Bali definitely had its moments. Here are a few that stand out from the second half of our miniature expedition.
The Indiana Jones moment – hunting the lost temple
When we decided to explore the Elephant Cave near Ubud, we figured it was typical temple fare—compulsory sarong around our waists, ever-present camera in our hands, and pesky hawkers in our faces. After the disappointment of the cave—it’s nearly as small as my Jakarta apartment, and aside from the novelty of entering through a gigantic mouth of a stone demon, there’s not too much to see—we wanted to make good on our price of admission, so we went wandering the trails through the garden.
The trails’ gardens quickly became jungles—humid, dense, sweltering air, birds clacking and insects buzzing unseen in the trees, no other humans but ourselves in sight. When we passed an incense altar and a priest (at least he was wearing a professional sarong, so I assume he was a priest) who told us of a Jungle Temple further down the trail, we were all in.
We stepped through the muddy creeks and slipped through narrow paths. We negotiated tight turns around crumbling stairs over ravines whose bottom couldn’t be seen for the foliage, we shimmied past tourists returning with fright locked in their eyes. Yes, I felt like Indiana Jones—only wearing my not-so-masculine sarong instead of the forever-cool fedora, and brandishing a camera and tripod instead of a whip and revolver.
That effect was only heightened when we crossed a rickety bamboo bridge over a gushing current that deafened conversation. Summoning our courage and braving the slick stones and the cross-at-your-own-risk bridge, we found a waterfall and the end of the trail—but no mysterious jungle temple in sight.
We shrugged and started trudging back—back across the rickety bridge, back up the slick slopes in our sarongs, back—but wait! There it was! A staircase on the opposite riverbank—stairs carved into the rock and forging into the unknown jungle.
Sweated soaked and sort of accustomed to the trail, we had nothing to lose now. So we scurried back down the slick mud and rocks, tripping and slipping on the hems of our sarongs, back across the rickety bamboo bridge, and quickly began hopping across the slimy, mossy boulders that led to the stairs. The lost temple had to be here somewhere.
We came to an impasse—the stairs lay over the edge of a tiny cliff as tall as I. The base, I guess, had washed out long ago. Andy was wearing flip-flops and was beginning to lose the sense of adventure. We were pushing our luck now—alone in the jungle far from the tourists and priests and hawkers of the Elephant Cave, sliding across rocks and ravines (and she in mere flip-flops), and now attempting a bit of freestyle rock climbing to attempt a mysterious staircase to who knows where. Sound like a good idea?
It did to me—I could hear the Indiana Jones soundtrack in my ears. Hitching up my sarong, I started to climb—the temple had to be here. I just wished I hadn’t shaved that morning to look a little more the part. I scrambled and crested the slick face, reached down and grabbed the camera from Andy’s hand, and shuttled on alone. Up the crooked stairs, around the leafy bend, peering through the forest and wiping my brow to find to the trail again. It had to be here. The Jungle Temple was so close now, I could almost feel it’s lost and foreboding presence creeping across the path. Any moment now and—
But this is what I found.
It had to be a joke. Imagine carrying groceries back to that place.
I think we spent another hour in the woods searching for the temple. Among our discoveries along the various trails, we found a lady doing laundry in a spring and selling Coka-Cola to passers-by, an imposing, steep staircase leading to a city street with an angry puppy-dog, a construction sight along the edge of the ravine, and, last of all, the Jungle Temple.
It wasn’t much: smaller than the elephant cave, carved stone layered in moist moss, no gold statues to steal for the sake of a museum. We took a few pictures, and the last Indiana moments I had were trudging back to the parking lot in my borrowed sarong.
Robert Falcon Scott moment – freezing in Bedugul
Our next stop was the mountain temple at Bedugul—for a long time atop Andy’s list of photography destinations. It’s practically on the cover of every Bali travel guide—a many-tiered temple spire reflecting across the crisp blue of a marble-smooth lake, encircled by sun-warmed mountains and graced with wisps of innocent clouds.
Well, let’s just say our experience was a lot colder, a lot rainier, a lot foggier, a lot more traffic-packed, and a lot more frustrating than the guidebook pictures made us believe.
We sat through and hour and a half of bumper-bumper jams up steep twists in the mountain road, hopped out at the destination to find it enveloped in a freezing fog, realized we were wearing only shorts and tee-shirts, and set out seeking ways to warm ourselves and wait out the clouds.
