What choice do you have, if upon your return from an evening in Penenstan, you find the book you borrowed on the floor in front of your door, a note tucked in among the pages, with this memo: Hi. All Ok. Meet outside the compound @ 6 am. Confirmed for whole day trip. Bring swimming costume and temple wear, etc. Best wishes, Peter…? You can decide to forego the opportunity (for at least one valid reason) or say yes and figure it out along the way. The latter nearly always trumps the former (so it should!); a golden moment, hard to pass up.
I met Peter at breakfast the other day. Hailing from England, he’s on a month-long holiday, chilling out in Ubud; fishing, walking about, enjoying the occasional massages and local Balinese fare. Peter’s left his wife behind in Oxford – where she leads tours and rearranges the furniture during his absence. Peter is here also to visit his friend Steve; Brit-born, now married to a Javanese woman (Izy) and an Ubud resident for the past 3 years. Peter and Steve’s friendship goes back many years.
When I’m invited to join the two friends on a trip to explore the island, I jump (before thinking much) at the chance because now I understand why, whenever I would listen with the slightest twinge of envy to anecdotes from travelers who’d visited beaches, temples, mountains and other sites around Bali, and I’d had to practice patience, gratitude and acceptance – of the situation, my body and limitations – I would also remember that I was here for another purpose, for healing; and I would reassure myself that my time for exploration would come someday.And so.
In the pre-dawn hours, we pile into the pale aqua car (Wild Trip reads the decal on the back window). Wild Trip scales mountains and descends into valleys, most of the time heroically negotiating paved roads bearing signs of distress, marked with unfinished patches of massive crater-potholes, sometimes too large to bypass. Steve, a veritable human GPS system, is the designated driver and navigator par excellence, stopping only twice to consult his map. He signals and turns onto unmarked roads with a stellar sense of direction. It quickly becomes clear that Steve knows most back roads on the island, many that even tourist company drivers are unaware of.
The first sight catches me by surprise: The legendary Mount Agung appears in all its glory, its pyramid-like pinnacle silhouetted against the blue sky, clouds skirting its lower altitudes, as if cushioning it from the still cool darkness of the grounds below. Even Steve is in awe, never has he seen the great peak against such a clear sky.
Driving past Sanggeh, the original monkey forest sanctuary, Steve notes that these monkeys are known for their aggressiveness; a far cry from the more docile, playful and even lazy, monkeys that reside in Ubud’s forest!
We turn off a (finally!) pleasant well-paved road to pay a visit to Pak Joko’s organic produce farm, where rows of basil, amaranth, pumpkin, leafy lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and arugula blossom cheerfully in the hothouse under the blazing sun. Pak Joko greets us, we express our admiration for his bounty, following which he explains to us his efforts at growing strawberries, and how he has been asked to source mango farmers for a jam-producer.
More driving brings us to a clearing and guide office for the Tamblingan Nature Recreation Park. We stroll down the path towards the temples by the lake, where both Peter and Steve are stupefied; since their visit last year, the water levels have risen so precipitously that the temple and some homes and shops by the lake have submerged. Surrounded by a picturesque tropical rainforest, we rest for awhile. Peter and Steve indulge in meditation, while I say a few prayers and gaze at the poinsettia trees and dug-out canoes ferrying locals and travelers across the gorged lake.A winding road for our descent, and as we head westward, there is water everywhere; on the left the sheer beauty of two lakes – Lakes Tamblingan and Buyan – surrounded with cypress and pine trees, while the northern coast and sea peeks up at us from the right side of the car. On all sides, plots of land brimming with bright orange marigolds and pastel-blue hydrangeas; citrus, banana and coconut trees.
Arriving in the village of Banjar, we made a pilgrimage to the last-surviving Buddhist temple in Bali – the Brahmavira Arama Monastery – with its striking views of forest and sea, gardens and stupa. Wrapping ourselves in the requisite sarongs, removing sandals and climbing the many steps to the grounds and shrines, Buddha statues rest peacefully in silence-filled rooms, the sculptures touched ever so slightly by a cool breeze wafting in from the mountains across.
Stopping off for a dip in the sea at the beach in Lovina – best known for its ‘black’ sand, which once was but no longer is, an attraction for tourists. An impossibly cheap snack of gado-gado (sticky rice, bean sprouts, roasted peanuts and peanut sauce) while chatting with a young Dutch woman now living, married and pregnant in this far-off beach town.
Everywhere: Dogs, chickens, cows, boar and a deer chomping on greens under the roof of an abandoned shack. And garbage; plastic bags, candy wrappers, plastic bottles, juice boxes, so much more.
More driving, so much more… stealing off for a short nap. The sun beginning its descent, Steve announces that we will be taking a road that passes Mount Agung – an anonymous road, unmarked, missing on tourist maps of Bali, absent also (even!) from Google maps and earth, and yet here it is… Another dizzyingly winding road, large chunks of road just plain missing because of erosion or an unfinished paving job.
Breathtaking views, yet again, of the impressively towering Agung – most revered mountain, home also to the mother temple (in Bali, mother of all temples). Too late to ascend to the temple, but the view from the road is enough, with unspoiled, lush vegetation, old growth rainforest and thick jungle.
A final stop at the bustling night market in Gianyar: a demonstration of a remote-controlled robot game for children takes place next to a vendor selling bargain-priced women’s and baby clothes, next to a vendor who is grilling a variety of meats – babi guling (roasted pig) and, probably, turtle… Peter and Steve settle on some fried foods and a rice mixture in banana leaf, while I opt for the muslim version of soto ayam; minus the chicken, the headscarf-wearing woman seems to understand my request for noodles, thinly sliced green vegetables and broth.
It’s a sure sign that our 9 pm return time is later than expected because the front doors of the guesthouse are already shut. I coax them open tentatively, careful not to make noise when nudging away the brick and wood plank wedged up against the inside of the doors. Like the nocturnal thieves that we are not, we slip silently through the gate into a darkened courtyard. Herri’s face glows from the light of the television screen as he keeps watch. Otherwise, all is quiet, and Ketut’s family is already asleep.