Thursday, April 10, 2014

bali: part II

Thirty kilometers into the heartland of Bali, the landscape transformed. Green moss covered old stone walls. Thick jungle forests bordered narrow streets. White cranes vigilantly surveyed the rice paddy fields. The air felt low and heavy, patiently waiting to release the rains that breed life in this area.


As we puttered along, the Balinese Hindu Temples welcomed both locals and tourists to the cultural center of this little island: Ubud.



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Dropped off just south of the town center, we were able to get a quick viewing of Ubud’s main drag as we searched for our homestay. The storefronts boasted perfect displays: handmade silver, yoga workout clothes, traditional music instruments, or paintings from local artists. The town pulsated with a lively and rich culture. Ubud is the epicenter for artisan hippies.


Within the last decade, most likely with a lot of help from Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud’s tourism rate skyrocketed. This hodgepodge of quaint villages has become more and more accommodating to tourists and has altered its lifestyle to keep them coming. Despite Ubud’s transition into a hot destination, it thankfully still stays true to its roots.

Ubud is filled with genuine locals, expats who never left, and passersby hoping to gain some spiritual insight in a short visit. It is a place brimming with life and culture so the allure is quite understandable. As a destination for spiritual health and revival, there is no wonder why thousands flock to Ubud’s cozy streets and quiet rice fields.


Our homestay looked like a Balinese castle. Traditionally, homes here are made up of many houses on one plot of land, all protected with a surrounding wall and their Hindu deities keeping watch. Family members spread out among the patios and open spaces, folding palms into offering plates or chasing naked babies around the property. The visitors’ rooms were located in the back of the property, beside the family’s own rice paddies and family of ducks.



We dropped our bags off in the spacious room and decided to do some sightseeing as we scoped out a place for lunch. Hanoman Street intersected with Raya Ubud and at our moment of crossing, a massive procession took over the street. Balinese locals cloaked in traditional costumes and headdresses marched down the main road, leading a parade of drums, flowers, and a grand float. Apparently this was the funeral procession of a beloved member of Ubud’s government. A man wearing golden robes stood atop the float with a stone hardened face and his chin held high.

As the final beats of the bass drum were drowned out from the returning bustle of the town, we carried on with our tour to the Ubud Market and Palace, already in awe of Ubud.  Not in the mood to do a shopping spree, Mikaela and I wandered an abridged route through the market taking note of the handcrafts and fruit being sold.

We stumbled upon a local warung with extremely cheap prices for Balinese food. A fresh avocado salad and tasty chicken sate in peanut sauce left us reveling over how delicious Balinese cuisine is – and a welcomed break from Thai food. At the next table over a woman with an American accent was chatting to a local about the missing Malaysian Airlines flight; I was drawn to the conversation and couldn’t change my focus. I overheard she had been living in Bali for 13 years and got the feel that she had a great grasp on this area. In Koh Phi Phi I had fallen and cut my knee. The wound was healing slowly because I was constantly in and out of the water, preventing it from drying out and closing. Ubud climate is so moist and humid; I feared it as a breeding ground for an infection. I was hoping to find a local clinic to check out my knee and prescribe an antibiotic. Without conscious thought as to why, I felt the need to ask this woman with pigtail buns for advice.

Within two minutes Barbara was leading Mikaela and I to her pastel purple 1970’s Volkswagon van. She was originally from Colorado but is now living in Ubud to recover from traumatic forest fires that destroyed her home. She was outgoing and her energy contagious. I know ‘stranger danger’ should have been ringing in my head; however, I felt completely at ease and knew I could trust her for some reason. As she drove us to a redeemable pharmacy, she shared a synopsis of her life with bursts of tourist tips on Ubud.  I received my medical care and an incredible act of kindness from a stranger. There are so many people trying to rip you off in this world and take advantage of any vulnerability; however, I believe there are more people willing to give a helping hand.

