Rice paddies, temples and macro diving
25.06.2008 - 18.07.2008 30 °C
In Bali, we headed to Ubud and based ourselves there for a while. Ubud is a town located part way up the slopes of the central mountains of Bali. The focus here is on Balinese culture, rather than the party scene on the beaches in the south, and so we figures it would be more chilled out. And Ubud turned out to be a great choice - it is a relaxed smallish town, with lots of great restaurants, spas and so many art shops that it becomes ridiculous.
We found a good little hotel, for $10 a day we got a large, clean room, with hot water, and a bathtub - pure luxury after Flores and other places we have been lately. We then rented a motorbike, and drove around on little daytrips, to the numerous temples and other sights surrounding Ubud. It was lovely to drive through the little villages, to see the real people of Bali, and to see the lush green landscape of rice paddies, banana palms and flowering frangipani trees. Truly a fertile place is Bali.
We visited villages that produce different handicrafts - silver, woodcarving, stone carving, even wind chimes. We also saw a plethora of Hindu temples. Even though no specific temple stood out as fantastic in itself - there is nothing as grandiose as Borobodur here - seeing each added a part to the puzzle that is Balinese Hinduism. Certainly a very different religion to the Indian Hinduism, with spirits everywhere - in fact, there seems to be more temples on this island that there are houses (not kidding). We saw caves inhabited by bats, huge shrines carved into the mountain side, a forest inhabited by monkeys, and freshwater springs bubbling up from the volcanic underground - each of which had been turned into a temple and a place of worship. The colourful nature of the worship here also added to the beauty - you have to wear a temple sarong and sash to enter - and the locals seem to really dress up for the occasion, with beautiful fabrics and hats. They also bring offerings to the temple, in the form of incense, fruit, rice and cakes, carried in woven baskets - or on special occasions stacked up in elaborate towers, which the women carry on their heads. These towers are even often topped with a whole fried chicken - fantastic.
This colourful interpretation of Hinduism (which is already colourful in itself) added another nuance to my feeling of Indonesia. I came to Indonesia expecting a Muslim country - I mean, isn’t it often given the title of being the most populous Muslim country in the world? (I may be mistaken, but I believe I have heard that said). And indeed, there were many Muslims in Java where we started out, and we have certainly been woken at 4.30 am by the call to prayer more that once so far - but it does not seem particularly strict - I have not seen many headscarves at all, and not a single woman in burka so far. Perhaps the western part is more strict, I don’t know. What is becoming clear (and I guess it should have been obvious) is that Indonesia is so much more that its title implies. We have now travelled through (predominantly) Protestant Timor, Catholic Flores, Muslim Lombok and Hindu Bali - and each has its very own flavour and feel - there are certain common denominators, but also many, many differences - and I am really enjoying experiencing these differences.
Staying in Ubud, and doing our little daytrips, we really came to enjoy Bali. I will admit, we were highly sceptical. We expected some horrific tourist trap, full of partying Australians on two week holidays and airhead surfers (no offense J). But again, we had to correct our misconceptions. Bali is amazing, with lots of personality and culture that has not been destroyed by the high level of tourism. It combines the conveniences of a high degree of tourism (infrastructure, lots of hotels and restaurants, western toilets etc) with lots of charm and character.
The food in Bali was also great and interesting. We gorged ourselves on crispy duck and on the lunch special babi guling (whole roast suckling pig stuffed with spices). Babi guling in particular was fantastic!
And then, being in convenient Ubud full of choice, we detoxed from all the pork by having veggie days, drinking health juices and smoothies (even wheat grass juice is available), eating veggie soups, salads and sandwiches, and enjoying the beautiful green surroundings of Ubud.
We went on an overnight driving trip on the rented motorbike, leaving our stuff on the room in Ubud and bringing along only a small pack. We drove from Ubud up to the central mountains of Bali, to the area around … It was an exceptionally beautiful region, with lakes and forests covering the mountainsides, and with lots of coffee plantations. We stopped in a coffee house, expecting to be able to sample the different beans, but were disappointed to discover they served only two types of coffee: Bali coffee or Nescafe. What the Hell? The good stuff must get exported I guess - or drunk by tourists down in Kuta - clearly not here. We spent the night in Lovina, on the north coast of Bali, and then drove down the whole east coast the next day, through the Tulamben area, and then back into the hills at Ubud. This eastern coast was very different to the rest of Bali - it is dominated by the huge volcano Gunung Agung, which last had a large eruption in 1963. Because all the rain is squeezed out of the clouds as they pass this volcano, this narrow strip of land between the volcano and the ocean get very little precipitation. It is therefore dry and rugged - with sharp black rocks jutting out into the crashing waves. We stopped at a hotel and diveshop called Liberty, in Tulamben, and found out that most of the diving there is done from the shore. As a result we could simply rent cylinders - which they do for $10 dollars for the first of the day and $5 for any subsequent ones. We thus decided to move up here to do some diving, and booked a room for the following day.
