Vern: We chose Ubud, the inland artist's haven and cultural heartbeat for our first taste of Bali. We landed on the island in the evening, a mere five days before President Obama set down for a conference with Asian leaders. Had we planned it better we could've hitched a ride on Air Force One. (While editing this Andrea advised me that I have perhaps overestimated the US public transport network.)
Our room in a 'homestay' was large, and other than the floor tiles and a few concrete pillars to ensure structural integrity it was made entirely of bamboo. An online review had warned that one can literally hear the neighbours breathing. Not too surprising since the wall is grass. Wooden masks hang opposite the queen bed and paintings dress the other walls. The property is a maze of water features, koi ponds, stone sculptures and potted plants, and looks onto a pretty rice plantation. After checking-in at 10ish we ventured out into the night to explore, dodging holes in the cracked pavement and briskly crossing the narrow streets to avoid the manic scooter traffic. Galleries and art shops are abundant, as are stylish cafés. On the tables candles flicker inside coconut shells - hollowed out and intricately carved. In need of only a snack, we bought a bag of under-baked dough balls filled with sugary soy bean paste from a street vendor. They were buttery and morish and the sugar crystals in the paste crushed between my teeth like beach sand. A few bulbous raindrops were the opening act for a spectacular tropical storm and provided just enough warning for us to follow the scooter-taxi drivers in a rush for cover under the awning of a closed clothing store. Water cascaded down splashing off the warm street and onto our shins. But it was quite pleasant actually. The air was warm, and we ate our baked treats while the music of a Latino band playing 'Hotel California' (twice in a row) at a nearby bar duelled against the rumbling thunder. Little rafts woven out of leaves, some carrying flowers, raced down the gutters on the heavy torrents of storm water. We learned later that these were little offerings which are placed in front of a house and on the dashboard of a car at least every morning to protect its occupants. About a half hour later it let up and we splishsplashed back to our homestay in light drizzle and vowed never to leave the room without the poncho again.
The following morning we walked down the road to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Three small temples are linked by paths, bridges and stone staircases through a wonderful overgrown jungle inhabited by hundreds of grey Balinese macaques. With massive trees, long vines wrapped around statues and cracked pillars it reminded me of King Louie's lair in The Jungle Book. The long-tailed pranksters are very smart and very greedy and if a toothy grin or an extended little humanoid hand isn't successful in coaxing bananas out of visitors then they'll steal 'em. Every five minutes a female tourist from the far east was yelling because she'd attempted an extreme close-up and a monkey was now clambering onto her shoulder and helping itself to the shiny things in her handbag. We had our own share of close encounters with one pouncing onto my head and making himself at home in my budding 'fro and another cheeky fella pulling at Andrea's shorts and then her tank top. It is really a superb experience though some tourists are idiots and the staff are lazy so there's trash dotted around which is a little sad. Andrea was risking her fingers trying to extract a piece of litter from a young monkey when the ranger advised her, "Don't worry about it. These monkeys, they are smarter than humans."
But Andrea wasn't having it, "No they're not. I'm not eating plastic. You're not eating plastic. The monkey is the only one here eating plastic!"
At the other end of town we visited the Ubud Palace with its golden carved doors, dragon statues wearing fabric sarongs and typical Balinese temple doorways flanked by large tapering pillars which together resembled a massive decorative arrowhead, split down the centre, and pulled 5-feet apart, which points to the sky. Next up was the Water Palace accessed by crossing a large moat filled with lilipads.
In the evening we joined a small audience in neighbouring village, Peliatan, to enjoy some Balinese dancing. The 15-piece all woman Mekar Sari orchestra filtered out onto the stage in front of a stone temple backdrop. Dressed in matching red blouses and turquoise sarongs, they beat xylophones, which resembled a strip of corrugated-iron mounted on elaborate golden struts, with tusk shaped mallets. The tinny ethereal output was accompanied by three old ladies beating large skin drums.
After a while the dancers appeared on stage: thin tweenage girls with big heads in red and gold silk costumes. Heavy make-up and head-dresses made their heads look even bigger, like masks, and to complete that effect they never blinked. Rather the girls buldged out their eyes and maintained a neutral expression with the rest of their features. Their heads bobbed around woodenly as if attached to their necks on ballbearings and their black eyes darted left right up down. Every optical movement had been choreographed and while their heads and shoulders moved mannequin like, their arms moved fluidly but precisely. It was incredibly engaging. I'd been reluctant to spend an evening watching dancing but it was definitely worthwhile. And when it was over and we'd finnished applauding the orchestra women hopped off the stage, walked through the audience and out of the hall, started up their scooters and in full costume buzzed off into the night.
Rayan, our driver, picked us up after breakfast the following morning plus one more person, a Swiss guy named Meerko, and we all set out on a tour of some of Bali's temples. 2km from town, we started at Goa Gajah - the Elephant Cave Temple. We tied on some mandatory sarongs and descended into the temple site which was discovered in 1920. The large angry face of a god has been carved into a cliff face and the cave entrance is its mouth. Inside the cavern is the small temple with hollowed out recesses in the walls. In one sits a rudimentary sculpture of Ganesha.
We blew through the unexciting Pura Penataran Sasih temple in Pejeng and rambled down a road through the jungle until the driver pulled into the parking lot for Gunung Kawi. We paid our fees and donned our sarongs and light-footed down a long staircase with rice terraces and palms on either side. The river basin at the bottom was like a Raiders of the Lost Arc sound set. Massive shrines have been carved out of the canyon walls on either side of the rushing Pakrisan River which is crossed via a stone bridge to a jungle temple complete with ponds and fountains. On cue a slithering snake even skimmed across the path ahead of us. Smells like adventure! We followed every trail and were utterly absorbed until it was time to go.
At a coffee plantation along the way we parted with 50,000.00 rupiah (about $5.50) to drink poop. Yep, warm brewed s***e! A while ago we'd seen a sensational TV special titled "How The Rich Spend Their Money" on the E! channel and one of the many ways is on the most expensive coffee in the world, 'Kopi Luwak' or Luwak Coffee which goes for around $160/pound. Basically an Asian Palm Cevit (a half cat half rat looking thing) seeks out and eats "only the highest quality coffee beans" which it then poops out, but these keep their shape. They're then found, cleaned, dried, roasted, crushed and served to tourists in Bali or exported to rich people elsewhere who admire how the bitterness has been smoothed out by the whole process. It was good, though they don't really use coffee filters here so all their coffee is a little gritty and you have to patiently wait for it to settle. For free we were able to taste some of the farm's other wares: ginger tea, lemon grass tea, unsweetened hot cocoa and a delicious (heavily sweetened) ginseng tea.
After an attempted photo or two of foggy Mount Batur and Lake Batur, we hit one more temple, the Ulun Danu temple - where some of the statues are coloured-in in bright paints - and then some wonderfully picturesque rice terraces.
Back in Ubud we enjoyed lunch and dinner at the same restaurant because it was a bargain and the satay sauce was worth the trip to this island in and of itself.