Bali Gives You Wings

December arrived, kicking off the countdown to the end of our trip, whether we were ready or not. I was excited about seeing everyone at home and returning to the comfort of familiar surroundings, but I also anticipated missing the excitement and magic of travel. Somewhat paradoxically, there was also a certain kind of security in our vagabond lifestyle that I had come to appreciate: I knew wherever we traveled I would find new people and experiences that were sure to enrich and expand my outlook on life. How would I fare back in the U.S., without this constant novelty? How might I be able to sustain the enthusiasm and freedom I’d felt on the road once I got home? And, of course, the looming question: What next? Well, one of my most valuable souvenirs from the last year is my intention to live in the present, and so I did my best to put such worries aside to fully enjoy the last few weeks of our trip.

A happy distraction, our friend Eddie squeezed in a last-minute visit at the end of our time in Indonesia. Bringing along his friend Jean, the two met me in Ubud to stay for a few days before we’d all head over to Lombok to join Ramesh. Eddie is one of my best friends, so I was ecstatic to see him when their taxi pulled up to our rental house. Meeting up with old friends while abroad really provides best of both worlds, like traveling along with a little piece of home. And, as this was the end of our trip, spending the last bit with Eddie and Jean provided a way to smooth the transition from the foreignness of travel to the familiarity of home.

By this time, I was quite entrenched in my love affair with Ubud, and I was excited to share it with Eddie and Jean, both first-timers to Bali. I rented an airy, spacious house for us, with a jungle paradise in back. I had loved my little rental in town, but it was so luxurious to have a whole house, with things like laundry, a full kitchen, and cable TV! After spending the first day relaxing at home and catching up, we decided to get out and see some stuff on Day Two. Knowing that I’d probably tour around the island with Eddie and Jean, I actually hadn’t gotten out of Ubud much during my stay, so I was looking forward to seeing a few new places. Fortunately, my friend Bagus is a tour guide, so I arranged for him to drive us around for the day. As Jean was recovering from a recent knee surgery (brave woman to be traveling with crutches!), Bagus tailored the trip appropriately. Jean will have to wait until her next visit to climb a volcano. 🙂

The vast majority of the Balinese practice a brand of Hinduism unique to their island; it blends Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with the indigenous worship of ancestors and nature, using countless rituals to maintain harmony between the godly and demonic spirits. There are offerings and rituals for everything! Religion is completely woven into the fabric of daily life, evident in everything from the cute little daily offerings littering the sidewalks to the festival processions that crowd the streets with color on a regular basis. It follows that temples abound as well: miniature versions for ancestor worship within family compounds, village temples, and the more sacred temples that dot the island. Bagus took us first to visit Pura Tirta Empul, a holy water temple built in the tenth century at the site of a large natural spring. This is the spot the locals visit for purification, and Eddie and Jean took advantage of the healing waters.

Next stop was the coffee plantation Bagus had taken me to previously, so that Eddie and Jean wouldn’t miss out on tasting Kopi Luwak, the “cat poop” coffee. From there we continued on to enjoy cool breezes at Kintamani, with its breathtaking vistas of the active volcano Gunung Batur and Bali’s largest crater lake, Danau Batur, which encompasses another smaller volcano. Just a reminder that we were in the thick of the Ring of Fire; Indonesia wouldn’t exist without such volcanoes. After lunch, we moved on to Penglipuran for a peek into a traditional Balinese village, albeit a nicely manicured one for the tourists; still, the villagers there live regular lives and were open to letting us snoop around inside a family compound, which was fairly authentic. Our plan from there was to make it to Pura Tanah Lot for sunset, but we made a spontaneous stop first at Bagus’ sister’s house. She and her family were wonderfully welcoming, offering us drinks and allowing us to pass around her baby girl—so cute! The family sells smoked whole chickens and ducks, so we picked one up for later; it turned out to be one of the best things I ate all year!

Upon realizing the time, Bagus hurried us out of his sister’s house, and the race was on to Tanah Lot. By the look of the sky at that point, we weren’t even sure we’d get a sunset at all, but we powered on, arriving with plenty of time. Pura Tanah Lot is one of the seven sea temples that line Bali’s southwestern coast, each within eyesight of the next to form a chain. It perches atop a large offshore rock and is famous for fantastic sunset shots. We joined the photo-snapping crowds and then waded across the tide to the base of the rock to be blessed with water from a holy spring beneath the temple. Luckily we did not encounter the poisonous sea snakes believed to guard the temple from evil spirits! In the end, we were fortunate to get a gorgeous sunset; those tropical stormy skies can really put on a show.

