Businessweek Bloomberg had a story a few weeks back about the completely uncool devaluation of airline miles (We’re miles people. Well, XFE is a total airline miles machine, and flew roundtrip to Alaska two days this week just to rack up miles on a cheap ticket. I’m more of a “maybe I’ll use the Miles Shopping Mall for my Sephora purchase, if I remember” miles junkie). Anyway, tip number one for getting the most out of your miles: stop hoarding them.
Somehow this week, I got a whole bunch of wine-types following me on Twitter. Which is fine, but I suspect they will be sorely disappointed by my wine expertise. However, I find their tweets delightful and learned that Thomas Jefferson spent $186,000 (in today’s currency) on wine during his eight years as president.
When I was a young, sprightly Poe running wild and breaking hearts (ie: dating), I went out for a bit with a bartender/soccer player named Ian. He was pretty hot with dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes. And very fit, obviously. Ian was sleek, sexy, laid back, and a ton of fun. He was also far too cool for my nerdy self. We dated for a summer and that was it.
A little while later, I dated Alistair (yep, I was in the throws of my British dating phase). Alistair was also gorgeous, but in a far more patrician way. He was calmer, more established and successful, very classy act. Well, classy except for the fact that I found out soon after we started dating that he had a live-in girlfriend. That was the end of that.
It’s cold here in D.C., y’all. Like, eye-tearing, nose-running, teeth-achingly cold. Yes, the cold makes even your teeth hurt. It’s crazy.
And I won’t even get into my whole frozen fingers and toes situation.
So, with that in mind. I thought we might go back in time (to around August or so). Time to revisit someplace more forgiving and less frigid. Someplace where the gentle breezes warmly caressed our pale, pale, Northeastern skin. Ah, Bali.
Our first couple of nights in Bali were spent at the W Hotel in Seminyak, a very fun and touristy little town down on the coast. Think lots of hotels, restaurants, bars, boutique stores.
Check in was smooth and easy. We cooled off with a cucumber/minty/lemony type drink and a wet cloth while they processed our upgrade to a private villa.
Then we went to our villa, opened the gate and saw all this.
Then we basically disappeared and barely emerged from our villa. And lived happily ever after.
I’m just kidding. Sort of. We did spend a lot of time in our room.
Oh, actually, our villa had two rooms to choose from. A master and then another, slightly less opulent room with two beds.
For just the two of us. Crazy.
But when we did leave our little bit of paradise, we found the W Hotel to be just gorgeous. And the staff were amazing. So friendly and helpful. We even had the GM come out and say goodbye to us as we were sadly leaving.
The perfect oasis. I would probably chop off one of my frostbitten ears to be in one of those loungers right now.
Fine. That might be a bit dramatic. But it sure felt like I could have easily died while scuba diving in Bali.
Here are four signs that scuba diving in Bali might not be for you.
1) Your PayPal account gets hacked.
We went with Bali Diving in Sanur. They picked you up, took you to the dive shop for the paperwork, out on the boat, and then back to your hotel. They also allowed you to pay the deposit via PayPal. We paid the deposit for our three-dive trip, and it appeared to all work out fine. Then, a few days after we got home, I got a message from PayPal warning me that there had been unusual activity on my PayPal account. Apparently, someone with an Indonesian name and address had added themselves onto my account. I quickly changed my password and went in and deleted the extra name/address.
Henri is a little something we picked up on the Nusa Dua beach in Bali. He’s basically a kite. But he’s oh so much more than that.
Henri is actually a magic wand that takes you back to childhood. You literally cannot hold a kite and not be filled with wonder and joy and peace. Anything that might be bothering you just miraculously…..disappears. This happens for two reasons: 1) your focusing on getting your kite higher and higher without having the string ripped out of your hands, and 2) you’re just staring up at its majestic beauty with your jaw hanging slack.
We saw kites flying in the skies all over Bali. In fact, Bali has a very large annual kite festival. In Bali, they believe that kites carry messages for a good harvest to the Hindu gods.
