Stepping off the ferry, the island of Bali immediately has a different feel. More relaxed, laid back and chill. Our tour guide, Diego, flaunted a Hawaiian shirt and a white puka shell necklace. Diego’s Spanish was not as good as Heni’s but it was still noteworthy and excellent for a country that definitely does not have a Spanish class embedded in their normal education system. He was also not really named Diego. His Indonesian name was unpronounceable by most tourists so he preferred for us to call him his work name, Diego. He was much more on my level of Spanish which added to my newfound relaxed state of mind. Diego and driver were to take us on a five hour journey to our hotel in Ubud- including a two hour hike to see the Sekumpul Waterfalls and some rice fields on the way. Throughout the drive, which was not as nearly trafficked by motorbikes as Java had been, we learned a lot about the environment and flora and fauna on Bali. The most noteworthy change in scenery was all the monkeys on the side of the road. Where there would have been a mosque in Java, there was a monkey in Bali. (Unlike Java, most of Bali identifies as practicing Hindu). We saw monkeys like you see squirrels in upstate New York. Diego explained that since the rain forests are so contaminated (Indonesia has a huge waste management problem) that the monkeys cannot find food easily, and they have learned to wait on the side of the road for humans to throw them food as they drive by. The novelty of seeing so many monkeys faded into depression. The scenery was beautiful, with volcanoes and mountains and the sea in the distance. By the time we reached our hotel, it was dark. And upon checking in, after Diego had left us, we discovered we were in the wrong hotel.
Ubud is full of fancy hotels packed into obscure spots in the middle of the rainforest. We were dropped at a hotel with a slightly different name. Although they didn’t have our reservation, they were willing to put us up in a room. It wasn’t until we got to the room, and I realized it didn’t look anything like the photos online, that I started to panic. We trudged back to the check-in area (a bit of a hike with luggage) and began the fun process of using an Indonesian landline, limited language skills, and fighting with the hotel wifi to try to find out where are real hotel was and how to get there. Fortunately the lady at this hotel was very helpful and very fluent in English. I’m eternally grateful for her. Also, our travel agency owned up to the mistake and comped us a free couples massage at our actual hotel. Thus began four days of jungle relaxation and bliss.
Finally, four days without any alarm clock, let alone a 1-3 am alarm clock. Sleeping in and waking up naturally to the morning jungle rain was exactly what we needed after days of adventure and thrill. We had our own little jungle bungalow, complete with front porch that sat high among the trees, overlooking endless green rain forest and a river somewhere far below us. Every morning we would make coffee in the room and sit with our books on the front porch, drinking our coffee and watching the peaceful rain. Eventually the serenading bird replaced the pitter-patter of rain on the thatched roof, and this was our signal to head up to breakfast to claim our spot by the pool. We’d spend a few hours at the pool, sunbathing, cocktailing and watching other couples make some interesting choices; muscle shots by the pool, a floating breakfast…. all the cliche instagramable moments I suppose. After getting our fill of Vitamin C, we would shower up and head into the town for the afternoon.
The town of Ubud is my ideal vacation spot. Yes, it’s for sure a little touristy, but it also maintains cultural integrity. It’s a busy little town surrounding by lush rain forests. After so many days in the middle of nowhere, it was just nice to be a part of civilization again…..a civilization with westernized public toilets! Ubud is full of trendy restaurants, hipster bars, open markets, souvenir shops for anyone’s wallet, intertwined with messy electrical lines and perched on them, monkeys! Monkeys swinging from vines, monkeys steeling an entire watermelon from a guy’s grocery bag. Monkeys everywhere. Ubud even has a Starbucks, and one of the coolest Starbucks I’ve seen. You can sip your tall, iced, mocha while gazing at a beautiful, historic temple that sits just across a pond of lily pads. It’s a place where you’ll want to have a lot of time to just explore and walk around without being held to a time-limit. The only time crunch we felt was our dinner reservation (most of the more popular restaurants require a reservation), but it didn’t hinder our freedom. We had plenty of time to fuel up at Starbucks, leisurely walk the streets and markets, peruse the over-priced souvenir shops, grab a refreshing cocktail all after the best part of the day- the monkeys.
Ubud is also home to my favorite attraction in the whole country: The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Now, unlike the monkeys on the sides of the road, this place was not at all sad. It’s the quickest walk from the center of town, maybe ten minutes at most. We paid the entrance fee and my husband chuckled at the price and said “I doubt we are even going to see any monkeys” just as one leapt in front of us to gnaw on some fruit along the path. Two paces later, another. And another. This place is full of monkeys, there’s absolutely no chance of not seeing one. And as it is a sanctuary, the monkeys are protected and treated properly. There were two monkeys in cages, one being rehabilitated before he could re-enter monkey society, and the other caged for life because he was blind and he would never survive on his own. Workers keep the monkeys happy and fed, but the monkeys completely run the show. It is a completely natural habitat, pure rain forest with a large river that runs through, massive trees laced with vines for monkeys to swing from. The sanctuary has built up bridges to cross the river and other facilities to accommodate humans to easily move throughout the land while not disturbing the monkeys. However, it’s unlikely that monkeys won’t disturb you. As long as you follow their set of rules- no plastic bottles, don’t make eye contact with monkeys, don’t touch them- you should leave with a completely satisfying monkey experience and with amazing pictures such as these.
