The most vivid part of the trip to Bali, for me, were the fever dreams. As I lie half-awake, unsure if I slept or not, my fever from what was either a nasty cold or a touch of the flu breaking into unending sweat in the open-air room, my head pounded with strange dreams. It seemed to me that sleep was a fleeting thing, and to achieve what my body had been desperately craving for the last ten hours or so, I had to barter dearly for it. So my mind, already fatigued from the heat, the walking up and down countless steps, the bumpy rides from sight to sight, began the calculations of what I could barter for my rest.
Clearly the comforter could go. We had both thrown it off, and while it belonged to the villa in which I made vain attempts at sleep, I felt confident that the street hawkers that were offering the best prices on sleep would acquiesce to some stolen goods. The inflatable pool lounge might have worked as well, but I thought perhaps that I would be better off trying to upgrade that to some mangosteen and then trade the fruit back into more sleep. Maybe 30 minutes? What was the conversion rate anyway? The mangosteens were 30,000 rupiah, was a thousand to one ratio good? Should my mind, already burning and howling in pain, travel farther down the imaginary market row to seek out a better deal? Maybe the sarongs were a better deal at this hour of the night, whatever it may be.
I had entered a whole new phase of vacation.
Two and a half days earlier, we touched down in Denpasar in that island paradise to find our hosts’ manager, Juli, waiting for us with a handmade sign and a massive smile on his face. Part of our stay at Rumah Cahaya included the opportunity to engage Juli as a ad-hoc guide and driver, and the man was worth the opportunity. Juli’s family, he explained, used to own the land that Cahaya was built on. They sold to an American, a Californian, actually, and some of the family agreed to work on the property. Juli managed the villa, his uncle “Bapak”1which I put in quotes because the only spelling I know of is also an Indonesian word for “mister”, so I suspect Bapak was an honorific tended the grounds with his two huge watch dogs that would fill the Balinese air with deep voiced barking every time we would come “home”. Maya, Juli’s cousin, served as a housemaid, and cooked us breakfast each morning as part of our stay there.
We stayed just outside of Ubud, known to anyone that has read Eat, Pray, Love, I suspect, and to many more. Ubud is the art town, the yoga town, home of the Monkey Forest. It’s a small, quaint town with deep canyon approaches and rivers bracing the main part of town. Our location was just past town to the north west, where Juli confidently drove us up out of town, and into a shopping center.
Okay, maybe this part sounds a bit like that stupid commercial with the couple lost in some God-forsaken jungle only find their idyllic vacation home on the beach tucked away like a true diamond in the rough. That commercial did come to mind as we unloaded, walked down to the main street and then back up some stairs that led behind the supermarket.
But I was surprised quickly – what we walked into was a small “walking neighborhood”, a grid of concrete walkways connection villas, yoga rooms, cafes, art studios, spas and restaurants. There was a motorbike trail on the far end but other than that, everything in our neighborhood was foot traffic only. To meet Juli for any of our excursions, we’d need to walk back out to the supermarket on the main road.
Cahaya was set back apart from its neighbors, beyond a hundred meters of rice fields, the grains nearly ready for harvest. It rose up from the fields, but without grandeur or pretension, just a solid looking three-story building with a stately looking wall around the property. Inside, however, the details were rich and well-appointed. Garuda and mermaids alike decorated the columns and pool area. The villa’s interior was spacious and open, and the third story turned out to be a tower with a commanding view that looked the part of a wonderful creative space. My fingers itched for the keyboard, but instead, we all went back downstairs, jumped in the pool and had some beer.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was a cold, maybe it was a bit of both. The fever dreams wouldn’t tell me, the lying bastards, and by the time I had figured out the proper conversion rates, all the shops had closed up for the night, leaving me with an unused and crumpled comforter and what felt like gallons of sweat covering the sheets. I opted for meditation, but with the headache, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I settled for lying there, eyes half closed, thinking back and wondering if maybe I had let a mosquito bite me, and if the volcano had cursed us with dodgy food.
The first full day we walked around our “neighborhood”, which immediately pushed my father-in-law back inside where it was cool. Even in Pennestan, our small little village outside of Ubud, Hindu temples dotted the streets with a regularity that would make the Khmer kings jealous. We cooled off in the pool and then took a ride into Ubud with Juli to the Monkey Forest.
Monkey Forest is pretty much what it sounds like. A forested area chock-full of cheeky monkeys, eager to be fed bananas, which you could buy a handful for a few dollars. Once you bought a bunch, you had to expect monkeys to start climbing on you, all wanting to steal your fruit. While never really violent, the sneaky bastards known every trick in the book to rob you of food. Honestly, I loved the little buggers. You could see the personalities at work – the bigger, older and stronger monkeys would simply threaten the smaller ones into fleeing without their food, but the smaller, craftier monkeys had a great time dropping one banana as a distraction, and then absconding with a whole stolen bunch.
