After several days in Kuta, I moved a little ways up the coast to a town called Seminyak. While it’s only a short drive away from Kuta in distance, it’s a world away in “vibe”. Seminyak is a much more relaxed place, with more of an older crowd (ok, the crowd was my age and up and I hate classifying myself as being in the “older” crowd). Seminyak is all about the “villa” living: most places are 2- and 3-bedroom villas that you rent, many with private pools, and if you spend a bit more you can have your own cook come to prepare your meals, a driver to take you wherever you want to go, and a butler to take care of anything else. Given this, it’s more popular with couples and groups of couples. I opted for a more low-end hotel room, but still very nice and cheap ($40/night including breakfast), and about a 10-minute walk from the beach.
Seminyak is quite a bit higher class than Kuta, and it’s more of where the “jet set” and Hollywood crowd hangs out. The streets are lined with tons of boutique fashion shops, art galleries, jewelry stores, and some relatively swanky restaurants. Despite it catering to a more high-end clientele, the streets and sidewalks are still pretty dumpy! It’s also the primary area where expats live, although I really didn’t meet that many expats while I was there.
Around Seminyak, it is
mile after mile kilometer after kilometer of stores selling stone carvings, wood carvings, teak furniture, wicker furniture, fountains, glass sculptures, and every other kind of artistic home furnishing. The artistic skills and design are absolutely amazing! If someone gave me an unlimited budget, I could give them a furnished house that would kick ass over anything you’d see in Architectural Digest.
I hired a driver one day to take me around and show me some sights. Unfortunately, he spoke very little English, so the language barrier was a bit of an issue. Traffic happened to be pretty horrible that day, as there were a couple of truck/motorcycle accidents so we only ended up going to a couple of places, but it was cool anyway. The first was Ton Loh, a temple built on a spire of rock on the coast about an hour north of Seminyak. At high tide, the rock and temple are surrounded by water (luckily I was there at low tide so I was able to walk up to it). It was interesting to see, although pretty touristy.
The next place he took me to was Ulu Watu. I had wanted to go to the beach there, as it’s a world-famous surf spot, but the language barrier got in the way and he took me to a temple at Ulu Watu. Even though it was also very touristy, it was cool to see. It’s perched along a very high cliff above the ocean, and there are tons of monkeys running around the grounds of the temple. They will come up and steal your sunglasses, water bottles, or anything else that you’re not hanging on tight to!
There was a strip of small bars in one area of town that I went to a couple nights. The bars were so small that the crowd just kind of flowed out onto the sidewalk and street. I met some really fun people the nights I was there, and was quickly “adopted” into the groups of people there when they saw I was on my own. Those Aussies are a fun bunch… and the older ones can drink just as much as the younger ones!
After a few days in Seminyak, I went to Ubud, which is about 90 minutes inland from the coast, kind of in the central part of the island. On the way there, we went through town after town that each specialized in various artwork: one town would have almost every shop selling Batik paintings, the next town would all be stone carvings and statues, the next town would be all gold and silver jewelry stores, the next town all wood carvings, etc. Very interesting, and I guess it makes it easy to know where to go if you know what stuff you’re looking for.
I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but if you’re familiar with “Eat, Pray, Love”, the “love” part of that takes place in Ubud, and much of that part of the movie was filmed there a couple years ago. Ubud is the cultural, spiritual, artistic, and yoga center of Bali. It’s a relatively small town, with just a few main roads lined with shops. During the day it’s pretty busy with busses bringing tourists there for daytrips, but in the evenings it’s pretty quiet. It’s hard to explain, but you just get a very, very chill and relaxed vibe there. I absolutely loved it!
I did have a bit of a setback there. Apparently on my last night in Seminyak, I ate some bad food and by the time I got to Ubud I wasn’t feeling too great. I spent the rest of that day and all of the next day mostly in bed. It was my own fault, I guess. I had found a couple of vegetarian restaurants in Seminyak, so I ate there all 3 nights. And on all 3 nights, I was either the only person in the restaurants, or maybe 1 or 2 other people. Rule #1 for staying healthy when travelling in developing countries is to only eat in places that are busy or frequented by locals; if there aren’t many people there, chances are good the food is laying around (likely not properly refrigerated) and you’re going to get sick. I knew that, and even thought about it when I went into the places, but damn that food was good! Anyway, lesson learned and a big shout-out and thank you to Louis Pasteur for discovering antibiotics.