Nusa Dua or Nusa Dont ya?
As our jungle paradise came to an end, it was time to move to our final destination in Indonesia- Nusa Dua. If you read Part 1 of this story, this is the part where we go to “Bali proper” and yes, we were headed to a resort. A quick few hours in what was our shortest car ride of the whole trip, we crossed over a lengthy highway bridge onto a little “peninsula” at the most southern point of Bali. I’ll admit, I’d done the least amount of research on the “beachy” part of the trip. We chose Nusa Dua solely from the referral of some friends, we even chose the resort they recommended- the Ayodya Resort Bali. Looking back, would I have chosen a different part of Bali for the “relax on the beach” segment? Possibly. But in the midst of wedding planning, who has time for that? Either way, the resort was impressive- expansive grounds, a variety of restaurants and activities, a pool and beach area, a nice room with a balcony. Although I don’t like being trapped on a resort, I do appreciate a good hotel with nice amenities, and finally sleeping without a mosquito net. Also, the thrill of taking a dip in the Indian Ocean doesn’t wear off until you inevitably encounter a chunk of swimming plastic.
Nusa Dua is a perfectly manicured chunk of land, home to many resorts and an outlet mall that feeds the impulses of the most typical tourists. To enter the entire area, our car had to be inspected for bombs and our hotel reservation shown. We were clearly entering the zone of no-culture. After crossing the bomb-checking threshold, the road turned from rocky gravel to perfectly paved white cement that swirled through pristine lawns and picturesque palm trees. The area was quiet and safe with hotel shuttles and taxis and a few stray motorbikes. It felt like we had entered Disney grounds, without Mickey. We passed the entrances of many resorts but could never see the resort itself. Finally we entered our own resort, where security once again checked our car, and we turned the corner to find the Indonesian-style, palatial architecture of Ayodya. It at least looked like it had some cultural flair, and it turned out that it did indeed have some. But most of the people staying at our resort were Russian or French and I think I absorbed more of their culture than Balinese culture. At the very least, I was able to brush up my Russian proficiency. All the signs (and menus) throughout the resort were written in this order: Indonesian, Russian, English, Chinese, French, Japanese. This piqued my interest in linguistics and it became a fun game to identify the languages people were speaking.
Tourists and Earthquakes and Parasites, oh my!
Despite my antsy self feeling a bit limited at the resort, our trip to Nusa Dua still came with plenty of thrills- cultural thrills, you may call them. My favorite evening was our first night there, when we opted to pay for the cultural Dinner-Theatre experience. Think a luau, without the hula dancing. In place of a Pahu Drum, we were treated to the vocals of the Balinese Dance Theatre group as they performed a traditional Kecak Dance and led us through the story of Hanuman the monkey, Rama and Sita, in an Indonesian version of Ramayana. Seated under the stars at our own private table with a gourmet barbecue buffet and the talented chanting actors, this was worth way more money than in actually cost, and I would do it all over again if I could.
Aside from the cultural show, we still got some glimpses of true Indonesian culture at the resort. The expansive breakfast buffet (if ever there was a reason to stay at a resort, it’s the breakfast buffet….) always had a nice balance of westernized options and traditional Indonesian options we had become accustomed to from the rest of our trip. We even noticed a few of these had a touch of local Bali-flair to them. The Mie Goreng (fried noodles…yes for breakfast) here was called Balinese Mie Goreng and it had an extra spicy chili garlic sauce that we didn’t notice when we had it on Java. Also there were more fresh tropical fruit options than we had seen in other places in Indonesia.
