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Day 3 in Bali


My God, is it day 3 already? I only have eight days here and time is flying by, as always. Some people count the sleeps before they get here; I count the sleeps until I leave as well, determined to pack in as much as possible before that sad morning when you sit forlornly in the hotel lobby, waiting for your lift to the airport, watching all the happy travellers arriving with their 1 or 2 weeks still in front of them. 

So, a quick breakfast ("egg any style" this morning is an omelette) and a sometimes hot, sometimes cold, shower before the day's events. I am booked to do a Kintamani tour. I usually don't do arranged tours because they inevitably include shop stops where the tour guide takes you to over-priced shops on the way with the expectation that you will buy and put some commission in his pocket.

This is a Tour East trip called "Highlights of Bali", the brochure for which declares "No shopping stops!" A little on the expensive side at $35 Australian per person, but it turned out to be well worth the price. 

Lucky I was ready because the tour bus arrived an hour early at 8am. It had to collect four more people before beginning the journey. First stop at Santika to gather a father and daughter pair from the UK. She was a music teacher making her way around the world with her French boyfriend. Finding themselves impecunious in Java, she called for parental rescue and her banker father flew out from London and ensconced them at the Santika for a couple of weeks while the finances were sorted out. Santika was a quantum improvement, she declared, on the accommodations she and her boyfriend had endured until now, (which she described colourfully as "scumsville"). I can just imagine what it must have been like. Boyfriend did not join us as he had taken off on a motorbike for two days to do Bali on his own while daughter did "Dad duty". This included coming on a tour that she would normally eschew. They turned out to be charming company and we met up again a couple of times before I left. 

The second stop was in Kuta to pick up an Australian couple. I was quite alarmed about the husband's condition. Youngish man but a tad overweight and sweating and puffing profusely as he climbed into our small van. And this was only 8.15am, what would he be like as the tropical day wore on? We only had an 8 seater so it was necessarily a cosy affair with the 5 of us, tour guide and driver sharing the small internal space, and there was no escaping anyone's physical condition. I am glad to say that the poor man's metabolism was soon restored by the aircon and I felt relieved that we might not have to perform some sort of resuscitation on him during the trip. 

We headed north, squeezing our way through the traffic as we tried to escape Denpasar's gravitational field. The roads, as usual, were chaotic, the more so because everyone was heading to work at this time of the morning. Cars, Kijangs, taxis, motorbikes, scooters and pushbikes wove a pattern along the streets, ducking in and out in what looked to foreign eyes like a mass attempt at suicide. This all proved too much for the Australian girl (I'll call her Kylie, but that is not her real name) who was on her first visit to Bali (first time out of Australia, I suspect). A motorcyclist flashed in front of us from a side street and she jumped involuntarily next to her now fully-recovered partner (we'll call him Tom). "Bloody hell!" she exclaimed, "If some bastard did that to me in 'Straya I'd punch his bloody head in!" I expected Tana, our tour guide, to reassure her about the skills of Balinese drivers, but he just turned and smiled at her. He had no doubt heard it all before. The driver, a non-Balinese looking man named "Ferry" just drove on, hand periodically working the horn with short, sharp taps as he cut his own path through the mayhem. 

I settled back into a kind of torpor, watching the traffic and shops flash by, confident that Ferry was master of his vocation. There was no point worrying. Better to adopt the fatalism of the Balinese and trust that the driver and other road users had made the appropriate offerings to the gods this morning. 

We passed through a set of traffic lights where opportunistic newspaper sellers thrust copies of the Jakarta Post into the windows of vehicles waiting for the lights to change. If you are looking to keep up with the news, buy something like the Jakarta Post rather than the recycled foreign language newspapers you are offered on the streets of Kuta. The latter are gathered from arriving aircraft, shrink-wrapped and sold back to the tourists at hugely inflated prices. 

Heading north from Sanur, the traffic thins and the first rice fields begin to appear. I lean back in my seat and soak in the visual flood. A man slowly pedals a bicycle, laden with pots and pans and utensils of every description. A woman brings an offering to the front of her house. Dogs wander with indifference through the streets. We cross a bridge, complete with guardian statues at either end, and there below us a man is bathing in the river. I remember instructions about good manners in Bali and put away my camera. Now we go through a small village where an old woman, naked to the waist, walks gracefully with a load of wood on her head. And as we start climbing, we slow to a crawl behind two men carrying a king-sized teak bed along the road, oblivious to the traffic around them. A slight nudge would see them both tumble down a muddy embankment to the forest below, but they seem unconcerned about the possibility.

