Monday, 4 June 2012

Bali 2012

Rid, stingose, hat, sunscreen, bathers; yep, got all of those - lets go to Bali! 

Kuta Beach.
Taking my first steps at Ngurah Rai airport reminded me very much of touching down in a remote African township, except we didn't have to endure the moist, tropical heat on the stifling tarmac. Our suitcase was soon whizzing around on the carousel but Steve wasn't quick enough and a porter grabbed our case and moved quickly, jumping the queue, towards the declaration zone and the money changers who live just outside. I offered a small tip for his trouble but he said "no, no" and just in case I didn't understand, he presented me with a Rp100,000 ($11) note and said "like this!" I must confess, I gave in and handed over 100K. By this time, his mate had arrived and he said, with some conviction, "me too." But I had toughened up by then and said "no, no, you share." As we walked away, a little voice inside my head said "welcome to Bali."

Just one of many freshly squeezed fruit juices.
We dumped our suitcases in our tidy hotel room and hit the streets, excited to learn more about the place we would call home for the next three weeks. By the time we had walked 100 paces we had been accosted by half a dozen hawkers offering anything from a Balinese massage to motorcycle rental, even hotel promotion scammers tried their luck on the two new kids in town. We soon found a small warung (cafe) and filled out bellies on nasi goreng and gado-gado. That first Bintang (beer) tasted like liquid gold but Steve said I wasn't allowed a Bintang sticker, for my motorcycle panniers, until I have ridden my bike in Bali!

The following day we walked into Kuta and we can honestly say there seemed to be nothing left of the Bali we had visited 30 years before. The amount of tourism development is beyond anything we could have imagined. I kept asking "how old is this hotel?" and the answer was always less than 20 years. The saving grace is that apart from the Grand Bali Beach hotel, which was built in Sanur in the 1960s, no building is higher that a coconut palm.

Jimny (actually a Suzuki Katana).
On the third day we hired Jimny, a little Suzuki, who likes to masquerade as a four wheel drive. Jimny was an overworked little buggy, but he had a heart of gold and as soon as the hire agreement was a done deal, we set out from the hotel car park - windows down and an offering placed strategically on the dash board. Driving in Bali felt like flying in a flock of birds - everyone jostling for position, overtaking on the left and right but all the while looking out for each other; the only sound being a gentle toot to indicate your next intention. During our sixteen day self drive and 1200 km on the road, we never saw a single accident or heard an angry word spoken. Unfortunately, Jimny was quickly replaced by his cousin, Jimny II. Jimny II was a similar age but his windscreen wipers and brake lights worked which was essential.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan.
We ate and drank our way around southern Bali for six days and then we checked out of the hotel and headed north, away from the big smoke. It took us all day to drive 100km, over the mountains, to Lovina and we stopped at every opportunity to admire the beautiful countryside. They grow strawberries in the cool mountain air and a strawberry pancake and fresh strawberry juice made the perfect lunch. Festivals are big business at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, the temple which graces the shores of Danau Bratar (lake). We joined in, admiring the mystic qualities of the lake and the majesty of one of Bali's great mountains - Gunung Catur. We enjoyed the gracefulness of the traditional dress and the deep tones of the percussion drums. Jimny loved the mountain roads and you could hear him laughing at the apex of every hairpin bend. When we arrived at our hotel, we relaxed our weary bodies in the beach side pool, the volcanoes, on Java, just visible in the distance. We dined out in Kalibukbuk, just a short drive away. Kalibukbuk is a quaint little village with an abundance of eating houses serving great food and cheap beer; Steve and I gave up having a sundowner in our room - it was cheaper out on the street.

Luwak Coffee.
The next day we drove west to the small town of Seririt. We made a nuisance of ourselves in the local fish market, and then headed into the mountains again, looking for Munduk and Danau Buyan. We found a beautiful restaurant on the mountain side and managed to make it into the dining room before the weather set in. The proprietor talked us into being the first customer to sample his Luwak coffee, a new item on their menu. Luwak coffee is made from coffee beans that have passed through a Luwak - a cat like creature. At only Rp50000 ($5.50) a cup it sounded like a great idea, especially when the chef offered a serving of fried bananas, topped with cane sugar and coconut, on the house. A contraption, not unlike a scaled down version of the Mouse Trap game, was used to brew the Luwak coffee. The device was placed on our table and we sat it wonder as the water heated, siphoned, cooled and filtered. The grand applause came when the mentholated spirit flame was extinguished as the last drop of coffee dripped into the cup. Brilliant!

