The land of no driving tests
10/12/2013 18:54 | Comments:
Because of all the advertising gimmicks people tend to think of the remote Indonesian island of Bali as Paradise on Earth, a place where everything is perfect, including holidays. This invariably brews regrets and disappointment in some. Far too obsessed with their shattered dream, these bitter visitors fail to realise that Bali is indeed magnificent, except in a different way than they had envisioned it to be. Locals are humans just like us, they crowd, they litter, they drive like there’s no tomorrow and they haggle like it was a national pastime. This may be annoying at first but as you get to know them, their villages, temples, mountains and waters, the narrow roads meandering under the shades of the palm trees swaying in the gentle ocean breeze, you suddenly realise this may very well be the perfect place to leave all your worries behind. There is nothing better to cleanse your soul than a scooter trip across the mountains and once you catch the local rhythm you will actually enjoy the urban nightmare they call traffic. Bali is far away, just across the world, but we'll attempt the impossible and try to give you a glimpse of this magnificent world with these photographs.
No photoshopping gimmickry here: sprouting rice really looks this intense green. Most Balinese people work in agriculture, villages are surrounded by plantations. Growing rice is a tedious job, especially on hillside terrains because these terraced plantations are often not accessible by motor vehicle, leaving farmers to carry the harvest themselves - and that often means three times a year, due to the tropical climate of the island.
Tourism has brought riches to Bali, making it more developed and affluent than most Indonesian areas. Roaming this medium-sized island you will see both rags and riches. Behold these Ferraris, Hummers and cruisers lined up outside a shopping mall in Denpasar, the capital city. We met them again later on as they peacefully chugged along with the slow-moving traffic of the afternoon rush hour. There is simply no place or time to use these motor vehicles to their full potential here on Bali.
Needless to say scooters abound on Bali, in a multitude of shapes, ages and conditions. In true Asian fashion you will often see entire families perched on a small scooter. Most of these vehicles are made locallyin Indonesia and they also play an important role in transporting goods to and fro. You don't need a license to ride a scooter in Indonesia. As for cars, there is no test to take; driving permits can be simply purchased at the police station. Scooters keep busy during the rainy season (December through March), after all a bit of rain cannot stand in the way of getting your business done. If it really begins to pour they may take shelter or resort to inventive means of precipitation protection but really, when it's 25-30°C outside, getting soaked is not such a big deal.
Being an island, Bali is surrounded by the sea which is an open invitation for relaxation. The strong ebb and flow as well as high waves make Bali less popular for regular beachside tourism than, say Mauritius, Dominica, the Maldives or Tahiti, but it’s sure favoured by surfers. This picture was taken on the central section of Kuta Beach, offering moderate waves for beginners. It's a one-stop-shop location for your vacation, with everything from surf rental booths through surf training courses to cheap eateries where food comes wrapped in newspaper and drinks in plastic bags. Of course international fast food and cafe shops are also available across the street.
Tourism is now the main source of income for the Balinese. Some come here for a romantic getaway, others are happy just to get some warmth and sunshine in the winter months. The temple of Tanah Lot, located on the Southern shore, is a favourite location among tourists. The area fills up rapidly as the sun sets, with dozens of coaches spewing out passengers armed with cameras. The cliff supporting the temple has been eroded by the sea so much that it had to be reinforced with concrete, shaped to resemble a natural rock formation. This project was financed by the Japanese government which possibly had to do with the fact that Japanese tourists love Bali.
There is a darker side to tourism on Bali. It's called Aussie teenagers. For them Bali is a relatively close and affordable destination, so they swarm the island for every holiday. They settle near Kuta Beach which is rudimentary enough for them not to care, yet suitably equipped to supply them with everything they need to chill out and get crazy - even on a class trip. At Kuta night life goes around the clock, discotheques offer free entry and a modest sum of money will get you cocktails in a pint sized glass. Back in 2002 Islamic extremists bombed one of these party places, killing two hundred people, mostly tourists. That set back tourism for years but now Bali is back on track.
Bali is a Hindu enclave within Islamic Indonesia. Balinese people have an outstanding sense of art, and are famous for their architecture, crafts, gardening, music and dance. This picture was taken in Ubud, the cultural centre of the island. These dancers - usually everyday citizens with regular daytime jobs - dance barefoot on glowing embers.
I wonder why horse drawn carriages are such a big deal from New York City through Vienna to Bali. I suppose it has to do with romanticism which apparently thrives even in the heaviest of traffic jams. This Muslim family certainly has a great time galloping in the Kuta rush hour.
