Bali, Borneo and beyond |

Bali, Borneo and beyond

Jay Cowan
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Our flights to Indonesia have already been booked when Mount Merapi begins erupting, again, spewing lava and poisonous gas over its corner of Java. This is followed in short order by the first human-to-human transmission of the bird flu in Sumatra, and a 6.2 earthquake hammering Yogyakarta. At least the quake doesnt touch off another of the horrific tsunamis that killed more than 200,000 in the region in 2004.Truthfully, Indonesia has had a rough time of it lately. And this is not entirely unknown to us before we plan our trip.Two terrorist bombings in Bali (a nightclub in 2002 and a luxury hotel in 2005) killed hundreds, received global media attention and put a severe crimp in the famous islands once-booming tourist industry. As the most populous Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia has a definite stake in the ongoing religious strife tearing apart the Middle East and much of Asia, and Indonesians arent thrilled with Americas and Australias involvement in it. They are also a desperately poor country composed of 17,000 separate and often almost autonomous islands, frequently referred to as virtually ungovernable and one of the most corrupt democracies on earth. Their anti-drug laws are widely considered draconian, with DEATH, in those exact capital letters, as the catch-all penalty for possession of nearly anything stronger than Tylenol. From the catastrophic (tectonic upheavals, terrorism, pandemic disease, regular ferry sinkings and plane crashes) to the mundane (Bali belly, sea snakes, insane traffic, oppressive heat and smoke), the list of Indonesian dangers is long. Its easy to let that play on your mind, but pointless. Otherwise days become infested with a vague dread, and nights echo with sweaty exaggerations of the normal. It is either exotic or paranoid, depending on the malarial degree of your displacement dreams. Is that just a lizard scraping outside the door or a Komodo dragon? The throb of a laboring air conditioner or the low, freight train rumble of another big trembler? Simple surf or a gathering tidal wave? A truck backfire or an attack? It makes the Mel Gibson film The Year of Living Dangerously seem like a Disney trailer.

Still, theres no sense dwelling on it. Indonesia is full of wonderful people and places and well worth some minor inconveniences. Thats probably why its a regular destination for Aspenites, whether theyre surfing, climbing volcanoes, saving bamboo forests, running shops in Ubud or just traveling. Most normal people, however, arent even sure where Indonesia is, though they suspect its near India. And theyre right. Stretching from the southern tip of Thailand almost to Australia, it is an island archipelago that spans nearly 5,000 kilometers, multiple cultures and ethnicities, and the equator. To most non-surfing Americans, it is probably familiar, if at all, mainly as the mother ship for Pier One and Nike products.I first became aware of the appeals of Indo, as surfers call it, more than 30 years ago while traveling in Nepal and Southeast Asia. In that part of the world you tend to meet many Australians, much as you do in Aspen today. Back then, some of them made it no farther in their escape from home than Bali, becoming immediately entranced with its pristine beaches, friendly Hindu/hippie culture and widely touted magic-mushroom omelets. Everyone I met raved about it. But the world is big, and it has taken me until now to actually get here.The Denpasar airport is small and, when we land, crowded with multiple flights from Europe, Japan and Australia, creating some long but fast-moving lines. They want tourists here. The cab-drivers especially want tourists and clamor over us like rock stars, always a sure sign of a Third World airport. Because were traveling with our usual backbreaking quotient of luggage (So much bags. How long you stay?), they try to put us in two separate cabs, but we resist.Instead, I hunch up like Quasimodo in the front of a small, battered old Toyota, while Harriet braces herself against a stack of suitcases in the back and we peer out the rain-smeared windshield, hoping it really is only a 20-minute ride to the Nusa Dua Beach area where were staying.Commencing in early October, our trip is just on the fringe of the rainy season. June, July and August compose the dry, and high, season. Now that its past we should see fewer tourists and better prices. Hopefully we wont also be seeing endless deluges like the one coming down right now. But it doesnt really matter because its warm and inestimably tropical at about 6 degrees south of the equator, and Im in a giddy-to-be-here stupor.The streets are narrow and crowded, jammed with all kinds of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes. The traffic is especially unsettling since they drive on the other side of the road, but it doesnt seem to matter to the motorbikes that pass us on both sides, no matter how congested the street or whether there are oncoming vehicles. This is all of interest because weve rented a car starting tomorrow. Friends who have been here before regard this as crazy self-indulgence. The people at our hotel, it turns out, regard it as just crazy.

