urban sprawl, across rice fields, into the mountains, past a number of small villages with more shrines and temples than we had ever seen in a single place (honestly, we must have passed no less than a 50 religious buildings in a 75 minute drive), down ravines and up jungle roads, until we finally reached our destination: Alam Sari Keliki Hotel in Keliki village (pronounced almost like "clicky"), north of Ubud.

We took the steps leading up from the road to the hotel and were greeted with two "tamarillo & passion fruit smoothies", utterly delicious and extremely welcome in the warm (though never really too hot) weather. The place, as welcoming as the staff: it was right in the middle of the jungle, with views of Mount Agung (Bali's highest volcano) appearing and disappearing behind clouds in the distance, rice paddies with the sky and sun reflecting on the water, flowers (both growing and left as offerings), a small shrine... Our "standard" room was spacious, with what they called an "indoor balinese garden bathroom" (literally, a bathroom with a garden, a concept which I found brilliant), and your own terrace facing the pool, the sunrise, and mighty Mount Agung.

these are all views from the room or from the hotel grounds:

The place being so nice, and having flown some 3 hours from Kuala Lumpur to Bali, waited 1 hour to go through customs, and driven more than an hour from Denpasar to Keliki, we decided to spend the rest of the day there, chilling out, enjoying the delicious food, and trying to decide what to see the next day (not an easy task, given the overwhelming natural and cultural wealth of the island).

At night, one of the women from the hotel's staff performed a bit of Balinese dance for the guests (there were some 12 of us, maybe). I must say, it may have been a bit amateurish, and the music was not live, but the setting, the clothes, the sound and the mere intention of providing guests at this hotel in the middle of the jungle with some cultural entertainment were more than enough to make it a special experience, particularly for our first night!

And so, after dinner and the dance, after watching the stars at the pool and listening to the sounds of frogs and the wind, and after much thinking, we chose a tour for the next day and a Shadow Puppet performance in the evening... And it was so good, and so intense, it will require it's own post, as practically every single day we spent in the island will...

Sunday, August 09, 2009

8 @ Dewata (aka "Our 8th Anniversary Trip to Bali")

Bali was going to happen, just not anytime soon; at 1500+ USD per person just for the airfare, it was definitely beyond our means for this year. Instead, our farewell-China trip was going to be to Fujian Province. That is, until a friend told us about a new low-cost airline flying from nearby Tianjin, via Kuala Lumpur, to all of Asia and beyond. Once I saw their fares (less than 800USD FOR TWO), it took us about 30 seconds to ditch Fujian in favour of an 8th anniversary celebration in the Indonesian archipelago.

And so, full of excitement (and with a surprise up my sleeve for our very anniversary night on July 23rd), on the evening of July 16th we took an ultra-fast train from Beijing's super modern South Train Station (北京南站), practically flew over the tracks at some 350kmph, and 35min later we arrived to the port of Tianjin (stop 1). No, we didn't do much there (it was already late) except rest at an interesting hotel (the Fashion Lotus Hotel, shaped as a postmodern lotus, of course) and have a Korean dinner at a restaurant nearby. None of those things were unique in and of themselves, but they were steps of an adventure, steps taking us closer to Bali, and that filled me with energy, wonder and excitement for everything around me.

The next morning, a rainy, gray morning, we flew (in a big, comfortable, new plane with an attentive crew, which completely destroyed any preconceptions we had about low cost airlines) to stop 2, Kuala Lumpur. And so we touched Malay soil for the first time. All we visited was the area near the Petronas Towers, as we were somewhat tired, we had flown some 6 hours, and the day was hot and humid, but when every ad you see about Malaysia parades the Petronas, and when you've seen a programme or two about them, finally seeing them was quite something. And we saw plenty of them: from our room (yes, it had a view to the towers!), from the ground, and from the rotating restaurant at the KL Tower. They're not just gigangtic engineering achievements, they're even elegant and graceful ones: the way the metal and glass combined, how both towers rose gracefully high above... and even the area nearby, with a park and an artificial lake, provided a nice, relaxing stroll.

My habib had a headache and the flu, so he stayed at the hotel while a cool colleague of mine took me for a night out in the city. Being tired as I was, I was ready to go home after the first beer, but it was one fun short night, for sure! And, after all, Saturday was THE day we were flying to our real goal and stop 3: Bali. And the views we had of other islands on our approach (Java, I believe) were all I needed to know this was going to be one beautiful holiday...