Our strategies included everything from brisk walks to tight hugs to hot teas to wrapping up in the café’s tablecloth. Ridiculous, you think? Freezing, I think. OK, so maybe it’s not quite the same level of death-inducing frost that denied the famed R.F. Scott his Antarctic Expedition prize, but it sure seemed close after the heat of the jungle trek from a few hours before.
Eventually we shivered our way back to the van for the ride back down the mountain, plotting our revenge—I mean, return.
Jack Kerouac moment – racing to Lovina
So it was mostly my fault that we woke up an hour late. To be fair, I was up on time, lying in bed and thinking that, wow, I’m pretty rested for waking up at three AM. It was necessary, after all, in order to leave before four, make the two-hour trek to Lovina, and catch the dolphins at sunrise.
I was awake and awaiting the alarm. It rang and we got our stuff together, and on the way out the door, I strapped on my watch and saw the time: 4:45—an hour late. I scrambled to check the alarm clock time: 3:45. Then it dawned on me: the clock was still on Jakarta’s time zone. We had missed our start by an hour.
That’s where the fun started. We raced out the door, and I slipped down the rain-slicked stairs (not a pretty start), and ran to the driver’s van—he’d been here over an hour already waiting for us, trying to contact us, but to no avail. There was nothing left to do but hurry. He sped off through the still-dark streets of Ubud, dodging street vendors setting up fruit stalls, narrowly missing motorbikes with sleepy-eyed morning-shift workers, and swerving around cavernous potholes in the narrow streets. He’d try to get us there on time, he said, but couldn’t make any promises.
That’s when the moment started—the driver whipping the van around mountain hairpins and passing where no sane person would dare, churning the tiny engine to RPMs only healthy for F1 racecars. Andy was too road-sick to be angry at me for the alarm fiasco; I was too wide-eyed to feel guilty. It was an Indonesian reenactment of Paradise Sal’s trip back from Denver in a borrowed Cadillac, crazy Moriarty at the wheel, hyped for driving like a madman. It scared Sal. It scared me. I tried to appreciate the beauty of the driver’s precision steering, tried to wonder at the sunrise topping the cliffs, marvel at the fact that we were still alive and able to witness this, but. . . you know. . . it was tricky.
Forgive me if I don’t have pictures of this one.
In the end, we arrived only a half-hour late, the young sun shimmering across the wide Lovina bay, and one last dolphin-watching launch waiting on us.
Moby Dick moment – dolphin hunting in Lovina
When we signed up for the dolphin-watching, I couldn’t shake the images of a slow tourist yacht full of Hawaii-shirted retirees and shrieking children chugging slowing through a lagoon and pointing excitedly at a handful of the animals surfacing in the distance. I wasn’t crazy about the idea.
What I found instead was an outrigger canoe with a formidable motor and devil-take-all Lovinian hell-bent on getting his clients some dolphins.
Here’s how it went: we raced from the van straight to the canoe, and in under a minute we were skipping across the bay, saltwater warm as morning oatmeal splashing our faces. We scarcely had time to click some picture of the surrounding mountains glistening in the sunrise before we connected with the rest of the fleet—a hundred outriggers idling in the crystal waters, scanning the horizons, waiting for someone to shout a “Thar she blows!” into the still sunrise.
Then it came—shouts from the captains and motors roared. Our fleet leaped to the chase. We splashed across the surface, edged our way in and out of the other speeding vessels, tailing a line of a half-dozen porpoises cresting the waves. Andy clapped and shouted in the pitching bow, I hung on for my life and clicked wild pictures, hoping to capture a moment with the beasts gracefully posed over the sunrise.
When the dolphins dove again, the motors stilled, the morning calm returned, and we went back to scanning the shimmering bay. In a few minutes, someone would spot another string of aquatic acrobats, and we would rip back into the hunt. No, we didn’t have a peg-legged captain, and there was no gold coin for the one who raised the dolphin, and our ship was never destroyed by a maniacal white monster-dolphin, but I couldn’t help feeling like good ole Ishmael chasing down whales in the south Pacific.
It certainly wasn’t what I had imagined—it was much wilder, and much better. Lovina, actually, was one of my favorite spots on Bali: not a tourist hotbed but with decent infrastructure, glass-clear water over soft black bleaches, plenty of mountains at a decent distance for a day’s excursion. If I ever make it back to Bali, I want to stay in Lovina.
