Bali, all tallied up.

So, Bali… a washed-up, westernized has-been? A genuine yet blemished treasure? Coming here, we really didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully, after spending a few weeks on the island we found that most of the qualities that have brought wonder to Bali throughout history are still very alive, but you do have to work a little to find them.

Scott and Steph, happy in the forests of Munduk

First, the bad…

Moreso than many places we’ve visited on this trip, we assumed that Bali’s popular tourist hubs, Kuta, Ubud, etc, would be difficult to love. Unfortunately, at least in our brief experience, that assumption was largely confirmed. Bali’s world-class surfing, close proximity to wealthy Australia, long-established package-spa-tourism industry, and presence in recent Hollywood bookbusters continues to push the “real Bali” further away from these centers, replacing it with too many uninspired versions of the comforts you’d expect to find at home. Walking around one of these former villages, you get the impression that this island may have been Eat-Pray-Loved to death, and indeed, a few locals jokingly told us that they wish she (author Elizabeth Gilbert and her fans) would just “eat, pray, leave!” (…jokes aside, I should note that Steph and I both found her book to be a fun read a few years ago, but the attention it brought hasn’t had the most positive effect on Bali.)

Of course, tourism happens anywhere worth visiting, and the downsides of it can often be attributed to people just like ourselves. But many places we’ve been on this trip have shown us that a tourism-driven economy doesn’t have to be a bad thing, that it can bring much needed income to suffering regions, raise awareness for dying, cherished traditions, and help preserve natural wonders that may otherwise succumb to destruction from logging, mining, or development.

Perhaps then, the problem here in Bali is that many of its tourist activities and interests have little to do with what makes Bali, well, Balinese. Worse, the cost of those imported interests manifests itself in other seemingly unrelated aspects of daily Balinese life. For example, the prices for food and stay were 3-4 times what we’d seen in other parts of southeast Asia, and that might be a good sign if those prices weren’t artificial and unashamedly subjective depending on where you are from – good luck getting the Balinese price for that mototaxi ride! Like anywhere else, in Bali we expected to find reliable, if slow, public transport (often the setting for great conversations and memories) along major driving routes, but we found that while its humble “Bemos” (local public minivans) did still run on occasion, they were not welcoming to outsiders, who are able and willing to pay many times more for the brand new air-conditioned megabuses that clog Bali’s unequipped village roads. Yoga, an activity nearly synonymous with my ill-preconceived notion of Balinese culture, turns out to be – allegedly – barely ever practiced by actual Balinese people! Despite Bali’s delicous and unique coffee, the largest building we saw in Ubud was occupied by a Seattle-latte-slinging Starbucks (tastefully decorated to look like a Balinese temple, of course)! And even Bali’s sacred traditional wood carving artists have relegated their talents to carving more tourist-friendly wooden penises (peni?), which line the storefronts, obscuring their gorgeous statues of Ganesha and other Hindu deities.

Blagh! What are we doing to this place?

Fortunately, a little authenticity can still be found even within the main hubs (as evidenced by some yes, touristy, but distinctly Balinese attractions we found in Ubud), and a mere mile or two by motobike in any direction outside these places brings Balinese culture back into full focus. In other words, despite the “bad” alluded-to above, we found much much more about Bali that was just plain great – and by great I mean unfamiliar, disorienting, confusing, endearing, shocking, delicious, hilarious, and discomforting (in a healthy way) – all the qualities that we find make for memorable and meaningful travel experiences!

The good…

For the best examples of the “good,” check out our more detailed posts on our favorite experiences from our trip in Bali:

…But such focused posts make it difficult to mention some of the random, often reoccurring aspects of Bali we’ll remember most fondly, and they do very little to sum things up on the whole. So like we did with Thailand, here are a few superlatives, our time in Bali by-the-numbers, if you will:

Worst toilet encounter

  • Steph: Tile floor of Swallow Guesthouse (Didn’t quite make it to the toilet. To vomit, for the record).
  • Scott: well, I just can’t try to top that.

         Running “toilet” score for the trip: Steph: 1. Scott: 1 (from Thailand)

Favorite phrases

  • Sing Ken Ken (means “no worries”). Always received with hysterical laughter, and a Balinese person repeating it several times.

Public “Bemos” Ridden

1

Public Bemos Expected to have Ridden

~15

First memories that come to mind

  • Steph: Getting sprinkled with holy water by a Hindu priest, in the rain
  • Scott: Buying a pirate ship kite from a craftsman in Sidemen (which we later gave to our hosts’ kid Maya, in Munduk)

Number of weddings attended

0

Number of funerals attended

2

…and we wouldn’t have it any other way – Balinese mourners sure know how to throw a party!

