The Heart of Bali

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In this world there is so much beauty in the physical: clear blue waters playfully tickling white sandy shores, emerald mountains filled with ferns caressing each crevasse, exotic faces smiling with their entire beings, bright and juicy jewels of fruit hanging from their coiled vines. Physical beauty and allure is easy to find, especially when one is infatuated with newness. One type of beauty that has become more elusive as outer beauty shoves it’s way further out onto the world’s center stage is inner beauty: peace, humility, acceptance and happiness.

In Ubud, probably one of the friendliest places of all, there is so much physical beauty. There are bright green rice terraces as far as the eyes can see, intricate stone carvings telling the stories of how things began, waterfalls of clear and clean drops of life pouring down black stone, and colors of the rainbow filling plates and taste buds. However, what amazes me the most are the people, so welcoming, so happy, so willing to share, and so humble. To me, they posses true beauty.

When we first arrived, we visited a restaurant nearby Villa Areklo, where we had the great pleasure of staying. There we met the manager Agung, like the Balinese volcano. He was a young man with laughter shining in his eyes. He began to share his story, which helped us understand the complexities of Balinese culture.
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The first thing he shared with us was the way children are named; one, two, three, four, and if by chance a mother bears more children than four, the fourth is once again named one. Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut are the most commonly use names. The next important part of introducing oneself, besides what number you are, is what caste you belong to. The highest class is made up of holy men and priests, the Brahmins. The second highest class is made up of warriors and nobles, the Ksatrias. Next comes the administrative and merchant caste, the Wasias. The last and largest are the Shudras. Men born into a caste are usually there for life, while a woman can marry up. Your caste determines how people will treat you in a relationship, working or otherwise, but one thing I noticed in Bali, and what our bike tour guide Mun said to us is true, “In Bali, I am you and you are me. We respect each other.” This wasn’t just some lip serviced cultural propaganda either, as I saw it in everyone, everyday.

After our meal Agung invited us to his home, in a village called Lovina on the northwest shore of Bali. He wanted us to spend Galungan, a huge Balinese traditional celebration, with him and his family. We couldn’t believe the open heart of this smiling Buddha of a man we had just met, and we came to find that nearly everyone is this way. The people here do not make you feel like you are an outsider, or merely a dollar sign. They genuinely care about you enjoying, learning, and exploring. I am you and you are me.

The next night we met Mush at the Jazz Cafe, and he told us of his place in this culture, of his hopes and dreams, his vision of the beautiful life in California, and of his hopes and dreams for B and I. We must have spent at least an hour just sharing pieces of each other on the veranda in the hot yet sweet Ubud air. This cycle continued, and I began to fall in love with this place for the beauty of its people even more than the beauty of its land.
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The humble nature of the Balinese exudes from every pore of its culture. Not only from the relationships and conversations with people, but also with the Gods. On this island, there are over 20,000 temples. Every shop, no matter how tiny, will have a stone altar at which they will leave the offerings of the day. Each family compound, which has a temple that is usually much more grand than the homes in which they live, displays the unwavering belief that one must be humble before God. In America and around the world we see many examples of people preaching this message only to go home in their expensive cars to lavish homes. Not here. Words here actually mean something.

Each day the altars adorning a home, shop, or temple, will be visited by a beautiful woman carrying a tray of offerings: flowers, crackers or rice, incense, and sometimes cigarettes. They are carefully placed in a banana leaf basket and offered with a swift but steady movement of the woman’s trained hand and a splash of a special water. I was amazed at the time and effort put into this practice, even though the baskets would be trampled over or knocked down by monkeys wanting an easy meal in a matter of moments. That made no difference, it had to be done, it was a matter of respect.

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After becoming a bit jaded by the face saving culture of China, I needed something like this in my life. To see that in some places in the world, people are still happy without antidepressants and mansions, to see that culture mattered and should be saved and passed down, to see that in some places in the world people respect each other, even without having to do a song and dance to earn it. Suksama, thank you, for giving me hope once again.