Bali is where the private-villa lodging concept began, and weve booked one with its own pool at Kayumanis, a locally owned chain. With two separate bungalows all to ourselves and a personal butler, these are the kind of conditions under which one could simply hole up in cloistered luxury and discover Bali at a fairly safe and pampered remove. Thats precisely what we dont want to do. However, as a refuge for a few days to get over the 40-hour trip and culture shock, Kayumanis seems ideal. Glitches soon develop, of course. The beach is a bit haggard and distant, and there is an insect issue that prompts an insect-fogging-spray issue. Plus the hotel, like most of Bali, is very touchy about what American money it will accept: They require it to be less than five years old, not torn or crumpled, and preferably in fifties and hundreds. Its like kidnappers demanding ransoms.But were not too worried about any of it. The staff is humblingly kind and mindful of our needs, almost to a fault. When our rented Toyota Kijang is delivered the next day, the Kayumanis people quickly adorn it with a small Hindu blessing of coconut leaf and incense for our safe travels. Then we proceed to squeeze every ounce of good luck from it we can.Though Indonesia is about 90 percent Muslim, Bali is almost the same percentage Hindu. This was the result of the influence of ancient traders from India, and by the seventh century Bali had fully embraced Hinduism. With Indonesias population nearing 240 million (its the fourth-most-populous country in the world), Balis estimated 4 or 5 million Hindus dont make much of a dent nationally. But they lend Bali, which at 3,500 square miles is smaller than the big island of Hawaii, a laid-back, India-like artistic and spiritual atmosphere that makes it a very popular tourist destination, even within Indonesia.Our first two days are spent trying to make inter-island travel arrangements, investigating the nearby beach and trying to recover from being rabbit-punched by the heat and the jet-lag. At the crack of dawn on the third day we take the hotels van to the Bali Golf and Country Club where a young caddy named Gajul guides us around the pretty and far-ranging track.The front nine is beautiful and dewy, with lots of elevation changes, wild jungle-infested ravines and big flowering trees. On the flatter, sandier back, wending out toward the beach, we meet Ted, their pro who moved here from Ohio when the course opened 15 years ago. Hes distracted because they have a bunch of oil and gas executives practicing today for a big tournament that starts tomorrow. Oil people from all over Indonesia (an oil-exporting nation) and Southeast Asia show up every year for the event, which is a big deal. When I ask if anyone is talking about the disastrous drilling blowout in Java that unleashed a huge, village-devouring, mud volcano, Ted turns terse.So are officials at Halliburton and its related subsidiaries, which Indonesias government rightly blames for the fiasco that is displacing thousands, costing billions and filling a bay on the Indian Ocean with toxic mud at the rate of 200,000 tons per day. Ted mumbles something about how the government failed to help the drillers quickly enough when they asked for it and Harriet nudges me, so I change the subject. What are those big birds up there? I ask, pointing to the distant southeast sky where several dozen large raptors, or possibly vultures, are flocking. Ted and Gajul confer for several minutes before Ted decides he has never seen them before. Odd for a man who has spent 15 years here, most of it outside. Gajul, who is very bright and aware, seems to know what they are but doesnt have the right word, and Ted cant translate. I hope he isnt a microcosm of the Westerners who live and work here.I know, I know. A golf course isnt the best place to immerse ourselves in the local culture, or to form any fast opinions. So I decide not to let Ted ruin my game. I can do that by myself. The course has a number of unique features, including Hindu temples as actual hazards right in the middle of holes. Hitting into them is a stroke penalty and a drop. And every once in a while we come across pairs of ornate, black and white parasols marking the tees for good luck.There is a lot of that, were discovering. Locals continually wish you good luck, or more often urge you to purchase something because they need the money and doing so will bring you good luck. They really mean it, too. It isnt just a hustle, its part of the culture.