Animals in agriculture: oxen are still widely used on rice fields, although specialised motor vehicles are rapidly gaining ground. Before seeds are sown, the land is tilled - or rather, the mud is stirred - with a wooden plough. After all, you don't need heavy steel equipment for the soft mud covering the fields.
A Vespa carrying fodder. Cows and oxen are not grazed on open fields but are kept in small barns in between rice fields. That makes feeding them a daily task, but since vegetation is practically evergreen on Bali there is no need for hay. Animals can get freshly cut grass any time of the year.
Located near the capital city, Jimbaran is highly popular, both for its pleasant beach and excellent seafood restaurants where you pick your fish, crab or clam to be roasted over charcoal and served at tables set in the sand.
Sunset on Jimbaran Beach. Located near the airport, Jimbaran is often called the Beverly Hills of Bali because so many affluent people have chosen to leave the capital for the peace of this resort. You will also find an exclusive Four Seasons club hotel here. There is no bus line serving Jimbaran: locals all have their own cars. Sitting in the white sand of the beach you can observe breath-taking sunsets, just a good enough reason to visit Jimbaran.
The Ubud bus arriving at Denpasar. One storey stores sell handcrafted souvenirs; the narrow sidewalks are full of tourists, while the street is inhabited by scooters, off-road vehicles and a Blue Bird taxi. Cab drivers are quick to cheat gullible customers, so you are better off agreeing on the fare before setting off - but first check on the internet how much you should be paying. Most people agree that Blue Bird is the most reliable of all taxi companies, they operate metered cars. A quick glimpse at the dashboard will tell you that Indonesia is a right-hand-drive nation. Not only that, European will find Balinese traffic shocking because drivers tend to be creative in adhering to the laws and regulations.
Most Europeans would not recognise this Nissan. A cousin to the Note, the Livina is sold in third world markets and manufactured at various locations including China and Indonesia. The Indonesian version is equipped with a 1.5-litre engine. This specific car is a better equipped X-Gear version and is uniquely adorned with the Hungarian flag. It is not easy being an expat on Bali - you cannot own real estate for instance - but it's not that difficult either. Many people run accommodations or offer tourist services.
Creative machine-craft is alive and kicking in Indonesia. Look at this self-propelled band saw: while functionally minimalistic, this is a highly baroque motor vehicle. It has no lighting but that does not mean it stays put after sundown. Seats are welded steel structures with no seatbacks. There is a massive frontal structure protecting passengers from the consequences of head-on collisions, while the unique paintjob serves the purpose of deterring passers-by and other motorists from engaging in said collision. But jokes aside, such machines can provide living for an entire family, possibly more.
Farm at the foot of the Batur volcano. The mountain region is somewhat cooler, providing excellent climatic conditions for growing vegetables, practically around the year. The picture shows covered-up and fertilized seed beds in the foreground, while farmers preparing further beds in the background. There are no roads leading into this Batur village; instead, locals get around using boats
Religion is an important part of life on Bali. Balinese Hinduism came about as a mix between Hinduism and tribal beliefs and is deeply embedded in locals. They pray three times a day, and honour their ancestors and gods by placing fresh sacrifices on their domestic altars each morning. They are avid temple-goers; significant religious holidays are major events.
Gift for the gods - flowers, sweets, cigarettes, incense burner - placed on a palm tree tray. Sacrifices typically include rice or smaller amounts of money as well as Balinese people ask for divine support. Not a single day can pass without a religious holiday. If you travel far you are bound to meet several processions. When you do you can either wait for them to pass, or turn around and try to find another route - where you will eventually also meet a similar religious event, marked out by signs reading "Hati-hati, ada upacara" (Attention, ceremony!)
Bali is on the Southern hemisphere, a mere 8 degrees off of the equator. Its climate is fundamentally monsoon, aggravated by high mountains (the Gunung Agung volcano measures 3142 metres), resulting in insane amounts of precipitation watering the soil. No wonder you are welcome by beautiful flowers no matter where you go - this is one reason why travel agents call Bali Paradise on Earth. Balinese women are beautiful to begin with, and they often adorn their hair with these exotic flowers, making them all the more attractive.
Swastika on his palm? Yes and no. This ancient symbol, dating back several thousand years, has a completely different meaning here: it represents good luck and happiness. The statue is that of a demon whose frightening complexion is intended to scare evil spirits away from the home.
