Bali Highs And Lows

Bali, the fabulous land of fruit, flowers, and temples on every corner. Or not. This was the one time on this trip where my guide and I just could not get in sync. He wanted to show me “the real Bali.” I thought I wanted to see it.

All began well, with these beautiful dancers waiting to entertain us as we got off the ship. As we drove away from the cruise terminal I was kind of shocked by the level of traffic and development all around us, but then, it’s been 30 years since I last saw Bali so I’d more or less expected that.

First up, an hour-long performance of traditional dancing. Every Balinese dance tells a story, and this one, all about various gods and demons and their mysterious shenanigans, was hard to follow but fun to watch.

The dancers were accompanied by

a really excellent gamelan.

Then we walked to a nearby market, which was just wrapping up for the morning.

There were still some beautiful rambutan and mangosteen, 

but also, these chickens. I haven’t mentioned yet that it was at least 90° out, although that probably goes without saying, and as you can see, the chickens are just lounging about in the open air and undoubtedly have been all morning. Also, all those black specks? Flies.

I try to be chill about things in developing countries, even the dreaded squat toilets, when absolutely necessary. But food sanitation, especially after my years as a personal chef, it’s my bête noire. I just have a hard time with raw, hot, fly-covered food. I’m guessing you do too.

Fortunately the market also sold coconut leaf offerings, and I hoped the food-borne illness gods were appeased.

I partly put it out of my mind with a visit to the Dewa Malen woodcarving workshop, where I saw some particularly fine carving being done, all by hand. This one is crocodile tree, but they also carved hibiscus, ebony, and mahogany.

The men did the carving and the women did the polishing. Dewa Malen is a cooperative that employs about 150 carvers, and I was really glad to have a chance to see them at work and buy a couple of their exquisite carvings.

But then came the test, my visit to “the real Bali.” A Balinese guy on the ship had told me that I should eat lawar, a traditional and ubiquitous Balinese food. Of course I looked it up: minced pork meat, pigs blood, coconut, spices, shrimp paste, and bits of vegetables, all chopped together and eaten over rice. Ok, bring it on!

My guide didn’t want to take me to a restaurant to eat it, but instead to a small village house, evidently a common thing, where the family prepares just lawar and village people come there for a cheap and homey lunch. Also, you eat sitting on a stone floor because, no chairs. Fabulous!

Ok, get ready to see the kitchen.

Here we go again. Food sitting out at ambient temperature, no fridge in sight. And those same black specks everywhere, especially on the food.

So I’m gulping a bit, but I’m thinking that surely she’s going to cook it first, at least heat it up, something.

But no. Just a bare-handed assembly of my plate.

It arrives looking like this,

then you spoon a really, really spicy cold soup over it,

and you just eat it all up. In truth, it was good. The texture was peculiar, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was eating, and of course I was worried about getting deathly ill, but I decided to ignore all that and experience the real deal. My guide urged me at least five times to drink beer with the meal. I’m not sure whether he got a kick-back from the beer seller or whether he viewed the alcohol as a disinfectant. Post-prandial Googling informed me that this dish is often used to test foreigner’s resolve, and if so, by cleaning my plate I passed with flying colors. At least momentarily.

After lunch we went to see a bit of rice harvesting,

and a couple of small temples in the rice field and nearby village. Then my guide proposed that we go “trekking.” He told me that most of his clients, mainly young Aussie guys, loved to drink beer while trekking. Obviously he was used to a different sort of clients, or else he failed to notice that I’m about as far as you can get from a male, beer-swilling Aussie trekker.

Apparently he had no experience of clients who were beginning to feel a bit unwell. Or clients who might find themselves in urgent need of a bathroom while in the middle of nowhere, after a meal that included unrefrigerated pig’s blood.

After a much-too-close-for-comfort emergency visit to the local hospital’s bathroom, guaranteed to have at least one toilet of the sit-down sort, all I wanted to do was get back to the ship and swallow some of the antibiotics that my travel doctor had thoughtfully prescribed before I left.

Which is what I did, and all was well. I felt absolutely fine after that, although I’ll admit that writing about lawar I feel a bit squeamish now.

But it really made me think. If someone says “Do you want to see the real Bali? Do you want to eat an authentic dish in someone’s house?” of course I always want to jump at the chance. But there’s a reason that tourist sites are good for tourists. They’re almost certainly going to be interesting, beautiful, and at least moderately clean and hygienic. Often too much so. It’s a balancing act, authenticity vs. comfort and safety. This time I took a chance on authenticity, but I don’t necessarily recommend that. I could have just as easily found myself with my pants down by the side of the road, and that would have been a real Bali low.

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8 Comments on “Bali Highs And Lows”

  1. No, no, no… Emphatically NO. I once dared to eat a roadside taco on Cozumel and lived to regret it. I didn’t get deathly ill, but because I’d eaten only one (and only because I was starving), the Touristas God just brushed by with a warning not to do that again. Good on ya for bringing antibiotics!!

  2. Sheldon Says:

    You had a good experience and dodged a bullet. Did you visit a plantation and sample coffees and teas? Would love to read about you’re favs.

  3. Barbara Says:

    You were very brave!

  4. If you’ve said I missed it…so could you say where you found your guides? I’ve used Tours by Locals before and wondered if it was there. Thanks.

  5. Abra Bennett Says:

    I’ve been searching for Australian-grown coffee, so far without success. I was supposed to go to one in Bali, but the effects of the lawar intervened.

    I’ve been finding guides from many sources. Mostly I scour TripAdvisor as a starting point.

  6. Katherine Says:

    Narrow escape

  7. Emily Says:

    Fascinating report…and that chicken photo had me laughing out loud. (the chorus line) You’re far braver than I for eating the lawar, although I typically like to experience the “real thing” as well.

  8. Carrie Sloan Says:

    This post hit home for me…..especially the raw, fly-laden, animal-based proteins (to be eaten) and what would appear in the picture to be morcilla? Morcilla is a favorite here (in Argentina) that I’ve never tried, but everybody says that of all the animal products, it’s most important to ensure your morcilla comes from a trusted source.

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