Has Bali lost its magic?

Has Bali lost its magic?

I am really bad at keeping secrets, so before the word gets out and someone else says it for me and there is a huge misunderstanding, I suppose it is better that I actually say what I have been holding down for a while, since the day I got back from my trip to Indonesia. The truth is that I really didn’t enjoy Bali. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I spent nearly long enough there in order to develop a proper, informed opinion on it.

I went to Bali as part of a very large press trip to Indonesia where I did not get to establish the itinerary (or else, I would have never picked to stay in Kuta Beach) let alone the food I ate, and I stayed along a little longer after the trip was over, to explore on my own. To be fair, I have seen a thing or two that were quite nice and I have actually enjoyed. And had I researched a bit more, I would have found good alternatives to the most touristy attractions in Bali. But that was definitely not enough to make me fall in love with Bali and make me want to go back. It was more like a good and welcomed distraction from all the things I did not like.

Read more about the Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

Living up to the “Eat, Pray, Love” legacy

It would be fair to assume that I arrived Bali having in mind the images of tropical paradise as portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love. That very popular movie (and book) has fed a lot of people with beautiful sights of empty tropical beaches, interesting traditions, and an overall peaceful place.

Panorama of Mount Batur and Lake Batur

Eat Pray Love picture-perfect Bali – photo courtesy of Anna and Michal (flickr)

Or so I have been told, because I haven’t watched the movie and I haven’t read the book, and so I had no Eat, Pray, Love – induced expectations to meet. In fact, I have never really had Bali in my bucket list, so I did not have in my mind the fantasy of a location I would have to look for to quench my thirst for something beautiful and take that exact same perfect photo. All I had were recollections of some friends who had been – some coming back very enthusiastic (but they are into surfing), other a bit less so. I had not even seen their pictures. If anything, what I have learned in Bali is that it is actually fairly easy to take the perfect photo even in what may be the most imperfect place (more of this later).

Monkey Forest

Capturing the perfect shot in Monkey Forest

The whole problem is that I am all about first impressions, with people and even with places. I either love something or someone at first sight, or I don’t. There is either an immediate spark, or there isn’t. There is either a special chemistry, or none at all. And if there isn’t that famous chemistry, the only thing I can hope for is a honest friendship. It is not even a matter of how beautiful a place is. It is a question of vibes. And it hasn’t happened often (although it has, to be fair) that I went somewhere for a second time and finally, magically liked it and enjoyed it. And Bali really didn’t spark in front of my eyes. It’s like I went on a date with a man and he put up his worst attire for the occasion, stick his fingers up his nose, burped loudly and talked on the phone during dinner – that is how Bali was to me.

Bali

Relaxing at the pool – the only way to escape the heat in Bali

I may even try to justify the fact that I didn’t like Bali by saying that the extreme heat killed whatever little energy I had in me at the end of a very demanding and at times truly exhausting trip. I may say that the persistent stomach bug that caused me a lot of discomfort did not exactly put me in a good mood to let myself be infused with the magic of Bali. But really, that is not the case. I have still managed to enjoy Cartagena, in Colombia, or Leon, in Nicaragua, despite the suffocating heat. I have been sick all over the world (now, that is something to be quite proud of!) and it has hardly put me off a place (unless there were other reasons involved, obviously). What happened in Bali is that the first impression I got of it is that of an extremely congested, incredibly polluted, very dirty, truly commercial and way too crowded place for me to be able to enjoy it. I am not even sure it is fair to talk about “impressions” because, I’d dare to say, Bali is congested, polluted, and crowded. I really couldn’t wait to get out of Bali. So much so that the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy to me was more like a “Fast, Wish for the best and Get Out ASAP”.

