Bali gets a lot of hype. If you listen to the old-timers — both visitors and residents — the island is much more commercialized than it used to be, especially in these post Eat, Pray, Love days. As a fellow former resident of a tourist magnet island, I can relate. But if what I experienced when I was there last October was less than the island had to offer in the good old days, all I can say is wow. And 16 years on Maui made my standards very, very high.
The island exceeded my expectations. Yes there was tourist price gouging and an absurd amount of traffic, but everything else more than made up for it. The rice paddies of Ubud were more lush, green and relaxing than what I imagined. The temples were special, spiritual places, whether located in a family compound, tucked away against a steep hillside, or perched atop an island just off shore. I couldn’t look away from the sunsets. The people were not just friendly and hard-working but overwhelmingly generous and thoughtful.
To illustrate this claim, I want to tell the story of the rudraksha prayer bead bracelet requested by my mother. She lost hers almost thirty years ago and thought I might be able to find a replacement since Bali is predominantly Hindu. I asked the manager of Mandala Desa, my Ubud lodgings, and he suggested I check the stores in downtown. I did, but I didn’t find anything that I felt lined up in terms of quality and price. I figured that was the end of that.
When I was leaving Mandala Desa, Ketut, the guide who was going to introduce me to some Balinese temples before depositing me at the beach town of Sanur, asked about my success finding the bracelet. The manager remembered my quest and asked him to help me. I was impressed. Our first stop was a stall in a local market owned by Ketut’s friend. I showed them a photo of the bracelet. They found strings of the beads, but despite deploying searchers through the entire market, they could not locate a bracelet made of them. Their dedication to helping me was touching. I felt we’d done our best. We left.
What followed were a fascinating few hours of temples hidden among valleys of terraced rice paddies, flowing rivers, deep conversations, countless steps, and undeniable thirsts for ice cold beverages. After a touristy lunch with a great view and prices to match, I figured my time was up. I had only reserved Ketut’s services for a half day.
As we passed back through Ubud, Ketut slowed the van and parked it in front of a store front. He explained it was the shop of a silversmith. If we couldn’t find a bracelet to buy for my mother, perhaps we could get one made.
He was right. The silversmith looked at the photo, produced the beads, asked a few questions about the style and spacing, quoted an affordable price, and said he could have it done by the next day. All great news! Except I wouldn’t be around the next day. I would be in a completely different part of the island. Not a problem, said Ketut without hesitation. He would bring the bracelet to me. Just like that. There was no bargaining over a delivery fee. That would have been insulting. He just volunteered because it was a nice thing to do. Supremely grateful, I accepted, thanked him profusely, and begged to take a photo so I could show my mother the two men who conspired to make her wish a reality. They agreed.
In the end, my half day with Ketut turned into a full one. We stopped at a batik shop after leaving the silversmith so I could see how the intricate designs were made. There was no pressure to buy anything. Then we braved the traffic through Denpasar and drove to the coast, where we watched the sunset behind the island temple of Tanah Lot. It was more picturesque that I could have hoped. Ketut was as excited as I was and took dozens of photos on his iPhone. He then dropped me off at my Sanur lodgings about five hours later than we originally planned. True to his word, he returned there the next afternoon with my mother’s bracelet in hand.
Almost six months later, I am still incredibly thankful for my Bali experience. Although I loved the food, massages, scenery, and general pace of vacation, I found the island’s spirit to be the most rejuvenating part. Rampant commercialism and tourism are present, but they exist on a foundation of spirituality that values more than money. I feel lucky that it found its way to me. It supported my faith in the general good in humanity. It reinforced my commitment to follow their lead. It cut through superficial pleasures and nourished my soul.