YOU EVER HAVE A DAY BEGIN WITH DISASTER, roller coaster up and down, then end with a blessing? The day I rode my motorbike to Tampak Siring was rather like that.
The night before, I set my phone’s alarm for something like 0430 hours—I use the Bell Tower chime because it’s loud but not obnoxious or irritating. I’m an early riser, so 0430 isn’t rare for me. Still, no one is totally awake that early in the morning, so I muddle into the bathroom in darkness—remember, this is the bathroom larger than most bedrooms (or tiny homes), with an orchid garden and oodles of plants in it, and an open-air ceiling along the far wall. I turn on the shower.
Disaster number one: I can’t find my bar of soap.
When traveling, the last thing you want to write home about is losing something out of your bag or having it stolen, especially something you cannot replace easily. But we’re only talking soap here, and I haven’t been traveling; I’ve been holing up in this villa, stationary for almost two months. I use only bar soap in the shower because I use bottled liquid soap for hands, so even as groggy as I am, I know I haven’t moved the bar of soap to the sink. But where is it? Did the maid move it, or take it? No, she wouldn’t do either. I conjure a burglar scaling the 12-foot-high bathroom wall of rock and robbing me only of my bath soap. No. So then…what?
I try to force myself awake, and begin to scan the room and garden. I spot the bar of soap. It’s lying in the garden dirt between the roofless wall and one of the palm trees. Some critter has dragged it from the shower to the far side of the room. Probably a rat, which some people here call a “mouse”—it does sound a little less loathsome to have mice. “Rat” seems more onerous, more defiling somehow.
The “mouse” seems to have become enamored with my soap and has been dining on it as though it were a delicacy, a wheel of Jarlsberg cheese or French pastry, and has gnawed it all the way around its outside edges. Apparently, she intended to haul it up the wall to share with her family, but couldn’t quite manage that. I don’t get it. It’s soap, not cheese. It’s soap, not bread. It’s soap. A luwak knows precisely when coffee beans are ripe, they know the difference between Arabica and Robusta beans. Are the mice in Bali a little lame? When the gods were passing out brains and instinct to the animals of Bali, did the luwaks get more than their share, and the mice got none? Or do mice just possess a weird sense of reality. Or a low threshold of taste? And a lousy sense of propriety? I don’t have another bar of soap in my travel bag, but fine, I use my liquid hand soap from the sink even though I dislike bathing with liquid soap. It seems inefficient, ineffectual—just doesn’t feel right. See how bad some days in paradise might begin: mice banqueting on your soap, and you forced to use liquid soap in your shower. Could things get worse?
Disaster number two: I finish with the shower and walk back into the bedroom. And there it is. Lying on the floor beside the bed— one huge Gecko dropping, white tip at one end. Damn those cloacas. Sometimes it’s better not knowing some things. It seems bad enough knowing there’s dung on your floor, but knowing there’s dung and pee mixed together that came out of the same opening of the animal—it seems a bit more disgusting, especially when it’s this large a gecko, “The Hulk” of geckos.
I know, I know, I made a New Year’s Resolution not to mention poop again, and I meant it 100 percent (at the time). So let me say this: usually, I do not make New Year’s resolutions, and when I do, I usually break them by January 4th. I’m much like many others in the world. And this: I might very easily change my mind about something. Get used to it. And besides, this is my blog…I can write what I want. And get this, I know a blogger who’s famous for his knowledge of poop in India. Google “poop in India.” His blog post will be the first one that pops up. Perhaps I’ll become famous for my knowledge of cloacas, or Bali dung. Or the diet of rats. It could happen.
Irrelevant fact du jour #1: Komodo dragons are the reining kings of rough sex. The male mounts the female from behind. She most likely will resist, and when a Komodo dragon “resists,” large, sharp teeth and claws are involved, so it’s dangerous for the male. He must overpower her and actually pin her down, and hold her down. Then he flicks his long forked tongue, or his chin, over a couple of her sensitive areas, and hopefully she calms down and gets into it. But the male continues to hold her down with his claws on either side of her body, just in case she tries anything stupid. This, I’m guessing, is more about preservation of the species than mere domination: if a female can overpower her lover, he’s a wuss, and not fit to sire shit on an island wicked as Komodo. Over millenia, apparently, male dragons have developed hooks on their penis. Since the dragons are prone to fairly long intercourse times along with a bit of rough play, the hooks ensure his junk stays inside the female (in case she bolts or lashes out with her tail). All that is fine information, but this is the kicker here: when mating, the male inserts his johnson with hooks into the female dragon’s—wait for it—her (ever multi-tasking) cloaca!