Bali is too congested and polluted for my taste

The impression I got in Bali is that nobody likes the idea of walking or biking. I like walking, and I tried to do that. But the minute I stepped out of the hotel, I was invested by a stream of cars and motorbikes, none of them taking notice of me, unless it was to honk loudly so that I would move out of their way. Each and every person in Bali – locals as well as tourists – moves around by car or, even better, by scooter or motorbike. All I saw were scooters and motorbikes: entire local families jump on one, keeping the Indonesian tradition alive (they take bonding really literally) and making the most of the gasoline. It was quite common to see 4 persons riding the same tiny motorbike, none of them wearing a helmet and a small child literally tied to the chest with a rope, to hold him tight while zipping through traffic. I stared at them, curiously and, at the same time, terrified of what may happen if a stray dog crossed the street all of a sudden and they had to break. Those drivers do have skills, because (as anybody who holds a motorbike license would say) keeping a balance when carrying that much weight is no easy task. I guess they were just as curious to see my stare, as they often smiled back at me as they passed (but never stopped, God forbid!).

Traffic in Bali

As rural as it gets – photo courtesy of Josh (flickr)

My first taste of Bali’s extreme traffic was the night I landed in Denpasar, its main city. I hopped on the bus, hopeful for a short ride to the restaurant in Jimbaran, right by the beach. I told myself it couldn’t take that long – it looked quite close on the map. I soon realized that I could have not been more mistaken. It took the bus I was on a good hour to get out of the airport terminal (a total of, perhaps, no more than 500 meters). Scooters zipped through the buses and the cars, left and right, in those narrow streets, careless of pedestrians and other vehicles coming from other directions, causing the bus driver to hit the breaks all the time (forget about being car sick!) and to press that horn at regular intervals. Too bad I did not have my iPod to listen to some music, so that loud horn noise was as close to music as it got for me. Not pleasant, especially for someone who is very sensitive to noise.

As I got off the bus, I tried to cross the street. Nobody (cars, motorbikes and buses alike) would ever stop to allow me and other pedestrians to cross. Scooters would rather drive around me than stop. I was pretty certain that they would have hit me had I not run, screaming in terror, to get to safety. No distraction was allowed, unless I wanted to risk my life. I have later on tried lots of tricks to demand drivers to stop – including putting my arm out, rigidly – with little or no success. The only thing that worked when I wanted to cross the street was finding a policeman or even a hotel employee that, whistle and torch in hand, would stop the traffic so that I and other tourists could cross the street.

Safety first

Safety first – photo courtesy of Simon_sees (flickr)

I found it really hard to get away from traffic in Bali. If Denpasar and the nearby Kuta – which didn’t take me long to realize that is not another city, or a resort: it pretty much is just a huge neighborhood of Denpasar, and there isn’t any city interruption, let alone traffic break – are the most congested places on the island, I didn’t exactly have a joyride when I tried getting to other parts of Bali. In order to get from Kuta to the theoretically more rural Ubud I had to fiercely haggle a taxi which would have gladly ripped me off (although I had a very clear idea of the price I would have to pay). I was told it would take about 1 hour, I expected the ride to last about 90 minutes, and it eventually took 2 hours. I guess by then I was used to the different perspective on timings that Indonesians have compared to Europeans.

As if the traffic was not a problem in and of itself, I was exhausted by the pollution that plagues the most crowded destinations in Bali. I spotted several locals and the occasional tourist wearing a mask to block the exhaust smoke and the bad smell coming from the piles of garbage being burnt, but I have doubts that it helped much. I was surely disappointed at this. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bali, but sure enough, coming from a city, I would never pick to go on holidays to a place that is seriously polluted and where traffic is a huge issue – it just isn’t my idea of a relaxing time.

I found Ubud a bit better in terms of traffic and even more so Bedulu, a smaller city right next to it where traffic seems to slow down at least at night, and there are a few and very welcomed oasis of peace where I could enjoy some much needed silence.

The Bali I saw is dirty, crowded and commercial

Locals took over Kuta Beach at sunset

Not exactly a secluded beach – photo courtesy of Aaron Toth (flickr)

Bali isn’t nearly as rural and pristine as I imagined it would be. I had to check a few facts when I got there, because I could not really understand what I was seeing unless I put it in perspective. So, what I have discovered, is that it is a rather small island (a little over 5600 square km) inhabited by a whopping 4.5 million people. That isn’t a small number for such a small place. Just to give you an idea, I come from Sardinia, which is 5 times as big in size and has a quarter of the population. Not exactly crowded!