Things we miss most about Bali

  • Steph: Bubur Injin (sweet black rice dessert, with coconut milk, palm sugar, and bananas), chanting from nearby temples lasting late into the night.
  • Scott: The funerals! (Cremation ceremonies are a village-wide celebration in Bali, see posts above)

Books read

  • Steph: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (woohoo! first book finished on this trip!), currently reading: First They Killed My Father (about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime)
  • Scott: 1/2 of Steve Jobs’ biography (on borrow from a guesthouse), currently reading: The Glass Palace. (Also still enjoying Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but it’s hard to tell when it’s appropriate to pull it out of my bag, as it’s banned or taboo in most countries with a large Muslim population).

Biggest travel “milestone”

Crossing the equator!!

 Things that are no longer just dead weight in the backpack

  • anti-diarrheals and oral antibiotics

…ugh, sorry.

Favorite Dish

  • Steph: Bubur Injin
  • Scott: Sate Ayam (chicken skewers with fried peanut sauce), Balinese fried corn fritters (for the record, Steph can never eat these again. See “worst toilet encounter,” above.)

Number of times asked if we had children

~47 (…Number of times asked why we don’t yet: also ~47)

Funniest Memories:

  • Futu seriously describing the importance of “massaging his cock” – his rooster, that is – so that its muscles are strong for cockfighting (and afterwards, being too tired to massage his wife’s shoulders)
  • Scott telling his “an anteater walked into a bar…” joke, to a completely dead-pan response from Futu and Ketut.

Alright then, onward to Cambodia!

Escape to Pejeng

Despite its upsides, a few days in touristy Ubud, Bali was more than enough for us – perfect timing for our next stop, Pejeng. Pejeng is only 20 minutes northeast of Ubud by motoscooter, but it feels like another world: a collection of very small, traditional villages where people live similarly to how they did 20 or 30 years ago (save for the onslaught of motobikes and automated rice field tillers!).

We’d actually found Pejeng online through rave reviews for a guesthouse there, Swallow Guesthouse, named after its former role as a barn for swallow nesting (the swallows keep the bugs that roam the fields at bay). The place looked great and the price was right, so in a move uncharacteristic of our usual, whimsical ways, we booked it ahead. As such, Pejeng became the only planned stop on our Bali itinerary.

The Swallow Guesthouse was really quite luxurious, and we had the entire place to ourselves, aside from a couple staying on the other half of the house (two very nice medical anthropologists from Europe with whom we cooked and shared a great dinner one of the nights).

We spent a lazy week in Pejeng, reading alongside the rice fields, watching the farmers harvest their crop and herd their packs of field-fertilizing ducks, riding bikes around the surrounding villages, and cooking meals for ourselves, including a makeshift Thanksgiving meal! (Fried corn fritters, sweet pound cakes, cocoa swirl cookies, eggplant in a red pepper and garlic sauce, and Bintang Balinese beer (Bintang translates to “Natty Light” in English, I think…).

reading at the Swallow Guesthouse:
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Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Thanksgiving in Bali

Thanksgiving dinner:

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The Balinese “bale”, where we did much of our eating and reading, from the top floor:

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The back porch:

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

It had an amazing lotus garden out back as well!

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And the sunrises over the rice fields…

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While at Swallow Guesthouse, I began working again. In case you didn’t know, this trip isn’t all fun and ga… okay yeah, it sortof is. Anyway, for the remainder of the trip, my plan is to work somewhat regular hours for my employer, Filament Group, from wherever we happen to be in our journey (amazing, huh!?). Fortunately, this is not a drag at all. I really love my job, and the ongoing pay doesn’t hurt our travel funds either. Here I am at the office:

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

I should note too that another our goals for the trip is to casually seek some potential organizations and causes that Steph might be interested in contacting for work as well, which she spent much of her time researching while in Pejeng. Later on, we may end up heading back to a place we’ve already been if there’s a good opportunity for her to explore.

Much like the other small villages we visited, Pejeng suited our tastes well. The villages were very rural, the old traditions still in practice, the people unjaded to visitors. Pejeng is also quite flat, making for different scenery than we’d found in rice-terraced Sidemen and mountainous Munduk.

Another highlight of Pejeng was that we were able to try a fruit called Durian, something we’ve been wanting to try for years, as it’s known to be, well, completely repulsive – what fun! The durian is hard and spikey on the outside, and upon cracking it open you find 3 or 4 very sweet, tubular, pudding-soft, almost onion-tasting custard snacks. It’s a divisive food: people are known to either love it or absolutely detest it, and its strong smell actually leads many hotels in Asia to post rules against guests bringing durian on their premises! Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizzarre Foods, one of our favorite TV shows, claims it’s the only food he absolutely can not eat! (And that guy eats anything.)

Our first durian!! :

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But alas… much to our major disappointment, we actually ended up liking it! How boring.IMG_3214

Aside from all the laziness, we did end up attending YABCC (Yet Another Balinese Cremation Ceremony). If you’ve been following along, you’red probably thinking we’ve become quite the funeral crashers during our time in Bali (“open bar, dude!”), but really, cremation ceremonies are meant for the entire village to attend. So, once again we gladly donned our sarongs and headed off to observe.

This one was a bit more elaborate than the small cremation ceremony we attended in Sidemen. A priest, one of the highest ranking people in the Balinese caste system, had died, and that fact combined with the relatively greater wealth in Pejeng made for quite the festivities.

