Friday, 6 July 2012

Early to Bed in Bali

Sa bai dee from Laos (although I should say apa kabar as this is an entry on Bali)! I am currently lying in bed having just finished a cup of tea so I could summon the strength for another blog entry. This one could be a particularly long saga but I will try and curb my natural tendency toward being verbose.

For those unfamiliar with the stereotypical Australian image of Bali, it is pretty much on a par with Magaluf for Brits (and if you need that explained then just google image search Magaluf). But just as Spain has stacks of history and culture away from the holiday resorts and drunk teenagers, so does the small Indonesian island of Bali - and it was that Bali I was trying to find in just 5 days.

As a good start, I left Seminyak-Kuta as quickly as I could. Still minus my big backpack, I was sweltering in trousers so bought a dress to change into for 70k IDR (about $7) and got to talking to the stall holder about getting to Sanur. One thing I was learning pretty quickly was that, while all very friendly and pleasant people, some Balinese are happy to rip off tourists; the hostel reception staff told me 250k for a taxi to get to Sanur while this helpful stallholder informed me it would be around 100k or cheaper on a motorbike. I know from an Australian perspective 250k is not a huge amount of money but prices should be somewhat relative to the country - I do not mind paying more than a local as that's inevitable but hate the prospect of being taken advantage of through being in a position of ignorance.

I wandered down to the beach where I saw my first glimpse of why Bali is such a great holiday destination: an incredibly long beach with a very blue sea and a little surf. Without my bag, I had no swimsuit and so took a seat to figure out my next move. Quite quickly, I was approach by a young man called Norman (or quite possibly Nyoman which I think is somewhat more Balinese) who wanted to teach me how to surf. I declined but figured I could ask what he thought prices were to get to Sanur. Long story a little shorter, he gave me a ride to Sanur for 50k on his motorbike. It was a pretty damn exciting ride, made more exciting by the lunatics on Balinese roads - motorbikes are used in order that drivers might cheat the traffic, winding in and out of the queuing cars, regardless of lanes, pavements or in coming traffic. The stop for petrol was pretty great too as you simply pay for a couple of glass bottles (frequently old Absolut vodka bottles which amused me no end) of amber liquid petrol and pour them in the bike. Anyway, the most important thing, for Mum and Dad at least, is that I got to Sanur without incident and was dropped off at the beach so that I might find my guest house, Flashbacks.

For anyone heading to Sanur, I would wholeheartedly recommend Flashbacks. While not as cheap as a homestay, at 186k per night for their cheapest room, I thought it was incredibly good value for money. I had my own room with a double bed, my own shower and a toilet I shared with I think one or two other guests. It was lovely to sink into clean sheets in my big bed surrounded by a mosquito net hanging. There was also a desk, clean fresh towels and a safe for my valuables. To be honest, if they had had space I would certainly have splashed out and stayed all four nights here. After a big Indonesian lunch, I sank into the luxury of my room, having found my bag delivered by the airport, and was simply content to do little things like read and sew and relax before falling into the first unworried full night's sleep I have had in a while.

After my breakfast of fruit and toast (included in the price of the room!) I headed out on my first taxi tour. The first stop was Balinese dancing in Batubulan where I watched from the front row. The Barong Kris dance was more of a play than simply a dance and it was full of colour, great costumes and comedy. It opened with the dance of the barong, a good spirit, and his friend the monkey, before following the mischief of a rangda, a bad spirit, with both men and gods. It is, I was later told, a fairly typical story of yin and yang or good vs evil. It was slightly unclear to me, however, whether the barong triumphed or not against the rangda as the ending was marked with a long fight of many men aiding the barong but slain one by one. After the barong revived them, they then each seem to take their own lives. Bizarre. But really enjoyable display of traditional dance - the women's stiff synchronised movements, including, eerily, their eye movements, perhaps the most impressive part.

Next was the temple ('pura') of Batuan, my first to wander around. I donned my sarong for a donation and entered peace and tranquility that astounded me with the proximity to the road. Over 80% of Bali is Hindu and the evidence of this is everywhere: many buildings have small shrines at their front and prayer boxes, containing small offerings of flowers and sometimes food, are seen afresh everyday at entrances and strapped to bikes or placed on car windscreens. Every home has a family temple which is used for everyday rituals while the big village temples are for special occasions, like the full moon or temple birthday, and funeral remembrance ceremonies. While ancient places, they still pulse with quiet life. In Batuan, I was amazed by the fish in the ponds and even very small ones living in bird bath size pools that housed purple lilies and water snails. The green turf stripes of the temple grounds and the brightly painted wooden panels depicting gods showed the place to be very well cared for. After Australia where so much was new and shiny, it was a relief for me to be surrounded by old stone, history carved into it with ornate motifs, gods and protective gargoyles. And unlike London where much that is old is now being discarded (you only have to look to the East end, the contrast of Shoreditch with the City skyscrapers looming behind dilapidated pubs), these temples are sacred and loved. Looking back on this short visit and writing about it, I am actually surprised to realise the full extent of the peace I felt there.