It’s still dark, the stars are bright against a black sky, no moon. But soon, the sky begins to lighten. This is not monsoon season, and Bali has been fairly dry throughout June and July; this is Bali’s dry season. But this morning, rain begins to fall. The rain sings a slow madrigal in the dark air. Then eases into an aria, and builds to a crescendo as it plays the palm leaves and rice paddy. It finally tapers into a climax, a drizzle, A cappello. Then trills to silence.
This is the kind of rain we like to see in Bali. Rain a while as we drink our morning kopi luwak sans sugar, cleanse the earth and air, enliven everything, make things green and lush. Then, stop. And allow the red bamboo to grow another inch and the sun to shine for the rest of the day.
We don’t mind a cloud or two moving away in the sky, to enhance a photograph of a mango tree and jungle early in the morning. But we do not desire to ride a motorbike in the rain.
My maid arrives —and I’m willing to bet you one million rupiahs that if you have read my last few posts, you can guess her name(!). I usually like to eat a little later in the morning, but today I ask her to make breakfast early because I will be hopping on the bike soon and heading off to see some of the island.
“Ibu” is a term of respect for a woman in Bali, older women or married women, not young girls. My maid, Ibu Made (you guessed it, right? you owe me a million rupiahs) asks me what I want for breakfast. I ask what Balinese dishes she makes. She says, “Banana pancakes.” I’m not sure that qualifies, but I say I’ll try it. She makes me a banana pancake and another pancake made with green stuff in the batter and coconut and something else sweet rolled inside. She told me what was in there making things green (some herb or leaf of something), but I didn’t quite understand what she was telling me and was too preoccupied with packing for my trip to get details. Luckily, both pancakes were simply wonderful. Ibu Made makes the palm syrup herself from palm flowers, as tasty as maple syrup but without all that mapley flavor, and expense. I eat quickly, then finish packing my Mountain Smith fanny pack with a little snack food and my rain poncho—just in case.
The first thing I notice today is women construction workers. For some reason in Bali, it’s the women who do the heavy lifting at construction sites. They haul rocks and dirt on their heads for the foundation of a house; they haul bricks to build them. They haul wood beams. They haul bags of concrete. They haul steel rods of rebar. This woman is hauling bricks on her motorbike, from where the truck dumps them to another site.
At that site, a crew of other women transfer the bricks from there to as far as their wheel barrows will go.
Then, another team of women take them down the more narrow paths to the building site.
I ride through town toward the statue of Arjuna—there’s little traffic this early in the day—and stop at the Ganesha Bookstore. I’m actually tempted to look inside. They sell used books, and a few times a week, I usually wander in to see what they have. And, it’s located next door to the Bali Buddha Bakery, which sells organic bagels, bread, and macadamia nut cookies (nothing a Bali rat might like). This morning, I decide to buy the bagel and pass on the book, but maybe I’ll stop in later on my return.
I ride out of town toward the tiny village of Laplapan. And immediately come across some marvelous scenery in the Petanu River valley.
This is a close up of one of those palms that the locals call “Banana Fans” because the stems at the bottom grow close, then fan out on top into separate leaves that look similar to leaves on banana plants.
A few kilometers on, I run across a view of Gunung Agung serrating the horizon just before veiling itself behind a curtain of mist and cloud. You know how when some kid is fidgeting, and his mother says: hey, you got ants in your pants? That’s how I feel now as I stop the bike, hit the kickstand, and fumble in my bag for my camera because in one quick moment Agung could vanish. I take a few quick shots, knowing nothing that magnificent gets captured fully in a photograph. Two dimensions never do them justice. Some things, you just have to see with a naked eye—the Grand Canyon, Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu. Bridgette Bardot. Okay, fine, for you ladies: Tom Selleck.
