Traveling the Back Roads of Bali

Getting out of the city isn’t as easy as one would think in Bali. The odds are you are staying in Denpassar, on the southern island with the fancy resorts and the beach vibe, or in Ubud – with it’s Yoga culture and Organic emphasis.

But if you want to see the Bali that dreams are made of – the isolated communities, the farmers tilling their fields in ways that date back hundreds of years – you must leave the hustle and money grubbing tourist culture behind and head into the hills.

Diane (driver extradinare) decided to take me towards the far Western end of Bali – a land of ravines and forests – waterfalls and clove trees – that is dominated by the simply enormous Taman Nasional Bali Barat (West Bali National Park). There are several ways to get from here to there – and Diane selected the back road route. Tiny roads barely a car and a half wide – filled with pot holes deep enough to break an axle. But worth hanging tough to see the farmers lovingly tending their fields – acres of rice fields, tomato gardens, and flower gardens stretching out before us in a crazy patch work of infinite growth.

The best word I’ve found to describe Bali is succulent – over-ripe in many ways. There’s so much life all around you – all the time. Nothing is done half way – people don’t just smile – their faces light up when they say hi. Houses aren’t just buildings – they are compounds bursting with people, pets, children, life. It’s so over the top – it’s almost overwhelming.

And that’s the case with the farms. You don’t just see tomatoes growing. In the same field might also be lettuce, cabbage, and perhaps tempe. Green houses are suprisingly common – and don’t just grow strawberries – in amonst the strawberry plants there are long beans, onions, perhaps marigolds.

Flower fields – particularly marigolds that are present in all offerings, on all tables, in every bathroom – including the bathrooms at the airport (who ever saw fresh flowers in the bathroom of an airport before?) – abound. There’s a real industry in marigold buying I guess – all the women I’ve spotted doing offerings – and some women do this every day, to every car, motor bike, entrance way, and hindu statue in their living space – use marigolds. And yet I’ve never seen them for sale.

We drive up and down and around – spotting Ogoh-Ogoh’s hidden in community halls, entrance ways to temples, or proudly displayed on street corners in every village. As we go from Sea Level to over 4500 feet in elevation (over 1000 meters) – the vegetation changes – it’s still Rain Forest – but now the plants are Clove Trees (did you know Cloves grew on trees – I didn’t), Coffee Trees, Jack Fruit Trees, Durum Fruit trees – you name it – and it grows wild here.

Diane says that these aren’t really that wild. All land – except that in the National Park – belongs to someone – and the Clove Trees get harvested in their season, as does the coffee, the vanilla, the nutmeg, and the fruits. Sure enough – we arrive at the ridge line road that runs along the top of the mountain – and on our right – the side that is less steep – but still pretty steep – are compounds. And in front of every one is a stand holding todays market garden harvest. This time of year it’s Mangosteens and Mandarin Oranges. We stop and buy 3 kg of Mangosteens for 20,000 RLP (about $2) – and enjoy their burst in your mouth flavor.

Diane does a rest stop at one of the view spots for the national park – and an enterprising young man has picked the same location to display his animal collection – 2 huge fruit bats, a snake the size of – well – a big snake, and a giant lizard. I’m intrigued by the bats. They are huge – over a foot long from tip to bottom with a wing spread of at least 2 yards (2 meters). They are soft to the touch, and their wings feel like baby skin. I feed one a bit of banana and watch it’s tongue move in and out as it slowly enjoys the snack.

The young man has had the bats for 3 years – raised them from babies – and they are amazingly calm. He puts one on my hips – and it walks its way up to have it’s legs around my neck as I stretch out it’s wings and Diane snaps a picture. Oh – is this weird. And only on a mountain top in Bali I’m guessing.

We hike down a rough trail to see a waterfall that tumbles over 400 feet (100 meters) from high above us. At the bottom of the water fall is a walking area that you can use to reach the bottom of the fall – it’s too cold and wet for me to venture in too far – but I get the idea. Beautiful.

We head back down the mountain – and stop at one of the 7 main Hindu temples in Bali – The Lake temple. There is a festival happening – Diane thinks it’s a family gathering related to the cremation of a relative – these happen 5 years after the death of the relative – and serve as an opportunity to provide the priests with offerings of live ducks apparently! Neat.

The grounds of the lake temple have been turned into a Balinese style amusement area – play ground for the kids – and paddle boats – including a pink swan boat – for the adults. We wander around – enjoying the atmosphere for a while. One thing that surprised me – just 100 meters from the entrance to this famous old temple is a brand new – very large – mosque. And while we were wandering around – we hear the call to prayer echoing across the park. Nothing says religious tension like putting your religious site on top of someone elses…

Our next stop was supposed to be lunch – but we get a bit lost on the way – and pass an official looking sign. I ask what it is for – and Diane says – Hot Spring! Oh I really want to visit a Hot Springs – so he backs up – parks – and we follow the trail down to the spring. Curiously, it leads thru a farmers yard with his fighting cocks in their individual cages made from bamboo – and around his fields, before we enter thru an offical looking gate way. The Hot spring has been relatively (by Bali Standards) built up. There’s a ticket booth, a toilet (squat only – no toilet paper), private bathing rooms that one can hire, changing rooms with showers – and 2 hot baths made of stone. One is fairly large – and about 98 degrees. The other is quite small – 1 or 2 persons at a time – max – and quite a bit warmer. Using my hand – I’d guess at least 104 degrees. There’s a third pool – but this one requires an additional fee – apparently it has a greater mineral content and offers more healing power – so we opt to just admire the setting.

We hike back up to the car – and continue on. I’m really getting hungry now. The road gets smaller and smaller – and the pot holes deeper and deeper. I’m seriously questioning Diane’s ‘short-cut’ when we suddenly pop out onto a more major road – and suddently there are the famous rice fields of Bali. Unfortunately – here comes the rain as well. Hey – it’s a rain forest – into your life some rain must fall.

We eat lunch in a restaurant with an amazing view of the rice fields – if it wasn’t pouring so hard that even the restaurant dog is looking for shelter. Diane gets nervous for his car when a wind blast hits so hard that the bamboo shades that protect the open air restaurnat from the sun are blown hard into the posts that support the ceiling. Really – really hard. plants are blown over – and the few patrons hurridly change tables for ones that are more centered and away from the wind. The temperature plummets – and for the first time in 2 weeks – I’m a bit cool!

But this too shall pass – and before we can pay our bill – the rain is over, the sun is out – and the rice fields are once again visible thru the fog. We admire them – and then head on down – a quick stop at the Butterfly park to see butterflies bigger than many birds (6 to 8″ across), a giant dung beatle, and leaf bugs. There is even a black widow spider. And then home – pool, shower, dinner and bed.

Signing off to consider her next jaunt… The Soup Lady

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