As it was, we saw them every day while we were there, tiny dark specks floating high above the ground. Sometimes we’d get close enough to make out the shape of a ship or a turtle or a fish, but we were never able to see the people holding the invisible string attached to these floating time machines.
Yes, time machine. Because, honestly, when’s the last time you flew a kite? I know for me, it had been a very, very long time. Not since I was a kid. I definitely had forgotten how magical they could be.
I guess I’m not alone in this feeling. In fact, a director who made a documentary about Bali’s kite-flying culture said this in the Jakarta Post:
“We believe that those who fly kites are possessed by the wind,” says Yoka Sara. “And in that blissful state anything they do will be forgiven, in the way that children are forgiven. It is a return to childhood.”…
An architect by trade Yoka Sara produced the film because he believes that people in Indonesia and abroad should learn more about the hard work, meticulous artistry and sacred traditions that are involved in sending kites skyward in Bali.
So when we saw a vendor selling them on the beach, we jumped at the chance to get one.
There’s just something about standing on a warm sunny beach, with a beer nestled in the sand nearby, and leaning your head far back, squinting up at a pretty thing in a bright blue sky that brings on a sense of smallness and tranquility.
We loved Henri so much that when it came time to leave Bali, I insisted we bring him home. Even though it was in no way practical. Keep in mind that Henri’s around three feet long and made of silk and fragile thin bamboo-type rods. And, our trip home had multiple legs. I took Henri from the St. Regis in Bali, through the airport security, on the plane to Bangkok, off the plane in Bangkok, to the hotel in Bangkok, on our errands the next day, to the Bangkok airport, through the airport security, on the flight to Munich, off the plane in Munich, to the hotel in Munich, through the airport security, and onto the flight to D.C. And then, finally, home.
Nevertheless, he’s the best thing we’ve ever bought on a trip. Hands down.
We’ve flown him twice since our trip, at a park near the airport here in D.C. And even though it hasn’t been as smooth and carefree as our Bali beach experiences (our fragile little Henri is starting to show some wear and tear, and the wind is a bit inconsistent here this time of year), he still has a way of turning a bad day into a much better one.
Most Bali villages have at least three temples, which you can read about in greater detail here. In addition, you’ll find lots of smaller, private temples, like a family-owned temple. And then there’s the big holy ones, like pura tirta, which are water temples, and pura segara, which are built by the sea to appease sea deities.
Then there are six Supremely Holy Temples on the island, which is just a whole other level of religious contemplation for this supremely non-religious woman. (We did visit one of the SHT’s however, Uluwatu, which I describe further down).
We did not visit 5,000 temples. We didn’t even visit 1,000. We were lucky to cram in three, frankly. So here are the three temples we saw during our visit to Bali (and one that we really, really wanted to see, but didn’t get a chance to go to).
Pura Tirta Empul – Temple of the Holy Water
This was our first temple stop after a bit of a yawn-inducing visit to a dance school. I think this temple was near Ubud, which is sort of east-central of where we were staying (we were in Nusa Dua, down south along the coastline).
We pulled up and our driver informed us that we needed to wear a sarong into the temple. That would require a donation, of course. Also, he would not be accompanying us into the temple. And, he warned us not to pay for a guide. Waste of money, he said. Nor would there be any audio guide, or really, anything.
Suitably armed with a total lack of guidance or knowledge, we walked into the temple and were met with this sign:
That would be the only signage throughout the temple. A sign telling breeding ladies to stay out.
So here’s my best guess at what the heck this temple was. It appeared to be some sort of water temple, with fountains of water that folks could take a dip in. I’m sure jumping around in the shared public pools are supposed to bring good fortune, or health, or love, or maybe just a nice, cold Bitang beer at the end of the day. I have no idea. I did not jump in the pools, but I did get a beer later that day so, yeah Tirta temple!
There were raised wooden platforms that seem like they might be stages or maybe places where ceremonies took place. Or where sleepy swimmers took naps.
There was lots and lots of gorgeous stone carvings of very scary animals. Maybe they were demons, who knows.
