Bali is clearly not the Bali of old, of the time before Bali was “discovered,” before Balinese women covered their bare breasts, before Ubud became exaggeratedly hip, before skyscraper resorts arose on the beaches. But Bali is still uniquely Bali … Hindu Bali, volcanic Bali, village Bali, sacred Bali, Bali with roads up and down mountainsides and along mountain ridges that rival the incline and hairpin turns of any twisted narrow roadway you have ever travelled on or dreamed of, with statues of gods and goddesses at every road juncture, before every bridge, in front of and inside of every home … all receiving gifts of flowers and incense daily … all a reflection of the genuine spiritual awareness and beliefs of the Balinese who walk with such great grace, their loads balanced on the tops of their heads … or precariously on their motorcycles …or somewhere in their hearts we cannot see.
We rent a car in Denpasar, that being a far less expensive option than hiring drivers and providing us with a much greater range of exploration options, especially since as a practical matter public buses in Bali might as well not exist for short-term travelers. So what if we go around in circles for literal hours trying to get out of Denpasar headed in the right direction toward Sideman … or that we spend hours inching along in mountaintop fog so thick and dense, so obscuring of our vision, that the best we can do is try to follow the faded white line on a wet roadway so occasionally steep that if we pause we cannot proceed up in first gear, the tires spinning madly, but must back down to flatter ground to get a running start. Joy does all the driving.
Sideman is well off the main road, in the mountains, amidst rice terraces and lush forest. From our guesthouse we branch out for day trips, most notably to the Besakih Temple, the most sacred of Hindu temples in all of Bali, which is built on the south slope of Mount Agung, the highest mountain in Bali and still an active volcano, having erupted about fifty years ago killing 2,000 people, its lava flow missing the temple by mere meters, but the spirit of the mountain resting quietly on the day we visit.
The bulk of our time in Sideman is spent taking short walks to swimming holes and across foot bridges over various rivers and on long steep rides up and down mountainsides, the only way to get from village A - with its particular vantage points, rice terraces, and temple(s) - to village B, with its particular vantage points, rice terraces, and temple(s). We happen upon festivals. We join pilgrimage walks. We spend a lot of time just marveling at the scenery, drinking beer or coffee at some roadside stand, trying to talk to the smiling people and admiring their children. We leave Sideman reluctantly.
Our second venue in Bali is at an eco-resort called Village in the Clouds. We set off from Sideman around one P.M. intending to get to Munduk, which we’ve noted on some correspondence or other is where Village in the Clouds is located. I’ve consulted our rudimentary Bali roadmap and found Munduk on the southwest coast, which we judge before setting out to be a five or six hour drive from Sideman at most. We begin our journey first visiting a huge volcanic lake and caldera that is stunningly beautiful (although mostly obscured by clouds), taking the requisite photographs, and then driving along the rim of the crater before heading down to sea level on the north side of the island. It can’t be more than 10 miles as the crow flies from the volcano’s rim to the sea and our plan is to get to Munduk by circumnavigating the island on what looks like a decent flat road along the shoreline. Unexpectedly, driving steadily from the volcano’s ridge to the sea takes us about three hours, not the thirty minutes we anticipated, and once at sea level we find ourselves in a solid line of traffic, still moving very slowly, maybe creeping is more accurate, and when the skies open for the daily late afternoon deluge we pull into a very touristy restaurant and bar right on the beach in Lovina.
During the course of dinner we ask the waiter how long he thinks it will take us to get to Munduk and he asks us to show him where on the map is this Munduk I am referring to. So I show him the Munduk I’m headed towards and he shows me two others. And the light bulb finally goes on, the Munduk where Village in the Clouds is located is not at sea level, and is appropriately named “in the clouds” because it is in the Munduk the waiter has shown us high in the mountains.
Well that saves us a long useless drive we both chide and congratulate ourselves about as we head out toward the Munduk in the mountains on a road that would be immensely challenging under ideal conditions, no less in the dark, in the rain, in thick fog and clouds. And when we do finally reach the village of Munduk we absolutely cannot find Village in the Clouds. We drive passed town up the road. Nothing. We make U-turns that are beyond precarious and drive down the road. Nothing. There are places in the road that when we stop we cannot get traction enough to go forward and must back down in the dark, sometimes with me outside the vehicle calling wheel turning directions to Joy who is backing up blind until a flat enough section of road is found to get enough traction to reestablish our uphill climb. We see no open stores, no open restaurants, nothing but shuttered houses. And when we do by good fortune come upon one tiny open shop selling cigarettes, soda, water, and bananas I get out to try to explain what we are looking for to the owner. “Village in the Clouds” I say, drawing the words out slowly and forming the shape in the air with my arms of the A-frame houses we expect to find there. And the shopkeeper says to me with a heavy accent but in absolutely perfect English, “I know every resort and accommodation in this village and on this road. I am a tour guide. What you are looking for is not here. Don’t you have a cell phone and the phone number?”