I stayed at a place that had a set of cottages/bungalows about a 20 minute walk outside of the main part of Ubud. Right next to the cottages was a rice paddy, and on the other side was some farmer who had roosters that wouldn’t shut up all day. The day I was sick in bed, I thought seriously about various ways of killing that damn rooster. At night, the frogs, geckos and crickets were crazy loud, and walking thru the pathways you’d see frogs jumping all over the place. The most interesting part about my cottage was the bathroom: it was outside. The back of the cottage had a door, and outside that was the sink, toilet and tub/shower, surrounded by a 6-foot wall and open to the sky with a nice little row of plants along it. I’ve heard of outdoor showers in the tropical areas, but never the entire bathroom! Although to be honest, it’s really not that practical: when it’s hot and humid out, and you take a shower outside and are standing outside to shave, brush your teeth, primp your hair, etc., you end up getting all sweaty again. But overall it was an interesting experience, and really kind of fun.
Although the cottage was nice, it was pretty Spartan: just a square concrete room with a thatch roof, with a bed, table and small refrigerator inside. It had plenty of gaps around the doors so there was no shortage of ants, centipedes and other insects in the room. Luckily, though, the first night I noticed a few geckos running around the walls and ceiling, and knowing that they’re harmless and like to eat aforementioned ants, insects and bugs, I welcomed the geckos with open arms (and one of them even got me a fantastic deal on car insurance – weird, huh?!).
My last full day in Ubud, I was feeling back to normal so I hired a driver to take me to some sights (and I managed to get a super nice guy who spoke good English). I mainly wanted to see one of the volcanoes and some of the rice terraces. On the way to the volcano, he asked if I liked coffee. I told him I quit drinking caffeine back in June (every few years I quit drinking caffeine for a year, then I go back to drinking lattes again…it’s one of my quirks). He said I didn’t have to drink it, but there was a place where they grow the coffee beans and other spices that he could show me. A woman I met in Kuta had told me she’d gone to a place like that, and raved about it, so I was game for it. It was pretty cool… you could walk thru some of the gardens and see them growing coffee trees, vanilla bean trees, cocoa trees, and various spices. Then there was a little shed where this guy was roasting coffee beans in a pan on a fire in a brick oven, and he had me try eating some of the hot beans from the pan (very good, actually). Then we went down a path and there were seating areas stair-stepped into this steep valley with a stunning view (no fences or guardrails, of course…mind your step!). They offer you a set of 6 cups of their various kinds of coffee, plus a couple of kinds of tea, and a cup of their hot cocoa. You also have the option to buy a cup of Luwak coffee (more on that later…). I said sure, bring it on.
So they bring me all these coffees, and I start tasting them and good lord they’re strong! Some of them were barely even liquid they were so thick. Now I’m not much of a coffee drinker – I’m more of a latte kind of guy (double tall, nonfat, light foam, one and a half Splendas, thank you).
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to just taste/sample the coffee or drink all of them. I didn’t want to be rude, so I drank all 6 cups of coffee, 2 cups of tea, and the cup of hot cocoa (the cocoa rocked, by the way…I’m sure it was loaded with sugar).
“Mmm, delicious coffee, Helen. What kind did you say it was?”
So there’s this other kind of coffee they make there called Luwak coffee. A luwak is a small forest animal that looks kind of like a large, fat ferret (and I realize “luwak” sounds like a Dr. Seuss fictional character, but they’re real – I saw them in a cage).
Apparently the luwaks love eating coffee cherries. In their stomach, they digest the outer meat of the cherry, leaving the coffee bean, which absorbs various digestive juices and ferments. From there, the coffee beans travel thru their intestines, absorbing more juicy goodness and fermenting more, and eventually exit the luwak in a pile on the forest floor. The coffee farmers scoop up the luwak poo, pick out the coffee beans, wash them (thoroughly, I hope), roast them, and make Luwak coffee. I’m not kidding… Bing it if you don’t believe me. And yeah, I said “Bing it”, not “Google it”. Or look it up on Wikipedia. Either way, I’m right.
As an aside, am I the only person who wonders who the Einstein was that came up with that recipe?? “Gee, I see some luwak poo with coffee beans in it. I wonder how it would taste if I picked out those beans, washed them, roasted them up and made me a hot cup o’ joe out of them? “ Good grief, someone had way too much time on their hands.
Anyway, they give me the option to buy a cup of Luwak coffee for $5 (which seems outrageously expensive, even by Starbucks standards). I figured it was worth at least trying for the novelty of it, and was about to say “yes”, when a little voice inside me said something like, “Gary: you just got done with being sick in bed for two days because of eating unsanitary food. Do you really think you should be drinking something that was made from a forest animal’s poo?” Thank you, voice inside of me. I politely declined the offer… But a thought did occur to me: Can you imagine how different Seattle and the rest of the world might be today if Howard Shultz had decided to open his little Starbucks coffee shop with Luwak coffee? Hmmm…
Let’s Get Fired Up!
