I Think They Call This Flashpacking

I have to admit that each time I start to post with anything resembling regularity, I begin feeling a little suspicious even of myself. When you’re writing about your own travels, “prolific” can sometimes go hand in hand with “has lots of free time to sit around in front of a laptop.” But in this case, I assure you the frequency of my Bali posts has more to do with my incredible good luck so far when it comes to wi-fi than it does with a lack of ambition to get out there. Because I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but more than anything else — more than the excitement of whatever city I’m in, the beauty of the pictures, my general energy level — more than any of that, the amount that I post depends on the reliability (and price) of wi-fi wherever I happen to be. (Oh, what’s that? I have mentioned it? In sporadic emails to my friends and family explaining why they never hear from me? Right, then. There you go.)

So far in Bali I’ve been incredibly fortunate in this regard. Our first hostel offered Internet at prices cheap enough I didn’t even have to bother doing the rupiah-to-dollar conversion, and our current hotel provides unlimited free wi-fi. Let me say that again for those who aren’t backpackers, so that they might grasp how monumental a perk this is for me these days:

THEY HAVE UNLIMITED FREE WI-FI.

This is where I’m posting from right now. Someone get me out of here before I start to forget I’m operating on a shoestring here.

They also fed me free banana pancakes and coffee this morning, re-made my bed while I was out, and sent someone into our room last night to kill a huge spider when we were too scared to do it ourselves. This morning, when we stepped outside, they’d placed a jug of tea and two cups and saucers on our little porch, and we lingered in awe over it to the snip-snip-snipping sounds of staff carefully trimming the lawn with gardening shears. Walking from our room to the pool (the pool!) you pass an honest-to-God rice paddy that rustles in the breeze.

Morning at Nick’s Pension hotel

This is hardly the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in (that distinction would probably go to this place, for which we all know I didn’t pay. Thank you Tahiti Tourism Board!) but right now it definitely feels like it is. Tomorrow night, we’re back in an $8-a-night dorm room in Padang Bai, a shoreline section of Bali chosen specifically for its “backpacker-friendly” (a.k.a. “cheap”) atmosphere. But tonight, I’m going to remember what a crazy-deluxe — speaking in backpacker terms, of course — day we’ve had here in Ubud.

Price of a young coconut in Ubud: 15,000 rupiah. Price of a young coconut outside of Ubud, had we waited a mere 30 minutes to get there: 5,000 rupiah. Like I said, we went all out today.

Let me start by stating a fact that seems glaringly obvious the second you set foot on any street in Bali, but would have seemed unfathomable to me just a few days ago: if you need to get anywhere, you hire a private car with a driver. Trust me, I know this sounds frivolous. I spent the last three days living off of oranges and imported Skippy peanut butter, for God’s sake. But hiring a private car here is pretty much the economical, comfortable way to go. (OK, it may have been a bit cheaper to rent a motorbike – but, um, no). All you have to do is walk down the street — actually, I’d venture to guess you could just stand on the sidewalk in front of your hotel and lightly touch your big toe to the road — and you will be inundated with offers of “taxi,” “transport,” or sometimes just guys jiggling their two fists around in the shape of  a steering wheel. I have never said the words “no thank you” so many times in my life as I have just walking down the street in Bali. The good news is, it makes it easy to find a way to get wherever you want to go and, I’d wager, even to bargain the price of your transportation down.

But bargaining, well, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable (sorry, Dad – that gene apparently skipped me). So today, when we decided we wanted to go see an ancient grouping of stone-carved shrines called Gunung Kawi 18km outside of town, I wanted to stick with a driver from our hotel. For under $50 US, we set up a ride to Gurung Kawi, the Holy Spring temple, an active volcano, a coffee plantation, and a rice paddy. (I make it sound as if we got them to throw in all this extra stuff for free — not the case. The very enterprising waiter at breakfast also worked the tour desk. He’s a good salesman. And I’m a bit of a sucker.)

$50 US feels like a small fortune when you’re living on a backpacker’s budget, but here’s how I put it in perspective: it’s the base price of a taxi from JFK to Manhattan. And this ride takes you all over inland Bali with a driver who’s actually friendly and only too happy to turn on the AC. Sold.

Our first stop – come to think of it, the only one we specifically requested – was Gunung Kawi. Last night, something (panic? Guilt?) prompted me to actually pull up the “Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” guide I’d downloaded months ago on my Kindle and scroll over to the Ubud chapter. I was gripped with sudden worry that we might have come all the way here only to miss something spectacular due to lack of research. At the end of the book’s Ubud section, it said something to the effect of “You’d be remiss if you didn’t see Gunung Kawi, the most magnificent ancient ruins in all of Bali, only about 18km outside Ubud.” (I hate being remiss!). That was pretty much all the book said on the subject, and they gave us zero information at the actual temple site when we arrived (if you’re interested, these people seem to have really done their homework. Well done, them). But what I can tell you is that the site is composed of ten absolutely massive 11th-century shrines carved into shear cliff face, with dense jungle, a river, and terraced rice paddies sandwiched in between.

Your admission ticket includes the rental of a sarong, which everyone’s required to wear. The fact that even guys had to cover up, for the record, made me feel somewhat more on equal footing even after I’d seen this sign:

OK, I get it. Different cultures, different customs, not in the US any more, blah blah blah. What I want to know is: how do they even verify this?

At any rate, other entry requirements were easier to adjust to. Like this one:

“Sprinkle holy water on my head before entering? Sure! Just give me a minute to embarrass my friend by making her take my picture while I do it.”