Consider the driving, for instance. It seems to us that all vehicles here could benefit from the offerings that have been placed on ours. Apparently very few guests at Kayumanis, or most hotels, ever choose to drive themselves. So our hosts are concerned. Directions to the famous Ulu Watu temple on the ocean on the southern tip of Bali have been delivered to us several times and clearly dumbed-down for foreigners of questionable competence. It doesnt take long to discover why. Out on the streets its utter madness. Most of the roads are strictly two lanes, though the main one from the airport is actually four. No matter, because there are four lanes of traffic, at least, at all times, everywhere. Including driveways. Furthermore, our Kijang has a manual transmission and shifting with my left hand is tricky. I keep bumping into the windshield wiper lever and their sudden, unexpected slapping just adds to my general confusion. Throw in mobs of schoolchildren, reckless dogs, bicycles, omnipresent little bemo buses and other random vehicles parked in the middle of the streets, and its like a video game on bad acid.Harriet cant get the words out fast enough to warn me of each impending disaster, theyre coming so thick and fast: Those motorbikes are passing on both sides, really close! You almost hit those kids! Look out!Finally she just resorts to frequent gasping, such as I havent heard in years.Given all the action, our directions become muddled. Fortunately were surrounded at stoplights by motorbikes, often carrying three or four passengers, all of them able to hear us easily when we ask for help. This gets us, after 45 minutes of high drama, to our destination with few real problems beyond cramped knuckles and 20 years of premature aging. We could go a little slower, Harriet points out. But she isnt privy to my rearview mirrors, which continually display swarms of motorbikes and rapidly encroaching buses, dump trucks and other constant traffic. The same view as in front of us, in other words. So it just seems prudent, you know, to be on our toes and keep moving, rapidly, until we reach where were going. Which in this case is an 11th century seaside temple perched on high cliffs and jealously occupied by Balis ubiquitous gray monkeys. Guidebooks and signs and the people who rent you sarongs to wear on the temple grounds all warn that the monkeys here, about the size of pit bulls with fangs to match, are aggressive and known to steal sunglasses, jewelry, cameras and anything else not battened down.Theyre especially fond of Harriet. One of the biggest jumps right up against her chest in a grab for the peanuts weve bought to feed them. Our guide, Sulewi, is right next to her and shoos the monkey away with a stick. But most of them are nice and not that pushy, taking peanuts from our fingers as gently as a baby would (if for some stupid reason we were feeding peanuts to infants).Ulu Watu is a stupendous sweep of temples and grounds covering an expanse about the size of the Aspen golf course, all of it seemingly spot-welded to the very edge of 200-foot-high white cliffs with the wild Indian Ocean rumbling at their feet. Big surf breaks are visible from here, with names like Padangpadang and Nyangnyang. I could watch these massive sets of frothy green waves rolling into shore forever. Obviously this is a fine location for the meditation business.Later we buy some sarongs and T-shirts (For luck, everyone assures us, making small scraping gestures with the money). One of mine is black and says FUCK TERRORIST in big white letters, then down below, black October 1th [sic], 2005, Bali. On the way back we stop by a stunning beach area called Dreamland and vow to return when we can spend more time. The pace of the driving now seems a little less frantic, and I accidentally discover a more potholed and circumspect back road to Nusa Dua. The state-owned gas stations are full service, and gas is 4,500 rupiah per liter, or under $2 per gallon. Definitely less than were paying at home, but still dear when you make the $150 or less per month the average tourism worker does in Bali. No question why motorcycles are so popular.Our safe return to the Kayumanis is greeted with shock and relief. It may seem a small adventure, but the locals realize its true dimensions. When one of the staff asks how the driving was and Harriet replies, Completely insane, he smiles and nods and says, Welcome to Bali!”

