Saturday, 10 October 2009

Bali

Landing in Bali for the first time is a somewhat alarming experience. Peering out the window you can the see the ocean beneath getting ever closer. Fishing boats pop up at your window complete with exasperated fishermen making rude gestures for flying too close whilst white surf churns outside surprisingly close. The spray almost seems to fleck the pane of glass, behind which you are testing the seat belt and looking for the oxygen mask. It is with considerable relief that suddenly the tarmac runway appears below, the sea still swirling on either side. And then with a slight bump you are down and the sea vanishes swiftly behind.

Throughout our travels every country has had it’s own quirks and surprises, idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. One thing though has been entirely consistent: the unfriendliness of the clerks as you enter a new country. Of course the type of unfriendliness varies, In India it was sullen insolence, in Cambodia they tried to extort bribes and instil fear and in Thailand it was just unadulterated boredom. Universally it seems that the officials do not go so far as to convey hostility; rather they just make you very aware that they are doing you a massive favour by letting them do their jobs. Arrival in Bali was no exception. They were of the intolerably bored and slightly rude variety. Not so rude as to merit a complaint, but hovering just to the side of that line. The official snatched the US$25.00 visa fee without so much as looking up, stamped our passports with exaggerated efficiency and then hollered “Next” before his stamp had even returned to it’s rubber pad. Thus served we made our way through customs and out of the airport. Along the way we were assailed by a long line of money changers waving energetically from their booths, (all of them quoting exactly the same rate) and then, on exiting the airport, the process was repeated by a horde of marauding taxi drivers, each with “a lean and hungry look” to quote that fellow Shakespeare.

We found ourselves in Bali after planning to meet James and Jens there for a ten day break. Being in Malaysia, Bali was cheap to fly to and promised good diving and a host of other activities to keep boredom at bay. Alas Bali is a big place and fate was conspiring against us that evening. Our phone charger had given up the ghost, followed shortly thereafter by our phone and our rather haphazard planning meant that we knew our friends were in Bali, but not exactly where. Furthermore it was 11 o’clock in the evening, all the hotels in the area were full on account of Eide and things generally were looking rather glum. After an hour of everything going pear shaped (and yes, I had a tantrum of the whining and stamping variety, sorry Nipun) Nipun saved the day by locating an internet cafĂ© where an email awaited confirming the whereabouts of James and Jens who had booked accommodation for us nearby to boot. The evening thereafter consisted of much (too much?) merriment and chatter into the early hours, followed by a swim in the ocean the following morning to set us right again. And then back in a taxi to Ubud.

Ubud is generally accepted as the art Mecca of Indonesia. It is vibrant, filled with galleries and local crafts and has the atmosphere of a town that celebrates it’s cultural heritage. You cannot swing the proverbial cat without fear of braining the poor wretch on a sculpture or traditional dancer. It must be the only place on earth where it is kinda uncool to own an art gallery. Good eateries and bars abound, but somehow the town retains a sense of dignity as opposed to feeling horribly over commercial. Furthermore the geographical area in which Ubud lies is magnificently beautiful. Verdant rice paddies blend into the undulating hills around the town, a multitude of stream and rivers dissect the town and there is a sense of pride in the way the building are maintained and presented. Once we found accommodation it offered very good value, less than £6.00 per night for bungalow with a balcony, breakfast included. We set about arranging the next few days activities, in the form of white water rafting that afternoon, followed by a 2 AM start the following day to climb the still active volcano Mt. Battur. The rafting was excellent, not so much for the rapids (it was more like floating down a briskly flowing stream on a rubber dinghy) but for the scenery alone. The trip takes you through winding green valleys, cultivated where the gradient allows, rice paddies and waterfalls. Behind you and in the distance volcanic mountains turn blue in the distance, their peaks pushing through crisp white clouds. The rafting takes a couple of hours and finishes with a brief rush of adrenaline when the raft goes over a three metre weir, catching at first and then dropping like a stone amidst whoops and nervous giggles. And then there is the inevitable climb out of the valley, legs shake and conversation slows. The climb is, however, a morning stroll compared to what was in store the following day.