Other restaurants in the resort we only used for lunch. We were not doing the all-inclusive option so we stuck to some beach-side sandwiches and drinks for our lunch. At night, we would venture off the resort to explore the rest of Nusa Dua and their acclaimed outlet mall. We first went there because it was really the only place to buy affordable water bottles. There was a little grocery store at the entrance where we stocked up on large bottles of water and some beach snacks. We also explored the many restaurants it had to offer. One night, after pouring over Trip Advisor reviews, we checked out a place known to have amazing seafood platters. It was a great deal price-wise and included an appetizer, two side salads and a drink along with a giant table-sized tray of grilled seafood. We were so excited, and in the midst of the excitement of eating our leafy green salad, we forgot one of the golden rules of food in Indonesia: do not eat raw vegetables. I had assumed this was because the vegetables were rinsed in tap water, something else we were supposed to avoid. We had been so careful for the whole trip, brushing our teeth with bottled water every night. I took a cursory glance at my plate, my fork came clanking down on the table as I stifled an actual yelp at the small amoeba-like white worm emerged from under a tomato. The restaurant was mortified (more mortified than me? Unclear…), very apologetic and explained that they do not use pesticides. They eagerly gave offered me a free drink. I downed a few glasses of wine in hopes that if I had swallowed his friend that the alcohol might combat that in my stomach. In hindsight, I should have opted for something stronger because three days later on the plane ride to Dubai, I was running to the tiny plane bathroom and my stomach was not the same for the next two and a half weeks. I still don’t know if I ate the amoeba’s cousin, or if it was the ice in a smoothie I drank on one of our last days there, but you cannot be overly careful with what you put into your mouth, even in the ritsy, resorty areas of Indonesia. The seafood platter was amazing though, almost worth the whole worm-eating saga and it gave us an adventure in a part of Indonesia that we didn’t expect it.
The last adventure woke us up on our final morning. We had stayed up pretty late watching Djokovic destroy Federer in the Wimbledon final, the time difference had us up until 1 or 2 am. It was our last day and we didn’t mind sleeping in a little. A little after 7 am, I was dreaming about something peaceful and suddenly my dream was shaking. My eyes opened and I realized it wasn’t a dream- there was an earthquake. Apparently it wasn’t enough to wake up my husband who can sleep through anything, I gave him an extra shake, threw on my kimono (our resorts’ cute version of a bathrobe) and bolted to the doorway. This was my third earthquake and I knew a little bit about what one “should” do. But the scariest part is that you never know how long they will last, or how severe the shaking will get, especially being in this hot-spot of a country with 127 active volcanoes. Luckily, this one was pretty short, though fairly significant with a 5.8 magnitude. It did damage one of the local historic temples, but aside from knocking out the hotel’s wifi for a few hours (and hindering our ability to check-in for our flight), it didn’t affect us much. It was just one last little adventurous thrill to bid us goodbye.
Is Indonesia the Right Trip for You?
Looking back, I am so glad that we went to Indonesia. It is one hundred percent one of our top travel experiences and a trip of a lifetime. It’s a place where you can really customize the exact trip that you want. We wanted a lot of culture and a healthy mix of adventure and relaxation, and I would say that’s exactly what we got. My only doubts lie in it being the ideal honeymoon destination. Would I have been bored out of my mind on a pristine beach in Bora Bora for two weeks? Absolutely. But there are certain luxuries I would have liked on my honeymoon and the biggest would be a little less worry about safety.
In the end, we didn’t have any problems with safety. But in certain moments of unknown, your anxiety can sore about potentially unsafe situations. Outside of major cities, before a car could enter any resort of get close to a hotel, it had to be scanned for bombs, sometimes accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs. Sometimes the car doors had to be opened to do a visual check. These are procedures that I’m glad are in place and should make me feel safer, but it was in fact very off-putting. There is also always the possibility of an earthquake or a volcano eruption. There are worms hiding all over those fresh vegetables- danger lurks in even the most touristy corners, waiting to taint your digestive system. We had wanted to venture outside of Nusa Dua, to check out one of the Gili islands or even Nusa Penida (where the komodo dragons and pink-sand beaches are) but traveling to these islands is very risky and not guaranteed due to the tiny boats used and the dangerous seas that lie in between. These risks and dangers add to the thrill and adventure of Indonesia, however, for the relaxing honeymooners, they aren’t ideal.
An Honesty Note
Aside from that, all unsettled feelings came from my own head. I think the first few days I was drifting between states of jet lag and sleep deprivation to extreme culture shock. I know, I asked for culture, I wanted culture. I work and have worked with people from literally all over the world from over sixty different countries. I thrive learning about new cultures and having cultural experiences. When my students from Somalia invite me to their family’s annual goat- slaughtering, I am touched, and eager to go (thanks for cancelling another thing Covid-19). But for whatever reason, I was flooded with discomfort and unsettling awe during our first days in Indonesia. I felt unique, out of place and more blonde than I feel in Spain. I’m grateful again for our tour guide Heni who could answer the tough questions I had: Do I need to cover my head in public? Do I need to cover my shoulders at this temple? Can I wear shorts when we ride the bikes? Heni is a practicing Hindu in an otherwise Muslim-dominant area of Java so she was the perfect person to ask. Though Indonesia does not have an official religion, most of Java identifies as Muslim, following closely by Hinduism. On their identification cards, Indonesians are required to indicate their religious preference, however “no religion” is an option. This is one of my favorite parts about Indonesia is its intricate history with religion. It has made it a melting pot of religious practices and very accepting and open to different religions…which really means I didn’t have anything to worry about. And I wasn’t worried, so much as wanting to ensure that I was not offending anyone. I never want to be that American tourist.