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“You need to get out of Kuta”

The English bloke frequently found drinking Bintang at J.J.’s behind the Quest Hotel told us, “Ubud is beautiful. It is just like what you see in the movies and read in the books, but better. It is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.” We had a few days left in Kuta when he and his friend urged us, “Do the things you have to do here, but get out, go see the rest of Bali. You need to get out of Kuta.” We were excited to see the rest of Bali, but first, we explored a bit of the south.
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We spent a few hours idling away the time at the beach in Sanur, a beautiful white sand beach with calm, clear, and warm water. It was a perfect way to spend the afternoon, especially for couples with little ones, as the surf just lightly pokes at the shore before retreating back onto the abyss. When you walk down the boardwalk, where the red bricks stretch on and on past shops and beachside restaurants, pick up an ear of grilled corn. It is sweet, crisp, and perfectly charred. Then sit, drink, eat fresh seafood and produce, and watch the blue waves flow back and forth from Lembongan to Bali.

A couple of days later we went to another beach up the way from Sanur. There were many tourists there, and lots of touristy things to do. People from all over put on wetsuits and oxygen tanks to check out the reef, and people donned life jackets to ride the waves on jet skis and banana boats. We decided to go on the banana boat. I was very excited, and couldn’t stop myself from repeating, “Get on de boat, de banana boat!” With a few Bintangs in our system, we straddled the banana, so to speak, and yelled to the driver, “Fast! Fast!” He quickly sped the boat far out into the water, and then sharply turned the boat. Into the water we went, and I struggled to get back on the banana. Once we were all safely back on, he sped off once more. Two minutes later, another sharp turn, and then into the water we went, ever so ungracefully. “Sit far on the back!” the boat driver yelled. Now he tells us. We spent the rest of the time bobbing and turning on top of the banana boat. It was a fun experience, but not one I will likely repeat.
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On one warm yet overcast day, we went on a horseback ride along a mysterious black sand beach that sparkled like the milky way, and was dotted with fishermen in straw hats. My horse was named Brother. He was a bit feisty, but a beautiful beast. We rode past a small waterfall, through a shallow river, and then we hit the end of the cliff. There was a bat cave, it smelled like heaps of guano, but I was fascinated by the squeaky black bats, so I braved the stench to take a look. We hiked up a small trail, and at the top a temple was nestled in the tall grass, surrounded by doe eyed cows and volcanoes. It was breathtaking.

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A couple of days later it was off to the animal safari park, which I highly recommend. It is great for children and adult animal lovers alike. There was an elephant education show, which was so well done that it brought tears to my eyes. It told the story of the struggle over land being fought between the Sumatran elephants and villagers, and ended on a hopeful note of understanding and respect. Throughout the day we saw amazing things: a white tiger feeding, an orangoutang close up, an animal education show featuring all sorts of animals (including trained guinea pigs and cats), and a safari through an amazing array of animals. We stayed for hours, and I felt like a child, so excited to be so close to the beautiful and alluring creatures of this world.

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On our last night in Kuta we ended up back at the Legian Pub. I won’t go into details here, but let’s just say that the next morning, our friend from J.J.’s words rung in my head, “You need to get out of Kuta.” I couldn’t have agreed more. As I shoved my clothes in my bag, head throbbing, stomach reeling, I tried to think of the beauty of Ubud, and it got me through. I said goodbye to Kuta as we drove into the green mountains toward Ubud. I closed my eyes as I dreamt of rice fields.

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My Crazy Kuta Challenge!

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Kuta is one of those places where lost souls go to dig themselves deeper into the rabbit hole, where Aussie and Kiwi party animals go to get their drink on, where couples go to reconnect, and where families can bring their little ones for an amazing experience. Kuta can be crazy, but it can also be calm and cool. There is something here for every soul, whether it’s searching for something or not.

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For me, Kuta was a budget friendly place where B and our friends with a year and a half year old could either laze around all day, go exploring, swim in the pool, or have a fun night partying with fellow travelers and locals alike.

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We arrived on January 15th, just after the throngs of tourists had kissed their blissful holiday goodbye and shuffled back to reality. It was perfect because the high season prices were now low, and we weren’t fighting our way through the crowds. It was a bit rainy, but I prefer a bit of stormy weather over storms of people.

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I decided to do some things I had never done before, so here it is, my very own Kuta Challenge.

