"Arctracer" Letters

Bali, Indonesia, Oct 2005

We are nearly finished with our visit to Bali. Here are some notes:

The sail from Rindja was different from most passages. We stopped for a couple of nights at the northwest corner of Komodo Island to snorkel over nice coral and many small fish. Our friends Warren and Robbin on "Cuchara" joined us there for pizza one night, and we had a chance to hear a few stories. Then on Friday we chose to go south of Sumbawa Island, in hopes of getting better breezes in the dying southeast trades. The passage through the strait at the west side of Komodo Island was exciting, as the current added about five knots to our speed and there were tide rips, whirlpools, and other fun effects. We got through just before the current started racing back the other way. Then we had a rather pleasant sail to Bali, with the wind gradually increasing from 5 knots to 15+. Crossing the strait from Lombok Island to Bali got our adrenaline going again, as the currents zoom there too. We had no real danger, but waves about 8 feet high were created by wind against current to make the crossing very interesting.

On Sunday near noon we actually had difficulty finding the entrance to Benoa Harbor since there are no outer buoys, but a container ship came along and we followed it in. The harbor was an amazing spectacle. It was busy with big ships, day-sailing tourist cruise boats, yachts, tiny fishing boats (many outrigger canoes with outboards, sails or just paddles), and tourist thrill boats (some pulling people on parachutes, some pulling people on rubber rafts that leap into the air frequently, etc.) We were amazed that nobody got hurt with so many fast boats zooming around the fairly small area of sheltered water. Some of the little fishing boats go out into the currents and waves of the strait, which we consider very daring, but they apparently do it all the time.

The little Bali Marina had no space for us, so we anchored near it. There is not much space for anchoring, and it took us several tries to find a spot which was satisfactory. It was especially aggravating since we needed to set both front and back anchors to keep from swinging into other boats with current and wind changes. We got tired pulling anchors up and putting them down again. We are now using a place where there is not enough water to keep us afloat at low tide, so we have pulled our rudders up and sit on the mud sometimes. This is one of the advantages of having a catamaran!

The marina was our "agent" in getting our boat approved for cruising in Indonesia, and they also organized clearing in with all the officials on Monday morning. We were visited by Quarantine, Customs (who searched the boat for drugs and other contraband), and Immigration. Nina served cinnamon tea and banana bread, and played Indonesian music from Banda, so we had an "officials party" for over an hour. They were all very nice, and we are now legally in the country and can stay up to 60 more days.

On Tuesday, September 27, we taxied to the tourist center of Kuta. The narrow streets are jammed with vehicles, about half of which are motorbikes. In the town, little alleys are often important streets. The entire area, stretching for miles along the beach and far inland, is absolutely packed with shops. Sometimes we saw nothing but t-shirt shops for several blocks. Other areas specialized in carvings, or shell necklaces, or pottery, or leather clothing, or surfboards, or furniture, or textiles and clothing, or something else. Mixed in were Hindu temples, hotels, restaurants (even MacDonalds), and vendors who simply spread their stock on the ground. Every shop, house and building has a little raised shrine to put daily offerings for the gods, and an offering of flowers petels, rice and burning incense in a little palm-leaf basket on the sidewalk out front for the evil spirits. The streets are full of touts, who approach every prospective customer and try to get them to take a tour, to go to some shop, or some other "deal." Close to the beach we saw young tourists in skimpy bikinis carrying surfboards through the busy streets for another day in the sun. In the shade of the trees just above the sand were a vast number of temporary food and drink stalls, plus people offering t-shirts, cigarettes, cold drinks, massages, tattoos, nail painting, hair braiding, and other products and services. It was nonstop action.

Nina had a wonderful time buying cloth for sarongs, dresses and pillows. All of these vary in quality of material and amount of hand-work, with large factories making most cloth today but some still done traditionally or by artists. The prices are very cheap by American standards. For a sarong-size piece a typical price quoted by a vendor might be 150,000 rupiahs. This converts to about $15 US, and would be a good deal in any American store. However, by bargaining with the vendor it is possible to get a much better price, more in line with the costs of goods here. Nina bargained pretty well for a beginner, and often got the price down to one-third of the initial price before paying. She also bought in two "fixed price" stores, and learned approximately what the prices should finally be after bargaining. She spent a total of about $80 US and came home with a big bag full of cloth and with a big smile on her face.

We lunched on a hearty vegetable and meatballs soup cooked by a Javanese man on the beach for 50 cents US each. Our dinners in Bali were more substantial, with rice, chicken, omlette, greens, artichokes, and various mystery sauces, plus a big bottle of water, for a total of from $2 - $2.50 US for two. We ate where the local working people ate, but there were fancy restaurants nearby where tourists paid nearly New York prices for steaks, lobsters, and other foods they knew. We stopped for cold drinks in a German bar/restaurant and paid $2.40 US for a Sprite and a melon juice - more than our complete dinners!

The marina charges high prices for fuel and water at their dock, so we arranged to get a little of each by making deals with locals. We got two jugs of pure water (19 liters each) for a total of 20,000 rupiah. Tapwater is not drinkable anywhere in Bali, and we always buy bottled water in restaurants. We hope we will get some rain up north in Kalimantan, and know there is plenty of water there for filling our tanks even if it does not rain. Diesel fuel sold for 5500 rupiah per liter at the marina, but we got a local to carry 120 liters from the gas station to our boat for 4000 rupiah per liter. This was before the October 1 increase in fuel prices. Indonesia is the only OPEC country which has to import oil, and the government subsidizes the cost to local consumers. With worldwide oil price increases the amount of subsidy was too great, so the government was forced to let prices increase. The marina now sells diesel at 12,500 per liter, and prices at most gas stations are about double what they were two weeks ago. This is a real hardship for many people here. The taxis with meters still have to charge the same price to customers as before, so they are not making any money even when they can find riders. After the last fuel price increase it was about six months before the taxi fares were legally increased.

We hired a van to drive us for a day tour to Bali's "Mother Temple," then the traditional village of Tenganan, and then to Ubud. This took us along busy highways, through small villages, over mountains, along the sea and through terraced rice growing areas, so we saw many aspects of Bali. Everyone seemed busy, and almost all were involved in some small enterprise. There are very few big businesses or factories, but family businesses are everywhere.

Besakih, the "Mother Temple" of Bali, sits high on the slope of the largest volcano. This has been a holy site for many centuries, and is a complex of about eighty temples and shrines. It is an important tourist site, but still the most important center of Balinese worship. We wore sarongs as tokens of respect. Entrance tickets were reasonably priced (7,000 rupiah each), but the initial asking price for a guide was $25 US or 250,000 rupiah. Since a typical walking tour takes a guide about 90 minutes, and since our car and driver cost 300,000 rupiah for a long day, we refused to pay. Of course when we walked away we were grabbed by a guide who agreed to give us the tour for 30,000 rupiah, more in line with the local economy. It was quite an impressive site, with stone temples and sculptures over 1200 years old still used for offerings and prayers. Tall decorated bamboo poles and cloth wrappings around statues were everywhere, among huge piles of offerings. We saw priests and worshippers, apparently untroubled by camera-toting tourists, but some temples were closed to us for special ceremonies. We learned much about Balinese Hinduism, which has one God who reveals himself in many ways. The Balinese Trinity has Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) as the main faces of God. There are a vast number of other gods and goddesses, magical creatures, good and bad spirits, and other subjects to which some or all of the people pay respect while insisting that they are monotheistic. There are temples for particular gods, different clans, or other special conditions. Religion is integrated into every part of their daily lives, and the complexity makes it mysterious to outsiders.

The road from Besakih to Tenganan is narrow and winds through small villages and down steep mountainsides. It is spectacular. Along the way we were accosted by basketmakers, and bought a couple of small baskets at very good prices compared to what we saw them selling for later. Even on the mountains rice is the most important crop, and tiny terraces cling to steep slopes. Tenganan is a traditional village which keeps its own unique customs despite pressures from the modern world outside. Its traditional weaving is remarkable by any measure. On backstrap hand-looms the women make "ikat" cloth. Patterns in the cloth are produced by dying the warp before weaving ("single ikat") or by dying BOTH the warp and woof threads before weaving ("double ikat"). The process is incredibly time-consuming, with a single piece of cloth a yard wide and ten feet long requiring several months of painstaking work. Other traditional crafts there include basketmaking, maskmaking and painting on bamboo strips in a process like scrimshaw. The village was all stone walls and thatched roofs.

