Saturday, October 17, 2009

Peace, Love, and Nasi Goreng

Thursday, July 9, 2009
Kuta, Bali

Peace, Love, and Nasi Goreng

Back to Kuta Beach for our final few days in Bali before departing for Australia. We've checked into the very same losmen (guesthouse) where we spent our first night in Indonesia and I'm writing this blog entry from my beach blanket on Kuta's white sand beach which welcomed us only 3 1/2 weeks ago to this island paradise. Our travels through Indonesia have taken us in a full circle starting in Kuta, heading north to Ubud and Lovina, eastwards to Candidasa and Padang Bay, across the water to Lombok and the Gili Islands, and finally, back to South Beach (ahem, Kuta). I'd like to think that we've learned quite a bit about Indonesia culture, many of our "lessons" the end result of some embarrassing fiasco - some more applicable to life back home than others. For instance, while sitting on the bus next to a friendly Aussie, we learned the exact steps that should be taken in the case that a rabie-infected monkey bites you...can't imagine ever needing to use that piece of info back home. As much as the Balinese shopkeepers tell us it's evident we've been here awhile due to our honed bargaining skills and our deep tans, we've only just barely scratched the surface of the real Bali. Now back in Kuta, which is as far from authentic Bali as is possible to even imagine, we are reacquainting ourselves with western culture in preparation for our trip to the land downunder. Hilariously enough, there are so many Aussie surfers taking over Kuta Beach at the present moment (it's "wintertime" in Australia which compared to Montreal, can't be much!) that we've got a whole slough of contacts, addresses and names of places to visit before even setting foot in the country.

Some of the highlights from our Bali Circle Tour:
1) Hate to admit it, but one of our memories from Bali is definitely going to; both the food we've enjoyed here as well as the foods (extensive list) that we've really missed. In fact, looking back on our traveling habits through Indonesia, it becomes quite apparent that once we find a suitable "warung" or low-priced but tasty restaurant, we eat there for all of our meals during the remainder of our stay in whichever town. In Ubud, our warung of choice was namely Dewa Warung where our bills never topped $3.50 for a three-course meal. In Lovina, it was Barakuda; an excellent discovery by Ari, Robyn and I our first night in town (and site of our cooking class). In the Gilis, we dined at the famous backpackers' fave, Karova Warung where a silver-haired lady dishes up whatever you point to from a large table spread of traditional dishes, then charges you $1 or $1.50 depending on her mood. Most of these warungs do not look like much from the outside -- big slabs of concrete with interspersed picnic and low-lying tables on the floor. Meals are served on paper plates, held up from collapsing by handmade (palm) wicker plates. There's a big pile of silverware in the center of the table and a variety of sweet teriyaki, soy sauces and fire-hot sambal on the tables...The atmosphere makes for the perfect place to meet other travelers.

Back to Lovina. A few days after our discovery of Barakuda Warung, Ari and I return to the restaurant along with out two travel companions Robyn (a Canadian who spends summers on Orcas Island when she isn't traveling the world or scaling mountainous peaks in New Zealand) and Anna (an ex-lawyer's assistant from Georgia who's recently discovered her passion for humanitarian work and travels) to negotiate a price for cooking lessons. As the restaurant is set a fair distance off the main drag and is run solely by a husband-wife team, it is hard to believe that they engage in cooking lessons often. Nonetheless, we are avid fans of their gado-gado and we've convinced ourselves that by explaining how much we love their food (if it isn't evident enough by our eating there everyday), that they will agree to teach us to cook...or at the very least, allow us to watch them in action on a busy Saturday night. Once we've agreed upon a price for lessons, we select no less than 12 dishes to learn to prepare including: gado-gado (boiled veggies with peanut sauce), vegetables in coconut sauce, nasi goreng (or special fried rice, special meaning rice with meat, egg and prawn crackers), fried fish in banana leaves, chicken with lemongrass, prawns in Balinese sauce, black rice pudding and fried bananas -- just to name a few. The entire family has shown up for our cooking class extravaganza; the children offering singing and dancing entertainment. The four of us girls are all seated at a makeshift table in the center of the kitchen, which is quite bare by western standards. Composed of one sink, two gas burners, a refrigerator and a small area for prep work, I am amazed that we are sitting in a "restaurant" kitchen. How are this husband-wife duo able to cook each plate in such a timely manner with such perfection and in such a small space? The day my Indonesian Cooking Skills are at this level is the day I open my own restaurant cafe (so help me God). But no worries, it seems pretty far-fetched that I will ever be able to get the perfect consistency for black rice pudding...our recipe is all an approximation of amounts anyways...or be able to remember exactly how to roll the fish in the banana leaves (if banana leaves are even available in superstores...wait, do they come frozen?).

2) I think it's a fair assumption that for most western backpackers, traveling in Southeast Asia is a time-consuming, uncomfortable and frustrating chore; for me, sketchy transportation between point A and B is all a part of the experience. Instead of sleeping on long and stuffy bus journeys, we stay wide awake because it’s too much fun to stare out the windows and catch glimpses of everyday (traditional) Balinese life. There are of course the acrobats on their scooters who fly by us at ungodly speeds, for the condition of these roads at least, their motorbikes heavily laden with a little bit of everything: from prawn crackers, sambal chips and Bintang Beers (a portable convenience store), to palm cages holding prized fighting roosters en route to a cock fight, to entire families balancing babies, pets and fresh produce for the evening’s meal.