We drive through Batubulan, centre of the Barong dance and stone carving. Masses of stone statues line the street outside the shops, buddhas, demons, gods all shoulder-to-shoulder watching the passing traffic. Then we reach Celuk, the home of silver-smithing. I have a shopping list from my wife and Tana advises me to shop only in the side streets where the overheads are smaller and the prices consequently cheaper. I make a mental note of this for tomorrow. 

We pull over without warning and are told that we are to visit a plantation. I look around and see nothing resembling a plantation. But we are alongside it. Balinese plantations do not specialise in one crop, but are a conglomerate of many crops grown together in apparent disarray. We are taken along a narrow path through what had seemed, from the road, like just another part of the forest. But there before us are vanilla vines, salak (snake fruit) trees, pineapples, cocoa trees and sundry other fruits and spices.

A little stall at the far end of the plantation sells fresh vanilla - fresh, that is, after 4 to 5 months of a curing process. The cured vanilla pods contain small black crystals of vanillin, which you can see in real vanilla icecream as tiny black dots in the mixture. The music teacher buys a few pods to take with her, announcing confidently that she will make icecream with it. I wonder if she will get it past Australian customs. By the way, for those who have been paying attention I realise that this could be counted as a "shopping stop", but it is a very timid one indeed. The stall owner did not hassle us at all.

On the way back to the bus I enquire of the tour guide what the round white objects are in trays on the roof opposite. These turn out to be rice cakes, drying in the sun before being shaped into round cakes for temple ceremonies. Tana gives us a brief account of what goes into the making of offerings and satisfies my curiousity about what happens to all the clobber after the event. I was pleased to find out that it is taken home and eaten. Food that has been through a ceremony is considered to be particularly potent tucker as it has absorbed the sacredness of the ceremony.

After a short drive we reach Blahbatu where we visit a workshop that makes gamelan instruments. The workshop, which is more like a mid-sized factory, is at the back of a house. To get there we are led through the compound and Tana explains the role and functions of the various buildings we pass on the way. The grandparents have the grandest bale towards the front of the compound, but we are told that they are away visiting relatives, so we can't meet them.

On past the birds in hanging bamboo cages and chickens picking at the ground, we arrive at a dark, Dickensian building that houses a coconut coal kiln set in the earth. Here the bronze keys of the gamelan are formed, passed along a production line of men who refine each plate until they reach a solitary tuner who clinks each key against a master to tune it by ear. 

Finally we see the construction of the wooden bases that hold the xylophone plates, carved out of the wood of the jackfruit tree. These days, we are told, the vibrating pipes are made out of PVC rather than bamboo because they offer a truer sound. 

When we got back to the bus, the music teacher gave her father an expository discourse on the pentatonic scale. Tom, looking slightly desperate, declared that he would soon need to find a loo. 

Tom had his opportunity a little while later when we stopped at an archaeological museum. He raced to a small row of shops in the corner of the museum car park where he was shown to the WC (pronounced "waysay") or in the alternative kamar kecil - little house - Bahasa terms that absolutely must be included in the traveller's repertoire. Poor Tom. He shot out of the WC as quickly as he shot into it. This, I could tell, was his first experience of a traditional lavatory.

He returned to the vehicle ashen-faced. I told him that he might find a more suitable loo in the museum. He replied to the effect that he would rather die than enter another Balinese dunny. His words, I felt, might be prophetic, because when I enquired about his apparent state of Bali belly he said he actually didn't have Bali belly, but was taking a daily dose of Imodium as a kind of precautionary measure! The music teacher and I then gave him a short lecture on the danger of taking Imodium at any time, leave alone when you didn't need to, but this did not sway him. He intended to persist with his self-treatment. Any sympathy we might have had for him as a result of his encounter with the WC was dissipated at that point and no-one asked him about the state of his visceral parts for the rest of the journey.

We all then traipsed dutifully through the Museum staring through dusty glass cases at objects uninformatively labelled "chinese pot" or "ming vase" until we came to a courtyard that had an impressive collection of stone sarcophagi. I was particularly drawn to a sarcophagus that consisted of two large stone turtles in apparent coitus. Each had a hollowed section in the centre where, presumably, the body rested. The recently departed was inserted between this pair of passionate turtles, consigned to a kind of eternal ménage a trois. What a way to leave this earth, I thought. Could this sarcophagus have been the last resting place of a Balinese Hugh Hefner?

