Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bali (2) - A Reunion and Farewell to Asia

The Wooky in a dress
So while Paul was diving the waters around Tulamben having close encounters with sharks and the cast of Finding Nemo I was fretting about whether my Australian visa was still valid.  But I had less time and inclination to conjure up disastrous scenarios once Boris and Léa arrived with her sisters for a couple of days.

Léa and Boris arrived late at night on our second day and I was in for a shock the next morning when I was out on our little veranda having a cigarette at 6.30am when the door of the bungalow opposite creaked open and a tired looking Léa poked her little head out.  She had never been an early riser when we were on Derawan, something I often envied as I wasn’t able to sleep beyond about 7am.  However, Léa told me that ever since Derawan, when we would wake them up early to watch the sunrise, they had gotten into the habit of waking up early but she assured me they welcomed this change in their routine.  
And when Léa’s sisters, Camille and Ammeline, surfaced bleary eyed from the room next door to us after travelling over 24 hours from Switzerland, we were all treated to Swiss cheese and chocolate and it was the best cheese and chocolate I have ever tasted in my whole life.  Later that morning we went out for a little snorkel but we had Boris with us then so us girls felt safe (Paul was off diving somewhere again!).

I apologise to Léa but I couldn't resist this shot
Tulamben is quite busy for both snorkelling and diving as people come from all over Bali to dive the wreck.  We had heard that at times there can be up to 50 divers diving the wreck at the same time but it was nowhere near that busy while we were there.  Certainly there were more people around than we were used to but it didn’t feel overcrowded at all.

However, Tulamben’s popularity as a diving and snorkelling spot means that the fish seem to be quite tame.  I had been used to fish darting away once you came too close but here they seem to seek you out and approach you with something approaching curiosity.  Rumour has it, some people feed them so they come looking for titbits.  

The bungalow opposite us which Léa and Boris
called home for 3 nights
Now, that is all very well when you are talking about the small cute ones:  the startlingly bright yellow, black and white stripy Moorish idols with their long dorsal fin, the cute Nemos (clownfish) and brilliant blue Dorys (blue tangs), and dazzling varieties of surgeonfish with bizarre patterns and colours, all of which are very beautiful and, most importantly, quite small and completely harmless with no teeth to speak of (unless you’re Paul and you get bitten by a clownfish!). 

However, when it comes to the bigger varieties such as barracudas, huge parrotfish and in particular the notorious titan triggerfish it is a whole different kettle of fish, excuse the pun.  Not least because of the size and number of their rather alarming looking teeth.

For some reason, because all us girls were a bit pathetic when it came to fish bigger than your average rabbit we felt safer when Boris was with us but easily freaked when we were on our own.  

I admit I stole this from the internet but
this is an adult titan triggerfish
We swam out and drifted with the tide, not very far from the shore in quite shallow waters when we came across some large green/grey coloured fish that kept swimming at us.  They were about a foot long, quite chunky and it was a little disconcerting.  Léa wasn’t too happy but I could deal with them (just about) because they appeared pretty harmless and just swam around us but it was the titan triggerfish that really freaked me out and for good reason too. 

There were lots of titan triggerfish swimming around just off the beach not far from shore.  Most were about 18 inches long but there was one huge one that you really didn’t want to mess with, particularly if the fish in question was a male furiously guarding its nest (and you really have no way of knowing).  

"Do I really have to wear this?"
This particular specimen was about 3 feet long and a bruiser of a fish if ever I saw one.  On a positive note, they are easy to identify so you know when to make a run for it.

Titan triggerfish juveniles are much smaller, very pretty and obviously don’t pose a threat.  The ones I have come across are of a manageable (i.e. not scary) size, have beautiful, delicate markings and just swim around, minding their own business. 

Adults, on the other hand, are hardly beautiful but they are very striking to look with their distinctive markings and fins, huge bulbous eyes and they can be very territorial.  They have also been known to attack divers and snorkelers during the mating season and when nesting. 

They nest on the sea floor and guard a conical area which expands upwards and outwards from the sea bed up to the water’s surface, and woe betide anyone who ventures into their territory.  The best thing you can do is swim away out of the conical “danger” area and hopefully if they take a bite out of anything they will take a bite out of your fins because their teeth are something to behold.  They give a shark a good run for its money in that department and after watching one specimen busily biting chunks of coral and spitting it out, I was left in no doubt that they could take a chunk out of me if they put their mind to it.

The thatched shrines
So, the following day when Boris and Paul went off to dive the wreck us four girls swam out in an attempt to see the wreck from the surface (which is apparently possible when visibility is good).  We swam out from the volcanic black sandy beach, got so far, got freaked out by the big, bad fish, and swam back as close to the shore as we could looking out instead for harmless pretty little fish rather than risking (or imagining) triggerfish attack.  Sometimes, you can’t be too careful I say!

Boris and Léa stayed 3 nights and it was great to see them again.  I spent time playing cards with them (Paul doesn’t play cards apparently) and I discovered I was as rubbish at cubo as I was when we played in Derawan and kept losing but it was fun all the same. 

On their third day we parted company with Boris and Léa for the last time and they headed off to the Gili Islands to spend a few days there on some white sandy beach.  Boris and Léa had a month left of their 6 month trip and would soon be heading back to Switzerland via Thailand.

The ceremony at the Mother Temple
Paul and I went out snorkelling together one day (when he could fit me in between proper diving).  I feel much more comfortable with Paul because he has so much confidence in the water and nothing seems to faze him.  If anything, he scares the fish more than they could ever scare him.  He is always diving down to say hello to a huge barracuda, chasing it away, or running after a triggerfish willy nilly, not having learned anything from his experience with the clownfish. 

When we went out we saw a moray eel, a boxfish, some leopardfish, two very strange looking crabs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an early Doctor Who programme, lots of parrotfish, a massive school of thousands of identifiable fish which were silver with a yellow stripe along the middle, lots of Moorish idols, bannerfish, butterfly fishes, blue tangs, surgeonfish, ribbon eels, a huge bluefin trevally, and of course the numerous species of tiny coral reef fish including swarms of florescent blue fish with orange tails.  I was just gutted that we no longer had the camera to capture this underwater world on film (or more accurately memory card) particularly because the photo opportunities were many as the fish were so used to human interaction they were almost posing for photographs.  Pesky wildlife!

Watching the ceremony at the Mother Temple
The day before we checked out Paul went out for the day for his last diving adventure which involved driving to Amed and taking a boat to dive sites further afield.  It was during this excursion that he was nearly run over by a submarine crammed full of Chinese tourists.  I didn’t believe him until I checked online and there is indeed a tourist submarine which plunges to depths of 150 feet.  The website boasts that it poses no threat to the fragile marine environment but makes no mention about giving divers a wide berth.  I think Paul found it rather surreal to be confronted by a gang of smiling and waving Chinese tourists through the windows of this underwater contraption.  He also saw the biggest lobster he’s ever seen in his life but that hardly warranted a mention.

The beautiful thatched pagodas at the Pura Besikah
For the final day of our trip proper we decided that, rather than hang around at the resort and head to the airport in the darkness we would hire a car for the day, take our bags with us and get them to drop us off at the airport in the evening.  This meant we would be early extremely early for our late night flight but the alternative was to travel through Bali and not see anything of this beautiful island.

The resort agreed to provide a car for the whole day for only $20 more than a taxi would have cost so it was a no-brainer financially. 

We checked out left just after 9.00am, setting off first to visit the Mother Temple, Pura Besakih, which was, as we had been warned, expensive and overrun with touts.  The journey there was very scenic, following the coast for a while before heading inland and winding around mountain roads, through coconut groves, tiny Balinese villages, and hillside rice terraces.

The Wooky in a dress.  Irresistable!
The village houses were mainly constructed of dark grey, almost black, volcanic material and contrasted beautifully with the lush green landscape. 

We reached the temple by about 11.00am and we are glad we did visit as it is the most important temple in all of Bali, impressive inside and out, and the view from the top across the west of the island is stunning.  When we arrived we were informed that you cannot visit inside of the temples unless you are wearing a sarong, which of course we didn’t have to hand.  Paul in particular has never had a reason to wear a skirt (unless he’s keeping something from me) but I have to say he looks rather fetching in a dress.

So we ended up buying two very nice but extremely overpriced sarongs which we could have bought for a fraction of the price at any other retail outlet worldwide including, I am sure, Harrods, but as they had the market cornered we were a bit stumped.  We then we forked out for a guide which we were assured we would need to negotiate the complex.  The price for a 30 minute escorted tour started at $40 but we negotiated down to $10 and it turned out we really didn’t need his services after all.  The temple complex was not, shall we say, very complex at all, and we would have easily found our way around without him.  He didn’t really give us much background or historical information either beyond that which we already knew or which wasn’t really very interesting.   The temple visit ended costing us about $45.  Even on the last day of our whole trip we seemed to be bleeding money at an alarming rate.