Headed north out of the forest, Jalan Monkey Forest2again, literally “Monkey Forest Road” held a dizzying array of art, craft and tea/coffee shops. We’ll get back to coffee in a bit.
It became clear to us on the second day as we drove around that four days is simply not enough to enjoy all that Bali has to offer. Still, we soldiered on, starting day two with a traditional Balinese dance performance – the Barong mask dance. I’m not all that clear on the story, not knowing much about Hindu mythology, but Barong is a lion or tiger spirit that has battles against Rangda, the demon queen, a force of pure evil. The dance was part play, part interpretive dance, but music and motion made for a regal, euphoric performance in which you could clearly understand the eternal battle of good vs. evil laid out before your eyes.
From there, we saw silversmiths and woodcarvers, part of the obligatory tourist duty to see the local productions idealized and romanticized for us Westerners before being led inside an overwrought showroom designed to blow our minds and empt our wallets. Forgive my cynicism, but that part holds little appeal for me. The craftsmanship was amazing, no doubt, but as someone who is not very materialistic, I would have much rather seen the actual production centers – hopefully, in line with each merchants’ claims, villages of “independent” artisans, and not just stuff shipped in from some sweatshop.
What was undeniable though, was the crafts works at our next stop, Gunung Kawi Temple. An 11th century temple, apparently, it features ten 7-meter tall shrines cut into two cliffs facing opposite sides of the Pakerisan River. The effect is a bowl-shaped temple complex straddling a swiftly flowing river, incredibly peaceful. The temple requires long pants or a sarong, which the docents will hand out freely at the entrance. However, the temple also requires walking down several hundred steps to the main valley, which of course means walking back up those several hundred steps. Ouch.
It’s really with a lot of difficulty that I write of each of these visits – each stop, each interaction with Bali, its land and its residents could fill an entire entry. For me to zoom through each of these in a single paragraph seems a bit like a crime. Like I just wrote – four days in this land is not enough.
Have you heard of luwak coffee? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. It’s considered one of the most expensive coffees in the world. I had heard of it, but had never had it. Beverly had, though, and I forget how the topic came up, but at one point as we drove towards Ubud on arrival, we started talking about luwak.
“What is that?” asked my father-in-law.
Bev and Juli both started to talk obliquely about the production of luwak. Me being me, I got the point.
“Larry, it’s coffee made out of civet cat shit.”
It is. Luwak is coffee that’s made like thus; a civet cat (hopefully in the wild and not caged and force fed) eats a coffee bean. Off the trees, the beans are encased in a fruit-like berry. The civet cats digest the fruit and leave the bean nearly undamaged. A luwak coffee maker collects the droppings from the cat, cleans out the beans, removes the outer shell and then cleans and roasts the remaining beans.
Sounds gross, right? Well, maybe it is. But after a quick consultation, Juli dropped us off at a luwak novelty shop with a mock plantation attached for us to form our own opinions on cat-shit coffee.
My verdict? I rather liked it. It seemed to me to be a very smooth and strong variant of coffee, and while worth it to purchase as a novelty, probably not at all worth it to buy in bulk. It is, after all, incredibly expensive. But you should try it.
I decided that the volcano hadn’t cursed me, or the food, it was simply crap food. Juli drove us up to Mt. Batur, Bali’s active volcano. As we climbed, the weather worsened, along with my condition. I had been feeling a little off most of the day but by the time we got to the top of the mountain, I was feeling wretched. Juli offered to take us to a restaurant at the top of the hill with a great view of the volcano, and we readily agreed. Food might help, I thought.
Well, I was wrong. This place was disgusting. A buffet of soggy fried food and flies everywhere, I thought I was going to be sick. I still think I’m going to be sick thinking of it. So fucking nasty. Plus, they charged us 21% – twenty-one percent! – tax and service, while the rain clouds made for a view of nothing but grey skies, a blank canvas of what the landscape might look like.
Eventually, the clouds parted a bit that were were treated to a decent, if muted, view of the volcano, the lake below and Mt. Agung3Bali’s highest point. The parting mists did give the whole view something of an ethereal sort of view. But by then, my fever was growing, and I just wanted sleep. Little did I know what trials I was in for in that regard.
So my trip to Bali went. I stayed in the villa the following day, trying to recuperate, which I was successful in only as much as I needed to be to travel, apparently, as this two-day-late and rambling incoherent post shall no doubt illustrate. It’s a shame, really, because I loved Bali and Ubud. Ubud is a town of artists and creativity, of laughter and good food, and those things go a long, long way with me. I didn’t get to the beaches as the rest of the family did during my illness, but I got a little taste of an amazing island, populated with amazing people. Our erstwhile guide, Juli, was a delight. His warm manner and sense of humor made us feel at home, and the villa was spacious and comfortable.
The street hawkers of my dreams, however, those dudes were cheap bastards. I didn’t end up getting a good rate on sleep at all.