by Antonia Lehn
"Look at this," exclaimed my travelling companion, "green papayas. They are full of papain, this enzyme which is just magic for your stomach. I must get one."
This was day four of our Indonesian holiday. We were on a short hike, having spent a couple of leisurely hours at the hot springs near Banjar Tega, some 20 km west of the old Balinese capital of Singaraja ('lion king'), in north Bali. My companion, whom we shall call 'Ged' ('strong' in Balinese) had injured his back early that morning. Our friendly hotel proprietor made much fuss and arranged for a qualified masseur to treat him. I remembered the hot springs from a previous trip and so we went there in the afternoon. Air Panas (hot springs) was true to its name: set in lush, tropical gardens, with a choice of several pools, including one where the nagas (mythical serpents) sent powerful jets onto ailing backs and tired bodies. Ged had spotted some papaya trees, rich with the green fruit, during our hike back to the highway.
As in many exotic locations, the levels of meaning are like layers of an onion, or let's stay with our papaya - remain on the surface and the distinctive flavour will forever evade you. Take a package tour to a beach resort and you can go to the surf beach every day, shop 'till you drop and complain about the hawkers. Peel back one layer by planning your own itinerary - that's when you will start to appreciate some of the essence below the surface. Make it a return destination, explore something new on each occasion and you will get a little further each time. One day you may get deep enough to taste the fruit where it's sweetest - at its core and that is where you will also find the seeds.
Bali has often been called the Island of the Gods. From Mount Olympus in Greece to Gunung Agung in Bali, gods have always resided on mountains. Legend has it that Bali was originally a flat, barren island. When Java fell to the Muslims the Hindu gods were incensed and decided to move to Bali. However, they first had to build dwelling-places commensurate with their ranks. They established four: Gunung Agung, the highest at 3142m in the east; Batur (1717m) in the north; Batukaru (2278m) in the west; and the south had to make do with the raised tableland of Bukit Petjaku. If we leave Bali and go to the eastern part of neighbouring Java, we soon find Bromo, also a holy mountain of the Hindus.
Agung is also the site of the most important temple in Bali, Besakih, the mother temple. It is possible to climb these mountains. The most difficult is Agung as it involves a 2000m hike. Batur, a still active volcano, is a popular tourist trekking destination and is most easily reached from Toya Bungkah in the central mountains. A 4am start has you watching the sun rise over lake Batur. The climb to Bromo is simpler still as it involves a traverse across the valley, followed by a climb up a staircase to the crater.
Balinese Hinduism is mixed with animism and also contains some Buddhist elements. The gods and spiritual practices dominate Balinese lives. There are many offerings, ceremonies and festivals, all to appease gods and other spirits. They range from the Eka Dasa Rudra Festival, usually only celebrated once in every century, to the start of the Balinese new year (Galunggan) which celebrates the return of ancestral spirits to earth. Dwellings include shrines for offerings. Offerings are placed inside cars, on doorsteps, on the table outside your hotel bungalow. There are statues of the rice goddess in the fields. Offerings ensure that there are three harvests a year. The lovingly decorated statues, with hibiscus flowers and umbrellas, are part of the incredibly colourful Balinese landscape. There are village temple festivals, elaborate cremation ceremonies and many others.
There is, of course, a flip side to these practices and beliefs. The practice of magic, and the fear of black magic, are very much part of Balinese daily life. Traditional healers, balians, are said to cure both ailments of the body and those inflicted by black magic. For the Balinese it is not a matter of belief, They are real. Offerings are also made to appease demons and certain ceremonies are conducted to appease evil spirits.
Dance is very much a part of Balinese ritual. There is a wide range of dances performed exclusively for tourists. Often the orchestra and dancers come from one village and the performances raise funds for their community. Ubud, and its surrounds, offer an extensive program of these spectacular performances. Ubud is an absolute must for your itinerary - the cultural capital of the island, it is the home of many artists and has many temples, museums, art galleries and sights in its vicinity, ranging from the famous elephant cave to a gamelan factory. Gamelans are the traditional instruments in Bali and are similar to xylophones and usually made from metal; sometimes bamboo versions are also used.