I notice wild cloves growing nearby. I pick a couple. I put one in my mouth. It’s almost sweet. Pungent and sharp the way dried cloves usually are, but also sweet, and the texture is soft and smooth. I decide I like fresh cloves better than dried cloves. I keep it in my mouth for half an hour or so, savoring its softness and sharpness. Clove, chocolate, ginger—I love all of these. What would they taste like all together? With maybe a dash of jalapeño. In a drink? Or dessert? Or a smoothie with mango?
Nearby, a cacao tree is bearing a load of fresh fruit. I’m a chocolate freak, but damn, that is one ugly plant chocolate comes from. Coyote ugly. Gecko cloaca ugly. The fruit pods look like wrinkled sacks of green-goat testicles hanging on the side of a tree. I think I may have just ruined my desire, and cured my addiction, to eating chocolate in the future. Again—some things are better left unknown.
Irrelevant fact du jour #2: Cacao leaves can pirouette up to 90 degrees, from horizontal to vertical, to follow the sun and to shade new leaves.
Nobody who knows me calls me the sharpest tool in the shed, but I can usually get out of my own way, and get through a day without much problem or effort (but yeah, a miracle or two might be necessary). I stand in a field photographing Agung, then the rice paddy nearby. I snap a couple of shots of some plants. I kneel to capture a different angle, a close-up. Then, as I kneel there looking at the photos on my camera’s rear display, I feel something on my foot. I look down. I’m too shocked to snap a photo of what I see. But as I write this now, I do wish I would have had a cooler presence of mind to take a photo to show you how some days I may need help getting out of my own way. I cannot see my foot. It’s covered in a throbbing blanket of pulsing black ick—big black ants. And a few are crawling up my bare thigh from my knee on the ground. The ants are surprisingly large and surprisingly light on their feet–I barely feel the hoard on my foot and do not feel them on my thigh. The ants have contracted what must be something like gold-rush fever in their reality. Fresh meat and plenty of it. I flip my sandal off my foot. I try to brush the ants away, but there are a bazillion of them. And now, they are getting pissed. And biting, bigtime.
I was kneeling right in the nest or home or whatever it is they live in down there in the weeds. Or maybe they’re just passing through, en masse. A couple ants have gotten into my shorts. Holy mother of green-goat testicles! Luckily, this is a back-back road with no traffic, no onlookers. I slap and swipe and toss and brush at them. I must look just like that little boy whose mother asks if he has ants in his pants. I literally do have ants in my pants. I finally get all of them off my feet and legs, and out of my shorts (don’t ask). My hands sting a bit because when you brush a band of giant ants off your foot with your hand, you end up with giant ants on your hand. Maybe it’s one of those immutable laws of physics?
Some people argue that ants are the sharpest tool in the shed. I recently read somewhere that long after humans have become extinct on the planet, ants will probably be running the show, and sitting at the top of the food chain. I’m thinking cockroaches will also still be here, maybe a rung just below ants. Bali rats, I surmise, will disappear about the time humans stop manufacturing soap.
“Know your enemy,” as they say in movies and ancient books on war strategy—I move back in for a closer look at these ants. They are large. They look mean. They move like they know what they are doing. Nothing seems willy-nilly with them. They seem very healthy, and muscular. The Schwarzenegger of ants. Another few find my feet, again. I back away, brush them off my sandal again. Persistent buggers. I don’t know what they’re up to, but they look like they have a job to do, and they are doing it. They maneuver like they are bad news going somewhere to happen.
I ride into a small village and stop to look around the morning market. I believe I’m in touch with my feminine side as much as most men could be, but this local woman—whose name I do not know, but we’ll call her Made—has afforded me one good reason to be thankful I’m not a woman.
I mean, look at the size of her. She is a tiny person like many Balinese. But now, take a look at the size of her baby’s head compared to the width of her shoulders. Nuff said. Thank you, god, for making me male in this life.
I pass a temple in a village that is celebrating one of the myriad of festivals they hold each month.
The Honda Scoopy motorbike is the Bentley of motorbikes in Bali. These ladies probably wear the look on their faces because they are not riding a Honda Scoopy, which has five more horsepower than their regular Honda, significant when climbing volcanos or riding away from one spewing molten lava.
