A witch comes out to cast a spell, and I'm entranced for the rest of the day.

Shaking shaggy locks a muppet would be envious of, the evil spirit has a hard time battling the forces of good. It waves 12-inch white claws and hits the other dancers with leafy branches to the accompaniment of the beautifully chaotic gamelan orchestra.

Again stepping out of character in our traveling, Dan and I joined the rest of the wedding group for an all-day cultural highlights tour of Bali.

We had an ambitious list of attractions to get through, most of them offering shopping opportunities--batik factory, wood carving workshop, silversmiths and an art collective.  Others were scenic, as in our lunch stop at a buffet restaurant built on a cliff overlooking a trio of volcanoes and a quick trip to a valley terraced with rice paddies.

My favorites, though were a little more mystical: the dances illustrating legends, the Hindu temple and the forest of sacred monkeys.

 Our first stop was the batik factory. Batiks are also made in Southwest China and other Asian areas, but the Balinese ones are world renowned. Made by dying drizzled patterns of hot wax, batiked fabrics are traditionally used in Balinese dress and now for everything from shoes to book covers to formal gowns.

In a pavilion outside an air-conditioned shop craftswomen gave a step-by-step demonstration of the art. The shop itself was too expensive for our budget, but it was interesting to see another culture's batiks after the villages of Guizhou Province in China.

Next, our guide directed the bus to a silver workshop and later to a wood workshop. They were similar to the batik stop--the artisans worked al fresco while the high-priced wares were displayed in shiny cases inside an over-air-conditioned building. I tried to buy some silver earrings but the prices weren't advantageous so we decided to try the markets in Legian later, where our bargaining might be more successful.

Before lunch, we took in the dance performance, my highlight of the day. The sounds of the gamelan orchestra, a group of instruments apparently all built to be played together in one group – meaning a xylophone from one gamelan couldn't be played with another group of musicians--is THE soundtrack to Bali. All of the hotels and shops play it nonstop, and soon it became part of the background of our trip.

The dancing was striking because of the energy and focus it must take to keep the body rigid for so long. The tour guide Legros told us it takes years of training to be able to control fingers and toes that way, and that every slight positioning of the fingers conveys a different message.

After the performance we headed farther inland, stopping at the Elephant Cave Temple. To enter the temple everyone had to have their legs covered, so the women all had fun watching the guys borrow sarongs and figure out how to tie them around their waists like skirts and then try to walk down the stairs to the temple's pools and altars.

When worshiping at this temple, Hindus first go to the yellow-skirted fountains in a purification pool to wash their faces and hands. Then they go to a small cave to make offerings to rocks that represent their deities. The cave has been used as a temple for hundreds of years.

The rock face around the cave opening is carved in the shape of a face—but not an elephant's face as the name of the temple would suggest. Legros told me the cave was named “elephant” because it was large, like an elephant. Outside the whorled rock, large altars near the cave entrance were piled high with cookies and fruit as offerings. We were there during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, so I wasn't sure if the temple always had this many offerings or just on this holiday.

On the way to lunch by the islands' central volcanoes, we stopped at a botanical garden to sample local-grown passionfruit, snakeskin fruit and guava and to drink cocoa and coffee from the area's farms. I also tried Kopi Luwak coffee, which is made from coffee beans digested by a kind of Sumatran civet cat. The poop coffee, as we decided to call it, tasted a little stronger than usual coffees but wasn't that unusual. I had heard of it before, apparently it fetches astronomically high prices in Europe.

In the evening, just before sunset, when regrettably the light was bad for pictures, we entered the monkey forest near the mountain village of Ubud. The forest, now a park, is full of monkeys who come out to the central areas to eat and pose for the tourists. Legros said the monkeys could get fierce if you carried any food or shiny things into the park, so we left most stuff in the bus while we went in. The monkeys were getting a dinner of sweet potatoes though, so probably wouldn't have been interested in our food anyway.

The day was finished by fish, prawns and clams at a restaurant along the beach in Denpasar before we got back to Legian, completely exhausted.

This taste of Bali's culture was a great break from the tourist-swamped areas of Legian and Kuta, though I couldn't really say we went 'off the beaten track' or anything. It was a good sampler pack for things to see in Bali (and probably the rest of Indonesia), so if time permits later in our Big Trip, Dan and I might revisit the archipelago.

**Click here to see photos of Bali!**


 


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