The Sockeyed Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Ubud

Gili Trawangan, Pt. 1

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Since I last wrote, the United States elected a new president – Barack Obama. I hope that this signals a new era for Canada’s southern neighbour. They were in desperate need of a sea change in their leadership.

We have crossed a sea, or the Lombok Strait at least, and are on Gili Trawangan, a small island, 2x3kms in size, off the coast of Lombok. I was here three years ago and things have changed. I’m not sure if my memories are blurring into those from Gili Air, a nearby island with a more laid-back character, or if things are really that different. I think that they are. There seems to be a lot more development up and down the beach, and a lot more younger European tourists looking to be in the party mode with their Bintang beer shirts, flip flops and large designer glasses. They made me feel old and a bit snobby.

Anyway, Gili Trawangan is still a lovely place, free of cars and scooters (horse-drawn carriages and bikes only) and surrounded by clear turquoise water teeming with corals and fish and turtles and other sea life.

We checked out of Tegal Sari in Ubud early this morning and rode a van into Badangbai, a nondescript coast town that was in the midst of having a cruise ship arrive. We rode across to the Gilis on the GiliCat fast boat with about 12 or so other folks. The trip took only an hour and the highlight was seeing a pod of dolphins leaping from the water. The boat was a vast improvement over the flight, car and boat trip I took last time.

The boat arrived on Gili Trawangan around 11:00, and we stopped in at Manta Dive to tell them to expect me for my refresher course shortly. We left our bags there and set out to find a place to stay. Last time I was here I stayed in a place called Queenrich Bungalows for a few dollars a night. Although I brought a picture of the place and the owner, we couldn’t seem to find it. Instead we settled on a bungalow at Tanah Qita, fairly far north up the beach. We have an A-framed thatch bungalow with a smallish room, a covered porch (where I am writing this), and a fun open-air shower and toilet out back. We are on the main road across from the snorkelling beach, but although we are in the front-most bungalow, we are still set back around 25m meters from the road behind a large, open garden.

Back at Manta I did an hour-long refresher course in the pool that went over the scuba basics and really set me at ease (Kristi just completed her certification in Vancouver, so she was good to go). Around 2pm we set out on a dive, heading north around the island to Shark Point. The dive went really well and both of us were totally relaxed. It was great to be back in the 28-degree water with good visibility and incredible sea life. Over the course of our 47-minute dive (down to 21 metres), we swam past giant coral mushrooms and over fan corals and sponges, and saw sea turtles, trigger fish, angel fish, parrot fish, sweetlips, parrotfish and even a few white-tipped reef sharks hiding out under a coral overhang. Although it wasn’t as dramatic as my dives in Sipadan, Malaysia, two years ago, it was still a great deal of fun and very nice to share this experience with Kristi.

After the dive and debrief, moved our stuff into our bungalow and showered, then went out for a delicious dinner at Recchi’s Living Room, down near the ticket office. I had northern Lombok fish saté (minced fish and coconut milk and spices), a Bintang beer and banana fritters with ice cream for dessert. Kristi had a tuna and veggie salad and fried tempeh. To help digest all this nummy nosh, we walked south down the main strip. It just feels more busy and buzzing than I remember.

I should say something about our last days in Bali. It’s Thursday today; on Tuesday we made a point of not doing much more than relaxing. We spent the morning reading at the hotel, ate at the Lotus Lane in town (huge and good chocolate mousse), and then walked to the market and back to the hotel in a leisurely loop, Kristi buying a few presents for folks along the way.

Yesterday was a great finale to our day on the island. After an early nasi goreng breakfast on our balcony over the rice paddy, we got a lift into the main market to watch the action of the locals’ food market. It took some time to find it as most of it is underground, down some wet stone stairs into this inferno of fruit, veggie and meat stalls and small food stalls emitting large amounts of smoke. It reminded me of the Psar Chas in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but for Kristi it was her first such experience.

Next stop was a Balinese cooking class done by Casa Luna at the Honeymoon Guesthouse (very nicely laid out with statues, fountains and great wood and stone relief carvings), which lasted almost four hours and started with a lecture on all the ingredients central to this kind of cooking. Most of it was about spices and gingers and the balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavours. After this, our instructor prepared a series of dishes served on ceremonial occasions: fish and chicken saté, green beans in coconut, ferns, yellow rice, corn fritters, sembal and black rice pudding for dessert. To drink we had sweet cold hibiscus juice and a mild rice wine (like good saké). The most important element to the food is the fresh spice mix, all ground up on a large, flat stone mortar and pestel. The course was very worthwhile, and the food very good. It will be interesting to try and recreate some of it at home.

