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Tourists Return After a Tough Year

“You wait, okay?” A Balinese schoolgirl wearing a purple lace blouse approaches and touches my arm. “The ceremony starts.” Her three teenage friends giggle at her overtures to my friend Bill and me, but her timing is superb: After watching a scattered crowd of Hindus make ceremonial preparations at a jungle temple in Manuaba, a small village in the hills near the town of Ubud, Bali, we were about to pedal away on our rented bicycles.

But we wait. A melodic, percussive beat resembling a mix of Andean flute music and a Grateful Dead drum solo rises from the open-air temple, which sprawls inside mossy walls. From the road we see the meru — the tiered-roof shrines made of black thatch from sugar palms, which the Balinese use only in temples. Some villagers peer over the walls, while others play the drums, gongs, xylophones, metallophones and other percussion instruments that produce the music Indonesians call gamelan.

The girls, all wearing purple tops and richly colored sarongs, stand patiently on the roadside. The women climb a steep set of stairs near the back of the temple carrying offerings of woven palm fronds, flowers and food. A few late-arriving men pull up on motorbikes, the predominant vehicle in Bali, dressed in loose white shirts and sarongs. Many wear white headdresses; others have colorful scarves tied around their foreheads.

It has been just over a year since Bali’s paradisiacal aura was shattered by three car bombs that leveled two nightclubs and killed 202 people, mostly Australian tourists. The effects of those bombs — and of the Aug. 5 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, on the island of Java — are still apparent on Bali: Tourism dropped to almost nil after last October’s attack, saw a tepid resurgence in the summer and again ebbed after the Jakarta blast.

But Bali lovers are a resilient bunch, and tourism is returning to the island. Travel agents report steady bookings to Bali, with interest increasing with each terrorism-free week, and online travel bulletin boards report significant activity in the popular tourist areas of Kuta and Ubud. This is occurring despite a sobering summary from the U.S. State Department: “Indonesia is experiencing an ongoing terrorist threat. The potential remains throughout Indonesia for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests.” In an Aug. 28 travel warning, the department advises U.S. citizens to “defer all nonessential travel to Indonesia.” But to address Indonesia as a cohesive country is misleading. The serious trouble spots — Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where the government has imposed martial law due to fighting with rebels, and the northern islands near the Philippines, where the Aby Sayyaf terrorist group roams — are far from the placid shores of Bali.

Even the undercurrent of anti-Western sentiment in Jakarta is distant from Bali, largely because Bali is almost exclusively Hindu while the rest of Indonesia is Muslim. At the core of the Hindu faith is a disarming conviviality and a trust in the peaceful stewardship of the spirits. Of course, not all Muslims are anti-Western, and most are not extremist. But some are, and that goes a long way toward explaining the State Department’s stance on Indonesia.

We arrive on the 87-by-50-mile island and head immediately to the five-star Le Meridien hotel, near the Tanah Lot temple on Bali’s south coast. I am not typically a five-star kind of guy, but the package bargain I found included the Le Meridien for about the price of a Comfort Inn in Gaithersburg. The drive takes us through Denpasar, Bali’s teeming capital, where drivers, motorbikers, bicyclists and pedestrians weave through clouds of exhaust smoke and blocks of one- and two-story shops, offices and markets.

The mayhem in Denpasar is the closest thing on Bali to a real city, and we are happy to leave it behind. The road to Le Meridien winds through terraced rice paddies and past street-front stores and modest homes. Outside Denpasar the countryside opens up a bit, but Bali is well-populated and the residents have tilled much of the island’s land into rice paddies and used the rest for homes, temples and tourist-targeting businesses.

Bill and I have no set plan, but we know we didn’t fly halfway around the world to sit at a resort. We’ve heard that the hills and markets of Ubud are beguiling, so we take a 45-minute taxi ride to a bike rental shop on the edge of Ubud, and 30 minutes later find ourselves as the only foreigners amid a sea of locals.

