Monday, January 27, 2014

Bali: from the sea to the mountains

Shockingly blue sky with puffy, cotton candy clouds.

Tree covered mountains reaching into the sky.

Terraced rice fields as far as the eye can see.

White sandy beaches and a lazy, lapping tide.

Spices and flavors that ignite your taste buds.

... and god damn greedy monkeys.

We stayed in Ubud, which is in central Bali, for 10 days and really enjoyed our time there.

Our mornings were spent drinking banana smoothies and lazing around the pool.
Our afternoons were spent exploring the island and eating delicious local food.
Our evenings were spent listening to the frogs croak and playing euchre on the porch.

Our Bali exploration included:

Rogue monkeys encounters
We were accosted by monkeys on a near daily basis as we walked through the sacred monkey forest to get into town. This area is truly spectacular; it is an ancient Hindu temple built in the forest and moss and nature have grown all around the stone carvings and temples. Unfortunately, a huge monkey population has grown there too. And let me tell you: these monkeys are bastards! They are used to tourists coming into the forest to feed them and allow the monkeys to jump all over them. What did that meant for us, people who had to brave the jungle to walk into town? Bad things, I tell you! In the end, only Sean required rabies shots although we lost a bottle of wine and some soap to thieving monkeys. On at least one occasion, a bullying monkey had Jamie and I near tears as we plucked up the courage to walk past it, all aggressive and alpha, clearly eyeballing our purses. Luckily, our husbands were superheroes and scared away all the forest bullies for us!

Temple hopping
We hired our hotel's owner to drive us to two of Bali's most famous temples, one on a lake and one in the sea. Honestly, both were incredibly disappointing. I don't quite know exactly what I was expecting but what I experienced sure wasn't it. Both were major tourists traps, honestly some of the worst I have ever encountered in all my travels through Asia (and that's saying something). Tacky booths selling all kinds of cheap souvenirs lined the walkways to the temples and everywhere you looked there were tour busses and people with cameras. We couldn't even explore these temples or get close to them; tourists were kept at a distance both times by water. After getting to experience hands on the temples of Thailand and Cambodia, it was a major let down.

On the other hand, Bali is dotted with minor Hindu temples. Drive down any street for five minutes and you are bound to come across one. Unfortunately, the only really cool temple we could literally climb all over and explore was also teeming with bastard monkeys so we spent as little time as possible there.

Coffee, coffee, coffee...and poop
We wandered through the forest with a guide who stopped to show us all of Bali's many spices and herbs like ginger, lemongrass, coffee, etc. We even got to taste the island's specialty: mongoose poop coffee. Apparently, some weirdo discovered that after digging out coffee beans from mongoose poop and cleaning/drying/roasting them for one month, really great coffee can be made. I wondered who would look at coffee beans in poop and think, hey, I have a great idea but in the end, whoever that person was clearly was a genius because the mongoose coffee poop is delicious.

We spent two days driving all over Bali, seeing everything from the ocean, rice plantations, jungles, and mountains. The traffic in Bali is definitely out of control, a result of booming tourism and lagging infrastructure. However, the roads were windy, twisty, mountainous and brimming over with so many interesting things to look at from waterfalls and rivers and ocean vistas and volcanoes to temples and ceremonies and family gatherings and jungle and flowers and so much more.

Wielding cleavers
We took a half-day cooking class and learned to make Balinese fried rice, peanut sauce, a pork dish and much more. They even let me use a meat clever and a grinder. I thought that was very foolish. However, no one was injured over the course of the morning and I had a lot of fun learning to make dishes I had tried and loved at local restaurants.

Beach bumming
Ubud is in central Bali and a good hour drive from the coast. That said, we felt like we had to go to the beach because we were in Bali, you know? So, we talked to our hotel's owner and told him we wanted to go to a beach but definitely not Kuta, which is Bali's best known beach area. Why? Well, let's just say it has a reputation for a Spring Break vibe due to the huge number of Aussies who go to Bali, and Kuta in particular, as part of their gap years. We are kinda over that scene and have been for a while. We wanted something more secluded and mellow. Well, we had a two hour drive that included some off-roading to get to this beach and still there were touts there trying to give us massages and sell us trinkets. It too was also not what I was expecting but Sean and I had a lot of fun playing around in the water and the drive to the beach was through small towns that are on no map so the trip to the beach was still a win in my book.

In the end, Bali was not what I was expecting but still utterly enjoyable and a great place to spend 10 days with good friends relaxing, exploring, and eating. As for next Chinese New Year, that was decided on a hot day in the swimming pool: watch out New Zealand, we will be visiting you next year!!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bali's Sacred Monkey Forest

One major attraction in Ubud is the monkey forest. It's this jungle that is sprinkled with ancient Hindu temples and crawling with monkeys. The real draw of the forest is the fact that the monkeys are free to jump from the trees and ground onto visitors. Sounds cool, right?

Sure, until one bites your husband and then you spend the next three hours in the ER learning all about the series of rabies vaccinations he will need. You see, one minute Sean was just standing there watching two monkeys wrestle and before he knew it another monkey had snuck up behind him, climbed his leg, and bit him in the knuckle. We think the monkey thought Sean was keeping a banana in the pocket of his pants, if you get my drift, and while the monkey did not draw blood, it did leave a mark.

This is when things got confusing. Before we backpacked through SE Asia in 2010-2011, we saw a specialists and received many vaccinations including typhus, tetanus, and anti-malarial pills. She warned us about the risks of rabies. We decided not to get the injections at the time because we had no plans to be in contact with the rabid dogs of Asia. But the thing I am learning is that sometimes you can't plan for things. We knew to stay away from the monkeys. We were not like the other travelers who were bending over to let the monkeys crawl all over us. However, the monkey sure did not stay away from Sean. Within seconds, a pretty serious thing happened and we had to figure out what to do.

We returned to our hotel, which was a 5-minute walk away from the forest, and were told by what I am sure was a well-meaning local that there were no rabies in Bali. Still not able to let it go, I Googled "rabies in Bali" and discovered that he was full of it. Bali has a major rabies problem in its stray dog population. Then, I found at least 10 stories from other travelers who had the same thing happen to them who all got the rabies vaccination. That was enough for me. I love my husband and did not want him to froth at the mouth. We caught a ride to the Ubud ER and the doctor confirmed what I read online: while there have been no confirmed cases of monkeys from the monkey forest carrying or transmitting rabies to a person, it is not possible to guarantee they are rabies-free due to their proximity and interactions with stray dogs and therefore a visitor should always seek rabies treatment after being bitten in the forest.

So, that's exactly what we opted to do. Sean received his first shot and will get two more in Bali and one more when we return to Taiwan. They are simple, relatively cheap shots in the arm that mean living free of worry as the rabies incubation period is anywhere between two months to two years. This is the first time in years of travel that we have had anything like this happen, and the moral of the story is clear: it's always better to be safe than sorry and it's imperative to find a clinic and seek medical advice rather than listen to misinformation from well-meaning locals.

That said, we have been having a great time in Bali and are not letting this bump in the road affect our attitude toward this beautiful island, which truly is paradise.