Disaster number three: I ride a ways and happen upon one of my favorite rice fields to photograph in Bali. There are gaps of time in the rice-growing process between rice growing and replanting again. At those times, the fields lie fallow and muddy and yucky. Or maybe another less-alluring crop is growing in the paddy, like water melons or potatoes, which do not have the same lovely panache as rice. On this trip to Bali, the rice paddies near my villa are splendidly full of rice, and beautiful. But everywhere else, everywhere else, everywhere, that I travel on the island, the rice fields are not growing rice, they are dormant and not photographically appealing.
Today, I take the photo above—one of my favorite fields lying dormant. The photo below is what this same rice field looked like the last time I rode past this villa, seven months earlier in January of this year.
But the universe seems to offer miracles that make up for the lack of beauty in a rice field by replacing it with other sights, like these long-tailed macaques sitting on a fence.
Or perhaps the beauty of an antique 1960’s Toyota Land Cruiser restored to like-new mint condition, painted red and sporting special rims. You’d hate to drive this pristine machine to places where those mud tires could go.
I ride through Laplapan, north towards Tampak Siring. I’m riding on back roads—narrow, no signs, no traffic. And of course, no rice paddies to photograph. Somehow, my mind gets confused as to where I am, and what direction I should be going. When I come to a T in the road, I turn right (and head away from Tampak Siring). Still, in my mind, I don’t see how that is possible. I’m pretty good with finding my way. But every once in a while, like once in ten years, I get confused looking straight at a map; it just doesn’t make sense; I can’t see how I got where I got. But this is rare, maybe it’s just the mind going on vacation. It may have been something more culpable on my travels during the 60’s and 70’s. Infuriating, whatever the cause.
But today, I’m not looking at a map. I’m just confused as to where I “should” be, and a little lost but close to where I should be. And here’s the strange thing: a few days ago knowing I’d be traveling Bali’s backroads, I spent a small fortune for a Periplus road atlas of Bali, a book with page after page of great detail, even small roads. I have the road atlas with me in my fanny pack. I’m just refusing to pull it out. What is up with that? If I were in Amsterdam, I could understand it: my ego would not allow me to pull out a map and look like a tourist there. But here, anyone not a local is a tourist.
At any rate, I have to turn around and back track. Then I find myself floundering in the other direction, and end up at the intersection of this road.
It’s an intriguing road, a little scary, and one that at any other time, I would simply drive down just to see where it goes. But today, I’m on a mission to see the sacred Tirta Empul spring and pools in the village of Tampak Siring, and time is not standing still.
I’m sitting on my motorbike, apparently looking lost, at the mouth of this scary road as I ponder north or south. A local man happens by and asks if I’m looking for Tirta Empul. He points me in the right direction, I’m only a couple of left turns and a bridge away. I end up in the most beautiful parking lot I’ve ever seen for a tourist site, or any kind of site. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parking lot this marvelous; it’s the Elysian Fields of parking lots, or better, the Mona Lisa of parking lots. There are plenty of places to park, no lines drawn on the road, so you can park anywhere, even on the grass, and the whole parking lot is one huge garden, with large shade trees, a profusion of flowers, and a clean river running through it. People are picnicking in the parking lot. Children are playing games in the parking lot. Lovers are snuggling near ancient trees. Couples and families walk on the manicured grass, pick flowers. A loud group of local young men laugh and smoke clove-scented cigarettes (good and bad in everything, at least the smoke smells good).
Yeah, you’ll find the compulsory tourist shops, but fairly low-key, selling junk food and breadfruit. And look what’s behind the shops—acre after acre of manicured garden.
You can also buy fresh fruit, and sarongs, from roving hawkers.
PURA TIRTA EMPUL: The Sacred Temple and Pools
Tirta Empul translates to “Holy Spring.” The Tirta Empul Temple and pools may begin to offer you a glimpse into Bali’s spiritual heart. The temple entrance is the traditional Balinese split gate (like the huge one that for decades lived so dearly in my memory until I recently discovered it was the entrance to a frinkin country club).