Villagers of all ages begin streaming from the temple’s ornately sculpted stone entranceway, among them the gamelan players who maintain the hollow beat while walking. In the middle of the crowd, participants carry a red cloth and gold-plate rendition of what looks like a dragon; other marchers carry tall, tasseled umbrellas. Women balance baskets of fruit on their heads.

We ask a man if we can walk with them.

“Yeah, okay, come,” he says in English. The Balinese hold hundreds of ceremonies yearly to summon the gods from the mountains for events ranging from planting crops and building homes to sending off the dead. That two foreigners want to crash this ritual — and we never learn its purpose — seems to bother no one. Throughout our week on the island, we will pass at least 20 ceremonies ranging from small prayer sessions to rousing cremations, with burning pyres mere feet from the road.

We fall in near the rear of the group. Some of the men hold hands, and even the smallest children don’t seem to mind the trudge. The procession snakes through the verdant, hilly countryside. Palm trees and other flora line the terraced rice paddies. Cone-hatted rice farmers, standing knee-deep in the muddy paddies, regard the ceremonial march languidly.

The welcome Bill and I feel during the walk is typical of our weeklong stay on Bali. Our car rental agent delivered the vehicle to our hotel, a 50-minute round-trip drive for him, at no extra charge. Two older women we encountered on a bemo — a public transit minibus — tried in vain to break the language barrier to advise us about local travel. The guys who rented us boogie boards cut us a break when we stayed out on the reef an extra two hours.

It’s all part of the Balinese belief in karma phala, that one’s behavior toward others dictates the treatment one receives. Karma, which can sound flaky when espoused by a hippie in the United States., is a serious guiding principle in Bali.

It was perhaps for this reason — there is no other plausible explanation — that we decided to rent a car in a country where the steering wheel is on the right, driving is on the left and the traffic makes the Beltway at rush hour look like a lonely country lane.

In the worst spots, and there were many, motorbikes carrying up to five passengers or an absurd volume of cargo swerved chaotically among cars, trucks and bicycles, all of which came a hair’s breadth from tragedy before slowing or veering away.

Yet not once during the entire week did we see one argument, middle finger or indignant glare. Often, when I was the offender in a near-death blind pass — a moment that would trigger a profane outburst from, say, the Pope — I would guiltily glance toward the other driver, prepared to pull over and apologize, only to find him grinning at me, delighted at the serendipity of the road spirits.

The Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on Jalan Legian, the busiest street in Kuta, Bali’s busiest tourist district, stopped tourism cold.

“In February, you could sit here and literally count the cars passing by,” says Rick Lamirande from a table in a street-front bar on Jalan Legian, just a few hundred feet from the bomb site. Before us, a steady stream of cars and motorbikes file past. Rick and his wife, Ruth, from Houston, are on their 11th visit to Bali in the past seven years. “I feel completely safe here,” Ruth says. “I wouldn’t think of vacationing anywhere else.”

The strip looks less like a South Seas daydream than a scene from Cancun, minus Mexico’s high-rise hotels: An interminable string of bars, shops and street vendors offers everything from cheap massages and tattoos to $1 watches and rental motorbikes. Jalan Legian parallels the beach a few hundred yards inland, and the space between the avenue and the shore is a labyrinthine carnival of color and chattering hawkers that appears busy enough at first glance. But the mostly empty bars and desperation in the peddlers’ voices tell a different tale.

The beaches and streets of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak in the south — about a 30-minute drive from our hotel — were the only places we encountered appreciable crowds of tourists, mostly Australian, British, Japanese and Taiwanese. Most had come to surf or decompress on the wide beaches.

We find time for both. Twice I pay about $2.50 for a ride in an outrigger, piloted by a sun-charred Balinese man in a thatch cone hat, to the reefs off of Kuta. Hauling myself over the gunwale as the lone passenger, I ask my driver if he speaks English. “Yes,” he says. Excellent, I think, because the surf looks treacherous from shore and I want some guidance.

