A Birthday in Bali

Pootle List # 14: Go whitewater rafting

My most recent birthday (two weeks ago) was a milestone one, not one of the big 0s or even a 5. One of those middle of middle aged birthdays, it would have pretty much have passed marked only by the usual cake, flowers and pretending that THIS is the best birthday EVER. No, really IT IS! Of course, I did spend it with the beloved SG – he who believes that birthdays (even the spouse’s) should be celebrated by running a marathon. The only reason he could not run one on that day was that we were thousands of miles away from the starting point close to our home. Only the previous day, with many beer induced giggles, we had flown to Bali, Indonesia. The smiling airhost, assuming we were lovebirds on our honeymoon, plied us with free drinks. Never say no to beer, is my vacation motto. And so, only a little drunk, we made our way to our serene, peaceful resort-hotel, tucked away in the verdant, waterlogged rice fields of Ubud in Bali.

Sunlight dancing across the water in what must be the greenest patches on earth. At Tegallalang Rice Terraces, Ubud

I hear you exclaim, “What, you did not stay in Kuta?! The ultimate beach party that there is!” Now, let us just accept that I have never been the age that enjoys putting on a glittery tube top and partying till 6 AM. Further, SG believes that no amount of beer can compensate for the propensity of beach sand to get EVERYWHERE (I am still discovering pockets of it from our Maldives trip back in 1832). So it was a given, that we would avoid the party crazy crowds frolicking in the sun and sand and instead ensconce ourselves in the quiet heartlands of the island nation, where the only noise is water tinkling from waterfalls and rushing along the rocky rivers.

Let’s meet where the horizon creates ripples, said the ocean to the sky. Sanur Beach, Bali
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow”

Now coming back to the question of what made my birthday special. I hear you wonder, it must be how the hotel staff thoughtfully got me a local cake for breakfast all alit with candles, while singing much more tunefully than my friends and family ever can. Never mind, that the local cake was fish satays and chicken mince, and that I am vegetarian – it was still pretty special. And the tofu bits completely rocked. Really. Tofu is not worth lying about. Or it must be the temples we visited that day and later, learning all about the Bali version of Hinduism with it special blend of animism. Oh wait, it must be the adorable mama and baby monkeys in the Monkey Forest and later in Ulu Watu, the majestic sea temple, which we swung by during sunset for the Kecak dance. Or perhaps snorkeling off Menjangan and swimming with baby sharks? All of these made for a magical vacation, but no, my birthday was memorable for entirely different reasons.

A thousand meters up Mount Agung, Pura Besakih is the holiest temple in Bali. We visited, late one evening, just as it was wrapping itself up in mist and nestling back into long forgotten music, which cannot be heard, only felt
Hanging out with our cool monkey friends

“Must be the food, you glutton foodie!” That’s a great guess and the cuisine of Bali with its Mei Goreng, Nasi Goreng, Gado Gado, those amazing combinations of stir fries, vegetables, spicy chilly and peanuts did steal my heart. Down in the cafeterias of south, one can get some super international fare, and I shall always have fond memories of a certain roast pumpkin with honey glazed carrot and dukkah yogurt. I am so glad that I can benefit from the millennia of home cooks and chefs that have toiled over hot stoves and in kitchens to result in delicacies like Dadar Gulung. The local version of pancakes (think crepes) they are flavored with pandang to result in an intense green color. Stuffed with grated sweet coconut and dusted off with palm sugar or nestled in palm sugar syrup, they are rolls of heaven. I ate the gulungs (the pisang version has fried banana) by the dozen, and I attribute the three hundred kilos I put on in one week entirely to these little babies.

Birthday breakfast of Nasi Goreng..
…and Pisang Gulung

“Oh, you ticked off white water rafting from your bucket list, finally! That is why the birthday was amazing!” Close, very close. If Indiana Jones were to pick a place to swing from vine to vine in, in deep tropical rainforest, flanked by mossy ravines and hidden stone temples and statues, he would have picked River Agung in Bali. I could not have engineered a better setting for my first rocky trip on a raft down a river. We liked it so much, that we rafted down another river later in the trip. I digress, but my top learnings from a trip to New Zealand earlier this year (one that I planned to death) was to leave room for serendipity. And remember to carry a bottle opener for all the beer. Learning from the wise (me, that is) I left a couple of days without any hotel reservations or plans in Bali, leaving us free to be foot loose. And that’s how we had time to scream our way down the 180 waterfall in Telaga Waja river. My top learnings from this trip? Leave even more room for serendipity, especially when traveling off peak season. And remember to bring the bottle opener back.

