Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Discovering Bali - 24 December 2017

I could hear the pitter patter of rain through the night. When I woke up on Christmas Eve morning it was raining quite heavily. I made myself a strong cup of coffee and wondered if the rains would put paid to my plans for the day. In a while the rain abated and was down to a trickle. That's when I decided to venture out for breakfast. Consistent rains over the past week had made the paved walk slippery and tricky. From my balcony I saw a person slip and fall, hurting his back on the steps. It took me a very gingerly walk to reach the restaurant, which was set amidst green, landscaped grounds with sound of running water. I took a huge helping of fruits, including the exotic snake fruit. Excellent orange juice and Balinese coffee accompanied a masala omelette and muffins. I spend quite some time there taking in the jungle like resort features. It was like a tropical forest, cleared in places to accommodate the hotel and swimming pools. I was lucky to get a room in the hotel for less than USD 100 for three nights when the normal tariff is upwards of USD 75 per night for single occupancy.

Danu had agreed to come by 9 am so that I could start the day watching a performance of the traditional Barong and Keris dance, which started at 9.30. I was mildly surprised to be met by Yudha, instead of Danu, at the reception of the hotel. Yudha spoke better English and he told me that Danu had taken ill - later Yudha told me that he had had a bit too much of arrack! Yudha services guests from USA and Australia and hence, had music playing in the car to entertain that clientele. Yudha turned out to be a fun loving man with a heart for humour and the gift of the gab. Even Yudha was surprised by the turnout when we reached the centre where the performance was meant to be. The terraced auditorium was nearly filled to capacity with inter-island tourists. The Barong and Keris dance symbolises the eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, laced with raunchy humor. Barong, a lion like creature, represents good and Rangda, the demon, represents evil. The one hour show is priced at INR 500 and is split into four acts, interspersed with melodious music.

Kintamani, the town that affords the best views of Mt Batur lies a fair distance away from Ubud. However, the lower tourist footfalls meant faster transit. Mt Agung is the bigger of the two volcanic mountains in the region. Due to its eruptions - there was one reported this morning too - it remained out of bounds for visitors and residents alike. Light rain had fallen during our drive from Ubud to Kintamani. That and the ash spewed by the eruptions gave a less than perfect view of Mt Batur from the Batur Sari restaurant view point. I walked along the deck of the restaurant to take pictures of the mountain from different angles. Dining tables and seats have been placed on the deck in such a way as to afford unhindered views of the volcanic mountain and Lake Batur. Once I had selected a corner hoping for the views to clear up a bit more I was approached by one of the waitresses asking if I was ready to order. A full-fledged buffet and a-la-carte were available. The former was preferred by most, especially those who were part of organised tour groups. I was not particularly hungry after the wholesome breakfast. To continue sitting there I ordered Nasi Campur, which is something of a buffet in a dish with satay, rice, noodles, fried chicken, wafers, veggies and coffee. The food by itself is not expensive, however, the tax at 21 percent is quite steep.

Mt Batur, at about 1700 metres above MSL, is considerably smaller that it’s northwestern sister volcano, Mt Agung, which is over 3100 above MSL. However, it is said that over 25,000 years ago Mt Batur was higher than Mt Agung. A series of gigantic explosions caused its mouth to collapse and thus formed the magnificent caldera with a diameter of over 13 kms; one of the most impressive in the word. From the deck of the restaurant one can appreciate the massive eruption of Mt Batur in 1968 which had left a massive lava field. The most recent eruption of the volcano was in 2000. Lake Batur is a lake within the Batur caldera. The crescent shaped lake is the largest in Bali and its waters are cooler than anywhere in the island because of its elevation.

As I was taking photographs and enjoying the beauty of the surrounding I met Bala Shetty from Mumbai who follows ‘Record Drive’. He was in Bali on his honeymoon. He is an ardent travel buff and told me of his plans to explore Bali on a rented motorcycle with his wife. That, certainly, is the best and cheapest way to get round in the island. Most tourists who come here for long stays invariably rent bikes and stay in hostels to make the experience economical. As I got out of the restaurant I was cornered by the most persistent vendors I have come across in Bali. T-shirts, wood carvings, souvenirs and much more were pretty much thrust under my nose. I sought the assistance of Yudha. He was non-committal. He later told me that, being a local, it would not be correct on his part to bargain for me. Finally, I refused all and got into the car.

When we were on the way to Tegalalang Yudha told me the absolutely fascinating story of the Bali Aga people, who live in Trunyan on the eastern shore of Lake Batur. They are considered to be the earliest settlers of the island. Their traditions and rituals predate those of Hinduism. For example, these people even now do not bury or cremate the dead. The bodies are left on the ground, covered by a cloth and a bamboo cage, to decompose. An ancient banyan tree near the burial ground is said to emit a scent that neutralizes the smell of putrefying flesh. Strange that this tradition continues to this day. The village is reached only by boat and it is said that the villagers, at times, do not take kindly to the presence of visitors.
Tegalalang is a small village almost midway between Kintamani and Ubud. The terraced rice fields of the village have gained international attention and is today one of the most popular images of Bali. Many shops and restaurants have viewing balcony that gives lovely views of the magnificent sight. I saw a couple of artists working on their canvas capturing the beauty of the terraced cultivation. Shops selling local handicrafts and clothing line either side of this busy tourist attraction. I succumbed to a few temptations after a driving a hard bargain. A sharp shower hastened my departure from this picturesque village.

The next item in the itinerary was the Tegenungan waterfall. The ground was slushy and Yudha cautioned me that the steps leading to the waterfall would be slippery. He suggested that I view the falls from a distance rather than walk to the base of it. During non-monsoon times people bathe in the falls. With recent rains the water had turned muddy and the currents were swift. Warning boards were put up at regular intervals beseeching tourists to stay off the water. I bought the entrance ticket and decided to cautiously venture as far as I could. Descending more than 300 steps was not too much of a problem. But, when I saw many struggling on their way up I knew that I too would. The walk was worth it for the lovey views of the cascade framed by thick green foliage. Many tourists had ventured to the top of the waterfall despite volunteers cautioning such adventurism. As expected, I struggled on my way up the steep steps. A few long breaks gave me the extra required to complete the climb.

The last stop for the day was Goa Gajah. The name gives it a feeling that the place is an abode of elephants. Far from it. The Elephant Cave dates back to the 11 century and has a central courtyard filled with relics of the bygone era. The foreground of the cave is a large pool featuring Hindu angels holding vases that act as waterspouts. A couple of tourists had gone down the steps of the pool to be blessed by a priest using the water that came out of the vase. The cave has niches where three lingams and Ganesha are worshiped. Incense is burned regularly inside the cave due to which soot has been deposited on the walls of the cave. The complex has many shops and food stalls. As they were in the process of closing for the day bargains were to be had.

Being Christmas Eve I was keen to go to a church. I had located one on Google and Yudha took me there after a slight search. It turned out to be a new generation church, but the lady who was there as an usher told Yudha how to reach the Catholic Church. It was quite far away from where we were and in a totally different direction. The idea of going to church was given up when Yudha reminded me that God resides in everyone of us. Prayer and offerings are important in Balinese life, he said, but he believed in a different way of meditational prayer at 3 am in the morning. Yudha said that the Balinese have no time for politics and they refuse t discuss that topic. It is just commerce and only that; they don't fight and waste energy.

Yudha had passed on a lot of positivity to me. He lived every today, the tomorrows to be dealt with only when they became today. In fact, that is the attitude of most people in South East Asia, I found. Accumulation of material wealth is not a habit with them. However, gradual encroachment of western values on the age-old Asian values, like in dress habits, songs, etc. are making inroads. One only hopes that the influence remains just there. When I travel to countries like Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia I ask myself this question time and again – what is development? Is it just the accumulation of personal material wealth? Is it the development of ‘world class’ infrastructure? Or, is it the adoption of technology? I feel that the definition of development does not factor in human indices like happiness, family, integrity, hospitality, community living, etc. These are far more important for the development and progress of a society.
The massage last evening had given me a lot of relief and, therefore, after freshening up in the room I went out with the intention of going to the same centre. Light rain had started to fall and I found the centre closed. I was told that the centre is run by Christians and hence, they would be closed till Boxing Day. Nevertheless, I walked a bit further and found another centre. The massage was really very invigorating. Moreover, the massages don’t cost very much. A typical one hour session costs about INR 500 and sometimes even less. Once the session was done I told the lady that I would be back the next day, almost at the same time. She said that she would be available from noon onwards. It was reassuring to know that the centre would not be closed on Christmas day.

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