After my coffee, tea and cocoa, I browsed for a bit through the little gift shop they had, and then we got in the car and headed back on our journey to the volcano. Not too long after that, my body went numb. After a little dizziness and seeing stars for a bit, I realized what was happening… I was absolutely WIRED! Now I’ve had days when I’ve had one more latte than I should have, or maybe days/nights when I’ve had one too many Red Bulls (diluted with a splash or two of vodka…), but holy Toledo I’ve never had a caffeine buzz like the one I had going on that day!! It’s a damn good thing I had my seatbelt on, because I was vibrating and levitating like a jack-in-the-box on crack cocaine. I’m pretty sure if I had my running shoes with me, I could have sprinted to the top of the volcano! I took a bunch of pictures along that part of the drive, and not surprisingly, all of them were pretty blurry. Apparently I had a little problem holding the camera still. So much for not having any caffeine since June…
Ok, so I may have gotten myself a little too excited about seeing a volcano. Or maybe the caffeine high was just not allowing me to slow down and take in the beauty of it. It was a pretty cool sight, actually, though I guess I secretly had hoped it would magically erupt while I was there. The observation areas are basically along the outer rim of the crater, and you look down into the crater and a big lake, along with new cones that have developed. Big black areas are where recent eruptions have spewed ash. It periodically smokes, steams and blows some ash but hasn’t had a major eruption in quite a while (I don’t recall the exact dates and figures, sorry). While there, I figured a nice big Bintang beer might help counteract the caffeine effect. I’m not sure if it did, but it was tasty nonetheless.
This ain’t no Rice-a-Roni
We continued the drive down a different road through a lot of winding fields and valleys. We went through countless little villages and rice fields with people doing their daily work of hauling stuff, cutting down stuff, building stuff – nearly all of which was with their bare hands and basic tools. The scenery was nothing short of amazing… every shade of green you can imagine (and probably a few you can’t). It was a really, really beautiful drive and that alone was worth the cost of the driver ($20 for 5 hours of driving and touring!). We stopped at one of the more famous areas of rice terraces, where the terraces follow a steep, winding valley. Like many things, the pictures do absolutely no justice to how stunning the view was. I realized that I could seriously look at and analyze rice terraces for days on end. I’ve obviously seen them in magazine pictures and on TV and movies, but to see them in person and stand in them was truly fascinating to me. Then again, I’ve always been fascinated by patterns, counting and repetition, so I guess it kind of makes sense.
I had read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” (which I highly recommend, along with his other books) when I was in Thailand back in February of this year. In it, he talks about how incredibly labor-intensive rice farming is, and how precise and exacting the farmers have to be with their rice paddies in order to successfully maximize the rice production: clay/soil content, depth of water, water current, weeding, etc. all play critical roles with small tolerances for failure. After seeing all those rice paddies that afternoon, I totally get what he was saying. You can look at them and say, “yep, it’s a big set of ponds with rice growing in them”. But you have to look further. I got out several times and looked at the intricate (yet simple) systems of irrigation with canals, bamboo pipes, wooden dams, and overflow spillways, all accomplished with gravity and no pumps of any kind; the uniformity of the depth of paddies; the perfect contouring of the terraces to follow the natural landscape. And you watch the people working in the paddies (many of them very elderly women), and they’re doing that with nothing but their bare hands, bare feet, a crude shovel and a scythe to cut down the rice. They don’t have any GPS equipment, they don’t have tape measures, and they don’t have any Home Depot laser-guided leveling tools. It truly is an engineering marvel, and those people all deserve honorary degrees in civil, mechanical and hydraulic engineering!
Wrap it up, already Gary!
The driver dropped me back in Ubud around 5pm, and I spent the next couple of hours wandering around the town. The crowds of day-trippers had left and it was just a small number of people wandering around like me. I saw a cool little Cuban/Latin restaurant so stopped in for a drink. There was a group of 2 girls and a guy there who asked if I was alone and invited me to join them. They were the first Americans I met the whole time in Bali! The girls were from Hawaii and the guy from California. One of the girls was going on to Thailand next week and travelling around for several more weeks (she had quit her job and decided to travel around Asia for a while…hmm, sound familiar??). She’d never been to Thailand, so she and I had a good chat about where to go and what to avoid.
I ended the night with a fantastic dinner at a little restaurant I stumbled on. The patio in the back of the restaurant is right next to a small set of rice paddies. Apparently right behind many of the shops and restaurants in Ubud are rice paddies, but you’d never know it from just walking on the roads. Next to my table, I could literally step off the patio and be standing in a rice paddy. It was a pretty cool way to end the day, and to end my stay in Bali.
So long, Bali! I have a pretty good feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon…