Bali was one of the bigger surprises of the trip. I was expecting something like a Far Eastern version of Marbella and, indeed, parts of it are very like that. But it also has much more to offer. As the ship drew closer to the island, we could see a shoal of surfers riding the waves just off a wide sandy beach, while paragliders criss-crossed the bay. Once ashore we were met by traditional dancers (very graceful) and orchestra (a cacophony of percussion to the untrained ear). After we had docked and as most of the cruisers prepared to leave on their tours, one of the guides offered to take us in his own car (for a small fee, but not small enough we later discovered from the taxi drivers) to the nearby town of Seminyak where there was said to be an interesting temple, good restaurants and shops.
Before entering the temple, we were obliged to wrap ourselves from the waist down in blue fabric, and fabric – mostly black and white check – covered everything, from the offering table, where little leaf baskets containing a range of gifts from an egg to brightly-coloured ribbons, had been placed, to around any tree with the temerity to grow naked in the temple’s curtilage. This was in order to “clothe it”, according to our driver. Through the highly ornate doors leading to the inner temple we were not allowed to pass, but the buildings of the outer area were also highly decorated and colourful, if also very scruffy.
Driving there, through the outskirts of Seminyak, everything was also very rundown and I was surprised at the level of poverty, given the amount of tourism the island enjoys. We spent the rest of the first day exploring the shops, restaurants (Indonesian food is the best we have come across so far) hotels and bars, the first two of which were very reasonable, the latter relatively expensive. Claudio also had a massage for a fiver, which he said was one of the best he had ever had, while outside his cubicle I had a pedicure for twice the price (just to pass the time, you understand, not that I was chaperoning him or anything!) On our wanderings we met Agos, who ran a motorcycle hire shop but also offered to take us round the island the next day for a fee of just $50 for both of us (the ship’s tours cost twice that for one person) and we had paid almost half that just to get into Seminyak.
We were both rather sceptical as to whether he would even turn up the next day, but it turned out to be the best decision we made in Bali. Agos arrived dead on time and took us first to see a typical Indonesian dance – which actually we declined because the ship had engaged a troupe the evening before and, while the dancing is great, once you’ve seen one….. and the cacophonous music is dreadful, particularly first thing in the morning. Still, this left more time for trips to the batik makers, a silver jewellers, an art workshop where we bought two pretty acrylic paintings, the cultural hub of Ubud, with its masses of artisan arts and crafts for sale, and the monkey forest, one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip. The forest was like something out of a filmset, with waterfalls tumbling into fast-flowing streams at the bottom of high glades, towering with teak, mahogany and banyam trees. Through these the monkeys swang and shrieked, when they were not jumping on tourists and stealing food and water bottles from out of their hands. Deeper in the forest, we came across crumbling temples and bridges beset with the scary stone sculptures that you see everywhere here.
Agos then conveyed us to a village high in the mountains further inland where there was a spectacular example of paddy fields arranged down the mountain side. On the way there, though, lining the sides of many of the small winding roads, were what looked like cemeteries with high monuments built behind low walls. Just as I was wondering how one small island could support so many burial grounds, Agos explained that they were, in fact, housing estates, and the monuments were house temples. Since they were also status symbols, denoting the wealth of the owner, they often came adorned with the symbolic statues that are sold everywhere in Bali, which is largely Hindu. As it happens, we did see a funeral on the way back down the mountain where the mourners had gathered round the funeral pyre (fortunately it was a fleeting glimpse!)
At the top, was a restaurant offering a delicious Indonesian buffet and spectacular views over the volcano and lake, which was a whole other Bali from the ritzy hotels and nightclubs down by the beach. Our final stop was a visit to coffee plantation where we plucked up the courage to try the speciality Lewkars coffee. It costs a fortune, in Bali and more so in Europe, and is made by collecting the excrement of coffee berry-fed civets, which are kept in cages at the plantation for the purpose. The beans pass through their systems undigested and they are then collected and washed (hopefully quite rigorously), resulting in beans from which all the bitterness has been removed by the digestive systems of the civets. The coffee was indeed mild and tasty, but not so impressive that we were tempted to buy any, and certainly not at more than £100 per kilo.
Agos delivered us back to the ship at exactly the time he said he would (half an hour before it sailed) even though we had started to get edgy as we encountered heavy traffic and a huge tropical storm. Having chatted to him about all sorts of things along the way, we swapped email and Facebook addresses as we said our goodbyes and thank yous and felt that we were leaving a friend. Also, that we had probably just spent the best $50 so far on the cruise.