PART II: LAST DAYS IN PARADISE
THIS IS WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT SERENDIPITY. Don’t you just hate when life plays its little tricks on you. And you not only have to adjust and deal with them, you may also need to make changes. Or die. When it happens in paradise, it can be either more annoying, or less. If it ruins your plans, it becomes a supreme bother. If it simply means making minor adjustments to your chill-factor schedule, it’s not so bad, just another day in paradise spent avoiding furniture with obnoxious hibiscus prints and learning new words, like “cloaca.”
Since 72% of your poll responders voted for you to head out and see some other areas of paradise, rather than hang in your hammock and chill while pondering the intricacies of gecko poop, you decide to rent a different motorbike for the trip. The one you rented from Wayan here in Ubud is fine for riding around the tiny burg of Ubud, but for a longer trip into the vagaries of nowhere on the island of gods and demons and up steep mountains and down into active volcanoes, it might be best to get a newer, more trustworthy bike. Simon, a man who owns GO FOR IT Bike Rental in Legian Beach, has a couple of brand new motorbikes, and one of those would be better suited to make a long trip. Simon’s bike would be more powerful and more dependable, and if anything dour happened, Simon would be better able to cope with an emergency, say, if the bike broke down inside the volcano Mount Batur. Haven’t we all been there—teetering above some dark and gloomy hole without a net?
But an even better reason for you to exchange bikes has more to do with logistics than logic or security. You have thought about this trip. You have made plans. You will take the bike on the ferry across the Badung Strait to Lembongan Island, just off the east coast of Bali, because you heard there was nothing there—except sandy beaches with few tourists and nothing to do but hang in your hammock and sip drinks with a bamboo straw out of whole coconuts. Your poll responders demand you go somewhere—fine, we’ll just show them we can chill anywhere. When you leave Lembongan, you would then be able to simply ride down the coast and end up in Legian Beach, rather than circling all the way back two hours to Ubud, and then having to hire a taxi to get you all the way back again to Legian Beach, where you will spend a few days before flying home.
This is called “planning ahead.” You don’t usually do this well. You’re not a planner, you travel by the seat of your pants. You avoid thinking. You are more the intuitive type of traveler. In the real world, your IQ hovers somewhere around your ankles. But when you add Emotional Intelligence, or Intuitive IQ, into the equation, you’re like an idiot savant, a regular rainman of travel planning.
You know people who plan out their trips month by month, day by day, minute by minute. They know when they will be taking an overnight train and when they will return their rental car. You hold the highest respect for people who can do this, who are actually willing and capable of doing this. You know some travelers who plan their long-term travels maybe six months in advance, and make maps before going, so they can include that map in a blog post. You know some nomads who plan years in advance; they know now, already, that in fall of 2016 it’s Petra and in summer 2017 it’s Havana.
This degree of advanced planning would not work for you. It never has. In the past whenever you have made plans (for almost anything, not only travel), it seems something—other people, circumstances, astral influence, earthquake—always seems to toss a spanner into the spokes, messing up your plans. But you agree, having a partner who could at least lay a little groundwork for the travels would be a positive advantage. Of course, then you’d have to deal with all the other stuff that goes along with having a partner. But okay, accepting the positive and negative sides to everything is your mantra (although, not an absolute in your reality).
You call Simon in Legian to reserve a bike. He has a brand new one with few kilometers and a rack for carrying surfboards on it being returned in two days. Two days is about your limit for advance planning. You reserve the bike, and book a ride to Legian with Made S (pronounced Mah-day) in his van. When you leave Ubud, you do not want to haul all your luggage on the back of a bike, so Made S will drive your bag and drop it off at your Legian Beach hotel the day you depart Ubud for your bike ride over the island, and your hotel in Legian will hold your bag in storage until you return from your travels. You will drive Simon’s bike out of Ubud (with only a daypack of gear and your Mountainsmith lumbar pack), travel the island on the new, more dependable motorbike, and end up in Legian a week later. It’s a good plan. Way more intricate than usual. You imagine your travel friends who plan well in advance—along with those who can’t understand your lack of planning and have a name for people like you—would be proud.
