....the spice of life
21.12.2006 - 27.12.2006 25 °C
Welcome to my paradise
Where the sky so blue
and the sunshines so bright
Welcome to my paradise
Where you can be free
and the party's never ending
Undoubtedly the anthem from Bali & the Gilli Islands, Steven and The Coconut Tree's UB40-styled reggae hit Welcome to my Paradise for me pretty much summed up the vibe of this party-party island - care-free, stress-free, relaxed, endulgence en mass, pelam pelam (slowly slowly) approach to everything - with the locals always on hand to see to your every need.
Along the avenues of Kuta, Seminyak & Sanur as far as the eye can see are touristic shops & markets, hotels & guest houses, restaurants & bars offering pure endulgence to anyone willing to part with their Rupiah. After the sun goes down, the party begins: cheap cocktails flow; live shows of once traditional now MTV-ified barong dancing dazzle the pinkish onlookers; commercial discos and nightclubs blare out duff-duff rythms; and the Balinese lady's of the night add their own wares to foray.
The ever-present cynic in me (that I can't seem to shift) tells me that something was up. It was almost as if the island had been fabricated by a Thomas Cook mastermind plan to create a Utopia for the package holiday tourist. Ingeniously, they had some how managed to brain wash the people of this undoubtedly once beautiful land into playing out this fantasy too. These was beyond the realms of any James Bond villain's evil plan.
Being 10 metres out at sea on whale-sized surf board for 3 hours a day was not far enough to escape. Fair enough if this is your idea of paradise but it sure as hell isn't mine - I felt claustrophobic and dirty, it was all too much, I had to escape - surely all of Bali can't be like this.....?
So I hired a moped and acquired a map. To the north it looked greener, they can't have concreted that far surely. I left Kuta with a shiver.
OK, so perhaps a little dramatic I know but after the isolation of Sumbawa & Flores I was not ready for this. Resort-style holiday has never been my bag and the whole sex trade thing just made me freak out, I literally breathed a sigh of relief as I escaped the city limits of Kuta. I instantly fell in love with my bike - a two-wheeled gratuity from the gods, a remittance from Rama, subsidy from Shiva or honorarium from Honda, whatever you want to call it. She was mine, and I was free....
The first stop on my exploration of Bali was Tanah Lot temple, Tanah meaning earth and lot meaning ocean. On entry to the site it felt like I was entering Alton Towers with a car park that could hold a thousand or so. Curiously, the majority of the people were Balinese here to attend the temple not tourists like it first appeared, all busily preparing themselves for the festivities ahead - burning incense, preparing offerings (a folded banana leaf adorned with flowers, rice and colourful powder) and decorating their faces with more rice and bindi's.
On clearing the car park, you descend towards the sea, passing through an endless sea of markets selling everything from sarongs to wooden penises. Once into the temple complex and making it past the security guards, the temple reveals itself consisting of a couple of shrines set on a rocky protrusion which apparently symbolises the balance between male and female; inner and outer world; which might explain the symbolism of the wooden phalices on sale.
A procession of people were wading out to sea fully clothed, hanging on for dear life to a guide-rope, with a brightly coloured basket balanced on your head which for me was a true sign of devotion. Without any real understanding of what Balinese Hindu is all about, this was a bizarre spectacle to behold. I had been told that Hindu is no casual religion in the same way as Christianity could be flexed (for example the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' which clearly Mr Bush's US government somewhat mis-read as devout Christians) but I wasn't ready for this. Without a guide as to why this bizarre event was occurring I was at a loss, but there seemed to be some kind of temple on top which 100 or so worshippers would enter for 30 minutes, say their prayers and trek back to shore.
The real draw for the tourists was the picture postcard scene of the temple silhouetted against the setting sun, an image I'd seen before but hadn't known where it was from. The dilemna of where best to watch the sunset was easily resolved when I stumbled across some subtle signposts advertising 'THIS WAY FOR POSTCARD SUNSET VIEW'. Indulging in probably the most expensive Bintang in the whole of Indonesia, I settled in my chair and as the sun began to dip below the horizon, I began to see why this was such a special place and I felt a connection with something spiritual that I couldn't quite explain. Either that or they put something in the beer. Great view mind you.
Heading in land I came across the town of Ubud, the island's preeminent centre for fine arts, dance and music. Undoubtedly the hub for tourists seeking souvenirs, there an overwhelming number of artisian shops selling locally produced arts, crafts and furniture and a thriving market place selling all and sundry imbetween. As you enter the area, the air becomes noticeably cooler and the sticky humidity that engulfs the coast disappears (backwards logic I know but that's the way it feels). This region of Bali has more rain than an English summer but it does make for a green and pleasant landscape.
Ubud is surrounded by some of the most aesthetically pleasing and productive rice paddy fields on the island, and there are many walks easily accessible from the town itself to explore the area. This hive of activity was viewed with great amusement as I battled in the midday sun doing my best to avoid dehydration and heat stroke, foolish tourist - the local farmers had the right idea....