Ubud is the center of Bali's art industry. European artists first settled there in the 1930s and taught European methods to locals. Now they produce vast quantities of oil paintings, sculptures, and other art works which combine European and Balinese traditions. The marketplace is comparable to all of Kuta's shops crammed together, and the vendors are generally unwilling to come down as much in price because they see a steady stream of tourists and collectors from all over the world. Cloth and clothing shops are everywhere, and there are vendors for every type of jewelry and knick-knack. The competition is ferocious, and touts work hard to get you into their friend's shop (for a commission). We found a guesthouse on a quiet street with our own toilet & shower, a swimming pool, and room service coffee/tea and breakfast for 100,000 rupiah per night. (Yes, that's $10 US for a room with breakfast!) We stayed two nights, and ate both nights at a good restaurant for a total of 25,000 to 40,000 rupiah. One morning we took a beautiful walk through the rice fields for two hours before the shops opened.

We were in Ubud when three suicide bombers hit Kuta on October 1. The bombers were apparently Muslim extremists from Java. The police have so far made no arrests, but are searching for two men they believe to be ringleaders. The bombers of October 12, 2002 were captured and successfully prosecuted, and we hope the authorities will be successful this time too. The locals are very upset, because they are very gentle and tolerant people who do not understand fanatics. They are also concerned about the economic impact, since about eighty percent of the Balinese rely in some way upon tourism for income. We feel sorry for the innocent people killed and injured, both tourists and locals, and feel sorry for the Balinese who may suffer consequences for a long time. We still feel very safe here, but we know many people will decide to spend their vacations elsewhere because of these events. Terrorism of this sort is almost impossible to prevent with standard security measures, and we hope that some better approach can be found. The same thing could happen anywhere in the world.

We saw two Balinese dance performances on this tour. The "Barong" dance is a traditional story of conflicts between good and evil, with wonderful costumes and masks. The Barong itself is a legendary creature sort of halfway between a dragon and a tiger, and is a "good" spirit. We have seen Barongs in many places, both inside and outside of temples. The "Legong" is danced by young women in gorgeous costumes, and the story may vary from one performance to another. Both performances were assisted by traditional gamelon orchestras consisting of many different sorts and sizes of bronze gongs and xylophones struck by hammers. These were very interesting performances, but we will probably never become addicted to Balinese dance.

Wednesday, October 5, was the start of Ramadan (the Muslim holy month) and also a big Hindu holiday. Both religions use a lunar calendar to determine special days. An eclipse of the sun was observed on the other side of the earth just two days earlier. We went with Warren and Robbin to a Hindu temple in the heart of Denpassar, Bali's capital and largest city. We were able to observe a steady stream of people of all ages, dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry, making offerings and prayers at various locations within the temple courtyard. It was extremely picturesque. Families usually arrived and worshipped together, with even the smallest children involved. We were again impressed with the importance of religion to the Balinese. We also visited a beautiful temple in Tabanan, a suburb of Denpassar. There was not as much worship going on, but the atmosphere was that of a small town on holiday. There was a big bazaar on the street and under awnings, and even a wonderful hand-powered wooden ferris wheel. There were almost no tourists, as this was an event for locals. We walked around and sampled the local cuisine.

Bali has good airline connections, and we used them to get a replacement gypsy for our windlass. This is the sprocket into which our anchor chain links fit. It "grips" the chain so the electric motor can pull it in. Our gypsy was more than ten years old and somewhat worn, so the chain slipped sometimes, especially when the pull was strong. Our windlass was made by Muir in Tasmania, and they shipped a new gypsy to us in less than a week. We expect fewer problems with our new gypsy, and will be able to raise our anchor more quickly.

We restocked the boat with some groceries. The small market within walking distance of the marina has the basics, but a bigger selection is found at a supermarket a short taxi ride away. Some things easily found in American supermarkets are difficult to find (or very expensive) here, including meat, cheese, wine, good bread, cereal and juice. Of course there are exotic local goods too, such as fruits, vegetables and spices seldom seen in America. We are able to buy food and eat well much more cheaply here than in Australia, though our diet is not exactly the same. Eating out at small local food stands ("warungs") is great fun, even when we are not sure what we are ordering. We have gotten good soups and many variations of rice and vegetables and bits of meat, carefully avoiding the hot "sambal" chili pepper sauces which tend to get mixed into almost everything. Dinner for two, including a big bottle of water, almost always costs less than $2 US.

We feel we've seen enough of Bali for now, and need to get moving before the northwest monsoon makes our passage towards Singapore difficult. We are glad we came here, since it is such an unusual place, and highly recommend it to everyone.

(view Bali photos)