For my first weekend in Bali I'm joined by a dear old friend who lives in Jakarta. Almost 2 decades my senior, Tony pushes me beyond my comfort zone, into the zone of adventure. Tony's plan for our second day in Bali: ride down the mountain through farms and villages for 40km without a guide.The night before collecting the rental bikes we tried them out – they needed work. The shopkeeper said that he would fix them up: firm tyres, oil and working brakes. On the morning of the big ride, my front tyre was mushy. The shopkeeper told me he did not have a pump. Incredulous, I said 'You don't have a pump? But this is a bike shop!'
He got on the bike himself and said 'There is enough air.'
'I ride a bike every day,’ I said. 'I know when there is enough air. That tyre is too soft.'
The guy disappeared up the road for a short while with the bike, came back and asked me to try it – no difference. When Tony arrived with my coffee, he responded calmly "not much of a bike shop with no pump... perhaps we can stop for air on the way up the mountain in our taxi".
The tyre probably still had a slow puncture, but we weren't going to get anything better from this shop. I told the shopkeeper of our plan to get air en route. He said 'be careful because it's a low quality tyre – it might explode.'
The taxi dropped us at the top of the mountain: spectacular view across volcano rim, mountains and lake. I found a local shop with a compressor pump, topped up the tyre and we started downhill. Within about two minutes the tyre was soft again... back up the hill to refill it with air... one last try. Then we were on our way.
You have to let go of a lot of safety nets in a place like this – no helmet for the bike, dodgy tires and brakes, dirt roads, etc. But it was worth it... we had a great ride down the beautiful Mt Batur volcano through orchards, rice paddies and working sculpture yards. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in a family-run restaurant with a small menagerie of caged birds. Some were pretty, but I wish I could unsee the very sick sulphur-crested cockatoo, constantly trying to chew his way through his metal bars and chains to be free. Instead of walls, the dining room had balcony on all sides, overlooking green paddy fields. On the road we passed farm labourers, a few tour groups also on bikes, and some local traffic.Via the beautiful Campuhan Ridge trail, Tony navigated our way back to the noisy streets of Ubud. It was a blessing to arrive safely in our cosy little cottage in Penethestan.
The growing ugliness of the short-sighted rush towards first-world ills of car culture, plastics and concrete contrasts rich, historic and ubiquitous daily practice of colourful Hindu spirituality. Poor urban planning makes everyday traffic noisy crowded and dangerous, yet the Balinese create peaceful domestic oases with beautiful curving bamboo-based architecture, intricate craftsmanship, lush gardens.
As a tourist in this town you're never too far from a helpful local guide or a haven of relaxation. All this helps to forget the airport experience which is probably the six circle of hell... not something to look forward to on the way out! I have an idea for helping the unemployed of Indonesia: a few hundred part-time jobs checking passports and customs processing, to spare visitors 2hrs standing in airside queues after a 6hr flight.
In summary though, the food, the scenery and the local hospitality have been mostly spectacular. With a vast range of options, of course you can find very ordinary food and uninteresting bars... but a little attention to the clientele, the style, the welcome pays off... there's something for everyone in Ubud.
My laid-back friend speaks the local language and has lived in Jakarta for a couple of years. Charming and assertive, he quickly makes friends with every taxi driver, barkeep and restaurant owner we meet... it is going to be interesting to see how I experience this place as a solo female traveler, raised to keep these commercial exchanges as business-like as possible.