Then there are the "petrol" or gas stations: difficult to spot as you cruise along on your motorbike, almost camouflaged into the plethora of roadside stalls. Rows of plastic and/or glass bottles contain the brownish-yellow liquid, all placed neatly one next to the other on the shelf, a large funnel rests against the wall. The bikes are getting low on gas and we’re only just leaving Candidasa on another motorbike adventure…in fact, we’ve only been cruising five minutes. The fact-of-the-matter is that when you rent a bike in Bali, you are literally supposed to return it in the exact same condition as when you drove out of the rental agency – in other words, if the bike stalls a few times on the way home because it’s running on fumes, it is considered normal. I don’t quite understand why they don’t just instigate the reverse process: hire the bike with a full tank, return it with a full tank. Seems straight forward, right?

Anyways, after five minutes on the road, we’re scanning the bevy of roadside stalls for a “petrol” station. Upon finding a promising shack, we dismount from the bikes and go in search of the vendor. When we do find the saleslady/cashier/cook/gas-station attendant, she grabs two bottles of “Absolut Petrol” and we watch as the nasty liquid disappears into the bellies of our motorbikes. This particular gas station uses only Absolut Vodka Bottles to store its gas; can’t say that I’ve ever seen an Absolute Advert linking the two. Don’t really think it would be beneficial to their advertising campaign…just a hunch.

3) Wading through knee-deep water, flip-flops and snorkel fins in hand, we climb onto the glass-bottom boat anchored in the shallows off the coast of Gili Trawagan. The boat is quite rustic composed of two, very long and slender benches for the passengers and a double-paned glass “window” peering in on the colorful sea life below. Unlike the passenger boats in Lovina, this boat lacks the floating-balancing poles on either side which make it look like a larger version of a (creepy) water-crawling insect. There are three snorkel trips on our day’s itinerary, making the trip into an almost cruise of sorts around the three Gilis: Trawagan, Meno and Air respectively. We’ve been promised that we’ll see a plethora of colorful sea growth and creatures; after all, the tour agencies pay the island fisherman (in an ironic twist of fate) to NOT fish.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved sea turtles and was absolutely ecstatic when we finally anchored near the sea ridge off the coast of Gili Meno. We put on our snorkel gear sucking in through our noses to suction the masks to our faces, the flippers reducing us to a backwards, penguin walk. We jump off the side of the boat and into the cool, clear-blue water. It takes a moment to get used to breathing underwater, to get over the initial panic stage. We kick our way along, our speed doubled by the swift current that runs along the shelf. And then we see them, two large sea turtles resting on the sea floor directly in front of the drop-off into the deep unknown. Our guide takes a deep breath and dives down 15’ to get her attention. She is quizzical and swims up to the surface for air, turning around to stare directly at us with curiosity. Ari and I break away from the group and follow her, slowing swimming, hardly a few feet away. It’s so quiet, mysterious that we forget we’re on a tour. It seems like it’s just the two of us and this prehistoric-looking beast. It was one of the most magical moments, a special memory of our trip.

4) Singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend in a restaurant will never be the same. This rather embarrassing tradition has happened to all of us; you know, when your friends sneak off to tell the waiter it’s your special day and you are thrown into the spotlight as the whole restaurant sings the famous four lines. Although admittedly, pretending it’s someone’s birthday can be even more fun – especially if the birthday boy/girl is caught off guard.

Our last night in Bali and we figure that we might as well complete the circle and dine at the Hard Rock whose Cobb Salads were our introduction into Indonesian cuisine (a world of rice, shrimp paste and peanut sauce). We’ve actually put ourselves together for a night out on the town as Kuta’s famous for its nightlife (not that we’d know first hand because before tonight, we’ve been tucked in bed with the lights out around 10PM).

The Hard Rock is decorated as it is everywhere else in the world; every spare inch of wall space is covered with music memorabilia. The shy birthday boy is seated a few tables away from us, surrounded by his friends and their girlfriends. Suddenly, a loud and obnoxious music starts up in the kitchen – it’s so loud, conversation stops mid-sentence and we laugh as an entire musical procession (complete with a large gong carried by two, very enthusiastic bar hands) blasts out of the prep area. At the back of the procession is a large Barong Monster. Now we’ve seen both the Legong and the Kecak and Fire Trance Dances, both very serious, traditional affairs. I must say that I quite enjoyed this Barong Monster who made the birthday boy stand on a chair in the middle of the clatter and bang of drums, and then when the music stops, shoves a large pile of whipped cream into his face. Should have videotaped the whole affair – no one can ever be embarrassed about the Birthday Song again.

Now it is night time and only a few hours remain of our stay in Bali; a real gem of an island in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. Bali is a Hindu island geographically situated amid a vast sea of islands constituting the largest Muslim nation on earth. Bali is also a progressive, spiritual, peaceful and beautiful place; a tropical paradise of Eden. It has its own smell; the incense used to make offerings to the ancestors and gods permeates the air throughout its cobbled streets, accompanied by the rich aromas of tropical flowers. There are elaborate temples everywhere your eye can see, richly decorated in ornamental palm frond archways and flora. Then there are the street vendors, the hawkers in the marketplace calling out, “cheap, cheap for you…for good luck!”

We’re heading to the land down-under all the wiser about world cuisine thanks to cooking lessons and make-believe feasts conjured up and enjoyed with fellow hungry travelers, about scooters (yes, you can carry any sizeable load on a small bike…even as awkward as a surf board), about land-before-time looking sea turtles and skinny boats, about art and dance (both traditional and in its improvised Birthday celebration form), about family and community living together happily and peacefully in the foothills of Mount Agung cultivating the rice and tending the picturesque landscapes that we drive so far off the beaten path to observe, about the healing powers and spirituality of the island paradise called Bali.

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