Saturday, January 2, 2016

Country #100: Bali, baby!!

December 21, 2015: the day I officially hit my 100th country. Or more accurately put, the evening I landed in Denpasar airport and ticked Indonesia off my list. I'll confess I hadn't really set my mind on any one country as my milestone destination, instead I'd left it up to chance. Well, chance had come through like a champ. I would now be celebrating both Xmas and my first foray into triple-digits on the idyllic island of Bali.

I arrived late at night to find a driver waiting to take me on the one hour drive to Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali.  He was a member of the family that owns the Depa Guest House, my home for the next five days.  These people were amazingly warm and gracious.  They were accommodating beyond belief, which made my entry into their peaceful little complex even more disturbing.

Although it was well past 1am, the owner, a kind, large man who always had a smile on his face, came to my bungalow to greet me and offer refreshments.  He showed me around my room, we chatted briefly and he agreed to help me make plans in the morning.  The second he left, I shut the door, took off my shoes and out of the corner of my eye saw the worst thing I could possibly see.  A roach had just run across my room.  Now, and I can not stress this enough- this place was spotless.  A guy I met who had been staying there for a month had never seen a single roach.  It is likely that the offending beast had hitched a ride in my bag from Malaysia, so this was in no way the fault of the Waya family. Yet, this was not a moment for reasoned thought.

I freaked the fuck out.  I ran into the common area and screamed for him to return, which he did and promptly started diving around the room trying to catch the demon bug. In the midst of this commotion, his wife woke up and was now in my doorway . Seeing my frenzied state, she kept repeating "not dangerous, not poisonous" because who in their right mind would be having such a freakout if they knew that this was essentially a harmless insect. Never mind that in the past 48 hours, I had been in close contact with scorpions and pit vipers, this was a time for all out panic.  At one point, the roach, who despite Mr. Waya's best efforts had eluded him, ran behind a dresser. Mrs. Waya then ran for some bug spray to smoke him out, which it did but when he exited, I am 98% certain that he was about to take flight.  The missing 2% are due to the fact that I screamed "Sweet Jesus!!  Now it's fucking flying!!" before I turned around and ran into the bathroom, locking the door behind me.  I remained there until there was a knock on the door and a concerned voice telling me "It is ok, you can come out now."  The look on their faces said "Are we really going to have this lunatic in our home for the next five days?" but instead they tried to reassure me and show that Mr. Waya had the roach in his hands and would be removing him from my room.  Cue freak out #2: the re-freakening.  "Get him out! Get him out!!  Out!!!!!!"

These were the same people who, come morning were there to greet me with a wonderful homemade breakfast delivered right to my door. By now, I'd had a chance to look around and see how truly beautiful my surroundings were.  I was mortified by my entrance and tried to apologize but they brushed it off as if dealing with the unhinged was the most natural thing for them.

I asked them about setting up a tour to some of the nearby temples and before I had finished eating, I had an itinerary and a scheduled pick up time.  I also had a new outfit.  In order to get into most of the temples, both men and women must wear a sarong. Mrs. Waya saw to it that I would be styling by wrapping me in one of hers, along with a lovely silk belt and lace button-up shirt.

Our first stop was Goa Gajah, also known as the Elephant Cave Temple.  It is a 9th century archaeological site built along the confluence of two rivers and is still an active Buddhist temple.

We didn't have a guide with us.  The driver would just point towards where we could purchase tickets and give us a meeting point, which considering the all day tour was only $13 per person, seemed fair. As nice as it would have been to have more information about this and the other temples, the truth is I would eventually have forgotten most of it, so just walking around and taking in the zen vibe that permeated the surroundings was more than enough for me.

The same can be said for the entire city of Ubud.  If you want to party, you stay in Kuta, if you own a yoga mat or want to visits temples, you come here.  Everyone in Ubud is so centered and peaceful, it is practically contagious.  I thought of joining the ommmmm'ers. I have done some yoga at home and am flexible enough but I am nowhere near the skill level of someone who would actually google the phrase "yoga retreat" and then follow through with it.  Still, just by virtue of being around them, on more than one occasion, I heard the word "Namaste" come out of my mouth.  

Our next stop on the tour was to Gunung Kawi, which I believe translates to Temple of Many Steps (aka No Fattys).  You begin at the top of a hill and work your way down the 270 steps to the river valley until you reach a series of shrines carved into the rock face.  According to wikipedia, these are dedicated to King Anak Wungsu and his favorite queens.  Rumor has it the less favored queens had to settle for a pile of rocks and a donkey. (Not really.  There was no donkey.)

We continued on to Tampaksiring and the Tirta Empul Temple. For reasons that quickly become obvious, this is also known as the Holy Springs Temple.

People come to be purified in the temple, which was built around the spring in 962 AD.  Either that or they are trying to cool off from the 90+ degree heat.   I considered going into the water, for a combination of both those reasons, but did not want to return Mrs. Waya's lovely sarong as a soggy heap.

It is a good thing that I stayed dry because for our next stop, we headed into the mountains.  We went into the highlands of Kitamani, where the view of Lake Batur and its adjacent volcano is spectacular and the temperature is a good 20-30 degrees cooler.

We had lunch overlooking this view and then proceeded to our last stop, the Penglipuran traditional village. It is an actual rural village, where the residents invite you into their homes before trying to sell you cheap trinkets.  What it may lack in authenticity, it makes up for in lovely architecture and friendly people.

Once the tour was over, I was dropped off back where I started, at the Depa House.  Right in front of the entrance, there was a woman selling tickets to a traditional dance show.  It turns out that right next door, there was a large temple where they would be performing a a kecak dance.  I had no idea what that was but it sounded intriguing.  I still don't know what it is but for about an hour, a group of men sat around chanting "Chak, chak, chak" until the grand finale, when one of them danced atop and kicked around smoldering embers, all without setting himself aflame.

I finished off this, my first day in Bali by settling into a cozy vegetarian restaurant named Kismet.  It seemed so very appropriate.  "Kismet" means fate or destiny, which is exactly what had led me here to my 100th country.  I, the consummate planner, had abdicated the responsibility of choosing and ended up in Bali, one of the most serene and lovely places I've ever been.  I'll Namaste to that.

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