We did see a fenced off area where there were people being led through a worship ceremony. We just peeked in and then left them to it.
We were probably at the temple about 30 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness of the area, but basically ignorant on what we were supposed to be seeing. The self-guided tour ended at a maze of stalls selling all sorts of tourist swag. Which you HAD to walk through to get back to the parking lot. All told, I believe the part-you-with-some-money stall maze was larger than the temple. There were certainly more people willing to explain to you what you were seeing (including penis bottle openers, interestingly).
Pura Gunung Kawi – Valley of the Kings
This was our second temple and wasn’t too far from the first.
Again, we were told to borrow a sarong in exchange for a suggested donation.
In a unique little twist, this temple featured the tourist swag stalls at the beginning of your visit. So you get a Walk of Shopping Shame right at the beginning of your experience.
This temple appeared to be some sort of royal temple overlooking a very pretty and lush river, and surrounded by rice fields. A quick Google search confirms that this temple is known as the Valley of the Kings. And, that it’s not really a temple or a tomb, but just a spot to honor Balinese royalty.
We walked around and took pictures, enjoying the scenery, and speculating on the scaffolding and other signs of work that were scattered around. No workmen or anything, so I don’t know if it was lunch, or a luwak coffee break, or prayer time or what.
We also got to experience the Walk of Shopping Shame on our way back up the steep, 200 or so stairs that took us back to the parking lot. (Oh sorry, 320 stairs according to this poor blogger who was recovering from a twisted ankle).
Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Disappointed by our first round of temple experiences, we tried again with a different driver. I knew that Pura Luhur Uluwatu was fairly close to our hotel (the St. Regis in Nusa Dua), so we asked to go there. We actually had to pick between Uluwatu and Tanah Lot because apparently they both get very crowded with tourist buses around the same time, so we had to pick just one (since staying away from touristy crowds was very high on our wish lists).
All I really knew about Uluwatu was that it was on an ocean cliff and it had a lot of monkeys.
The same routine repeated itself: driver would not be going in, but he warned us against hiring a guide. Our driver added a new warning, however: no jewelry, no sunglasses, nothing that dangles because the monkeys will rip it off of you and steal it.
There was an entrance fee, and a donation to borrow a sarong. No shopping stalls though, so Uluwatu for the win!
You could, however, buy fruit to feed the monkeys. To which I say, yeah, no, that’s ok.
There’s another interesting money-making opportunity at work at Uluwatu. If a monkey does snatch your goods, they generally take those items to one of the vendors, who is happy to give your item back to you in return for the purchase of some fruit for the monkey-thief.
Luckily for us, the monkey gangs were sparse. My super-sexy travel manpanion and personal comedian speculated that the monkey gangs were at their morning meeting, saying things like “OK guys, look: we’ve got a lot of hoop earrings, but we’re low on studs. So today, I want you to focus on getting stud earrings. Also, our sunglass supply is looking a bit thin, so if we could put the young guys on that, I think we can bring our numbers up significantly. And Stan, we’ve had some complaints that you’re getting a bit too grabby with the lady tourists. Keep your paws to yourself, or else I’m putting you on garbage can duty.”
Uluwatu is very, very beautiful and we were among the few people there early in the morning, so we had the run of the place. The location is breathtaking and there are walkways along the cliffs so you can turn around and get some great pictures of the temple and cliffs.
And the one that got away.
Pura Tanah Lot
We’d seen pictures of Tanah Lot, which sits on a rock just off shore. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, we were told the temple is barraged by visitors, and surrounded by crowds and vendors.
The temple’s construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali’s most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.
I wonder if that multi-million dollar restoration includes stalls selling penis bottle openers.
And now, a bad picture of your author in one of her many donation-funded sarongs.
Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails, I told myself silently over and over again.
“I notice you have a scar on your head. Me, too,” I share, not at all silently.
Yeah, much, much better, Poe.