The Balinese name their children only four names, and by order of birth. The first-born child is named Wayan. The second child is named Made. The third child is named Nyoman. The fourth, Ketut. The people of Bali, like many other cultures, do not traditionally use family names. However, because there are now so many local people, and because of the need for clear identity when doing business, and because it confuses Western tourists, some locals now take a second name, a faux surname. Or they may revise their first name. My driver Made (second child born to his parents) uses a second name to designate him from other drivers named Made. I call him Made S because his faux surname begins with S.
In the Balinese system for naming children, there are other names that can be added to or used in place of these four names, some which have to do with a caste system that most probably arrived with the Indian Majapahit dynasty and their Hindu religion a millennium ago. However, on Bali today, caste is fairly irrelevant, nothing like India’s caste system. Nobody is “untouchable” on Bali. Nobody will be stoned for inter-caste mingling. But different names can denote different caste when replacing the four names, or adding a name to the original four. Also, some of these names are designated only for females, like Ayux. Others, only for males, like Bagus. The whole concept can get pretty involved and difficult to understand as with most things involving religions, language, and customs in foreign countries. But a four-name system does make remembering most people’s names a bit easier. Simon is not a Balinese name, an alternative, nor one of the derivative names.
Note to self: ask Simon about his name.
This is my guess: once upon a time, a priest, a rabbi and an Aussie named Simon walked into his bike rental shop. The Aussie named Simon was ambivalent about renting a bike, so he asked his buddies if he should. Both the priest and rabbi said: “Go for it.” So the Aussie named Simon rented a bike. And the name clicked for our Simon most probably because of some past-life experience or a memory from an ancestor stored in his own DNA, so he adopted the name for himself, and the GO FOR IT name for his business. A good business ploy also, because there are no other Simons who rent motorbikes in Legian Beach, or anywhere else on the island, nor, probably, anywhere else on any of Indonesian’s other 18,000, or so, islands along its 3,000-mile-long archipelago.
Two days later, you meet up with your driver Made S who serendipitously lives only a couple villas away from your villa, the villa you must vacate because that other lucky creep has a reservation. You and Made S are walking together along the path that leads from the rice field in which your villas are located to the parking area where Made S parks his van. A tiny aqueduct lies directly beside the footpath; the sound of water running downhill begins your trip. You imagine this an auspicious sign. Then, your phone rings inside your Mountainsmith. This seems odd to you, because you know very few people in Bali who might be phoning you at 8:05 in the morning, in Bali, on your Bali phone number.
It is Simon. He says he’s sorry. The bike won’t be returned until tomorrow. See—thank you, god, for making my point for me so clearly here. Make a plan—BAM! Spanner in the spokes. A deus ex machina in reverse. This happens every single time I make plans. I think it has something to do with my astrology chart—something to do with some cranky celestial alignments and the cosmos going all whop-a-jawed on the day I was born.
Made S overhears your conversation with Simon, and you can tell by his eyes that he is disappointed. The Balinese in general are very respectful and polite people. Made S will not say anything about his disappointment; more likely, he will laugh about it. However, he makes his living by driving people around the island. I’ve reserved his van and taken up valuable time, which now means he may not make any money today, or he’ll have to go hustle up some business real quick. On the other hand, I can’t say I’m really disappointed in the delay. I need the new bike, but tomorrow is soon enough, and I wasn’t really looking forward to that two-hour drive into Legian Beach with all that traffic, noise, and diesel fumes, then riding the bike directly back another two hours. Though I will have to do that, tomorrow. Apparently, if I don’t procrastinate on my own, the cosmos will do it for me.
Made S and I turn around and start walking back to our villas. Then I get the idea to have Made drive me up the volcano and over to the north side of the island. There is a “secret” waterfall that I’ve heard about that few people, few tourists, know of or ever visit because it is hidden and not easy to reach, off back roads too small for tour buses. There are numerous fairly-good-sized waterfalls on Bali—Gitgit Falls, Munduk Falls, Blehmantung Falls, and perhaps hundreds of smaller ones. Busloads of tourists pull up to these easily-accessed falls every day. There are two reasons that heading out in Made’s van might be a good idea: one, I feel bad that I have reserved his van and now will not utilize it.