We waited and waited for the rain to clear but it didn't happen. When the rain eased to a steady drizzle we took our chances and headed further up the mountain in search of the great lake. The rain came down again, torrential at times. Jimny's slow wiper blades were barely able to keep pace with the down pour. Steve was smiling all the while and the old car loved every minute of it. We never saw the lake; she was lost in the clouds somewhere on the right as we drove along the ridge road. So down the mountain we went, one bend after another. In places the water was a foot deep. But Jimny had big wheels and a big heart and he just chugged away, taking it all in his stride, as if he had made the journey a thousand times before. By the time we reached Gitgit falls the sky had cleared and the temperature was back to 30deg. It hadn't rained on the coast all day.

Can't get any further from Denpasar on Bali.
No matter how hard we tried, we couldn't resist driving all the way to Gilimanuk. Gilimanuk is the western most point of Bali, where the ferries depart for Java every ten minutes, 24 hours a day. Gilimanuk is 85km from Lovina and when the highest speed we reached was 50km hour, it ment a lot of hours on the road. Along the way, Pemuteran is worth a stop. We found a wonderful warung, where we ate like kings for only Rp120000 ($13). In Pemuteran you can get a good clean room for $25 (double). If you want air conditioning and hot water it will cost you $35.

We left Lovina for Ubud on 19th May 2012. In The Rough Guide to Bali and Lombok, Steve found an old Hindu temple, Pura Medewe Karang, which seemed to be worth a visit. We rented our sarongs and disclosed our temple donation in the guest book; we were the first tourists for three days. Our guide was 30 years old. He said he had been coming here every day, with his father, since he was a small boy. He learnt English from tourists as he didn't go to school. The only money he got was from people like us, who may leave a donation if they enjoy his guided tour. He was not trying to get sympathy, he was just telling it like it is. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and made an appropriate donation. As we were leaving, the temple's Hindu priest turned up wearing a humble robe and bare feet. He greeted us and pointed out some of the important statues that guard the temple. Then, with a calmness that I hadn’t witnessed in a very long time, he proceeded to clear the road way of weeds with an old hoe.

Kids coming home from school on a Saturday.
The road to Kintamani twisted and turned and the view was breathtaking in every direction. We stopped for lunch at the first restaurant with views to Gunung Batur. In the car park, a couple of children, well under the age of ten, were selling packs of postcards. When I said "how much" the price was ridiculous; praying on our compassion for children must work in some cases. I just said "no thank you;" the price was so far off the mark that I didn't even bother to put in a counter bid. Inside the restaurant we stuffed our faces with an "all you can eat" Asian buffet for only Rp50000. Apart from the south of Bali, there are very few people around and it is hard to believe that 3.5 million people live on the tiny island.

On the road down the mountain we had a close encounter. We had been told to place Rp50000 inside our international driver’s license. When Steve saw the very large and official looking roadblock he said "take the money out of the license" but it was too late, we were stopped, and a copper was leaning inside the driver’s window. "Where you from?" said the copper, with a smile." "Australia." "I'm sorry but I'd like to see your license." When he saw the money he flicked it back to Steve and wasn't quite so friendly after that. We never placed the money inside the license again.

Our accommodation in Ubud was right in the centre of the main drag. Our room was large and the veranda could easily belong to the most chic two bedroom apartment back home. We did the Bali thing in Ubud; drank cocktails at 4pm, joined in the friendly banter at the market stalls, ate well and slept like babies. We were told that $20 per day is good pay for a hotel employee; some hotels pay only half that amount. Skilled stone carvers may earn as little as $11 per day. What amazed me is 1kg of rice costs an astonishing $1.50. This seems ridiculously high and I must be mistaken.