Buzzing on the serendipitous encounter, I immediately knew that Ubud was a much better place for my soul than Legian. After perusing the local shops and forcing ourselves to walk past the countless cozy cafes, we wanted to find a yoga class for the next day. Many yoga studios’ schedules were changed because of the Spirit Festival that was taking place in town. As we were headed to The Yoga Barn to see if we could pop in to their morning class, I stopped at a random travel agency kiosk to check their prices for transport to Nusa Lembongan – our next destination. At that same time, a middle aged woman stopped to speak to two younger Russian women right near us. Once again, my ears were focusing in on another conversation and I learned that this woman is opening a yoga studio in the rice paddy fields. Once she and the two Russians parted ways I stopped her and asked if she was hosting a class for beginners tomorrow. Luckily enough, a beginners class was a 7am the following morning and at a cheaper price than Yoga Barn – sold! The timing was divine. Deciding to take the rest of the evening easy we bought a bottle of cheap wine and toasted to magical Ubud.

We woke before the sun and made our way to the rice paddy fields in the northern part of Ubud. Raya Ubud was busy already; however, this time only locals were trading chickens and mangoes in this pop-up market. While the tourists slumbered, Ubud was alive and well in its natural state of the Balinese way of life.

One path diverges from Raya Ubud road and meanders into Ubud’s tucked away rice paddies. Ten years ago this vast piece of land was uninhabited and undeveloped. Yet as the roots of tourism grew deeper into Ubud’s fertile soil, they spread outward and bloomed in this northern region. Now, the land has been irrigated and farmed into terraced rice fields.  A few homestays, a yoga retreat, a couple organic restaurants, and a traditional healer call this area home and all have panoramic postcard views.

The sun’s early morning glow lazily reached upward into the sky, slowly illuminating acres of rice paddies and surrounding palm trees. The trail led us directly to Ubud Yoga House, an octagonal shaped house nestled next to a giggling river and sleeping rice paddies.

Sheila stood at her door welcoming us in. Three traveling Dutch girls and kind Ukrainian woman were also participating in the class. All six of us met Sheila by chance so it seemed cosmically aligned for us to be there. She invited us upstairs where the deck overlooked the rice paddies. The sun, coming in from the east, was casting a far and luminous glow onto the lush green rice sprouts.

She began the class with a brief history of Yoga, sharing her insights and anecdotes. She has traveled and taught all over the world: Ecuador, Nepal, Bali, Azerbaijan. One of her tales resonated deeply with me. She told us of a monk from Nepal who was highly revered. Doctors were running a study about where happiness is located in the brain and what causes the feeling of happiness to occur. With permission, they ran their tests on this Monk and others and the results showed that out of all the patients, his level of happiness was the highest. When asked what he was thinking about to feel so happy, the Monk simply replied: compassion. Compassion is what makes us truly happy. Not a place, a person, or commodity. Rather, being selfless and giving what you can to another.

As I focused my breathing and held the warrior pose, my mind shut off its usual news ticker and reflected on compassion.  The monk was right, pure happiness comes from when we unconditionally give kindness, care, and help to others.  To save the world is a daunting idea for one individual to have. One person may not be able to feed all the hungry, clothe all the poor, or help all the needy. But one person can help their neighbor or friend, which in turn would inspire others to do the same. An act of compassion is not defined by size. Offering your aid in a third-world country, donating clothes to charity, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, or bringing someone to the pharmacist are all equal as they are all invaluable. When we do these selfless gifts, your heart becomes lighter and your radiating energy brighter. It undoubtedly makes your soul happy to live a compassionate life. We must all strive to live in that way so the world will become a better place for generations to come.

The yoga session ended with many genuine thanks. Sheila is an incredible woman who is tough yet spiritual, witty yet motherly. Her kindness doesn’t end in her studio: part of her proceeds goes to an organization in Bali that offers free eye surgeries to those in need. We left just as the sun started to fully wake up and gather its strength. Feeling rejuvenated and inspired, the day felt complete even before it had begun.