The body being hoisted onto the tower, for carrying to the cemation site:

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

The priest’s body, hoisted atop an even taller sleigh than the last one we saw, was led by another group carrying a large white bull. Many of the customs were similar – the drunken, disorienting march of the body, the gamelan band, the crowds following along, the concession stands – but all were more pronounced.

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Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Upon reaching the pre-prepped pyre, they placed the bull above the torches and removed its back, leaving a cavity in which the body was placed for cremation. We remarked on how odd it is that even an event such as this can begin to feel like an unsurprising, everyday thing after having seen it already. Of course, this time around they did a much better job of concealing the body during the cremation, so it was a lot less graphic.

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Again, the flames were fueled by massive tanks of propane. This time though, the many tanks were neatly collected in a van we dubbed “the bomb.” We spent much of our time there simply trying to avoid being positioned next to “the bomb.”

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

And what large, modern Balinese ceremony would be complete without a clueless, offensive foreigner or two? Here he is, front and center, with his short shorts (wearing a sarong is expected, but at the very least, attendees of Balinese ceremonies and temples must ALWAYS cover their legs and shoulders), and his massive, television-esque HD camera to make sure he captured every last gory detail – even at the expense of all the horrified villagers he stood in front of, filming as they reacted to the event. Nice goin’!

Cremation Ceremony, Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

camera man

In the end, Pejeng was a great place to wind down our time in Bali.

After heading out our last day, we stopped off at an ancient site called “Elephant Cave”, named for its proximity to the Elephant river. The cave and surrounding sites were excavated as recently as the 1950s, and it had been used throughout history as both a Hindu and Buddhist temple, with vast ruins from both still in tact.

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Elephant Cave. Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Elephant Cave. Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

The grounds had ruins barely uncovered by nature, and caves with ancient relics from the temples.

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

One of the caves tunneled deep into the hills, and I walked in until I could barely see. But the sounds of flapping quickly alerted us that the place was full of bats who were not at all welcoming! Here I am accidentally snapping a pic as I sprint out of the cave with bats trailing close behind!!

Me, running from bats.

Lastly, the views into the Elephant River gorge were well worth a small hike.

Pejeng, Bali, Indonesia

After that, we were off to a quick stay near the airport, for Cambodia beckons!

A dose of old Bali in Ubud

After Munduk, we caught a ride south to Ubud, a small town that is hugely popular with tourists for its numerous art galleries and fascinating displays of Balinese culture. We were very skeptical about going to Ubud knowing how touristy it would be and yet simultaneously enthralled by the prospect of seeing some amazing aspects of Balinese history and culture that can only be found there.

For one, Ubud is home to the Sacred Monkey Forest of Bali– a park containing an ancient Balinese temple crawling with macaque monkeys that run the spectrum from adorable and hilarious to downright terrifying. I didn’t know anything about the Monkey Forest before casually strolling up to its entrance, and I half-expected that the monkeys would be few and far between, possibly viewable from several meters below their safe habitats up in the trees. Instead, I was at first pleasantly surprised (and later horrified) to find that they are literally everywhere; from the moment you enter the park, monkeys swarm at your feet in search of a handout and eye you from low-hanging branches mere inches away as you casually try to avoid their glances. They literally drape the temple walls, making this beautiful, yet haunting, place even more spooky and surreal. At one point, Scott made the mistake of making googly eyes at an adorable baby monkey sitting at eye level with us for too long, causing its not-as-adorable dad to literally run after Scott, trying to bite his ankles! We watched another monkey repeatedly jump up onto a young woman’s shiny white purse and attempt to probe at the contents inside, terrifying the poor woman. Despite the too-close-for-comfort encounters, we had a blast walking through the beautiful trails and snapping some pics of the less-hostile inhabitants:

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Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

One of our favorite monkeys was a mother who had a tiny black newborn clinging to her chest and a hankering for the taste of algae-clad temple walls:
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Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Another one of the temple’s inhabitants contemplated the meaning of life (or perhaps his chances of snagging my shiny earrings) from his perch within the main temple:

IMG_3059http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6424880973/in/set-72157628204591419

Pura Dalem Agung temple within the Monkey Forest (above: wearing a rental sarong, required to enter the temple):

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Haunting sculptures outside of the temple depict creatures devouring small children:
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———

The second major reason that we had for visiting Ubud is that Ubud is one of the only places in Bali that foreigners can easily observe traditional Balinese dances. One of these dances, the Kecak, had captivated us since we first learned about it while watching the amazing short film “Baraka” over 10 years ago (check it out if you have not seen it!). The Kecak, or “monkey chant” is performed by concentric circles of at least 100 men, wearing checked cloths around their waists and chanting the “kecak”, intended to induce a trance-like state in the chanters.