On the heels of Indiana Jones. Telaja Waja River, Bali
Viewing birdhouses from our lunch table, after rafting down River Agung.

Let’s cut to the chase, and in this case climb the fricking volcano. Yes, that is it. Instead of birthday highlights of a couple of pints and a fresh organic salad with local produce and some wonderful cheese (which truly is my idea of a perfect dinner) I was preparing to climb Mt Batur. At 1717 m, it is one of the various volcanoes that pepper Indonesia. It last blew up in the year 2000 and I fully expected fireworks when we were there. With a beautiful misty lake, Danau Bratan, the volcano boasts of great sunrise views when it is not terrorizing the local populace with hot lava. That is the background information about Mt Batur, active volcano par excellence. Now to help you understand our fitness levels. SG, husband, marathon runner, is one of the annoying people who takes the stairs at work and has climbed to the foothills of Everest. If not saddled with a couch potato for a life partner, I suspect he would be waving flags from atop every mountain peak there is in the world. Luckily for him, I have rescued him from such a dire fate. My idea of exercise is switching couch seats and shopping on-line for books. I have been known, under peril of death, to indulge in an occasional yoga class. I attend one and fully expect to be given the Nobel for my efforts. Am still waiting for the one from the last class I attended in October 2015. These guys are so tardy!

The days right before and after the full moon are quite auspicious for ceremonies at the temples. These girls were so excited, awaiting their turn. Tirta Empul Holy Water Temple, Ubud

I should have known that adventures that involve a 2:30 AM start are W-R-O-N-G. By 3:35 AM, armed with flashlights, and bottles of water and a trusty local guide, we joined the hordes of people climbing the volcano for the mystical sunrise experience. I am bundled like a baby Eskimo, having read of the chilly winds and freezing cold. Approximately 13 minutes into the trek I was warm enough to strip to the wear that one normally wears to the beach of where I was daydreaming. Trustee Guide (TG) offers to carry my mountain size jacket and I get a new lease of life. As the time and meters tick by, I get progressively hot and bothered and out of breath. I start promising that I shall climb stairs every day back home if I ever make it back home. I start collapsing on nearby rocks to catch my breath which seems to have eloped with all my stamina to the nearest pina colada. But I persevere and make it to the half-way point and fully expect it to be a (birthday) cake walk from there on.

Kumbhakaran, the mighty demon, fights to his end. Bali Botanic Garden, Bedugul, North Bali

I could not have been further from the truth. The next gazillion kilometers or so were basically mounds of volcano rocks and gravel at a 60 degree incline, strategically punctuated with ankle twisting shifting heaps and death drops down the sides. After a point, I gave up all hope of ever breathing normally again and hoped that the sound of my lungs wheezing like an out of tune accordion was not affecting the sleep of all those living in Australia. TG, who had gently helped me over the rougher patches and paused each time I wanted a break, gave up all pretense at politeness and took to hauling me like a sack of potatoes over the really steep bits. I wanted to sob with hysteria and pain, one particularly poignant time, when he nearly wrenched my arm of out its socket while pulling me up a 4 feet high ‘step’. SG, the person who has promised to hold my hand through thick and thin, meanwhile is off busy being a mountain goat, bounding from rock to rock like a ballet dancer. I viscerally hate TG and SG.

They have special coffee guides to explain the Luwak process and help you sample some tea and coffee. Definite standouts were the mangosteen tea, hibiscus tea, coconut coffee, lemon tea, ginseng tea, and chocolate coffee! Here is Julie, having just cracked a cappoopcino joke.

