(Traveling with Ciel was so much fun that blogging took a back seat. I found myself starting stories and never getting around to finishing. Now that I’m on my own I’m going back to Bali in my mind to finish some of these stories…”Bali Backtracking”)
We’d imagined renting bikes when we got to Ubud and riding around on the long empty streets surrounded by rice paddies – just like we’d seen Julia Roberts do in Eat Pray Love. That rosy vision was abolished when we actually arrived in town and witnessed the narrow streets packed with motorbikes, taxis and trucks. In Bali they have not yet incorporated bike lanes – or even shoulders alongside the road. It seemed that biking through Bali was not to be.
But then we saw the multitude the tourist stalls advertising bike tours. An assortment of tours were offered – all a little more expensive than we’d like, but a chance to get on a bike outside of town. On our first walk down Monkey Forest Road, we stopped in a little shop for postcards and chatted with the woman who told us about the “Eco-Cycling Tour.” We’d be picked up at our hotel and driven up to Ganung Batur, the scenic volcano where we’d all get on bikes and take a long meandering downhill cycle back to town. She reassured us that the route really did look like the pictures: quiet lanes with little traffic.
Now that sounded more like what we’d had in mind. She presented us with coupons for the “children’s price,” and we promised to return when we’d picked a day.
Several mornings later (Ubud has a way of pulling you in and the days float by before you’ve realized how much time has passed) we stood on a street corner waiting for our pickup. We’d offered to wait on the corner because we knew how hard it was for vans to navigate down the narrow alley where we’d rented a room at Rumah Roda. Bad idea. We turned away countless offers for taxis, tours and transport, as we stood on the corner for more than a half hour. Finally a mini-van pulled up and a smiling young man beckoned us in.
“You are Sarah? My name’s Joe,” he said with a lilting accent that reminded me of Australia. I shook his hand and climbed into the front seat next to him while Ciel found the last seat in the back. Joe looked Balinese but his accent was so perfectly British/Australian, I had to ask if he was from here. “Oh yes,” he assured me. “I practice and study my English every day. I learn from the boss, he’s Australian.”
Our tour included stops to view rice terraces, a visit to a coffee plantation, a Balinese family compound, a giant sacred Banyan tree and some other attractions. It was to end with a sumptuous buffet lunch.
Our first stop was the famous rice terraces, which we’d already viewed on a driving tour guided by the son of our homestay host, Abut. Apparently this particular spot is a popular tourist destination – hawkers and vendors pour out from cracks in the hillsides to surround us and entreat us to buy. The first time I was talked into paying way too much for a sarong I’d admired by a friendly gentlemen who wormed his way into our affections by offering to take our photos against the beautiful backdrop. I was then followed back into the car by a woman with a stack of them on her head, shrieking at me that hers were much cheaper, I should buy two.
This time, a cute little girl worked me with her book of postcards. At first I thought I could buy just one, but she wanted to sell the entire stack. “Please, please, good price good price, only 80,000,” she begged over and over, in a monotone. When I refused and began beating a retreat to the van, her parents appeared and seemed to be yelling at her for failing to sell the postcards. I guiltily shut the vehicle door.
We continued up the mountain to Gunar Batang where we stopped at a viewpoint restaurant for the promised big breakfast. After filling up on eggs, rice and pancakes and snapping a few pics of the volcano (which was miraculously not shrouded in mist) we climbed back in the van.
Our visit to the coffee plantation was up next. As we drove further up the mountain Joe told us the story of “Luwak Coffee.” It seems that the most delicious, gourmet coffee (sometimes selling for $30 a cup!) comes from beans that have been consumed by a local civet cat. The creature eats the beans, then excretes them and they are quickly collected, cleaned and processed. These beans are said to brew an exceptionally smooth tasting cup of joe, low in caffeine, but easy on the stomach and like velvet on the tongue.
“And you can have a chance to try this fabulous coffee for only 30,000 rupiah ($3.00)!” Joe exclaimed.
Ciel and I looked at each other. Should we try it? It sounded disgusting, but when else would we have a chance to try this Indonesian delicacy?
But, it turned out we didn’t even have to decide. After viewing the roasting operations, Joe led us to a seating area where we scanned a menu, wondering if we should order the Luwak coffee, or just one of the regular varieties. But a young girl appeared with a tray of tiny cups. We were being served a sampler of teas and coffees, however we would still have to pay if we wanted Luwak coffee. One of our tour companions, David from Scotland, ordered the exotic coffee, so we’d all have a chance to try it without having to choke down an entire cup while trying not to think about the origins of the beans.
Our sampler tray included a “ginseng coffee” sweetened with condensed milk (our favorite actually), a cup made with the “female” bean (higher in caffeine) and another made with the “male” bean (lower caffeine, better taste supposedly), some ginger tea and green tea. We sipped and sampled, until David was served his Luwak coffee with a flourish. It came in a fancy teapot.
He poured the cup and offered it to me. I took a cautious sip and discovered that Joe was right. It did have a rich deep flavor and felt light on my stomach.
After the coffee adventure we were finally off to procure our bicycles and begin the actual ride.
