Hello dear readers! I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted. My excuse is that I’ve been busy with lots of wonderful things. One of those things was getting married and going on my honeymoon! Happily, my husband was okay spending our honeymoon in a Richard Halliburton destination. Not that it was a hardship–the destination was Bali.
Richard Halliburton first heard about Bali from a strange expat who stared longingly into the distance while recalling Bali’s “beautiful people–its brilliant coloring–its unspoiled naturalness.” So in 1922, Richard Halliburton traveled from mainland Asia to the sunny northern shores of Bali, ready to explore the far-flung and much-romanticized island. And what he found didn’t disappoint. As he wrote in a letter home, “…in Bali I’ve seen the rarest and most novel things and have enjoyed and profited more than in any other place I’ve been.”
Fast forward to July 2017. Ryan and I traveled for 36 hours to arrive in this Indonesian paradise, a journey that felt no less grueling than Richard’s weeks at sea. But instead of unspoiled culture and pristine beaches, we were greeted by appalling traffic, heavy grey skies, and rocky shores scraped clean of sand.
Alas, the Bali of Richard’s day is long gone. As one of the top travel destinations for decades running, Bali has been overrun with tourists and development to the point that it’s scarcely recognizable.
Fortunately, Ryan and I were on our honeymoon. We could have traveled to Detroit and thought it the most romantic place on Earth.
After a night recovering from jet lag in Kuta, we set off across the island to our resort in the small coastal town of Candidasa. It took four hours to travel 40 miserable miles on traffic-snarled streets. If only it were still 1922 and we could walk to Candidasa like Richard did without ever leaving the beach! But the endless sandy beaches have largely washed away, a combined effect of coral mining and sea level rise. How’s that for a reality check?
In Candidasa we found ourselves in a quiet haven away from the hustle of the city. Richard found something similar in 1922 (though with the added bonus of a beach). And like Richard, we spent a week lounging, lazing, and otherwise wasting time. After the mayhem of getting married, it was wonderful to kick back and do absolutely nothing.
Well, not nothing. We hiked the lush hills behind town, went fishing for toothy barracudas, and indulged in decadent massages that left us incapacitated in the nicest way possible. Best of all, we went scuba diving through spectacular coral gardens filled with living rainbows of fish, sea turtles and eels. One sunny day we headed to the famous Manta Point for an up-close experience with manta rays as large as 4 meters (13 feet) from wingtip to wingtip. They cruised the bottom of the sea and skimmed the ocean’s surface, flying through the sea like slow-motion eagles without a care in the world. It was magical.
(I often think about what I’d show to Richard Halliburton if I could pluck him out of the past and set him down in the present day. Modern air travel is always on the list, as is digital photography. But above all, I wish I could introduce him to scuba diving. He already loved the ocean, sailing, skin diving, swimming. Can you imagine how much he would have loved scuba?)
After a week of lazing around in Candi, we continued in Richard’s footsteps up and over the mountainous highlands of Bali’s interior. Narrow, paved roads zigzagged crazily through a landscape of jade-green rice paddies. The car steadily climbed for five thousand feet, never relenting until we crested the rim of a volcano and the world fell away before us. The view was every bit as picturesque as Richard described:
“…below us a sheer drop of fifteen hundred feet yawned, and before us one of the most bewildering landscapes on earth met our eyes…the blue lake of Batoer half filled the enormous crater, the abrupt wall of which is twenty-five miles in circumference and eight miles across. From its center two perfect cones of lava and sulfur emerge, pouring forth smoke, and all too frequently streams of molten rock.”
Our destination was one of those cones, rising from the crater floor like a jagged, green tooth. These days climbing Batur is the #1 activity in Bali for adventure travelers. You can’t call yourself a backpacker if you’re been to Bali and not hiked to the summit of Batur for sunrise. Well, I guess Ryan and I aren’t backpackers, then, because we hiked the peak in the middle of the day. Gasp!
At the trailhead we met our mandatory guide, a sweet young man with worn sneakers, a limp, and a crooked smile. As we set off on the steep, rocky trail, he mentioned that more than 200 tourists had made the journey that very morning. Ryan and I looked around the deserted mountain and laughed in disbelief.
The view from Batur’s summit was spectacular. The crescent-shaped curve of Lake Batur hugged one side of the crater floor, and a sprawling village lined its shore. Farms and croplands stretched from edge to edge, covering every acre of available space, even the land inside a small sub-crater. We explored the features of the peak, playing with the steam from fumaroles and trying not to provoke the monkeys that lined the trail.
Later that afternoon we drove toward the center of the island for a couple nights in a mountain village, Munduk. Richard spent a night near Munduk, too, though he chose to sleep under the stars while we relaxed in the comfort of a private room with a view of the distant ocean. It was by far the most peaceful experience of our trip, spoiled only by the relentless sound of traffic.
The less-touristed interior of Bali is filled with lush forests, cascading rice fields, and delightful waterfalls that leap from tall cliffs. We spent a day hiking from waterfall to waterfall, then relaxed in an open-air restaurant while gazing at a vista of forested volcanic peaks backed by a deep blue sky. That night we watched the sun sink into the ocean in a blaze of orange. Perhaps Bali has been lost to tourism, but it still holds some charm.
Our Balinese adventure ended there, though the honeymoon continued with a few days in Kuala Lumpur. We weren’t sad to leave Bali, and we have no plans to return. Of all the places I’ve followed Richard Halliburton, Bali is the by far the most changed–and not in a good way. Reading back through his books and letters, I can’t help but envy Richard his experience of the island:
“I felt deeply grateful to the island for the refreshing weeks of rare happiness it had afforded me…I could henceforth challenge the idea that there is no novelty left on earth, and I derived great satisfaction from the thought that if my spirit of romanticism were ever endangered by the materialism and artificiality of the Western world, I could always seek refuge and rejuvenation in this far-off land of the lotus, this Eden, this idyllic little isle, this Bali.”