Note: This post is part of a series on Bali. To start at the beginning, see The Bali Diary: Day 1.]
Nyoman 1 picked up the bar of soap from the bathroom floor and examined the claw marks. “A mouse,” he concluded.
“You mean rat,” I said.
He shrugged and started to put the soap back on the counter, but his wife waved his hand away and took the soap from him. “We will replace,” she said.
“So, you are on another adventure today?” asked Nyoman.
“Yes, we’re going to the west end of the island to see the national forest and the ferry,” I said. Nyoman smiled politely, but I could tell he was wondering what in the world we would find of interest over there, where there were no tourist hotspots. I’m not sure we had high expectations ourselves; we just wanted to get out of the villa and explore, away from the crowds.
There was just enough time to take a quick stroll along the beach before Nyoman 3, our driver, picked us up. So we grabbed the chance. The night before a powerful storm had ripped across the island, changing the landscape of the beach. Where once there were hardened lava flows there was now sand, and vice versa, revealing ancient history and reminding us that everything succumbs to nature, even nature itself.
Unfortunately, the storm also reminded us that there’s a price to pay for progress. It was like the sea had thrown up, and on this bright morning the glittery black sand was littered for miles with plastic soup spoons, shopping bags, toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, deodorant bottles, flip flops, yogurt containers, food wrappers, and hypodermic needles.
Clearly, Bali is a paradise that is being loved to death. The island is only about 2,000 square miles, yet it supports four million residents plus the same number of tourists annually. I couldn’t help but wonder about the part I play in being a burden on the earth.
Yet as Chris pointed out, there are people out there working on solutions every day. Awareness can be a pain, but it’s a necessary catalyst for change. I know I’ll never think of plastic the same way, especially now that I know it can take anywhere from five to one thousand years for it to decompose. And sometimes never.
Back at the villa, Nyoman 3 was waiting for us. After taking us to the few sights he could think of along the way, he gave us a tour of the ferry station. It was nothing to write home about, and we were ready to leave about as soon as we got there.
“Did you pack any snacks?” Chris asked. “I’m getting hungry.”
“No, but we have these rambutans,” I said. Nyoman 3 had taken us to his family’s home before we set out on our tour, and his little grandmother had given us a bunch of the red fruit with “hair,” which is what rambutan means in Indonesian. They taste like grapes but have a sizable seed in the middle. I love them.
Chris made short work of his snack and then sat silently, looking out the window. “If we’re going back the way we came, it’s going to be a long time before we can eat,” he said.
In my book, low blood sugar is the leading cause of crabbiness between traveling companions. Always pack a snack, preferably one with protein, that’s my mantra. And it’s exactly what we didn’t do.
“There’s a place!” Chris said, pointing to a billboard that whizzed by the window. “I think it said Sunset Cafe or something, five kilometers ahead.”
We all looked carefully for anything that could possibly resemble a cafe but saw nothing but little roadside warungs, which would have suited us just fine, except they were closed.
“Why are all these warungs closed?” Chris asked Nyoman.
“There is a ceremony,” Nyoman said. In Bali, there’s always a ceremony. In Agama Hindu Dharma, the Balinese religion, all of the life cycle rites are celebrated: baby ceremonies (of which there are many per child), puberty rites, tooth filings, weddings, cremations, and Temple festivals.
And then there are the full moons, honor days, and holidays like Nyepi, where the whole entire island shuts down, including the airports, and everyone stays indoors, idle and silent, and turns off anything electric. Why? To trick the evil spirits into thinking no one’s home on the island, of course.
Traffic came to a standstill, as it often does, and we sat quietly as Nyoman talked in a barely audible voice on his cell phone. I watched a road crew eat their lunch in a ditch just outside my window. My stomach growled, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“If we don’t find a place soon, we’re going to have to buy someone’s lunch off of them,” I said. It was after one o’clock now, and my early-morning meal of fruit and toast was a fuel source fast fading. I was tired and irritable.
“A big truck has broken down trying to go up the hill,” Nyoman said. “No one can pass because a curve.” Apparently this sort of thing happens regularly. The trucks are old and carrying far more weight than the road restrictions allow. Right now a highway is being built to help alleviate the congestion, but again, how much growth can a little island sustain? And it hardly solves the problem of the overburdened truck engines.
At last the traffic began to move and we pulled into the first open warung we could find, which just happened to be Muslim owned and operated. As we were seated, I looked around to find men sitting on the floor at low tables, eating with their hands. Uh oh, I thought. Chris has never liked eating with his hands–particularly greasy chicken, thanks to the Fat Bastard chicken-in-bed scene in Austin Powers.
Nyoman explained the menu the best that he could. The only word we understood was ayam (chicken), of which there were three versions. We chose the most expensive (36,000 rupiahs/US$3.15), thinking we’d have a decent shot at a tasty meal in this relatively unpopulated part of the island.
What we got was a piece of grilled chicken, a mound of rice, and two lettuce leaves with a slice of cucumber. Not what we were expecting, but it didn’t matter. At this point we were prepared to eat our own arms.
I eagerly scooped the rice from my plate with my fingers. Indonesians frown upon finger-licking at the table, so you have to find another way to remove the pasty pieces of grain from your fingers. I tried dipping my fingers in the bowl of lime water, rubbing my fingers together, and generally making a mess.
And then there was the ayam, smothered in super-hot chili sauce. My piece was tough, Ford truck tough, and I tried to free the leg from the the thigh bone to get a better grip. It wouldn’t move. The tendons were as impenetrable as a coconut shell. The whole thing was. I gave up trying to tear it apart and just worked at gnawing off a bite any way I could, an embarrassing enterprise considering half the restaurant was watching me. All I managed to do was get chili sauce all over my face and hands while Nyoman kept directing me to “Squeeze!” as he made hand motions for me to pull apart the bones. Finally, Chris offered to trade chicken pieces with me.
Chris worked the thigh this way and that before finally declaring it a rubber tire that was officially inedible. Vindicated, I gave him his chicken back and ordered a bowl of soup.
While Chris and Nyoman finished their meals, I dipped my raw, chili-coated fingers in the tiny bowl of lime water. With all the rice floating around, it now looked like a bowl of soup itself, and I was just famished enough to eat it. I dried my hands with yet another tissue-thin cocktail napkin and stuffed it into the sticky pile we’d hidden in the booth, between our laps. The waiter refreshed our stack of napkins without saying a word. I smiled weakly at him, wishing he’d brought us forks and a meat cleaver instead.
By the time I got my noodles with greens and chicken broth, I could tell that Chris was past ready to be back at the villa. He was finished with lunch, finished with the day trip, and finished with Bali.
As beautiful as the scenery and the people are on this island, there’s no place like home when you’ve been gone for five weeks. But first we have to visit Java.
To read more, see “The Bali Diary: Java.”