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Bike tour of Bali, September 2000

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A note from Steve: The following article is written by Joe Rutch, our co-conspirator in the Bike Bali excursion. His words capture the feeling of the trip quite well, and he's agreed to let me post this article (originally written for the newsletter of our old bike club, the Jersey Shore Touring Society).


Biking in Bali

by Joe Rutch

So there we were, my 2 biking buddies and myself crammed in the back of a pickup truck, piled in with our 3 bikes and panniers along with five chain-smoking Indonesian thugs; I'm sitting in a puddle of motor oil, bouncing down a rutted jungle trail and all I could think was "Man, it doesn't get any better than this!"

So just from the scenario described above, I'm sure old time JSTSers have immediately identified my 2 cohorts as Steve and Shelley Casagrande. And they would be correct. However for those newer members of the club that don't know The Casagrandes, the following anecdote will clearly illustrate their personas. As I was leaving for my trip, my mom says "Be Careful"- I said "Don't worry, I'll be with Steve and Shelley" - she replied "Be VERY Careful".

Enough said....on with the fun details.

Bali is an island that is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, near the equator, surrounded by the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia. The nation has made recent headlines with rioting in its capital city of Jakarta and massacres in East Timor. However, the island of Bali (its biggest tourism draw) has been spared many of the problems and was a very safe place to be pedaling.

Joe and Shelley at the Hong Kong Bird Market
Torturing Joe:
With Shelley at the Hong Kong Bird Market

Since I was solo-ing this trip, the tandem stayed home and the three of us had decided that mountain bikes would be the optimal set of wheels for this trip since we weren't too sure of the road conditions. We did put a set of slicks on, so as not to slow us down too much. A set of panniers would be enough to carry gear and clothes (the cold weather clothes could definitely stay at home in the closet for this trip). A cardboard box for the bike was enough packing preparation (turn the handlebars and take off the pedals), so with minimal preparation, I was off.

The first hurdle was the flight. No trip to Asia is complete without losing a day flying the friendly skies. I left JFK on a Wednesday night and landed some 20 hours later in Hong Kong on Friday morning. Steve &Shelley met me at the airport and in boot camp fashion decided that staying awake until THEIR nighttime would be the perfect way for me to overcome jet lag.

Joe unpacks at the Denpasar Airport in Bali, surrounded by a crowd.
Joe draws a crowd as he assembles his
bike at the Denpasar airport in Bali.

We had planned 2 days in Hong Kong for sightseeing, so there was no time like the present for me to get started. Within the next whirlwind 48 hours, I saw Hong Kong from up in the hills and out on the bay, I rode trains, cabs, double-decker busses, mini-buses, ferries, trams, moving sidewalks and street escalators, I ate Indian, Chinese and Thai food, saw the city lit up at night from high atop the Peaks, saw the giant Buddha statue in Lantau and visited the real Hong Kong at the ethnic markets (whose sights at the meat stalls would require a whole other story - suffice it to say - I learned in Asia a strong heart and stomach is needed for many things).

By Sunday however we were ready to leave the bright lights and big city for our real adventure: a week bicycling around the island of Bali. We had an idea for a route and an idea for stops along the way where we could find lodging. Armed with a map and a "Lonely Planet" guidebook, we were sure we could handle anything. Our route was to start almost in the center of the island, heading up and over a volcanic mountain, down to the northern shoreline and then a few days riding around and swimming in the famous waters of the Balinese coast.

Shelley, Steve and Joe
on our balcony in Ubud

Sunday was a travel day: leave Hong Kong, fly to Bali (5 hours), put our bikes together, get transported with our gear to Ubud (near our start point) and settle in. Our rooms were built into a hillside, overlooking a deep ravine and across from terraced farmland. Ubud is a touristy, artsy village and would be our most expensive stop. The town itself was a hubbub of activity with noisy motor scooters, trucks and buses vrooming through the main drag. Luckily our cottages were outside of the main part of town and the noises we contended with were made by bullfrogs, birds and cows. While in Ubud, we did do the cultural touristy thing and attended a Balinese dance performance. Although we couldn't figure out what was happening (even with a scorecard), it was nice to watch and the obligatory crowd-pleasing, show-ending, barefoot-dance on hot coals made it worth its price (10,000 rupiahs = US$1.20, gotta love that exchange rate).

Rice Terraces
Rice terraces along the road to Candikuning

Monday morning we shuttled to a town west of Ubud called Sanjan, this was half way up the mountain to the hilltop town of Candikuning, where we planned to stay overnight. This left us with about 20 miles of climbing for the day and although the grade started mildly, we would end the ride at high noon doing switchbacks less than 10 degrees from the equator. Anyone feeling the heat just thinking about it? We were going to see the real Bali now, not just the touristy spots and high-priced hotels, but the countryside where the real people lived and worked.

Shelley at the Candikuning market
Shelley at the Candikuning market

This was my first trip to Asia and it was truly an assault on all of my senses. The smells, the sights, the tastes, the noises.