Robert Falcon Scott moment II – return to Bedugul
Yes, Captain Scott returned to Antarctica to attempt the pole a second time. It killed him. Unlikely to learn our lesson from our first trip up to Bedugul, we decided to pass by on our return from the dolphin-ing. I have survived to tell the tale.
And that tale goes much like the first: rain, fog, disappointment, wasted memory card space for sub-prime pictures. But at least we brought jackets.
There was an interesting note on this trip, though. Just as we were ready to leave, we heard the drums and the music of a religious procession entering the temple—a white-clad line hundreds strong with urns and offering and a complete marching band of local music. Of course we followed to see what would follow. Striking up conversation with other bystanders, we pieced together that this was a cremation ceremony for three important community figures, plus some other sacrifices and ceremonies thrown in. All the tourists took pictures like crazy; all the procession-ers arrived at the temple, set down their load, and went for coffee and cigarettes.
Food came for the rain-dampened funeral guests, a Hindu priest preached a message, different groups split off to the various shrines, music from the marching band would strike up from time to time, and every once in awhile, a rowboat with a few dignitaries would set out into the fog of the lake.
Andy and I happened to be nearby when one set out—complete with a hen and a duck tied inside a couple homespun baskets. Andy shuddered and fearfully asked if these would be killed.
“No,” the man said, “sometimes they do sacrifices. But these animals OK.” We breathed a sigh of relief.
“We not kill these. That bad.” Another sigh of relief.
“We say a prayer for these, so they reincarnated something better.”
We startled and turned. “So they are killed?”
“No, my friend, no kill.” Another sigh of relief. “Reincarnated.”
Confusion had definitely settled in. “OK,” I said, “on this boat ride, what is going to happen to the duck and the hen?”
“Yes, like I said. We take them out to say a prayer. They not killed. We maybe take a rock or something with them and sink them to the deep lake.” He made a swift pointing motion down.
“So they’re killed.”
“No, my friend, these special. These for reincarnate.”
They boat was already lost to the fog, and we, despite our jackets, were cold and wet. So we left. I don’t know what became of the captive hen and duck, but we barely escaped the frigid conditions of Bedugul to bring this report.
Next time in Bali, I’ll climb Agung; I’ll step to the rim of Batur; and I’ll stare into these gigantic craters far above Bedugul’s peak. But I’m not wasting another drive up the twisting heights for that fog-cursed temple.
Joseph Campbell moment—dances in Ubud
The first night we arrived at our hotel in Ubud, I thought we got the address wrong and ended up at a temple instead—the place was covered in statues covered in sarongs, lit incense spiraled up everywhere, and the ubiquitous plumeria offerings where scattered all over the walkways.
It actually was out hotel, though. The owner is just dedicated to preserving Balinese culture. As we carried our bags back among the statues and incense and costumes and paintings, he told us that he also sort of heads up a local dance outfit that performs nightly traditional dances. We had wanted to take him up on his offer of discount tickets on our previous nights, but now, returning early from Bedugul’s second rebuff, we were finally able to give it a try.
Sometimes it seems Ubud has too many temples to use for worship, and the dance was held in the courtyard of one of these. The packed crowds and intellectual atmosphere, though, made me feel less like temple-hunting Indiana Jones and more like a snooty anthropologist. And since Joseph Campbell is pretty much the only anthropologist whose name I know, I tagged him in the title.
Anyway, we planted ourselves cross-legged for two hours of dance and homemade music—everything from tiny twitching of flower-decked, gold-robed girls wearing two months’ makeup to monkey heroes’ antics to the mystical monster of good, the Barong. Something like a friendly, miraculous dragon, the Barong is the main attraction—the costume suits two performers, one at the head to jangle the mask’s beads and playfully snap its jaws, the other at the tail to weave its dragonish train across the stage.
The performance, according to the program, actually tells a story—a wicked witch who corrupts the maidens of a village, the wise king who confronts her and proves his authority, her rebellion from his rule and her subsequent transformation into a hideous demon monster, and the wise king’s envoy of might and restoration, the mystical Barong, to save the day and heal the evil-possessed villagers.
It was a fun story, kind of cartoonish at times, but I definitely started to see some of those cross-cultural archetypes of the myth, Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces” starting to emerge—but I think I was too busy trying to shake the tingling sleep and from my crossed legs and stretch the oncoming cramps from my too-tight limbs while still in the middle of a crowded floor.
Maybe more reflection will come later. For now, though, we headed to bed and were off to Lombok in the morning.