Feeling only a little less homesick for The Land Down Under after a couple of restful days on the south coast of Bali, I’m headed inland toward the mountains and the quaint village of Ubud. My car and driver were recommended to me by my B & B hosts in Darwin, who also said I should be able to get almost anywhere at all on the small island of Bali for about thirty dollars. The skyline, as we make our way out of the remarkably dense traffic in Denpasar, is punctuated in almost any direction by one of the islands three volcanoes. The road to Ubud takes us along the shadow of Mount Kintamani to the east. Ubud nestles in the mountains between Mount Batur – you can rent a bike and ride down it’s gentle slopes – and Mount Agung, the most active of Bali’s volcanoes. The most recent eruption in 1963 deforested a large chunk of the countryside and caught about twelve hundred unfortunate souls in its path. Setting aside any thought of the statistical probability of another eruption occurring over the next few days, I manage to completely enjoy the adventure of driving through villages and past rice paddies, as we leave the densely populated coast and head into the jungle-covered mountains.
The road takes us through a number of small villages where the skills of local crafts people are evident in roadside stalls. Large wood statues, masks, carved doors, plaques and intricately carved wooden deities signify we are in an area of woodworkers while in the next village stacks of carved blocks, ornate clay pots in every possible size and style, and the ubiquitous deities cast in red clay or concrete denote a community established around pottery and formwork. I was happy to stretch my legs at a shop in an area known for its silver work and to demonstrate the good manners that we Canadians are known for, I obligingly purchased several pairs of gemstone earrings beautifully set in silver. Lovely. I was overly grateful to my driver for refusing any compensation for his waiting time, while I wandered between showcases of sparkly things but as it turns out drivers get a share from road side vendors – about a ten percent commission on any purchases made by their passengers – so he did alright after all.
Driver Ray indulges my curiosity about daily life for native Balinese with a stop at the home of ‘a friend’ who for a few dollars was happy to let me wander through the family compound. We enter through a narrow opening in the high concrete walls that shelter the family from the increasingly busy main road.
Several generations live in the group of small buildings that includes a separate thatch-roofed hut for cooking, and sleeping and living huts for each generation. Prayers and offerings are made in the walled garden and shrine at the back of the compound.
Later in this adventure, when I would try to make a traditional western Christmas dinner with all the trimmings materialize using only two pots, I would think fondly of this well-equipped kitchen.
It’s not all as Elysian as one might expect of Bali. The boom in tourism is stressing infrastructure and resources and potable water is becoming more challenging. This ancient well, now depleted has been replaced by a more modern convenience but generally well water is used for washing and cooking, but not for drinking water which must be piped in.
Bali, and especially the Ubud area are known for their beautiful terraced rice paddies, some of which are designated UNESCO sites to preserve centuries-old traditions. Tour companies offer a plethora of options for seeing Bali, including “Rice Paddy Trekking Tours”. The glowering clouds foreshadow the welcome that awaited me when we arrived at my mountain retreat.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts how pleased I’ve been with the bookings I made online, seemingly ages ago now, sitting at my desk on the other side of the planet. I do recall thinking, as I hit the ‘Confirm’ button for my stay at Alum Indah, that it would be either a very good or a very bad choice. For the record, if I am ever stranded anywhere on the planet for an indefinite period of time I would really like it to be here. The crashing downpour that welcomes my arrival only adds to the sense of remoteness as I make my way up the narrow, wet stairs to the warm smiles of my sari’d hosts in this Garden of Eden. I’m soon ensconced in my totally exotic villa and feeling cocooned in my own personal Shangri La.
The rain came down in sheets while I settled in, ordered lunch and completely enjoyed the view from my beautiful terrace. My mother always said, as she shoved her five rambunctious kids out the door on a rainy Vancouver day so she could eke out a few precious moments of peace, “A little water never hurt anybody!” I guess it didn’t. I felt I could spend the rest of my life here writing the next Great Canadian Novel, listening to the cacophony of forest sounds as the heavens open up, and watching billowing purple clouds sail over the shiny, green peaks.
In a climate like this room service takes on a whole new importance – especially when it’s delivered by a smiling, barefooted chap with an umbrella. I’m starting to be very attracted to the idea of living someplace where you might never need to wear shoes.