We clambered aboard our bus again to continue our journey northward and upward to Kintamani. Kintamani is the name of a village on the edge of Mt Batur, one of Bali's two historically active volcanoes. By "historically active", I guess they mean that you could be blown to smithereens at any time, thereby rendering your person historically inactive. Many people have been (blown up, that is) over the years, especially near Mt Agung, Batur's sister volcano.  

Batur is made up of two calderas, the largest being about 10km in diameter and containing a beautiful lake. I must say that the whole thing looks remarkably benign and not at all like something "historically active". But Tana the tour guide pointed to the black mass of lava flows from the central cone, some of it deposited as recently as 1994. The volcano apparently was first recorded in eruption in 1804. 

Benign it might be, but you are reminded of being a puny mortal as you stand on the slopes looking in. You can only imagine the fantastic forces lurking just below the surface. 

Back to the present, Ferry the driver reminds us of human frailty by driving into a large rock in the parking area where we were taken to photograph the scene. After negotiating all the traffic around Denpasar, he has to hit the only obstacle in a largish car park. Poor bloke was so embarrassed. Luckily there was no damage to the vehicle. 

Where are the hawkers? A few years ago a visit to Kintamani was an unpleasant and sometimes frightening experience as desperate mountain folk surrounded your car and demanded you buy their wares. A local shop owner made a desultory attempt to rip me off over a sarong, but apart from that there were no hassles. 

We lunched at a restaurant overlooking the lake. A smorgasbord lunch was 70,000rp, on the expensive side, but we were all starving and didn't really care, particularly Tom who was desperately trying to replace that which his tender Western stomach was earnestly trying to take out. I noticed some delicious looking sauce next to the satay and enquired of the chef whether it was excessively spicy. He assured me it was not. The moment the substance touched my tongue I knew he was lying and I was in deep trouble. My tongue curled into a tight ball and the roof of my mouth tried to separate itself from my skull. I immediately started hiccoughing and looked back at the chef, who was grinning wickedly at me across the room. A Bintang fixed it though, and we all had a stroll around the restaurant garden before climbing back into the bus. 

Tana pointed out the Bali Aga village of Trunyan nestled next to the lake. The villagers are the descendants of the original Balinese, only a few of whom now survive. On a previous visit I went to the other notable Bali Aga village of Tenganan, on the east side of the island. I found the Tengananese a surly and aloof lot and I had no particular desire therefore to visit their cousins at Trunyan. I guess I would be surly and aloof too, however, if my government preserved my village as a tourist attraction, which is the case at Tenganan. Tana told me that Trunyan was well worth a visit despite the population's reputation for rudeness, if only to see how the Bali Aga dispose of their dead. Unlike the present day Balinese, the Bali Aga do not cremate or bury their dead, but leave the bodies out in the open to decompose naturally. Tana had visited the Trunyan graveyard several times and said he enjoyed it immensely, particularly the way the corpses' fingers disintegrated when you touched them. What about the smell, we asked? No problem, he declared, as the cemetery is surrounded by sandalwood trees that soak up the smell of decaying flesh. I vowed not to test the veracity of his story with a personal visit. 

We then had a long conversation in the bus about life, death and Balinese cosmology. Tana revealed himself as an articulate and well-informed commentator with the rare ability to communicate difficult concepts to foreigners. We decided that the success of the tour, so far, was very largely due to his pleasant personality and deep knowledge of the culture and the countryside. 

It is not only the Bali Aga who find themselves preserved for tourism. On the way back we stopped at the village of Penglipuran, an orderly place of neat traditional houses and manicured verges about 500m above sea level on the slopes of Mt Batur in the Bangli Regency. There are about 700-800 residents here, still in occupation of the houses in the village despite the tourist traffic. If they resent tourists they do not show it and people came out of their compounds to greet us and answer questions. 

The village elders have resolved to preserve their traditional way of life as much as possible and people are encouraged to build houses in the customary way. There is a bamboo plantation near the village growing a number of different varieties of bamboo. Attempts are being made to preserve the use of bamboo as a building material. Even television antenna can be seen in some of the villages on top of bamboo poles.

