A month ago I was contemplating a quiet vacation at a resort near Coimbatore and my cousin was looking for an exotic vacation. Somewhere during our conversations, the plans converged and we ended up booking tickets to Bali, Indonesia. (That should tell you a lot about me – starting toward Coimbatore and ending in Bali.) The travel agent proposed a package that included local sight-seeing which is always a sensible option to get a flavor of any new place but we decided against it. Because I don’t much care for running all over the place trying to see the important tourist destinations and my cousin is more of the lonelyplanet -type traveler. So we were on our own to find a place to stay and we decided to go with le Meridien’s Nirwana Golf & Spa resort based on some rave reviews on the net. And that wasn’t a decision I regretted.
I strongly recommend the place for two reasons : 1)It is right next to one of the must-see spots of Bali, the Tanah-Lot temple. You can simply sit in the lobby of the Hotel and watch the famous sunset that tourists to Bali travel all the way to see.
It is just a few minutes’ walk if you want to join them on the beach and watch the temples of Tanah-lot and Batu Bolong during a glorious sunset. Thereafter you could just walk around the place for a Kecak or Barong performance or shop in the local market or eat local food in one of the restaurants which is more authentic and way cheaper than eating at the resort.
2) The resort is very beautifully constructed – the buildings blend well into the natural background, every room has a beautiful view of the greenery all around and every spot is done up with great taste. Whichever spot you are, it offers a lovely view either of the sea or the trees or the pools or rocky ponds or the golf course. It is a perfect get-away for those who want to spend some quiet time alone with nature watching the sea change color from morning till night.
It boasts of one of the country’s best 18 hole golf courses and has won quite a few awards for the same. The restaurants are good, staff are very friendly and helpful. It is expensive even at the off-season rate of $105 per night (incl. taxes but excl. breakfast) but that is probably the price you need to pay for all the beauty it offers.. And if you can get your company to pay for this it is a win-win all the way! As the name indicates, it also has a well appointed Spa with professional services.

The first thing you notice on arriving at the Ngurah Rai international airport is the long queue at the immigration and the fact that the officials don’t seem too worried about it. There are just 4 officials on duty although there are 16 counters. (Of course if you are like me the first thing you would notice would be the name of the airport and how you pronounce ng at the beginning of a word.) For an island that thrives on tourism you would expect a little more enthusiasm about welcoming tourists. Or perhaps this is a typical Hindu approach to life as 93% of the people in Bali are Hindus.
Visa is on arrival (for most countries) and the fee for 7 days’ stay is 10 dollars. We handed in a hundred dollar bill and received a balance of 7,20,000 rupiahs. Yes the exchange rate is about 9100 rp to the dollar and I instantly knew I was going to have trouble handling this money for the next few days. And I was right. More about that later.
It was a long ride from Denpasar to Tanah-lot which gave us the opportunity to get used to the island. On the way we saw a few large sculptures depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha and many Hindu temples blending Hindu and Buddhist styles of temple architecture. The pillars looked very Hindu while the roofs in many places were like the Pagodas in Buddhist temples. Bali has many skilled sculptors and along the way we saw shops with huge statues of Buddha, Ganesha, Shiva, Brahma, wishnu and Saraswati. They believe in the trimurtis but the variety of Hinduism practiced in Bali is quite different from its Indian parent as it is a mixture of myths, rituals, ancestor worship and belief in black magic. Native animism is interwoven with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. You must wear a sarong and sash while visiting a temple although you are permitted to go in with footwear, Mensturating women are not allowed inside and you cannot enter the temple when you are 'Impure' (?)
Every house has an ornate pillar called Padmasan with a niche for offerings which are done three times a day. Daily offering consists of flowers, cooked rice and meat on hand made coconut leaf trays On special days the offerings are more elaborate. Additionally they also a have a temple within the family compound with several Padmasans each with a designated purpose – one for storing the ashes of ancestors, one for offering to gods, one for offering grains after harvest and so on. Birth, death and marriages have special rituals as do special festivals like the new year and harvest festival. Galungan is an important festival which celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil. This seems the theme of much of their culture as their various dance forms like Barong and Kecak are also based on the same theme. These folk dances are very beautiful and performed in the temple complexes. The stories are a bit difficult to comprehend with their symbolism and mysticism but the performances are very elegant and captivating.The hotel runs shuttles two times a day to Kuta, Ubud and Semanyak from where one could take private or public transport to other places of interest. We tried to look for the government tourism office in Kuta and many sounded like they heard the name for the first time and ended up directing us to private tourist operators. It is a good idea to ask for directions at the polis (police) stations and when they say traffic signal it could just be a junction with no signals. Most people speak a form of broken English which is easy to follow once you use common sense to fill up the gaps. After a relentless struggle of about 45 minutes in the hot mid day sun we did manage to find the tourism office. They gave us maps and some information on important places to see but there are no government operated tours. All tours are organized by private operators or you could hire taxis on an hourly or daily basis.
The hotel charges 84 dollars for 8 hours for an air-conditioned car with driver. If you need a guide that would be charged separately. If you are lucky you might have a driver who can double up as a sort of guide. This is why it might be a good idea to sign up for a package which might work out cheaper and would cover the important places of tourist interest.
Alternatively you could choose to visit the important temples, the botanical garden, volcano Batur and Batur lake, Agung mountain, the monkey forest or the terraced rice fields at Tegallalang.
Wherever you go you are assured of a great view of the lush greenery either from the rice fields or the tall dense trees that line the roads all the way to the destination. Completely free, no extra charge!!There are plenty of options for water sporting activities. After all of which, you could relax with a nice body massage or foot reflexiology; Or you could just sit quietly on the beach and communicate with the sea if you do not want to go anywhere.