The Tirta Empul spring is the “Ganges River” of Bali, where Hindus here have immersed themselves in the holy waters for purification—and to maintain happiness for themselves and the whole world—for over a thousand years. The water is believed to possess healing properties: able to heal various ailments and diseases and to renew or refresh your soul from the adverse effects of daily life. Legend suggests the spring was created when Indra, the very powerful Hindu god of war, struck the ground and water sprung forth. Legend also maintains that the water brought back to life some of Indra’s soldiers who had died from poisoning.
As you walk toward the temple from the parking lot a la Da Vinci, the first thing you notice is the impressive ancient and sacred banyan tree dressed in ceremonial cloth standing in front of the temple’s split gates.
You are required to wear appropriate attire—sarong and sash—to enter the temple grounds, and these guys are there to assist you, and to outfit you in the proper apparel, which they loan you, and for which you may offer a donation if you desire.
The sacred spring lies on the other side of this carved rock wall. Kids will be kids, as they like to say, and what kid wouldn’t innately desire to just begin climbing this wall, but a rule is a rule, and sacred is sacred—they made him quit climbing immediately.
In local Hindu tradition, these women are being blessed with holy water from the holy spring.
It’s not a style I’d desire for my home, but you have to admire the craftsmanship that went into the carving of these wooden and stone structures. Besides being the happiest people on the planet maybe, the Balinese are magnificent artisans—wood, stone, paint, precious metals. Mountain sides. Parking lots.
Photographers who cannot take their own models along must rely on the kindness of strangers.
Worshippers enter the pool at the steps at one end and begin the process at the far fountain. They pray and give offerings at the first fountain, then move down, praying and offering at each of the twelve fountains in the pool.
A local woman named Ketut (born 4th in her family) informs me that when praying, the Balinese proceed through a five-step procedure: they first thank the emptiness, then thank the sun, thank the mysterious creation, then offer blessings upon the whole world, and finally thank the emptiness again. They may wear flowers, or offer flowers as they proceed from one fountain to the next. They receive grains of rice, either in their mouths or on their foreheads. These represent the “seeds of God.” When they are chewed, or fall off, it reminds devotees of the “mysteries of creation.”
The water is fresh out of the ground, fed by the sacred spring, and is crystal clear, cool, and refreshing. The rocks on the bottom are worn smooth, and feel almost soft. Large koi swim in the pools and do not fear the people wandering near them.
Guidebooks and TripAdvisor mention that you might experience humongous crowds and that it may take like 90 minutes to get to the fountains while you wade in the water and snake your way forward in long lines of worshippers. Some travel articles also mention that this is a place few foreigners visit, and that most of the people you find here are locals. Both of these pieces of information were inaccurate on the day I arrived. There were no throngs of local devotees, and most of the (very few) people in the Temple that day were foreigners. This is the kind of small miracle I have come to depend upon every day. I am not a massive-throng-of-people kind of guy. I’m not even that comfortable in a busy grocery store. Give me a scary road, alone, any day.
I wonder just what this woman’s tattoo might say. I decide I will wait for her to finish, and then ask her. But she is taking her time with her devotion, so I wander on, and when I return a little later, I find her nowhere. Apparently, I still need to learn a lesson in patience. Or time management. Or learn to read Sanskrit.
The Balinese are a difficult people not to like. I find I like them even more when I discover that they offer blessings for happiness and balance in the “whole world,” not merely their own life.
Today, some visitors merely take photographs of the temple and devotees in the pools. Others feed the koi. Many people spend most of their day picnicking in the parking lot near the lucid river fed by the holy spring in the Temple. The aroma of incense infuses the air with sweetness. Beauty and peaceful energy abound. You can almost taste the impartial sanctity.
After a day at the sacred pools, what else is there to do for the weary traveler but get a massage at the local spa. I opt for the four-handed “Pure Bliss Massage”: that is, two people massaging with identical strokes simultaneously on either side of your body. It does cost twice the usual seven-dollar fee. So, like, $14. I told you the day ended well.
You can find other entries into the DP Photo Challenge here: Happy Place
You can find other entries in Lucile’s Photo Rehab here: Photo Rehab
You can find other entries in WP Daily Prompt here: Connect the Dots