Beginnings in Bali (You Better Bali-eve it!)

Oh, you’re still here? Fantastic. Because now we’re really diving in to Southeast Asia and our first real adventure – Bali, Indonesia. Maybe you’ve heard about Indonesia and maybe you’ve heard about Bali, but I can tell you I had heard plenty about both and none of that prepared me for what I saw and what it felt like there. When I pictured Bali, I envisioned myself on picturesque beaches with the whitest sand and the bluest oceans. And in fact I found that! True as day, I swam in the bluest water I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, when I thought about Indonesia, I pictured a lot of hardships and people struggling just to get by. This, I also saw. And then there was an extra factor or two that I didn’t expect, despite how prepared I thought I was to explore this part of the world. In this post I’ll talk about all of it: the ups, the downs, and the very strange in-betweens that are difficult to define.

So let’s start with the good. Bali has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, which is why it is such a popular destination for honeymooners and vacationers alike. And for us it was on the top of our list of places we wanted to go and things we want to see. I’ve seen the articles and reviews and Pinterest blogs about how Bali is a must-see destination, the most beautiful place for a Southeast Asian tropical paradise. Our private villa was the first indication of this. For just $30 per night, we got to stay in a gorgeous villa complete with a pool, an outdoor shower, and my favorite – an egg chair!

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Just me in my egg chair

Brad didn’t like the egg chair as much as I did. He took a tumble out of it. Poor Humpty Dumpty.

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Katie and I shared a bed so we became close pretty much instantly, and we shared a bathroom with the guys which had some see-through doors so that prompted a lot of jokes; it’s a good thing I like these people!

We had a great time chilling in the pool and then going out to eat and trying the mahi-mahi. We went back to that same restaurant multiple times throughout our stay and the waitresses got to know us by the end which was pretty cool.

Our second day was incredible. We went to Kuta Beach and just had a relaxing beach day, starting with an amazing beach-side restaurant, where Katie got a gorgeous looking frozen margarita and made me regret my decision to not get one.

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Don’t know which is prettier, her or the marg

Katie also bought a kite on the beach, which we all collaborated on putting together (how many college students does it take to build a kite?) only to discover it didn’t come with any string. So basically it was a boat that she held in the air for awhile before legit tracking down the kite man to buy some string.

We also met a domestic monkey named Jack. She was super cute and bonded immediately with Zach. I think he’s cried about her a couple times already.

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Me, Brad, Katie, Maria, and Zach
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Katie’s kite (pre-string) plus some beach bums

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Me and little Jack (she liked Zach better though)

That night we ate at a nice restaurant along the beach and Brad and I split a tapas for two dish. That paired with my glass of sangria made me very reminiscent of my days in Spain. Me encanta!

We spent the next day exploring one of the main cities, Ubud. It was pure luck that that morning as we were walking out of the mini mart (canned coffee and breakfast in hand) we ran into an uber driver. His name was Bush (or at least that’s what he told us to call him) and he became one of the best things to happen to us in Bali! The usual price to get to Ubud would be 300,000 rupiah, but Bush said that for 600,000 rupiah he would drive us there, back, and to all of our destination stops in between. If you can do the math like we did, this was a great deal! Plus, when you’re in a foreign country and don’t have phone service, it’s nice to have a driver whenever you need. And to our luck, each night he offered the same deal to us for the following day, so we basically had our own personal driver around the island of Bali. The one caveat to this was that occasionally we would mention a place we wanted to go and he would say “what about this instead?” pulling out his tourist attraction list and map and bringing us to a different place entirely. But as we didn’t really know what we were doing anyway, we went along with Bush’s suggestions and had a great time.

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Bush’s list – stick to the list!

So, Ubud. Our adviser suggested to us that we check this out, as it is one of the most visited cities in Bali. “Very Instagram worthy,” she says. That was enough to convince me to go! Our adventures for the day included venturing through a Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, walking along a road of shops and stalls, visiting some rice terraces (my idea!), and exploring a Hindu temple. Bush took us straight to stop #1, and parked in the lot where a few monkeys were already wandering around. Right off the bat, we realized that all of the warnings about the monkeys were true – Maria had her bag of fruit torn out of her hand, and one monkey grabbed on to my sunscreen and didn’t let go. There were signs everywhere with “tips” like don’t look a male monkey in the eye – he will see it as a sign of aggression. Don’t have any food or water – they will snatch it. Don’t approach any monkey (especially a baby), you never know how they will react. Don’t panic or try to run. And finally, keep an eye on your children! This led to a comical series of reminders in my head as we walked through this forest with hundreds and hundreds of monkeys: “Okay, don’t go near that one, it might be a mother of that baby monkey over there…. okay those monkeys are fighting, don’t get in the middle of that…. alright that monkey just ripped that water bottle away from that women, it’s fine you don’t have any water… okay don’t look at the male monkeys – is that a male? I don’t know, just don’t look at any of them….. oh and don’t panic!”