Two, listen, I’m not getting any younger—I watched the Beatles first TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan show (on a black & white, 19-inch TV), I remember paying 25 cents for a gallon of gas when cars had something called carburetors. In the late 80’s when I first visited Bali, I drove a motorbike for two months around the island. I was much younger. I was in good physical shape. I was eager to see as much of Bali as I could see. I did not fear traffic. I was a lot dumber. I’m older now, and wiser. The wise man in me says: hey, let Made S drive your fine, and chill-soaked, ass around this island. You just sit there and gander out the window. No need to worry about some dump truck driving over your back wheel by mistake. Last thing you want here is to get hurt and need a doctor. The very last thing. Right up there with root canal.
The way people drive here, you know it’s risky riding a motorbike, especially since it’s not something you usually do at home, not something you are comfortable with nor actually good at. Especially since they drive on the left side of the road here. That is, driving on the left is the “rule.” Dangerous potholes and unreliable soft shoulders, driving in the middle, driving on the shoulder, driving in both lanes at once, driving on the shoulder of the wrong side, and dogs, chickens, pigs crossing the road at their leisure—this is reality. It is dangerous.
But, riding a motorbike is one of the activities that makes you feel so alive in Bali. You feel free. You feel the wind flowing over your skin, the warmth of the sun as you move down the road. Something very liberating about this feeling. You now understand the allure of the Hell’s Angels. Still, you are older now. You are wiser now. Made S has a van. You have it reserved. You are not senile. And you are not demented, so you can do simple math problems. Two and two is still adding up to four.
Made and I turn around again, and head back in our original direction toward where his van is parked. I begin to feel a bit like a character out of a Thomas Pynchon novel, a Lem Haggard or a Sam Butkiss. This is what my life is like every day. Be glad you have your own life, dear reader, and that you were not born on that one fateful October 4th when the cosmos allowed its celestial bodies to go all whop-a-jawed, and mess up the astrological chart for a few of us poor Libra souls.
And yet, I feel in some way relieved. A motorbike seat is not that comfortable at the best of times, not that comfortable even when only driving over to the Bintang Market on the Campuan Ridge. You sit on one of those seats all day, your butt is going to start speaking foul words to you. And gripping that brake with your left hand and grinding the accelerator with your right—your fingers are going to start cramping up after hours of that kind of pressure, and no telling what might happen to that hip joint that gets testy every once in a while when stuck in one position when you have not been doing yoga to keep things limber. Not to mention breathing in all those fumes from diesel trucks you’ll be following uphill. No. This feels like a very good alternative for today. Chill while sitting shotgun in Made S’s van, aircon on, helmet off, and travel the countryside to a waterfall I might not ever find without a proficient guide—it’s not on any map or guidebook. So maybe it doesn’t even exist, maybe it’s just a myth.
Made S is an excellent driver. Not too aggressive, and not too mealy-handed. Driving in Bali is like playing chess. The concept of “right of way” does not exist here. You must be able to sacrifice when needed, and take the advantage when necessary. You also must predict what other drivers will do in any given situation. We head out onto the Sayan Terrace road. We come to a fork, and veer to the right. We pass the spot in the movie Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts’ soon-to-be-lover almost runs over her on her bicycle with his Toyota Land Cruiser. I’m trying to remember the way, so I can retrace our tracks on Simon’s motorbike, perhaps. We turn left at the blue Di Jual (for sale) sign. Down the hill. Another right at Samana. Another right at Bongkasa, a small township. Left at its temple. All these roads are narrow, barely fit two cars side by side. Rural back roads. We run out into a vast, open rice field. I want to ask Made S to stop, so I can photograph the rice terrace. This is the downside to having a driver—you ask him to stop a few times, but after that, it might become bothersome, or make you feel weird, even though you’re paying for his service.