The view from the top of Pura Besikah
The Mother Temple is positioned on the western slope of Mount Ugung and suffered some damage in the eruption in 1963 however much of the original buildings remain and date back to the 14th century although most of the building took place in around the 17th century.  It is still being restored in places but it is distinctly Balinese, very impressive and rather beautiful.

The Balinese view volcanoes as the voice of the gods and pay tribute to them and this is one of the reasons Pura Besakih was built on the slopes on the largest volcano.  The fact that the Mother Temple has survived past eruptions (particularly the 1963 eruption where the lava flows passed by metres of the complex) is seen as a good sign from the gods.

Mount Ubung - a volcano - without a doubt
The pagodas are all mostly tiered thatches built with black volcanic stone and decorated in mainly gold and reds.  There was a ceremony going on while we were there which seemed to involve a lot of ringing of bells, chanting, and offerings of fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as the other usual items.

After the temple visit we headed off to see the lake in the north of the island which is flanked by two volcanoes on the west and east banks.  The most active of the volcanoes is Mount Barung which we were alarmed to discover erupts on a regular basis.  The last eruption was in 2000 and by my reckoning they are due one any day now.  There was some information here about the philosophy of the people who live in the shadow of these threatening forces of nature and how they embrace their presence and see the positive in what are potentially (and have been in the past) disastrous occurrences.  It was explained how the lava kills old vegetation, and how ash fertilises the ground and promotes new growth bringing healthy crops, and there is much flora and fauna which thrive in the area. 

The amazing coffee contraption
Also contained in the information at this location was the fact that the Hindus in this area do not cremate their dead as followers of other branches of Hindu tend to do.  Instead, the dead undergo a water cleansing ritual and afterwards they are placed in a bamboo cage and their remains exposed to the elements until nature (and presumably nature’s creatures) have taken the body back to the earth.  It was an odd snippet of information but interesting nonetheless particularly for me with my newly acquired fascination for death traditions. 

During our day trip we saw countless domestic cemeteries, similar to the ones we saw in Sulawesi.  Almost every home seemed to have an enclosed graveyard within the garden and they often took up most of the outside space.

The amazing rice terraces
We then took a detour to the classic rice terraces which are another major tourist attraction on Bali.  Once again they were beautiful and confined to a relatively small area and lots of other tourists were also present there snapping away, as were we before we headed off for lunch.

Lunch was eaten in a small restaurant where we sat outside to begin with but it started to rain so we were forced inside with a million flies.  I have never seen so many flies in one place.  Apparently this will stand me in good stead for Australia (hence the hat with the corks but I will let you know whether that is an exaggeration and whether hats with corks are required in downtown Melbourne!).

We then went in search of an ATM as we were down to our last rupiah.  This took about 2 hours but we did see some lovely scenery along the way.

Examples of the wares for sale
Next stop was a coffee plantation where we tasted lots of different varieties of coffee and tea.  In Bali they have a special coffee called luwak coffee which is special for the same reason as the weasel coffee famed in Vietnam.  Why or how coffee beans taste better because they have travelled through the digestive system of a small mammal is beyond me and quite frankly I can’t taste the difference. 

However, the Japanese coffee machine they used was an impressive piece of kit.  A burner was placed underneath a spherical glass bowl of water on which was placed the container with the ground coffee.  As the water was heated it was sucked up through a glass tube into the coffee grinds.  Once the water was syphoned up completely the heat was removed and then the liquid poured back into the glass bowl ready to be served.  It was a very neat contraption.

A lone worker in the rice fields
There were also hundreds of flies here too so we were glad to climb back inside the car.

By this time it was getting quite late so headed to Ubud for a whistle stop tour around the town which looked lovely, very arty, and quite touristy but not as bad as we were expecting and there wasn’t a copy of “Eat Pray Love” in sight (although I’m sure a few were tucked away).

Darkness fell as we headed towards the airport and hit quite heavy traffic passing through Kuta which we were glad we hadn’t gone anywhere near.

We finally reached the airport at about 7.30pm, had a Burger King and settled in for the 6 and a half hour wait for our flight.

Bizarrely there were lots of these!
The day tour was a really good decision.  Although hanging around all day at the resort wouldn’t have been much of a hardship, we would be doing a lot of thumb twiddling, checking the time every 5 minutes, and despondently brooding over the end of our trip.  Spending our day travelling around Bali we were able to see so much more of this beautiful island and postpone our imminent depression.

Next stop Adelaide.  A continuing adventure for me and meeting the in-laws but for Paul a return to the country where he grew up from the age of 8 and that he didn’t think he would ever see again.

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