Everyone in Bali smiles. Big, broad, beaming smiles. And all that’s necessary to evoke it is eye contact. Even when they may be preoccupied with weaving their scooters through traffic or carrying a heavy, flailing pig across the road, you only have to hint at a smile from your own lips and the response is immediate and electrifying.
“Transport?” queried a smiling young man on a sidewalk in Ubud, an artsy town in the south-eastern hills. It’s a frequent offer on the streets of nearly every town in Bali. Everyone with a car will offer you a ride for a small price. You may say “no thank you” seven times on Monkey Forest Road in Ubud. But what’s heart-warming is that you will always receive an enthusiastic “Welcome!” in response.
As one of Indonesia’s luxury destinations, Bali is a truly service-oriented society and economy. Away from the resorts on the coast, there is less commercial zeal and more genuine friendliness. Culturally, Bali differs from other Indonesian islands, and indeed is an exception in this predominantly Muslim country with its Hindu-Buddhist history. It is this history that shapes the Balinese approach to life and the Balinese landscape.
Exploring the surroundings of Ubud on bike is perhaps the best way to take in the beautiful landscape, with all its rice terraces, temples, villages and cackling roosters. I signed up for a daytrip with Arung from Bali Moon Group. We began with a morning stop at an eclectic orchard growing everything from mangosteen, papaya and peanuts to cacao, coffee beans and tea leaves. Arung also introduced us to salak, a fruit with a brown, snake-scaled skin that looks like a nut inside and tastes like mixture of apple and pear.
After an invigorating ginger tea we were driven up to the edge of Mount Batur. The mountain bikes were unloaded and we were ready to start off downhill back towards Ubud. Arung had assured us back in the office that it was “all downhill”, but some of us were taken aback by how steep downhill can be. And the road was just a rocky path. One of the English girls on the excursion already wanted to make use of the trailing van service that carried our backpacks, but was persuaded to stick with it since it would get easier.
Our reward, when it began to level out, was a school full of excited children running towards the road to greet us. Six and seven year old boys were exploding with excitement, seemingly overwhelmed by such an unexpected visit from strangers. “Hallo! Hallo!” they squealed, vying to make eye contact with any one of the cyclists and jumping for high-fives. Wide-eyed awe and giggles rippled through the crowd as our group responded to their eagerness. It felt like the Tour de France. A few boys ran with the bikes until they were out-paced or came to the end of the village.
We cycled along rice paddies, many of them flocked by ducks feeding on leftover grains. In the rolling countryside I could hear the lovely sound of bamboo music and wind chimes everywhere. We passed through several more villages, all laid out on a sloping north-south axis and flanked by walled enclosures that are the typical Balinese. Each had an elaborately carved gateway and immediately behind it a wall, the aling-aling, to keep floating evil spirits from sweeping in through the open gateway.
In one village an old man on a moped scooted up beside me to ride tandem and indulge in conversation. His smile was wide, his questions direct. “Where you from? Where you stay? Where you go?” He exudes a pride in managing dialogue with a foreigner and brushes off the cajoling of youngsters. As we neared the open countryside he veered off back into his village and signalled his final sentence with a wave,”The Balinese people welcome you. Good time.”
Everyone, just everyone, genuinely wants to have contact and wish you well. When we came to the end of our cycle we were invited into a family home. The residential compound had sleeping pavilions for extended family members, a fountain in the middle, a temple and a low table for us to share dinner. A typical Indonesian meal is a selection of hot and cold plates, with spicy meats, peanut sauces and sautéed vegetables. Everyone was exhausted from the combination of heat and pedalling, and completely ready to feast on the buffet.