Well, yes, I tell my newly found guardian angel, we do have a cell phone and even a phone number but we have not been able to get through on it. “Here, perhaps you can give me the number and I will try on my phone,” the guide says. And just like that, in mere moments, he and I are talking with the owner of Village in the Clouds, who also speaks beautiful English, and explains to us that “munduk” means hill in Balinese and that the resort is a solid hour away. The guide urges us to go no further up into the mountains. It’s 11:00 P.M. The roads are precipitous in the daytime under clear skies. We have not reached the peak. Traversing it will be dangerous. Guesthouses are available nearby where we can stay and leave in the morning.
But such is simply not our way. Joy and I are in complete agreement on this as on so much else this trip and we take leave of our guide offering him our gratitude … and money for his time and phone minutes, which he refuses. “It was my destiny to help you,” he says. “I will call in ninety minutes to make sure you have gotten there.” Which he does, and which we have not given our speed, cautions, and a few wrong turns, although we do finally arrive at Village in the Clouds, where we are greeted by Josep, the co-owner, at about 1:00 A.M., hugged, told that our “friend” from Munduk has been calling concerned for us, and guided by Josep to our architecturally beautifully designed and fantastically located A frame. We’ve been driving on the road other than the dinner break for twelve hours. Joy has done all the driving.
Village in the Clouds
Village in the Clouds is truly a unique venue and very much the love child of Josep Triay, world class ultra-marathoner and son of Majorca, Spain. Originally conceived as a retreat by a wealthy Chinese merchant from Denpasar, a top Balinese architect has designed the buildings that sit high on a mountain overlooking valleys and rice terraces and from where on a clear day you can see the ocean about fifty miles away. The resort is very high end and can only accommodate about sixteen to twenty people when fully occupied. During the time we are stay there we see only two other overnight guests, lovely forty-year old women, also from Spain. The food is fantastic. The setting is fantastic. We walk to small shrines deep in the mountains. We try to walk to visit a popular hot spring but get completely lost and end up riding without helmets on the backs of motorcycles to get there and whose owners take us through village after lovely village to see UNESCO recognized rice terraces that are truly stunningly beautiful. We ride the bikes for a couple of hours. We pay the drivers five dollars each and they kiss our hands in gratitude.
Josep also runs a “Freedom School,” where village children are offered English classes with a Spanish accent, a few random other subjects, and Balinese dance. We visit the Balinese dance class, which Joy joins in. It is lovely to see young boys and girls separately learning the highly stylized dance footwork, hand and finger gestures, eye and head movements, and facial expressions.
On our last evening at Clouds before dinner I offer a yoga class that Joy, Josep, and the two women attend. Afterwards we all dine together. As with every meal at Clouds the food is fresh and this evening good wine is flowing and post dinner conversation is warm, candid, passionate and political. Josep suggest we have breakfast together as well. His mother has mailed him homemade Majorcan olives and prosciutto and he will instruct his Balinese staff to produce a classic Majorcan breakfast. I cannot begin to describe how delicious it was.
And this is the way it happens for us in Bali, a cornucopia of good fortune. Still, we take our heartfelt leave of Josep, Marisa, and Assun and head toward Pentestan, the village next to Ubud, where we will be staying at the guesthouse run by Karja Wayan, a renowned Balinese artist who has studied in Tampa and who has even visited Boston and the Cape. On our way to Ubud we stop at a spectacular botanical gardens (turn left at the big corn statue – no really, a big ear of corn statue in middle of road, twelve feet high and proportional) and also buy orchid cuttings that travel in a plastic bag through customs in New Guinea, the Philippines, and California and are growing now in my kitchen.
