They crept up the path holding one hundred pound sacks of rice on their heads, dark forearms glistening in the late afternoon sun. The elderly man approached first, maneuvering around the two motorbikes we had parked on the hill’s gravelly shoulder. The two women followed, eyeing us curiously.
I removed my backpack and stretched my arms to the sky. After three hours of riding my shins were layered with motor oil and the arches of my feet pulsed from the bike’s metal pegs. The road was silent but for the occasional whizzing motorist, the sun’s intensity lessened by the cooling mountain air. I stared in awe at the Technicolor fields spread before me, the tiny figures in straw Chinamen hats crouching and pulling, sifting and packing their way along terraced rice paddies.
The rice sacks thumped to the ground, rousing dust at our feet.
It was a question we had asked dozens of strangers over the past several hours. With nothing but a map of main arteries and two roaring bikes we rented for six dollars a day, we had hit the open road, weaving through the tourist choked veins of New Year’s in Ubud, Bali. We had bumped along gravel, squeezed between cars and motorbikes and curb-less drop-offs, played chicken with oncoming traffic, and wound our way up curves and mountain bends until we were nearly the only foreigners – at times the only people – on the road. Every ten or fifteen minutes our friend sought guidance, shouting out the next major road on the map, roads that would eventually lead to the volcanic northern landscape of Lake Batur.
The Balinese people went out of their way to assist us. More than once, a helpful stranger took the time to lead us through a tricky turn or congested six-lane roundabout, either by hopping out of their store and onto a motorbike or rerouting themselves out of their own way. Other times they drew maps or enthusiastically flagged us in the right direction as we buzzed past.
“Back there, go left!”
The strangers never asked for anything in return, and not one of them balked at our request for help.
The man moved one rice sack onto the back of a motorbike – no small feat – and stepped toward us. His clothes were tattered and faded and he was missing his front teeth. He spoke little English, but understood enough to tell us we were heading in the right direction.
“There,” he said. He motioned down the narrow dirt path he had arrived from. His face, leathery and deeply etched, broke into a soft, easy smile. He nodded his head in a way that told us to proceed forward. Please, the nod said, take a look at my land. Take a look at the beauty.
The Bali landscape is beautiful, yes. Breathtaking. Best-in-class. But I quickly discovered that – for me – the true power and beauty of the island lied in its people.
Known as the Land of Gods, the Hindu people of Bali are a most devout people, dedicating much of their daily lives to rites and ceremonies aimed at maintaining harmony in the world. Morning and night offerings were made to the gods, most visibly through banana leaf boxes inside of which existed pink and red and yellow flowers and, interestingly, a few teddy grams or candy drops. (“Food for my God”, explained one Balinese woman, when I questioned her about the teddy grams.) Incense burned often and the island itself smelled pervasively of lime and floral sweetness. In Hindu religion the entryway or gate is sacred; nearly every doorway in Ubud was like a beautiful hand-crafted work of art, resplendent with intricate carvings and elephant sculptures. Hindu homes, one taxi driver explained to me, had a temple for their god; I could see such temples over the outward stone gate of home villages, gold domes reflecting the sun.
If I had a picture of every face we met during our two-day, eight-hour-a-day motorbike excursion, every face at the moment we pulled away, or the moment I looked back, which was often, the reel would consist of one hundred something smiles. From men in brightly colored headbands tied at the center of their foreheads to the women and children in the shade of roadside stands, the Balinese smile is the greatest gift I took with me, the purest reminder of happiness from a most respectful, humble people.