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Nonetheless it was a cool experience to get to see all of these monkeys in what was pretty much their natural habitat. Plus we each got a picture of a monkey climbing on our heads; very Instagram worthy.

My favorite part of the day was visiting the Tengalalong Rice Terrace – I expected it to cost money but we were able to walk right in! Later to find out there was a “mandatory donation” once we went over a bridge to cross to the other side. But I was happy, because the views were gorgeous and I had a fancy new hat and we had some delicious coconut water and my friends are cool and it was sunny and life was all around pretty grand.

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Check out my Insta for a clever caption and a chuckle 😉

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Hey rice farmer, I like your hat!

Our last stop for Ubud was a Hindu temple. We couldn’t enter the area without sarongs, but luckily there were a table of sarongs that we could borrow while we were there. We walked around, and discovered that to enter the actual temple, it was practice to first bathe in the pools of holy water and wash yourself in the fountains. Three of us decided that we wanted to try this out, so we paid to borrow a different sarong that we could get wet, changed, and asked one of the men there what to do. He basically told us that if we were Hindu, there are specific steps to follow and if we really wanted to know them we could pay him a fee. But he continued by saying that those who are not Hindu shouldn’t follow those steps, but rather do what feels right to them. “Don’t pray to our gods; pray to your own God.” So that’s precisely what I did. We stepped into the pools, washed ourselves, and went to each fountain covered in incense, flowers, and coins as an offering. It was a very surreal experience. We saw several Hindu families go through the entire process, and it was beautiful to see. I would say that it felt like a very holy place and I felt very cleansed, even though I’m not a Hindu.

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So that was Ubud! Day 4 was one of the days I was most excited for – we went to Uluwatu, and I was looking forward to a calm day by at the cliffside beach bar in Single Fin, and finishing off the day with a fire dance. Bush didn’t want to bring us to Single Fin though (maybe he wasn’t sure where it was) so we ended up at a different beach called Dreamland. It was probably the bluest water I’ve ever seen and the smoothest sand my feet have had the pleasure of walking through.

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Absolutely gorgeous, so I was ok with not going to my original plan location. But we DID get to go to the fire dance that night! Along the way we stopped at a luwak coffee plantation, and we got a free sampling of a host of different coffees and teas that they made there! Me and my dang germaphobia couldn’t share the glasses though so I didn’t have any. But I heard they were delicious! And the guys both ordered the luwak coffee – made from the poop of the luwak. That’s no joke. We saw some of the luwaks, and we also saw the woman who had the lovely job of stirring the pot of their boiling shit over a fire. I’m pretty content with my decision to not try that. Plus it’s a decaffeinated coffee, and no one needs that nonsense in their lives. As the man brought it out to them, he said “Now remember, this isn’t a cappuccino. It’s a poo-ccino.” At least there’s some humor about it. There’s a first (and a last!) time for everything.

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The remains of the sampling cups that all my normal friends tried
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The table of ingredients – including the roasted luwak droppings, yum (:
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The famous luwak coffee, which according to Zach and Brad, wasn’t even that good

So then we were off to the fire dance! It was located at a stone circular stage surrounded by stone stairs in a temple. The whole thing was on a cliff and positioned for a perfect view of the sunset over the water. And after rushing to get a spot, once I sat down I realized I had somehow gone the whole day without eating anything so at the start (around 6pm) I felt like I was gonna faint. Luckily I found some handy vitamin c drops in my purse, so dinner was 2 of those bad boys and a bottle of water! And then once the show started, I was mesmerized by the dancers, costumes, and of course, fire. I was honestly shocked there were people sitting 2 feet away from the flames, especially when at one exciting point the monkey king (I know, cool right?) kicked fire all around the stage.

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Here you can see the circle of men who were intensely chanting throughout the performance. My light-headed self was very overwhelmed and fascinated by this.
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Brave monkey king (with bare feet!) kicks fire at innocent children in 1st row

After we got through what felt like several hours of traffic we finally returned to the villa. Thank you Zach for the gross cinnamon coke tic-tacs that kept me alive. But we did go to a real dinner down the road so no, I did not starve in Bali.