The next day was spent in Ubud, where no visit is complete without a trip to the Monkey Forest. I had encountered plenty of monkeys already, walking along the back of the forest to my friend Mark’s house; they’re mesmerizing and a little creepy to watch. They’re also cheeky bastards and will swipe anything they can get their weird little hands on: sunglasses, hats, etc. I was carrying a plastic bag one day as I timidly passed by a monkey staring me down, and out of the blue he slapped the bag, just for the hell of it. I suppose they have to find ways to entertain themselves. With Eddie, Jean, and Bagus, I made an official trip into the forest—this one much better than six years ago, when it was pouring rain. I was surprised to find a few monkeys playing in a pool; I had no idea that monkeys liked to splash around. They ran, jumped in, played with each other in the water, and most amazingly, used a coconut shell as a cup to drink! Fascinating. On our way out, we passed a lively procession heading for the Monkey Forest temple for yet another festival of some sort. After some shopping (and there’s plenty in Ubud), we met up with Bagus and Susanna, another traveler who’d met Ramesh in Nusa Lembongan, to sample some of the nightlife. We started with jazz at the upscale Jazz Cafe but quickly moved on to the ever-popular Laughing Buddha, where an awesome Hungarian violinist (Helga Sedli) and her band had the whole place clapping along to Gypsy Jazz and Folk. Losing some of our party along the way, Eddie, Bagus, and I wrapped up the night at XL, an outside shisha bar with inside dancing and a dog sleeping through the pounding music on a couch. And then, it was just Eddie and I, walking across town to get home, which is a very different experience at 3:00am than in normal waking hours—cool, quiet, and peaceful…until the dogs heard us. Then we were surrounded by barking, which escalated to being physically surrounded by barking dogs as we proceeded down the street to our house. Bali dogs are tamer than they used to be, but they’re still a pretty wild bunch. With clasped hands, Eddie and I just continued walking, talking in the most friendly tones we could muster, and arrived home safely. So, yes, Eddie, perhaps we should have taken a taxi.

And then, it was finally my last day in Ubud. I spent the afternoon finishing up some errands while Eddie and Jean had a spa and shopping day. We met up with Bagus, Mark, and Susanna later for a farewell dinner at Mangga Madu, where we not only had tasty food but also swarms of termites! Mark had warned me of the few termite nights at the beginning of the rainy season. It only lasts for twenty minutes or so, but hundreds of them flock to any light source, shedding wings all over the place. We had actually encountered this the night before at the house but managed to shut the doors and kill the lights in time to keep most of them out. Unfortunately, on this night, we made the mistake of leaving a lamp on and would come home later to piles of wings from all of the termites that had squeezed their way through door cracks. Pretty gross. After the termite swarm subsided and I said my goodbyes to Mark and Susanna, we caught a Legong performance. Legong is a Balinese form of dance characterized by subtle but expressive eye and hand movements. The dancers, in glittering costumes, look like dolls, with their wide eyes and graceful-but-stilted movements. In that performance, they were acting out stories from the Ramayana, though I can’t say I was able to follow. Beautiful to watch, though. Having checked off our last tourist attraction in Ubud, we said goodbye to Bagus and headed home to pack and sweep up termite wings.

(A big thank you to Bagus for being such a wonderful host and friend during our visit. I hope to return to Bali soon and see you again!)

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The famed rice terraces at Tegallalang

Day trip with Eddie and Jean

Looking down on Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu, an 11th century temple complex near Ubud

These black and white poleng cloths are everywhere in Bali, offering protection and representing the inherent and necessary duality of life and the cosmos. Similar to yin and yang.

The gurgling spring that feeds Pura Tirta Empul, a holy water temple

Bagus helps Jean get properly attired.

Soaking up the healing waters

Bagus, always laughing

Keeper of the bags and cameras

Each spout is reputed to have different healing powers.

Jean and Eddie, making their way down the line

Touring a coffee plantation in the region known for Kopi Luwak, the coffee made from beans that have been previously digested by a luwak (or civet)

I'm sure this nocturnal luwak doesn't appreciate us disturbing his slumber.

Bagus, waiting patiently while we shop for coffee

Mangosteen—Jean's favorite!

