Travel is a profitable exercise. The soul is there continually exercised in noticing new and unknown things and I do not know a better school.
These inspirational thoughts have been with me ever since I came upon the writings of the sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. And they accompanied me on my recent journey to Bali, known as the Island of the Gods. The thought of “noticing new and unknown things” fueled my imagination, as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s fabulous stories in her now famous book: Eat, Pray, Love.
Having a most reliable guide and driver by the name of Gunung made it possible to be swept into a landscape that overwhelmed the senses. As soon as one leaves the grandeur of the newly refurbished Denpassar airport one is transported into the magical, mystical world of gods and goddesses inhabiting this exotic island. The clarity of the light imbues everything the eye beholds with intensity. Gargantuan statues of epic heroes loom over the scenery and are constant reminders of the sacred that fills the daily activities of the people.
The flowers; hibiscus, bougainvillea, poinsettia, jasmine, roses, begonias, water lilies and hydrangeas will be used as offerings before the myriad of temples that are seen everywhere. Incense fills the air and hovers, leaving veils of fragrance above exquisitely carved wooden doors, then curls along the stones leading to inner courtyards where the beloved elephant god Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati reigns supreme. Most of the inhabitants are Hindu and like everything else on this island, legends perpetuate the reverence for the sacred. It links ancient beliefs that all is one and all is imbued with spirit leading to a kind of animism that transcends definition.
In Ubud, the capital, I was swept into a world of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles with entire families holding on to each other on the back seat. There are hardly any accidents because according to Gunung people look out for each other. It was difficult for him to believe the number of deaths that occur on the streets of New York. “ We have forgotten about the sacred,” I answered. Nevertheless, it was dizzying looking at cars coming in the wrong direction, but in Bali traffic flows as in England. You just have to remember to look on the left. It’s a mind shift.
When Gunung realized my apprehension he slowed down allowing the details of life on the streets to come into focus; a woman walking with a basket poised on her head, a man wearing a saffron colored vest worn over a colorful printed body cloth, a textile store with photos in the window of crouching bodies working the looms and toothless smiles welcoming the onlookers into their life of toil. And everywhere statues of Ganesh bedecked in flowers, flowers arranged on small trays as offerings to deities and greeting the shoppers entering the stores.
Another side of life reveals itself as well. Bony faces, haggard eyes, mangy dogs resembling hyenas resting against temple statues, their sad eyes looking out onto this moving colorful cadence of humanity.
It doesn’t take long to learn that there are people here who make $2 a day working in the rice fields and that part of the harvest goes to the owner. The feudal system still exists after all. Yet the crafts and artistic talent reveal a people devoted to beauty in all its aspects. The Agung Rai Museum of Art in Ubud has an expansive collection of masterful works of art and wooden sculptures. The epic story of the Ramayana is expressed through gifted dancers accompanied by the sound of the gamelan, the local musical instrument. And then to satisfy the lust of demanding tourists, the shops are filled with leather goods, metalwork, sculptures, colorful garments, paintings and trinkets to dazzle the beholder.
While beyond, out there in the luxury of the forest, tamarind and spice trees and dense clumps of coconut trees bejewel the landscape. And in the north, where the Bali Sea enchants the shore, one can take a boat at dawn to go meet the dolphins frolicking in the waves warmed by the rising sun.
I left Bali filled with gratitude for the kindness and love expressed by all the generous people I met along the way; Sandeh, the charming hostess of the B&B, and Wati, the Javanese cook who still shares her exquisite recipes with me via e-mail.
I give thanks to them all and especially to Ganesh, reigning lord of the Island of the Gods who allowed me a glimpse into the possibilities of paradise.