This picture is my image of Bali: calm, tranquil and peaceful…but it was not like that at all!
Bravely I decided to go on my own as Husband was off to Zurich on business. I contacted my daughter Louise’s friend Charley, who is living there, and she put me on to a local dive operation as the plan was to spend a couple of days in the south and then do a couple of days diving in the North East of the island.
At the Singapore Dive Show, I checked out Tulamben Wreck Divers and Tony reassured me that ‘the most dangerous thing in Bali is drunken Ozzies not the Balinese’. HA!
Off we set on the first night, me pillion to Kyle, Charley’s partner, she close behind. Traffic is mayhem in Bali, scooters all sides and all directions, but even so I was slightly unnerved when a bike drew abreast on our inside and I found myself looking into a pair of penetrating evil eyes as I simultaneously felt my bag being yanked from my shoulders with an almighty ping as the strap gave way; before I could even utter a swear word, the scooter was gone and my bag was missing. With it was Rupiah 5million ($550) for my diving and hotel; credit cards, passport, two phones – and my pride. But Charley to the rescue, her shouting had scared the would-be thief off, and the bag was lying abandoned in the road…
At dinner a rat scuttled round our feet! Welcome to Bali!
Charley and Kyle were great hosts and we whizzed around on the scooters getting soaked, visiting temples, surfers’ beaches and a Japanese restaurant with a local Jazz band, whose singer thought she was Janis Joplin! We shared a table with Indonesia’s runner up to its version of The Voice. There is no escape from popular ‘culture’.
Two days later and I was picked up by the dive resort’s vehicle and we made our way through the countryside up to the NE corner, to Tulamben, home to Bali’s best dive site, the Liberty wreck, a US supply ship that was sunk by the Japanese in the war.
En route we passed paddy fields nestling under the Mt Agung, the largest volcano which last erupted in 1963. Pretty but not post-card…
Upgraded to a beach villa (see photo of pool) after a quick lunch of satay, I did my first dive. Disappointed that there were so many other divers and that my eyesight is now so bad that, without a prescription mask, I completely failed to see the three miniature sea-horses my guide proudly showed me! But I was proud of myself for my intrepid diving skills, donning weight belt and tanks (having walked or scooted to the beach in my wetsuit and bootees – what a sight!) before entering the sea via an excruciatingly rocky shore. Day 2 I actually did THREE dives…the first at 6.30 am to see a school of HUGE bump-head parrot fish.
The downside of being on one’s own in a remote place is that – apart from eating on my own – there is no-one to drink with, so had to resort to buying a quarter bottle of gin and a couple of tonics that I eked out over my two-night stay! Two nights was quite enough, however, as I had exhausted the novelty of diving in Bali by then and, as I agreed with a Spanish Dive Master I met, it was disappointing on an international scale. No complaints about the professionalism of Tulamben Wreck Divers, however, who were charming and helpful to a lone British woman!
Still feeling disappointed in Bali so far – Kuta and Seminyak were just one long strip of tawdry shops, bars and restaurants, and I had not seen a single grain of white sand, only black volcanic rocks – I decided to take the scenic route to the airport.
Chauffeured by my Britney&Bieber-loving driver, we went first to Tirti Ganga, the Royal Baths which were both beautiful and tranquil, luscious greens with calming water features (see top photo); as it was Full Moon, there were even more ceremonial offerings being laid at the ubiquitous shrines outside every home. From there we moved on to the most sacred temple, Pura Besakih, teeming with supplicants and gangs of giggling girls and boys having a great day out with their teachers. Forced to don a Bob Marley sarong, I looked a sight for sore eyes.
Annoyingly I began to notice a new trait in the Balinese – an avariciousness totally out of traditional character: I was stopped everywhere by uniformed men demanding tourist tax, parking fees, and tips, and vendors as far as the eye can see, all with charming good nature of course. Even lunch, later at the Bangli overlooking the volcano caldera, was a rip-off: an uninspiring buffet for $10 each excluding drinks, which were exorbitant.
Nevertheless I loved the graceful women and the cheeky kids at the temple. Whatever else about Bali that disappoints, the people are delightful, polite and friendly.
Finally from Mt Batur down to Ubud – another huge disappointment as this is the hippy sanctuary of yore, famed for arts and culture, now reduced to yet another high street of mediocrity – via a coffee estate, where I tried delicious Luwak coffee. This is made from beans that have been eaten by civet cats and passed out as poo. I saw it being roasted and dried, so my squeamishness was banished!
So ended my first foray in what I now call my ‘grown-up gap year’ – a time when I will be going off on my own as and when I am able, or forced to by circumstance, in order to take advantage of this amazing opporutnity to travel the Far East for the next couple of years.
Next week I am off to Hyderabad (with Husband) and then to Mumbai (alone) but to stay with friends…Watch this space!