My travels have now taken me to sprawling, equator-clinging Indonesia. Stretching from northern Sumatra to eastern Papua, Indonesia boasts 17,000 island of which about 8,000 are populated by a whopping 250m people of every religion, speaking countless local dialects but thankfully also unifying Bahasa.
With a 60 day visa to explore such diverse riches where does one start? I decided to ease myself in gently by making my first stop proven, tried and tested Bali. It is a beautiful island but it is also overrun with tourist touts, party goers and drug pushers which makes finding authentic experiences a challenge. I’m sure many of my globe-trotting friends will have visited Bali so I’ll concentrate on a couple of special experiences and tell the rest of the story through photos.
My favourite beach was the 4km stretch in Sanur with a lovely beachside promenade, brightly coloured grasshopper boats and a huge tide allowing fisherman to wade out at sunset to catch dinner. I ate well, Gado Gado being a favourite (vegetables and prawn crackers smothered in peanut sauce) and slept well once the terrible renditions of Lady in Red and the like packed up. I spent an enjoyable few hours in the well preserved home of French artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur and his Balinese wife Ni Polok. Painting in oils, often on grass canvas Le Mayeur concentrated on portraits of Ni and places they visited and then bequeathed the house – a beautiful example of Balinese architecture with heavy carved wood windows and bas relief excerpts from the Ramayana and its contents to Sanur.
Having spent all my time taking public transport I felt like having some freedom so hired a small car for a week to tour the island. The locals drive at about 30km an hour and the roads are well maintained so I reckoned I managed just fine. Apart from being pulled over by the police once and having to pay a fine which came down from £50 to £10 (lunch money), it was a doddle. I enjoyed lakes and mountains, towns and temples, hot springs and dive sites. I climbed a mountain at dawn, ate eggs cooked in its volcanic heat, dived a WWII US wreck, watched traditional Balinese dancing to the accompaniment of mesmeric gamelan music, learned how to prepared stuffed pitcher plant, walked in rice fields and soaked my weary limbs in hot springs.
I stopped at cottage-industry villages with welcoming silversmiths, carpenters and gardeners who took pains to explain their professions locals and I also met inspirational doctor who has managed to build a children’s hospital from the profits of his small volunteer-run restaurant. He passionate about saving the lives of children from what are easily curable deceases if treated in time and wears a T-shirt which reads ‘if you think you’re too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito.’
The cherry on the Bali cake was attending the funeral of the last king of Ubud’s 94 year old sister. It’s difficult to put into words what an exciting experience it was. I was told it was the biggest, most lavish funeral Peliantan had seen for years. Bali is predominantly Hindu so this ceremony followed Hindu traditions. Dignitaries and friends from far and wide gathered at the Royal Palace and I was fortunate to be invited to sit with some of the women to watch the various rituals and to partake of special cakes and coffee. I think perhaps I was invited in because, on the advice of my homestay family, I had bought a traditional sarong and sash for the occasion, which meant I fitted in. I even met the great, great nephew of the King who, thanks to a past girlfriend, spoke impeccable.
Food eaten, gifts offered it was time to take the coffin up a huge staircase to the top of an immense tower. In front of the tower was an enormous Nandi Bull and between the two were musicians banging gongs and drums VERY loudly. Once the coffin was in place and religious blessings bestowed the daughter of the deceased was given a long rope, which was attached to the tower. Flanked by other female members of the family, she had to pull it at a running pace all the way to the temple about 2km away. Of course she wasn’t pulling the tower single handedly! There was an army of local men in traditional funeral dress who heaved up the tower, and the Nandi Bull (both erected on huge bamboo palettes) and ran with them about 100 metres before collapsing in the heat, a new group taking over. It was brilliant to watch them geeing each other up but make no mistake, they were concentrating really hard because one slip and the whole shooting match would have come crashing down. The street was lined with onlookers and at the half way point a fire engine appeared and started spraying everyone. I thought this would make the tower/bull carriers slip but they remained steady until we arrived at the temple.
There was then an incredibly elaborate procedure to manoeuvre the Nandi Bull into position and to cut a big hole in its back. Women circled the bull three times before offering various gifts up to be placed in the cavity (I couldn’t see what). Next the coffin had to be lifted off the tower, down another big staircase and the shroud placed inside the bull. More circling of the bull, more placing of ritual good and cloths and then finally the deafening music stopped and the body was cremated to much chanting and praying.
The ceremony lasted more than four utterly fascinating hours and is indelibly imprinted on my mind.
Most people head to the tiny Gili Islands and thence on to Lombok. I didn’t fancy either, instead taking a short boat ride south to the Balinese island of Lembongan. My destination was World Diving where I had decided to do an Advanced Open Water Dive (AOWD) course, which would give me the requisite skills to dive some of the challenging sites in Komodo National Park where I was headed next. Lembongan is a lovely little island with a laid back vibe, fabulous waves for surfers, long stretches of white sand for swimmers and sunbathers and lots of interesting marine life. The course involved 5 specific dives; orientation (not easy underwater) deep water dive (30m), drift dive i.e. being pulled along by a fast moving current, buoyancy, night dive. Thankfully I passed! The scariest but best dive was the drift because a strong current swept us into a coral conservation area with the brightest most dramatic corals I’ve ever seen.
My last night in Lembongan I went to a beach BBQ with my AOWD instructor. Towards the end of the revelries, two blokes who had just completed their Dive Master course were subjected to an ‘initiation’. Wearing female fancy dress they had to act out things like air sharing and changing tanks in strong current. The initiation culminated in a race to drink a litre of beer poured slowly down a snorkel and then run fully clothed into the sea.
Hilarious entertainment and a fitting end to my happy days in Bali.