Our first day of riding was truly a mixed day. The road was often crowded with bemos (mini-buses), trucks, motor-scooters (none of which believed in clean running exhausts), along with people burning garbage on the side of the road making the air plenty foul. The towns we passed through were a kaleidoscope of sights with women walking with baskets on their heads, chickens running around the roads, crowded street markets, palm trees, rice paddies and mountain vistas. Even our ears did not escape assault, besides withstanding the irritating sounds of motor vehicles on the road, they were also pleasured by hundreds of kids yelling "hello" every time we passed a school. An overload of stimuli to be sure. I think I experienced more new and different things in that one ride, than in a year's worth of riding in NJ.

Hotel in Candicuning
Hotel in Candicuning:
$9/night with breakfast

Eventually we reached Candikuning, found a place to stay (about $9 a night, with breakfast), had lunch ($1) and explored the town's marketplace. Our rooms were on a hill overlooking a lake and a local temple. I think at this point everything hit me (the heat, the travel, the strange food, the bad air) and I pretty much collapsed for the day and hit the sack early. The next day promised a mostly downhill ride and with an earlier start, less heat. A good night's sleep would certainly aid in the recovery.

Water Temple
Pulau Ulan Danu, the Water Temple

Our second day started off brighter and earlier than we expected when the loudspeaker from the local mosque blared the early morning call to prayers at 4:00 A.M. Although Bali is predominately Hindu (with plenty of shrines, temples and offerings being made), there were some Islamic communities (which we usually didn't find out until early in the morning). We eventually started our day a bit later with a typical breakfast of Nasi Goreng (fried rice, egg and prawn crackers) and hit the road. Our route would start with some more uphills to reach the official mountain top,then we planned to pull off the main road and take some back roads along the mountain top and then downhill to Lovina Beach.

Procession at Water Temple
Procession at Pulau Ulan Danu

We had barely got started, when we stopped off for some sightseeing at Pura Ulan Danu, the Water Temple on Lake Bratan, and lucked out when we witnessed a "morning offering" ceremony. Brightly dressed men and women led the procession, the women carrying baskets of offerings, while the men played musical instruments all followed by children from the school. Quite a spectacle. On the road again soon after when it was time for another stop. A chance to take pictures of the local troop of monkeys that lived in the jungle off the side of the road. Sure was a little more exciting than when you spot a deer in the woods. We would see lots more exotic nature on this days ride. With less traffic, it was a less frantic ride with more time to admire the beauty of the surrounding area. Besides the monkeys, I also spotted warthogs in the brush and all sorts of tropical plants growing in the area (banana trees, coffee and even wild poinsettias).

Monkey
Monkey on the side of the road

The views from the top of the mountain was stunning. However we needed to leave and head downhill if we wanted to reach the beach. And downhill we went. The little side road we took was some of the toughest and gnarliest mountain biking I've ever done. The fatter tires paid off as the road disintegrated into downhill gravelly switchbacks. Smoking brakes and tired hands were the byproduct of the hour long descent.

Eventually the coast came into sight and a cool dip in the water and some snorkeling was much appreciated. The number of hawkers on the beach trying to sell us something eventually drove us back to our resort's pool to relax in peace and quiet.

Three Bikes
Three bikers enjoying a great ride

Lovina was a real hopping beach town but not what we were looking for (although I will admit we found a great pizza place here - who would think in the middle of Indonesia??).

We made our plans for the next days ride and retired for the night. We paid extra at this resort for hot water and air conditioning, and found out the hard way you couldn't have both at the same time, because if you tried, the generator would blow out. Well so much for sleeping in comfort.

Lake Bratan
Lake Bratan, Bali, Indonesia

We awoke the next morning and headed out at 6 A.M. in an attempt to beat the heat. This would be our longest ride (45 miles) of the trip -all flat all along the coast. We would be heading for Tulamben, a diving center in Bali famous for the USS Liberty (a WWII ship) which sunk off its coast in 40 feet of water (making it easily accessible). Our plan was to reach Tulamben and spent 2 days here, giving us a chance to do some diving.

The ride itself was a little long and as expected got hotter as the day went on. We rode through varied areas, some coastal, some more inland, small towns and a few bigger towns. Rush hour around the bigger towns were a bit of a challenge with people going to work, to market, to school, making deliveries, etc. I've mentioned the crowded conditions of the roads and crowded they were, but, in a way I felt very safe riding here. The drivers are used to seeing almost every type of vehicle, pedestrian and animal on the road going every which way, a couple of strange foreigners on loaded bikes didn't faze them. As for our part, simple safety, riding defensively and becoming "one" with the flow of traffic and you were fine. It also helped if you remembered to ride on the left side of the road (yup, they ride on the wrong side of the road in Bali).

Boat at sunset, Lovina Beach
Boat at Sunset
Lovina Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Our rooms in Tulamben were actually quite nice. For $3.50 a night, they included a fan, hot water and a mosquito net. The hotel set up our dive package (10 minute instructions behind the dive shop in broken English, stuff the air tube in your mouth and into the water - I know - you properly certified divers are probably cringing). And even more important, there were massages for everyone ($5 an hour).