In case you ever wondered what those peculiar Balinese sculptures depict, here is the answer. Local monkeys are now a tourist attraction, with several people visiting the Ubud monkey forest or the Uluwatu temple. At first it sounds like a good idea to befriend a macaque but these faraway relatives of mankind are rather unpredictable in their reactions, they can turn aggressive in a blink. If they spot food in your hands it's as good as gone but they will also take glasses, passports, jewellery or basically anything they can lay their hands on.
Riding a bike on Bali is fun! You can rent them everywhere, just like scooters, but instead of fighting the chaos of traffic I advise you to join an organised tour which avoids busy roads but runs along well groomed rice plantation and across magnificent villages. These also tend to run downhill because it is no fun - although quite a workout - to pedal uphill when it is 35°C with humidity nearly 100%. A typical tour would start from Kintamani, near the Batur volcano, and run all the way to Ubud where you receive a multi-course lunch to revive spirit and flesh.
It may be a commonplace but it is true: Balinese people have a great sense of beauty and arts. Of course these fabulous setting would make a scarecrow look like a museum masterpiece. Look at this installation where they protect freshly sprouted rice plants from their winged predators. Observe the drama, the composition! Worthy of a grand prize at the Venice Biennale.
Photo break. Riding a scooter on Bali is not without its dangers but the thrill makes it worth. You get the adrenalin rush from keeping to the left and from the chaos, while the amazing scenery and settlements provide the joy. Balinese children are natural born riders, they grow up on floorboards and once they turn ten there's no stopping them from thrashing around at full throttle. You can rent scooters cheap and if you mind the traffic instead of the rules you should be safe. Except when you aren't, so make sure you are insured. You can theoretically drink and ride on Bali - the police don't check DUI - but it is highly recommended not to do it. Riding the narrow roads meandering between the small villages is a soul-lifting experience - a must for bikers.
Variations on the scooter theme – a la Mad Max. Local police are generally forgiving but they hit these creatures hard for an all-around control. Visitors from Java, these guys roamed Bali with their home-built monsters and they were proud of them. Rightly so! If I had many lives I'd love to live one as a scooter punk in Indonesia.
Punk ain't dead on Bali - just check out this bus. The reflective stripes on the windscreen are typical on Bali and are there to protect against the sun. Although they block the view drivers can get along with the little they see through the slit - otherwise their brains would certainly boil by the end of their shift. Locally called bemo, these buses will stop anywhere and pick you up if you wave the driver.
Road works in progress. While there is no frost on Bali heavy rains take their toll on the road system. The general quality of the road network is certainly no worse than in Eastern Europe - which of course is not because they take such good care of theirs but because we don't take care of ours.
Unloading in the rain: workers move the daily catch from a jukung, a wooden fishing boat, onto a truck in the harbour of Padangbai. Balinese women do not shun heavy physical labour: the tasks they undertake on the rice fields would be more than enough for a European male. Fishing at this scale does not earn enough to feed a family, so many fisherman are now boating tourists or divers instead.
Time out. For a deserved break from their daily work, the Balinese like to relax in one of these little pavilions lining the roads, the village streets and the beach. Here you will find them chatting, admiring the sunset, dozing and of course playing with their mobile phone.
After sundown it's time for the evening prayer, for preparing and placing the offerings - and also for dancing. Now mainly performed for tourist, these dances convey complex Hindu legends, and while the newly found audience understands none of that, the strength and mysticism of the performance is still captivating. This kecak dance evokes stories from the Ramayana, starring Prince Rama and his helpers the Monkey King and its monkeys. There is no music accompanying the movements; the shouting of the male choir provides a rhythm.
The last vehicle on Bali: the funeral handbarrow taking the deceased to the place of cremation. The Balinese believe in reincarnation and consider life a mere stage in the chain of incarnations. The body is but clothes shed by the soul in it passing. Therefore the cremation ceremony is more like a merry festivity where family, friends and neighbours reunite. There is music, children jump around, people eat and drink and chat. Later on, when the ashes are poured into the sea, the ceremony takes a more intimate turn, only immediate relatives are invited. Many families cannot afford to cremate their deceased right away so they bury them temporarily - for years even.
Wherever you go on an island you will eventually reach the ocean crushing against the shores. Waves emerge and vanish, allowing new ones to be born. If the ocean is part of your life you tend to believe you are but a wave yourself - incarnated, reaching up high, and then falling back to inexistence. Maybe this observation has also helped shape the Balinese belief about reincarnation, about the waves of life following each other. There are many maybe's here but one thing is for certain: if you ever have the chance, do travel to Bali. It may not be Paradise on Earth, maybe not even a Lovers' Island, or the Home of Gods - but it certainly is a magical place, perhaps one of the last ones here on Earth.