Security almost everywhere is fairly intense. Just to get into the upscale Nusa Dua area, covering five miles or so of beachfront, you have to clear a post where they search the interiors of all vehicles and use mirrors on sticks to look under them. More guards are posted well out in front of most hotels, where they repeat the same processes. Then, once you finally gain the doors of many of the luxury properties, they have still more guards, and you have to pass through airport-style metal detectors. Its an achievement just reaching your room.All the terrorist bombs have gone off in this part of Bali, within a few miles of where we are. It is the heart of the tourism industry, teeming with Westerners and infidels. Significantly, we learn, the explosions all occurred in this month of October, during Ramadan. No wonder security is tight right now. Altogether, more than 30 people were arrested for direct involvement in or aiding and abetting the bombings. That temporarily mollified Australians, who suffered the highest casualties and who have long been the primary drivers of Bali tourism. But now, just since weve been here, another wave of those convicted and imprisoned for the killings have been released, leaving only six still in jail. The Australian government has understandably gone nuts and vowed that their people will never return in their former numbers, a threat already being made good.Idul Fitri, celebrating the end of Ramadan, starts in 10 days and is cause for major travel within Indonesia, complicating our inter-island reservations. In between trying to book flights to Lombok, Sulawesi and Borneo, we attempt some grungy snorkeling, luxuriate in our pool and check out the rest of the Nusa Dua area. The beautiful new Art Pasifika Museum nearby contains a wide collection of all of the artists to work in the region, from ancient Iryan Jawa artifacts up to current times, with heavy doses of the European painters who first made Balis topless women famous starting in the 16th century. Were the only ones visiting, and someone has to precede and follow us, turning lights and fans on and off. Dreamland (Tommy Can You Hear Me?)Before we head out to the Dreamland area again, we do some reading about it. An odd secondary security gate we encountered blocking the public dirt road to the beach has been set up to raise money for the small-shop owners whose warungs line the beach, nestled quietly up against a small cliff face. They have been there for many years, but now may be forced off the land by the developer, Tommy Suharto.For 32 years, up until 1998, Tommys dad, General Mohamed Suharto, ran Indonesia like a private store for the family, becoming one of the most notorious strong-arm leaders in the world and turning relatives and friends into billionaires. Youngest son Tommy was reported to be worth $800 million and to have his hands in many Indonesian businesses. Dreamland is one of them.In 2002, Tommy was found guilty of corruption, receiving 18 months for crimes that made him zillions. Most likely it would have all been commuted. In any case, its unlikely he would ever done a day inside. But out of pique he hired someone to cap the presiding judge. When the hit men were caught, they fingered Tommy and he got 15 years for murdering a judge. That sentence has already been pared back several times, and it appears they may be getting ready to release him. Too bad he wasnt caught smuggling drugs.Dreamland, in the interim, has languished as the next big thing in Bali real estate for reasons beyond terrorism. This time we pay the nominal beach access fee with smiles on our faces, happy to help the locals try to hang on to their property. One of them named Rambo rents us some wooden beach lounges while I discuss T-shirt ideas I have with him, such as Tommy Sucks and Tommy Can You Hear Me. After we pay without haggling for the chairs and tip him, he brushes the bills on the umbrella. For luck, he smiles.We have a great view of surfers riding fairly large waves close at hand. But I want to take a swim because the water is gorgeous, much nicer than at Nusa Dua, and have a closer look at the action. This kind of thinking has gotten me in trouble before. And once again, without the aid of flippers, in big waves with a strong undertow and outbound tide, I nearly dont make it back to shore. When I do, almost an hour later, wrung and staggering, Harriet is in the midst of a massage, supplied by Rambos mother. Thanks for keeping an eye on me. I almost drowned, I complain.But you didnt, she points out. Lie down. Its your turn.”