I am really starting to sound like a damn hippy.

The next few stops were interesting but made me feel somewhat like my driver considered me only as a cash cow. First, there was a silver shop where I learnt a bit about the production of jewellery before moving onto an artist workshop where, more interesting for me, I was taken through some of the common painting styles and periods in the Balinese style. The Ubud style, a fusion of traditional Balinese and Western skills, was my favourite. It was, however, the ridiculously priced restaurant I was taken to that actually pissed me off - 70k for nasi goreng (fried rice, one of the simplest and usually cheapest meals you can get) which is basically the price you'd pay in Sydney.

I abruptly left after that discovery on the menu and we moved on to the next temple, Goa Gajah - of the Elephant Cave. With absolutely no elephants in the vicinity. It was named as such after the river running in the valley a little further down. A big river deserves a big name and so was called the elephant river and subsequently so was the temple. It is a special sight for two reasons: firstly the spring water found here which is said to bring you luck if you wash your face and hands in it and secondly the man-made cave for meditation guarded at its entrance by an impressive wall of carving. The security god Boma guards the entrance, surrounded by scenes of the jungle, now hard to pick out after a millennium of wear from the elements. It has probably been preserved somewhat better than it might have been thanks to an earthquake that buried the whole temple - it was only discovered by a Dutch archeology team in the 1920s. While the pool for the spring water and the cave were still intact, the temple itself has only been salvaged in pieces, stacked on its former site. Interestingly, there is a neighbouring Buddhist temple a short walk away in the same valley. Rather than rivalry between the religions, I was told that they would have offered support to one another in past times and would have been very happy neighbours.

Another drive and another temple and another cave, this time a natural one home to around a million fruit bats. Goa Lawah actually has two parts. The first, that I was permitted to see, outside, comprising of silted huts with layered thatch roofs and more ornate stone carved gateways. The second part, reserved for practising Hindus, is inside the cave, amongst the bats hanging upside down, absolutely covering the ceiling. The very reason for this temple is the natural holy aura of the place, as my guide explained, and exemplified by the presence of the bat colony. It would seem that Balinese Hinduism looks to nature rather than the convenience of man to decide where temples are appropriate.

We took the coastal road back to Sanur, stopping only for some satay fish from a street stall - at just 10k and no subsequent tummy trouble for it, this was a pretty good meal. Looking to the sky, I admired the kites dotting the blue as I had already done a million times. During the dry season, the winds pick up and Balinese children (and adults) love to fly kites. According to Lonely Planet this has some ancient roots in the idea of whispering to the gods but according to every local I asked, it is simply for fun. Regardless of the reason, I adored watching these kites of all sizes, shapes and colours, my favourites the birds. Some soared to impressive heights, gliding and hovering quite placidly while children would have theirs swoop and dance somewhat closer to the ground. I could always see a few in the distance, pretty much anywhere I was in Bali, but particularly over Sanur, probably in preparation for the festival of kiting competition happening in August.

Sunset found me clambering through shallow waters and seaweed to reach one of the small man made islands with gorgeous small huts like benches. Unfortunately, I stumbled on my way back to shore and trod on something less than friendly. Reaching the beach, my foot definitely going numb, I approached the first Balinese person I saw to ask for help. After pointing at my foot, I was told by the beach barista to stay where I was while he dashed off leaving me with no explanation and the seeds of panic growing in me. I was informed that I had been stung by 'bulu babi' or sea urchin. I did not have any of its spines poking out of me, fortunately, but little liquid spears of poison had been injected into my foot leaving it numb. The traditional method of cure, which this well meaning barista began on my foot, is hitting the affected area so as to break up the poison and encourage the puncture holes to bleed to get rid of the toxins. He used a coffee stomper, I gritted my teeth and managed not to cry. When the blood failed to run, we concluded it might be time to head to a clinic. He shut up shop and a nice couple who had been helping me (googling what to do) drove me to the clinic. For 200k all I got was my foot doused with antiseptic and ammonia before being dressed to keep the sand out. So basically I paid for my foot to smell like pee. It was a relief to find out that I wouldn't die, in fact wasn't ever at risk of that, and didn't even suffer the fever I was warned I would get. Or maybe it was hot enough that I didn't notice anyway! To say thank you for the help and driving me back to Flashbacks on his motorbike, I took the barista, Jun, out for a beer and got to taste my first Bintang and learn a little about Bali from the perspective of someone my own age and not trying to sell me anything. He is a young man full of ambition and energy but, refreshingly and unlike myself, with little drive to escape his home in Bali. Having experienced the truly bustling city of Jakarta, I think his only trip outside of Bali, he could appreciate what he has on the island and wants to make all of that - his business of owning a boutique selling football gear as well as his cafe job - work.

