We’re glad to say, our flight out of Bali to Singapore wasn’t delayed by the volcano.
It was time to leave Bali, but we boarded the plane feeling we had only scratched the surface of Indonesia. The impression we have is that the real beauty and spirit of the country lies beyond Java and Bali, across the seas to the other 13000 islands. After all, it’s a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, 700 spoken languages, the 4th largest population in the world and the 14th largest land mass.
So, with its wonderfully friendly people, who laugh a lot and don’t take themselves too seriously, and incredible good value, it’s somewhere we might well return to. But, next time we’ll have to give ourselves weeks and weeks to do it justice, to island hop at will, to immerse ourselves in local communities and to trek into the wild countryside.
In short, we’d like to see more of the fishermen who take their boats out each morning across picture-perfect isolated islands, and less of the traders who sell motorbike parts and brooms in the polluted noisy streets.
But how lucky we are to come here at all. We got to see wonderful Borobudur, travelled across Java by train, and saw the sunset from Bali. Wonderful memories.
This gap year constantly reminds us that to understand the world today you need to appreciate the depth of faith in so many people’s lives. Sometimes the religious sights are uplifting (think Italian churches), sometimes emotional (women crying at a service in Quito) and sometimes disturbing (the very wealthy new churches going up all over the southern USA states).
But in largely Hindu Bali we perhaps saw the strangest, yet in some ways the sweetest, sight – the daily cabangsari offering.
This is a small palm-leaf basket with an assortment of gifts for the Gods. Every morning, right across the island, they are left outside most shops, businesses and restaurants. We saw women with trays of them going from street to street dispensing these, no doubt to order.
The funny thing is many of the trays included hand-rolled cigarettes. Also by the end of the day, their job done, the cabangsari get trodden upon or driven over, making a complete mess of the pavement.
Muslims view dogs as inherently dirty and do not keep them as pets. So, there were very few dogs at all on Java, a Muslim majority island, and no stray dogs, which have presumably found it impossible to survive.
Bali, because it is largely Hindu, is the total opposite, with lots of stray dogs everywhere. These dogs look like they have lots of fleas (judging from their scratching) and are in a mangy condition. They were a constant hazard on the roads, since they would just run out into traffic, and we saw one accident within a day of arriving. They are also a big irritation on the beaches.
In respect of dogs, Bali therefore reminded us of South America. All countries should perhaps develop a policy for dealing with strays, since this problem will just get worse as populations rise.
As the photo above shows, we also saw a group of big huskies being walked along Echo Beach at 7am. They looked very hot, panting already in the tropical climate. When they are bred for snow, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to bring huskies to Bali?
On our second day with the scooter we headed up the coast. After a 25km journey of sensual overload, we reached a different world; of black sparkling sand (think best kitchen granite) secret coves, windswept palm trees and locals fishing.
It was the perfect place to walk and talk, we touched on aspects of Indonesian society, which Hilary had been reading about in the book “Indonesia etc” by Elizabeth Pisani, as well as all our plans when we get home.
Spontaneously, we splashed out on lunch at the palatial uber stylish Soori resort nestled away in the palm trees. We stood out as the only Europeans in the restaurant amongst young, graceful Korean and Chinese couples, who obviously have a lot more money than a couple of Brits travelling around the world.
An ideal stop on the way back was the Tanah Lot Hindu temple. Built in the 16th century, this is one of seven sea temples around the Balinese coast, each established within eyesight of the next to form a chain along the south-western coast. It was fun to watch the tourists take selfies, whilst getting soaked by the waves.
Then it was back to “the junction of death”. Hilary executed the nerve-racking right turn, squeezing through the other scooters, and we were safely back in our hotel.
After a couple of days in Canggu, we were ready to see more of Bali. Despite concerns about road safety, we decided to hire a motorised scooter for £4/day – this has to be the bargain of the year.
After a two minute lesson on the controls, Hilary set off with Roger holding on behind, doing the navigation. As we sped along, it was like one of those DVLA Hazard Tests. Everywhere wayward chickens, stalking dogs, kamikaze pedestrians, sudden potholes and hundreds of other scooter drivers who were happy to drive on both sides of the road. At a crossroads your bloggers nicknamed “the junction of death”, we narrowly avoided both a woman scooter rider with dozens of egg trays on the back and a man with carpets, rolls of long grass and everything but the kitchen sink on board his scooter. Despite the risks it was great fun and our senses were bombarded with colour and sounds!