Compulsory monkey forest.
It was in Ubud where I found Uluwatu, a monkey, expertly carved from sandstone. And Lovina and Gianyar, two Balinese gnomes, hand carved by Made Maka using rocks found in the river. These garden ornaments live on my patio and every time I see them they make me smile. The Balinese have wonderful life philosophies, a couple of my favourites are, "Never let a small dispute spoil a great friendship." The other one I like is "The road to happiness is to keep hate from your heart and worry from your mind. Live simply and within your means."

We checked out one of the silver shops in Celuk but four shopkeepers, standing only 2 feet away, were not conducive to falling in love with a piece of jewelry. So we left the silver smiths behind and went to the monkey forest instead. Ubud's clan of monkeys are well fed and well behaved. We spent a long time admiring the baby monkeys; some were only a few days old. The forest was cool which made a refreshing change.

On one particular day, as we drove out of the hotel car park, the hotel security guard called out "stop, flat tire." Sure enough the left rear tire was a little flat. Within seconds, about five locals swarmed around Jimny chanting "we change, we change." "How much?" asked Steve. "Up to you" said one of the locals while Steve tried to find the wheel brace. Luck comes in many shapes and sizes and Jimny's wheel brace didn't fit. Neither did five other wheel braces, which seemed to materialise out of thin air. We had to abandon the wheel change idea and pump the tire up instead. The tire never went down again!

Who needs fancy panniers on their bike?
After Ubud we based ourselves in the southeast, at Candidasa. Quite simply, there weren’t enough tourists to go around in Candidasa and the beautiful restaurants barely had enough patrons to create the atmosphere they deserved. We spoke to one waiter who said last year, in May, Candidasa was much busier and they had increased the size of their restaurant. This year, the numbers were down and everyone was struggling. An artist, at Sanur, contradicted this and said "May is always quiet, the busy season is just around the corner."

Candidasa provided a wonderful base to explore the Amed coast. Unfortunately we had to negotiate the one way street system of Amlapura to find the mountain road and this little excursion placed us right in the lap of another copper. "Good morning, where you from?" said the copper, hanging on Jimny's window. "Australia" said Steve. He smiled and said "Where you going?" "Ujung" said Steve. "Ujung very nice place." Then the coppers phone rang. He took the call and chatted away, keeping us waiting and leaning on the window all the while. When the phone call was over he said "You got present from Australia?" Steve and I were just out on a day trip and we had nothing, just a bottle of water. We explained that we didn't have anything from Australia but we had a few rupiah. "No, no money. Just present from Australia; for me and my friend." We reiterated that we didn't have anything from Australia to which he asked "You have Bintang?" and we said "No, we have no Bintang." After he checked Steve's license he let us go. He was such a nice guy we felt really disappointed that we didn't have anything to give to him.

Amed and Gunung Agung.
The road to Amed twisted and turned through the little villages of Ujung, Seraya, Kusambi and Aas. We stopped for our constitutional papaya juice in a peaceful warung. It was a clear day, and the colour of the ocean was so inviting we wished we’d come prepared to snorkel, too. In the distance, Gunung Agung looked majestic and peaceful and it was hard to believe that she sits at over 3000m.

On the 27th May we flew with the flock one more time and returned Jimny to his rightful owner. It was sad to say goodbye, we had a lot of luck along the way and we will be forever grateful that we survived our drive around Bali.

Sundowner on Seminyak Beach.
On our last night we sat down on the best bean bags in the house, to drink cocktails and watch the sunset. The tide had retreated and local family groups were practicing their football skills on the great stretch of sand. Hawkers drifted in and out of our space. One weary seller walked past with a heavy load of handmade cards. I was so tuned to saying "no thank you" he was soon on his way. By the time I realised I'd like to take a closer look, he was gone. Half an hour later he was back, casing the beach one more time before going home. The cards were so beautiful that, after some friendly bartering, I bought two packets. We shook hands and I said "when ever I write in one of your cards I will think of you," to which he replied "thank you my friend." When he was gone I looked at these humble pictures and I cried. In just three short weeks the Balinese people had taught us so much. We will forever miss the beautiful way they care for each other, and the gentleness with which they go about each day. But most of all I cried because with so many roads to ride and places to visit I wasn't sure we would ever pass this way again.