Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Steamy Tropical Paradise of Bali

Day 119: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
My flight to Bali this past Monday went smoothly and quickly. In the Johannesburg airport, I bought my bible for the next few months, Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and I spent most of my flight researching Indonesia. I've never been able to sleep well on planes, so I figured I would make good use of my time. Every once in a while, I glanced at our real-time path on the screen in front of me. We crossed over Madagascar and the vast Indian Ocean, and before I knew it, we were over Sumatra and it was early on Tuesday morning. I had a layover in Kuala Lumpur, where I took advantage of the airport's free wi-fi and caught up on email. When I landed in Bali, I had to get an Indonesian visa. I headed to the payment counter, but they would only accept cash. I had used up the last of my U.S. dollars months ago, and I obviously didn't have any Indonesia rupiah, as my plane had just arrived. It must be a common conundrum, as the woman at the payment counter told me to give my passport to an immigration officer, who would hold onto it while I withdrew money from the ATM. I had to cross back through immigration, where I could finally pay for my visa and get my passport stamped. If this is such a common problem, wouldn't it be easier to put the ATM before immigration?

When I walked out of the air-conditioned airport, the stifling, sticky heat almost took my breath away. Maybe it was a shock because I had just come from the South African winter, but I think it may be the most humid climate I've ever experienced. The temperature wasn't terribly hot, but I was sweating from pores that I don't think have ever sweated before. My task was to find a taxi. I walked past the endless gauntlet of hawkers asking me if I needed transport – taxis directly outside airports are always expensive. I continued past the parking lot and into the street. I haggled with a few taxi drivers, but the price was still too much. I finally chose a minibus packed with school children. It wasn't the most comfortable-looking vehicle, but it was the cheapest ride I could find – about half the price of the taxis in front of the airport terminal. The open windows (and door!) of the minibus let in a breeze, which alleviated the sweltering humidity. As we made stop after stop through Kuta and the main city of Denpasar, children hopped on and off the vehicle, some hanging out of the open door as we rode through the crowded streets. An old woman in a traditional conical hat stepped onto the bus, and she placed a large basket of fruit on the floor. An older boy started a conversation with me, but his English was very basic, and we both ended up repeating the same things over and over, trying to forge a basic human bond by smiling and nodding. I don't think he ever understood my answers to his questions; I felt like we were having two totally different conversations. Still, it was much more interesting to travel with the locals than in an air-conditioned private taxi.

We passed through manic streets lined with narrow canals, ornate Hindu temples, a rainbow of colorful hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and countless small shops. The road was packed with thousands of loud motorbikes, taxis, and schoolgirls on bicycles. Some of the ubiquitous motorbikes were even driven by boys and girls not more than twelve years old. The smell of exhaust, incense, and Indonesian noodle dishes swirled through the air. The passengers departed the minibus one by one, and soon I was the only one left. I was traveling all the way to the town of Ubud, an hour and a half away. The frantic streets of Denpasar slowly thinned out, and I began to see glimpses of rice terraces between the ever-sparser buildings lining the road. Soon, there were larger rice terraces punctuated by patches of jungle.

Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
We arrived in Ubud, and the driver dropped me off at what he said was my guesthouse (cheap hotel). There was no sign for Jati Home Stay, but he seemed sure that this was the place and even pointed in the direction of reception. I gathered my bags, and he drove off. Unsurprisingly, this was not Jati Home Stay. I asked several people to make sure, and they all consistently pointed in the same direction down the road. I fastened my big pack on my back, threw my daypack over my shoulder, and started walking along the narrow, buckled sidewalk. Ubud is considered the center of Balinese culture, and art galleries, shops, bohemian cafés, and temples lined the road. I finally spotted the sign for Jati Home Stay after half an hour, and I was pouring sweat in an embarrassing amount when I wandered along the narrow walled passage into the compound. Inside was a temple, an artist studio, a laundry facility, and a small canal-like pond surrounding the outdoor reception area. Cued by the flip-flops lining the mat, I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the covered patio. I received my key and walked up the nearby steps to my basic room. I dropped my bags on the floor and immediately took a long, cold shower. When I was refreshed, I opened the curtains – there was a quaint view of a small rice paddy in the back of the compound.

I relaxed the rest of the afternoon until dinnertime, when I ventured out onto the main street in front of my guesthouse to browse the numerous restaurants. I decided on a restaurant and sat down at a table on the street-front patio. As motorbikes whizzed past, I dined on a generous portion of excellent chicken curry that was only $2. The spicy meal made me sweat even more in the sweltering night, but a banana dessert with honey and ice cream cooled me down. Not having slept for well over 30 hours – since Sunday night in Johannesburg – I crashed for a dreamless 12 hours in my nice, soft bed. The tiny ants that infested the room tickled my arms and legs, but I was so tired that I couldn't care less.

Restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A cozy restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I spent the next five days in Ubud relaxing and catching up on my blog entries and photos from Africa. I was in dire need of some down time since every single day for the past four months has been packed with activities. I've been enjoying the great Indonesian food at the cheap restaurants here: satay chicken, nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles). I've had some excellent chai tea, and my new favorite dessert is bubur injin, a sweet Balinese black rice pudding. The black sludge may not look very appetizing, but it tastes incredible. I've become immune to the ubiquitous offers of "transport?" that guys with motorbikes constantly shout when I walk down the street. I wake up every morning to the sound of sweeping right outside the thin walls of my room. The Balinese seem quite obsessed with having clean walkways, which certainly isn't a bad thing.

I've been updating my blog from a nearby internet café that has cheap wi-fi. One evening, I walked into the place after dinner, and the wi-fi was not working. I asked the girl at the counter if there was another internet café nearby. She smiled and nodded, but she didn't elaborate. I asked her where the other internet café was located, and she just shrugged, smiling politely the entire time. As in Africa, people here in Indonesia don't like to give a negative answer to any question, so they usually reply "yes" even if they don't understand the question.

Macaque monkey in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A macaque monkey eats a snack in the Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana ("Monkey Forest") in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Thursday, I walked to the nearby Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana, a jungle with a few temples and other holy places hidden among the trees. The hundreds of cheeky macaque monkeys living there give the place its better-known name of "Monkey Forest". Vendors sell bananas to tourists brave enough to feed the monkeys, but in my opinion this just makes their thieving behavior worse. One tourist walked in, pulled out a banana, and was practically mauled by six monkeys that actually jumped on his back. They will snatch anything shiny or dangling too – earrings, sunglasses, dresses. It puzzles me that many of these tourists want their picture with the monkeys, but yet they are terrified of the creatures and end up looking incredibly awkward and scared in their photos. Some people end up losing jewelry or other things to the monkeys, but they are asking for it if they stand right beside a monkey with their back to the animal.

I had enough of the sneaky monkeys, so I walked out to the main street of Ubud, where I started browsing around a market. It started pouring down rain – as it has been periodically since I've been in Bali – so I ducked underneath a covered portion of the market and was stranded there for a while before the rain let up a bit. It was still raining, though, and luckily I was prepared to walk in the downpour – a lesson I learned the hard way in Africa.

Market in the rain, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A torrential downpour soaks a market in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I put on my poncho, wrapped a plastic bag around my backpack, and trudged through the soggy streets back to my guesthouse. Unfortunately, ankle-deep muddy water was rushing across the road just outside the market. I walked carefully through the flood, making sure not to slip on the slick tile of the sidewalk underneath the running water. I had a cut on my foot, and I disinfected it as soon as I got back to my room – who knows where that filthy water was coming from?

Friday night, I awoke to a scratching sound about two o'clock in the morning. I scoured the room trying to identify the source of the noise, leery of what I might find. I finally discovered that the sound was coming from behind the rattan wardrobe, so I carefully pulled it away from the wall, stepped back, and waited for something to crawl out. Nothing did, so I pulled it out some more and waited again. Nothing. I leaned my head against the wall to look behind the piece of furniture, and a huge rat poked its head out from a ledge on the back of the wardrobe. All of a sudden, the rodent jumped down and ran towards me along the wall. Startled, I screamed, probably waking my neighbors. By this point, I was wide awake. I turned on all the lights and searched the room for the rat. I saw it scurry along the wall once again, but I couldn't find it under any of the furniture after a thorough search, so I assumed that it must have left the room through a crack. I soon gave up the search and tried to sleep, hoping that the rodent wouldn't find its way onto my bed if it was still in the room.

The next morning, I checked out of Jati Home Stay. Not because of the rat – I think camping in Africa must have hardened me to vermin – but because they were booked solid. I had been extending my stay day-to-day because I didn't know how long I wanted to remain in Ubud. I walked a block down the street, found another guesthouse, and booked a room within 10 minutes – for a cheaper rate than Jati. It's so easy to find a cheap place to stay in Bali that there is really no reason to book ahead. This new place was $12 per night. It had a few geckos crawling on the walls, but they eat mosquitoes and other insects, so I don't mind the cute lizards. There was also some loud construction work right outside the room, but earplugs solved that problem.

Tomorrow, I'm leaving Ubud and heading down to Kuta, Bali's main tourist hub, to see some friends that traveled with me on the Oasis trip in Africa. Although I've enjoyed the tranquil setting of Ubud, I suppose it's time for me to explore another corner of Bali.

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