This was a much more quiet spot and more relaxing place to be. A good spot for our day off. It was here where we learned how strong Indonesian women are. Besides personal testimony from the hands of our masseuses, we also watched in amazement as the local women would come down to the dive shop, load up and carry 2 air tanks on their heads and bring them down to our entry spot on the beach.

The bay at Tulamben
The bay at Tulamben

After our day off, it was time for our last segment of riding. We were set to leave Tulamben and head for Candidasa, another beach town. We looked at our map and our choice of routes: choice number 1 was the inland direct route among the busy roads, over a mountain, doable in one day. Choice number 2 was the scenic route along the coastline, probably twice the distance, but probably flatter (it's along the coast, right?), and it passed through numerous towns (so we could stop halfway through and take 2 days to do it if necessary). We still had 2 more days to ride or whatever, so no rush. We all opted for the scenic route with a plan to stop at approximately the half way point.

We had been told by some Swiss cyclists we met that it was a little hilly (it should make you stop and think when someone from Switzerland says something is hilly). The guys in the dive shop warned us it was a rough road (and it should make you stop and think when someone from Indonesia says the road is rough). But we headed out, blissfully ignoring all the warning signs.

Sure enough we started out as we expected: flat and fast - we were going be done by lunchtime at the worst. Even getting a little lost and stopping to visit a temple, we were still cooking. Now most folks would agree with our logic that a road along the coast is gonna be flat (dang - just think about Ocean Ave in Monmouth County, NJ). However, there also occurs the geographical situation where the mountains meet the coast in dramatic cliff like fashion. Sure enough we reached this point, up one ridge, down the other side, and up the next ridge and on and on. But no problems, this will end soon, we'll get to the town we're looking for, it's probably only 2 or 3 of these ridges and then we'll be done. And pretty soon we WERE done...well done and done for.

Bay along the east coast of Bali
Bay along the east cost of Bali

On retrospect, it probably didn't help that the road eventually disappeared. Well, disappear is probably the wrong word. Disintegrate is probably more accurate. The road turned into a jumble of broken pavement, potholes, rocks and boulders. Everyone who has ever sat through a bicycling tour slide show and laughed when shown a picture of a Third World road like the one just described. Trust me, it's not too fun when you're actually experiencing it! But no problems, that village we're looking for is probably just around the corner.

Onward and upward we went, the road and area getting more and more remote. No food, no water, no place to stay, the heat getting more intense, reduced to pushing the bikes because of the rough road surface. Things were looking a little grim. There were houses and farms around, but noone spoke much English in this remote area, so directions or questions about our location were pretty much unanswerable. Their water/food supplies would probably only make us sick, and the poverty they were living in precluded us from even asking. If you stopped for a break, you were soon surrounded by the entire community of kids, as you were the most exciting thing to go through here in the longest time. No electricity and no phones. We were pretty much stuck continuing (and besides it would only be a little more to go).

We rode on when we could, pushed when we had to and continued on the trail. Heat stroke was slowly becoming a possibility. It was such a strange sensation at times, up in those mountain roads, going up and down those ridges, dying of the heat and looking down the cliff side and seeing all that blue cool ocean water that would be so refreshing - if there was only a way to get to it. A very frustrating sensation.

On and on we went until lo and behold, Shelley (she gets the gold hero badge) spots a house with a pickup truck parked in front, and pretty soon we are bargaining (in sign language and Marcel Marceau miming) with the owner for a ride to our destination. And sure enough that's how we ended up in the pickup truck mentioned at the beginning of the story.

That explains the 3 of us and the driver, but where did everyone else come from? Well, as we rode down the trail, our driver stopped in front of every house and proceeded to tell the story (in Indonesian of course) of the crazy foreigners who were paying him to drive them to Candidasa and if they wanted to come along for the ride, jump in. Pretty soon we had half the neighborhood in the pickup with us.

All along our travels through Bali, I would stare and laugh in amazement at the bemos and pickup trucks with 50 people squeezed in with goats and farm produce and people hanging out the sides. Here it was less than a week later and I myself was a participant in such craziness. A true taste of island life.

Relaxing in Candidasa
A well-earned day of relaxing in Candidasa

So all's well that ends well. We found a place to stay with a pool, on the beach, air conditioning and cold beers for sale at the bar. Massages were even cheaper here ($3 an hour) and plenty of restaurants to try. Our last day was spent lounging at the pool recovering from the previous day's exhaustion, soaking in the sun and laughing about our experiences.

All in all, it was an exciting, adventurous trip. The cycling was good, even if the conditions were a little tough at times. The people were friendly and the scenery beautiful. It was an experience I will never forget. I saw a little slice of Asia and can say that it is a unique place to visit. I hope that from reading this you also got a little taste as well. It is one of those places that is so hard to describe, you really have to experience it to really understand. If you ever get tired of the same old, same old- it may be time to look to the east, the far east, for some new experiences.

Bike tour of Bali, September 2000

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