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Tourists Return After a Tough Year

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2003; Page P01

"You wait, okay?" A Balinese schoolgirl wearing a purple lace blouse approaches and touches my arm. "The ceremony starts." Her three teenage friends giggle at her overtures to my friend Bill and me, but her timing is superb: After watching a scattered crowd of Hindus make ceremonial preparations at a jungle temple in Manuaba, a small village in the hills near the town of Ubud, Bali, we were about to pedal away on our rented bicycles.

But we wait. A melodic, percussive beat resembling a mix of Andean flute music and a Grateful Dead drum solo rises from the open-air temple, which sprawls inside mossy walls. From the road we see the meru -- the tiered-roof shrines made of black thatch from sugar palms, which the Balinese use only in temples. Some villagers peer over the walls, while others play the drums, gongs, xylophones, metallophones and other percussion instruments that produce the music Indonesians call gamelan.

A woman carries scuba gear on Bali's Tulamben Beach. (John Briley)

The girls, all wearing purple tops and richly colored sarongs, stand patiently on the roadside. The women climb a steep set of stairs near the back of the temple carrying offerings of woven palm fronds, flowers and food. A few late-arriving men pull up on motorbikes, the predominant vehicle in Bali, dressed in loose white shirts and sarongs. Many wear white headdresses; others have colorful scarves tied around their foreheads.

It has been just over a year since Bali's paradisiacal aura was shattered by three car bombs that leveled two nightclubs and killed 202 people, mostly Australian tourists. The effects of those bombs -- and of the Aug. 5 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, on the island of Java -- are still apparent on Bali: Tourism dropped to almost nil after last October's attack, saw a tepid resurgence in the summer and again ebbed after the Jakarta blast.

But Bali lovers are a resilient bunch, and tourism is returning to the island. Travel agents report steady bookings to Bali, with interest increasing with each terrorism-free week, and online travel bulletin boards report significant activity in the popular tourist areas of Kuta and Ubud. This is occurring despite a sobering summary from the U.S. State Department: "Indonesia is experiencing an ongoing terrorist threat. The potential remains throughout Indonesia for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests." In an Aug. 28 travel warning, the department advises U.S. citizens to "defer all nonessential travel to Indonesia." But to address Indonesia as a cohesive country is misleading. The serious trouble spots -- Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where the government has imposed martial law due to fighting with rebels, and the northern islands near the Philippines, where the Aby Sayyaf terrorist group roams -- are far from the placid shores of Bali.

Even the undercurrent of anti-Western sentiment in Jakarta is distant from Bali, largely because Bali is almost exclusively Hindu while the rest of Indonesia is Muslim. At the core of the Hindu faith is a disarming conviviality and a trust in the peaceful stewardship of the spirits. Of course, not all Muslims are anti-Western, and most are not extremist. But some are, and that goes a long way toward explaining the State Department's stance on Indonesia.

We arrive on the 87-by-50-mile island and head immediately to the five-star Le Meridien hotel, near the Tanah Lot temple on Bali's south coast. I am not typically a five-star kind of guy, but the package bargain I found included the Le Meridien for about the price of a Comfort Inn in Gaithersburg. The drive takes us through Denpasar, Bali's teeming capital, where drivers, motorbikers, bicyclists and pedestrians weave through clouds of exhaust smoke and blocks of one- and two-story shops, offices and markets.

The mayhem in Denpasar is the closest thing on Bali to a real city, and we are happy to leave it behind. The road to Le Meridien winds through terraced rice paddies and past street-front stores and modest homes. Outside Denpasar the countryside opens up a bit, but Bali is well-populated and the residents have tilled much of the island's land into rice paddies and used the rest for homes, temples and tourist-targeting businesses.

Bill and I have no set plan, but we know we didn't fly halfway around the world to sit at a resort. We've heard that the hills and markets of Ubud are beguiling, so we take a 45-minute taxi ride to a bike rental shop on the edge of Ubud, and 30 minutes later find ourselves as the only foreigners amid a sea of locals.

Villagers of all ages begin streaming from the temple's ornately sculpted stone entranceway, among them the gamelan players who maintain the hollow beat while walking. In the middle of the crowd, participants carry a red cloth and gold-plate rendition of what looks like a dragon; other marchers carry tall, tasseled umbrellas. Women balance baskets of fruit on their heads.

We ask a man if we can walk with them.

"Yeah, okay, come," he says in English. The Balinese hold hundreds of ceremonies yearly to summon the gods from the mountains for events ranging from planting crops and building homes to sending off the dead. That two foreigners want to crash this ritual -- and we never learn its purpose -- seems to bother no one. Throughout our week on the island, we will pass at least 20 ceremonies ranging from small prayer sessions to rousing cremations, with burning pyres mere feet from the road.

We fall in near the rear of the group. Some of the men hold hands, and even the smallest children don't seem to mind the trudge. The procession snakes through the verdant, hilly countryside. Palm trees and other flora line the terraced rice paddies. Cone-hatted rice farmers, standing knee-deep in the muddy paddies, regard the ceremonial march languidly.

The welcome Bill and I feel during the walk is typical of our weeklong stay on Bali. Our car rental agent delivered the vehicle to our hotel, a 50-minute round-trip drive for him, at no extra charge. Two older women we encountered on a bemo -- a public transit minibus -- tried in vain to break the language barrier to advise us about local travel. The guys who rented us boogie boards cut us a break when we stayed out on the reef an extra two hours.

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