Markets are best avoided as you could get lured to see some of their wares and end up getting terribly overcharged. Handling prices with so many zeros is a huge problem for me and I realized that I had paid 70 dollars for stuff that I could have got at an equivalent of 1000 rupees. The story repeated every time I tried to buy something. And there were times I was happily handing over a 100000 rupiah note where I was required to pay 10000.

A note on private money changers. You find them all over the markets offering you higher rates of exchange than Banks and the likes of Western Union. At one place in Kuta the guy managed to swindle 200000 (20 dollars) from the payment due to me by cleverly distracting me. Luckily I noticed it and when I returned to confront him he gave me the money without denying too much saying “ It is a mistake uh Sorry uh. You Hindu. Me Hindu. I don’t cheat you uh.”
Ok, whatever… as long as I get my money back.
They are very good at selling things, these people. Women will tell you “just look. I make good price for you” and quote you a price 5 times the value of the item. Or they will say “Morning price for good luck. Very cheap”. Small kids will sweetly ask you “will buy something from me?” Make sure that you never buy anything without bargaining and usually they will come down to about 1/5th of the price originally quoted. That is wisdom for you from a shopper who lost about 60 dollars in stupid shopping for unwanted stuff. There are many artists around Ubud practising sculpting, wood carving, painting, batik printing, jewelry making etc. They are exquisite and expensive.
Food is good and cheap in the smaller restaurants but choice is limited if you are vegetarian. Nasi campur vegetarian and Gado gado are good. Try the Balinese Bumba vegetarian platter if you get a chance. They have a great variety of tropical fruits which I tasted for the first time – Salat, dragon fruit, passion fruit , Rambutan, mangosteen and Cocoa fruit. Food at the resort is good but very expensive. It is a more sensible option to have the buffet breakfast at the resort and have lunch and dinner at the restaurants in town.

The weather was hot and humid with temperatures hovering in the early 30s and a humidity level of 55%. It might have been beautiful had it rained but rains are not expected this year until December. Island rains are just beautiful exposing you to the full fury of the elements.
Houses have elaborate carvings on the outer walls, wooden doors and pillars. There are several wings within the same compound with a common courtyard. Each couple have a separate wing for their beds and belongings with the common kitchen and dining space forming one wing. There is a common family temple within the compound with several pillars designated for different purposes. Agricultural families also have a granary called Lumbung within the compound.

Balinese Hindus have a caste system with 4 groups : Brahmana, Satrias, Wesiya and Sudra but there are no social discriminations and intermarriages are common. But there are different temples for each caste group. Local communities have a lot of power in social and religious matters. Partha, one of the bearers at the resort restaurant had a red thread around his waist. When we asked him what it was for he said that someone had stolen something from their local temple. The community believes that the Gods have been angered by this and so all members have a red thread tied around their wrists for their protection. They have many such superstitions. The Padmasans in the houses and temples are dressed in sarongs with black and whiye checks as a protection from black magic or evil. Holy water is used for protection and purification. The temple performances of Kecak and Barong which we watched started with prayer and ended with the priest appearing and splashing holy water on all the dancers.

