Day 54 ~ Monday, 27th February 2012 ~ sunrise: 6.23am ~ sunset: 6.40pm ~ sea state: calm ~ wind: W 4, moderate breeze ~ weather: sunny ~ temperature: 32°C ~ time zone: GMT+8 ~ distance travelled since Darwin: 961 NM ~ in total: 19,974 NM
Hundreds of passengers are waiting to go ashore today, but there is only a single pontoon at the pier. This means that only one tender can dock at a time, which slows things down considerably. In the end, our coach sets out on a tour of ‘Scenic Bali’ an hour later than planned.
My first impressions of Bali are jaw-dropping. Everywhere one looks, idyllic and picturesque scenes captivate the eye. I wish that we could linger and look for longer, wander around and take pictures – but the coach whizzes along, expertly driven by a small, surly Balinese.
Traffic is dense, with more lorries than cars and a surprising number of small motorbikes. Everyone seems to rely on these as the main mode of transport: families, grannies and teenagers, some of these considerably younger than the legal minimum age of seventeen. Our guide mentions that accidents and fatalities are frequent and that a large number of these involve, unsurprisingly, overconfident young men. Our driver weaves his vehicle daringly between all the obstacles in his path and we catch our breath repeatedly.
First we are shown a family compound in a village, so that we may see how people live in Bali. Traditional crafts such as woodcarving and mat weaving are demonstrated, and then a delicious snack is served by shy, smiling women and their lovely daughters. Meanwhile, a group of men on a dais play Balinese music with blank, stony faces.
I begin a halting conversation with three girls in school uniform who are hovering on the fringe. We get on famously once they overcome their shyness and begin to try out some words of English they learnt at school. Younger children join us. They look up at me with dark, smiling eyes and I am touched by their loveliness.
Enjoying tasty banana fritters, we watch traditional Balinese dancing. A graceful woman in colourful robes and theatrical makeup performs this ritual set of movements for us. Every aspect of the dance is strictly prescribed. Even the smile on the dancer’s face is not her own. She seems to make herself into a vessel through which something older and greater than her temporal form is transmitted: a sacred, spiritual message. Its content may no longer be clearly understood, but its form remains unchanged, touching and beautiful.
We follow narrow footpaths to the rice paddies and are shown how these flooded fields are ploughed with a team of oxen, and how rice is planted. It is backbreaking work under a high and fiercely hot sun. “This farmer won’t be making love tonight!” comments our guide with a grin.
Another man demonstrates how to climb a coconut tree with bare hands and feet, and a humble woman poses by her outdoor stove for our cameras. The children who followed us from the village are now pounding rice to flour with gleeful smiles, taking turns with the mortar and pestle. To them, the task is still play, and not work.
This country is truly a photographer’s dream! Wherever I look, there is beauty: in the scenery, the buildings, in tools, children and shrines – and in a way of life that is as old as it is aesthetic, despite the palpable poverty. Our guide remarks that Indonesia competes with Nigeria for the title of ‘World’s Most Corrupt Country’, and that the great wealth of his nation is in the hands of a very few while the rest of the population lives in poverty. This is borne out by the desperate tenacity of the vendors of sarongs, woodcarvings, fans and postcards who cleave to us as we make our way back to the coach.
Our next stop is at the Pura Kehen temple, constructed in the thirteenth century. In the inner courtyard, dragonflies dart around us in larger numbers than I have ever seen, seemingly the silent spirits of this place. A gigantic banyan tree offers shade and shelter from the hot sun, and a wizened old woman with a tiny boy peeks over the upper temple wall and begins to sing ‘Au clair de la lune’ in a reedy voice. As she sings, she waves the beaming toddler’s hands at us, clearly hoping for a reward in dollars.