With Eddie at Kintamani

Incredible vista of Gunung Batur (Mt. Batur) and its lake below

Eddie venturing into a lava tube

Penglipuran, a well-manicured example of a traditional Balinese village

Village residents allow you to peek into their homes and lives.

This guy started barking at me as soon as I pointed my camera at him. Perhaps he's tired of having his photo taken?

Hanging out in the playground, watching TV

Bagus at his sister's house, with his adorable niece

At Tanah Lot, one of Bali's seven sea temples

Receiving a blessing and holy water from a natural spring below the temple

Jean and Eddie, now blessed

A blessed bunch we are!

Awaiting the sunset with Bagus

Trying not to laugh at something Eddie just said

It was looking uncertain, but we finally got a beautiful sunset!

A visit to Ubud's Monkey Forest

Our little hairy relatives—they're just so fascinating!

I never knew monkeys liked to play in the water...

Two more monkeys

Heading toward the Monkey Forest temple for a ceremony

The procession toward the temple, nearly an everyday event in Bali

Batik shopping with Jean

Fun night out in Ubud with Bagus, Jean, and Eddie

Dinner at Mangga Madu on my last night in Ubud with Jean, Eddie, and Susanna

With Mark and Bagus

We attended a Legong performance for a bit of culture before leaving Ubud.

The dancers' eyes tell so much of the story.

Goofy masked guy—a little comic relief at the end of the show

And this is what we came home to...piles of termite wings!

Jean sweeps up the aftermath of our termite invasion—one of the joys of the beginning of monsoon season in Bali.

Seaweed and Surfing on Nusa Lembongan

At home, I’ve gotten used to being out in the water among huge patches of kelp. On windy days the kelp dampens out the chop and keeps the waves smoother, which balances out the annoyance of the occasion tangle up. But kelp is a cold water phenomenon; the seaweed found in Southeast Asia is a completely different type that grows in shallow water. In Indonesia, they actually farm it in the lagoons that form behind barrier reefs. But it’s what’s outside the the barrier that took me to Nusa Lembongan — perfect, hollow waves. I’ve been surfing for most of my life, and for almost as long, I’ve been reading surf magazines. The pages of said magazines are full of images of impossibly ideal tropical waves from all around the world, but one country in particular holds a central place in the surf world: Indonesia. Bali first came to prominence through surf movies in the 1970’s, and other breaks were discovered throughout the archipelago in later years. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been dreaming of surfing the waves from the magazines, and now that we were in Indonesia that dream could finally come true.

From Java, Sarah and I returned to Denpasar briefly and then caught a bus to Ubud. On the bus we met Ben, a fellow American. Ben and I got to talking and it turned out that he was a fellow surfer (though being from Utah, snowboarding was his first passion) and had just arrived in Indonesia. He was on his way to meet some friends so we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways. Sarah quickly found happiness in the welcoming environment of Ubud, but having grown up where I did, I was a little more inured to the whole “Eat, Pray, Love” vibe. After a couple days I set out to find my own bliss closer to the water. Since we had over a month left in the country, I decided to return to Kuta and buy a surfboard instead of trying to rent. I spent the better part of two days going to every single surf shop (there are at least 30) in the Jalan Legian neighborhood and finally found a slightly used 6’2″ Rusty rounded pin.

Based on a recommendation from my brother, who had visited a decade previous, I then caught a bus and ferry to Nusa Lembongan, an island off the southeast coast of Bali. It’s a tiny little place, only 8 square kilometers, and has one village, Jungut Batu, where all the tourists are, and another one inland where the locals live. After searching all afternoon, I settled on a nice little hotel room right on the beach. They agreed to give me a discount because they were doing some work on the suite upstairs. What I didn’t realize was that meant that the hammering and sawing would start just after dawn and go most of the day. As a result, I was up early and in the water every day, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but it wasn’t the most restful place.

There was only one other guest at the hotel, Susanna from Malmö in Sweden. Strangely, I kept running into people from Sweden, both in and out of the water. I had conversations with two different Swedish surfers (who knew they had surf in Sweden!). I asked Susanna why there were so many Swedish people around, but she didn’t have a good explanation, other than it’s a long cold winter there so Swedish people like to travel. We shared a few meals together, and more than a few beers. It was nice to have someone to talk to and watch the sunset with at the end of the day.

