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Paddies, Bikes and Mating Monkeys (with a Side of Gado Gado)

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It’s just after 7:00am and I’m sitting on the second-floor balcony of our hotel room overlooking a panorama of rice fields flooded with water and reflecting the morning sky. Men are making their way to work among the paddies along narrow raised paths, and work seems to mostly revolve around maintenance and weeding at this time in the rice-growing cycle.

There are white egrets stalking small fish or frogs, and smaller sandpiper-like birds.

The hotel is the Tegal Sari, just south of Ubud. It is a series of attractive two-story buildings surrounded on three sides by the paddies. Around the buildings are lush plantings, ponds and pools. Our room, #12, is one of the nicest that I’ve stayed in, full of windows that make you feel that you are among the paddies. The bed and bathroom are spacious, but the highlight has to be our balcony, made even better because we are on the upper level of this building.

We arrived in Ubud on Saturday morning in a car hired through the bungalows in Sanur. It took only about an hour to get here, so we got to the hotel around 10:30 and met Kristi’s parents, Rod and Sandy, who had been here for several days already. They showed us their room, a ‘super deluxe’ like ours, but mostly finished in wood inside. We couldn’t check into our room yet, so we relaxed at their place for a while and caught up, then had lunch at the outdoor hotel restaurant (I had nasi campur, pretty much a combo plate with a diversity of dishes plus rice).

We spent the afternoon on a walk in the terraced rice paddies northwest of Ubud. The engineering of the gravity-fed irrigation system was fascinating. Most of Bali seems to be on a slope because of the island’s volcanic geology, and it always rains up high. Over hundreds and thousands of years, the Balinese have developed an amazing rice-based agricultural system using terraces where the land gets steep, and channelling water where it is needed. We climbed up through these terraces, watching farmers harvest rice and prepare seedlings. Dotting the fields are stone shines as well as well as colourful material swinging from long ornate, curving bamboo poles, likely meant to scare birds away. Ducks and geese were regularly employed in the paddies to eat weeds and pests and leftover stalks after the harvest.

We hiked for around two hours in a big U, and ended up back in Ubud where a van from the hotel met us and drove us through the narrow, busy streets back to the hotel. We haven’t really explored the town yet, but it contains an overwhelming number of small stores selling Balinese crafts of every possible sort: carvings, paintings, clothes, textiles, jewellery and more. There is restaurant after restaurant as well. It is very obvious that this is the tourist’s place to come as an alternative to the beach holiday.

In the evening (after a soak in the hotel pool and being soaked in a rain storm), we watched a dance performance at the Lotus Pond next to the Lotus Café, in an ornate, palace-like courtyard. There were actually more people in the gamelan band than were watching the performance, but this didn’t stop the musicians or the dancers from putting on an energetic show. Six dances and on instrumental piece were performed, and dances were in the legong and kebyar style, with extracts from the Ramayana, a flirtatious male-female bee dance, an old man mask dance and a technical show piece for a solo male dancer. It’s interesting to compare the dances that I’ve seen in India, Laos, Cambodia and here; they all clearly have common roots and elements, but are also unique. Facial expressions play a central role in Balinese dance, and its styles seem quite physical and demanding on the performers. I hope to get to one of the dance schools while I’m here to watch and document how students learn the dances.

We spent all of yesterday on a bike tour through the countryside north of Ubud. We booked the tour with Bali Eco Tours and found it a very satisfying experience. We were joined by a very pleasant French woman and her daughter, and I spent part of the day translating into my terrible French. The trip began with an hour long drive up and up to a viewpoint over the misty Lake Batur caldera and up at the summit of Mount Batur (1717m). The lava flow from a relatively recent eruption was clearly visible as a black swath down the peak to the lake. On the way up to Batur, we stopped at a steep valley to view some very impressive rice terraces.

Driving on we came to an agro-tourism development that reminded me very much of one Derek and I visited in Sri Lanka in 2005, even down to the overpriced gift shop. They had demonstration plantings of cinnamon, clove, coffee, gardenia, vanilla, cocoa, papaya, taro, pineapple and more. There were four civet cats in an enclosure. These animals are famous for their role in the production of ‘lewak’ coffee – they eat the most ripe, best coffee fruit and poop out the coffee beans. These are gathered and roasted up into the most expensive coffee in the world. I couldn’t resist buying a cup of it, and it was pretty good although it would be interesting to try it as espresso rather than in the Balinese style: a very fine grind that you let settle in the bottom of your cup before drinking, as in Turkey.

Five minutes down the road we picked up our bikes, and we spent the rest of the afternoon rolling downhill on quite backcountry roads through rice terraces and villages. We stopped to tour a traditional compound house for an extended family, complete with a house temple which seems to be standard here. Our excellent and happy guide also took us two carving workshops, one making balsa wood Buddha statues, and the other making very ornate doors, beams and windows, carved with scenes of gods like Hanuman or in organic motifs. Behind the largest banyan tree that I have seen there was a group of about forty women of all ages preparing offerings for an upcoming ceremony. Very friendly, like almost everyone we’ve encountered, they invited us over to show us the rice flour offerings they were making and to chatter with us. I took a whole lot of pictures.

After 25kms (during which I probably pedalled 12 times) we came to a small dam and were given the option of an additional ride or a drive onwards. Kristi, Rod and I opted for the ride and were treated to a half-hour or so mostly uphill and very sweaty ride that made my face go all red. It was enjoyable and scenic, though, and it was good to get some exercise. Our destination was a restaurant in the paddies that served the best food that I’ve had so far: smoked chicken and duck, tofu in sweet soy sauce, tofu in peanut sauce, chicken satay, steamed greens, noodles, rice and fresh sambal (which was really zippy). Everything was salty/sweet and spicy and garlicky and incredibly tasty. I hope that we can get food like that again.

The final leg, in the van this time, brought us to the Monkey Forest, which is actually right across the paddy from where I am typing right now. The forest is in a warm, moist ravine, and is inhabited by three troupes of macaque monkeys, numbering about two hundred or so. They were everywhere, just sitting like people, getting groomed, eating sweet potatoes or bananas, wrestling and playing, swimming and having sex. There were three mossy temples in the forest as well, one of which was deep down in a humid, slimy grotto.

At about 4:30 we were back in the hotel, showered and floated in the pool for a while. Rod and Sandy had to move to another hotel as Tegal Sari was booked up. Kristi and I relaxed for a while then went for a short walk towards town. En route we decided to get some foot reflexology which I found very intense, particularly on the bottom of my toes. After it was all done it felt very good, and Kristi had a look of bliss in her eyes and said she enjoyed the entire process.

A light snack and a drink back at the hotel, then we called it an early night. I slept soundly and was out of bed at 6:30 and writing this.

Written by sockeyed

November 3, 2008 at 14:30

Posted in Travel

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