I then added to the already large population of Bali the huge intake of tourists that visit the island all year long and I got a better understanding of how crowded it was. Most of the time I just felt that there were people everywhere and it was hard for me to get away from them, and from an urban area altogether (because these people do have to live somewhere, so houses and apartment buildings have to be built).

Bali sunset

A gorgeous sunset in Kuta Beach – it doesn’t show what’s behind the scenes

For each postcard picture of Bali that circulates on the web, showing a tropical beach, a perfect sunset and a beautiful rice field portraying a lost paradise, there should be one that shows what is going on behind the scenes, and what the rest of the landscape really looks like. Admittedly, I could not resist the temptation of making Kuta Beach look way better than it really is, to get all my friends back home a bit jealous in front of the magic I was experiencing. But that was just a perfectly concocted show, where I waited for the perfect time to take a shot. I took a few pictures at sunset and the light was lovely and looking at the waves breaking on the shore was quite an impressive show. But as I looked back, right behind me, all the magic was gone and I could once again see Kuta Beach for what it really is: not a lovely, white, sandy and secluded beach, but one where the sand is dark, there is garbage all over and right behind it there is mall after mall, shop after shop, chain restaurant after chain restaurant.

Kuta Beach

Try and find a quiet spot there – photo courtesy of Surf 30 (flickr)

And, just to make it even less appealing to me, there were the crowds. Not just the crowds there are on a Sunday in any popular Sardinian beach. I am talking about so many people that I thought I would never find a spot to sit and relax, and just stare at the ocean. I am talking about crowds that exasperate the desperate conditions in which the island verses. I am talking hordes of drunk tourists that find it ok to casually forget plastic bottles and bags on the beach, as if it wasn’t dirty enough already and Bali wasn’t struggling with its garbage. So much garbage there was, that when I saw rats roaming among the piles of trash I was actually not that surprised but just a bit disgusted.

Bali

This isn’t exactly my idea of pristine – photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (flickr)

So many people there were on that beach, that I just wondered how they could surf without risking hitting others in the water.

It was not a pretty view, at least not to me.  And between all the garbage, the dark dirty sand, all those people everywhere and the vendors who tried to push flowers, trinkets and what not on me, I just thought I’d better leave and go back to the hotel and find tranquility in the privacy of my room.

I am not sure where the image of a lost tropical paradise comes from, because the more I saw Kuta, the more I thought it looked like the Benidorm of Indonesia.

Had I been a shopaholic I would have seen the benefit of visiting a huge mall-city. Bali surely is a shopping paradise and one could spend days browsing through the shops and the market stalls in search of a good deal, which inevitably implies the ability to haggle fiercely with the vendors in order to avoid being ripped off (the same goes for taxi rides, by the way). Too bad I can’t be bothered with shopping!

I may have noticed all of this because I am a spoiled girl from Sardinia, used to beaches that despite getting crowded in the summer months, never get dirty and most definitely never get commercial (it is actually forbidden to build anything even just close to the beach, that is how much we value our territory). I do understand that being from Sardinia is at times a limit, as I can’t help compare whatever place I visit to my beloved homeland. Perhaps someone who isn’t as spoiled as I am is able to enjoy the beaches in Bali.

To be fair, I found Ubud to be better than the rest of the Bali I saw. It has a bit more of a genuine feel and a bit more of character. But I can see that the impact of mass tourism and commercialization is seeping deeper and deeper here too, with more“high street” and chain shops opening to replace the smaller boutiques and the local businesses. I saw taxi drivers becoming more aggressive – they would not take a “thanks, I do not need a ride”. But at least, it was not as loud, not as “right in my face” and not as tacky as Kuta. Here’s a guide to Ubud with plenty of things to do.

Is Bali really that bad?

I don’t like being completely negative. And I would lie if I didn’t point out that Bali actually does have its charms and that there are a few cool things to do in Bali. I saw some really beautiful sunsets and sunrises – so gorgeous they were, the light so beautiful, that for a while I forgot about all the other things I did not like about Bali. I thought that seeing the traditional boats as they navigated the ocean, at sunset, from the view point of Ulu Watu temple, was a mesmerizing view.