The days started to blur together, the only variables being which spot I surfed and where I ate afterwards. The surf was good, if a little challenging at times. After a few exhausting paddles a couple hundred meters across the lagoon to a spot called Shipwrecks, I gave in and started paying a boat guy for a ride like everyone else. I haven’t spent a lot of time surfing coral reefs, and with breaks with names like “Lacerations” I was a little intimidated. Even so, I felt like I was making a lot of progress with my surfing, and the board turned out to be perfect for the punchy waves on the island. Everything was going great right up until the time I got caught inside by a big set at Shipwrecks and ended up donating some flesh to the reef.

Thankfully, that episode happened near the end of my week there. Between that, the dropping swell, and the fact that my visa was about to expire, I figured it was a good time to make my way to a different island and check out some different waves. I had done nothing but surf on Nusa Lembongan. I had intended to explore the island a bit; some of the more remote beaches were reputed to be really beautiful. I also wanted to go skin diving and see some of what was going on under the water, but that would have to wait as well. Lombok, and a whole new set of reefs to surf beckoned.


Playgrounds, one of the main breaks, sits right in the middle of the boat channel. There are several big floating structures around it like the one in the background where huge tour boats full of day trippers from Kuta dock.

If you look closely, the bottom of the lagoon is a checkerboard of plots where they farm seaweed.

Nusa Lembongan is justifiably famous for its sunsets.

Seaweed drying on the beach

These guys brought their cocks down to the beach for some exercise.

Everywhere in the world, if there a beach, sooner or later a soccer game with break out.

Local kids using a broken surfboard as a skimboard.

Another day, another spectacular sunset...

There's no dock on Nusa Lembongan, so everything has to be unloaded from the boats that come in by a gang of porters on the beach, which interestingly were mostly women. Also note the seaweed farmer unloading his crop in the foreground.

A typical nasi campur for lunch -- healthy, delicious, and only a couple bucks.

You see offerings like this one in front of my hotel room door everywhere in Bali.

An evening Bingtang with Susanna

This guy didn't like his photo being taken.

At Home in Paradise

I love Bali. I fell in love with it on my first visit in 2006, and although tourism has increased dramatically since then, I was happy to find the soul of this tiny Indonesian paradise has remained the same. After nearly a year of our on-the-go lifestyle, I was craving a home and community, so I planted myself in Ubud for a month.

Ubud is Bali’s cultural capital, nestled among rice paddies and ravines at the heart of the island. It has attracted artists since the 1960’s and hosts a substantial expat population—Westerners like me who have been won over by Bali’s people, culture, food, and lifestyle. I had more than a few moments of serious consideration about joining the expat community myself! Bali vibrates with a unique and powerful energy; whether cosmic in nature or cultivated by the people, or both, I soaked it up and felt both radiantly alive and blissfully relaxed. I slowed way down, approached each moment with more mindfulness and gratitude, and explored the spiritual side of life.

After returning from Java, I was excited to get away from the madness of Kuta and Denpasar and introduce Ramesh to Ubud. Upon arrival, I was surprised to see how much it had grown (thanks to the filming of “Eat, Pray, Love” here), but the people were still warm and friendly, the town charming, and the food delicious. We followed Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps to Ibu Oka for finger-licking suckling pig (literally, as you eat with your hands), we wandered into Jazz Cafe one night for the best mango pudding ever and a fantastic performance by Balawan, and we attended one of Ubud’s various cultural performances, the Kecak dance. Within a day or two, I was feeling pretty settled in this town. Ramesh, however, was itching to see some waves and soon headed south to find his own piece of paradise in Bali.

Since I’d decided to stay a while, I wanted accommodation that felt more like home, with a kitchen so that I could cook for myself—something I’d missed for a while, as most places we’d stayed in Asia didn’t offer kitchen access. After an intensive search, one day I happened to walk by Suci’s hand-lettered “for rent” sign and decided on a whim to wander back through the rice fields to see what it was all about. I lucked out; Suci and I negotiated a good deal on a newly renovated room with a large private patio, kitchen area, and a great view. Suci was lovely and funny, and her husband, Sudiana, was easy-going and chatty. My little Balinese sanctuary was just what I needed.

Much of my social life in Ubud I owe to Couchsurfing, and in particular, to my friend Mark. Before my arrival in Ubud, I had plugged into the Couchsurfing community online and was fortunate to meet Mark, a really generous and friendly American transplant who’d been living in Ubud for a while. He immediately provided me with a wealth of information and invited me to various events or just to hang out. (Thank you, Mark!) He was my buddy on Thanksgiving, when we enjoyed quite a feast at Taksu while amusedly shouting to each other over the din of the gamelan orchestra. I was happy to click with someone so quickly and found it generally easy to meet people in town. Ubud has developed over the years into a destination for those interested in yoga, healing arts, holistic health, and spirituality, drawing people who are pretty open and welcoming. Add to that the importance of harmony in the local culture and the genuine warmth of the Balinese people, and this place quickly becomes a cocoon that’s hard to leave.