Wanting to rest after my mini drama, I was again in bed early. It did mean I managed to rise early enough to see the sun start its ascent for the day from the beach. I then had to start packing my stuff and went in search of a homestay, finding one for 120k per night just down the road. The room smelt quite strongly of moth balls and the drains reeked in the bathroom but it was my own space and breakfast was again included. To be honest, I think I will probably stay in far worse places yet on the trip through Laos-Thailand.

I headed to Ubud on this day to see the monkey forest with my new friend Jun. I had a couple of close encounters with the buggers as one jumped on my shoulder and another bit my arm (thankfully not breaking the skin but I doused the area in hand sanitiser regardless) even despite the fact I had no food! I managed to successfully guard my bag too that they tried to get into. Jun, quick with his rather nice SLR camera, managed to capture these incidents for your later amusement on facebook. We then wandered around the labyrinth market, laughing at the bizarre carved wooden penis bottle openers and keyrings, before settling down to lunch at a 'babi guling' restaurant - suckling pig, a specialty usually reserved for celebrations but available all the time here. We got a selection of different parts of the pig; some expert crackling, unidentifiable crunchy bits, nice slices of usual looking pork and some spicy black pudding sausage served with rice. It was all delicious! And the first pork I have had in months of vegetarianism.

After seeing some rice paddies farmed on terraces shaping the hillsides (and Jun laughing at me no end for taking photos of a landscape that is utterly banal to him), we headed south. We stopped in Denpasar, the capital, to visit Jun's shop and for him to speak to a supplier before heading on to Nusa Dua for sunset and watching a water blow. Away from the grand hotel resorts and private beaches, I got to see a small square in Nusa Dua where Balinese people rather than tourists frequent and where Jun's (or, more likely, I suspected, his family's) second shop was situated. I met his mum and scared his small nephew who was not a fan of my white face, even if it was smiling. We finished the day with delicious barbecued fish, rice, a chilli-tomato-lime salsa and some fried chicken from a stall on the side of the road. It consisted of a few tables, a roof, a small temporary kitchen, make shift barbecues and no walls. The discrete stares I got convinced me that this was truly a bit of regular Balinese life and probably not something many tourists got to experience. The food was fresh, hot, incredibly tasty and not too difficult to eat with my fingers. Jun dropped me back at my homestay and I gratefully got into bed, falling asleep with the light on before 10pm.

My next day was somewhat more relaxed - partly because I wanted to have some down time enjoying the beach but also because transport and entry costs were mounting up. So I quite lazily lay in the sun and read my trashy thriller book. I had lunch and then later rosella tea (a beautiful pink flower that provides a tangy-sweet refreshing drink) and finally dinner at a lovely little restaurant called Warung Little Bird. It was entirely run by fashionably dressed young Balinese guys who were relaxed and seemed to have fun working together - more like it was a joint project between friends than a strictly run business with employer and employees. The food was pretty good too. I was about to finally leave when the acoustic session started with one of the guys playing 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' so instead I moved to the bar to enjoy the music and got chatting to a couple of American girls. It was a lovely last evening on the island and a full moon to boot. Although in quiet Sanur, the festivities were over pretty early and we could only find an expensive bar to move on to whose main attraction was the Indonesians performing karaoke with a live band backing. Although a bit later, I was still asleep by 11.30pm after the excitement of one beer.

For my final day, there was one temple that I quite desperately had to see (well, actually two but Tanah Lot was a bit out of the way since I needed to be in the airport by 8pm) so I negotiated another taxi ride with a very nice driver. He even paid for my entry to walk around a mangrove protection area! I also got to see a couple of the southern beaches. Padang Padang, nestling between huge rocks and at the base of a big cliff, if it weren't for the loud obnoxious English/Aussie voices, a perfect beach and then we headed to Jimbaran to watch the fishing boats and sunset over the ocean. But before that and my final drive to the airport, I saw Pura Luhur Uluwatu, my favourite temple of all those I viewed. It felt like the ends of the earth, situated high up on the cliff edge, set there to protect the island.

Again, the sense of peace and stillness, even in spite of the hundreds of tourists, descended on me. To feel that contentment, to feel the wind and just sit, was a pleasant surprise for me. It was like salve for the hurt of leaving Sydney, uprooting my life again but residing in limbo of travel rather than running to my other home to heal and get on with reality. As much as living on the move is exciting, feeding the explorer in me with daily doses of novelty, there is another part of me that is tired of looking after myself as I have done for the past year without much respite. I know that I have to encourage my inner adventurer, though, before I get back to the safety and comfort of the UK. I always remind myself of a favourite line from the prophet when I find myself tired of the challenge I've presented myself:

"Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral."

 And so I will end this thoughtful twist of an ending (probably induced by listening to 'Like a rolling stone' by Bob Dylan) by saying that I am happy and excited about my further travels as well as being grateful for the thought of home and family at the end of them. Now reunited with Lorna I know that we have an obscene amount of fun and laughter ahead of us.

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