Saturday, 10 March 2018

The infinite shades of picture-perfect Bali

Anita Rao Kashi
Published: | 09th March 2018 01:02 PM

The sky was a stormy grey, and the sea seemed to be heavily influenced by the mood. It roiled and quivered, barely able to keep its agitation under the surface. Thick clouds hung in the distance and obscured the horizon, so it was difficult to make out where the sea ended and the sky began. A handful of colourful jukung, local outrigger canoes, were anchored near the shore and bobbed in the churning waters, knowing better than to venture out. Standing at the edge of the water in Sanur on the Southeastern coast of Bali, the scene was so far out from the island’s general reputation of being a pretty, postcard-like destination.

Across from the shore, the island of Nusa Penida rose from the water like a dark shadow, but no details were discernible. But as a fast boat left the jetty at Sanur and droned towards the island, it was a more ominous and breathtaking sight that came into view. From amidst dense clouds, Mount Agung rose majestically, its tip billowing plumes of thick smoke into the sky. It was to erupt a few days later, but on that day, it seemed both harmless and sublimely beautiful, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it till the boat circled the island to deposit me on Nusa Penida.

B&W to Eastmancolor

By some quirk of fate, as I stepped on to the island, the skies cleared, the sun shone through and it seemed like I had transitioned from the era of black and white to vivid Eastmancolor. The sand was almost white, ringed by lush greenery, while the water was pale turquoise near the shore and a deep ultramarine at the horizon with shades spanning the whole blue spectrum in between. Soon I was whisked over a narrow, winding and undulating road to another part of the island for one of the most spectacular sights — Kelingking beach.

Standing at the tip of a cliff, several hundred feet above the sea, I looked onto a little bizarre finger-like projection. It looked like the head of a baby dinosaur, and I was amused to discover it was actually named T-Rex. It was surrounded by the most astonishing turquoise coloured water and I could even make out the dark reefs underneath. I could see a few people swimming and snorkelling in the clear waters and was told that it is even possible to spot giant manta rays. The path down to the beach seemed narrow and rather treacherous, so I just perched on the edge of the cliff and gazed at the scene, mesmerised.

When the sun got a bit harsh, I headed up the coast to Crystal Bay, an idyllic beach with shady trees on the shoreline suspended with hammocks. A short boat ride out from the beach led to snorkelling sites providing stunning underwater vistas and beautiful coral reefs, but it was also enchanting to lounge on the sand and watch the waves hit the shore and small boats chug across. Despite the mild mugginess and general warmth, the water was cool and it was fun to splash around in the clear water. It seemed far too blissful and a snatch of verse by Robert Browning — God’s in his heaven, all’s well with the world — came to mind, though the reference to the divine was incidental.

Land amidst the sea

In fact, this mix of incredible beauty with unexpected moods thrown in, had been a constant leitmotif during my time in Bali. One of the western most and important provinces of Indonesia, Bali was one of the larger islands out of the thousands that comprised Indonesia. It stood out for its 85 per cent Hindu population in a Muslim-majority country. Dotted with temples, both common and household, Bali has exploded as a tourist destination for its incredible beaches, art, heritage and culture. Some of the more crowded spots like Kuta and Ubud were filled with buzzing cafes and restaurants interspersed with lovely, colourful stores. But every now and then, there were also hidden gems like a coffee plantation that specialised in luwak coffee or an elaborate village temple with astonishingly detailed embellishments.

My wanderings took me one evening to island’s southwestern coast, less than an hour from the capital Denpasar. A crowded path led to a vantage point looking out to the sea. In the distance stood the temple of Tanah Lot, set against a rather dramatic backdrop. Perched atop a promontory, a little distance from the shore, it stood in splendid isolation swept by waves and framed against the setting sun. A 16th century temple, Tanah Lot (literally ‘land amidst the sea’) was dedicated to Dewa Baruna or the Sea God.

From the scores of traditionally dressed locals, it was evident that the temple was a sacred place for the Balinese and was one of the seven sea temples that dotted the Bali coastline. It was low tide (the temple is cut off during high tide) so I made my way down and stepped across beautifully patterned volcanic rock for a closer look at the temple, even as my guide Dewa filled me with stories of mythical sea snakes that guarded the temple, dragons and deities of the underworld. In the fading evening light, the temple was silhouetted against the sky and surrounded by crashing waves, with an enigmatic air about it, as if giving credence to every myth and legend that I had heard.

An intricate puzzle

About 40 km to the south, at the southern most tip of Bali, stood the temple of Uluwatu, perched even more precariously at the edge of a cliff, from where it was a straight 250 metre plunge into the sea. Below, the sea was a surreal blue, drawing its deep colours from a moody sky. Dedicated to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the supreme God in the Balinese scheme of things, the temple and its location seem a bit like something out of Pandora from Avatar.

But a more intriguing thing was playing out in the temple’s courtyard, where a large group of men were clucking strangely and gesticulating around a central lamp. It was a kecak performance, a traditional Balinese dance-drama depicting the Ramayana. The performers used elaborate hand, leg and facial movements, but there were no instruments and everything was done orally, a bit like acapella but much more trance-like and rather other-worldly. The characters playing Rama, Sita, Ravana, Jatayu were elaborately dressed, but Hanuman, with his antics, stole the show and then dramatically set the stage on fire, literally, before bringing the all-too-familiar story to its logical end. No sooner had the performance ended, the courtyard quickly cleared and silence descended like a stone.

In the darkness, the only sound was of the waves rhythmically lashing against the rocks in the distance. As my head swirled with the many images I had encountered over the last few days, the pretty-as-a postcard facet did not dominate as much as I imagined it would. Instead, the little details, quirky bits and the unexpected seemed to fit like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. It seemed like the perfect description of Bali.

Fact file

Bali is one of the larger islands of Indonesia and is located off the east coast of Java.

How to get there: There are no direct flights from India to Denpasar, the capital of Bali. However, there are convenient connections via hubs in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Visa: Visa is on arrival for Indians and is free.

Know this: Nyepi is a sacred day for the Balinese, and is the day of complete silence. Everything is closed throughout the island, including restaurants. The only exception is restaurants inside hotels. The date depends on the Balinese calendar, and falls on March 17 next year.

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