“Which of these reefs is best for body-boarding?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

Five minutes later he slows the boat to the leeward side of one reef. We are floating on an indigo plane; behind us, Kuta’s crescent beach stretches up the coast, smattered with tourists and peddlers. Beyond that, faintly visible through the humidity, rise the green hills of central Bali and Ubud.

“Where should I go in?” I ask, waving my hand alternately toward a few nearby breaks.

“Yes,” he answers.

Ah, well. Just as I am dropping over the side, he recalls one of his few English phrases and, gesturing toward the horizon, exclaims, “Set coming! Set coming!”

I spend the next 90 minutes riding the biggest, most consistent and well-formed waves of my life. The waves range from about eight to 15 feet and peel powerfully across the coral. Numerous times I find myself completely enveloped in a tube, bracing for the beating of a closeout wave, only to reemerge into sunlight, coasting above the colorful reef visible through the crystal water beneath me.

Eager to get a little closer to the reef life, we desert our hotel for two days and drive to Bali’s east coast, where the scuba diving is renowned.

“Relax, we will dive today,” says Wolfram “Sigi” Siegmeth, moments after we pull into the Tauch Terminal dive resort in the east coast town of Tulamben. The resort sits like an oasis at the end of a dusty gravel road, with white canvas umbrellas and a thatch-roofed massage bed adjacent to a swimming pool, all overlooking the tranquil Bali Sea. A canopied dining deck is next to the dive shop.

There is something disorienting about a German guy telling me to relax, but Sigi, the robust, balding resort manager, has a case. Bill and I are strung out after four hours of driving on sporadically marked roads. We had pulled off the main road at 4:30 p.m. and jumped out of the car, inquiring immediately if we could dive the wreck of the American Liberty cargo ship, which rests 150 feet offshore from the resort.

Sigi sets us at one of the waterfront tables and saunters off to find a guide. He has good reason to want us happy: Though a few Dutch and German guests mill around the pool, the hotel is far less full than it would be in a typical July, one of Bali’s high seasons.

The ship was torpedoed — but not sunk — by the Japanese in 1942. The U.S. military towed the vessel to shore, offloaded the cargo and abandoned the craft. A massive eruption in 1963 of “Mother Mountain,” the 9,888-foot Gunung Agung volcano, killed more than 1,000 people and shook the ship off the shelf where it sat. The 300-foot-long boat, now coral-encrusted and teeming with fish, rests on its side in water ranging from 15 to about 100 feet. It is among Bali’s most popular dives.

We walk down a narrow, black-stone beach followed by a wiry Balinese woman in flip-flops, who carries our scuba tanks on her head. Our Hungarian guide, Misa, explains that the dive resorts “pay the villagers here not to fish the reefs, but then other villages come and fish it.” At least, Misa says, the locals have stopped bomb-fishing — dropping explosives into the reef — and harvesting coral to make cement, a practice that greatly accelerated beach erosion down the coast in the town of Candidasa in the 1980s. The resorts also pay village women and children to carry the scuba tanks to steer them away from more destructive wage earning.

But we see little evidence of ruin underwater. Clouds of fish ply the ship: bright yellow cornet fish, vibrant queen angelfish, a huge school of jacks and a small black tip reef shark. Most interesting are the species I haven’t seen in my limited diving career, including nudibranchs, flatworms and odd fish like the Oriental sweetlip.

The next morning we leave Tulamben shadowed by the hulking mass of Gunung Agung. Somewhere up there, the gods are keeping a close eye on the karma ledger. They have much accounting to do. Whether Bali will emerge from uncertain times as a place of peace, war or fear is uncertain. Driving down the coast on a breezy day, all I see are clear skies, blue waters and the smiles of a people who are holding firm to a welcoming way of life.

 

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