The climax of the day was an evening Kecak performance at a temple in the north part of town. Kecak involves a large male chorus chanting in a complex and highly-synchronized way, seated in a circle around a central altar. The men wear chequered sarongs and create trance-like songs and chants, calls-and-responses. An element I was not familiar with was the storytelling from Hindu mythology using a series of dancers entering the circle. These included very elegant female dancers in gold and green as well as a whole pantheon of Hindu gods and demons appearing in frighting or even comical roles. For the entire dance or ritual, the men in the circle continuously chanted and sang, sometimes jumping up, other times lying flat upon each other, and even getting involved in the action, hoisting fighting gods up on their shoulders to do battle. This all lasted at least an hour and the audience was enraptured, applauding and cheering loudly when it was over. The finale was a fire dance. A large pile of coconut husks was placed in the middle of the courtyard, doused with fuel, and lit on fire. The kecak chorus appeared again on the far side, and when the fire had burned down to embers, a man with a hobby horse-like costume and bare feet entered, and in a trance-like state would jump on an kick the embers in every direction. Helpers would re-pile the embers and we would do it again, maybe four times in total. At one one point, a pile of embers landed on an audience member who screamed and jumped up, suggesting that the embers were something to be reckoned with and not some trick. The ritual ended when the man collapsed into the kecak men, and a priest entered and blessed him with holy water. His blackened feet were clear evidence of the power of his trance. The entire evening in the temple was the perfect way to mark the end of our few days in Bali.

Written by sockeyed

November 7, 2008 at 04:00

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Floating Temple, Music in the Rain, Thunderous Massage

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The ricefields in front of our room are now being planted with seedlings in perfect rows with incredible speed. My own back aches just looking at how the men work bent over double, a cluster of seedlings in one had, planting rapidly with the other, pushing a floating basket of seedlings behind them with their calves as they move backwards down the row.

Yesterday’s excursion was to Lake Bratan to visit the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, the floating temple. The four of us hired Angelo, a younger driver that Rod and Sandy have used, for the day. I woke early and wrote up the previous days’ adventures, then we ordered breakfast to our room and ate on the balcony overlooking the paddies. Around 10:00 we met the others and set out. We got off to a rough start at the gas station when Angelo backed into a stack of propane cannisters (fortunately empty) and sent them rolling in every direction, right after telling us what a cautious driver he was. With this exception, he proved to be correct.

The drive to Lake Bratan was straightforward: a climbing road directly north of Ubud. Up we went into the clouds, and rice transitioned into fruit and vegetables. We descended down to the lake under ominous-looking clouds and piled out of the car to look around.

The temple doesn’t float, but is built on a small island just offshore. It is very picturesque, almost pagoda-like with an ascending series of thatched roofs. The temple is one of the primary icons of Bali and can be seen on the 50,000INR note. There were also temple elements on the land including two covered open areas. Under one a gamelan orchestra was setting up, and under the other was a group preparing offerings and chanting.

A rain started and judging by the fact that locals ran to shelter, I knew that it would be a big one. I took shelter with the gamelan, now playing a very rhythmic piece that rose and fell in waves of volume. I don’t know if it was technically a gamelan as it was comprised of drums, gongs and cymbals only, not the keyed gamelan played with hammers. I found the music mesmerizing and made several recordings. The rain beat hard all around making it all very atmospheric. During this time a duck and a chicken – alive, wrapped in leaves and weighted with stones – were sacrificed from a small boat in the lake. This, I would imagine, is a reflection of the animist beliefs that have mixed with Hinduism on the island, although I could be mistaken.

The rain let up slightly and we made our way back to the car and set off, stopping at a fruit market in the town to buy rambutans, mangosteen and bananas. We were asked to pay an exorbitant 250,000 INR ($30) for a small selection of fruit, but the driver and I talked the woman down to 60,000, which I still think was way too much, but the fruit was good (with the exception of one mangosteen that exploded with ants when I opened it and got thrown out of the moving car like a live hand grenade).

We spent the rest of the drive looking at dramatic rice terraces in the Jatiluwih area. There were several steep valleys blanketed in beautiful vibrant green terraces, and we forced the driver to stop every few hundred metres so that we could jump out and take pictures. Rod was most excited to see a father and two sons swimming nakedly in a stream next to the road. The boys squealed happily when we drove by.

The trip back into Ubud was long, down a rough road, then zig-zagging back and forth to cross a series of rivers and valleys to get from west to east towards Ubud. We dropped Rod and Sandy off at their hotel and said goodbye as they are leaving for Vancouver today.

Back at the hotel we had a simple supper (mee goreng for me), then walked over to the Zen Spa down the road for some pampering. Well, I had a very impressive massage, but I wouldn’t call it relaxing as the fellow who gave it to me was incredibly strong and almost had me whimpering several times. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I did whimper when we worked on my calves and hamstrings. The setting of the spa was beautiful, though. My room had an open wall that faced out onto a garden, and during the massage a thunderstorm developed. The rain poured heavily into the garden, and lightning flashed and thunder crashed constantly.

Back at the hotel I sat in the open area near reception and connected to the internet with my laptop. I answered and sent some emails, and uploaded a whole series of postings to my blog. I also drank a glass of Balinese rosé, which was passable and fun. The storm put on a good show all around. Another early night – we were in bed and reading at around 10:00.

Written by sockeyed

November 4, 2008 at 17:00

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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

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