The newly constructed airport in Denpasar was a welcoming and easy place to arrive after our four hour flight from Australia. The massive arrival area was well organized and we were quickly processed through immigration and released into the rich cultural milieu of contemporary Bali. This small island, only one of hundreds making up the densely populated country of Indonesia, sits a mere three kilometers off the main island of Java. This is a land very much apart from its teeming neighbour, where the people retain a wholly independent culture and way of life. The Balinese are primarily Hindu whilst almost all of the remainder of Indonesia allows it to rank as the world’s most populous Muslim country. Bali is the big ticket draw for all who visit Indonesia as it has everything most visitors are looking for including fantastic beaches, volcanoes, surfing, diving and serene ancient culture.
Our plan was to stay near one of the quieter beach areas called Canggu where access to the ocean is easy but not overrun with Australian surfers or the young party crowds. We had arranged a funky Airbnb in this up and coming coastal town but had no sense of where it really was except on our map. Even in google street view, it is difficult to project exactly what I place will feel like and how easy it might be to navigate. As it turned out, our housing pick was fabulous for most things but lacking in a few others. It was situated right in town in a fairly dense residential area, down a busy laneway and only steps away from shops and a hustling market across the main road. That part was great, as having ready access to water and fruit became very important given the intense midday heat, which often soared up to 35 degrees.
The location became less ideal when we headed out on foot. We quickly realized that the urban landscape allowed precious little space for pedestrians. Balinese society had zoomed from foot and animal traffic quickly past bicycles and is now firmly dependent on motorbikes and scooters. Cars are also insidiously making their presence felt on the roads as the Balinese continue on their rightful journey to affluence. The problem is that the small lanes and paths that were meant for strolling are now paved and are literally full of motorbikes and cars, all moving too fast and often with large loads. With no sidewalks of any kind this meant that walking anywhere, even over relatively short distances, became a danger sport rather than a pleasant way to move about. This required us to take taxis much more often than we would have liked and we were forced to haggle ride prices over and over. Taking cabs wasn’t so bad when we could use the Blue Bird Taxi Company phone app (similar to Uber) but we discovered many places where the app inexplicably did not work or where drivers were forbidden from collecting fares. Inquires about why this was the case elicited murmured and nervous sounding explanations often featuring the word “mafia”. If this was really the case we will likely never know but what it meant for us was that getting around proved to be a bit more of a hassle than we had anticipated. It got to the point where we seriously considered renting a couple of scooters just so that we could conveniently purchase essentials but after soberly considering the absolute chaos of the traffic in town neither of us had the fortitude to attempt buzzing around with our kids on board.
Life in Canggu grew immeasurable better though with our big Christmas surprise for the kids. Carolyn had somehow kept the lid on the fact that her brother, sister-in-law, and their two sweet kids were joining us for ten days in the heat and bustle of Bali. She had concocted a wild pre-christmas treasure hunt for our two under the guise of an early gift. After solving a series of relatively easy riddles each leading to a new clue, Gabe and Nora were blown over when they pulled back a curtain leading to a patio, revealing their newly arrived relations in all of their weary glory. After the shouts of wonder and surprise died down we shared with the kids the subterfuge involved in keeping the surprise alive for over a month. Despite the absence of snow, having some of our little family around for Christmas was a highlight that fueled the next few months of travel.
We loved having our extended family share the fun of Bali with us and it gave us the perfect excuse to fully embrace the island lifestyle of swimming everyday, dining at excellent restaurants and touring some lovely sites. One of the big highlights with them was a bike tour of the nearby countryside. The outing promised to be a glimpse at a few-out-of- the-way spots and included temples, thick forests, volcano vistas and rice terraces; essentially offering fun for all ages. The tour started with an early morning pick up with two mini vans that whisked us away from the population density of the coast to the much quieter and intensely cultivated interior. These verdant green rural lands were clearly the rice bowl of the island with virtually every patch flooded and planted with the mainstay grain of the Thai diet. The views got better and better as we climbed into the volcanic scattered highlands. We had lunch overlooking the mighty Mt. Batur. This impressive formation featured a continually smoking caldera and wide, tree covered slopes. This natural vegetation led gently down to the vibrantly cultivated land on the valley floor. Looking over this misty panoramic from a conveniently placed ridge up some 200m was the perfect place to stock up on the calories required for a day of pedaling.
The bike portion of the trip started in earnest a short time later when we pulled up to our assembly point and got fitted to our rides and helmets. For the six bigger folk, this was a pretty straight forward process though we all had to get used to our hand brakes being reversed. This small detail actually could have had pretty big implications if we had pulled hard on the front brake when intending to activate the rear. This would have had the unfortunate effect of a classic, but potentially damaging, arse over tea kettle crash to the pavement. This was information worth devoting to memory! For the two youngest members of the crew, finding the right equipment proved a bit more challenging. The tour company had promised they had a variety of bike sizes but we were disappointed to discover they really only had one pretty small cycle to offer four year old Emily and a mid sized one that was just a bit too big for six year old Wesley. These kids were eager to get going though, so with a few small adjustments to seats they were ready to hit the road. The tour route was remarkably well thought out and took us through a splendid variety of microenvironments including back laneways, a few busy roads, bamboo shrouded forest paths, a downward cliff side trail and into a traditional village and temple site.
The most blessed thing about the itinerary though was its general down hill trend. In 33 degree heat and at about 90% relative humidity, the pitch of the land is actually a big deal. Before we had covered much ground however, Wes, who you will recall was riding a bike a smidge too large, ran into some trouble whilst enjoying a downhill portion of the first set of laneways. The poor boy could only touch to the ground with tiptoes and he was riding a machine only fitted with hand brakes. His trusty mount at home had pedal brakes which proved to be an important difference in operation when he began gaining too much speed in the direction of a nearby drainage ditch running parallel to the road. As you maybe have predicted, he had some trouble steering away from the two foot deep channel while simultaneously trying to arrest his swaying bike. The rest of us could only watch in horror as his front tire shot over the edge of the small canal and he was flung over his handle bars head forward down into the brick lined bottom. It was a moment of real fear for all of us and the speed with which the crash happened was startling. Turns out he is an incredibly rugged little guy and after only the briefest bout of tears, a few soothing words and some well placed band aids, he was up and ready to keep going. At that point we all decided it might be best to retire his ill sized equipment and he happily rode along with mum in the air con comfort of the support van. We completed the remainder of the tour without any further calamity and we wound down the day by eating a delicious home cooked meal amongst rice paddies in the heart of a pleasant village. It was a day of sweat, tears and laughs.