Challenge 1: Drink the Flaming Special at Legian Pub

We had the fortune of meeting a very cool Australian guy named Brad in the lobby of our hotel. Brad had been to Bali 25 times. He knew just about everything anyone would ever need to know about Kuta, he had even written a guide for people like us loaded with places to go, things to do, best bars and restaurants, and where to avoid. He was like an angel with a tan and a cool accent. Lucky for us, he took a shining to our motley crew and decided to take us around for his last few hours in Kuta.

First we went to the fun Legian Pub we drank the local specialty, which may be called the Jimmy Special or the Flaming Special. By the end of the night, we had forgotten the names of most places and people we had encountered throughout the night. First, the liquor is poured into a stemmed glass, and then the glass is warmed with a match before the liquor is set on fire. Then the guys behind the bar shout, “Five! Four! Three! Two! One!” They bang on the bar with their fists, hands and plastic ashtrays as you quickly gulp the flaming concoction through a straw. The bartender adds some milk, cooling the fire in your belly. It is actually quite tasty.

Challenge 2: Sing karaoke with a live band

If you are like me and love to pretend you are a rockstar, go to Bounty where a talented band plays some oldies but goodies as well as a few contemporary songs as you move across the stage like Steven Tyler. Our friend was the first to go, and he sang 5,000 Miles. Of course, his adorable son had to join him and he completely won over the crowd with his melodious babble. Then Brad sang a few tunes, and talked me into joining him for a couple of duets. After that, I was quite comfortable on the stage, and B had to pry me away after four or five solos. I still want to go back.

Challenge 3: Go to Synergy for some martial arts training

I will try almost anything once, so when B asked if I would join him for jiu jitsu, I hesitated, but then agreed. It couldn’t be as embarrassing as me hogging the microphone at karaoke, could it? When we arrived with our friend, I gulped. Most of the guys were twice my size and ripped, then I saw there were a few young boys and another lady, so I didn’t feel so bad. That feeling didn’t last long. The instructor proceeded with showing us various ways to choke someone out, put them in an arm bar, wizard hold, full mount, rear guard, guillotine, the list of foreign terminology went on and on. I watched intently, trying to hide the fact that I was completely lost.

B was very patient with me, and even let me put him in a choke hold. That was pretty fun. We wrestled, practiced the moves (well, I tried to practice the moves), and writhed along the padded floor, grunting all the while. Then the instructor asked us to trade partners and do some sparring. As I looked around at the sweaty guys around the room, I gulped. Luckily our friend, also new to the world of jiu jitsu, was my first partner. I awkwardly lay across his chest and couldn’t help cracking up. We must have looked like a couple of fish in a boat trying to breathe in the air. Then we had to trade partners. The only other woman and I went at it. She was shorter than me, but I am pretty sure she is a former member of the Israeli army. She squirmed out from under me and in about two seconds had me in a hold. “Wow, you are good. Have you done this before?” I asked, hoping the answer was yes. “No, first time.” I was embarrassed. She pinned me down effortlessly about two more times, and then it was time to switch. A French guy, Sebastian, was my next partner. He was more experienced, but was nice enough not to laugh at me when I pathetically tried to “shrimp out” of his hold, and he even gave me a few pointers. I was too exhausted to go on much longer. By the end of the two hour class I was drenched in sweat, both my own and various other partners’, my knees were red, skinned, and bruised, and I had a sprained toe. I was not a pretty sight.

It was a painful yet adrenaline pumping experience, but I think I will stick to the tamer side of martial arts. At least now I know how to choke someone out, if the occasion ever arises.

Challenge 4: Bikram Hot Yoga

I guess I am a glutton for punishment because a couple of days after getting my butt kicked on the martial arts mat I decided to get it kicked on the yoga mat. There was a studio right next to our hotel, so we did the evening class. I had done hot yoga in Shanghai, but it did not prepare me for the sweat session I was about to experience. The room is heated by 5-6 heaters at a temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Before we stared I was already sweating bullets, and I am not usually a sweaty gal. We started with standing poses, my heart was pounding like the bass in one of Kuta’s many nightclubs, and my fingers started tingling. I started to feel lightheaded and sat down on my mat, seriously considering walking out of the class, and it had only been about ten minutes. I caught my breath and felt a bit better, and decided not to give up. The next 80 minutes went by fairly quickly, as I pushed, stretched, and breathed myself to my body’s limits. In between each vinyassa, we did the dead pose, which I liked because it helped to slow down my beating heart and gave me the strength to do another set. After we finished, my body tingled again, but this time in a good way. It really makes you realize that you can do anything you put your mind to, and right at the moment you may feel like giving up, just take a deep breath and begin again.