In the morning we check out of Kayumanis and head for the ocean temple of Tanah Lot on a fairly short drive that nonetheless takes us practically through the heart of chaotic Denpasar, a city of 2 million with the worst traffic the island has to offer. The streets are jammed with motorbikes carrying entire roadside stalls worth of merchandise, not on trailers but precariously balanced all around and above them. We follow two small guys for several blocks on a 125 Suzuki carrying a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood in a balancing act to make Cirque du Soleil jealous. Sections of the city are arranged Asian-style with like businesses grouped together. First we pass through many blocks of statuary stores, then nothing but petrified wood outlets, and so on. Who knew there was such a demand for petrified wood? Tanah Lot, while not far from exploding Denpasar, is a surprising oasis. Within a mile or two of it, traffic thins noticeably and our Le Meridien hotel is much nicer than we anticipated. Only lightly occupied, it fronts a black sand beach and booming ocean, has multiple interconnected swimming pools and is in the middle of a Greg Norman golf course. Best of all, it has stunning views of the Tanah Lot temple, entirely occupying a very small knobby island just 50 yards offshore.The drill with this site, one of the top tour bus draws on the island, is to go just before sunset to take the photos everyone gets, of a blaze-orange sun sinking into the Indian Ocean and silhouetting the fantasylike temple. Hundreds, at least, visit every evening, creating as much of a spectacle as Tanah Lot itself. Confronted by big thunderheads building on the western horizon, we watch the temple and a very obscured sunset from the hotel grounds, extend our stay another night and get up before dawn to play golf the next day. Once again were the first out, this time our requisite caddy is a girl and the course is a true gem. It plays all around and through the local rice paddies, using instead of bulldozing what have to be some of the most unique and scenic golf hazards on earth. The paddies are not, alas, playable, nor do you often find any balls that enter them. I hope Titleists arent too hard on rice, or I owe somebody money. Flocks of elegant cattle egrets in their traditional pure white plumage, as well as some with unruly stripes of cocoa brown, adorn many of the tees. The seventh hole is an over-the-bay par-3 dominated by the Tanah Lot temple. Swinging for photos I manage to chunk two balls onto the beach and leave sulking.Nine and 10 are both exceptional and a stretch of very striking holes bordering the sea begins at 12. Thirteen tees off next to a lovely small temple and flirts shamelessly with the ocean the entire way until your last putt. Taken in total, this is easily one of the most unusual and drop-dead beautiful courses Ive ever played. That evening we walk from our hotel down to the ocean and along rocky, black sand beaches to Tanah Lot. The stacked fluted-roofed temple and lush vegetation fairly drip off the tiny, tall island, while giant waves crash along nearby reefs and headlands. Little girls hawk big stacks of postcards and swamis crouch in hollowed-out caves in the hillside. Smiling, yellow-saronged Hindu priests pose for pictures and keep vigil so that non-Hindus dont enter the temple grounds on the landward side of the island, where wave remnants surge through small tidal pools and tourists throng the shore. After another sunset dulled by heavy clouds, business picks up for the postcard girls.

On the road to Singaraja the next day, we ascend into the central highlands of Bali, much the way you do crossing the Big Island of Hawaii. A jagged, green, Lost-World-looking volcanic ridgeline, reaching nearly 10,000 feet, divides Bali in two as it runs east and west. So far weve only glimpsed it from a distance, often obscured by clouds and smoke. The former is understandable and desirable in the rainy season. The latter is troubling.Bali is almost heavy-industry-free, so some of its pollution comes from hordes of dirty two-stroke motorbikes, badly tuned cars and buses, and criminally polluting old diesel trucks. But much of the smog is still caused by actual smoke. Indonesia is not a nonsmoking country.Tobacco, for instance, is a major export here, ranking as the neighboring island of Lomboks chief crop. Therefore, many of the locals smoke. More significant, many Balinese still survive at subsistence levels and use fires for cooking in the mornings and evenings. They also burn their trash, including everything from palm fronds to the plastic water bottles bought by tourists. Centuries old slash-and-burn agriculture contributes alarmingly to the problem. We see whole hillsides smoldering, and rice paddies are routinely torched prior to replanting. Constant plumes of smoke appear everywhere, creating an overall pall that were it anywhere less vivid and colorful than Bali would be even more noticeable. This year it has substantial help in the form of huge wildfires burning out of control in Sumatra and Borneo.When we were flying from Singapore to Bali we saw a massive column of smoke rising from Sumatra and seeping across 180 degrees of the horizon. Indonesia has been getting big doses of fallout, and so has neighboring Malaysia. In Singapore its been so bad theyve had to close the big international airport for several days at a time.The environmental degradation from the fires is appalling, as they destroy huge tracts of some of the countrys last remaining rainforests, and with it, habitat for such endangered wildlife as Sumatran rhinos and leopards. The Jakarta Post reports that the denuding of Indonesias forests is occurring so quickly that none at all will be left in 15 years. In Borneo, peat bogs 500 feet deep are burning and could do so for years. They are waiting for the rainy season to extinguish the flames. As in America, the Indonesian government says it simply doesnt have the resources to fight the fires. The difference is here you believe them.

