Monday, 15 July 2013

Having a ball in Bali (part I: Ubud)

Talk about the best $105 I've spent this summer- the price for round trip tickets for four and a half days in Bali, Indonesia.  Somehow I booked a different flight than my friends getting to Bali but the 8 or so hours I spent before they arrived were some of my favorite for seeing how the average Indonesian lives.  Sanur, a balinese couch surfer and a vet, camped out at the airport 3 hours before my arrival and greeted me admidst throngs of tourists with a handmade sign and the most delicious roti-o French toast-sequence warm crispy bread.  Before exploring the island en route to Ubud on his motorbike, we stopped to meet his brother and sister-in-law who greeted me with warm smiles and a mug of Balinese coffee.  After chatting for awhile about their lives in Dubai and things to do in bali, Sanur and I took off for the hour long drive to our villa.  The place we booked was a two bedroom private villa plopped in the middle of rice fields outside of Ubud.  The place was owned by a Norwegian who was renting it out while abroad and we lived like kings for $15/each per night.  After I got settled, we headed downtown, ate dive at a local jive, and ended up listening to a live band at a biker bar.  I got my first taste of Bintang (the local brew and their pride and joy) rocking out to 90s tunes with Indonesian motorbike boys.
The view of our private pool from the balcony in our villa
The next day was an eco-cycle tour suggested by Didi, the wife of our friend at the embassy.  We had high expectations and all of us laughed out loud when we read about the tour ahead of time: "We ride through lush forested areas, plantations full of Balinese staples and cash crops (cloves, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, tapioca, taro, local vegetables and exotic tropical fruits), through timeless small villages and lush rice paddy panoramas. And throngs of adorable Balinese children will be there calling out ‘hellos’ and wanting ‘high fives’ on the way down" but literally, that's what happened (I felt bad when kids reached out for a high five because I'm a two-hands-on-the-wheel-kinda-girl when I'm flying down hills).
We started with a Balinese breakfast of black rice pudding and banana pancakes overlooking Mt. Banur (an active volcano) and Bali's largest lake.  Fortified with deliciousness, we got on mountain bikes for my favorite kind of biking (almost entirely downhill, "Mary Poppins style") winding down quiet village roads.
On our bikes!  Outside rice paddies where Deb almost got stuck in the mud
The first major stop was the plantation where we learned about (and tasted) Balinese fruits, tea and coffee.  We elected to sample "Kopi Luwak", the most expensive coffee in the world, fondly referred to as "Cat-poo-ccino" by our sassy tour guide.  To produce this coffee, a civet ("half-fox, half-cat like creature) eats, digests and excretes the beans from which the coffee is brewed.  We tasted it with an open mind and enthusiastic anticipation but I think we agreed with Tim Carman, food writer for the Washington Post who concluded "It tasted just like...Folgers. Stale. Lifeless. Petrified dinosaur droppings steeped in bathtub water. I couldn't finish it" after tasting the brew.  From there, we hopped on our bikes, stopped at a traditional Balinese family compound to learn about their daily life and dance with the three adorable kids rocking out to Gangham style.  We ate bananas at the base of a huge Banyan tree, walked around rice paddies and got stuck in the mud, saw woodcarvers at work and ate a delicious Balinese meal for lunch.
Deb and I in front of some terraced rice paddies
After the tour, we did an obligatory wander through the monkey forest, which is exactly what it sounds (a forest filled with monkeys).  It's kind of cheesy (and terrifying for Deb and I... monkeys haven't been the same since Kuching) but just one of the sights that you have to hit if you go to Ubud.  After some shopping, we returned to our villa for some party tunes and a private pool party, just us girls, as the sun set.  We agreed life was basically perfect... all I could add was "if only I had ten toenails" (stupid door!  I ran into on the first day of orientation but my toenail flew the coop just prior to arriving in Bali- no pedicures for me).
Ken joined us very late thursday night for a very indulgent Friday in Ubud.  Despite planning to sleep in, Deb and I woke up and were so excited by the farmers peacefully tilling the rice patties in our front yard and the beautiful weather that we couldn't go back to sleep. After some villa appreciation time, we headed into downtown to dine on jaffles (toasted sandwiches) and tofu satay, sitting on pillows at a private table in the middle of a beautiful, open temple area.  After some shopping in the local markets (famous and featured in the book/film Eat Pray Love), we all got $8 hour long deep tissue massages.  We left the spa, glistening like greased chickens with tousled hair and goofy grins- so relaxed!
After packing things up at the villa, we headed to a traditional Balinese cooking class which seemed to be in a compound where people lived.  We started off with some ginger tea and a lesson on how to make an offering (like the ones that literally line the streets in front of every shop, restaurant, home... everywhere you look in Bali).  Bali's a very spiritual and unique place.  Indonesia has one of the world's largest Muslim populations but Bali's 80% Hindu. And we experienced first-hand the spontaneous celebrations that overtake the streets with a large parade, stopping traffic for miles.
Preparing the offering, pre-cooking class
The chefs were the two happiest Balinese men (and apparently Michael Jackson fans) who made us elicit a cheer at every step of the process: "grind the peanuts! woooooo!", "pound the tuna!  wahoo!", "smoosh fish balls- yipee!", "stir the BFC ("Balinese Fried Chicken")- yeehaw!".  The lesson went by in a flash and before we knew it, we had prepared Gado Gado (a salad with peanut sauce), soup, Nasi Kuning (yellow rice), Fish (and Tofu and Tempe) sate, fish (and vegan) curry and Kolak Pisand (braised bananas in a palm sugar cinnamon sauce).
We were planning to power nap during the ride to Kuta but our driver picked us up in a car playing  Akon movie videos to prep us for entering the Aussie-party-land of the island.  After unloading, we explored the town- found the beach, listened to some live music then checked out the famous "sky garden" 8-clubs-in-one-complex.  If Aussie teenagers are your thing, we highly recommend it!
I think the beachy parts of our trip are going to have to wait for another entry- we woke up at 3:45 AM for an early flight.  I interviewed an important faculty member earlier today which went surprisingly well.  I didn't get too much information out of him but he loved me and wants me to come back next summer to develop an integrated math and physics course.
Check back soon for Bali, part 2!  Part of the reason this trip was so cool was that the first part (mountainous, rice-paddy-Ubud-land) was so different than the second (surfer-snorkel-beach, bluest-water-you-ever saw), although both were positively amazeballs (amazing balls as Ken says).  Good night!