Later on that morning we visited the Sacred Monkey Forest. We turned right off of Hanoman Street and followed the flow of foot traffic. Chubby men stood at the entrance offering bananas to the guests to buy for the monkeys. I have had plenty of experience with macaque monkeys and had no desire to give them more of a reason to be jumped on.


The jungle forest is lush and thick. Vines hung between the trees, creating a mapped roadway for the monkeys. Moss and green ground cover slowly swallowed stone walls and deity statues. The air was saturated and rivers noisily gargled between the trees. Monkeys darted to newcomers holding bags in hopes of a tasty treat. Many assembled on the walls, skeptical of the new faces yet content watching the parade pass by. It felt surreal, as though we stumbled upon King Louie’s monkeys from the Jungle Book.  

Surprisingly there were not as many tourists as I would have thought to be strolling through this forest. We made our way to the main Dalem Agung Padangtegal Temple and Holy Spring bathing temple. Komodo Dragon statues guarded us as we walked along rivers. These monkeys were quite tame in comparison to those I have met in Thailand. We watched infants feed from their mothers and children play as elders lazily watched over them.  Thousands of monkeys call this place home yet have no desire to leave their abode and stroll the streets of Ubud.


After leaving this hidden monkey kingdom we hoped to see the herons that return to a specific field at sunset. We debated about renting bikes but someone told us it would be a forty-five minute walk so we decided that we could save money and skips the bikes. We were also given a map that we figured out was definitely not drawn to scale. So as we left the city and entered a neighborhood, growling thunderheads trailed our path. 


First it was just a few drops and within seconds the heavens opened up above us. Quiet rumbles appeared far off in the distance; however, the rainstorm was directly on top of us. We ran towards the shelter of a bodega with a Balinese family looking at us as if we each had three heads. Why were two white people outside of Ubud and walking in the rain? Mikaela and I looked at each other and figured we’re soaked already, why not keep going. With amateur charades, I scored us two plastic bags to put our phones in because our purses were already saturated with the warm rain. We headed out again to finish our heron journey, stopping to deep belly laugh over the insane rainfall. Locals peered out from their houses with either confused expressions or toothless smiles. We found another shop and asked them where the herons were by flapping my arms and pretending to fly. Shocked, they shook their heads and said ‘1 hour walk.’  Well, the original forty-five minute walk was quickly turning into a two hour one. We decided to call it quits, foreseeing the herons not even returning to this field in the rainstorm anyways. We danced in the rain the whole way home, putting on a show for the locals and living in the moment. 

The chime of my alarm entered my dream as church bells. I consciously started to realize that the bells weren’t stopping. Rising from a deep slumber, reality sent a jolt right through me: it was time to climb a volcano.

We woke at two in the morning for a two-thirty pick up. From there, our driver would bring us to the base of Mt. Batur Volcano in northern Bali. We would hike up the mountain and watch the sunrise from the top. Exhausted yet excited, we raced to dress ourselves and wait in the reception area. The minutes passed by and as the clock neared two thirty, my gut was telling me no one was coming.

Our hosts at Jati Homestay were meant to book our tour the previous day. The night before, I went searching for a staff member to confirm the booking but there was no one around. So when two-thirty hit, I went with my instinct and found the phone number of the tour company. Wayan answered the phone and confirmed my skepticism – they did not reserve a spot for us on the tour. However, fate was on our side and he had two spaces left in the car. With a sleepy voice he told me he would pick us up in five minutes.

Not a minute sooner, his SUV pulled up on Hanoman Street and we started off in the deep of the night to Mt. Batur. Two loud New Yorkers sat in the back and shared their experiences traveling. Eventually, their nasal accents became white noise as my mind drifted between sleep and consciousness.

We stopped quickly in a random village at Wayan’s uncle’s cafĂ©. There we sipped hot coffee and enjoyed mini banana pancakes to gain energy for the hike to come. Wayan is a colorful character. He has learned English by interacting with tourists and has deftly picked up their sarcasm, wit, and humor.