It was a round trip of 90km to the UNESCO World Heritage Jatiluwih rice terraces and back. Originally built in the 9th century, these terraces have provided the staple diet for generations of Balinese. The communal irrigation still works brilliantly, though sadly we spotted some barren terraces, no doubt youngsters deciding it’s vastly more profitable (and easier) to be driving tourists around, than doing back-breaking work in the sweltering sun.
The journey there had been hot and noisy, but at last we found an oasis of calm and green beauty. A rarity in this crowded island of 4.2m people.
Our base on the west coast of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of the main resorts, is more Costa Rica than the south of France. And we like it that way.
There’s a hippy-like charm to the beaches. Surfers wait patiently for their next wave, beautiful millennials assume yoga positions, and met-last-month couples smile hand-in-hand. Australian expats are up the earliest, walking along the shoreline past the spaces cleared for the next stage of “touristisation”, probably wishing time would stand still.
With boutique shops and beauty salons lining the road down to the beach, this isn’t the place to escape the pace of change. But where is today?
But change brings facilities and fun people, and to chill out we both joined a 90 minute intense yoga session, our presence raising the average age by some 10 years. Hilary looked great throughout with brilliant posture. Roger wasn’t quite so supple. So, to his list of post gap year actions, he’s added joining a class.
We have arrived in Bali to discover volcanologists are announcing that Mount Agung, its largest volcano to the east of the island, may erupt any day soon. With numerous villages likely to be wiped out, thousands have been evacuated from a 12km exclusion zone. Authorities are right to treat this seriously, the last time Mount Agung erupted in 1963, over 1,000 died.
We’re 70km away so currently unaffected. But it does mean our flight out of here on Saturday might be disrupted. It’s possible we’ll be here longer than planned and may have to rearrange our remaining round-the-world flights.
When we were children, Bali was an idyllic, exotic and semi-mysterious place. Today we read it’s ruined; litter on all the beaches, the sea full of condoms, the whole place overrun with drunken Aussies. So we have realistic expectations of our week here, hopefully a time of relaxing and recharging before we start a fairly intensive period of travel in Malaysia and India.
Our home in Bali is the surf shack area of Canggu, which Lonely Planet calls ‘more a state of mind than a place’. But, today with cranes and builders everywhere, it’s a place in transition – the ancient paddy fields are becoming pizza joints.
You know it’s not looking promising when the top rated place to visit on TripAdvisor is a shopping mall.
How can a modern temple to global consumerism, built no doubt with foreign investment and kick-backs, be the most popular destination – where are the inspiring museums, historic buildings or peaceful parks?
We are in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city with three million people (that’s three times the population of Birmingham in England), yet there is nothing remotely aesthetic here. In fact we saw the most attractive place as we left – the airport terminal.
So, before our flight to Bali, what to do with our day? We took super cheap Uber’s (making them illegal here doesn’t appear to be on the cards), to a couple of eclectic sites; a cigarette factory and a Russian submarine. So our theme for the day was ‘things which kill people’.
But instead, we probably should have used our day in East Java to visit Mount Bromo, but that would have been our ninth volcano of the gap year.
Because of the graceful height, the symmetry of the towers and the cool, dark inner temples, we found this 9th century Hindu temple more impressive than Buddhist Borobudur.
Situated just some 50km apart, both were built at a similar time, using the same volcanic rock and both have followed the same path of rediscovery, looting, restoration, and continual damage due to earthquakes, rain and volcanoes.
Here at Prambanan, there are 240 temples but the main focus is on the towering 47m high (154 ft) central building which was impressively restored in the 1990’s. But most of the smaller shrines are now visible only in their foundations, with no plans for their reconstruction. Again, the whole place reminded us of a smaller version of Angkor Wat.
It was a blistering hot day and like the other tourists we sought respite in the few shady places: underneath some isolated trees and inside the actual temples. Colourful parasols were being sold at a fast rate, the challenge was to keep them out of our photos.
This has to be the most crazy place we have visited during the gap year. A hideous concrete building designed to look like a dove, that actually resembles a hen.
Google ‘Chicken Church’ and you’ll enter the world of Daniel Alamsjah from Jakarta, who claims he was inspired by God to build a prayer house through a dream he had in 1989.
Later, he was walking through the countryside, where his wife’s family live, when he caught sight of the exact same landscape he had seen in his dream. ‘I got a revelation that I must build the prayer house in that spot,’ he said.
Due to financial difficulties and local resistance, the construction was never finished, but ironically nearly two decades later the villagers are making a good living from its popularity as a ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ tourist destination.
After the steep hill to reach the Chicken Church, we climbed further up a tiny spiral staircase onto the chicken’s head. Borobudur Temple was close-by, across the valley. So, two religious buildings reborn as tourist destinations.