I was taken in tow by a young girl in her early teens who proudly showed me her house, the family shrine in their compound and their small plantation complete with coffee trees. I photographed a sanskrit symbol on the external door of one of closest building to the road. She saw what I was doing and told me proudly that it was her bedroom.

Further down the main street we had the good fortune to arrive at the conclusion of a Balinese wedding. We were all invited in, given nibbles and drinks and introduced to the bride and groom. It turned out that the groom worked for Qantas Holidays in Denpasar, but was returning to his birthplace for a traditional wedding. His grandfather, a stooped man with a deeply creased face, ushered us to chairs and insisted that we sample all the foods on offer. He did not speak a word of English, but such is the power of hospitality that he was able to communicate with us perfectly through gestures and smiles.

Women relatives of the bride and groom sat at the entrance and entreated us to sample the food. We all had the feeling that this was a genuine display of welcome, not something put on for the sake of tourists.

As we started the trek back to the bus I spotted a number of men hurrying down a laneway clutching some magnificent roosters. Tana confirmed that they were going to a cockfight next to the village temple. Kylie and the music teacher declared themselves to be utterly opposed to such things and Tom's frail stomach could not handle it, so the banker and I went alone to have a look. There was a throng of about 50 people in a cleared area next to the temple. The cockfighting ring itself was protected by a series of tarpaulins stretched over a wooden frame. An entrance fee of 1,000rp per person was required, paid by all, not just us tourists. Outside the ring enterprising locals had set up stalls selling food and jamu, traditional herbal medicine. One of the stalls contained the remains of a large roast pig, slices of which were available for purchase. 

The action was in the ring itself, where women were not allowed to be. Handlers dressed in distinctive garb paraded two birds around the ring while the spectators shouted odds in a rising crescendo of noise. "Chock! Chock! Chock!" was being called by a large group of men, inviting takers on one of the birds at odds of 4:3. The birds themselves showed little desire to engage in combat and were eventually placed together in a wooden cage in the centre of the ring. The cage was removed quickly when one of the birds showed aggression towards the other, and the fight was declared over with the aggressor announced as the winner. I was somewhat relieved that I had not witnessed a killing as, though I find the custom interesting, I am not really keen about the violence. I am told that the metal spurs (taji) are so sharp as to inflict instantaneous death on the loser, but I am not sure whether I believe that. For those who have an interest, by the way, you can buy taji at many of the little antique shops along streets like Jalan Bakung Sari. They come in sets, contained in elaborately engraved wooden boxes. Try Yudha Antique (he only opens late in the afternoon). 

Cock fights used to be officially banned in Bali, although you could always find an illegal fight if you really wanted to. Most tourists were oblivious to the fact that one of the largest cockfights in Bali regularly took place in a vacant lot off Jalan Kartika, near the Santika hotel entrance. It seems in recent years, since the fall of Suharto, the practice is returning to the open again. Tana told us that there were now numerous cockfights around Bali, all of which took place with the full knowledge of the police. Police were easily bribed, he said, and if you encountered a policeman who refused a bribe you could always threaten him with sorcery if he didn't comply (cockfights are said to have very powerful mystical powers which can be directed against enemies and unbelievers). 

We left Penglipuran as the rain started and crept back to Kuta in a driving afternoon storm. Miraculously the storm cleared long enough for us to admire the view from a hillside temple at Bukit Jati where Tana produced a thermos with piping hot coffee and biscuits for us to enjoy on the side of the road. It was an opportunity to engage Ferry the driver, who had been silent most of the way. I was right about his non-Balinese appearance. It turned out that he was a Timorese refugee who had made his way to Bali a few years ago. He had decided to cut all his ties with Timor and now saw his future in Bali, where he had taken a Balinese wife. His family was still in Timor and he talked about them with incredible sadness, the more so because he believed that he would never see them again. 

The tour ended with all of us being deposited back at our hotels tired but satisfied. I didn't see Tom and Kylie again, and I can only hope that Tom's system survived the holiday and Kylie didn't punch up any Balinese drivers. The music teacher and her father arranged to join me again on another Tour East trip to Mt Batukau in a couple of days.

That evening I had a light snack in the noisy food hall at the Matahari Department Store. After indulging myself with the purchase of a few shirts I strolled back down Jalan Kartika to the hotel with plans to return to Celuk the next day to shop for silver.

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