Strong religious beliefs and superstitions keep the people in smaller towns tied to traditional ways of life while cities like Denpasar are more drab and dull wearing the commercial look of modern cities.We noticed the same kind of lethargy and lassitude in the airport procedures on the way back. The airport facilities are rather basic reminding us of some of our own airports. There is a departure fee of 150000 rp. per person which interestingly is more than the visa fee of 10 dollars.
There is a lot that you do not understand in Bali but if you don’t try to, it can be a very beautiful and relaxing experience.
Unfriending just got formal recognition – The new Oxford American Dictionary has announced it as the word of the year. For the uninitiated,
unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.
Although the word may be new, as a concept ‘unfriending’ is not something new, at least not to those who grew up in India. The Tamil word for it is ‘Kaa’. Children unfriend each other by simply telling them ‘I am Kaa with you. You are not my friend anymore.’ I think Hindi-speaking children use “katti’ for this. Kaa or katti is the most dreaded word I remember from my childhood. Imagine your best friend or a group of classmates declaring ‘kaa’ on you. It is the children's version of imposing sanctions - they won’t speak to you and you cannot play with them, share crayons or books or snacks and you are left out of all their secrets. For me and my friends there was no fate worse than being told ‘kaa’ by one’s best friend. It was the end of the world.

In primary school, breaking news usually took the form of hushed whispers about who was ‘Kaa’ with whom. And we had to choose our loyalties and keep to that side. Fence sitters were disowned by both groups. If our friend was ‘Kaa’ with another girl, the entire group was ‘kaa’ with her. It did not matter that we were not part of the fight. What mattered was loyalty and at that age friends ranked a notch above family, society and nation. If any girl violated this code and had any dealings with the other camp she was promptly unfriended too.
Sometimes unfriending was the result of a personal quarrel or the fact that a girl was ‘too proud’ or if she refused to share something with you. At other times it was a group decision because the subject had offended someone in the group. Once in the 5th standard we had unfriended a girl who happened to be the niece of one of our teachers. After a few weeks of this, the girl could not stand it and went crying to her aunt about our ‘meanness’ and so the teacher instituted an inquiry. She called each one of us and asked us why we had unfriended her niece and none of us knew why. Someone in our group had unfriended her and so we all had. And even the girl who had started it had forgotten the reason by this time! So we were all given a lecture on our shameful behavior and asked to ceremoniously ‘refriend’ the girl by shaking hands. We still continued to unfriend whenever the situation demanded it but were careful not to get caught.

‘unfriending’ through “kaa’ was left behind as childhood ended and adult life began. In adult life friends stayed on in your life no matter what. You quarreled, stopped talking but then ran to their side the moment you heard they were in trouble. They did the same too. And then came the internet and changed the whole meaning of friendship.
You meet people in a chatroom or leave a comment on their blog and the next thing you know there is a request from them to add you on Gchat or yahoo chat. You are confused but you accept the invitation anyway. They want to chat with you every time you are online, send you jokes, event notifications, cute forwards, discussion threads from them and their friends as you are part of their group mailing list. And then one day they stop. Just. like.that. And they become invisible on chat too. I have never figured out why I keep getting thrown out of these groups. While I’d have been perfectly happy if they hadn’t made me part of their group, it hurts just a little bit when they suddenly decide to unfriend without so much as a goodbye as memories of childhood "kaa' come flooding! When I wondered about this to a young friend he said that it is very normal among friendships in the virtual world which tend to die down fast. People move on, they lose interest and form other groups and it has nothing to do with me personally.
I was not totally convinced and he forwarded me this article
In dec 2008, Burger king offered free whoppers to people who unfriended 10 of their friends on facebook and thousands were willing to grab the offer. As this article pointed out
At a suggested retail price of $3.69 for the Angry Whopper sandwich, customers are trading each deleted friend for about 37 cents’ worth of bun and beef.

