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Important note – Duara Travels are no longer operating. I’m leaving this blog up for memories.
Recently, I had one of my all-time favourite and most authentic travel experiences, in a place where I didn’t think it was possible.
Bali. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying my solo travels in Bali, it was just that it was harder to integrate. What I loved about Vietnam, where I’d been based for the previous two months, was the ease of pulling up a stool and joining the locals for dinner.
In Bali, especially Ubud, I found it more difficult. The streets were lined with fashionable brunch cafes and Mexican restaurants. Even the Balinese-style restaurants seemed to be filled exclusively with Western holidaymakers.
Where were the locals? They certainly didn’t seem to mix with the yoga-loving nomads. I couldn’t walk down the street without being hassled to buy something. I hate to be the tourist who complains about other tourists but… I just wasn’t enjoying this destination like I had others in Southeast Asia.
I was feeling a little meh about the whole experience, so when a friend posted a link to a job as a brand ambassador for an ethical tourism company, I jumped at the chance.
Travel to a local village, live with the locals and help set up a responsible tourism project?
It sounded amazing but I didn’t know whether they’d accept my application.
Luckily, they did within the day. I was all booked for my visit. Before telling you about my time in Perasi village in Bali’s eastern regency of Karangasem, I’ll quickly fill you in what Duara do.
Why do we need ethical tourism?
Just like we can shop better and drink coffee better (put down that Starbucks!), we can travel better. Let’s put it like this: if you travel to a developing country, stay in a Western hotel chain, eat at global chain restaurants and do tours with companies based outside of the country, literally 0% of your money is going to the location of your wonderful travel experiences.
Just doing things slightly different, probably at no extra cost and minor inconvenience to you, can make the difference between locals benefitting from tourism and rich overseas CEOs benefitting from tourism. I think I know where I’d rather my money went!
What do Duara do?
Duara are a sustainable travel company who organise ethical experiences for travellers. Rather than stay in a hotel, you’ll stay with locals in their home. Instead of the touristic must-sees, you’ll experience their surroundings, ways of life and customs. If you’re adventurous and want to see an authentic side to the country you’re visiting, it’s a fantastic way to do it.
Personally, I don’t have any pre-built connections in the rural Bali countryside but with Duara, it couldn’t have been easier.
A typical Duara homestay experience will consist of 2-3 nights in a local home. In the days you’ll experience their daily lives, exploring the area and eating their homecooked meals. Read more about the Duara homestay experiences and company ethos on their website. They also operate in Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Kenya.
What did I do for Duara?
Duara had recently paired with the new village of Perasi but, being based in Europe, couldn’t pop out to visit themselves. My job was to do that for them, staying in the family home, checking it had all the necessary amenities and that the residents were ready to host guests.
Apart from explaining a few concepts and getting a couple of contracts signed, most of my job was pretty fun: I’d be sussing out the things to do in the area, hanging out with my new friends, and taking photos for the Duara website, my blog and social media channels.
I didn’t get paid for the role but I got the homestay experience (which I’d have happily paid for) for free in exchange for my help with the project.
As promised, I’ll be sharing with you what I got up to and I learnt from the experience. Here goes…
1. The Balinese are some of the friendliest people on Earth
I was a little nervous waiting for Adi, the local volunteer coordinator, to pick me up (he’d be staying in the local village, too). I didn’t know if I’d be able to get online, keep my friends and family in the loop, or what the locals would be like.
From the second Adi picked me up, we chatted all the way to Perasi, about a 2-hour ride, stopping to pick up a local dinner. He’s best friends with the eldest son of the host family which was how the village had been introduced to Duara.
The family were so hospitable, doing everything in their power to make sure I had a good time. The father was very kind but couldn’t speak English which wasn’t a problem – the 28-year-old son, Open, and the 21-year-old daughter, Nila, spoke amazing English and were fantastic at showing me their world. Cheesy as it sounds to say, they felt like family by the end.
‘Wow’, said Open as I was leaving, ‘It feels like you’ve been here for many months’.
Either he felt as sad as I did, or he could no longer remember a time I wasn’t forcing him into being my personal photographer 😉
2. Balinese celebrations are so much fun!
In the enormous country of Indonesia spread across 17,000 different islands, Bali is one of the few Hindu ones. Most of the world’s Hinduism stems from India and the religion here is quite different. If you manage to join in on a Balinese ceremony, it will be unique!
What I didn’t expect? The Balinese know how to throw a party! On my first evening in the village, I was invited to the next-door neighbour’s home along with the rest of the host family. There we found almost the whole village having a whale of a time, tucking into delicious home-cooked food, playing cards and drinking palm wine.
I marvelled at the way the whole community socialised together. The teenagers weren’t embarrassed to be spending Friday night with their parents, and even the children stayed up late. They were celebrating a local marriage before the official ceremony the next day, something they invited me to join. Since it started at 6am, I decided to head for an early night – something they were not doing.
When I arrived back at the house at 6am, it was clear some people hadn’t yet been to bed. Instead, they’d been preparing the day’s food for several hours. We immediately tucked into a delicious megabung, a type of shared meal made with rice and pork, all from the same pig but prepared differently.
We ate with our right hands (you don’t wanna know what the left one’s for!) while chatting with the families. This megabung meal only exists in the Karangasem region of Bali – you won’t even find it in other places on the island.
Next came the fun bit. As is custom in Balinese ceremonies, the local women walk together as a group, taking offerings to every temple in the village. Nila had already offered to lend me her clothes so I could come too. It was honestly one of the most unique experiences of my life, waddling in a tight skirt in the boiling heat, carrying a pot plant, as we made it to numerous Balinese temples.
