Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 2

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Despite the initial difficulty of entering the country and some frustrations of the over commercialization of the island, Bali had some truly incredible moments for me.

Me in my new sarong and sash next to a traditional stone carving at a Balinese temple

Our first day, my remaining travel buddies, Sarah and Michel, and I decided to hire a driver to see some of Ubud’s temples. I must say, compared to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, Bali’s temples are not that spectacular. Though situated in one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, Bali is actually Hindu mixed with some of the traditions and customs of its native people. Unlike the vibrant, glittery Buddhist structures in Thailand, or the colorful, heavily-ritualized Indian temples in Malaysia, Bali temples are mostly made of stone and are very basic open air complexes. One interesting feature, however, is that all the temples, storefronts, homes and structures in general have elaborate stone carvings of demons, meant to scare away evil spirits. It is also interesting to note that you can only enter a temple wearing a sarong and an accompanying sash, and women are not allowed to enter at all during menstruation.

Anyway, the first truly incredible moment I had in Bali was when I met Ketut, the medicine man in “Eat, Pray, Love” who inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to make her journey. I met Ketut a bit on a whim. A friend of mine had joked about trying to find him when I went to Bali, but I hadn’t seriously thought that would be a possibility. Imagine my delight when the man at the tourist counter told me that Ketut is still open for business and a mere 20-minute walk outside of Ubud! Seriously???

So the next morning, I giddily woke up, put on my new Bali sundress, and headed out to the home of Ketut Liyer: medicine man, palm reader, healer, painter, world-journey inspirer. When I arrived around 10 a.m., about an hour after he opened, there was already a sizeable line, though not as long as I would have expected.  There was really no one there to receive customers when I walked into his open-air compound, just a group of plastic number tickets nailed to a wooden post and people lazily sitting around. To my surprise, there was almost no mention of “Eat, Pray, Love” anywhere, except for one movie poster attached to the wall. (After chatting with other customers, however, I learned they had all come because of the movie, though sadly, very few had read the book :().

I took number 13 and found a spot in the shade to reread part of “Eat, Pray, Love” while I waited. Though I ended up waiting almost two hours to see him, I didn’t mind at all. There was something about being in the sunshine with a book you love that is just completely relaxing. And there was something extra special about reading a book that takes place in the exact location that you are in right now, especially when you are just feet away from one of the book’s “characters”! (I had a similar experience while reading the last Harry Potter book in London, when the characters escaped to Tottenham Court Road, the exact street I was on when reading the story!) I was completely calm and happy as a clam.

Me and Ketut, the medicine man from "Eat, Pray, Love"

When I finally got to see Ketut, my happiness soared even higher! Ketut was very flattering. To start, he told me I was “very pretty” with “sugar lips” and he could tell I was very smart.  Though I wasn’t planning on taking the palm reading too seriously, I was completely delighted to discover that I would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage, three children and be successful in whatever profession I chose, including public relations, “beauty salon”, business and journalism. (“You lucky, you lucky!”) Though I was happy enough just to meet the man, I felt pretty good about myself after I left, even after hearing the beginning of this next customer’s session which started with, “You so pretty, you have sugar lips…”

As the week progressed, I happened to run into three other customers that had been in line with me (mostly random encounters) and soon found out that they too would live to be 100, have a long harmonious marriage and be successful in their careers…What a coincidence! In fact, one lady who did IT told me that Ketut predicted that she would be successful in “IT, beauty salon and business,” and apparently, she had sugar lips too. Hmm…

In addition to my “fortune,” my visit to Ketut’s house brought along one other, though delightfully unexpected, positive experience: my first close encounter with a monkey! (You didn’t really think I could go to Bali and not talk about monkeys, did you?)

Me and Ketut's monkey, my first time "holding" a monkey!

So Ketut likes pets. In his compound (which now includes a homestay if you’re ever interested) he has a fairly extensive collection of exotic animals, though most of them are birds. As I was perusing, I noticed he had a pet monkey that wasn’t completely psychotic, and I got very excited! The monkey was chained to a post and seemed very eager to jump on to me, and after some reassurance from one of the compound’s staff, I let it…  IT WAS INCREDIBLE! The monkey was not violent at all, though very eager to check my hair for bugs… It kept walking around my shoulders and head picking at my hair and my sunglasses, though never scratching or biting. It was so cool! I felt very touched, because I think the monkey liked me too, because he kept trying to jump back onto me every time I shook him off. It was AWESOME! So now I am officially over my fear of touching monkeys and am proud to say that I have let wild monkeys stand on my lap and shoulders on several occasions since my experience at Ketut’s and plan to try to interact with monkeys more frequently in the future.

