It’s a sunny, humid, post-lunch afternoon in Bali and I decide to tear myself away from the addictive, air conned comforts of my hotel. It takes some doing. There are several magnetic reasons for remaining within the premises of the newly opened Le Meridien from Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Bali’s Jimbran area – there’s the wonderful, lagoon-shaped salt water swimming pool attached to the chic room, the luxurious spread of food, the intimate interiors, the endless founds of fine wine and champagne and, correspondingly, the company of lovely women. But like Milan Kundera’s Jaromil felt about life (did he not want to escape a comfortable home and mollycoddling mother?), I too was certain that notwithstanding the jolly beach air of the resort, Bali was elsewhere.
That’s the thing with good hotels – their carefully crafted cocoons of comfort unwittingly ensure that the destination itself becomes a narrative postscript. The Le Meridien Jimbaran does try hard, or some would say effortlessly, to bring in the outdoors. One thousand eight hundred handmade fish oversee their meeting room, digital photographic art denoting water graces their lobby and rooms, a portion of the interiors is patterned on waves, and there’s an infinity pool in the top floor penthouse (among only a few rooms with an ocean view), which melds gloriously with the ocean line in the distance at sunset. A huge batik print from Java greets guests at the reception area, and the menu in one of the main restaurants is an example of the profligacy of seafood, or so veggies might feel. The Le Meridien can make you want to be there just for it. But Bali is also an island of an estimated 20,000 temples. It has a distinct culture and architectural style, and some of the world’s best beaches and aqua life. I was here for the launch of the Le Meridien, sure, but I was here for some of the rest, too.
The inaugural roster for media at the resort is, well, watertight. From flight into Bali and flight out, every hour has been designed to savour the Meridien experience – a relaxing, don’t fall – asleep hour in the spa, where they use message butter instead of oil, a hotel tour, a press conference, a photography workshop by the well-regarded Ralph Gibson, a handcrafted creative canape hour, a remarkable farm to table dinner curated by executive chef Paul Lewis, and after hour cocktails. The schedule demanded every waking hour. Yet, there is the other Bali.
In 1927, when Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet, world traveller and first non-European Nobel Laureate, visited Bali, he was mesmerized by what he felt were the “remnants of old India” – a region densely immersed in ancient Hindu culture, its temples, traditions and inhabitants all joining the dots in a larger pan-Asian Identity that the poet wished to map. Tagore had to continuously fight the language barrier here, but yet another connection was made when, in a moment of great serendipity, the Balinese speaking tribal chieftain accompanying him uttered “samudra” when looking out at the sea. Having written one of his celebrated poems Sagarika (originally called Bali) based on his travels to the island, Tagore was calmed by the thought that, “nature here does not speak Balinese.”
I nod at that sentiment while standing on top of the cliff where the Uluwatu Temple stands. This is the southernmost extremity of the island of Bali and, on the western horizon, the sun, in a great show of colour, is about to set. Hundreds of visitors, mostly Westerners, have meanwhile turned the place into a purple riot after temple rules oblige them to wear deep purple sarongs around bare, sunburned legs and midriffs – it’s the concurrent and sometimes clashing worlds of beach life and belief systems that often come to the forefront in Bali.
The one public display of the temple’s history or so it seems, is in the local language and I rely on a guidebook to be informed of the eleventh century antecedent of the main structure. Much of the temple though, is off limits to visitors, and from what can be seen, its design and architecture don’t seem particularly noteworthy. A puja involving women and children in traditional costumes is going on inside, which the purple-saronged take in from outside barricaded gates. Dozens of well behaved monkeys mill around, attracting camera flashbulbs, and bringing great cheer to the Westerners.
The setting sun, meanwhile, turns everything and everyone into darkening silhouettes. The temple is located tantalizingly at the edge of the cliff. Below it is a sharp drop into what seems like heavenscape – the azure of the Indian Ocean, thunderous waves crashing onto the rock face of the surrounding cliffs, a rising mist, gulls, and an eternity of water. Its dramatic setting lends a spell to the Uluwatu Temple and in those dying daylight minutes, I hungrily soak in the view till the sound of crashing waves intensifies the gathering dusk. There, I had achieved my first real Bali Moment.
Bali also lives under water. That’s what I felt the moment I immersed my head below the surface of the Indian Ocean, a little off the island of Nusa Penida. It is a clear day and the water is calm: just perfect conditions for snorkeling. I have previous experience at snorkeling in the sea but it never seems enough protection against the first rush of nerves with the first sway of the waves. So, one flings about a little, gets some saline water into the nozzle, coughs up a bit and finger-feels the straps of the life jacket. It’s only afterward that I get the full drift of life in the other, bigger and better half of the earth (judging by the way things look off the Bali coast) – the aquatic world. IN recent years, marine scientists have discovered 952 varieties of reef fish and 393 coral species off the Bali coastline – an astounding collection of marine life that has turned Bali into one of the world’s topmost diving and snorkeling destinations.