I will definitely be going back.

I Heart Hot Pot

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It is no secret that I am obsessed with food. If you have read my other posts you will know that I cannot help myself from mentioning food, multiple times. When I visit a new place one of the first questions I ask is, “Where should I eat?”

Shanghai is a dangerous place for someone like me. Every street is lined with restaurants and street food. Around the city you can find any type of food from any corner of the globe. Shanghai’s community is a vibrant mix of people from every province in China and every continent in the world. People bring their dreams, families, and businesses here. It seems as though the American dream can now be found in China. Every culture brings its own personality to the city, where some places look and taste like Europe, while others look an taste like ancient China.

If it is the taste of ancient China you are looking for, then find a hot pot restaurant near you. The hot pot has been around for over 1,000 years, and although places in the U.S., such as The Melting Pot, have repackaged it and made it “fancy” the original is still the best.

Shanghai can be cruel in winter, and some days the only way to keep you warm and satisfy your appetite is a hot bubbly pot of broth and spicy red peppers. At a typical hot pot restaurant you will be offered a few types of broth, which could be a spicy Sichuan mix or a more tropical and mild coconut mix. Once the broth starts rolling, and the steamy scent fills your nose, it’s time to cook your dinner. You can order just about any type of food that is edible. Meat eaters can eat anything with a tail, wings, four legs or none. Vegetarians will enjoy the plethora of leafy greens, fresh mushrooms, and bean curd of all shapes and sizes. The type of cuisine available will vary by region with coastal cities offering up the fresh catch and landlocked cities and towns serving the four legged beasts that roam nearby.

Each person is in charge of his or her own tasty bites, and one chopstick load at a time, adds them to the savory sauce. The broth only gets better, as the individual flavors of the food infuse into it. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, it will when you visit the sauce counter where you can find peanut sauce, pepper sauce, sa cha sauce, green onions, crushed garlic, cilantro white pepper and more. You can bring back as many bowls as you like. Some taste better alone while others can be mixed in to a delicious concoction that you can drip on your food while it’s still steaming on your plate.

One of the best places I have been for hot pot is Hot Pot King in the French Concession. There the food was fresh and of high quality. The atmosphere is as it should be, full of warmth both from the costumers and the giant pots. Some patrons choose to wear the green apron offered by the restaurant, as it can get messy with all that hot and spicy liquid flying around. They offer an appetizer of thin and crispy flat bread with peanut butter smeared in between. The cost is great too. For a huge meal and the green bottled Tsingdao, it was only 120 RMB for each of us, about $19.

There may be many things about the city that you will find overwhelming at times, but the great thing is that you will always find a comfort food to soothe your soul. For many Chinese who leave their country to work or study abroad, hot pot is one of the foods that will always taste like home.

Hippie Heaven

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It’s early morning in Goa. The crows are noisily claiming their territory, the spotted beige crabs scurry sideways from tiny hole to tiny hole. For miles, there is nothing but beautiful beach, swaying palm trees, charming bamboo huts, and sparkling water. Groups of people gather to welcome the day with yoga, saluting the sun, rooting themselves in the earth. Fishermen untangle their nets, which are dotted with last night’s catch. The sun begins to grow higher in the cloudless sky and the sand glitters like gold. Clearly, this is heaven.

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Mandrem Beach is a sleepier and less developed part of Goa. South Goa is where you will find the four star resorts, with their concrete structures dotting the various beaches. North Goa is a place to completely unwind, eat to your heart and stomach’s content, and drink copious amounts of the ubiquitous Kingfisher beer. It is the ideal place to detach yourself from reality.
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We stayed in a beach hut at a place called Casa D’Calma. The huts are quite charming, although sometimes privacy is a bit lacking, as the only thing between you and your nearby neighbor is a few strips of bamboo. Nonetheless, it has the necessities: bed, ceiling fan, toilet, shower and sink. Over a small hill lies a river, endless beach, and the Indian Ocean. Right next door to us was a place called Dunes Resort that had a great selection of food, and an amazing view of the sunset. The restaurant caters to all sorts of palates, serving everything from Indian, American, Italian, and more. Fresh juice is a big deal here, and the Dunes restaurant served such life savers as the Morning After, with spinach, melon, and mint. The Morning After was concocted to cure your hangover, which was likely caused by the local rum, Old Monk. Old Monk costs around $1.00 per shot, and although it’s not too bad going down with a glass bottle of Coke, that Old Monk will punish you in the morning.