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Video of the Kecak (you will definitely want to turn the sound up for this one):

Following the Kecak, the chanters cleared the stage and a single man appeared to perform a second dance called the Fire Dance. The dance began with the man straddling a home-made “horse” made of wood and straw, moving around a bonfire. He then (quite shockingly and very ceremoniously) ran barefoot across the fire, purposefully kicking piles of burning embers into the feet of the audience. He persistently continued to run into the smoldering embers, his feet becoming blacker with each pass through the fire. After a final pass and a futile “struggle” to break free from the other performers who were “taming” the horse, he literally collapsed at the edge of what remained of the fire, where he remained until the we, the audience, were gone.

Fire dance, Bali, Indonesia

——-

On our last morning in Ubud, we awoke at 4:30 to make an early morning trek along one of the many beautiful valleys on the outskirts of town– a nice respite from the craziness of the central village and a reminder of why Ubud continues to be loved by millions of visitors every year– rightfully so.

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Into the mountains of Munduk

As noted in our last few dispatches, we spent an amazing first week in the very traditional village of Sideman, where we witnessed our first Balinese ceremony and first human cremation, saw some impossibly beautiful rice terraces, and met some new friends. We knew that it would be hard for our next stop– or any stop after this, really– to live up to our time in Sideman.

We set our sights on the tiny northern Balinese village of Munduk, known for its numerous hiking trails teeming with waterfalls and its fertile valleys that produce nearly every delicious fruit or spice grown on Bali: papayas, mangoes, bananas, rambuttan, strawberries, coffee, ginger, cocoa, palm sugar… How could it not be amazing?

Indeed, we hiked to *another* breathtaking waterfall.     Meh.
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…we hiked to the biggest banyan tree IN THE WORLD (sort of– potentially-rabid dogs blocked the last 50 feet of the trail).  Meh.   (Tree can be seen  above the treeline, in the distance, below—)

Munduk, Bali, Indonesia

…but the absolute BEST part about Munduk was the sweet little Balinese family, who took us into their sweet little guesthouse, and showed us a “sweet” side of Bali that we had been looking for all along but had still yet to see.

It all started when our driver dropped us off in the middle of Munduk village, a tiny strip of a one-lane road lined with small concrete homes and dime-store markets, precariously perched on the ridge of a stunningly beautiful mountain range. We hadn’t booked any hotel before arriving in Munduk, so we stopped to look at a guesthouse that we had read about in our guide book–it was just OK and a little overpriced– and then agreed to check out just one more place before deciding which place to stay.

Within seconds of checking out the next place, called Aditya Homestay, a heavenly pure-strawberry juice smoothie (from strawberries picked that day, just down the hill) appeared in our hands. We had picked the right place.

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This theme followed throughout the rest of our stay: walking by the reception desk? Strawberry smoothie. Taking too long using the free internet downstairs? Strawberry smoothie.  Peeking out the front door of the guestroom to see if it’s raining? Strawberry smoothie (with open umbrellas sitting outside the door if answer to previous question is “yes”). Back from a long hike? Free water and a surprise heaping plate of delicious Balinese gado gado (chicken and green beans in sweet peanut sauce) on our doorstep (…alongside strawberry smoothie, of course).

Munduk, Bali, Indonesia

We learned that Aditya is owned and run by a small, incredibly sweet Balinese family who live on the property. The main woman, Elo, and her brother-in-law Futu attend to the guests (although we were the only guests during our 5 days there), the smiling grandfather walks the adorable daughter, Maya, to school every morning, the mother-in-law churns out insanely delicious Balinese food for the guesthouse’s restaurant…

On our first night at Aditya, we sat down at their lovely cafe overlooking the northern Balinese mountain ranges in the distance,

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and ordered the most interesting-sounding dessert on the menu: Bubur Injin (black sticky rice with coconut milk and palm sugar).

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Best. Dessert. Ever.

I took one bite and then turned to waiter: “Do you do cooking classes?”

Luckily, they did.

So the very next night, our host (and owner of Aditya), Elo, taught us how to make hand-ground Balinese “corn fritters”, “urab” (greens sautéed with garlic, shallots, and tossed with shredded coconut), sate ayam (savory chicken skewers with hand-ground peanut sauce), and deep-fried bananas and jack fruit covered in (more– always more) palm sugar.

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In fact, everything we ate at Aditya was a new culinary experience, from typical Balinese rice pancakes…

IMG_3008…weird homemade treats dyed green from a local leaf and filled with cold palm sugar that bursts in your mouth on the first bite…

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…homemade sugary ground rice balls, wrapped and steamed in corn husks…(shown in a picture above, next to the coffee)

One day, Elo, Futu, and Maya invited us to join them at their family’s temple, an annual prayer gathering during which all Hindu Balinese pray for knowledge.