Our final full day: we took the luxury of sleeping in, then headed to a temple on the water called Tanah Lot. It was a beautiful location and surrounded by cute little shops where we did some souvenir shopping. Brad almost lost his wallet there but luckily for him I found it hiding on a shelf atop some ceramic bowls. Silly Brad, it’s only the first week and you’re already losing important things. As we ventured to the temple we couldn’t go inside, and the temple itself was masked by trees, but it was still a cool experience to see an island rock with a temple built right into it.

So that was Bali in a nutshell. We ate dinner that night at the restaurant down the road where we had eaten several times before. The next morning we woke up before the sun to meet Bush outside to drive us to the airport, and flew back to Singapore!

Here are some group photos to finish off this post of some super cool people:

Feel free to stop reading here if you’re content! It’s a long post, and that was the summary of the fun travel experience part. But remember how I’d start with the good? There was so much good. But now there’s the matter of the hard-to-define feelings I left with. So if you’re up for it, stick around for a few more paragraphs.

The ‘bad’: The first thing I noticed about Bali was that it was very crowded and very destitute. It’s just another island in Indonesia, although it has the reputation of being the cleanest and richest from all the tourism there. Maybe if I rode around in a car with blacked out windows, I’d have a different perception of Bali now. But I could see out the windows, and I saw a lot of things that broke my heart. From burning trash on the side of the road to many stray dogs, it was hard to miss the struggles that were all part of the reality of living on the island. One night Bush actually ran over a stray that darted out into the road, and we were all in shock, but the people there weren’t even phased because it is such a usual occurrence. I’ve never owned a dog but the situation there makes me want to adopt one asap.

It was so absurd to me to see such extravagant tourist locations one minute and then the next minute see people selling empty glass bottles on the side of the road just to get by. Some sat outside the public bathrooms, weaving baskets and charging a small fee for the use of toilet paper. I think that as travelers a lot of times we think or expect everything will be exciting and grand and beautiful. I will say that beauty can be found everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t struggle and suffer. I saw similar things when I visited Morocco, and I wrote about that then as well. The tourism areas are so manicured and full of people – it’s like they’re putting on a show for those fortunate enough to visit their little island from all around the world. Then you leave the performance or the tour or whatever it may be, and you see how the people there really live. I guess they say that when you travel you gain a new appreciation for home, and I definitely have.

Now, to finish things off, the difficult to define. These feelings were close to the surface and bubbling up throughout our trip, but they really took a toll on me the day after we went to Ubud, and I realized what had been making me feel so unsettled. Let me start by explaining all of the preparations I made before coming here and all of the precautions I took throughout. I had malaria pills that I was taking every night, some insect repellent lotion to avoid bug bites, some digestion pills to help me adjust to the food, and I always bought bottled water because I knew it wasn’t safe to drink the water on tap. Pretty straightforward, right? That’s what I thought. But on that fourth day, as we were in the car on the way to Uluwatu, I started to unravel a little bit. I found out that they had found ecoli in the holy water we had bathed in the night before. The holy water! I didn’t even consider that this could make me sick. This fact alone may not have been detrimental, but it sort of pushed me over the edge as I thought about everything that had made me uneasy for the past few days. I knew the tap water wasn’t safe. But I didn’t think I would be paranoid every time I ate or drank, concerned about how the food was prepared and if there was contaminated ice in my glass. I knew there was malaria in southeast asia, and I knew I had the pills, but I didn’t think a tiny mosquito bite would ever cause me any more than a slight annoyance. I realized that the things I were scared of were things I couldn’t see coming. A tiny little bug, or some contaminants in the water or my food, could do some harm to me here.

I was so grateful for my experience in Bali, but I’ll say it was very eye opening as well. But hey, that’s what travel is all about! It’s not all fun and games, kids, I realized that the last time I studied abroad. But I’ll choose to do it every single time. It may sound cliche, but once a coworker asked me “When do you truly feel alive?” And I immediately knew the answer is when I’m traveling. Exploring new places and adventuring to the unknown is my favorite thing in the world, and I can’t wait for more.

Hey, thanks for sticking around, and if you have the luxury, my advice to you is to go and drink a giant glass of free ice cold tap water. 🙂

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Hi there! Thanks so much for stopping by. I'm Elyssa, an average gal with an unshakable habit of wandering the globe. Here I'll give you all the best stories, advice, and suggestions collected from my travels abroad. I've lived in New York, Boston, London, Spain, and Singapore. Now as a recent college grad, I want to share my continuing adventures with all of you! For me, there is no greater experience than discovering new places around the globe. I hope I can convey here all of the beauty and wonders that I see, and even inspire you to take on an adventure of your own.

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