Alam Indah means ‘beautiful nature’ and in addition to its natural beauty great care has been taken to ensure that every step is a work of art. The resort is family-owned, one of a group of one-with-nature properties on the fringes of Ubud’s famous Sacred Monkey Forest.
Up here in the hills it’s overcast much of the time, with massive clouds of mist rolling up from the valley floor but it’s still warm enough to take my book and sit poolside. And what a pool it is – a splash of cool aquamarine carved into the hillside beneath terraces of beautiful plants and flowers, overlooking the lush jungle below.
A short stroll along this path from the Alum Indah took me into The Sacred Monkey Forest.
There are said to be more than 115 different species of trees in this forest, some of which are considered holy and are used only to build shrines or in cremation ceremonies. The forest itself is considered sacred ground and with the diversity easily evident here it’s no wonder that the Balinese consider the forest an important site to preserving contact with the spiritual world.
I was soon joined on my walk by this cheeky fellow – one of some 340 Macaques who call the forest home and who have their own special way of welcoming visitors. I had been warned to come empty-handed. No hostess gift of food or trinket required. In fact, if you happened into the neighbourhood with anything resembling food you would soon find yourself with a furry critter hanging from your shoulder, digging through your pockets to find the treasure. As I strolled through I watched a large Macaque leap onto the head of a young woman who was carrying a banana, wrapping his tail around her pony-tail while he reached in front of her to grab the banana from her hand. Her response was predictable.
There are several groups of monkeys in this reserve, each staking out their own territory within the park. Do all of these look real to you?
Some 10,000 visitors come through here every month and I found it hard to believe that even this spectacularly beautiful and sacred place is littered with empty water bottles. This local woman walks through several times a day collecting them. While the effort may return a few cents a bottle this is a labour of love for the woman who is quick to express her disgust at the lack of respect for her country shown by some visitors. In a brief chat I assured her that it was nothing personal and that for some unfathomable reason leaving empty water bottles all over the planet seems to be a global epidemic and not only practiced in Paradise. I don’t think it made her feel much better.
Nature talks take place in this central plaza within the park, and musical groups set up form time to time to play traditional music. There is a form of music in Bali called kecak which mimics the call of monkeys. I’m thinking of taking it up. I remembered visiting the Vancouver Zoo with my parents as a girl, and for some reason that completely escapes me I parked myself in front of a cage of monkeys and proceeded to whoop whoop for all I was worth. The response from the dozen or so primates was immediate and very loud, such that within a few minutes quite a crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was. I unself-consciously carried on a robust conversation with the whole whooping gang for some minutes before running out of steam or more likely, reacting to all the attention. Years later, usually when we had company for dinner, one or the other of my parents would take great pleasure from my embarrassment as they re-counted the incident, typically followed by a request for me to demonstrate my whooping talents to our guests. Right.
The fellow in green is a park attendant and if you look closely you’ll see that he’s armed with a sling shot. Several of these folks wander the park every day and the sling shot is a harmless way to deter those macaques who get too excited at the prospect of a hostess gift.
The small cemetery within the park boundaries is a temporary stopping place. Cremation is the traditional rite after a passing in Bali but the cost of a cremation ceremony can be as high as a year’s income for some families. So they so will bury the remains of a loved one in a cemetery like this until they have saved enough money and then they’ll exhume the body for cremation.
I have just arrived back from my walk through the Sacred Monkey Forest when the skies open up and I am happily stranded like Robinson Crusoe on the island of my colourful terrace. The noise of the huge wall of water hitting the ground is almost deafening and I can still hear the hooting of two kids from the neighbouring villa standing out in the downpour, barefoot and soaked, their arms outspread and heads tilted back with their mouths gaping open to let the (toxic?) rainwater run down their throats. Bliss.
I’m happy at the thought that this drenching might be a daily occurrence and I make a note to myself that – having abandoned my small travel umbrella somewhere in the parched Red Desert of Australia – when I visit the delightful town of Ubud tomorrow I will make an effort to be back at the Indah of Alum before the first crash of thunder. Stay tuned!