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At the risk of sounding like Balinese ceremony-crashers, the worshippers served up some fantastic food after all that praying was out of the way: Elo’s handmade sweet black rice candy, green bean wafer cookies (an odd hard-tack- type cookie made of nothing but green beans and sugar), home-grown rambuttan, and smoked duck with sticky rice…

rambuttan (sweet, tasty, similar to lychee):

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green bean cookies (hard, dry, sweet, just odd…) :

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On our last morning, we had a surprisingly emotional goodbye to Elo and Futu, where Elo sent us off with a flimsy plastic container that she had packed full of black rice candies (my favorite), more homemade green bean cookies, and a beautiful hand-woven table runner made right in Munduk…

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Before meeting Elo and her family, Scott and I felt like we really didn’t “get” Balinese food; there were odd combinations of seeminlgy-familiar ingredients that never seemed to go together in quite the right way… Now I will say to anyone who wants to experience undeniably delicious, authentic Balinese food:  walk out of the Denpasar Airport, catch a ride straight to Munduk, and on the far east edge of town, down a small side street on the left hand-side, watch for a tiny smiling woman waving something in her hand for you to try– your first real strawberry smoothie.

One man’s litter…

Indonesia is known for its coffee, and within Indonesia, the island of Bali has a style of its own: incredibly strong (both in flavor and caffeine content) and usually served unfiltered, with grounds directly in the cup.  Zooming even further, Munduk, Bali is home to a blend of coffee that has been called the rarest (and also best tasting) on Earth! Steph and I happened to be in Munduk for 4 nights, and with my love of coffee, we had to check this out.

It may be worth pointing out here that we also tend to get a kick out of trying unusual, and sometimes even bizarre foods. Coincidentally, the process in which this particular kind of Munduk coffee is produced is not at all usual, or even for the feint of heart.

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At the center of this coffee’s production process is the civet, a furry little forest cat that lives in the trees in the jungles of Indonesia. The civet dines mainly on coffee berries, and Munduk’s climate produces some of the highest quality coffee berries you can find in Bali.  The civet also happens to be incredibly picky about the ripeness, consistency, and quality of the berries it eats. So picky, we’re told, that farmers long ago noticed its discerning taste (don’t ask me how), and realized this kitty was far more skilled than them at finding only the absolute highest quality coffee berries in their trees!

Of course, the part of the coffee berry the civet likes is not the part the farmers and us coffee drinkers are interested in. Fortunately though, the “bean” of the berry that we’re after is um, not digestible…

…if you’re still following along, you probably know where this is going.

The farmers happily deduced that in order to harvest the finest of their coffee crop, they needn’t try very hard. They could simply roam the forest each morning and collect the civet’s characteristic coffee bean-loaded poops, then remove and clean the beans from said dung and prepare them for roasting. With the unknowing help of the kitties (who apparently bury and hide their turds about as poorly as our cat, Riles), it didn’t take long for these farmers to gain a reputation for their consistently great coffee! And frankly, why would it, it’s good shit!. (sorry.)

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Skip ahead a few hundred years (I’ve no idea how long actually), Civet cat coffee, or “Kopi Luwak”, is still produced by a small company in Munduk. The harvesting of the beans is even still done by hand – er, glove? – in the wild, and nowadays they’ve introduced strict sterilization procedures to cleanse the beans after harvest and before roasting. The coffee even passes the Indonesian equivalent of the FDA, so clearly somebody’s pockets got lined!

Anyway, we went to the place and ordered a cup. It cost about as much as a large Starbucks latte ($4 US, about 8 times as much as any cup we’d bought here). The very nice woman working the at the shop brewed the beans espresso style in this crazy little kerosene-driven coffee robot below. The water passed back and forth 3 times into the collection vessel via syphon as it heated and cooled – very entertaining!
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Civet Cat Coffee

The verdict?

Turns out the people are right, the coffee was quite good. I wouldn’t say it was the best cup I’ve had or anything, but it was very tasty. A worthy excursion, for sure!

Oh, I should mention that I wrote this based on what the locals told us in Munduk, without fact-checking any of what they said. There’s more on Kopi Luwak on wikipedia if you’re so inclined. 🙂

Scenes from Sidemen

We spent less than a week in Sideman, Bali, Indonesia, but the village made a very personal impact on both of us. Much of that was due to the people we met (as noted our last two dispatches), but the reason we went to Sideman in the first place was to spend time in its beautiful rice terraced hills and valleys – and man, they did not disappoint!

While “trekking” around, we joked that we could set the timer on the camera and toss it in the air… odds were good that it’d result in a decent picture. In reality, our photography skills wouldn’t do it justice, but here are some of our favorites.
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Our house for the week:
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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

“Snakefruit”:
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Sideman, Bali

Climbing to Pura Bukkit:

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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sidemen, Bali, Indonesia

Sidemen, Bali, Indonesia

Sidemen, Bali, Indonesia

Our hosts, Ketut and Futu:

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A Balinese Cremation Ceremony

As Steph later put it, “I hadn’t imagined I’d ever feel chills in 100-something-degree Bali heat.”

And so it was that the day after attending Ketut’s family celebration in Sideman, Futu informed us over breakfast, “A man in this village died yesterday. In two days there will be a cremation. You’re very welcome to attend.”