Read more about Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”

Bali sunset

The striking sunset seen from Ulu Watu Temple

The rice fields took me to a world that I hardly knew existed, with their bright green color.

Bali

The gorgeous rice fields in Bali – photo courtesy of Juan Jerez

I was captured by the traditional dances such as the Kacak – yes, it is mostly a show for tourists but it was fun to watch and experience, it was engaging and I really laughed hard at the jokes. I enjoyed spots such as the Elephant Cave. And I had a blast in Monkey Forest, where monkeys always put up a good show and I had to fight with a naughty one who thought it would be ok to steal my sunglasses (I got them back, I won!).

I found a few good restaurants in Bali – from the most traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine, to other international cuisine, I could have a different meal every day (that is, as soon as the trip was over and I could actually make my own orders!).

I saw some gorgeous resorts and hotels in Bali where I managed to relax and unwind for a real steal.

Ubud Dedari Villas

Bali has some fantastic resorts

And, when I looked around, asked and haggled, the prices were really convenient and it was a real budget destination where it was easy to splurge without breaking the bank.

All in all, my impression is that tourism has had an overly negative impact on Bali and I am afraid that this once beautiful island has lost much of its character and its uniqueness for the sake of mass tourism. While I understand that tourism can give the local economy a huge boost (again, I shall point out I am from Sardinia and tourism is the biggest revenue here), I appreciate the need to protect the environment, the authenticity of a place, its culture and traditions.

I would have liked to see a more traditional, more slower pace, more cultural Bali – where people, locals and visitors alike, can still appreciate the little things in life. I would have liked to have more interaction with the locals, one that involved more than begging them not to hit me with their scooters while I tried to cross the street. I am sure there is a better Bali – I just did not get to see it, and that is a shame because it should be everywhere and not just in the hidden spots.

I really hope that the Balinese people can take the protection of their culture, traditions and environment a bit more seriously and invest in them, even as a way to attract a more responsible kind of tourism, one that has less impact on what could otherwise be a really nice place. Till the day this happens, I will prefer to stay away from it. And perhaps travel to Raja Ampat, where apparently my friend Margherita found plenty magic.

Have you been to Bali? What were your impressions on it?

 

I love shopping in Cuba

I love shopping in Cuba

Mine is an adaptation from the title of Sophie Kinsella’s famous series “I love shopping”. In fact, it is meant ironically. There is no such thing as crazy shopping in Cuba, unless by “crazy” one means literally going crazy in order to find needed things. It is not even a matter of not having enough money to buy what you need and want: it is a matter of having the money but not finding it!

Before leaving, whilst packing my bag, I thought of carrying two pairs of flip flops. After all, one never knows when those rubber things may break and another pair may be needed. My sister, who travelled with me, said it would just be unnecessary weight. If my flip flops broke, I could surely buy another pair in Cuba and that was it. Or not. I swear I hardly saw shops selling flip flops in the entire island.

We realised on our first day in Havana that shops were different, to say the least. All merchandise is kept behind counters, and whatever you may want to see, you’d have to ask the person at the counter to show you. Not to mention that there normally is a line outside, with a guard letting people in and out and not allowing more than a certain amount inside. Shops are not very inviting. You won’t feel like going in, have a look around, try on stuff, and buy. Merchandise is hardly exposed in a nice way (it is all wrapped). The same applies to grocery shops – most of all for things such as soaps, shampoos etc. Whatever you need, you have to ask for.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 02

Shopping in Cuba is a hard business

The other problem we had was that there are no real supermarkets, those where you may get lost and where you may be able to find anything you need – from fresh fruit and milk, to meat, cheese, bread, soap, detergents and what not. Cuba knows only shops, some smaller, some bigger, but in none of them you will be able to do all your shopping. A shop that sells bottles may only have soda, beer and rum. If you want water, you will have to go to the one next door. Fruits and vegetables are only sold by small carts in the streets or in the mercado agropecuario. Same with meet – there are small carnicerias, you can see them every now and then, but it seems like there is no meat there. I have not seen a fishmonger in the entire island, which is interesting since we mostly ate seafood. And even if you can find what you need – pasta, rice, or even toilet paper, there is only one kind of it. We noticed that it was a bit ironic to call “Cierro Montegro” la primera agua de Cuba, since it also is the only one. And the same goes for beer, sodas, etc.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 03