Singaraja, on the northern coast, is the former Dutch capital of Bali. While the second largest city on the island, it doesnt come close to Denpasars scale and is almost relaxing, displaying flashes of old colonial architecture and more cars than motorbikes. A lone highway heads west, taking us to the Puri Bagus Villas along the Lovina coast. Our perfect little bungalow is less than 50 yards and about 5 feet in elevation from the ocean, with nothing to obstruct the view.The clientele, what there is of it, is mostly European. They get very few Americans here, and were the first theyve seen in at least six months. On our second day we cruise back into Singaraja and eastward along the coast on a busy but pretty strand-style drive to reach the Art Zoo, a residence/studio of the American-born artist Symon, who, it turns out, is currently in America. Bali is famous for its art, especially paintings, and there are many art students on the island selling poor copies in the style of Balis most traditional works. Symon, however, is something entirely different. His work is brash, modernesque and, for Bali, very original, with paintings that look like a cross between Warhol and Gauguin and are often frankly sexual. The Art Zoo climbs up a hillside above the road, with great views out to the sea, blue mannequins adorning the roofs, and phallic sculptures and canvases everywhere. Were the only visitors, and two largely disinterested, androgynous teenage boys open gates and doors and give us the run of the place. Proudly proclaiming its Outsider Art status, the Art Zoo feels like a humid, equatorial bordello melded to a gallery. A description that, without the climatic limitations, could apply to many artist studios. On the way back to Lovina we stop at Pura Maduwe Karang to re-steep ourselves in the traditional. It is one of the north coasts more intricate and intriguing temples and includes a famous bicycling image created in the late 1800s, right alongside Vishnu, Shiva and many other nonmechanical deities. It is stiflingly hot on this coast, where we are that much closer to the equator and noticeably warmer than the already steamy south of Bali. Fortunately, our tour is with two little kids who know their business and dont linger.The next mornings drive to Taman Nasional Bali Barat, Balis only National Park, is on some of the least-hassled roads so far. Most people weve asked seem to regard the park as does Wayan Yuda, one of the beach boys. Its a lot of trees, he says with a shrug. Not much to see.Wayan, by the way, is a name everyone who has visited Bali has heard frequently. Balinese tend to name all of their firstborn males Wayan. They do the same for the fourth-born and the eighth-born. For twelfth, explains this Wayan, they will try find something different. Maybe even for eighth.Our first stop is at Pura Pulaki, an arresting temple complex dating from the 1600s and located on both sides of the road, immediately adjacent to the ocean. A troop of monkeys, some 300 strong, well-mannered and well-treated by the worshippers and guides, inhabit the temple across the road from the water, which is the larger and more ornate. I prefer the plainer one by the sea, with huge winged leogryphs glaring across the waves at Java.Wayan initially seems right about the park, which we traverse so quickly that we dont even know for sure weve gotten there until were past it and suddenly in the town of Gilimanuk, where the ferries depart for nearby Java. Were almost forced to take a later one when we end up in the wrong lane. A huge, listing behemoth of a boat is just leaving for the visible shore of Java, to which it seems you could swim were it not for fierce currents and sharks. These are problems when this countrys overloaded and ancient ferries sink, as we so often hear in the news, and 600 people die. On the way back we discover the only two turnoffs in the entire park. One leads down to the ocean for boat access to the nearby island of Menjangan, famous for its pristine snorkeling and diving. The next turnoff bounces along a rutted dirt road to Menjangan Resort, an eco-style place with several small lodging facilities, full stables and a wild, round, five-story, open-air tower built with massive vertical posts made from local Pilang trees. We are surprise the only visitors on this day. After lunch on the top of the tower, we hire the park ranger guide, Wayan (another surprise) Sunirta Atmaja, to show us around. Since the resort opened five years ago, he explains, illegal hunting has declined by 60 percent. It is because before there were not enough rangers to patrol it all. There still arent many, but with the additional resort personnel and visitors the park is much better monitored.Wayan tours us through the sere timber of the last protected monsoon forest on Bali, where we see three different varieties of deer, including several rare barking deer and mouse deer. He also points out some unusual birds and monkeys and takes us to the resorts stellar waters and low-profile gazebos. Later we check out the handsome ranch facilities, with horses from Indonesia and Australia, and the Monsoon Forest Lodge, all very beautiful, quiet and unique.