Apart from the ever present mosquitos, I spent a very enjoyable few days strolling around, rolling in the hay, and meeting some colourful characters en route who were more than happy to pose for a photo if you crossed their palm with silver in return. The man below was legend - I've no idea what he was saying to me but he seemed very happy to meet me and even chucked in a Michael Jackson moonwalk to top off his show. Too much barum perhaps.
Here I met a good friend Catherine Charest from Quebec who had recently launched her own fair trade business designing jewellry for export to Canada. Heavily influenced in Balinese style, the collection is produced using local craftsman with the raw materials are purchased directly from the 'farmer' who works in an environmentally sound way - all very right on! It's quite a contrast to the mass produced jewellry, watches etc that you see for sale in all the touristic shops, which I'm told all are made in sweat-shop factories in Jakarta where trained monkeys are prodded with red hot pokers and forced to work 24 hours a day without food or adequate toilet facilities. Oh, and if you think you're getting a bargain for 30,000 Rp for a fake Rolex think again - you can buy a whole box direct from the factory containing 100 or so pieces for 100,000 Rp. Besides if it's that cheap, think about the people who produce them, how much they are paid and whether your need to aspire to an arbitary item of value justifies making a slave out of human being! Oops, wrong soap box . I do wish Catherine the best of luck with her venture.
Exploring around Ubud and with the help of many helpful locals all with conflicting directions, I came across the magnificent Gunung Kawi temple. (Not to be confused with Pura Gunung Kawi which is ofcourse a water temple located 2kms away - splendid in it's own right but not the meat in the sandwich I was looking for.) Anhow, Gunung Kawi, constructed along a river in the 11th century, it is a stunning complex of pavilions and rock-cut shrines carved into the hillside surrounded by rushing water. Instantly more accessible than other temples more active I'd visited (mainly because I squeezed in just before they closed for the day) I had the chance to fully explore this relic from the old days of Balinese Hindus. There was an unsettling chill in the air as the evening drew close yet I felt a warmth in the temple that begged me to stay.
It's a peaceful place, where local farmers harvest terraced rice paddies, co-existing with the temple and it's activities. It seemed bizarre at first to have a working farm integrated with the temple but then again why not - work, play and pray all in the same spot!
After chilling in Ubud for a few days, I headed further up into the highlands to check out the two largest volcanoes on Bali that dominate the skyline. First on the list was Gunung Batur (Gunung meaning mountain) in the Bangli District which measures 1717m in height. It last erupted in 1994 and is still visibly an active beast with vents of sulphur gas escaping from the crater created at the last eruption.
To be pedantic, the peak I refer to is not Gunung Batur at all - the correct name is Gunung Lebah but for some reason it adopted the name of it's much bigger and unwieldly parent. Gunung Batur was a much bigger beast alogether and would have made Lebah look a mere pimple in the landscape. For the entire 'valley' Lebah rests in is the caldera (crater) of the former giant which is now home to about 20 or so villages (including Toya Bungkah where I stayed), Lake Batur which measures 10km across, a 4000 ha farm and Gunung Lebah itself and it's trail of lava flows that spill from it's gaping mouth - and that's only half of the crater. The sides of the caldera were well over 500m in depth which my moped can testify to as it descended down whining like a disgruntled child from the main road into the crater bottom. It was huge, I simply couldn't comprehend that what I was standing in was a volcano crater, let alone imagine what it was like to be there when it blew 30,000 years ago. The pic below does some justice to show how big it really is, sorry for the shocking photoshop skills
Organised treks were avalable to climb to the peak but after the experience with Mt Rinjani I figured I'd go it alone. I was warned by a friendly guide the night before that the people in the hills were not to be trusted at at best I'd be asked to pay for the visit if not hung, drawn and quartered. I didn't believe a word of it so chose to ignore him. Besides, the peak didn't look too high plus there was only a wee bit of poisonous sulphur gas and only a slight chance of an eruption so the odds were in my favour.
I started the day with a trek to the crater rim of the true Gunung Batur on the far side of the lake to watch the sun rise. The route began with an impossibly steep climb up a road which the locals somehow managed to travel up and down on a moped, which then branched off along a dusty track through some small villages and farms. I was met by the most welcoming people who insisted in accompanying me on my journey at was treated to a splendid sunrise looking to the East over Gunung Agung and beyond to Mt Rinjani and a rather faint trace of the Gilli Islands.
After this triumph, it was back on the moped and I found my way round to the backside of Gunung Batur where the lava fields from the eruption of 1994 were to be found, dodging an endless stream of fully laden gravel trucks returning to civilisation with their precious cargo and wooping workers hanging off every available handhold. Once in the middle of the lava field which stretched for more than 2 miles across, I began my ascent of Lebah and after only 2 hours reached the summit. Happy happy days!