Tienda

I guess that for anybody who is not used to the Cuban system it will take a while to shop for daily needs. When we wanted yogurt, the landlady at our casa particular was so kind to spend an entire day looking for it in Trinidad. When we needed toothpaste, we had to ask her, as we were unable to find a shop that would sell it.

Another thing we noticed is that there are some shops which seem to sell second hand clothes. We eventually realised this was the case. These are called tiendas particulares (private shops) and I suppose owners get their stuff one way or another (I am pretty certain that the clothes I gave away here and there ended up in some of these shops!) and then sell it. But you know, in an island that does not really know free commerce, people have to make do with whatever they have. Cubans hardly make a distinction between female and male clothing. If it fits, they will wear it. So you will see super-cool guys wearing a blue-girl t-shirt tight as a second skin. And you bet they will fix and keep fixing clothes. Nothing goes wasted.

The good thing about having so little choice when shopping is that you will not be wasting time wondering which cereals to buy, which t-shirt you want, and what not. You will have more time to spend with friends, relatives, talking and living life, you will be less consumed by the want for things, since you will hardly be able to get them anyways. At least that is how we – westerners coming from countries with a free market – felt. I suppose it was refreshing to us, but it may be tiring for Cubans who have to live a constant battle to get what they need.

The other side of the coin is that there is a huge black market, where people sell and buy just about anything and they hardly declare whatever money they make to the competent authorities. Casas particulares have to register whoever sleeps at the house, and the number of nights. So they have to pay taxes on that. But they do not register whatever meals you may be having there, and hardly any of the owners give customers a receipt when they leave. Some of them don’t say anything when they “forget” to give you receipts. Some others openly admit that this way they can round up a bit extra CUCs. And the rush to get CUCs from tourists can be seen in many other ways. Drivers will “accidentally” stop for breaks right outside their friends homes, who will rush out to offer drinks, food, sweets, bananas and what not. Surely they will get a percentage of the profits. Same with tourist guides. All drivers and all landlords know tourist guides. None of them will show you any accreditation, and you will have to negotiate the price, and you can bet you will again accidentally run into them on the way to a site and will end up hiring them.

The need for CUC is so desperate that even in state owned shops sales assistant will refuse to give you receipts. This is an account of what happened to us at the airport in Havana. A lady in front of us at the counter had the brilliant idea of paying her rum in Euro. But instead of making a conversion, and paying the exact amount she owed (say it was 20 CUC, so it would have to be 15 Euro), the cashier made the conversion 1 CUC = 1 Euro. She did not give any change, and she kept the rest. My sister asked for a receipt, as she claimed that she might be needing it when cathing our connecting flight in Paris airport. She then went back to the same shop to buy more, and again demanded a receipt. However, she had to argue with the sales assistant who did not want to provide it, claiming “she had already given one before.”

For as much as I appreciate the revolution, I wonder how it is possible, in 2013, to live in a country where there hardly is any free commerce. The poverty we saw, the rush to get the precious CUC in any possible “legal” way leads me to think that socialism, for as good an ideal it was, is hardly applicable to real life.

What is yet more interesting is that the myth of Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the revolution, one of the strongest critics of capitalism, is possibly the main source of money in Cuba. Any goods you may buy speak of him: t-shirts show his pictures, the same goes with paintings, postcards, hats. Bookshops mostly sell photography books of Che Guevara, or his biographies, his diaries, etc. Factories exploit his name by publicizing the fact that they were opened up by him.

I love shopping Cuba, Photo 04

Che Comandante Amigo…

Having read a lot of Che Guevara life, thoughts and ideologies, I can’t help but wonder if he would like the island today, if this is what he fought so hard for, if he would be proud to see that his face is on any painting, t-shirt and good tourists can buy, and he – the very critic of capitalism – is indeed the only capitalistic good in Cuba.

