Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bali (1) - Last Stop Tulamben in the Shadow of a Sleeping Volcano

A view of the sleeping volcano from the upstairs bar
I haven’t waxed lyrical about Indonesia’s history because as it is such a large and scattered country with long history including a period of Dutch colonial rule, and religious beliefs vary across the spectrum contributing hugely to the distinctly different regions of which we have only visited three in 7 weeks so we have only scratched the surface.

Reminders of the colonial era remain throughout Indonesia.  The Japanese occupied much of Indonesia during World War II and the Dutch tried to regain control when the war was over but were finally forced to grant Indonesia independence in 1949.  There have been many period of conflict throughout this vast and diverse country, too numerous to mention here, but nowadays it remains fairly stable. 

Bali itself is home to the majority of the Hindu minority in Indonesia and therefore is very different from the other provinces of Kalimantan and Sulawesi we have visited on this trip.

The black volcanic beach at Tulamben
Whilst Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Bali feel like separate nations in some ways there were also similarities. 

During this trip I have a developed a bit of a fascination with the traditions and customs surrounding death and how different people in different countries dispose of and honour their dead.  Burial seems preferable but in a place like China is becoming more and more impractical and cremation is pretty much insisted upon in urban areas.  However, graves or shrines are still evident and it is apparent that throughout Asia, whatever the religion (or even in a place such as China where 80% consider themselves atheist) ancestor worship is widespread across the continent.  Spirit houses and ancestors’ graves are everywhere. 

In China there are family graveyards dotted about on hillsides, in Vietnam and Cambodia you spot random walled old cemeteries in the middle of rice paddies, or up a little lane in the middle of a residential area, some brightly painted and clearly still very well cared for.  One little burial ground we came across in Hue was at the end of a lane in a gated yard and had obviously been swept for leaves that very morning.

The view of and from the resort restaurant
In Indonesia I started to notice that there were family graveyards found in many gardens.  I saw them more in Sulawesi and they were similar to the Buddhist spirit houses or shrines we had seen in other Hindu areas of Asia but usually enclosed with a high brick wall. 

In Bali, however, these graveyards were in abundance.  Almost every house had a large part of the garden devoted to the graveyard.  They varied from simple wooden boxes (some with corrugated iron roofs), to exquisitely ornate brick or stone structures with elaborate tiled roofs and colourful decoration and others, something unique to Bali, had skilfully woven thatched roofs which would not have looked out of place atop an English country cottage.  More of that later. 

Bali remains unique in Indonesia and very much retains its own culture and traditions.  Kalimantan is very Muslim and there seems to be a mosque every 20 metres.  Sulawesi is a mix of Muslim and Christian and after a period of violence which kicked off in 1998, life has settled down there and the people now live in harmony.  One minutes you’re driving through a village with a few churches, and the next village will have a mosque with a brightly painted onion dome and minaret.

Another stunning sunrise
On a rather disturbing note (on the surface at least) Banda Aceh, the Sumatran city sadly famed for the devastation suffered in the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, is the one place in Indonesia where they have incorporated Sharia Law.  Some people have expressed concern that this could indicate a worrying trend towards Muslim extremism in the country as a whole (and in particular a potential threat to women reversing the growing independence of Indonesia’s women and their increasing role outside the family).  However, most dismiss the institution of Sharia Law in Aceh as being the result of the minority who shout the loudest as opposed the majority who do not wish to seek this regime imposed across the board.  I hope they are right.  We have spoken to travellers who have visited Aceh and their reports are incredibly positive with everyone universally describing the people here as some of the friendliest in the whole of Indonesia, which is no small compliment. 

Bali has been a tourist destination for decades, famously catering for their neighbouring Australians, and it is clear that they are more acclimatised to western habits and customs than other parts of Indonesia.  I personally found it to be less intimidating than some other predominantly Muslim places we had visited.

The path down to the sea through the resort
Our journey from Donggala to Bali involved a taxi ride along the coast through more pretty villages with their colourful little Sulawesi cottages to Palu airport from where we caught a flight to Bali changing at Makassar.

Upon arriving at Denpasar airport we were literally overjoyed to find our luggage had also changed planes.

We have been incredibly lucky on our trip and have lost or mislaid very little. One particularly memorable anxiety-ridden incident was in Xi’an Railway Station when we misplaced the laptop as we entered the station, forgetting to pick it up on the other side of the x-ray machine.  We didn’t realise we didn’t have it until we were in the departure lounge about half an hour later and Paul rushed back down to security to see if by any chance he could find it, praying it hadn’t been stolen or transferred efficiently to lost and found which would cause us huge problems as it wasn’t long until our train left.  We didn’t have time to go through any Chinese bureaucracy because if we missed our train it was likely we would have to wait at least 2 days to catch another, such is the popularity of the train network in China.

A garden graveyard
I waited anxiously with the rest of our bags, convinced that we had lost the laptop and cursing myself for not copying any of the hundreds of photographs or blog entries onto a memory card.  However, after a nail biting 20 minutes or so Paul reappeared clutching the bag with the laptop safely inside.  He had had to produce his passport and undergo a series of security questions (in Chinese of course) but the authorities appeared satisfied that he was the owner of the laptop which they had put to one side so we managed to successfully retrieve it and all our photographs so far.

Other than that narrow escape we have been very lucky although in fairness, apart from that momentary lapse in attention, we have also been very careful.  The only items we regularly misplace are unimportant stuff like food, cigarettes and lighters (I’m always leaving a just-opened pack of Marlboro lights behind somewhere so it’s just as well they are cheap as chips anywhere in Asia).  We also seem to get our laundry returned minus at least one piece of clothing which means that Paul is down to 3 pairs of pants but he manages.

Another garden graveyard
Back to Bali, after our flight we then had a 2 and a half hour car ride to Tulamben on the north east coast of the island.  We finally arrived at the Matahari Tulamben Dive Resort at about 11.00pm.  Sadly the bar was closed so we trundled off to bed for a well-earned kip.

We could hardly believe it was our final week.  We were looking to spending a week not doing very much, a bit of diving for Paul, a bit of snorkeling for me, lazing around, enjoying the sunshine and trying not to think about it being our final week.  However, rather annoyingly, for the few days it rained intermittently but towards the end of our stay we were blessed with clear blue skies and sunshine.   

So whilst at the beginning of the week the weather seemed to be pretty crap compared to what we were beginning to take for granted (boy, were we going to find reality a shock!), on the plus side it was cool at night and we slept better than we had for months.

The little pool at the resort with
Mount Ugung in the background
Bali (and Indonesia generally) appears to be overrun with geckos.  And very energetic geckos at that.  We watched them for hours rushing about the restaurant munching all the insects they could lay their chops on.  Some of them got quite stroppy too and there did seem to be some kind of territorial rules going on.

We also noticed an over abundance of baby geckos here in Tulamben and regularly had to remove the odd one which strayed into our room.  On one occasion I was rooting through my rucksack when a tiny gecko fell out and scurried under the unit.  I'm not sure the Australian authorities would have been very impressed had I smuggled that little critter into the country, however inadvertently.  We made sure to check our bags thoroughly before we left.

Watching the rain hammer down on the path
outside our room
There also seemed to be rather a large number of small brown frogs, particularly during the rains at the beginning of our week in Tulamben.  They were tiny with a remnant of a little tail so probably not long out of the pond.  As we sat outside our room they seemed to fall from the sky and did not seem very accomplished hoppers so we assumed they were very young.  We did our best to direct them to the relative safety of planted borders out of harm's way but we couldn't rescue them all.

One morning I found a frog in the bathroom and we have no idea how he could have got in there but I managed to remove him outside (without actually touching him of course - I am a girl after all) and deposited him in the undergrowth.

Baby geckos (and geckos generally) and baby frogs kept us amused for quite a lot of the time here.

