Sometimes when you travel, it's not about seeing the best beach, most significant landmark or most alluring sunset. Sometimes it's about escaping as much of what you take for granted as the dull pace of everyday life as is humanly possible. I felt that often throughout the nine days I spent in Bali, an island that's held a magical place in my mind and heart ever since hearing about Colin McPhee's "A House in Bali."
It's not to say that Bali doesn't have great beaches, significant landmarks or alluring sunsets but what distinguishes it is how the Indonesian island has commodified its culture without taming it. Monkeys roam free and fire springs eternal during tribal dances.
For the first few days though, I didn't leave my villa at The Mulia, a resort on the Indian Ocean in Nusa Dua that makes you forget you're not royalty. (I was told Putin has stayed here.) Tree-lined walkways wind through the lush grounds, and there aren't many places where the waves can't be heard. A Balinese Hindu temple sits between the pool and the beach and a buffet dinner is anything but ordinary. As I approach the casual "café" that gleams with marble on my first night, dozens of staff members stop in their tracks and form a welcoming line for my arrival. The food stations are endless but the highlight is an ice cream dessert folded into a sandwich.
The villas are set on a hill atop the resort and accessed by golf carts. I'm assigned a butler and given his number to call whenever I need transportation. Inside, the ceiling arches into a grand dome, and there's a seamless divide between the bedroom and the outdoor living space and pool. The sun bakes me as I float on my back. Besides the faint rapt of the ocean, there are no other sounds and solitude sinks in.
A day goes by when I don't leave. I feel both detached and utterly connected and write two pieces on my laptop from a plush couch with a fan overhead. I'm more productive than I am in my Manhattan apartment and begin fantasizing about never leaving. Thoughts of missing New York's unparalleled theater scene immediately flood through my mind, but otherwise I think I'd be all right. There are nine restaurants and lounges here (more than some small towns) and I haven't had a bad meal. I was told by a chef in Singapore to check out a restaurant in Kuta (the nightlife capital of the island) but the desire not to make decisions overwhelms.
Too often at resorts no matter how high end, the experience can feel forced or little details are botched, but at the Mulia it's easy to feel like a reclusive king. I can't say I ever got tired of this feeling but a curiosity began to build in me until I decided to hire a car and venture out. Driving in Bali is a peculiar and grueling experience. The roads aren't quite big enough for cars (perhaps due to the fact the most people ride mopeds) and are often jammed with traffic. It's worth it though to see the rice fields in Ubud, giant tiered greenscapes that look like no other farmland I've seen.
There are more than 20,000 temples in Bali so when you tell someone you'd like to see a few, they'll give you a weary sardonic smile. Pura Luhur Uluwatu is one of the better ones not just because it sits on the edge of majestic cliff but because they have nightly kecak and fire dance performances. As the sun sets, the chanting begins, there's a story but I don't follow it. I'm anticipating the fire and then it happens, first in sparks and then giant blazes of heat that forms a ring in the center of the stage. The plot has to do with an exiled price and a demon king but the real transformation as an outsider and theater lover was how they communicate catharsis. The dances are expressive but so are the dancers' faces and their elaborate costumes.
The temple also features a pack of roaming monkeys who are known to grab glasses and hats of unsuspecting tourists. They usually drop them off in a treetop leaving their befuddled owners gazing up at the lost items. For more primates gone wild, the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud can't be beat. While you pay admission like a zoo, these creatures have no cages or boundaries so watch out for frisky ones.
The sanctuary's mantra is Tri Hita Karana which is Hindu for "three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being," according to their website. I'm not sure I felt either, but it's definitely an out-of-body experience to watch the monkeys splashing around in a pond two feet from you and not knowing if they're going to hurl the water at you, leap onto your back or continue to play with their friends. They're unpredictable like us, which made me think: in thousands of years will there be a higher evolved creature that will create sanctuaries for us?
On my last day of exploration, the car stops on the edge of an expansive valley with the active volcano Batur in the distance flanked by mountains and framed by billowy clouds. An artist approaches me with intricate portraits of mythological Hindu creatures done with colorful charcoal. I don't have a lot of cash on me, but I give him all I have for a pair. One is a plump green face grinning with eyes closed in satisfaction and the other is a purple hewed fiend who is electrocuted with amazement. The latter reminded a friend of her father. They now sit in the living room on either side of my TV, peering at me from a distant place.