Want to find out more about this amazing country? Read here.

Guatemala best market: Chichicastenango

Guatemala best market: Chichicastenango

Places to visit in Guatemala: Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Colours of the market

For those who visit Guatemala, Chichicastenango is a must see. This small city feels isolated in time and space from the rest of country. Picture high mountains and a mist that covers the city, and when it comes down at night, it looks almost surreal. Set at 2172 meters above sea level, it does get cold in Chichicastenango, so be prepared and wear good layers. Travellers who do not have sufficient clothing to keep warm, can definitely find what they need at the local market but they should always barter the prices!

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Does this look good on me?

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Shopping for chickens at Chichicastenango market

Chichi, as it is called, has always been an important trading town. The main attraction here is the huge crafts market, where Maya traders meet on Thursdays and Sundays to sell their produce. Visiting the market is thus one of the things to do in Guatemala, even if you only just go for half a day. Tourist-oriented stalls – selling anything from clothing to wooden masks to leather goods – are mostly at the outer edges of the market, while the ones at the centre are mostly devoted to locals’ needs, selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese and live animals. I don’t think anybody should miss the colourful vegetable market, but it is important to be aware of pickpockets there. It is incredibly crowded, and tourists are an easy target.

I always advice not to carry the passport or any bulky, showy item, and make sure to keep belongings in the inside pockets of clothes, or in a money belt. Pickpockets are often just children who won’t find it hard, in the mist of the crowd, to unzip pockets and take out whatever is inside (be it a passport, a credit card, or just cash), to throw whatever they may not find useful. A 5 minute distraction may well cost a long time at the police station (where people literally line up to report thefts), at least a phone call to the travel insurance and credit card company, and the stress of having to get a new passport while away from home.

Chichicastenango Market

The colourful vegetable market of Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango Market

Tourists may be distracted by such cuteness while their pockets are being unzipped – that’s what happened to my friend

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Chickens being sold at the market

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Colours of the market in Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is one of the places to visit in Guatemala, and not just for the market. It has a very strong Mayan influence, and here it is possible to observe some traditional Mayan rituals. Many local shamans will crowd the colourful cemetery and the two main churches, where they are summoned to pray by the locals looking for some specific “favours”. They will start ceremonies that involve colourful candles (each colour having a different meaning), sugar, eggs, and chanting. While pictures are strictly forbidden inside the churches, they can be taken (from a distance) at the cemetery.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Mayan rituals in Chichicastenango

On the way to Chichicastenango from La Antigua Guatemala, it is possible to also stop for a visit at Iximché, one of Guatemala Mayan ruins hardly ever included in Guatemala tours. Once at Katok it is necessary to take a short diversion. When I visited it the first time, I was among the very few visitors, which meant that I did not have to fight my way to the Mayan rituals that regularly take place on this lovely site.

Guatemala mayan ruins: Iximché

Guatemala mayan ruins: Iximché

How to get there:

Shuttles: Chichicastenango is connected to Antigua via shuttle buses. Any hostel can arrange door to door transportation.

Chicken buses: adventurous types can opt for local chicken buses (camionetas). Keep in mind that these do not have a real schedule but tend to leave when full. From Antigua get any bus headed to Guatemala City and change at Chimaltenango.

Chichicastenango can also be easily reached from Panajachel: take a bus to Los Encuentros and then change there to Chichicastenango.

Where to stay and eat in Chichicastenango:

Hotel Mashito (8a Calle 1-72) is a family run hotel, with plain comfortable (if only a bit humid) rooms with private bathrooms.

On market days, the best option for meals are the cook shops at the centre of the market (the fried food stalls surround the edges). For as little as $ 2 it is possible to have meal of caldo de res (meat soup) with potatoes and corn; or a chuleta (pork chop) with vegetables and rice, and a drink. On any other day, the comedores near the post office are a good budget option.

Care to know about more places to visit in Guatemala? Click here.