We are in a small air conditioned van bumping along a congested road near Kuta in Bali. Scooters loaded with people and goods zip around us. A young girl rides right alongside of us with her motorcycle helmet perched perilously on the back of her head, a collection of small offering baskets in a container attached to the front of her scooter.
Our driver today, who the St. Regis arranged for us, is a devout Hindu, which is apparent by his bindi on his forehead and the offering on the dashboard of the van. His religious leanings, do not, however, explain his long fingernails on his left hand. That is apparently just for style.
Mr. Nails is our second driver in Bali. We have not had the best luck with being tourists in Bali.
Our first driver was a last minute sub – the original guy we’d been emailing with had to cancel for a family ritual of some sort (the Balinese are way into rituals, I learned from a book by Australian author Cameron Forbes called “Under the Volcano.” There are a total of 13 ceremonies concerned with life from conception until, but not including, death, which is a whole other big, amazing cremation ceremony altogether.)
In any case, we had a backup. And Mr. Backup had a very clear agenda on what we were going to see that day.
I suggested a couple of temples that were near our hotel. He suggested we drive over 45 minutes to catch the barong dance performance at a local dance school. The dance was….nice, I suppose. A bit long and confusing. The production values were low. Some of the dancers appeared quite bored, as did many of the members of the completely tourist-filled audience. All of the drivers who had dragged us here hung out by their mini-vans in the mini-van clogged parking lot, smoking clove cigarettes, and waiting for us tourists to get our culture on.
I asked our driver if we could get babi guling – roasted pig – but was told that the place our driver “likes” was out of the way and not possible. Meanwhile, we passed about 50 roadside places advertising their babi guling. My travel buddy XFE leaned over and whispered that our driver must have a special babi guling guy that he gets a kickback from, and we weren’t in that guy’s neighborhood. Instead, we had lunch at a horrible touristy restaurant overlooking Gunung Batur volcano.
Our driver asked us if we liked coffee. When I said yes, he insisted we visit another tourist trap selling $5 cups of kopi luwak – a coffee made from coffee berries that have been ingested and passed, so to speak, by Asian civet-type animals. Knowing some of the PETA complaints against the practice, I tried to defer, but our driver was insistent. I took the path of least resistance and drank the damned coffee. It tasted just like every other coffee I have ever had. Nothing special at all.
And now our second driver – the guy with the long nails — was finally taking us to one of the temples we had asked to visit on our first excursion. But not without trying to get us to stop and visit some of the many local woodcarvers and silversmiths he could get us access to.
Here is my problem with Southeast Asia, in general: everyone appears to be on the make. There is a huge emphasis on showing you only what they want you to see, and a concerted effort to take you to total tourist traps and getting you to buy stuff.
Look, I get it. Tourism is the major industry in lots of Southeast Asia, and certainly Bali. And I really, really loved Bali — the deliciously spicy food; the sweet, kind people; the amazing scents of frangipani wafting in the air. But if you are the tourist in Bali, or Bangkok even, you end up just feeling like a mark. Or, an ATM. And, in my case at least, it totally puts me off from buying anything at all. The harder someone presses me to buy something, the more resistant I become. And that’s saying a lot for someone who considers shopping a sport.
We did end up buying a couple of souvenirs, including a $15 kite we bought on the beach one morning. We also bought a lovely copper lined, wooden bowl for our living room. But it was at a small, unassuming shop that we stumbled upon on our own in Seminyak, with a sales person who was practically invisible during our visit.
I don’t remember if she had long nails on her left hand, but I do know that she didn’t try to upsell us.
When I came across this article about Bali, I had to click on it, even though I knew I didn’t really have the “stomach” to do so. (PUN INTENDED) Also: (Heads up: the article I’m referring to involves an Australian tourist and stomach-burrowing tropical spiders. Soooo….yeah. Nothing fun there.)
You see, we went to Bali a few months ago. Actually, we went to Bali exactly two weeks after this event and stayed in the exact same hotel. (Heads up: the article I’m now referring to involves a daughter and her boyfriend murdering her socialite mother and stuffing her in a suitcase. You’ve been warned.)