On the day of the ceremony, Futu instructed us to walk up the road from our bungalow around noon and stand near the village temple where the rest of the village would be gathered. As we made the hot trek up the hill, many others were rousing from their homes to head in the same direction. Much to our surprise, the mood was festive, as if we were on our way to a parade.  We stopped near the temple and passed the time surprising those around us with our 3 or 4 Balinese (as opposed to more common Indonesian) phrases: “Kin Kin Cabaree?” (How are you?), “Sing Kin Kin” (No worries), “Sooksumu” (Thank you), etc.

The first sign of the ceremony was the drum: a deep, evenly spaced, hollow thump. This was accompanied by a more rapid tinny chorus of miniature gongs, which turned out to be gamelans (used in traditional Balinese music). Playing these instruments was a marching band of sorts, packed into a larger group of people – most of the village, we later found – dressed in traditional clothing with women carrying large offerings on their heads. Their repeating tune was somber and pronounced, communicating the seriousness of the moment.

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As the crowd approached, we got our first glimpse of the body of the deceased. It was wrapped in sheets, laid out on a slender, intricately decorated wooden sleigh that was hoisted using crossed bamboo bars onto the shoulders of at least 15 men. Behind them, more men carried a twisted sheet that represented the deceased’s spirit. If we hadn’t known better, we might have assumed that this many men were needed to handle the mere weight of the sleigh, but that wasn’t the case: more importantly, many men were needed because they were all, frankly, shitfaced-drunk on arak, the local coconut wine! But their drunkenness was not due to sorrow or irresponsibility. In fact, the stumble they’d developed was key to their ceremonial tradition: the sleigh must be carried in a zig-zagged path that not even the men could retrace, so that it is impossible for the deceased’s spirit to catch the body and reenter it!

[Note: Following an ancient form of Hinduism, most Balinese believe that the body is a vessel for reincarnating spirits. A proper cremation and purification ceremony will free a spirit from a body so that it may reenter another body again one day: often that of a grand or great-grand child of the deceased, assuming the person maintained good karma… if not, they might return as a dog or a chicken. For this reason, every married couple is eager to bring many more children into the world so the spirits of their lost loved ones can live on. Throughout our time in Bali, Steph and I have  been asked many times if we are married, and when we say yes, the next question is whether we have children or not – to which the only acceptable answers appear to be “yes” or “blume”, which is Balinese for “not yet”).]

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And so the men swerved and stumbled down the road, almost dumping the sleigh at times, and clearly enjoying it all the while. As they moved along, observers would funnel into the crowd to follow. Soon enough, we saw Futu walking in the crowd, and he called for us to come join. We jumped in, and he kindly explained portions of the event for us as they occurred throughout the rest of the day. “If it rains during this part of the cremation ceremony, we love it, because we can easily fill buckets of water to throw at the corpse to throw it further off its path!!”

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We turned down a dirt road that led to a flat area of the rice fields where they’d been preparing for the day’s event. This area was also the village cemetery, but it was empty at the time as bodies are only kept there until the family of the deceased has the money to dig them up for a proper cremation. Upon arriving at the cemetery, the men dropped the sleigh in an expectedly sloppy manner and removed the corpse, carrying it on their shoulders toward the funeral pyre. Before placing it on top, they ran it in 3 drunken circles around the pyre, pulling and twisting the body, further disorienting the spirit and themselves in the process. As they ran, another group followed them carrying an empty “decoy” spirit sheet to throw off the real spirit even further. Meanwhile, the now-empty sleigh was hoisted and pitched down the side of a ravine, then set on fire, never to be used again. We later learned that the sleigh often costs the family at least 25 million rupiah (2,500 US dollars) – a hefty fee that often forces families to sell their possessions, such as precious farm land.
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Once the body was placed atop the pyre, the men unwrapped it, and crowds gathered around to view it and sprinkle it with holy water and offerings. Futu advised, “we should move upwind now; the smell of the cremation is usually not good.” As we moved, the priest – an elderly woman this time – finished the blessings by spreading the last of the holy water, while the men drank even more arak and began to assemble the fire. Two 8-foot-long gas torches were placed underneath the body, hovering above a metal tray to collect the ashes. With torches spewing gas, they struck a match and the whole stack went up in tall, powerful flames.IMG_2884

Within minutes, all wood and coverings involved in the fire fell away, leaving the hundreds of people in attendance with a plain view of the deceased’s naked body burning in the violent flames, which were so strong they sounded like a small jet engine. Out of respect to the family and our readers, I don’t wish to describe how it was to watch a human body being reduced to ash; I’m not even sure I could.

Despite our shock, what was infinitely more striking about the hour or more that it took to complete the cremation was the mood that continued amongst the crowd: children laughed, men hugged one another while telling jokes and sipping Tuoc (homemade coconut wine), the gamelan players and drummers stepped up their hypnotic tune, and the women sat together and occasionally delivered more offerings to the pile near the fire. The son of the man being burned before our very eyes walked around with a smile, offering his friends a celebratory smoke. There was even a concession stand where people were buying frozen popsicles (!), and a man sat next to me and offered a tall cup of tuoc that I graciously accepted (pictured behind me below). Every person in the village was in attendance, regardless of age or relation, just as they would be for a wedding, birth, or any of the many other ceremonies that are honored each week; they were celebrating just another aspect of what they believe to be a very circular, rewarding, and fortuitous life. The mood was at once solemn, jovial, and wistful; a fitting way to memorialize the life of their friend.

