Not so many months ago I would have been hard pressed to tell you where Bali is or that it’s a province of Indonesia. I only had a vague idea and shared the common belief that it’s a tropical paradise.
Now after these several months we have gotten to know most of the island and traveled many of its roads and experienced its varied environment, culture, food and handicrafts. Living here as we do gives us enough time to get acquainted with it on better terms than a tourist might but it by no means lets us in on all its secrets; that would take a lifetime.
When Amy and her family were here we drove over 600 Km seeing the island from bottom to top in our seven-passenger Suzuki APV. We climbed Mount Batur volcano, we snorkeled on the northwest coast, we watched as cement tiles were made, all things I have described previously. Stephen and I have gone about that many miles on rented motorbikes at other times and have seen a lot more.
What has come as a real surprise is how populated this tropical island is; with a population of 4.25 million and a density of 1900 per square mile it’s rather crowded. Travel is slow and difficult with inadequate roads and complex topography that ranges from sea level to the tops of many volcanoes, including Gunung Agung the highest at over 10,000′. Up and down and over and around the many rivers and mountains and other natural impediments coupled with unrelenting traffic makes tough going. Nevertheless we sought adventure.
The morning following their arrival, travel weary and jet-lagged, we headed out in the APV for the north coast of Pemuteran. Most tourists rent cars with a driver, avoiding the hassle of driving and relying on someone else to know how to get to their desired destinations. But we already had to squeeze to get the seven of us in the APV and a driver would have made things unworkable. We were frequently asked where our driver was but my passengers were kind enough to let me take my meals with them and share their lodging even though I got lost plenty and couldn’t figure out how to ask directions.
We escaped the density of the Denpasar area and headed up through the center of the island. City congestion gave way to rice terraces and as the mountains approached we found the APV straining to climb the extremely steep grades and the tight winding roads. Stopping to take a rest at Strawberry Hill, with a view of the steep mountain and forest below us, we encountered a roadside menagerie of exotic animals, including a giant fruit bat, a hornbill and a mongoose. Along the way we hiked through jungle to a waterfall and later got close to a bunch of monkeys in one of the many monkey forests-a place where a large colony of monkeys seem to establish their own kind of settlement.
High on the ridge of a volcano we skirted a couple of beautiful crater lakes. We stopped for a cup of coffee at a plantation and got a short introduction to the cultivation and processing of the beans. Plenty of coffee is grown in Indonesia, after all Java is synonymous with coffee. One of the greatest hypes is the so called “luwak” coffee, a bean that has been eaten by the civet, a cat-like creature and the bean is recovered in the feces causing it to obtain a magical wonderfulness. We see roadsigns for it everywhere, it’s available in fancy shops or at the grocery, it’s known the world over by coffee snobs as the reason to pay outrageous prices to have just one cup of it. I simply can’t accept its authenticity; we saw exactly one civet, that one in a cage and I don’t think there are many more in the wild. How many civets eating nothing but coffee beans (and excreting them unchanged) would it take to supply the pounds and pounds of this exotic bean? Never mind, kopi bali, normal Balinese coffee, is nothing to get excited over. It’s not roasted to my liking and it is ground to a fine powder and steeped in water and poured sludge and all into a cup where you can either filter it through your teeth or wait until it settles a bit knowing you will leave about half a cup of the sludge behind.
We snaked our way back down the other side to the northern coast and Taman Sari at Pemuteran. Stephen had booked us into a luxury resort. We had a four bedroom villa enclosed in its own walls away from the rest of the sprawling resort with its own swimming pool, an outdoor bar pavilion, several fountains and gardens. Each room
was really several rooms, a large bedroom with a massive mosquito net enclosed bed, a bathroom with sinks and a shower that opened onto an open air patio that had another open air shower and fountain. Each suite was more luxurious than any of us was used to but we adapted, spending time in our own pool and relaxing away the travel. We did do stuff while here over three days including snorkeling and visiting restoration projects that I wrote about in an earlier posting.
We got acquainted with the best of Balinese cuisine as well. The food was outstanding at nearby restaurants with service to match. I think every chef had gone to culinary arts school to study presentation. After being wowed by these meals so elegantly served we got a lesson from a chef on preparing decorative vegetables. He cut a carrot into blossoms, he then made fans by carefully slicing cucumber. All these things are served with a few flower blossoms on a carefully shaped banana leaf. I’m trying to master some traditional recipes but I don’t think my presentation will quite measure up.
We weren’t ready to leave Taman Sari and sink back into a run-of-the-mill villa with not much more than air conditioning, a pool and tropical gardens and pushing the APV over some more Balinese roads didn’t help much. We were headed to the Bali Botanical Gardens and a hotel within the grounds that Stephen had reserved. After we approached the wrong gate and were forced to turn back and enter a different way a couple of kilometers distant we were told there was no hotel on the grounds. However, on speaking to a different guard evidently more knowledgeable than the first, we were directed to the hotel. After all, the hotel had accepted Stephen’s reservation over the phone. We drove into the grounds and found the hotel sure enough, but it was dark and locked up. Change of plans. After searching around and getting lost and making far too many dangerous u-turns, we were finally escorted to an acceptable place for the night. The main reason for staying at the gardens wasn’t so much for the gardens actually but for the Bali Treetop Adventure Park within the grounds. That turned out to be a great adventure sure enough and I’ll outline it in a later post.
Our next destination was Mt. Batur volcano. We followed the GPS and a couple of maps using three navigators and one driver. Heading east through the center of the island the terrain is a folded sheet with rivers and drainages mostly headed south. Roads don’t go through. Roads aren’t marked. GPS and maps are untrustworthy. But we saw a lot of country, some of it twice as we backtracked from this or that road that ended as a footpath somewhere. We did make progress and as we made a climb near our Mt. Batur destination we came upon a fruit stand really in the middle of nowhere; gorgeous fruits beautifully presented but who was going to pass by and buy all of it? We got to sample some of them, mostly tropical fruits that for me still have no names.
We spent the night below the volcano on the shore of Lake Batur with a 4 a.m. wake up call for our hike to the top.