Anyway, the coincidence of that event and our trip timing was incredibly creepy and weird. Creepy because, well, there had just recently been a murder in what I would positively call the least murder-y type place ever. I mean, seriously, the St. Regis in Bali is amazing. Wonderful. Tranquil. Everything and everyone is peaceful and cheerful and willing to help you with absolutely anything. If you even mentioned, for example, that you liked a particular fruit, that fruit would then appear every damn day nestled in a beautiful wooden bowl, just especially for you.
Weird because we spent a good part of everyday wondering if any of the staff we were encountering had known or waited on the victim and her murderers. When we saw a sign in the lobby about the area being monitored by cameras, we wondered if those signs were new or if they had been there the whole time. We suspiciously eyed every single heavy decorative object in our bungalow as a potential bludgeoning device. It was all very at odds with a vacation mentality.
Anyway, I’ll talk about the St. Regis in Bali a bit more in another post. Well, probably a lot more, since staying there was one of the best vacation experiences we’ve ever had (We flew a kite! We released a sea turtle! These are not euphemisms! These are legitimate activities we participated in!).
But for today, let’s just explore some of Bali’s best eats in pictures and be glad that no one got invaded by tropical spiders. Also, no giardia, so nothing but unicorns and rainbows as far as I’m concerned.
Sambal – This is the first thing we ate in Bali. It was served in a small dish next to these amazing peanut crackers. Sambal is sauce typically made from a variety of chili peppers and secondary ingredients such as shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, sugar, lime juice, and rice vinegar or other vinegars.
Nasi Goreng – I had this for brunch one morning at the St. Regis in Nusa Dua. It’s a fried rice dish, with shrimp crackers and sliced up omelet, and a side condiment of spicy red paste.
Bubur ayam – This was another St. Regis brunch special. It was like congee – a non-sweet porridge, with shredded chicken, green onions, sambal and eggs, I think. It was ok, not my favorite.
Satay – The Balinese love their satay. It’s exactly what you think it is: skewers of grilled meat slathered in a peanut sauce. We even ate these on the dive boat lunch (along with a variation of nasi goring).
Babi guling – The Balinese national dish: roasted whole pig. I really wanted to try this, but never got to. We hired a driver to take us around the island one day and he had his own agenda. When I asked about getting babi guling, he said the place he goes to was too far out of the way. Meanwhile, we must have passed about 50 roadside places specializing in babi guling over the course of the next eight hours. I really should have been more insistent. Especially in light of our own Porktober event.
Rujak jeruk bali – Pomelo salad. Actually, I’m not sure this is a Balinese dish per se. I think it’s Thai. But we fell for it hard. We had it at breakfast and it came in these little glass jars at the W Hotel in Seminyak. A pomelo is like a grapefruit on steroids, and it’s cut up and combined with cilantro, peanuts, green beans, carrots. So refreshing and not unlike green papaya salad, only more citrus-y.
Salak – Snakeskin fruit. It is indigenous to Bali and is related to the palm tree, somehow. It had an easy to peel, flaky outerskin. The inside fruit was segmented, and had a firm flesh similar to an apple, and a small dark pit in each segment. In fact, it tasted a lot like a cross between an apple and a pear, but much neater (less juicy). We loved them and ate a ton of them. Our butler at the St. Regis made sure we were well stocked.
Rambutan – This hairy, scary-looking fruit was in our fruit bowl, but we didn’t even attempt to eat it.
Bitang – Balinese beer. Nuff said.
There was one other dish that I ate twice and loudly declared them to be the best I’d ever had: nachos at the St. Regis. Usually at lunch, by our pool, after drinking many Bitangs and/or glasses of wine. At first, we ordered them out of morbid curiosity, certain that there was no way they’d be any good. But they were. They were delicious. Then I had to order them a second time, just to make sure. They had shredded chicken and a cheese sauce made out of béchamel and they were actually really, really good. I guess sometimes a girl just wants a taste of home.