The last few uphill minutes, we were in dire danger of missing the sunrise entirely. But frankly, my dear, by then I did not care if the sun came and bit me on my backside (little was I to know the fate that awaited my backside in the very near future). Like a mantra, I kept telling myself “I can do this, I can do this” and put in every ounce of energy into being an advertisement of Johnnie Walker. At last, literally moments before the sun popped over from the neighboring Mt. Rinjani, we reached summit. Only, of course, this was the summit for the faint hearted, there is another one ahead for the true brave-hearted mountaineers. I, by now, am resembling and lurching like an unravelling Frankenstein. SG bounded off to the uber-summit while I content myself to follow the sun’s passage and pray that some sensation returns to my calves and thighs. It would be very fitting to tell you that how the bloody magnificent sunrise made up for every awful moment of the climb and how I had a bloody magnificent epiphany up on top of the world. But sadly, the lack of blood to my exteriors and my brain left me with very little energy to appreciate the wonders of creation. Instead, I eavesdropped on the conversation about civet poop coffee (Luwak) that my neighboring sunrise viewers were discussing. I wanted to lean over and tell them that it is overhyped, but I was afraid I would topple over once I started leaning, so I stayed mum and took pictures of the sunrise as a memory aid for when I had my faculties back. Plus I was stressing about the climb down.

The sun lazily hides behind Mt Rinjani, and peeps into Lake Bratan. Gunung Batur, Bali

If I thought the climb up was bad, the way down was bad meets Genghis Khan. Not only was I in acute danger of propelling face down to my death, but also it was now light enough for me to anticipate my death fall. The gravel, aided by gravity, became shifty bastards and slipped and laughed at me with every step. The only way I could do the real steep bits, was to physically lower my backside to the edge of the precipice and jump down scratching hands and any exposed skin. Once or twice is fun, the two hundredth time you do this, you can swear like a pirate. In between the two hundred times of bottom scraping jumps, I must have slipped and fallen another hundred times. Add to that, those slippery slopes which I navigated by sliding down on my butt. I was far from winded, as I was pretty much sitting on my butt the whole time. Oh, but the ignominy! I was not embarrassed for myself, I was trying to not fall to my death, remember. But I did feel for mountain goat SG who saw a mountainside of people cross over his spouse while she listlessly bleated by the wayside, asking him how to pronounce and spell ‘ignominy’. Do remember it was my birthday, or rather the morning after.

The last kilometer or so was motorable asphalt, being different from the road we took up (Hello, let’s pause, you mean we could have motored our way up at least for one whole rocky KM?) A motorbike fellow sneeringly asked me if I wanted his taxi services but I sneered right back at him. My thighs could not make up their mind if they wanted to be jelly or lead and settled to alternate between the two every few minutes. There were tomato plants growing by the road side, all pretty and preening in the early sunshine. I would have liked them more, if I felt less like a squished tomato which had been run over by a bull dozer.

The next few days were hell, as it hurt like crazy to step up or down. Truth 1: every temple in Bali has hundreds of steps. Truth 2: river rafting in Agung involves climbing down three hundred steps and then three hundred painful ones back up. Truth 3: the same muscles that climb up and down mountains are used to climb in and out of bed. Truth 4: thankfully, the muscles used for swimming, snorkeling and chugging beer are entirely different, so there were some rays of happiness that penetrated my world of pain.

Sulphur miners at the lungs of hell, Kawah Ijen. East Java
Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me. Edelweiss at Kawah Ijen, East Java

I had planned on climbing Kawah Ijen, fondly known as jaws of hell or some such, a few days later. It has a large sulphuric acid lake and one can see blue fire emanating from its depth if you climb up in the middle of the night. As SG laced up his shoes at 1:30 AM, I snuggled deeper into bed (which I had previously climbed into with an appropriate amount of sighing) and started reading Devotion of Suspect X (which is an absolute must read)! I read into the wee hours of morning, as SG trekked up to fraternize with the sulphur miners in the freezing cold. It was nice and cozy in my part of the world, dozing and reading in the soft pool of light cast by the bedside lamp, while the wooden chimes created music in the breeze. The best bit about my birthday? Thoroughly enjoying not climbing Kawah Ijen.

Of wooden chimes and solitude in the shadow of Kawah Ijen

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