On the 7th of July, we moved to Tulamben and started diving straight away. The entry from the shore was made difficult by the fact that the beach here is made of (slippery!) black pebbles, and the waves can sometimes come crashing in with some force. The first dive went OK, I only slipped and bruised myself slightly. On the second try however, I fell over and could not get up, and I was thrown around on the pebbles and rocks by the waves for five minutes like an idiot. When Alan tried to save me, he even fell over. Not a great success, and like a fool I managed to loose one of my fins to the waves. Shit - and I only just bought those after the mishap in Tubbataha. After that, I realised that entering the water with the fins on was a terrible idea - and once we tried walking in and putting the fins on afterwards, it became a bit easier.
The wreck here, Liberty Wreck, is the most famous dive site in Bali. And it shows. We could manage to dive it in the early morning, before 8 am, but after that hordes of divers would descend from other parts of Bali, and it became too crowded for our taste. It is not much of a wreck anyway, although there is a decent amount of fish life around. We were here for the macro stuff though, as we had picked up the missing part for Alan’s housing, and he was eager to give his little-used macro lens some exercise. The best site for that, we discovered, was a place called Scuba Seraya. Located straight in front on the resort of the same name, it was basically black sand and rocks, with patchy coral, and even a small artificial reef set out by the resort. At first glance, it all looked pretty boring - there did not seem to be much there. But when we looked closer, over several dives, we found lots of great little critters there, and Alan took some great shots.
Alan wants to add some comments of his own to the Tulamben story:
Tilde managed to spot the smallest critters, she even earned a new name: “eagle-eye Nielsson” as most of the critters were smaller than 1cm - the lens and I were put to the test!
After seven days of diving we decided to call it a day. I got what I wanted; a shot of a pygmy sea horse This one was male and his name was George. George was thinking of having a sex change operation in the next few months, but he has very happy when I explained to him that if he waits a few years, he will naturally change sex. With this, Georgina, aka George, thanked us and asked us round to his place for dinner and drinks. He was very happy with the fact that we saved him some money on the sex change operation, and I was still in shock to learn that an unscrupulous sex change sea horse doctor works in the Tulamben community ……PYGMY SEA HORSES BE WARNED!
OK, back to the blog. After Tulamben, we returned to Ubud to witness a royal cremation set to take place on July the 15th. Supposedly, it is some sort of record breaking number of people being cremated at once. The people from Ubud, as well as surrounding villages, spent weeks building and decorating the figures and towers which would take part in the procession on the day of the cremation - mostly out of bamboo, paper and paper Mache. Apparently, they only cremate people in Ubud every 3-5 years, and because a member of the royal family, who pasted away in March this year, was due to be cremated, lots of other families took this opportunity to also have their deceased family members cremated - some of which had died 3 or 4 years ago, and were exhumed for the ceremony.
On the day, the city was packed with people, both locals and tourists, all lining the route of the procession. The floats and towers were all transferred onto huge bamboo frames, and then carried by a vary large number of “pall bearers” - by hand - to the cremation site. There were some enormous bulls towering over the men carrying them, and the main tower, which carried the body of the royal guy from the palace to the cremation site, was maybe over 25 meters tall - it was taller than all the buildings in Ubud. It must have weighed at least a tonne. The men would lift it, and then carry it along running in short bursts of speed, before they had to put it back down. Along the route, there were groups of other pall bearers lined up to take over, like a huge relay race. All in all, an amazing feat of organization. At the same time, everything was delicately decorated with coloured paper and fabric, as well as gold leaf. Everyone, including us, were dressed up in temple sarongs and sashes, and the women had their hair up in elaborate hair styles. Eventually, the tower with the royal uncle’s remains made it to the cremation site, here he was transferred via a huge bamboo ramp, to the inside of one of the massive black bulls. Then a ceremony was performed, burning incence and spraying holy water. All the offerings - coins, fabrics, foods, flowers etc, were loaded into and around the bull. All the relatives climbed the ramp to pay their respects. When this was done, the bulls were set on fire. Due to the materials they were constructed with - bamboo, paper, papier mache, string and polystyrene, the fire was huge and swift. The flames lit up the surroundings, as the sun had set in the meantime, and everything turned golden as if lit from within. Altogether a very interesting experience, and we were told by a local we were very lucky to have been here, for what he termed “the best cremation ever”.
After this lovely time in Bali and in Indonesia, we will be heading back to Singapore tomorrow night (the 17th). After a brief stop there, its back to India - watch this space for news from there soon!