A fresh look at Bali
It takes a lot to diminish the beauty of somewhere as gorgeous as Bali, but Angela Donald worries that the tipping point may be close.
T he morning sun turned pools of water in the rice paddies into mirrors. A farmer swung a load of coconuts on to his shoulder. Somewhere, a cow was lowing.
The scene should have been perfect, but something was off.
After four years, I was back in Bali to relive a memory of a walk through the rice fields near the town of Ubud. My disappointment may have started with the bizarre signposts, on a dirt path in the rice paddies, advertising Italian restaurants and French rotisserie chicken. Or maybe it was the villas sprouting up in the green fields, boasting of infinity pools and yoga workout rooms. With Bali developing so fast, my husband and I realised we would have to look harder this time to rediscover the Indonesian island's serenity and beauty.
We regrouped, got advice from locals, and found our travel pleasures in places we hadn't known to look for - in a simple meal of fried rice and coconut juice at a deserted beach, and in the treasure bins of an out-of-the-way antiques row.
Obviously, nobody heading to Bali expects to find an undiscovered paradise.
It's a long-time favourite of honeymooners, surfers and travellers drawn to its dancing, music and religion.
Though Bali is part of the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, most residents practise a form of Hinduism known for elaborate ceremonies and rituals.
The tiny island offers a touch of adventure and all the creature comforts. You can hike up a volcano, then come back to your hotel for a cappuccino and a massage.
Bali, specifically Ubud, is where Elizabeth Gilbert put the "love" in Eat, Pray, Love, an inspiration for some tourists.
But sadly, amid the island's speedy, haphazard development, sometimes it can be hard to see past the construction cranes, traffic jams and rubbish on the southern coast.
Even in landlocked Ubud, the island's supposedly laid-back cultural hub, my taxi got stuck in gridlock outside a Starbucks. It seemed a fitting symbol for a holiday going wrong.
To tackle the infrastructure problems, the island's dingy, overcrowded airport is getting an upgrade. Work is under way on toll roads to ease the traffic, especially bad around the built-up beach party town of Kuta.
But the tourism numbers are growing so quickly, it's hard to imagine how the island will cope. Last year brought 2.75 million foreign visitors, up more than 10 per cent from 2010. Next year, the island will get a publicity boost by hosting two very different international events, the Miss World pageant and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The Jakarta Post newspaper reported in July that Bali's governor expected the number of foreign visitors to nearly double to 5 million by 2015. Domestic visitors should also nearly double to hit 10 million, he said.
Though bombings by Islamic militants in 2002 and 2005 in Bali targeted Westerners at nightclubs and beach restaurants, killing a total of 222 people, the violence did not seem to deter visitors in the long term.
Some tourists in search of cleaner beaches and more authenticity are heading to nearby islands, including Lombok. In July, the French newspaper Le Monde published a much-discussed article declaring Bali a has-been under the headline, "Bali, c'est fini?"
Yet I would argue that Bali, for all its troubles, still offers something special, if you can forgive its flaws - and if you can get there sooner rather than later.
For me, the biggest draw is the intense moments of beauty that bloom up out of nowhere. Every day, you'll happen upon "canang sari", which are small, exquisite religious offerings made from leaves, flowers, rice and incense sticks. You'll see Balinese in sarongs and lace blouses kneeling to pray at their family temples by the roadsides.
Whizzing down the road in a scooter at dusk, you might hear a snatch of music from a rehearsing gamelan orchestra - percussive, chiming, mesmerising.
The chairman of Bali's tourism board, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, acknowledges the island's crowding problems but says its culture and temples still distinguish it from other beach destinations.
"The culture is still there, even in a place like Kuta," the party beach, he told me when I called him after my trip.
That's true. But we felt much better about Bali the farther we got from the noise and traffic.
It's about 2am and I'm sitting in a bar in Seminyak, Bali, with my friend, Erin, a musician. He's telling me the story of the night of the first Bali bombing, just after 11pm on Saturday, October 22, 2002.
He and his fellow musicians had finished their gig and were having a late dinner in a restaurant nearby. They heard a loud bang and saw flames and raced to the site to help people.
He focused on one man, making sure he got him to hospital to be treated for his burns, and visited him daily until he was able to leave.
We were engrossed while he told the story. It was fascinating - and terrifying - to be reminded of that fateful night from an eyewitness. Even though I had been to Bali before that event - I first visited when I finished high school - it's really over the past nine years that I've become a regular visitor there.
In this time I have grown to love the island as my second home. I was there just a week before the second bombings on October 1, 2005, and this time if anything it made me more determined to keep returning.
Typical of the resolve of Balinese who usually don't have any choice but to stay and face the obstacles of international terrorism, is I Gede Tanggal Lisa (known as Tanggal), a big, muscular security guard who has worked for Paddy's Bar in Kuta, Bali, for around 10 years.
He was wounded in those 2002 bomb blasts when Paddy's and the nearby Sari Club were destroyed, and spent months in Darwin being treated for his extreme burns.
As soon as he was able, Tanggal went back to work at the new Paddy's and still does - calmly overseeing the craziness as any night of the week young people spill out of bars on to the footpath.
Even with all the shortcomings, dangers, hideous traffic, over-development and problems, when you come out of that crazy, busy Denpasar airport and feel the steamy heat, your whole being relaxes. It's a sensual place and the smells and sights intoxicate you, from the overpowering incense found in the daily fruit and flower offerings to swimming in the gentle waves at Jimbaran Bay.
A massage with coconut oil on the beach or in a more luxurious spa, volcanoes rising above bright green terraced rice paddies, colourful kites flying above them to keep away the birds, temples in forest settings, rough surf on black-sand beaches and an incredible variety of spicy food: these are just some of my positive images of the island.
But most of all Bali is the people themselves - dressed up on the way to the temple for a ceremony, piled high on motorbikes, with angelic children clinging to their parents' waists, dancing the intricate dances of the Ramayana, lounging at the door of a reggae bar or just going about their daily business.
While one of the major changes since the bombings has been the increase of security at big hotels and public buildings, anybody who's a regular traveller to the island moans about over-development and lack of proper infrastructure.
But as one of my friends who visits regularly says, Bali also offers the chance to be more of an individual somehow - in such an aesthetically beautiful place, the whole atmosphere encourages creativity with fewer rules and regulations too.