Our guide is a lively, intellectual man in national dress, eager to share his knowledge. As we drive into the hills, he explains the beliefs and principles of Hinduism. It is clearly a subject close to his heart and, unsurprisingly, he is also a volunteer teacher at a Sunday school. Now he talks of the Vedas, the sacred syllable AUM and the divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; of reincarnation, karma and the caste system, and the daily offering of gifts to the gods in the pujah ritual … It brings back memories of studying all this with my class, and how much we enjoyed learning about the culture of Ancient India.
Lunch is served at the Mahagiri Hotel, high up in the hills, with a view of the ancient terraced rice fields that meander along the steep sides of the valley. We are told that President Obama ate here once and enjoyed it very much. We enjoy it too – the food just as much as the lovely, garlanded space.
Returning to Klungkung, we visit the Royal Court of Justice Kertagosa, also known as Taman Gili, the Floating Garden. Dating from 1710, these halls are constructed from carved wood and raised high on stone platforms above beautiful water gardens. Both meeting halls are decorated with graphic murals that show the karmic punishments corresponding to a catalogue of human sins.
Despite this grim topic it is another glorious place, and our guide prepares to deliver another lecture. But I wander off by myself to take a look at the lovely grounds, deciding to take a break because the heat is getting to me now. Unfamiliar plants grow behind walls decorated with sculptures of horses in bas-relief, and in a corner I find a discarded offering basket. This is a precious little object, skilfully woven from bamboo leaves as testimony of a creative mind and nimble fingers.
Our last stop is at the secluded village of Tenganan, where the Bali Aga live. These original inhabitants of the island proudly preserve their ancient, pre-Hindu culture, rarely intermarry with outsiders and have no personal property. They are very well off by local standards since their community owns a large area of rice fields and is now profiting from increasing tourist interest as well. Not that you could tell this prosperity from the way things look. It is like having arrived at a settlement in the distant past.
We walk around the village and look at its houses and yards, its shops and stalls, until a sudden shower of rain drives us back to our coach, pursued by an army of vendors. We return to the harbour forty-five minutes late, but there is no hurry today.
(*Cruiser’s tip: Never miss the ship, for it must leave on the dot. If you booked an excursion via the cruise line and your group gets delayed, the ship has to wait for your return. But if you head out by yourself and miss the appointed time, you will have to make your own way to the next port of call to catch up with your cabin, and at your cost. So keep an eye on the clock and be punctual. Don’t become a ‘pier runner’ for the amusement of those fellow passengers whose hobby it is to watch latecomers from the Lido Deck.)
The queue at the pier seems endless, for in our absence the tender operation met with misfortune. A squall arose, a rope broke and the pontoon was swept away. Rather than wait for the Balinese to take action, members of our ship’s crew set about fixing the pontoon themselves, but the sea was restless and made this difficult. Meanwhile, the local taxi drivers took industrial action and blocked the complementary P&O shuttle buses in a bid for business. This angered the passengers, who in turn refused to hire any of the taxis. And so a large number of people remained stuck inside the harbour terminal for the day, unable to see Bali or return to the ship.
The accounts of various eyewitnesses allow us to piece these events together as we queue for an hour, mitigated by the fact that we are standing in the shady colonnade of the terminal, with toilet facilities alongside. Increasingly vociferous complaints and expressions of anger erupt from seething passengers, aimed at any member of staff who happens to hurry by. I would like to remind those exasperated people that a cool shower, a good meal and a freshly-made bed await us; that we were not stuck in the harbour terminal for hours, nor blown up by extremists; that it is pleasant to watch from the pier as dusk settles around the huge volcano and happy boys dive into the surf for an evening swim …
Once all passengers are back on board and having a late dinner, the captain gives a detailed report of today’s mishaps. He apologizes repeatedly, though clearly none of it was either his or the cruise line’s fault. He also announces that everyone has been awarded fifty pounds of onboard credit in compensation, and this gesture of goodwill elicits applause and cheering from many tables …
Read more in ‘Views from a Cruise, a tale from the oceans for new cruisers, solo or not, which includes 112 practical tips for life aboard and ashore. Clicking on the cover will take you there:
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