Demystifying Bali – The Naked Truth about the Island

Many people come to Bali with great expectations, believing (partially thanks to the Eat, Pray, Love movie, partially due to some holiday snaps of their friends which often avoid the raw reality) that it is a pristine clear island with handsome men and loving, spiritual people that will always bring a smile to your face. Well, here are the ten things you should know about Bali before going there (especially if you are Western and have never been to Asia).

1. The nature of the island is stunning, yes, with the ocean around, the mountains and volcanos inland, all the wonderful waterfalls and hot springs, it is a gem. Yet, a gem polluted by tons of plastic and other garbage that litters the streets and streams and sometimes even the beaches. With the full moon arriving (not to mention the monsoon) the sea becomes wild and the big waves bring ashore a lot more garbage you would prefer not to see. Literally, wherever you look there is some litter. They do have some bins in the streets but the freely running chickens, stray dogs and wind would do their play and the locals often do not care where they throw their waste, saying that they will clean up later. When I went to Ngaben, the Balinese ceremony, at the ceremonial place, right there with all the offerings for gods and priests acting out their duties, there was a mass of litter mostly consisting of plastic – the locals would drink a plastic cupped water labelled Aqua and would throw the cup on the ground. The same is true for the many plastic bags they use to put in various fried rice or sweet potatoes delicacies or veggies and fruits. Everything is in plastic. In a shop you get a plastic bag even if you don’t want it… the ceremonial place looked like a dump site when the processions were leaving. They told me somebody would clean it up later but even if they do, then what to do with all the waste? Sometimes they collect it to burn, sometimes they move it all to a dump site… and there are way too many now…

2. So, you remember Julia Roberts riding around on her bicycle. Forget about that! I tried it in Ubud and I consider it one of the greatest adrenalin missions I have ever put myself through. It is crazy among all the cars and motorbikes. They do drive carefully and slowly I must say, most of the time (sometimes the youngsters like to have their little moto-races at night time), but still, it truly is dangerous.

3. There are mice everywhere on the island. Spiders too. They say they are not venomous, unlike the snakes. Geckos would soon become your friends since they feed on the small insect and mosquitos. The locals like geckos so much that they even have a superstition that says that when you hear a gecko chirp seven times in a row you can make a wish. The mice though… they do eat your things… like soap… and they do bite sometimes… they bit me once, when I accidentally hit one of them in my sleep (I tend to be active sometimes in my dreams and yes that means the mouse was in my bed). Now, I was truly upset with that mouse that bit me and it took me a whole hour (and a lot of ionized silver) to overcome that anger (and fear of an infection) and understand that the pour little animal was simply scared and that I should be compassionate with it. So I made a mental agreement with it, sending in my mind a thought saying: “I will not harm you, you can be in my room, but please, do not go up to my bed and do not bite me.” It worked out. No more bites. No more mice in my bed, though from time to time I would find their poo somewhere on the floor. Now, the locals, mostly Hindus, would not harm a living thing. They do have mouse traps, but they do not in any way harm the mouse, those cages simply have some piece of food inside and when the mouse gets in the gate of the cage closes. Later, the locals safely transport the mice elsewhere and let it go free. They also don’t like to kill spiders. They treat cats nicely (also because they naturally kill mice to feed on them). But when it comes to dogs, it is just like in most parts of Asia. The majority of them are stray or look stray with various skin rashes and other diseases, malnourished, scared of people – because yes, they do hit them sometimes, I have seen that… I had my shed-a-tar moment when I was walking through one village and a dog slowly started walking towards me. I love animals, dogs truly very much, and they feel it from me. This poor ill thing walked closer to me with apprehensive sad look in its face and when I slowly raised my hand to touch it and give it a little pat, the dog jumped away, worried that it might be hit that my hand would produce – it must have been hit many times before… also, the locals are still keen on cock fights – both for ceremonial purposes and gambling. To me, it is simply violence and trespassing on animal rights. The roosters get harmed badly and they are fed on meat to become even more bloodthirsty before the fights…

4. The young women and the children on the island are very pretty. But to find a really handsome man is quite a mission. They are generally short with not many gracious features in their faces. Women are not treated very well when it comes to Western standards. They need to carry heavy things (mostly on their heads) and have a lot of duties. They do a lot on house building, they carry the heave baskets with fish from the beaches, they cook, do the housework. They breed kids and carry them around in their hands and on their backs. After five years of marriage (usually they get married around 16 – 20) they look ten years older. The men like to say that “Every day is a Sunday” and I think for them it often is since they are sitting around in their shops and other businesses talking to friends and acquaintances over tea or coffee.

