20 August 2009

Bali: Flower Shower!

Bali is stunningly beautiful: Wherever you look, some stone-carved statues of cows and Hindu mythological figures are adorned with the freshest flowers, drivers would put a leaf bowlof carefully arranged colourful flower heads on their dashboard. Streets are tidy, neat and structured – a refreshing surprise coming from chaotic, over-disconstructed Malaysia where many towns are an omnipresent eye-sore. Even Malaysian country-side is not maintained. The only patch of nature that receives close attention and sth remotely reminiscent of order in Malaysia, are monocultural plantations.

The only thing that could be improved is the immigration queue in Denpasar. Whatever was gained by landing 13 min ahead of schedule was entirely lost by spending 1.5 (!) hours in a packed, not air-conditioned hall with I swear at least 799 other passengers streaming in from the airfield and many people (Asian and Western) trying to jump the infinite queue. Just because I pass the time immersed reading a book on humanitarianism in crisis, that does not mean that I am not paying attention to the queue (we're talking Asian-style Q here – survival of the fittest; Brits and Japanese no chance!).

It took AGES on my two feet before I could even hear a loud stamp from any of the overwhelmed/understaffed immigration booths. Then the 10 US-$ visa on arrival can only be paid in alternatives from € to Yen, Chinese Yuan, Hong Kong Dollars, Australian Dollars and New Zealand Dollars – NOT MALAYSIAN RINGGIT! Ridiculous! Of course there is no ATM on this side of the border, so they let you walk through the border control without visa (!) to access one of five deserted ATMs in the luggage claim area – next to them the total bags of one flight pulled off from the belt by an elderly airport worker lying strewn on the floor, for they had been driving in circles for two hours already.

The congress was absolutely, staggeringly amazing!!! And I am not exaggerating! There was definitely a highly professional committee behind it. Every detail well organised in advance – free shuttle transfer from partner hotels to the International Convention Centre, Balinese dance, more than 2000 delegates and 300 security staff, high profile speakers, perfect coordination and media. The congress opening ceremony was chaired by nobody less than the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself.



The ICAAPs are only held in countries where there are no travel restrictions for HIV+ people. The whole closing ceremony reminded me of an Olympic handover party where the figurative red ribbon is symbolically passed on to the next host country.

We saw a video putting together the best of the 9th ICAAP in Bali and a teaser for South Korea. I was trying to find the former but so far could only get the welcome video from the opening ceremony. The congress itself was mainly sponsored by UNAIDS, AusAid, the Global Fund... and apart from pre-congress community networking events (ie “youth group”, “multi-faith group”), they also organised visits to local health centres.

I brought home a ton of material to mine through of course. But more on the congress and the issue of AIDS in the Asia-Pacific in a short while!

Bali is beautiful! No - it is honeymoon heaven! Heavenly high four-poster beds decorated with orchids that I privately call “island beds” because you climb onto them, the poles made of beautiful teak with white linen curtains thoughtfully draped over them; earthenware tiles; a colourful bush of tropical flowers outside your porch that would make my mother happy. You wake up in the morning, open the door to a garden landscape and find a fresh (Hindu) offering on the small table outside your bungalow. A spacey shiny bathroom with chrome fittings. Banana pancake (ripe!) with Balinese caramelised sugar and local coffee for breakfast, beef satay served on coals for dinner or chicken with crisp Balinese vegetables and spices, the freshest pure Mango juice, rice cake made with coconut milk for dessert. - In short, I want to live there! The sand warm, light yellow and fine under your toes, the water shallow and perfectly heated...!

My dream was to see a coffee plantation and go up to Munduk, a cozy village near the volcano crate (mundok in tagalog means "mountain" and in Indonesian probably sth similar; there you can see again that these languages are related!) and enjoy the reputed scenic views over the whole island and its tea and coffee plantations, spice gardens, vanilla crops. For that though, you had to book early so Nathan got to cycle through the rice paddies and bumped into some village festival while I checked out the local shops for the best place to buy my sarong. That I did not get to see the lush highland vegetation and the island spread out underneath under the sun shall be my incentive to return, same with sea diving. Bali is a wonderful spot to go scuba diving with great coral reefs and a vibrant sea life.

A crazy thing to see in Ubud is the mansion (sic!) of the so-called Dali of Bali, an eccentric Filipino who convinced the local raja to give him a plot of land that today houses his studio/gallery/house. When Antonia Blanco (as his common name goes) was still alive, he was rubbing shoulders with many international celebrities like for example, Michael Jackson. He does a lot of collages of naked women that look French-inspired and was particularly obsessed by female round forms. His muse used to be his wife, a Balinese dancer with whom he had children. His son has taken over his legacy and is now an artist himself. The house is that of a crazy artist, winding marble stairs and tainted glass atrium to let in loads of sunlight as well as noisy parrots and roosters in the decadent garden.



We got to see the Balinese Lenggong dance performed in Ubud, THE city of fine arts and crafts for more than a century. Since I got off one more day than Nathan, I even saw another Balinese dance called the Kecak. The main difference is that the Kecak dance is accompanied by a 100-man strong choir in Sarong that keeps doing verbal percussion canons with the word (is it even a word or just a sound?) “kecak” whereas the Lenggong is accompanied by a traditional Gamelan orchestra. The Lenggong was mainly choreographed dance with less interaction between the dancers. The kecak dance was more of a drama performance, showing a story of the Ramayana where Rama's princess got abducted by another king who tricks her with a golden deer and then Rama gets her out of there by help of Hanuman (the famous mythological monkey figure that you will see a lot in Thailand too) and the bird Garuda.

I swam a bit with the Baywatch suit my mother sent me (bright red) - sth I could never wear on my own in Malaysia without a shirt to ward off confusion or unwanted attention Рnever aggression. And while I was doing my backstrokes in the pool looking at the green trees and green-everything around me, I thought, how great it is to be able to walk around without having to be self-aware of what you are wearing and how you are wearing it. Not that I am desperate to get my clothes off or that I consider anyone modern or backward or that I don't expect a certain level of appropriateness from my own fellow citizens - but when you grew up in a country where it is alright to show a bra strap, where you don't get harassed for wearing an open skirt covering your knees, where you can absent-mindedly go to a public pool wearing a bikini, where you can go buy some groceries at night without having to don a shawl across your d̩collet̩ or where you can wear a fitted sleeveless girl shirt without men staring at you, that is certainly refreshing!

It's a trip I'll always remember and an island I definitely want to return to – this is where I want to settle!

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