Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's a Small World After All...

Friday, June 26, 2009
Candidasa, Bali

It’s a Small World After All…

One of the best parts of traveling is meeting new people. You connect over something simple, a shared interest or country of origin, and once you travel together for a couple of days, you begin to know them more intimately and forage bonds that can span both time and space. Some of the people you meet are people who you would not normally form friendships with back home, but something about being removed of the social restraints of your country allows you to meet people from outside of your immediate peer group. We met an older woman from New Zealand on the beaches of Kuta. She simply asked us to watch her bag as she took a dip in the ocean. Naturally, we got to talking. Our conversation ended by her inviting us back to he home in New Zealand. She told us a story about her husband, who one day decided to pick up two hitchhikers on the side of the road. They got along so well that he invited them to stay at his house. They stayed for two weeks. That was 20 years ago. Next week, they are traveling all the way to Seattle for their wedding. I can only reference this story in the hope that we will have similar experiences with some of the people we have met along the way.

One of the great realizations typically made by travelers is that the world is not actually as large as we imagine. The general consensus is that one person knows everyone in the world, seven times removed. That does not take into account people who have only history with a shared place. Once you establish the shared person or place, conversation flows freely and lightly and the story swapping begins. As much as we admit that the principle goal of the traveler is to discover the secrets of different countries and cultures, any wanderer will find a simple pleasure in thinking and sharing stories of home. When your home is a little island, sparsely inhabited and widely unknown, the joy is exponential. Who would have thought that we would meet a fellow islander while on a bus in the middle of Bali, Indonesia? But yet, here we were, here she was, and that's what happened. So, of course, we formed a tight travel posse and our experiences were enlightened by the fact that we might get to relive them in our own zip code at some unknown point in the future. Add another fellow American to the bunch, who we randomly asked to join us while having dinner and watching the sunset at one of Lovina’s beachside cafes, and you have the recipe for fun and adventure.

One of the great perks of traveling in a larger group is that private taxi rides suddenly become cheaper than uncomfortable public buses. So, you get to ride in luxury AND pick your own route, stopping in towns along the way. Our route took us along the northern coastline of Bali for 3 radio-blasting hours. Destination… Candi Dasa, a town no sweeter than its name.

Our motorcycle diaries continued in Candi Dasa. An epic day of navigating mapless through winding Balinese roads to Besikah, the mother temple, following directions scribbled by the motorbike renter on a napkin. 1.5 hours turned to 4 and we were quickly reminded that the Balinese will always give a response to your question of how far, whether they know the true answer or not. Directions, distances, and times must always be critically analyzed, or else risk taking you on a wild goose chase to your destination. Despite that consideration, however, a stopped motorbike manned by tourists will immediately attract a flock of smiling locals asking where you want to go. Some will even risk their lives doing a u-turn in the middle of a busy intersection to offer you guidance. Ayanna and I found ourselves skeptical at first, given our experiences in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, where every interaction between tourists and locals typically ends up in some sort of sale, but slowly, the smiling Balinese won us over, In fact, we embraced the friendliness of these people, hoping to bring back their kindness in our own actions back home. We found that we had much to learn and gain from their good nature.

A little wobbly and unsure at first, we wound our way on the narrow roads through the forests and rice terraces of the countryside and the mountain passes of the volcano to the temple. I was thankful that I had perfected my turning skills, given the constant switchbacks up the mountain. I rode my first motorbike Ubud, Bali, and the first time I tried to turn out of the guesthouse driveway, I didn’t realize the extent of leanage required and ended up going straight into a large dirt pile. That, and the need to swerve quickly in order to avoid falling coconuts. Statistics say that approximately 20 people in the world die per year by getting hit in the head by a falling coconut. I now pose the question, how many people are injured by coconuts hitting them while driving a motorbike? I can imagine the answer is not many. Fortunately, we were not a statistic, but as we were driving through the mountain passes, a flying coconut came rolling down the hill, flew off a ledge and hit our motorbike as we were riding by. Not only that, the coconut continued its journey and struck our friends on the motorbike behind us- two birds with one stone, so to say. I still maintain that it was the monkeys, who we’ve quickly come to realize are overly smart and mischievous- not a great combination for a wild animal. The other day, I watched a monkey attack a lady and steal her sunglasses, only because he knew that the guide would throw him a bag of bananas in exchange. Upon receiving the bananas, he tossed the sunglasses to his friend instead of the guide, so that his fellow monkey could receive a bag of bananas as well. It was the first time I’ve witnessed monkey con. My remarks- smart monkey, poor lady, outsmarted guide.

The mother temple is located on the great volcano Agung. On a clear day, the temple spreads along its slopes, with a beautiful view of the volcano’s peak in the background. Unfortunately, we missed the picturesque sight found in the postcards, even through the view of Bali below from its heights compensated, with its small towns and rice terraces mirroring the sky radiating out to the aqua blue oceans. One is only allowed to enter the grounds if clad appropriately in a sarong and sash. Ayanna and I laughed, as our sarongs have now rivaled the dental floss in its versatile use, serving as towel, beach lay, bag, and now skirt. As tourists, we are forbidden to enter the heart of the temple, but from our tour of the premises, we learned about traditional temple construction, decoration, and festivals.

Push-bikes, as your typical bike is called here to distinguish between the motorbikes that crowd the streets and outnumber the vehicles, was another, albeit unlikely, mode of our transport. The Balinese are skeptical of our taste in push-bikes, choosing the facility of motorbike transport to ride the ¼ mile down the street to the convenience store, and laugh when tourists attempt to navigate the busy traffic. Further, push-bikes are the very last rung on the chain of traffic, hardly demanding respect and space from the trucks that whiz by them on the road. Again, we suffered from faulty Balinese directions, being told that our final destination, a famous white-sand beach on the outskirts of Candi Dasa, was a close and easy ride. In reality, in involved a treacherous experience up a steep mountain, a trek through a neighboring town, and a bumpy ride on a road with jutting rocks that forced us to dismount and walk. The beach was well worth it, with its soft sand and crystal-clear turquoise waters, not to mention a musician playing the Balinense version of a metal marimba on the shore. The only problem was that he played the same song for the duration of the day and what was once an enjoyable and unique experience quickly became more of an annoyance. In fact, is seemed all a part of his game, for the moment we tossed some money into the empty coconut placed before him, he ceased the music and moved to the other end of the beach. Throughout Bali from thereon, we have been haunted by that same song, blasting from roadside stores as we pass.

Our time with our new-found friends came to an end and we dropped them off on the side of the road to catch the bemo, or public bus, back to Denpasar. We watched the bemo come, pack them and their backpacks into its crowded interior, and depart, while sipping fresh fruit juices at our favorite warung across the street, rehashing the memories and thinking of the possibility of seeing our friends at some unknown date. In fact, in the case of our friend from New Zealand, it could be a future wedding that brings us all together again. As they say, history sometimes repeats itself…

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