I asked someone the other day if X was her friend. She said, 'hmm, ya but not a friend-friend but just a facebook friend."
Friend – there was a time when this word invoked images of undying loyalty, true understanding an unconditional acceptance. Friendship once ranked at the top of the relationship chain as the most enduring value immortalized in stories such as those of Damon and Pythius, Duryodhan and Karna, Krishna and Arjuna. It seemed that a friend would be that person whom you could turn to when everything else is lost. I wonder if such friendships are ever possible on such social networking sites. Perhaps it is time they found another word for a facebook acquaintance rather than devaluing the sanctity of the word friend – how about the term Facebooker? Then you can become friends by facebooking and ‘unbook’ them when you lose interest.
Or is unfriending here to stay as a sign of our times?
I remember a scene from a Tamil film I had seen some years ago . Two friends get off an auto and one of them takes out a 500 rupees note and the auto driver graces him with an expletive he has developed precisely for such people indicating he cannot exchange it. So the other friend pays. Then they stop at a roadside tea shop for tea and bananas where again friend A flashes his 500 note and friend B pays. This is repeated several times in various places and friend B ends up spending more than 500 during the scene while the man with the 500 rupee note smiles smugly, offering to pay everywhere absolutely certain that his note would be rejected in favor of smaller notes. The scene was funny but I thought it was far from reality. Until this Sunday …
This Sunday I decided to spend a few hours in the garden re-potting my plants. Since I was alone in the house, it seemed a good idea to pack breakfast from a Darshini restaurant nearby. Tempted by the smell of assorted items of South Indian breakfast and drooling at the thought of a vada, dosa and steaming tea for breakfast I extended a 500 rs note to the cashier who promptly returned it demanding "40. No change”. And he quickly moved to take the next order. Not having any other denominations, I had to go away savoring just the thoughts of what could have been a delicious breakfast on a wet, wintry Sunday morning in Bengaluru. Banishing the dosa from my thoughts, I walked into the neighborhood bakery to pick up some bread and eggs . Again my 500 rupee note was rejected with contempt but the owner knows me and so he packed them asking me to pay him later.
I can understand when very small business people like vegetable vendors and flower vendors do not carry change with them as their daily sales is often just enough for them to feed their family and replenish their stock, if it is a good day. So they normally start business every day with their stock and an empty cash box. But I don’t see why we should be turned away for lack of change from restaurants and bakeries. Judging from the crowd at the said restaurant I am pretty sure that they do a few thousands worth of business in a day. Perhaps it was too early in the day to change 500 rs notes. But it does not make any business sense to turn away customers because they do not have smaller denominations.

It is the same in buses, auto rickshaws, counters at railway stations – they never have change and in some places there is even a board saying “please tender exact change”. It is not the seller but the buyer who has to carry change and smaller denominations. I suspect that it is not because they cannot change larger denominations but it is to avoid the possibility of errors in the transaction resulting in loss of cash. Having to count and recount the balance to be returned also means extra time for the transaction which they seem to want to avoid especially in crowded counters like the ones selling platform tickets at stations.

Collecting smaller denominations, particularly coins is a challenge too. There is a general reluctance towards returning smaller change even in supermarkets as they have started rounding it to the lower or higher rupee. Auto rickshaw drivers round it to the nearest 5 rupees in Bengaluru. If the meter displays 25 and if you hand over thirty , the driver would happily drive away unless you insist on the balance. And even when he does, he would do so with obvious unhappiness and definitely not without one last bid at retaining it by grumbling that he would have to go empty till the nearest auto stop. Suggesting that it is our fault that we don’t live next to the nearest auto stop. I have heard it so many times that these days I stop at the auto stop and walk 200 meters to my house.
Then there are people who don’t expect to keep the change but they’d rather pay it in kind. My vegetable vendor would give me a lemon or some coriander if he has to return 2 rs, my baker would give me 2 candies instead of 1 re and the flower lady would add a few inches to the string of flowers to round it up; or she would give me a rose.
Unless one uses cash at the supermarkets, it is not easy to collect smaller denominations. Most ATMs also dispense only 100s or 500s. I have tried asking shopkeepers to change a hundred rupee note without buying anything and they refuse to entertain such crazy requests. Other than going to a bank where I hold account, I cannot I think of a way I can change a 100 or 500 rupee note. As for coins, I still don’t know how people manage to collect them unless they have some deal with the priest at a temple nearby.

I have been surprised at how cashiers in supermarkets abroad always give the exact balance without complaint and without short changing. Is it because they value the penny as much as the pound? It is more likely that there is some legal implication if they fail to return exact change. I am not sure if I can drag a shopkeeper to court in this country for refusing to give me change. Even if there is some law in my favour, the whole legal battle might leave me short changed in the end. More importantly, does anyone care about small change? A college girl told me the other day that she did not mind not getting it back as long as it was less than 5 rs. No wonder the auto driver gives me a contemptuous look when I demand my 5 rs back. He doesn’t realize that I need to stock up on smaller denominations if I want my dosa next Sunday morning apart of course from the fact that it is my right to have the balance back.

An interesting article here on the coin crisis in Argentina leading to an ironic situation. Thanks Sid!