“Daddy, I’m not sure that I can cycle for twenty-four kilometres,” were the apprehensive words of my usually gung-ho eight-year old. The requisite distance having been covered and several hours later, he – as was all our party – was beaming with exhilaration on what was one of the most magical days that we have had, whether collectively or individually.
The day had begun many hours earlier at eight in the morning when we were met at our hotel by our guide Ayer, aka Benny. Benny exuded a laidback charm and karma that put us at ease and that we were to discover was very much part of the allure of Ubud, in the foothills of Bali. One of the smallest but most extraordinary islands of the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is a cluster of high volcanoes, their craters studded with serene lakes set in dark forests.
We clambered aboard our little minibus and headed uphill passing row upon row of shops selling ostensibly the same thing. Such industry is deceiving – behind the narrow roads was a green and verdant landscape that we were shortly to fall in love with.
We arrived at the stunning viewpoint of the crater-lake, which against my better judgement and fear of all things touristy, was spectacular. A quick drink and a few teenage selfies later we headed to a coffee plantation. Squirming that this was a sales-stop, which it undoubtedly was, I was impressed with the children’s interest in coffee and the process from berry on a bush to ground bean. Perhaps it was the Luka coffee – a bean digested and then excreted by the civet cat – that most appealed to them, not least with its moniker ‘cat-poo-ccino’.
The touristic preliminaries having been dispensed with, we were introduced to our bikes and my patronising protective parental words of last-minute advice, “Remember that your front brake is on the left and that if you press this too quickly, you will go flying over the handlebars.”
We head out and in trying to take a photo with my phone in my right hand, I apply my left brake. I end up on the side of the road. The bike’s brakes work, unlike my bike at home. QED.
Pride bruised, I remount to the laughter of my children and we continue on our way free-wheeling with gay abandon through timeless scenes. We travelled along minor backroads passing little traffic except scooters piled with rice stalks, bamboo bundles and whatever else the Balinese can cram onto their scooters. My favourite moment was a father cradling a young child fast asleep in one arm as he negotiated the winding road with his other – all done with the hugest of smiles.
We ride through lush forested areas, plantations full of Balinese staples and cash crops – cloves, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, tapioca, taro, local vegetables and exotic tropical fruit – but above all rice paddy fields. Picturesque panoramas framed by palm trees, whose fronds rattle overhead in the cooling breeze. Images of bucolic bliss.
The children not only get to see rice being planted but further downhill we get to see rice being harvested. A huge learning experience for them, a great photographic opportunity and, thanks to the typical and unquestioning welcome and generosity of the Balinese, a chance to get involved. We brake, this time without an ungainly dismount on my behalf, and step into the paddy field. The women are smiling and laughing and encourage us to join in the process of threshing and winnowing the rice. Not just an explanation of the process of growing and harvesting rice for the children but a hands-on demonstration that they will never forget thanks to the instantaneous enthusiasm of the Balinese.
The landscape is luxuriant, the richness of the volcanic soil displaying a fecundity of fauna that is beguiling. The intricate beauty of heliconia, amerilis, anthurium, bougainvillea all adorn the perimeter walls of temples. Inside the sweet-smelling flower of the frangipani.
Again and again, I am struck by the presence of temples and the importance to the Balinese of balance, the complexity of the symbolism. There are temples everywhere symbolic of the fact that God is omnipresent. The entire life of the calm and sensitive Balinese – their daily routine, social organisation, ethics, manners; in short, the total culture of the island – is molded by a system of traditional rules subordinated to religious beliefs. Religion is generally referred to as Hinduism but in reality it is too close to the earth, too animistic to be said to be the same religion as practiced by Hindus in India.
The grey moss-covered stone of the temples and shrines are adorned with flags, a symbol of wind, spears, representing fire, and umbrellas for protection. Penyors, tall bent bamboos, are festooned with decorations as a symbol of prosperity. Offerings are placed throughout the temple, as indeed they are in the streets and even throughout our hotel. The offerings – a square (representing man) of banana leaf filled with coloured petals of red, black, white and yellow – for me epitomise the beauty, sensitivity and colour of the people.
Even the houses are dictated by the same fundamental principles of belief. As we enter a house, Ayer points out that the layout and orientation is in accordance with the cardinal directions, the mountain and the sea, right and left. For example, that the kitchen is in the ocean, the red, in what we would refer to as the south. Such symbolism is perhaps lost on the children but not the sense of family and community – the notion of a nursing home an alien concept to the Balinese.
The Balinese still retain their traditions and hold to their own manner of life but under the banner of a new god – money – this is doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardisation. The young we saw in the villages were wearing western clothes although those we saw on scooters off to attend a temple or shrine were sporting the more traditional white shirts, sarongs and udeng, a square piece of batik worn as a turban and tied in an amazing variety of styles.
For now, the young have a carefree charm and adorable smiles. I am continually gesticulating back at waving young arms, high-fiving outstretched hands and responding to animated “hellos” and beaming smiles. Like the huge fluttering kites sailing gayly above us in the sky, the children have an innocence and freedom.
It was a day of brightness, whether the light reflecting off the water in the paddy fields, the lushness of the green or the brilliance of the smiles. It was intoxicating and infectious.
Most of all the children were impressed and struck by the respect in which the Balinese hold for and show to each other. The beliefs of harmony and balance resonate with them. They see the pettiness of arguments caused by their own sibling strife and rivalry. Such a way of life is infectious and invigorating.
I sense and see a family unity that has been missing for a while. Yes, undoubtedly this is in some part due to being on holiday, relaxing, experiencing and enjoying together – the value of shared new experiences – but it is in no small part to the beauty of the landscape and peoples of Bali. An enriching osmosis.
Our family motto has become, “Be Balinese.”