And here I am – a trespasser to their world as thousands of fish crisscross my way. They wear vidid colours – yellow, electric blue, mauve, fluorescent green, jet black, pristine white – and swim between or above an equally enchanting bed of colourful corals, some of which are shaped like miniature forms of those Balinese temples – a limitless natural aquarium of the senses like no other. The fish seem confident of their place on earth and remain indifferent to me, a voyeur to their side of the world. The effect is hypnotic and only my breathing reminds me of my frail presence there: Bali moment #2 arrives.
Later, before lunch on the beach at the Nusa Penida Island, at a restaurant starkly called Bar and Cafe Bali, I take a stroll through the adjacent Nusa Lembongan village. The island is a recent addition to Bali’s backpacker map and Bob Marley’s ‘Buffallo Soldier’, playing from one of the numerous budget lodgings here, drifts inevitably down its narrow village road. Traditional Balinese homes with their dramatic sloping, curved roofs, shaped like a boat’s bow and intricately carved wooden doors, vie for attention with luminous green and orange posters promoting New Moon open air parties.
Not unlike much of India, paradoxes and incongruities too visit Bali, Even as the island aggressively competes for the dollar tourist, it often stutters with an international language like English at the ground level (sample the Page 1 headline from the May 10-16 edition of The Bali Times: ‘Passenger Detection at the Airport to be Tighten’).
Being a fizzy, touristy hub in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, Bali was twice the victim of terrorist bombings by suspected Islamic fundamentalists in 2002 and 2005 – on both occasions, it was the hippy-trippy hotspot of Kuta, an area of Bali that is believed to have gone through vast cultural transformation with the arrival of Western tourists, that was targeted. And in a province bedecked with while sand beaches and a generous tropical sun, where tanners are habitually found in their two-piece suits, the bikini round at the ensuing Miss World contest to be held in Bali stands cancelled for the first time in its history after the organizers give in to demands by fundamentalist groups.
Yet, Bali seems remarkably sustained by an element of sangfroid. Driving past the new, wave-shaped airport complex, coming up next to a Dunkin’ Donut outlet, I’m mesmerized by a gigantic public art installation modelled on an episode from the Mahabharata. “Indonesian sculptor?” I ask the driver. “No, Balinese,” he answers back.
The Hindu dominated Bali also seems to come into its own in hotels and shops with names like Shita, Pandawa, Drawpadi and Radhabali or when, as The Bali Times reports, authorities contemplate fining hotels that don’t include Balinese cultural and architectural elements in their design.
On the day of the inauguration of the Le Meridien Jimbaran, Bali arrives to party. Guests from all over arrive to take in the sights of the hotel in the evening, beginning with its liquid art and batik decorated lobby, and its open-water crisscrossed lawns that the together 118 rooms and suites. A big bash is on offer, too, as water ballet performers stun their audience, there’s a fashion show by Niconico Mare, and a freewheeling concert by arty French Punk-rock outfit Nouvelle Vague that keeps eyes and ears focussed.
My mind, though, often wanders over to Ubud a town in central Bali that’s said to be a repository of art and culture, where galleries, splendid temples and a cheerful disposition bond seamlessly and, which, being a long drive away from Jimbaran, I cannot find time to visit. Nevertheless, I find consolation in my post-lunch getaway earlier that afternoon. On a walk along the beach towards a fishing village, I meet Made Botak. He looks forlornly at the ocean while his uncle remains busy making a boat. His family has been traditionally into fishing and boat making but the catch from each trip has progressively decreased because of competition from “big big motor boats” coming from Java with “big big nets.” To balance things, Made now runs a surfing business and sometimes takes foreign tourists on rides in his gorgeously painted country boats.
We speak in broken English and a throw of hands and gestures. We exchange cigarettes – my “Hindu cigarette from India”. as he says, to his “Indonesian international cigarette”, the Sampoerna. There is a black stone temple behind us – a “Balinese Hanuman” temple, informs Made. I take in the view – flights landing on the thin ocean-fringed runway of the airport, the water changing colour from blue to torquoise and back again, sunbathers on the beach, two dogs playing at the waterline, white kids making white sand castles, red and yellow surf boards, fishing boats on the horizon, Made’s uncle sawing at a piece of wood, and the “Balinese Hanuman” temple, of course. Here, it seems, is my Bali Moment #3, arriving as a coalescence of moments.
Back in Kolkata, I remember Bali every time I step into my shoes. Waves from the high tide had washed over our shoes during a wonderful seafood dinner hosted by the Le Meridien on the beach and it never quite went away. In my mother tongue (also Tagore’s), bali means sand and I smirk at my own banal kind of Tagorean serendipity. Nonetheless, the Bali in my shoes is a constant reminder to go back.