Video:

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To be sure, Balinese people are no more immune to grief than anyone else; as one would expect, and as Futu confirmed, the family of the deceased spent days mourning their loss. But it was moving to watch their grief transform into happiness as they carried out their rituals; they really knew that the spirit was free again to live on again one day. Through these weekly village-wide ceremonies, the Balinese live in constant reminder of all stages of life, and if what we observed that day was common, it seems they’re able to accept death a lot more easily than I can. Back home, we have similar ways of thinking about death, but it’s easy for us to ignore it when it’s not affecting us personally; maybe because of that, we allow ourselves to forget how best to cope when it inevitably returns.

After the fire went out, the men gathered the ashes in a coconut shell and marched them down to the valley. They sent the ashes down the river which would soon carry them out to sea, and soon a purification ceremony would complete the spirit’s transition back into the family’s temple until it reincarnates again.

Cremation Ceremony, Sidemen, Bali, Indonesia

We watched them pass by from the side of the road with Ketut and Futu, sharing our thoughts on the day’s events. Among other things, we mentioned how incredibly hot it was that day, and Ketut nodded, “I believe that’s because it makes the cremation easier. There are people in the village who can make sure it is very hot on occasions that we need it to be; they can try to make the rain hold off until later.” Indeed, oddly, the daily afternoon shower had not yet arrived as we prepared dinner that night.

As Ketut said farewell for the night, he looked out across the cloudless sky and added, “It looks like the rain will come now that the cremation is over.” After dinner, we locked up the kitchen and retreated to our bungalow for the night – just in time to hear the rain move in across the valley.

Finding Bali in Sideman

I’m sitting on the veranda of our room just after dawn, and the village of Sideman is already bustling with activity. Motorbikes zoom past out on the main road, and from our porch I can barely pick out tiny silhouettes of farmers plowing the rice terraces below. But I’m up late for a town in which the central market is already a hive of activity by 3:00 AM (although I’ve yet to see it at that hour…). From here, it seems I can see all of Bali. To the west, the ocean is just visible between two jungle-clad mountains. To the east, Mount Agung, the highest mountain on Bali, looms in the distance. Today the visibility is clear enough to see its summit, although most days misty clouds settle into these valleys long before we’ve arisen.

To the north, tiny huts dot the impossibly green landscape, and a waterfall gushes off to one side, nourishing the surrounding rice fields. Heading down into the valley from our porch and up the other mountainside sits another village directly across from us, at eye level from here. At night, the sounds of a gamelan, an ancient Balinese instrument, float across the valley from that village to the steps of our front porch.

The village of Sideman (pronounced si- da- men) is where we have called home for the past 6 days now, and I don’t even know where to start. Do I start by talking about the gorgeous scenery, or perhaps the incredibly friendly (and talkative!) people that have been teaching us about Bali? Do I ramble on about the interesting new fruits that we’ve discovered or about the ancient, ornate temples that dot every street corner? What about the hours of conversation that we’ve been enjoying with our Balinese hosts that I desperately want to remember every detail of?

Maybe the best way to start is to talk about what brought us here in the first place and how little we realized we were in for.

I knew very little about Bali before coming here. Like anyone, I had always entertained romantic notions about the culture of Bali, rife with ancient rituals, filled with haunting images of chanting and animal sacrifices — all very romantic-sounding but the type of experience that is always out of reach of a tourist’s eyes. To be honest, one of the reasons that we ended up in Bali in the first place is that we needed to find a cheap flight out of Thailand to show “proof of onward travel” to the Thai immigration officers– a ticket that we potentially would never use.

Luckily, we did end up using that plane ticket. Once we arrived in Bali, we took a minibus, public bus, and then bemo (local minibus) (which is an adventure best saved for another blog post) direct to the village of Sideman. The people of Sideman have been utterly shocked and tickled each time we tell them that we came straight to their village from the airport without stopping in any of the tourist hubs like Kuta or Ubud. Sideman is a very traditional village, far off the tourist trail– the kind where every child that sees us still screams “hello!” to practice their English and where the ancient traditions of Balinese culture are still very much an integral part of everyday life.

Every morning after we eat breakfast, we spend far too long chatting with our villa’s caretaker, Ketut. Ketut is an amazingly kind, hard-working guy several years younger than us who relentlessly and openly answers all of our questions about Balinese culture, religion, and traditions. Of course, one of the reasons that Bali has fascinated so many people over the years is that the people on Bali practice a unique form of Hindu religion, whereas the rest of Indonesia is largely Muslim. The Balinese people are fiercely proud of their Hindu traditions and are happy to share them with outsiders.