Naturally we have no idea how to find the guesthouse we have booked in Ubud, but this too has been our way in Bali, and so far, other than the fact we are from time to time truly lost, each wrong turn has brought us more pleasure and delight than the last. That Joy and I travel so well together is a gift and I cannot imagine any other person who I could be so lost with, so disoriented and even truly stuck with on a occasions, who I would feel more comfortable and less anxious with than Joy. Besides, Joy is immensely strong, reasonably prudent, mostly fully aware, AND she does eighty percent of the navigating and all of the driving.
Once we’ve arrived in Penestanan and gotten a general sense of where our guesthouse is we leave the car, grab all of our luggage, computers, electrical equipment, and Joy’s travel guitar, and head a kilometer up and down narrow paths that no car can traverse to the guesthouse.
It’s truly a jungle here, no longer in the breezy mountains, one degree of latitude off the equator, sweat pouring off us, rain falling sporadically but hard, the vegetation teeming, hanging, crawling, covering, rising up united in its patent desire to conquer every square inch of ground, air, sunlight, soil, and dead branch that will support it. Plants grow in the moist air itself, floating like feathers, twisted and twirling, embracing space with arms spread wide, wrapped in love as it were, with life, and with the desire to manifest themselves.
The guesthouse, however, is drab, stale, darkly moist, and covered with green lichen. The stones in the flooring are loose beneath our feet. The lights are not working. The housekeeper cannot find our reservation. There are no empty rooms. The owner’s wife appears. We are served coffee. Karja himself is found and arrives to deal with the situation. He keeps guesthouse reservation records in his computer. His lovely wife - who is not computer savvy - keeps parallel records in a wet and wrinkled guestbook. Karja has been living in town, away from his wife and the guesthouse, because it has been more comfortable that way given the emotional difficulties their twenty one year old son has been having, something Karja and his wife are very open with us about, some form of bipolar disorder, some rage filled possession by demons and ancient priests commanding the son in ways that frighten and confuse him. The family has consulted the local shaman and healer, who has advised that the son quit graduate school and let the past inhabit him, to go with the flow as it were, unafraid. The boy has moved out, taken his father’s car, apparently gone to Denpasar. His parents are hopeful and concerned. Who wouldn’t be?
But back to the matter of our accommodations. The wife has rented out our room. There are no rooms otherwise available here. It has grown dark. The mosquitoes are out. Karja has a brother. The brother also runs a guesthouse. It is behind the supermarket in town. We can stay there. Karja’s one-eyed father will go with us, show us where the guesthouse is. Everything has been taken care of. So we again load up all of our luggage, computers, electrical equipment, and Joy’s travel guitar, and head a kilometer up and down narrow paths to the car. Karja’s father sits in the back seat and points left and right. We get to the supermarket. The father finds the brother who leads us down a set of narrow steps, up a set of narrow steps, down a dark shoulder wide path between concrete walls, up steps, down steps, using our camera flashlight apps to help guide us, we walk and walk, over tiny bridges and flat stones, ultimately arriving in a compound bordered by wet and swampy rice paddies and a free standing two story home with a living room, fully equipped kitchen, stove, refrigerator, downstairs bedroom, upstairs bedroom, working fans, mosquito netting, hot and cold running water, and a veranda. It is silent but for the chirping of frogs and other creatures of the night, the moon emerges from the clouds before the rains begin again. We are in the most private and beautiful of settings that we could ever imagine, paradise in Penestanan. The guides have spoken.
In the morning we walk into Ubud, which takes about thirty minutes. There is no place on earth like it, Provincetown on steroids with temples in a sauna, Polo shops, upscale restaurants, health food stores, aged hippies, the last of the beat generation, long hairs, scantily clad western men and women, tourists from every corner of the globe, gift shops, art shops, junk shops, massage parlors, gelato shops, yoga studios, crowds, traffic, coffee shops, my god even a Starbucks, and all somehow with a Balinese flair. Not somewhere we want to hang out in for long, although the restaurants are actually good, we see two separate Balinese dance troupes, one of which Joy dance’s with, I have the video to prove it, the Blanco Museum, the monkey temple. Entertainment. But the real surprise and real pleasure of Ubud for us is in the outlying neighborhoods, of car-free lanes, small outdoor indigenous restaurants, quaint guesthouses, immense quiet, beautiful vegetation and stone work, running irrigation ditches, and, of course, our little palace, which we stock with beer, wine, cheese and crackers and where I can comfortably write and do yoga under the mosquito netting and Joy can play her guitar.