In Sangeh, we pass the Saturday morning outdoor market. If I were alone on my bike, I might get side tracked here photographing mangoes and skinned pig heads for hours, but I allow Made S to chauffeur me right through town as though we were off to see more interesting sites. I reckon “staying on task” is another good reason for riding with Made S. And now, I begin to wonder just what his other clients, his “average” tourists, might desire to do on the island if it’s not photographing mangoes and skinned pig heads.
We come to a stand of very tall trees; Made S says this is the Monkey Forest. Obviously, a different Monkey Forest than the one in Ubud. I believe the Balinese have reserved different forests like this in different places within their agricultural fields for monkeys. This forest looks as though they have purposefully left a small area of trees—surrounded with rice fields—in which the monkeys can do their thing. The forest is densely populated with exceedingly tall trees, must be ages old. Monkeys sit on the side of the road just outside the tree line. The jungle inside is murky, thick with vines, and darkly shaded. Moss clings to tree trunks like loose skin. An earthy aroma simmers into the air. Made S informs me that when the monkeys run out of food inside the forest, they come out to see what they can scrounge from passers by. These monkeys look healthy. One is picking bugs out of the fur on the neck of one of the others. One mother is breast feeding its young. A dominant-looking male, thick and powerful, swaggers into the shade. The monkeys have gray fur, various shades of gray, with amber eyes that speak a language all their own, but you seem to understand what they are saying even though it is a foreign tongue without words.
We turn and turn and turn. Rights and lefts. I’m lost. I have no idea what direction we travel. I quit taking notes. I no longer trust that my notes are accurate. I could never remember where we’ve come, where we’ve turned. I decide I will buy a Street Atlas of Bali. It may not have every little back road on it, perhaps not many of the ones we’ve turned onto, but I’ll be able to follow most of the roads perhaps. Or end up simply asking directions.
Note to self: take Indonesian phrasebook along on bike trip. Learn: “is this the way to…”
I pull out my old, personal map of Bali, a small, laminated fleximap, for durability while traveling; however, it displays few tiny roads. It shows a direct main road leading from Ubud to Bedugul, but we are not anywhere near that road. I have an affinity to maps, love them, love looking at them. This laminated map is good for following main roads, or for finding where you are once you get there, but unless you stay on the main roads, and go to main towns or sites, this map is worthless. And who wants to stay on the main roads in paradise, when you find such good stuff on the tiny back roads leading to ancient forests harboring new-age talking monkeys alongside rice fields miles deep near places not listed on your map.
We are now climbing a steep mountain on a very winding road. First and second gear mostly. Fairly slow going. Not much traffic on the road. Lush jungle replaces rice fields. Vines descend from branches of tall trees. Cloves scent the air. Thick white clouds with gray bellies move quickly above the trees. Palm trees dance with the wind. A thin mist begins to veil your vision. This is one good way to see Bali—slow, informed, safe. Another way would be on a chopped Harley Davidson Hog, and wearing your Sons of Anarchy helmet and leather pants, thongs on your feet, maybe a rough wench with a Bintang beer in her hand on the rear fender (Hey, it’s a vacation, you’re allowed a fantasy).
We pass a sign that reads: Strawberry Hill Guesthouse. There is a café and a number of bungalows with vast panoramic views all the way downhill to Kuta Beach. There is nowhere safe to pull off the road for photographs. If I were on my motorbike, I would pull over and spend the night peering down at the vast landscape from Strawberry Hill. However, it seems rather romantically rustic, more the kind of place you want to share with your lover than alone with your Sons of Anarchy helmet, imaginary wench, and bottle of cold-pressed virgin coconut oil.
I have this image in my mind from the first time I was in Bali, in the ‘80’s, and riding a motorbike around this area. In my mind, there is one of those huge Balinese carved pillars used as temple “gates” on either side of the road, the land is flat and beautifully landscaped on both sides of the road. Green and lush. The road leads to somewhere, but I can’t remember exactly where it is or what it leads to, but somewhere in this area where we are now, approaching Bedugul and Lake Bratan, a huge lake inside the 11-kilometer-wide crater of a Mt Bratan.
