Bali Longa: "The Bride Wore White"

Kuta, Bali

Indonesia

May 07, 2005

 

Dear Family and Friends,

One of the advantages of traveling solo is that you can indulge in slightly flirtatious, harmless conversations with members of the opposite sex without worrying about whom you may be ignoring or offending.

On arrival at the Denpasar-Bali Airport, Surya, the hotel booking agent, insisted on calling me "honey" so I mentioned that I might be on the lookout for a nice Bali girl. She said she had a friend for me.

One hour later, after a few telephone calls back and forth, Nina showed up at the lobby of my hotel. Cute, cafe-au-lait complexion, 25, divorced, three year old son.

You want to know why I love Asia? Well, I'll tell you why I love Asia.

True story...

In Thailand one steamy afternoon in February, I was patiently waiting for a bus at a tiny depot in a small town, don't ask me where, where Westerners are a rarity. Thais are curious and travelers must learn to respond cheerfully to personal questions. "Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your job? Are you married? Where is your family? How many children? How old are you?"

I always tell the truth, so to that last question I answered, "Hoc sip si." The lady who asked me was quite surprised. She said, "I think you look like 'si sip hoc' (forty-six)."

So, true to form in Asia, Nina, here in Bali, asked me the same set of questions. When she got to the last one, I remembered the bus station in Thailand, crossed my fingers, and said casually, "Forty six."

Nina frowned, with a trace of incredulity. "Really? I thought you are no more than thirty- eight." And you want to know why I love Asia.

By the end of the evening, Nina and I agreed that she would be my driver and guide. And that's all, sports fans.

Nina did like me well enough to invite me to her step-sister's wedding. Her step-sister is eighteen. As Nina explained, her step-sister had an "accident."

Now Nina's full name is Christina; her grandfather was Dutch so her Balinese family belongs to one of the Christian churches scattered around the islands. On the way to the church we stopped to pick up grandmother. So despite the national census of tens of millions of Muslims, with hundreds of thousands of practicing Hindus in Bali, hanging on the wall of grandmother's living room is a colorful tapestry of The Last Supper. Go figure.

Now I'm no OB-GYN. But judging by the shape of the prominent protuberance beneath the lovely, embroidered, bridal gown of ,pure white, and with the ,bride's best efforts to rest her bouquet against the bulge, my guess is that the "accident" occurred as the young couple was celebrating W's re-election. Maybe Columbus Day.

After vows were exchanged, the small choir and small electronic band belted out a few hymns in Balinese, or maybe Indonesian. Then the Minister did his thing.

To be honest fellow homiletics lovers, this guy would have been at home under a revival tent in Omaha or Little Rock or even Biloxi. Arms waving overhead, he was energetic, personal and long! The ceremony neared the hour-and-a-half mark. As I have many times before when my teeth are grinding and my legs are quivering, I thought of my Bronx buddy Jay Gilsen.

From Kindergarten at P.S. 73 in Highbridge, until this very day, Jay has a permanently affixed mischievous smirk, and an instantaneous wit coupled with perfectly congruent free-associations. Jay loves baseball. Jay loves the "Yanks." In his wallet he carries a well-worn photo of "The Mick." Well, maybe he finally tossed it after what the Red Sox pulled last October.

Years ago Jay and I were sitting together in a synagogue at the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a mutual friend. The Rabbi went on and on and on and on and on with his encomium of the round, baby-faced thirteen year old boy. Everyone was fidgeting.

So, I should not have been surprised when Jay leaned over, cleared his throat as he is wont to do, looked at me mournfully with his bulging watery green eyes and observed sotto voce, "Jany," (he always calls me Jany), "Jany, I think we're headed into extra innings, here."

From the hills of Highbridge to the volcanoes of Bali.....

Nina is a competent, confident driver as she maneuvers our Mitsubishi SUV along narrow streets and mountain roads swarming with motorbikes, bicycles, all manner of cars and trucks and tourist buses. Not to mention folks just walking along, kids coming from school, mothers holding infants in slings, horse carts. Traffic everywhere moves slowly and gingerly with lots of unexpected obstacles.

And unlike downtown Perth, where even at 10:00 at night with not a vehicle in sight, pedestrians refuse to cross the road until the walk sign turns green, here in Bali, red signals seem to be only a "suggestion."

Our first day-trip was well to the north as we passed through small towns and green, terraced rice fields, and up and up and up to Lake Batur and Mt Batur 1730m.

This is jaw-dropping beauty. The lake is immense - actually a caldera in the midst of dormant volcanoes. Puffy white clouds obscure the peaks. The view from the outdoor, buffet-style restaurant above the lake: green, I mean really green, down deep, up high, windy, cool.

Experienced Bali travelers advised me to visit Ubud - a small city in the hills and a refuge from the busy Kuta. I don't know when they were here last, but Ubud is a budding, flowering version of Kuta - shops and shops, markets, traffic. I did manage to visit two Hindu temples filled with grotesque, threatening yet appealing stone sculptures of gods with thick swords and goddesses with huge bare breasts.

My favorite spot is Pra Ulun Danu, a 300 year old Hindu-Buddhist temple dedicated to Dewi Danu, the goddess of the waters. The multi-level shrines sit on small islands and are reflected in the waters of the mountain lake - their dark silhouettes in contrast to the mountains beyond.

Nearby is a mosque with a winding staircase up the steel tower to a platform overlooking the lake. Naturally....

After four days, Nina got busy with her "jewelry-accessory" business so I found Wayan.

For two extra days I visited more temples and made stops in villages and small towns to browse and chat and take photos of high-fiving boys and shy, giggling girls.

Now, at 6' tall (185cm), I may be a little above average in America and most of Europe, or even just average or below in Australia or Holland, but here in Indonesia, I am a smiling white giant. Everybody looks and usually smiles back.

Without lots of additional detail, let me just say this: There seems to be no limit to the imagination of the Balinese (or any group, for that matter) to the placement of their holy sites:

On a high sheer cliff, overlooking the sea; off shore, in the sea; on the rim of a volcanic crater; out in the lake formed by the crater; on top of a mountain; deep in a crevasse surrounded by steep mountains. At the base of a waterfall one small shrine was formed by the ruins of a temple that plummeted off the top of the mountain during an earthquake.

After all the driving and gazing and climbing, I am taking a day or two to recover at the Rama Beach Hotel and Villas. The balcony of my second floor room looks out on to thick tropical foliage. Maybe a swim and a drink at the Tiki Bar.

Water sports? Surfing? I'm from The Bronx, remember? SCUBA diving? No certificate. Windsurfing? Forgetaboutit. Para gliding? Are you kidding? I'll settle for a walk to the beach and a cool Bintang at the thatched roof restaurant. Maybe an Indonesian massage.

Just saying "Indonesia" out loud is astonishing for me. Am I really here?

The Republic of Indonesia. The world's largest archipelago - 5150 km ( 3200 mi). 17,000 islands. 6000 inhabited. 300 languages. More than 220 million souls. The Dutch East Indies. Sukarno. Suharto. Megawatti. East Timor. Krakatoa. Tsunami. Java Man. Java Man!

Next stop - to the west - and the much larger island of Java. To see Java Man. See you there.

Cheers,

Jan

PS Lots of young, happy honeymooners here from Japan, Australia, Europe. I wonder where my Bali bride and groom are headed. I'll ask Nina and let you know.

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