As far as things to do in Goa, there are many. You can be bathed by an elephant, visit the spice farms, go kite gliding or on a dolphin tour, visit temples or the old town, and try your luck at the many casinos. It is easy to see why some people spend so much time here. Actually, in Goa, time seems to almost stand still, dripping slowly like golden honey one day to the next. For what seemed like eternity we strolled the beach, stopping to eat now and then. No matter where we ate, what we ordered, the food was divine. B had the freshest kingfish, rubbed with tandoori spices and fired to perfection. I had the creamiest and most delicious grilled paneer. Paneer is to India what tofu is to China. It is a protein-rich substance with a chewy and satisfying texture. Of course, it is not healthier than tofu, but it tastes a million times better. I also became addicted to naan bread, and would order lots of it with every meal. It wasn’t rare to see me laying on a beach chair, chewing on some naan.

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Finally, I tore myself off of the beach and away from the buttered naan, and went to look for something new, that wouldn’t take much effort (all of this eating and relaxing was obviously taking it’s toll). I opted for the massage, as it took the least amount of energy. We were referred to a small and inconspicuous apartment, above the busy street market. I went with the yogic massage, which is similar to Thai massage in that there is a lot of stretching and pressure involved. The practitioner, a stout man with intense brown eyes began to prepare for the massage as he breathed in deeply, and grounded himself. He began by walking on the bottom of my feet, as I lie face down, and it felt quite nice. That nice feeling didn’t last as he dug his fingers in between my shin and calf, I jerked. “You have blocking here.” I believed him because that is exactly what it felt like as he continued to apply heavy pressure there. I gritted my teeth as he pressed and prodded at different parts of my legs. Then, I moved onto my back, he lifted my foot to his shoulder and flexed my foot. I’m holding my breath, hoping to pass out, rather than deal with the pain I guess, “Breathe deep breath.” I follow instructions, and it does numb the pain a bit. The next hour goes by quickly, as I am stretched from limb to limb, socket to socket. I stood up and felt energized, and clear headed. There was something pretty cool about that yogic massage.

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As I walk out of the concrete stairwell, feeling like I am floating on air, I see people of all sorts. Burly blond men from Russia, folks from the UK, a few talkative Aussies, and a handful of North Americans. Every once in a while a cow or two would plod past, lazily munching on grass, knowing it’s untouchable. The fine for killing a stray cow or dog is 5,000 Rupees. We learned later from our very friendly and very wise cab driver that there is no fine for killing a person. Imagine that, an animal’s life being more valuable than a human’s.

In this part of Goa, you won’t see are high rise resorts and excess. It’s quite refreshing actually. What you will see are a lot of dreadlocks, drum circles, birthday suits, and free spirits. Word on the street Is that the “real” hippies have gone to another beach, as Arambol and Mandrem have gotten too touristy for them. So, these must be the “fake” hippies then, the ones who don’t grow their own dreadlocks, but purchase them from a stall up the dirt road. I’m not sure I can tell the difference, I just like the fact that people here seem to walk to the beat of their own drum.

We met a lovely couple from Bristol at our favorite spot, the Dunes restaurant, who were on their way to a completely new life in Australia. He is a carpenter by trade, and she worked in insurance. They decided to rent out their flat, close up their affairs in England, and head out for a tour of Asia before settling in Perth. They have been on fascinating travels. On a previous trip around the world they had been to Borneo, Tahiti, Thailand, Laos, and more. On their way to Australia, they just live one moment to the next, going where the airfare is cheap. The night we met them, they were looking into flights to the Maldives. The travel bug is in everyone we meet. We soak in their stories, share our own, and always leave the conversation hungry for another trip.