I begin to remember a number of other stand-out images from that first ride around Bali: a rice field with tall palm trees lining the plateau on top, the waves roiling in like long pipes of water far below at the foot of the cliff at Ulu Watu, the temple and the volcano behind it at Gunung Agung. And now that I’m thinking of them, I’m remembering many more. The complete laid-back attitude of Lovina, with its bamboo shacks right on the beach. The lack of tourists at Ahmed on the far East Coast. The atavistic village of Tenganan, where time stands still, and the Bali Aga people (the original people of Bali living here before the Hindus arrived in the 11th century) live as they did hundreds of years ago: cock fights in the dirt central plaza, wood-fire stoves, homes built on stilts with stick walls and thatch roofs surrounded by stone fences with no mortar, young men smoothing feathers on their roosters, young women weaving tapestries, old women sweeping the courtyard leaves, bare-breasted, wearing only their sarongs. They don’t allow you to drive cars or motorcycles into the village. They want it to remain as it was, as it has always been. But if you go inside one of the homes, you might find a TV antenna or a cell phone on a charger hiding in there. Things change here on planet Earth sooner or later, no matter what, for better or worse.
We pull into a place where Made probably brings many of his “normal” clients, tourists who want to see tourist attractions, rather than skinned pig heads. I’m a little disappointed he would even imagine I would want to come here, to the Bali Treetop Adventure Park. Made pulls over and parks the van. I hesitate, maybe I’m in a sort of anti-tourist-trap state of shock. Made asks if I’m going to get out. My first impulse is to say no, let’s move on. But hey, here we are. What the hell goes down at Bali Treetop Adventure Park?
Turns out, they have built a number of climbing “circuits” in the trees, circuits made of ropes and wires and wood. You climb or swing around the circuits from one tree to the other on various types of apparatus with differing degrees of danger, and at various heights—from two feet off the ground to 20 meters (like 65 feet) in the air. Interesting concept, but expensive (for a human-monkey forest), something like $20 to enter. Luckily for me, the park is filled with a group of teenagers. Had it been less crowded, I may have taken a swing at the thing. I don’t want to be the old geezer showing up all the young studs with my climbing prowess.
Note to self: You know wisdom comes with age. Do something about that ego, soon.
Made S drives me to the nearby Botanical Gardens. Again, I balk—botanical gardens, for crying out loud. Is this the kind of traveler I’ve become? I remember climbing a volcano in Guatemala that was spitting lava decades ago, and now I’m sitting in the parking lot of a botanical garden. But then, I decide what the hell, I am here. What am I going to say to my poll responders, maybe something like: hey, I went around the island, stopped nowhere, saw nothing, did nothing. Fine, I walk into the Botanical Gardens greenhouse, snap a photo or two, and leave. I don’t even see the whole exhibit. I’m more the “natural” fauna and flora kind of guy. In my mind, manicured plants in cages is like animals in cages. But the building is a fairly impressive glass greenhouse structure, but still, I take only one rather poor shot of it using my iPhone.
We head toward Lake Bratan where the very important Pura Ulun Dana Bratan is located. This is one of the most sacred sites and temples in Bali, built here hundreds of years ago because Lake Bratan serves as the source of the irrigation system that flows downhill from here to the numerous, terraced rice fields in the region.
You are not surprised to see roadside stands selling rambutans, mangoes, oranges, and coconuts. However, you are surprised to see roadside stalls selling baskets of giant strawberries. Had you stayed on Strawberry Hill with your imaginary wench, you now imagine that you would have skinny dipped in the pool and later, eaten fresh strawberries and whipped cream off a naked belly. You may be old, but your imagination is not dead; it is still capable of producing a pretty fine fantasy, and lingering there.
The day is only half over. In the next post, we leave Lake Bratan and head for Bali’s “secret,” and perhaps greatest, waterfall. And later, we stop at a Kintamani coffee plantation to drink some of the most-expensive coffee in the world: kopi luwak. Where we will once again be discussing the alimentary canals of local fauna. Hey, if all this scatological talk seems disgusting or bothers your sensitivities, please remember this: poo happens.
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