Hindu temples are full of statues, and the statues are full of personality. Like this one.
Or this guy who seems to be holding up the world.
Or this long-tongued evil spirit.
There is a kind of mania here for watching the sunrise from beautiful spots, so when we signed up for a hike up Gunung Batur in Bali, they came to roust us out of bed at 2 a.m. Before we knew it, we were scrambling up a sandy, rocky path with only flashlights and a sliver of moon to light the way.
Maybe they were worried about me and Colbert. When we pulled into the dark parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, I had heard the driver tell the guide: “Cewek-cewek” (CHAY-wek CHAY-wek): “Girls.” His tone did not suggest confidence in our hiking abilities.
We were the first ones on the mountain, and we held our own. All the way up, we could look back and see the flashlights of later hikers bobbing their way up the slope.
The sunrise was nice, but the mountains are so stunning they don’t really need any help. Batur is a double crater. The outer cone is 17 kilometers around, with a little lake nestled inside; next to the lake is a smaller, sharper peak.
The whole landscape is shaped into steep slopes and distinct waves, the legacy of eruptions in 1994, 1974, 1963, 1926, 1917, and on back through the centuries. I’ve been lucky to hike in a lot of amazing places — the Rockies, the Whites, the Andes, the Alps — but this is one of the amazingest.
I was somewhat dubious of our guide, Nyoman, at first, because he seemed to talk a little loud. (Are the Balinese generally loud-talkers, or have I just gotten used to nearly-inaudible Javanese speech?) But he won me over with his obvious desire to get away from the crowds. There are four huts at ever-higher spots on the mountain, and every time a group arrived at our hut he would take us on to the next one.
One time another guide swaggered in, caught sight of me and Laura and bellowed, “HEY, dude, how ya DOIN’? That’s what AMERICANS say.” He was so secure in his knowledge, I saw no point in answering. I just heaved a sigh of relief when Nyoman picked up his bag and headed for the door.
After sunrise we played that timeless volcano game, “cooking in the steam vents.” The eggs came out hard-cooked and a little smoky, and very tasty after a long climb.
A glass of kopi susu from the hut lady rounded out the meal. She hikes up every morning from the nearest village and sells tea and coffee till about noon. It’s a strenuous job, but it comes with a great view.
Back in New Hampshire, when I had a bad case of writer’s block, I’d go to the icky convenience store across the street and buy what I called the Lunch of Self-Loathing: a small can of ravioli and a small can of peas. The Lunch must be eaten cold, straight from the cans. I don’t know why, but it usually made me feel better. Maybe it harmonized my physical and emotional states.
I recently re-created the Lunch after a visit to a fancy expat grocery store. Here, it’s something of a splurge; the canned spaghetti alone cost three times what I would normally pay for a warung lunch. I skipped the peas. I wasn’t really feeling bad about work, either; it was just kind of a trip down memory lane. Can a person feel nostalgic for self-loathing?
One of the great things about Ubud was just strolling, which as I’ve mentioned is difficult to do in Jakarta. On Monkey Forest day we walked all afternoon and part of the evening. The book said it was a two-hour walk, but we cleverly extended it by getting lost about 15 times.
The nicest part was this path through the rice paddies. If you look hard, you can make out Gunung (Mt.) Batur in the background, which we climbed later.
Maybe Colbert has been traveling in China for too long. We had to ask for directions a lot, and every time someone smiled and was helpful without also trying to sell us something, she would heave a long sigh and say, “I love this place.”
Ubud is the cultural capital of Bali, so there are traditional dance performances almost every night. The dancers have elaborate costumes and move in a slightly crouched stance; the motions, especially the turning of the wrist and the pinching together of fingertips, are very fluid and specific.
A male dancer on a stylized wooden horse came out and danced barefoot around the embers. Then he danced through the embers … kicking them toward the audience so energetically that the woman in front of me curled up on her chair to get her feet off the floor.
The dancer had very black feet afterward.
Some say he’s protected from the embers by a trance state. Others say it’s a low-energy fire and he’s merely shuffling through it, not actually stepping on the coals. I say I’m not volunteering anytime soon — not without asbestos booties.
In Ubud we visited the famous Monkey Forest, where for a modest fee you can be assaulted, robbed and kicked out the back gate by rapacious Balinese macaques.
Laura bought a bag of bananas and rambutans from an elderly woman at the front gate, with the intention of distributing them one at a time. But this big guy had other ideas. Minutes after we entered the park, he pounced on her, grabbed the whole bag, and proceeded to stuff himself with the contents.
I didn’t buy any fruit because I’m a little afraid of monkeys. More precisely, I’m a little afraid of monkeys who aren’t afraid of humans.
Another great business combo, this time down the alley from our homestay in Ubud, Bali. You can get a glimpse of the ducks through the bamboo fence. I never knew ducks were so noisy; they made a hell of a racket every time we walked by.
Colbert has headed back to China by way of Bangkok, leaving our guest room/office sadly empty. Now my laptop is developing a terrible problem with its screen – everything looks distorted and psychedelic – which means I might have to take it to the dreaded service center. So, continued interruptions in blogging are possible.