The Good, the Bad, the Bali: Part 1

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Before I left for Malaysia, a friend of mine lent me “Eat Pray Love,” a memoir about a woman who spent a year traveling across Italy, India and Bali in search of love and balance. The book really hit me. I won’t credit Elizabeth Gilbert with inspiring me to travel, but instead, I found an intensely familiar voice with whom I could relate. Though Elizabeth Gilbert was in her early 30s and overcoming a messy divorce, her outlook on the world, her passions and her struggles felt so close to mine, and I felt a real connection with her.

So when I decided to move to Southeast Asia, Bali quickly neared the top of my list of places to see before I returned home. Bali was what inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to take her journey in the first place, an island she described as an exotic, enchanting paradise where everyone is joyful and at peace. If Liz loves it, I’ll love it, right?

But during the six days I spent on the Indonesian island, “balanced” and “peaceful” were not the words I would have used to describe my time there. I’m still not sure why, but something about the island really threw me off. Though beautiful, Bali is EXTREMELY touristy, and often quite obnoxiously so. Hotspots Ubud and Kuta, where we spent most of our time, are completely commercialized and you can’t walk more than two feet without being harassed by someone offering you a massage or a taxi (most of the “taxis” aren’t authorized, just random locals looking to make money by driving tourists around). Every other day I was either completely hating or completely loving the place and constantly feeling like I never quite had a grip on things.

Perhaps the deportation of a fellow traveler and my own near deportation set the tone for the rest of the week.

Before making the trip, I had read in Wikitravel that you need at least two empty pages in your passport for the Indonesian visa on arrival. Though my passport is nearly full at this point, I still had the back flap and its opposing page blank, and since the Indonesian visa is relatively small, I figured I’d be ok. So as I stood at the immigration counter, bright-eyed, energetic, looking forward to “paradise,” imagine my surprise when the creepy immigration officers pulled me into the detention room to tell me they needed to send me back to Malaysia to apply for a new passport. WTF?!

They insisted that the remaining “Amendments and Endorsements” page in my American passport was not suitable for a visa (though an “Amendments and Endorsements” page had been good enough for a Vietnam visa…) and that I could simply go back to Malaysia, apply for a new passport and come back. No big deal, right?  Since I had read that section of Wikipedia, I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth or not. However, since I had also read “Eat Pray Love,” I knew they were corrupt. After all the planning and anticipation and standing on the brink of paradise, I was not about to go back. So I asked them if there was anything I could do to change their minds…

The immigration officer then asked me, “If I let you through, what will you do to show me your appreciation?”

SAY WHAT?!  I couldn’t believe I was being asked for sexual favors to get into a country!

Though completely disgusted, I asked very calmly how much it would cost for me to stay in Bali, making it very clear the only “appreciation” I would be showing him was in monetary terms. After some negotiation, I agreed to pay him $150 to let me stay.

After that little transaction, I felt kind of dirty, though partially grateful I could buy my way into a country if my passport really wasn’t valid, and I just wanted to get of there. It wasn’t until I found out my Malaysian Chinese friend Dick had also been detained, that I got really pissed off.

As a Malaysian, Dick didn’t need a visa to get into Indonesia. However, since his passport had accidentally been through the washing machine, the immigration officials said it wasn’t valid (side note: the washed up passport had been good enough to get into Singapore on a previous occasion). His options were to go back home to get a new one or pay a bribe to stay. Though Dick wanted to return on principle, I urged him to just pay the $150 to stay since we had already made plans for the week. When he went to ask to pay, they told him it would cost $300! When he asked for a lower price in Bahasa (The Malay and Indonesian languages are very similar), the official promptly responded in English, “This is not a market, sir!”

So Dick went back to Malaysia, and our week started with one man down. :(. Welcome to Indonesia.