The hidden side of Bali

by Kim on August 18, 2013 · 47 comments

Bali, Indonesia 

As these things go when traveling, while out for a walk in Ubud, Bali, Brian and I met a woman who convinced us to hire her husband, Norman, as a driver.

“You need driver in Ubud?” She asked us.

“Ah, no, I don’t think so.”

“Yes, yes, you need driver. Go see island. Go see sights. I have good driver. You hire my husband. His name Norman.”

“Thank you, but we don’t need a driver.”

“We have a celebration at our temple. Norman bring you. I there too. I bring you sarong and traditional hat,” she said, pointing at Brian’s bald head. “We have dancing. No tourists. You stop there first.”

No tourists.

Brian and I were struggling in Bali. We’d arrive with high expectations but had been almost immediately disappointed at the state of the place. Bali was so commercialized, packed with $25 t-shirt shops and overpriced new-age restaurants. Ubud, Bali’s cultural center, reminded us more of Vail, Colorado than the spiritual Hindu paradise we’d heard so much about.

The woman obviously knew to offer us what many people in Bali end up looking for. No tourists. It sounded refreshing. So we hired Norman and agreed to meet him the following morning in the parking lot of a grocery store.

The next morning I saw a man loitering around a white van. “Norman?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah, I’m Norman,” said Norman.

Brian raised an eyebrow at me. Norman looked more like the sort of dude that might tattoo people in an alley or steal your Honda Civic than the nice old man I’d envisioned married to the woman who’d hustled his services to us yesterday. I shrugged my shoulders at Brian. We climbed inside the van.

Norman drove us to the temple. As she’d promised, the lady had sarongs for us and a blangkon for Brian to wear on his head.

Brian and Norman

Brian in his sarong and blangkon. Norman is in front of him. 

We changed and walked through the exterior wall of the outdoor temple. We were offered peanuts and some sort of mushed vegetable wrapped in a banana leaf. We took a seat. Everyone stared. We felt intrusive and out of place.

Old men sat in red plastic chairs talking quietly with each other. A group of fifteen men sat under an awning playing music. A holy man sat cross-legged at the back of the temple chanting. Beautiful women with long hair the color of coal sat in bundles braiding banana leaves into offerings for the Gods.

Bali temple

The temple

The temple band

The temple band

The feeling in the temple was warm and familiar. I felt like I was attending a cousin’s backyard barbecue. Children chased each other around, giggling. There was love and joy in the air and the sense of contentment that people exude when they are around those they belong to.

Two men appeared from somewhere dressed in traditional dancing costumes. Norman, who’d I’d come to find out wasn’t Norman after all but Norman’s long-haired artist nephew, told me that the men were celebrated Balinese dancers. The dancers took their place in the center of the temple. Children crowded around them and the band began banging drums in a haunting beat.

I watched in silent reverie as the men moved in purposeful rhythm around the temple grounds. Each tiny motion, down to their fingers and toes, was wrought with intention. The dance was captivating. As the dancers shook and lurched around the temple, the women weaved around them leaving offerings at every doorway while chanting and burning incense.

Balinese dancers

Balinese dancers

Bali offering to the Gods

Bali offering to the Gods

The dancers danced for an hour and when they were done we left the temple. The rest of the day we were whisked from one tourist trap to another. The master wood-carvers tried to sell us master woodcarvings, the coffee plantation tried to sell us coffee made from Luwak poop. Norman-who-wasn’t-Norman took advantage of our undivided attention and tried to sell us his paintings. We bought one. By the end of the day we felt like we were once again just blinking dollar signs with legs and passports.

But still.

There was the morning.

That beautiful morning when the men danced not for us but for themselves, and the holy man chanted and the women sat weaving banana leaves into offerings.

That morning when we were not just tourists but guests, invited to visit an ancient Bali that still exists behind the temple walls.

(If you are reading this via email click here to view a video of the dancers)

You can see more photos of Bali and Gili Meno Island, Indonesia on the So Many Places Facebook page.