The rest of our stops would be via two wheels. We sorted through helmets and chose bicycles to match our varying heights. Our tour included David the Scotsman, an beautiful Irish woman, Jill, who was Ciel’s age and sounded Australian because she’d been living and teaching there for the past year, a professional photographer from Tasmania who was traveling with his young daughter (for those who are as geographically challenged as me, Tasmania is an island off of Australia), a French family with two teenage boys and a young Javanese couple. It took a while to sort out all the nationalities, but we bonded instantly with David and Jill.
We lined up and began to coast down the gentle grade. We were on the road!
We rode past tiny villages where children of all ages burst out of their houses to yell “halloo!” and reach out their hands to high-five us, passed villagers hiking along with piles of brush on their backs and women with baskets of groceries or laundry balanced on their heads.
Before long we arrived at the “family compound” where a working family supplemented their income by opening up their home to camera-toting tourists. I felt a little strange at first poking around their kitchen and peering into the bedrooms, but the little girls who welcomed us were clearly at ease with the camera and excitedly ran to see their photos.
In addition to the tourist dollars, this extended family was in the business of weaving bamboo mats and roofing, and many of them were engrossed in their work, oblivious to yet another group of gawking visitors. One toothless auntie seemed particularly happy to be photographed though, and smiled again and again for our snapping shutters. We walked around back, picking our way around the strutting chickens to view the sleeping pigs and long-lashed cows and wound around to the other side where more family members worked the bamboo with machetes and Mom prepared a mountain of little sandwich wraps for the family. Grandma stood by her motorbike and grimaced at the cameras, while an uncle lolled next to his machete smoking a cigarette.
Then it was back on the bikes, winding through more quiet village streets until we turned onto a dirt path through the rice paddies where Joe pulled over and encouraged us to take as many photos as we wanted. This was the spot where Ciel, Jill and I decided to sneak off and find a private overgrown area to take care of business (All that coffee!)
“Watch out!” Joe warned us as we hurried back in answer to his calls that it was time to go. “Check your shoes for leeches. You were in the rainforest there.”
Ick. We all looked down at our feet with paranoia. I was wearing sandals so it was pretty easy to spot any leeches (or fortunately lack thereof).
As we rode on in single file down the sleepy streets, Joe turned down some narrow alleys leading us toward a temple where he said a special ceremony was taking place.
“We celebrate the anniversary of the temple of this village,” he said.
In Bali they are always holding ceremonies and rituals to celebrate some unique holiday or another. There is probably a temple ceremony every single day in some part of the country, and usually many different ones taking place at once.
But westerners must be dressed appropriately to enter the temple, and of course biking shorts don’t quite fit the bill. So, rejected from the actual temple we turned back onto the street where the procession was beginning. We all parked our bikes and lined up on the side of the road to view the procession of costumed celebrants. Men, women and children, all dressed in their ceremonial finest, proceeded down the street to the sounds of chanting and gamelan melodies.
Women clustered together with elaborate offerings of fruit piled on their heads, these seem to be part of every ceremony. Just crafting those piles is an artistic feat, much less the physical prowess it must require to then balance them on one’s head!
Men and boys carried flags and the ubiquitous temple umbrellas while women balanced huge glass cases filled with ritual masks and artifacts.
As Ciel and I stood by watching and snapping photos, a turbaned white-clad man beckoned us to join the procession.
“Where are you from?” he asked in excellent English as we marched along beside him. When we told him, he smiled happily and said, “I lived in San Francisco for many years.”
Thrilled to have been invited to join in the procession we walked along beside our new friend chatting about the differences between California and Bali. Thinking that everyone on our tour had also joined in the procession I didn’t give my bike another thought as we walked on.
“Hey! Americans! What about your bike?!” we heard Joe calling out.
Turning we saw him gesturing to us with a big but concerned smile.
“It’s time to continue our tour,” he called.
Oh. I guess this was just a little detour, not part of the day. Darn.
Reluctantly we bowed and parted from our new Balinese friend and headed back to our bikes.
After that highlight, the giant banyan tree did not seem that exciting, even with Joe’s explanation about how it was a sacred gathering place and a natural temple. I was happy for the fresh bananas offered as a snack though.
After much more high-fiving and “hallos” from kids of all ages we came to the bottom of the hill. Joe explained that here was the point that we could all travel in the van for lunch.
“Or,” he said, “People who want to exercise can ride the bike to the restaurant. It is uphill, for maybe five or six kilometers. You will be very hot and sweaty.”
We could tell Joe was hoping we wouldn’t want to ride, but I’d already determined that I wanted to get in some a little bit of a real workout on this bike tour. The coast downhill had been too easy.
I raised my hand. “I’m up for it.”
To Joe’s disappointment we all chose to ride to the final destination, the restaurant where we’d be served an elaborate buffet lunch. He was right about sweating, but the grade was fairly gentle. My heart pumped and I was breathing hard by the time we turned onto the busy road back into the traffic. Then my heart pumped faster – with fear as cars and trucks whizzed by just inches from my bike.
But we were greeted at the restaurant by icy cold wet towels and bottles of water – that and endorphins put smiles on all of our faces. We’d made it!
And the promised feast was even better than the billing on the brochure. An assortment of culinary delicacies satisfied the appetite we’d all worked up on that last stretch: skewers of satay chicken, gado gado, urap (that yummy vegetable coconut dish), and an assortment of scrumptious meat and vegetable dishes.
We’d gotten our money’s worth on this one. This was the kind of biking I’d been dreaming of.