Once inside, you immediately start descending a flight of stone steps long enough to make me miss my 3rd-floor walk-up in New York. The benefit of these steps, of course, is that they overlook terraced rice paddies spilling over like waterfalls, so lush you’re tempted to swan-dive off the stairs and go swimming in them.

The first of many rice paddies I’m sure I’ll see on this trip.

Just when you start to forget you came to see anything besides swaying, mesmerizing rice paddies, the landscape sharply divides itself into a strip of jungle running alongside a river. And there, through the trees, are the ten shrines, chiseled in gargantuan scale into the side of the rock face bookending the whole scene in.

Wait for it… wait for it…

Boom! Shrines. (Next to Hayley for scale. I realize they do not look that big here, so you’re just going to have to trust me. We’re talking over 20 feet high. How someone managed to carve all of this in the 11th century absolutely baffles me. )

By the time we’d scoped out all ten carvings and hiked back up to the car, we were sweating so much that our layers of sunscreen had risen back up to the surface. That’s when Wayan, our friendly and helpful driver who I will always remember fondly as having probably saved me from near heat stroke, told us our next stop would be the Holy Spring temple. What’s that you say? Holy Spring? As in water?

Wayan cranked up the air con and took us back out onto the winding mountain roads, skillfully dodging motorbikes and stray dogs and succeeding in the very difficult task of not making us feel as if our lives were in danger. He also patiently answered all the burning questions I’d had since arriving in Bali, including: Do a ton of people die in motorbike accidents here? (Yes. All the time). Is there supposed to be a minimum age for driving them? (Yes, 17). How come that guy who just rode past looks about nine? (Everyone rides without a license). What are all those little offerings of flowers and Ritz crackers I see on the sidewalks every morning? (Offerings to the Hindu gods to give thanks for what they’ve bestowed – luck, health, a day without motorbike accidents – each day.)

Because there wasn’t any information available, once again, when we reached the Holy Spring temple, Wayan was also subject to my peppering him with questions on the subject once we’d left. (Poor guy didn’t know I used to awkwardly pepper drivers with tourism questions for a living). So, you heard it here first: the water at this temple is holy because it’s thought that bathing yourself in it will cure any illnesses or spells of bad luck you might be suffering.

I can’t attest to whether or not it works, but there certainly seemed to be a lot of people there who believed it did.

Crowds of believers at the holy spring.

What I can tell you, personally, is that sitting there with my legs dangling into the pool, watching person after person hop in and wash his cares away, certainly cured me of fatigue and overheating. So maybe that says something.

Our next stop was an active volcano, on the subject of which I’m going to have to be quite uninformative. See, you have to buy an entry ticket to drive up there, but they don’t tell you that you can’t actually stop and get out of the car to check it out unless you eat at the on-site restaurant. Clever, huh? So here’s what I can show you: a picture of the volcano taken from a slow-moving car on our way out.

Ta-da!

Next up was a coffee plantation. I hadn’t really realized Bali was known for its coffee. But apparently it is, thanks largely to an unusual method they use for harvesting the best beans. They round up these little animals called lewaks, who eat the outer fruit coating surrounding the beans. They wait patiently for the lewaks to chew off the coffee cherry and spit the bean out. Then they clean, roast, and grind only those spit-out beans – the reasoning being that the lewaks will eat only the very best of the coffee cherries set in front of them – to make an outlandishly expensive Balinese coffee.

Can’t you just see this guy at your local Starbucks?

OK, exhausted yet? We definitely were, to the point where I almost asked Wayan to skip our last stop, the rice terrace, and drop us back off at the hotel. Thankfully I didn’t.

Ah, so that’s how that works.

I don’t know if this is the most spectacular, or most famous, or highest-producing rice paddy in Bali. But I would guess that it is probably one of the only ones that actually lets visitors just come and wander along the terraces. When we arrived, I immediately started snapping pictures of an ancient man up on the top terrace carrying a mile-long bamboo pole hung with baskets. I couldn’t believe how hot and tired I was just after walking around in the relentless sun, and here this tiny old man was pulling off the truly acrobatic feat of balancing this thing on his shoulders without tumbling off the side of the terrace to a rice-induced death.

“Picture?” he finally called out to me, and I knew I’d been caught, sly as I’d tried to be in getting images of him. I smiled and nodded, raising my camera back up as he hoisted his baskets onto his shoulders and trudged up the steps to meet me.

“Oh, no!” I tried to explain, waving my hands, temporarily forgetting he probably couldn’t understand me, “Please, you don’t have to carry all that all the way up here! I can get pictures from up here, really!” Honestly this guy looked so frail I couldn’t believe he could even lift the thing, let alone lug it up to my eye level just so I could get a picture. But he just swung the pole up onto his shoulders, padded up the steps, and came to stand by me. I thought he was just going to let me stand by his side for the picture, so I passed my camera off to Hayley and stood there grinning dumbly. Before I knew it, the old man was shifting the weight of the thing, wriggling it onto left shoulder and then onto my right. I was crouching down like an olympic weight-lifter at this point – the mass of this thing was crippling, and I must have been one-third of this guy’s age. As I struggled under the weight of the baskets, grunting at Hayley to take the picture, she just stood there looking at me in disbelief as the old man giggled behind me. It wasn’t until I’d seen the picture that I realized what he had done: he’d pulled off my Red Sox cap and replaced it with a hat in the style of his own. A true tourism professional, even in the rice fields.

That’s the guy behind me. You can see the size difference between us. And yet my stance here proves he is infinitely stronger than I.

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