Dolphins arent an uncommon sight to us but since theyre a big attraction here, we charter a small, motor-powered outrigger that picks us up at 6:30 a.m. on our last day to go see some. Though repeatedly warned that theyre getting harder to find, we spend a couple of hours virtually surrounded by them. In truth, and to our dismay, the dolphins are so aggressively pursued by us and other tourist craft that its no wonder they sometimes tire of the sport and disappear altogether. The best part of the trip is just sliding out across the shiny Bali Sea, seated only inches off the water as the wooden outriggers skip and slice from swell to swell while we catch misty golden sunrise views of the coast.Afterward I have a good snorkel out in front of our hotel, where the water is warm as sweat. I still cant get used to it not cooling me off. Big, pizza-sized blue sea stars are scattered everywhere, the corals are florid and largely undamaged, and visibility is good to 75 feet. Near the end of an hour and a half of poking about I come across a length of black and white braided rope mixed in with some trash. Im just reaching down to grab it, as Ive done with numerous shells and other items of interest, when I notice it kind of pulsating. With my hand only inches away I suddenly realize it may not be rope at all, and even if it is, why do I want it? It seems more likely that its a sea snake, even though its larger and more distinctive than I anticipated. Quite toxic, they are allegedly not aggressive, just curious. A condition that in a sea snake, capable of moving much faster in water than clumsy humans, can be difficult to distinguish from aggression. Especially if, like a curious toddler with a handful of dirt, it decides to have a taste. Im sure this one will be curious as hell if I grab hold of it. So I back quickly away and then begin to notice them everywhere. But none seems even mildly inquisitive. In fact theyre all lying on the ocean floor, barely moving at all, doing a good job of imitating rope.Back on land Harriet is talking to some of our beach-peddling friends and learning some things. Wayan Yuda, who is a silversmith, explains that he and his wife have two children and dont want more, an attitude much different from their parents. They own a motorbike that cost 6 million rupiah (about $650), and he pays on it every month. It takes his family between 25,000 and 50,000 rupiah ($3 to $6) to get through an average day, with a diet strong on rice and exclusive of their kids schooling costs and any medical or other unexpected bills. We figure Wayan doesnt earn more than $2,500 a year, about the average for Bali.Later, walking along the sands that change frequently from silky gray to grainy shades of peach and dun then back again, we find a variety of small- and medium-sized shells and lots of polished sea glass. At one point I pick up a piece of blue and white porcelain and ask another of the beach boys, Made Coklat (they call him Chocolate), about it. I figure its just more trash, but he says that these pieces are actually prized by tourists like myself, raising his eyebrows to convey that he doesnt get it.These waters were plied exhaustively and almost exclusively by the Dutch for three and a half centuries when they owned most of Indonesia and built much of the Danish national economy on the spice trade. Today the primary reminders of that trade, beyond some old colonial buildings and a few botanical gardens, are the pens in nearly every hotel made from sticks of fragrant cinnamon. A nice touch, but actually using one leaves your fingers smelling as if you work in a mulled cider factory.Those Dutch ships sank almost as frequently as the ferries do now in these troubled and pirate-ridden straits. And their contents, often including Meissen and Ming Dynasty dishes, are still washing up on shore. On our last day in Lovina Ive apparently come across a piece of 17th century Chinese porcelain. Im taking it home with me.Jay Cowan is editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine, author of “Best Of The Alps” and a longtime contributing editor at Ski magazine. This is the first piece in a four-part series about Cowans Indonesian travels that will run in upcoming editions of the Aspen Times Weekly.


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