The long road to Bali

Photographs by Gina Gouveia

In the final scene of “The Joy Luck Club,” a moment that never fails to move me, a young American woman goes to China to meet her two older sisters, whom their mother, now dead, was forced to abandon during World War II. I kept thinking about that scene as I headed to Indonesia with my sister Gina to visit our sister Jana, who has lived and worked there for two and a half years.

I am a reluctant traveler. Even so, the trip would daunt Charles Lindbergh himself – some 10,000 miles for a total flight time of just under a day. Still, I decided to make the journey as a way to honor our mother, who died last year, and as a Christmas gift to my sisters, who graciously provided the transportation and lodging.

For many, the Indonesian province of Bali – our ultimate holiday destination – is well worth the trek (in my case, from Newark through Tokyo, Singapore and the Indonesian capital of Jakarta). Situated in the Indian Ocean, the island is a sensuous place of fragrant frangipanis, beguiling birds, ripe fruits and riper bodies. At the Grand Hyatt Bali in Nusa Dua – a 45-acre complex where I stayed with my family – the island’s voluptuousness announces itself long before you make your way past red-roofed villas, lotus pools, carved footbridges and sinuous paths to the creamy sands and undulating blue waters. Curvaceous welcoming sculptures – their hips cocked to underscore their hourglass shapes – dot the landscape, suggesting a distinct Hindu influence. Although Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, Bali – which is comprised of several of its 17,508 islands – is more than 90 percent Hindu, with Muslims, Buddhists and Christians making up the remainder.

“That makes it quite unusual,” said Per Kredner, the Swedish-born hotel manager of the Grand Hyatt Bali, who first came to the island as a tourist.

Bali, he reminds me, is the “island of the gods,” and all of them coexist happily there – no doubt, because they’re so busy frolicking in the surf, shops and eateries.

Birds of paradise

Bali can’t help but be a sensuous place. The landscape is luxuriant with hardy grasses (often manicured by hand), orchids and date palms. The hot air is pregnant with the perfume of stargazer lilies and frangipanis (white, five-petal blossoms that the Grand Hyatt cleverly uses in place of traditional mints on the pillow). The frothy waves are a surfer’s delight.

No wonder Bali is home to some 300 species of birds (all of whom seemed to have taken up residence outside my balcony at 5 a.m.). But our feathered friends are not the only ones to flock to the island. Bali is a popular tourist destination for Australians, Japanese, Indians, Russians and Germans, along with, Per said, an increasing number of Americans. They come not only for the verdant beauty – matched by the grace and graciousness of the Indonesian people – but the spectacular resorts and spas; the shopping, both luxe and bargain; and the nightlife, which can be a walk on the sensual side.

I got a taste of much of this when some of our party of seven ventured into Kuta, a classic beach town some 30 minutes from Nusa Dua. Actually, the trip takes much longer, because as in Jakarta, there is plenty of construction and driving is something of a free-for-all, with few stop signs or lights. (This, one observer would later tell me, is part of Indonesia’s live-for-the-moment culture.)

I didn’t care about the congestion, because it gave me a chance to drink in the flamboyant sculptures that command the traffic circles, including the Patung Satria Gatotkaca statue, which depicts a scene from the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Indian epic. It’s a masterpiece of rippling musculature, both equine and human.

Equally fascinating is the eclectic mix of architecture, everything from tinny storefronts to neoclassical buildings, reflecting Indonesia’s multicultural heritage, which includes Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. (See related story.)

Unzipped

In Kuta, our party searched for discount watches and Ray-Bans, with my sister Gina – who also served as photographer – proving to be an effective bargainer. I tagged along for the local color, dressed in a bathing suit, sarong and thong sandals, a frangipani behind one ear. It doesn’t take long to dress down in Bali. I met a handsome young Australian couple wearing far less, their bodies glistening.

“Isn’t it hot back home in Perth?” I asked.

“Not as hot as here,” he said with a big Aussie grin.

There’s lots of emphasis on the body in Kuta. Businesses and advertisements everywhere offer spa treatments. Merchants think nothing of touching you, though such assertive salesmanship divides carefully along gender lines. Again, it’s part of a mind-set that says you’ve got to make your rupiah (9,670 to a dollar) today, never mind about tomorrow.

In Kuta, the ways to make rupiah are apparently many. A friend of my sister Jana later teased me about not taking advantage of a phenomenon for women tourists – the sculpted male prostitutes. (These Bali beach boys are the subject of the 2010 documentary “Cowboys in Paradise.”)

If I had only known, I would’ve checked out the action – purely in the interest of research, of course.

World-class

Alas, I had no time for Balinese midnight cowboys. It was on to a different kind of attraction – the new Mulia Bali, which opened in time to ring in the new year with a performance by “American Idol’s” Adam Lambert. The soaring space – all marble and chandeliers – is over-the-top in every sense of the word. One restaurant alone features stations for Indonesian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and American cuisines. (The sushi bar has the best shrimp tempura I ever tasted.) But it’s worth visiting the Mulia for its terraced gardens alone, a series of pools and palms – watched over by a caryatid of lotus-bearers – that cascades down to the ocean. I wondered as I wandered there amid the sound and light show of an approaching thunderstorm if this is what Nebuchadnezzar II had in mind when he created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Mulia is just one example of the business boom on Bali. Another is a mall with a familiar name, the Galleria, and a big new terminal at Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport. The construction, the changing infrastructure and the slow tempo of life can make even paradise a challenge. Still, Bali is readying itself for its close-up on the world’s economic stage as it plays host to the APEC CEO Summit next October.

All of which suggests that the island is like one of its famous sculpture-crowned traffic circles, offering a dizzying array of turns.

“It will be interesting,” Per Kredner said, “to see what it will become.”

 

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