Nila draggled me along as we kept up the pace, chatting about life, uni and work as my flip-flops rubbed and I sweated into all her clothes. I was totally out of my comfort zone, my favourite place to be while travelling!
3. It’s not all about getting that shot
Part of my job in Perasi was to get photos for Duara… So obviously my camera broke on the second day! There were no tech shops for miles around. I’m an Apple girl but I have to admit iPhone cameras aren’t the best – and mine is a cheap one I bought in Vietnam after my old one was stolen. This doesn’t usually matter because I just use my camera all the time… but it did matter in this scenario.
Obviously, the situation was frustrating. As a relatively new blogger, I often still feel like an imposter when brands want to work with me. So when I get opportunities I always want to do my very best. Luckily, it was hard to feel down in Perasi. The noise and colour and laughter made my ‘on screen’ life feel… Secondary. As I guess it should be.
Throw in how vibrant and colourful the village was and I don’t think I didn’t too badly! I also realised that smartphones are sometimes easier to get photos with: no one feels like a subject and everyone knows how to pose with one!
4. Real Balinese cuisine is very different to the tourist fare!
In some countries, you can eat in restaurants what the locals eat at home… As I mentioned before, I found this more challenging in Bali. Especially since the food in Ubud and Canggu is mainly avocado brunches and hipster charcoal burgers made with Western vegans in mind!
Every meal I ate with the host family was delicious and totally different to the tourist food. Nila made the most delicious spicy sambal with chilli, onion and garlic. It was crunchy and went perfectly with the meat and fish dishes we ate. Apparently you won’t even find it served this way on other islands in Indonesia – just Bali.
Most of our meals were meat-focused and when I asked the family if any of their friends or relatives were vegetarian, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. It’s just not a thing like it is at home.
What else was the food? So, so spicy! My mouth was on fire and my eyes were filled with tears but I loved it. My proudest moment in Perasi was one of the locals telling me I was ‘very Balinese’ due to my spice tolerance.
(BTW it’s worth mentioning that if veggies, vegans and non-spice lovers visit, the family will pull out the stops to make an awesome meal for them!).
5. Bat watching – don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it
Since becoming aware of this phenomenon, I’ve seen it mentioned and pictured everywhere in the last few weeks… Isn’t that always the way? But when Open and Adi helped me climb over the craggy black volcanic rocks and to a ledge above the ocean, I’d never heard of such a thing.
As the sun set, the enormous cave beside us came to life. Suddenly, thousands and thousands of bats flew out in unison. The sky around us became dark as millions of sets of wings eclipsed the light. It was like something from Dracula! Then, they flew off into the night, not to return ‘til morning. It was one of the most amazing displays of nature I’ve ever witnessed.
6. Karangasem is the most beautiful region of Bali
During my two months in Bali I didn’t see any other views to compete with the ones Open and I saw while touring the countryside.
Mount Agung towers above the village and yes, it’s erupting. But as Open, who works in disaster management, told me – it’s carefully monitored. After watching sunrise one morning, we journeyed back through the gorgeous pink flower field above. En route somewhere one afternoon, when Agung was topped with wispy cloud, we stopped off in a yellow flower field. Here, the silhouette of the sole farmer was actually Open’s cousin, gathering grain for his cow.
No foreign tourists come to the fields of Karangasem. I’d safely bet they never have. It was heaven. Just me, my friends, and the softest breeze.
7. We’re more similar than different
I loved hanging out with Open and Adi because we’re all the same age. I’m happy to hang out with anyone while travelling but there’s something special about seeing how people your age live. It’s an insight into what your life would be like had you simply been born in a different place.
Our lives were similar in some ways and different in others. We’d all been to uni and been working for about 5 years since.
However, Adi was married with a baby, something that’s the norm for Balinese people of our age. Open could speak 5 languages, something that blew my mind. He started learning at age 8, by walking to the beach and talking to any foreigners he could find, even if it was just saying hello. By doing this he ended up learning fluent French! We’d just never do this at home, would we?
Most Balinese people speak multiple languages: Balinese, Bahasa (the Indonesian national language) and nowadays English, too. Many also speak the neighbouring island’s language of Javanese. Seriously, they put us to shame and it’s embarrassing!
Despite our differences, we laughed at the same things. We were fascinated to compare our differences and curious about each other’s lives. Take culture and norms away and I don’t think we were that different at all. Just three 28-year-olds doing life – or at least trying to!
8. Black sand beaches are awesome!
This last point isn’t a long one, I just wanted an excuse to share a photo of my first ever black sand beach. I’d been wanting to see one for ages!
I left Perasi feeling so happy and fulfilled. I’d felt something was lacking in my Bali experience but not anymore – thanks to Duara!
What I loved most about the people of Perasi was their acceptance. I was many things while I was there: the Westerner; the woman who didn’t dress especially conservatively (compared to their norms); the unmarried-nearly-30-year-old. Despite all those things being unusual in their culture, it didn’t matter. They understood our differences and made me feel so relaxed and comfortable. For all the many things I was in Perasi, I was mainly just happy.
I’ll never forget my experience there. If there’s a heaven out there, it’s walking barefoot in fields of yellow flowers, laughing with my new friends and knowing I was doing something good. Because I don’t want my experiences to fund yet another Westerner’s holiday home. Unless we’re somebody, we don’t have much power in this crazy world. What power I do have, I’ll use fiercely.
Sadly Perasi village is no longer accepting guests because Nila and Open have got jobs in the city and can’t host guests in their village right now. I’ll update this blog if anything changes.
Let’s finish with a gallery of some of my favourite moments in Perasi. I know we’re approaching the 3,000-word mark and I don’t wanna waffle too long (though I already have!).
Thanks for reading!
See you next time for more adventures,
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