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Published: October 2nd 2011
It was the cheapest way to fly from Australia to Malaysia, but my six day soujourn on Bali turned out to be far better than any stopover I have had yet - even if it did still involve a couple of nights sleeping on the floors of airports!
With only a few days on Bali and a month on the beach in Malaysia awaiting me, I decided to head up into the centre of the island to Ubud. I'd always wanted to go to Bali ever since I had seen photos of glistening emerald rice terraces years ago, but the horror stories always put me off. Not the ones about the bombings, but the reputation of the Aussies in Kuta, almost as bad as the Brits in Benidorm. Thankfully most of them don't make it past the beach bars so Ubud is a relatively sedate town full of wannabe hippies - perfect for me!
Early morning flights may equal sleepless nights at airports, but they also mean you arrive at your destination in time for breakfast and a full days exploring. Life was made infinitely easier on this trip because a friend from Carnarvon was already in Ubud and
had sorted out a room for me, so I only had to drag my bag a short way past the touts before I could settle down to relaxing. Our little hotel was family run and very conveniently located just off the main strip of Monkey Forest Road. Next to our room was their paddy field and a member of the family was always stationed on the wall ready to pull a string that set off a serious of contraptions to scare the birds away: coke cans filled with pebbles and bottle tops, flags, plastic bags on poles, all shook and clattered and flapped across the field every couple of minutes.
Much of my time in Ubud was spent easing back into Asian culture and relaxing after a stressfull last week in Australia battling bureaucracy. From the moment I arrived I had a smile on my face. Watching the traffic weave around in a series of near misses is no longer fear inducing to me, more awe inspiring. Just how do they judge those gaps to a matter of millimetres while travelling at 80kph? As my taxi slalomed away from the airport I admired the exotic stone and wood carvings
in the workshops lining the road. I also admired the blatant disregard for health and safety rules that have turned Western nations into nanny states. I breathed in air thick with a combination of frangipani and hibiscus, grilled meat, burning rubbish, open sewers and humidity. I revelled in the fact I could purchase food for less than $1 for the first time in a year, and I let the juice of sticky mangoes dribble down my chin with glee. The markets were full of bright fabrics and colourful fruits, tacky keyrings and exquisite paintings, gossiping women and haggling vendors. From open restaurants emitted the aromas of frying garlic, hot chilli, sweet coconut; the sounds of cleavers smashing chicken carcasses, empty bottles of bintang chinking in crates and blenders whizzing up fresh juices.
Having explored the main streets of Ubud, sampled the food, browsed in the market, met the local wildlife at Monkey Forest Temple; I began to set my explorations further afield. First I walked out into the rice paddies, revelling in the tranquility and the vividness of the fields, almost too painful to look at in their intensity of colour. Deep gullies led down to tumbling streams surrounded
by towering trees. Only eight kilometres, but the heat and humidity and my lack of fitness meant it felt like a marathon and by the end my feet trudged painfully back into the centre of Ubud.
Undeterred by blisters and aching muscles I got up at 2am the following night to climb a mountain in the dark. Not just any mountain either, but the 1700 metres of Gunung Batur, a rather more active volcano than I was lead to believe! After 90 minutes hard trekking over sharp volcanic rocks and soft ash we reached the cloud shrouded top. Here, while our guide boiled eggs in pockets of the steaming crater and we waited for an obscured sunrise, he informed us that the volcano had last erupted in 2000. Eleven years for the volcano to calm down to a gentle simmer, that's ok. It was only two days later, when I was looking up at Gunung Batur again, but from several miles safe distance, that I was told she'd erupted at least twice since 2000, the most recent a matter of weeks ago!
As if climbing mountains was not energetic enough for a relaxing short break, I then joined
a one day cycling tour. This turned out to be one of the best organised tours I've ever done, led by a very amusing and informative guide called Ring who had an excellent grasp of the English language. Turns out the Aussies have done more than drink beer in Kuta, they've spread groan-worthy jokes and crude slang to Balinese tour guides! The cycling part of the tour turned out to be very taxing on the hands as the only muscles used were those to pull the brake levers and wave at local children. Of the 35 kilometres we cycled, only about 7 of them were uphill (and they were optional)! We free wheeled through small villages and lush paddy fields, calling hello in return to the greetings from everyone we passed. We stopped at an elaborately decorated gateway to discover a family preparing for a wedding and congratulated the groom on his imminent nuptials. We met grannies in their nineties still working everyday weaving roof mats from strips of bamboo. A hoard of children playing football under an enormous Banyan tree stopped to beg us for our empty water bottles (they can get money for collecting them for recycling).