We piled back into the SUV and moved on to the starting point of our hike. From there we met our new guide, Made, who would take us up the mountain. Startled by the cold after being away from it for so long, we were eager to get moving. Equipped with a bottle of water and small flashlight, the group of seven of us set off in the dark. With only the opaque glow of a torch, we found our footing as we faced the steepening incline of the mountain.

                          

The hike up the volcano was challenging and incredible. The terrain shifted from gravel path, to vertical bouldering, to volcanic ashy sand. We cruised past group after group. Blanketed by complete darkness, I had no idea how high we were or what the surrounding landscape looked like. Above us you could see the faint outline of a massive and looming beast of a mountain in front of us. Moving dots of others’ torches bounced along the trail ahead, greeting the sky that boasted its own light spectacle. The stars burned holes in the indigo night sky. Made stopped to point out constellations and the faint smolder of cities miles and miles away.

We climbed for two hours straight with very few stops. Adrenaline pumped through our veins, causing the fear of falling to flee from our minds. It was a two hour stair climber; definitely not a hike for the weak. After the climb we were told that there have been regrettably several heart and asthma attacks which claimed lives.

We reached the first peak which is buttressed against the massive crater from an earlier explosion. Immediate joy swept over us. We climbed Mt. Batur in the dark. A few holes with steam flowing out from the depths of the mountain reminded us that we were standing atop a live and active volcano. Its last lava eruption was in 1974 so in the back of my mind I was thinking it must be due for another. There are three summit craters surrounding the main conical peak. Made gave us the option to watch the sunrise from this summit; however, we were only thirty more minutes from the absolute top. Obviously we charged onward, refusing to let any streaks of dawn beat us.

The climb to the peak was vertical and on mostly volcanic ash and gravel that had eroded to sand. Unable to grasp our footing, we scrambled up the mountainside sliding down as much as we were climbing up.

The view was breathtaking. Standing 1,717 meters up in the air, we gazed down upon Bali in all its glory. Purples, pinks, and blues bore through the black sky and shattered it like a mirror. The clouds illuminated their glow and carried their light to the top of the mountain. Lake Batur rested below us, releasing a fog as a signal for dawn to come.

Exhilarated, my mind could not grasp the 360 degree view. Often the cloud cover in this area is so dense you cannot see three meters ahead of you so we were blessed with a clear day. Made offered us a breakfast of banana sandwiches and eggs cooked over the volcano’s steam. We enjoyed this treat as the sky welcomed a new day. Vibrant yellows and oranges burned bright, reflecting off the clouds above and below. It was glorious – and by far the best sunrise of my life. God blessed me with another day, able to see the beauty of the world and share its splendor with my story.

The sun had risen and we enjoyed spending time atop an active volcano, learning about its history and place in Balinese culture; yet it was time to begin our decent down the mountainside. We set off, trailing behind one another. Hopping from rock to rock like Billy goats, trying to slow our momentum, we cruised by other groups. Our laughter echoed in the ravines as we sand surfed down most of the mountain. Impressed with our ability, we took turns claiming how we could not believe we climbed this sloped terrain in the dark. Eventually our feet found level ground and we cheered success as we emptied our shoes of gravel.
The morning continued with our driver Wayan dishing out jokes as he drove us to a coffee plantation. There, we learned about the process of harvesting coffee and the famed Coffee Luwak – ‘poop coffee’. The Luwak weasel eats coffee beans and its excrements are used to brew the most expensive coffee in the world. The plantation we visited was family owned and they only collect the Luwak droppings from the forest, rather than other plantations that farm and force-feed the animals. We met their pet Luwaks and a rescued bat as we taste tested various coffees and became a little wiser on the process.
The afternoon consisted of a cat nap and smoothies at Kafe, a homey health-focused coffee shop in Ubud.  We started the day with a magnificent sight so we decided to finish it with a sunset in a quiet place. We returned to the rice paddy fields and followed the guiding streams deeper into the green. Standing in the midst of an oasis we said goodbye to Ubud with the setting sun as our backpacker travels were bringing us to another place in the morning.




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