And shortly after we arrived we received the exciting news that Boris and Léa were arriving in 2 days with her 2 sisters in tow who were coming over from Switzerland to join them on a 2 week holiday.  We also vaguely remembered that Léa’s sisters were bringing over urgent supplies in the form of cheese, sausage and chocolate.  Our mouths were watering at the very prospect.  Needless to say we were also looking forward to seeing Boris and Léa again and catching up with them and what they had been doing since we last saw them in Derawan.

Mount Ugung...again
Tulamben’s tourist industry is driven entirely around diving because of the close proximity of the USAT Liberty wreck which lies in fairly shallow waters just off the coast of this tiny village.  Subsequently every other place along the main road is a dive shop or dive resort.

The story behind the wreck is that shortly after the United States entered the Second World War the USAT Liberty was commissioned to sail to the Philippines from Australia with supplies when she was torpedoed by the Japanese in January 1942.  Attempts were made to tow her to a Dutch port in Indonesia for repairs but she was taking on too much water so was beached at Tulamben so they could salvage her cargo and fittings. 

She remained there until 1963 when tremors from the volcano eruption (I’m coming to that) forced the wreck to slip into the sea where she has remained ever since.

The main road through Tulamben.  At rush hour.
Which neatly brings me to the fact that Tulamben lies in the shadow of a very large, sleeping volcano, Mount Ugung, and the highest point in Bali.  The local people were at great pains to point out the volcano is just sleeping and not extinct.  It even looks like a volcano.  I’m sure it won’t erupt while we are here (of course it didn’t) and I’m also pretty sure that they can predict these things (I hope they can).  Even so, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to such a powerful and evocative natural phenomenon and it is fairly daunting but the volcano itself was beautiful as it towered over us to the west with the ocean to the east.

Mount Ugung is also where Bali’s most important temple, Pura Besakih (the Mother Temple), is located but we had read and heard it I simply overrun with touts and tourists so we didn’t intend making a point of visiting it although did end doing so on our last day.

The resort restaurant where we spent our evenings
watching geckos
Paul went diving a lot here.  He dived the wreck of course, as well as a drop-off and the coral garden which were both accessible from the beach.  He also dived several other sites and by the time we left Bali he had racked up 50 dives since he began in Cambodia less than 3 months before.  Paul didn’t rate the coral garden much as it was mostly volcanic rock with bits of coral slowly regenerating in the area.  Certainly when I went snorkeling I agreed it wasn’t the best compared to others we had seen although it did have a lot of fish and a huge anemone with lots of resident clownfish ready to shoot up and nip you as soon as look at you.  They may be cute (and small) but they are feisty little fish as Paul found as he was teasing a clownfish once and it shot up and bit him on the hand in between his thumb and his forefinger.  He won’t live that one down!  It’s one thing to get stung by a scorpion but it’s another to be viciously attacked by a Nemo!

The classic rice terraces
Paul dived the wreck several times including once at night with Boris.  He came across George (the resident HUGE barracuda that is nearly 2 metres – yes 2 bloody metres – long).  On other dives, particularly early morning dives, he also saw lots of sharks which was very exciting for him, not so for me because he and Boris returned with reports that they swim within 5 metres of shore.  The sharks were black tip reef sharks and he saw one individual which was about 8 feet long.  At this rate I was never going near the water ever again.

All this diving meant I had a lot of spare time on my hands but I couldn’t really summon up the energy to do very much apart from panic slightly about all that faces us with we reach Australia, not least whether they will actually let me in.  I must validate my visa by 24th May and we were landing in Australia on 22nd May.  Although I have checked and double checked with immigration that the date is correct, I can’t help but have misgivings about whether the information will filter through but I am sure all will be well. 

And it’s not as if we are going home.  Australia hasn’t been home for Paul for over 20 years and I haven’t even set foot in the country before.  It is exciting and terrifying in equal measure and it is hard not to be distracted by the next chapter in our adventure which is looming large on the horizon.


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