One morning, Ketut began telling us that his family was going to be holding a cock-fight later that day and that we were welcome to attend with him. Ketut went to ask his brother what time the fight would be happening, and returned to tell us that we had missed the fight but that his brother had won! We learned later that during a cock-fight a small knife is tied onto the arm of each rooster for the duration of the fight, and we were secretly glad that we didn’t have to witness it. Although it’s perhaps easy for outsiders such as ourselves to condemn people who participate in cock-fighting, we learned from Ketut’s friend Futu that, despite now being illegal in Bali, cock-fighting is still a requirement for Balinese who live in traditional villages. The village temple dictates when a cock-fight will be held and requires each family to either bring a rooster to the fight or pay a large fee– a fee that many Balinese simply can’t afford.

Luckily, Ketut said that his family would still be holding their annual family celebration, a religious holiday in which the entire family gets together from all over Bali to gather in the village temple to pray, celebrate, and feast, and that we were welcome to attend that with him. He went on, “I’m sorry, but so you know, for woman who is pregnant or menstruating, it is forbidden to enter the temple,” (because they are considered unclean). Luckily, I was deemed OK to participate in the festivities…

Around 3:00 that afternoon, Ketut flew Scott and I one by one up the mountain on his motorbike to his family’s home– a walled-in compound of a few concrete rooms, a small family temple, and a dirt yard overrun by a couple of prized roosters. One woman busily applied mascara to a tiny girl in a beautiful bright purple sarong, and the men (who were already dressed and waiting–SO typical) strolled around laughing, smoking cigarettes. The women took me inside one of the rooms and helped me into some traditional clothing, including a beautiful gray flower-printed sarong and white embroidered top. Ketut’s aunt even took the time to clip my hair up into a matching flower hair piece. Meanwhile, Ketut helped Scott into a sarong and a traditional head wrap.

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When the entire family was ready, we weaved through the center of the village (somewhere we had never been able to visit on our own) through a series of confusing low concrete walls, up one row, and down another, until we finally reached the inner village temple– a communal site that is reserved by each family within a strict 3 day period for the purpose of this very festival that we were about to witness.
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“During the ceremony, we play Dominoes,” Ketut explained.

Thinking his English was off, I corrected, “Oh, you mean, you play Dominoes before the ceremony starts?”

“No, we play DURING the ceremony,” a smiling Ketut retorted. “For fun.”

So we sat down with Ketut and his family just outside of the main temple and watched countless rounds of Dominoes, speaking with those who knew some English as best we could. Luckily, many of the men wanted to practice their English, and we always felt overly welcome. Some people asked, “Where you from?” and “How long you stay in Bali?” Most people wanted to point out the fact that Barack Obama would be coming to Bali in 3 days!
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Sideman, Bali

While the men played Dominoes and smoked their cigarettes, the woman shuttled countless offerings, made of woven baskets filled with rice and fruit and incense, into the village temple to prepare for the main ceremony. Once the priest arrived, we were invited to follow Ketut into the temple, where we sat in a light rain, our palms upturned, our faces being sprinkled one-by-one with holy water shaken off a flower petal by an old Hindu priest. And in a moment of utter shock and realization, I wondered how we had ever gotten to this moment. Like a rabbit hole, going deeper, deeper into Asia, right into Indonesia, then Bali, then into this village, up one row and down another, to this temple, to this moment.
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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

After the group prayer, we returned to the gathering area outside of the temple, where more Dominoes were in order. Then we all shuttled back into the temple again (still following? :)), where the priest blessed the offerings that had been brought. As a final offering, a young black chicken was brought in, and its head was severed by the priest, who added its still-clucking head to the offering plate. Next the priest gave us a few grains of raw yellow rice, both to chew and to press onto our foreheads, where it would stay until it fell off. The adults then paraded around the temple grounds with the offerings at least 5 times, throwing old Balinese coins to the ground for the children to race to snatch up.
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Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

Sideman, Bali

After the ceremony, everyone paraded out of the temple to a different, smaller temple, where more praying occurred and several people asked for me to take their picture.

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Back at the gathering area again, Ketut told us that we would now have a feast together. First, people brought us little snacks, such as steamed rice puddings filled with toasted coconut wrapped in banana leaves, and delicious thin fried crackers embedded with chills and basil. Meanwhile, people laid down mats of woven palm fronds that would serve as platters for the food, and piles of rice and stewed chicken were piled on top. Ketut had told us that his family never gets to eat chicken except at this annual ceremony– so where did this chicken come from? It was the losing rooster from the cock-fight earlier that day, of course! No plates, no utensils, just everyone digging into one big pile of rice, beans, and all sorts of delicious [unidentifiable] loser-chicken parts.
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Sideman, Bali

Back to this morning, my thoughts still ruminating on all that we have just been privileged to watch, and I think, “just a cheap flight from Thailand.” Is that all Bali is to me still? Despite Bali’s overt tourism and problems resulting from over-development, Ketut has shown us that the spirit of Bali is still very much alive, and it lives on in these rituals, through these people, as it has for thousands of years. Everyday it lives on on this island, in this very moment, in this village, up one row and down the next.