Moving on, I attempted to get up to Amed that night but bit off rather more than I could chew - after a minor crash on the bike I only made it as far as Padang Bai in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm. It was all a rather rushed affair (much like the end of this blog entry) and I only made a 2 hour stop at Pura Besakih Temple (gong) - the mother temple of Bali en route which really didn't do it justice at all.
The next day I travelled up to (what do you call a man with a pig on is head?) Amed which is a peaceful beach retreat on the north eastern edge of the island. Its remote location keeps the crowds away and gives the place a super relaced feel - it's all still a tourist haven but the locals were so friendly and made me feel very welcome as a lone traveller. ighlights included:
- my room, costing 40,000Rp per night. OMG!!!!
- the wreck of the Japanese warship which lays only 3 metres below the surface easily accessible with only a snorkel & mask
- a superb little restaurant the owner whom had the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen
- and an unforgetable massage which cured a swelling on my foot from the bike crash in less than 24 hours
With a few days before I had to fly out to Singapore, I decided to meet up with Catherine and take a Christmas treat break out to the island of Nusa Lembongan off the south-eastern side of Bali.
The islands main industry besides tourism is seaweed farming, something I'd never seen before on this scale. When the tide retreats, the plots of land are revealed, each marked out with individual fence posts. It seemed a strange thing but I guess owning a plot in the sea is no different from that on dry land. The sea weed was not eaten locally, all intended for export to Japan.
The island was stunning and offfered all you could need for a relaxed Chistmas holiday. There was no swell unfortunately so surf was out but atleast that eliminated any dilemna about what to do for the day, and the night, well they sold Bintang to wash down with the stunning sunset.
btw, the rubber rings are used to float the sea weed baskets
On a trek inland, I stumbled across an over grown cemetry and adorned atop one of the gravestones was a Swastika. How Hinduism relates to fascism I couldn't quite imagine as I couldn't think of more far removed if I tried. But apparently, the Swastika is a sign from days of old in the Hindu relegion representing peace and prosperity, a religious and astronomical sign linking the sun, moon, earth and universe, and is also held as a godly sign of eternity as an energy/fire source. Most common you will see swastika at the entrances of houses to bring properity and good fortune to it's inhabitants so I guess the chap that lay beneath was a lucky sole. A much more positive use than third reich employed - read more about the swastika on Wikipedia.
For a Christmas treat, I succumbed to the promises of my friendly neighbour from Drift Divers for some spectacular diving around the island, besides it was a locally owned company so atleast the money was going to the right people. Still a little sceptical after having my mind blown away in the waters around Komodo, we set off in hope of finding some Manta Rays and possibly a straggling Mola Mola (sun fish) that hadn't retreated to the depths yet. Alas, the diving was not all that spectacular and none of the big stuff were playing ball - I felt at times like I was clock watching until the dive was over. Truly spoilt I must be.
To make up for any disappointed the dive master brought along a spear gun to spice things up a bit so I tried my hand at some underwater brutally. It wa not easy with the complications of refraction of light making objects seem closer than they are, the current rediverting the spear in flight, the fish moving and above all me being a terrible shot. I handed over the reigns back to the dive master who quickly succeeded in empaling a leather jacket, a brutish looking triggerfish (payback from komodo) and a pretty little red thing. I would not recommend this for the squeamish as there's a mass of green blood (no red light gets down this far) and the chosen method to carry the fish is to feed a rope through the fish's eye balls whilst it is still alive. Gross! Anyhow, we ate like kings that night, les fruits de la mer, c'est formidable!
So, my time was about up. Just time for one last shopping trip at the market in Denpasar to send some (now belated) christmas presents back home.
fruit & veg
- mangustan fruit
One last drama before I left, having overstayed my visa by 11 days I was required to pay immigration $20US per day. Not so in Indonesia, the land where sadly corruption still rules - a back hander to the customs official of my remainding cash (a deal which was completed in the toilet of the airport) and I was allowed to leave, shaking like a leaf but nonetheless I was not in jail. Perhaps a hypocritical action and we should do our bit to stamp out corruption but it was cheap. Oh dear!
I'm not sure I'll return to Bali again until I fear the pinch of old age as it's a little too commercialised for my liking, unless it's a spring board to Java, Sumutra or Sulawesi that is (yes yes yes!!!). Don't get me wrong, the people are lovely and I had some special times here but it's a pretty screwed up place. I purposely didn't mention terrorism (oops) but the impact Osama (don't surf) and his band of merry distructioners has left a terrible scar. The crime you don't hear about is the impact of the lowly tourists - the resorts are now a far cry from the farming communities on the interior and the locals live the lifestyle of a tourist where money, alcohol and sex industry is a part of life. No going back to the old ways, but why should or would they want to. I felt dirty about the whole affair to be honest. Much better I go somewhere fresh and leave my mark there instead - oh dear, is travelling really selfish??