It is hard to have a sense of humour when your alarm goes off at 1.30 am and it is not a mistake. Our taxi driver seemed to share this opinion and when he arrived at two o’clock to pick up us up he was a silent somnambulist, nodding at us briefly before settling stonily into the drivers seat. Jens had failed to sleep, Nipun and I had managed a few hours whilst James in stark contrast was positively pukka. He had snuck off to have a massage the previous day and slept like a king. We made a brief detour for coffee and banana pancakes before meeting the impressively large crowd of other climbers. There must have been about 100 people, all congregated at the foot of Mt Battur for the 2 AM start. As we all wound up the hill the experience was something akin to a pilgrimage, the darkness of the night glinting with a hundred small torches all winding spiralling up the circuitous and treacherous foot path. There were regular breaks to catch our breath, and then amber cigarettes glowed alongside the head torches below and above. Finally we reached the designated view point. It was cold, windy and the coffee was overpriced. Gradually a layer of very soft light crept between the land and the sky and slowly forced the day open in shifting shades of orange and blue. Despite the early rise and the climb at such a God forsaken hour it was definitely worth it. We followed this with a hike around the volcano before heading back down and going for lunch at ten o’clock in the morning.

The next day we left Ubud after what was an action packed few days. We had done more exercise than I did last year, eaten delicious food and sampled the local whisky (Arak). Between Jens and I, we sampled a considerable amount of local whisky. I can thoroughly recommend it, mixed with lime juice and brown sugar, then shaken and served on crushed ice. Happily the whisky is cheap and hangovers are small. Everyone, as they say, is a Winner. Or at least that is what it feels like at the time.

Our next destination took us via taxi and speed boat to the island of Nusa Lembongan, famed for it’s diving and surfing and lack of an ATM machine. Ok, not so famed for the last bit but we learnt the hard way. There was a brief panic as the dive schools all seemed to be fully booked and warned us people sleeping on the beach due to a shortage of accommodation, but things looked up for us and we found both before the end of the day. The island is in many ways a breath of fresh air, having failed to become a purely commercial enterprise geared purely towards tourists just yet. The locals (and mischievous children) are welcoming and there is a tranquil air to the place. The last few years have seen rapid development (the island is dubbed Little Australia because so many Aussies have opened up businesses and bought land, indeed land prices are quoted AUS Dollar) but the locals have taken this in their stride. It had bought them some economic empowerment and 24 hour electricity, but speaking to one local dive shop owner he admitted that there were concerns that too much was being ceded to foreign investment.

The next day we spent diving which was fantastic, the second dive being a drift dive in currents of water that propel you along the reefs with the fish and the coral all passing you by. It is an amazing experience, other than the occasional wiggle of your flippers you expend hardly any energy and cover a fairly large area during the dive. We spent a few more days on the island, scuba diving with Manta Rays by day and eating sea food by night. It was a very relaxed break and when it was time to say goodbye to the island I felt that I would be back sometime in the not too distant future. The diving was great, my ears were perfect this time around and Nipun’s diving is getting really good. I’d like to think that we will make it back to Nusa Lembongan at some stage, certainly not this trip but in the not too distant future.

For the trip back to the mainland we caught the public ferry that leaves at 7.30 each morning. The ferry is crammed with backpackers and a couple of locals alike, and in fear of rough seas and the inevitable casualties to motion sickness I decided to join Nipun at the front of the boat. This proved to be somewhat foolhardy. The sea was indeed rough, and the front of the boat lacks very little protection. We got drenched, which would have been a blast if I did not have £4000 of camera equipment with me. As it was I managed to get the rain cover over the bag and spent the rest of the journey acting as a human shield to my bag, which thankfully survived but has left me paranoid about the effects of salt water on cameras. Time for a service me thinks.


We spent our last night back on Bali at Jimbaran Beach. The area is very close to the airport so this made sense (well done Nipun) and is home to a fishing village. That evening we ate sea food on the beach with the surf rolling three metres away from our table. We ate lobster, fresh fish, calamari and prawns. James was nursing a very belligerent tummy bug, so we ate his too. And then drank his share of the beer. Thanks, erm I mean sorry, James! Nipun and I checked our email and discovered that our flight left the next day as opposed to two days time like we thought. And seemingly just like that we were back in the airport, hunting down my journal that I had lost ten days prior (I found it thankfully) and then stepping on to our plane. We arrived back in Kuala Lumpur at eleven o’clock that night with no booked accommodation and when we found some had to share it with ten foot bedbugs…. But that is another adventure for another day. To James and Jens, thanks for making the effort to come out, it was great to see you.


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