Between the free-wheeling we did a lot of eating. An enormous buffet breakfast with nasi goreng (fried rice) and black rice pudding – the Balinese don't consider a meal worthwhile unless it contains rice – to set us up for a hard days waving. Then fruit and morning coffee...but not just any coffee. We stopped at a plantation where they harvest the most expensive coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak, or cat poo coffee to give it its street name! Yep this is the coffee you thought was just an urban legend but it really does exist and it really is collected from the poo of a cat-like creature called a civet. As I don't like coffee at the best of times my un-descerning taste buds thought it tasted as disgusting as any other coffee, but at £40 a cup in London someone must think it's alright. We tried lots of other coffees, teas and hot chocolates including: male and female coffees, fresh ginger and lemongrass teas, and Ginseng coffee, which I actually liked but maybe because it was thick with sweetened milk! After all that hard cycling we were rewarded with a feast, including the Balinese specialities of smoked
duck and chicken, succulent sticks of sate and gado gado (crunchy vegetables with a delicious sweet and spicy peanut sauce).
All that exercise seemed like a good excuse to go spa-crazy so every day I'd give in to the girls handing out leaflets and calling out 'massage' to every passing tourist. Pampered like a princess in the space of five days I had my feet massaged, my hair cut, a facial, reflexology, and a full body massage followed by a Balinese lunar scrub and a bath filled with exotic flowers. The romanticism of the latter appealed to me, even if I was travelling alone. Unfortunately my budget doesn't stretch to the 5* hotels so instead of a deep stone tub in a frangipani-filled secret garden, I bathed in a plastic bath circa 1970 with salmon-coloured tiles decorated with penguins! It's all the same when you close your eyes luckily.
While I was on Bali I was lucky enough to gatecrash a temple ceremony. Dressed in the requisit sarong and sash, myself and a handful of westerners watched in confused awe as an entire village deposited their offerings in an enormous pile in the centre of the temple. Suddenly
there was a stampede to grab the best offerings and the women departed in a flurry to spread the offerings around the village at all the shrines and smaller temples. When this activity was complete the priests led the Barong through the temple and we all crouched respectively before it as the dancers within leapt and swayed past us. The ceremony was to bless the Barong, a good but mischievous spirit that is half-lion half-dog. Several times during the night the Barong paraded around the temple. I sat and listened to the tinny, crashing and clanging of the gamelan (orchestra made up of drums and xylophone-like instruments), and at each crescendo in the music I expected dancing to begin. We waited for several hours until late at night but the dancing had still not commenced, apparently these ceremonies can go on for days and when friends returned the following morning they were still warming up! Despite no dancing it was still fascinating to people watch. The women and men sat in separate groups gossiping. Small children ran in circles amongst the adults. The teenage boys patrolled through the temples in gangs, while teenage girls huddled around their mobile phones. Each
group defined by matching coloured sarongs like rival football fans in their club colours. Patiently school-aged children waited in elaborate costumes for hours for their chance to perform the traditional dances and occasionally their parents or the dance master would fuss over them. Everyone that met my inquisitive eyes smiled amicably at me. This was a lovely insight into a traditional ceremony that still brings entire villages together despite modern distractions and ideas. Post Scriptum:
After Bali I have spent the past four weeks in Malaysia getting some serious relaxation in on my secret paradise island. I was welcomed off the boat into the arms of my island family and reunited with many friends from my six weeks here last year. Much needed time has been found to sleep, read, sit and chat, swing in hammocks and stare into space. Every day I have been snorkelling with hundreds of beautiful fish, circled by curious Black Tip Reef Sharks, startled shy Blue Spotted Rays, played with grumpy clownfish, resisted cuddling the cute boxfish and swam rapidly away from eels of every colour! In the evenings I have marvelled at the stunning sunsets or huddled at the back of the restaurant
from the pre-monsoon thunder storms and played cards, Catan and drinking games well into the night. Now I am refreshed and ready for the challenges of finding a job and somewhere to live in New Zealand...may the next adventure begin!
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