A Balinese dance performance is nothing short of enchanting. Picture a warm tropical evening. You are sitting in the forecourt of a temple, with candles providing most of the lighting. The scent of incense pervades the air and the gentle sound of the gamelan orchestra, together with the graceful movements of the dancers in their colourful brocade costumes, stimulate all your senses and will linger with you long after the performance has finished.
Although these dances, often stories from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, are performed for tourists, they are not necessarily devoid of mystical and magical elements. For example, the fire dance really involves the protagonist dancing in a trance and being re-awakened by the holy water administered by the priest. Likewise, the barong kris dance, the struggle between good (the mythical barong beast) and evil (the witch Rangda) has the male dancers struggle with the kris (dagger) so as not to stab themselves. Again, the priest's blessing with holy water is required to end the trance.
One of the most fascinating aspects of life in Bali is that, in spite of the apparent rigidity of religious practices, people of different religions live side by side in harmony. Indeed, one balian I met, Ibu Marlina, who practises at the Ubud Sari Health Resort, is a Muslim married to a Hindu priest. As wife of a priest she may perform certain duties in ceremonies. This in no way contradicts her life as a devout Muslim, who dons her white prayer garments five times a day.
Some say that Bali is a place of special spiritual significance because of earth energy crossing it. Whatever the reason, it casts a spell on some unsuspecting travellers. Merely being there is like being in a state of meditation. The smell of incense pervades the whole island. The abundant signs of the unique culture - temples, statues, festivals, offerings - a powerful atmosphere of light, colour, fragrances, music and yet, also intense calm. The people - you have to go and meet them. Their graceful, friendly mannerisms and gentle smiles may also have you yearning to return.
Whatever happened to Ged and the green papaya? Well, he bought one at a village stall. Carrying it back to the highway, travelling on a bemo, then walking along the beach to our hotel was an exhausting process: not so much because of its weight but because of the questions it elicited from many of the locals we passed - "Where did you buy it? How much did you pay?" The answer to the last question was either met with a nod or peels of laughter "you paid too much". In case you were wondering, Ged's back took a dramatic turn for the better after a long hike around Mount Bromo in Java and with daily applications of tiger balm.
Whenever you are in Ubud, pay a visit to the Ubud Sari Health Resort. You will find it at Jalan Kajeng No 35, a 10 minute stroll from the town centre. Californian Dr James Taylor, chiropractor and psychologist/psychotherapist, found himself in Ubud in 1994. He had not long before experienced the San Francisco earthquake and also lost his wife. New beginnings saw him open Ubud Sari in 1995. The site of the Resort is special in more ways than one. Set in traditional Balinese gardens, it is also on a river bend, a place of spiritual significance for the Balinese. Indeed, during the days I stayed in Ubud, I found myself returning day after day, just to meditate in that powerful location.
Ubud Sari Health Resort offers bungalow-style accommodation and a whole range of treatments, from chiropractic and massage to reiki and traditional Balinese healing, including many cleansing and detoxifying options. You can go to early morning hatha yoga classes or visit the vegetarian restaurant, which offers a wide range of Asian and western dishes and beverages. One of the treatments I had was a Mandi Lulur. This Javanese treatment involved having my whole body exfoliated with a golden mixture of aromatic spices, followed by a bath full of sweetly-scented flower petals. Then it was time for the steam room, followed by a cooling spa. After a shower, a moisturising treatment was applied.
If you seriously want to pamper your body, mind and soul, then consider 'A Healing Week in Bali'. This total tissue cleansing experience consists of many health and beauty treatments, such as a daily dose of Tai Chi or Yoga and several colonic irrigation sessions. Moreover, this week has all the ingredients for a royal spiritual feast as it includes Balinese cultural excursions, with the highlight a sunrise hike up Gunung Batur. Check out Ubud Sari's website at www.ubudsari.com for this and many other packages and treatment options.
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