5. Before I went to Bali a friend of mine told me: “You can travel the island in a week!” Honestly, you CANNOT travel the island in a week! People go there for a month to do so and still they do not manage. It is a truly diverse place with unique places varying from volcanos and hot springs to surf beaches and snorkelling beaches and from volcano hiking to yoga retreating. Please, please, please, if you go to this island to stay in one resort and perhaps travel to two or three places like Ubud and other “must-see”, do not consider that a thorough visit of the island and restrain from judgements such as “you can see ALL in one week”… just to travel 80 km will take you about 4-5 hours depending on the traffic jam in the busy roads where freely running chickens mingle with pedestrians and bikes as well as motorbikes and cars (which usually cannot and do not go faster than 50 km per hour).

6. Bali is an island of approx. 10 000 temples. It is not the only thing that makes it a spiritual places. The whole atmosphere and the vibes of the place would help to create this wonderful climate where you feel like you CAN FIND even if YOU ARE NOT LOOKING FOR… 95% of the population is Hindu but there are also people of other religions. So you might find Christian cemeteries and Muslim mosques. Even though the locals believe in reincarnation and karma, they tend to say that “ignorance excuses”: so if you go to temples not knowing that you are not allowed to go there during your period time, ladies, you are excused and you are not a sinner. Once you have read those lines though, you KNOW… so, remember! And don’t think of the locals as “all gurus”. I have seen people drinking through Ngaben (the traditional Balinese cremation) into a state of almost complete oblivion… it takes all sorts, you know…

7. Yoga is to be found everywhere on the island though yes, Ubud is considered to be the Mecca of art, “alternative style” and yoga. It is mostly taught by foreigners, though, since the locals understand yoga – rather than all the asanas and kriyas – as Raja yoga: you are seated in meditation seat, perhaps using some mudras, trying to achieve the state of Samadhi.

8. Some would say that “the island is so cheap”. Not really, some things are. Some are not. That counts at least for Central Europeans with common wages and salaries. If a beer costs 50.000 RP in a restaurant (75 Czech crowns), I would not call it cheap when in Prague it would cost a half of the price. What is cheap is the local fruit and veggies and some traditional local products such as coconut oil (or coconut wine). Food is cheap when you go for street food (cca 50 crowns). Restaurant are not cheap, but also generally not expensive. A snorkelling mask and other imported goods would cost double the price and the prices of clothes in shops would be comparable with the prices on the Vietnamese markets in the Czech Republic.

9. Yes, they love tourists here. But also, they would seek every single way to earn money through them. They love to haggle and sometimes would ask for a crazy taxi price or a beach deckchair rent. They do bother you sometimes with all the massage and postcards and bracelets offers. And sometimes you might be disgusted by the feeling that they are desperately trying to fleece you. But then remember, those people generally truly are poor and could hardly ever afford to travel like you do…

10. I cannot but say this openly: the locals GO CRAZY about single pretty young Western women. Forget about Julia Roberts not being bothered by any locals. They do bother you a lot. On the beaches, in the streets, they do not want to leave you alone. You cannot admit you are not in any serious relationship. They will simply NOT UNDERSTAND! You simply HAVE TO BE INTERESTED IF YOU ARE SINGLE! The mentality is different. They will not give you peace and quiet. So, just remember they do not have engagement or wedding rings here and say you are married and your husband is busy but coming to join you later – then you get some peace. A “no interest” is not an answer. And beware: they are groping! When you go snorkelling with a guide he might try in the water. It might look like a mistake or a random accidental touch, but when it repeats and when the places are carefully chosen, you will understand! Don’t let them help you will the sarong binding – again, they WILL try. Overall though, if you go with your intuition, respect, vigilance and a few minor lies, you´ll be just fine.

Now, why always finish with number ten – just because of the commandments?

11. Just in case: yes, there is reggae music playing everywhere in the bars but you´d better not smoke marihuana! Illegal. Strictly. You could end up in prison very fast. Most locals would opt for mushrooms growing freely in the plentiful forests if they want to have some special kind of fun. But even that is illegal, so, just BEWARE! It is not Jamaica but you can sing Bob Marley´s songs alright just about anywhere there.

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