To spend so much time relaxing and doing exactly what you want, when you want, is such a gift. I made use of the little library in town and spent countless hours lounging on my patio reading. I sweated through unique and challenging yoga classes and experienced vibrational healing through sound medicine at Yoga Barn, by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever done yoga. I trekked along the monkey forest to the other side of town to Mark’s place when he offered to cook—a real treat! I snapped photos along the path through the rice paddies and spent the afternoon with a glass of dragonfruit wine and tasty food at Sari Organik. Some of my favorite moments involved doing nothing other than simply being present and observing: stopping to enjoy a Balinese ceremonial parade pass by, or being amused by a squirrel hanging upside down in a tree trying to hold onto and eat a mango that’s bigger than himself. And speaking of mangoes—wow, they’re heavenly in this part of the world! I couldn’t eat enough mangoes, bananas, papaya, dragonfruit…truly the best fruit I’ve ever tasted.

After a couple of weeks in Ubud, I met up with my friend Bagus, whom I’d met during my first visit there. It was wonderful to see his smiling face again, to catch up on the last six years of our lives, and to pick up again as if no time had passed. In typical Balinese fashion, he wanted to make sure I was enjoying my visit and was proud to show me around his island. We spent a couple of days exploring outside Ubud on his scooter—through the hills and villages, to a coffee plantation, and a thrilling ride along a narrow muddy path between rice fields, during which I held on for dear life! Scooters are really a fun way to travel, as long as I’m not the one driving. Thank you, Bagus!

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Welcome to Ubud...

Stone guards keep the evil spirits away.

Penjors (bamboo celebration totems) left at a temple from a recent ceremony

Following Anthony Bourdain's footsteps to Ibu Oka for roast suckling pig

Delicious! And even better when eaten with your hand.

One of many traditional performances in Ubud, Kecak is a trance ritual and dance depicting a battle from the Ramayana.

Thousands of white herons have gathered each evening in the village of Petulu since 1965, after a hunt for communists led to a massacre here. Local lore says they are the souls of the people killed.

Ah, the food in Bali...worthy of many photos

After a long search, I found a home in Ubud.

The walk from the road to my place

My little haven, above the owners' home. Suci and Sudiana were friendly hosts, always smiling and trying to teach me some Bahasa Indonesia.

Home sweet home

So great to just hang out, with no specific plans. I read this book in one day while enjoying the rain from a cozy cafe.

Balinese kitties are quite relaxed too.

Caught this view while walking home one evening.

One of many happy breakfasts on my patio, this on a Saturday after getting a pastry from the nearby farmers' market

The beautiful walk to Sari Organik, a farm and restaurant out in the rice fields

Following Mark on the long route to Sari

Bath time

A very scary scarecrow

Ducks diligently cleaning up a paddy post-harvest

Another penjor, symbolizing devotion to God and the universe in the form of a mountain, as mountains provide water and irrigation for the rice paddies

Mark took me on a little tour of Sari's farm.

Enjoying Sari's dragonfruit wine

They make fantastic hummus!

Hanging out with the couchsurfing crowd

Glad to see everyone else takes as many photos of food as we do!

Sunset view from Sari

Mark takes in the view from a friend's house in Penestanan.

Making new friends at Samia's birthday party

Another day, another festival—came across this one on a walk to Mark's house for lunch.

Mark's yummy chipotle chicken—nice to hang out with someone who loves to cook!

The dragonfruit murderer, caught red-handed

Ahhh...another breakfast on my veranda

Thanksgiving at Taksu Resort

The cure for my homesickness on Thanksgiving!

The gamelan music put a Balinese twist on T-day.

Thankful to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving!

Out with Ramesh during his one-night stopover en route to the next surf spot

Breakfast of champions

Doing a bit of roasting at a coffee plantation

Bagus and I sample the various coffees, including the famed "kopi luwak".

Bagus and his high-school buddy, who hooked me up with some beautiful silver earrings.

One of the best meals of my year, at D'Waroeng rice pudding

Mesmerizing scene from my balcony, with the full moon and faint singing from the nearby temple