Thursday, July 7, 2011

Baloni's Adventures in Bali

With an estimated 20,000 puras (temples) and shrines, Bali is known as the "Island of a Thousand Puras", or "Island of the Gods"

Saturday morning Melissa snuck out at 7am for a quick breakfast before heading to the airport. I got up to give her a hug, but then groggily fell back into the king-sized bed in our deluxe room at the Kusnadi in Legian. Melissa, Jen P and I had been in Bali for exactly a week, relaxing at The Westin in Nusa Dua for 3 nights (compliments of Melissa’s winning entry in an online getaway vacation contest) and then in our more familiar stompin’ grounds of Legian. Here we enjoyed full days on the beach, surfing lessons, good books, Bintang sunsets, spa treatments, seaside dinners, a whole lot of dancing, a bit of singing and continuous laughter. The week had been extremely memorable and exactly what I needed to shake the stress that tends to build-up as the school year ends. Summer was finally here, and it was off to a great start.

Later that morning, over my own Nescafe with milk, I decided to stay in Legian for one more night. I was on my own for the first time in a long time, and while it was bitter to say goodbye to Melissa, it was simultaneously sweet to indulge in the anticipation of a solo adventure about to unfold for me. I was off to explore some more hidden places in Bali with one main goal - diving. There was a room available at the Kusnadi that night and I was hoping to hear from Keith who would be returning from a Komodo Island live-aboard diving trip. I was hoping to hear his recounts of his trip and it would be nice to connect. I had already begun to compose my own plan for the next 10 days, deciding to stick to exploring the immediate Bali area in more depth. Having already been to the Gilis and considering its expensive boat journey plus a lot more time spent traveling, I decided to skip it. Trekking Rinjani had also been a goal, but I let that slip away in favor of doing things at a slower pace and focusing more on diving. Belongas Bay in southern Lombok would also have to wait, cast slightly further down the Bali area must-do list, but definitely held in waiting for another time.

I did some research on diving possibilities around Bali and decided on Amed for the first few days and Nusa Lembongan for the second stretch. Remembering Jason and Nora’s enthusiastic stories and photos from their Spring Break trip to this area bolstered the appeal. I read that, “The greatest features of Bali diving are the incredibly rich and varied dive sites. Deep drop-offs and steep banks, coral ridges and bommies, one of the most famous wrecks in the world, volcanic outcrops and seagrass beds are all part of the underwater tapestry. With its colourful and diverse marine life, there's enough here to keep you coming back for more. To the east of the island lies the Lombok Strait, the first deep water trench directly to the east of the Asian continental shelf. Through this channel flows the greatest volume of tidal water on earth. This Pacific Ocean can create some powerful currents and rollercoaster rides that characterize some of the dive sites. It also means regular visits from large and unusual pelagic fish like the incredible mola mola, or sunfish. The strong currents can also clean the water and create fantastic visibility.”

The next night, I met up with Keith and his friend Mic (who used to work on The Junk) in Kuta for a few Bintangs and fun conversation about diving as well as million other things. The following morning was drizzly and I set off around noon with Katut, my hired driver. He was the same young guy who had taken me to Ubud and The Green School back in October. We made funny conversation and listened to my iPod all along the 4-hour drive to Amed. Travelling through shimmering coastal scenery, emerald landscapes of rippling rice paddies and rugged volcano slopes to eventually end up along the black-sand beaches, turquoise waters and narrow village streets of the eastern-most tip of Bali. I had arrived in my own perfect paradise. I had decided to stay at the pricy, but interesting, Eco Hotel Uyah. From their description of the hotel’s early beginnings and current practices, I figured it was worth the splurge. The story is summarized on their website like this, “Café Garam, which means Salt Café, is part of Hotel Uyah Amed, which we have translated as Salt Lodge Amed. Garam is the Indonesian - and Uyah the Balinese word for salt. In mid 2000 we were sitting in Amed and discussing the tremendous changes in the area due to the growing tourism. More and more salt production fields were left unused or sold by their owners to be used for tourist bungalows etc. Since we did not like the idea that the traditional salt production would disappear in the near future we worked out our plan to preserve this tradition for the people of Amed as well as for interested foreigners. In order to combine the development of tourism with the traditional lifestyle we decided to build this hotel and café around the salt production fields and use the salt production as our motto. We strive to preserve the traditional salt production by promoting it as point of interest for foreign tourists and explain the production process. We produce the salt during dry season (when production is possible) and store it in our traditional bamboo hut "Gudang Garam". In order to contribute to a sustainable development in this beautiful part of Bali we are strongly committed to an environmentally friendly implementation of our services and strive for prevention of pollution. Our hotel is equipped with solar powered water heating systems, which use the mostly available sun and require no electrical energy. We have implemented and maintain an environmental management system to reduce the consumption of natural resources and to prevent pollution by waste separation, composting, energy and water - saving installations and programs. We grow fruit and vegetables in our bio garden. We try to communicate our environmental goals to the local community and our guests in order to be in harmony with this beautiful environment.”

My time in Amed very relaxing and laid back. I spent time cruising along the coastal village road to small restaurants and cafes, exploring the beach and hanging out with the local children who sold salt and crafts when they weren’t at school. The backdrop of Gunung Agung, the largest volcano in Bali, onto which the sun would set each night, was breathtaking. With very little going on in the evenings and no streetlights, the night sky was always dense with stars. I hadn’t experienced this wonderfully familiar feeling of remoteness - a truly slow pace of life, a shift in priorities and the daily spirit of doing things disconnected to the bigger, busier outside world - since moving to Asia 3 years ago. I had missed this. I began to imagine weekend motorbike trips to this area and others like it, if I were to live and work in Bali, a dream that I would spend a fair amount of time exploring over the next 8 days.

At the hotel I spent time with other guests from all over the world, a British/German couple who (coincidentally) live in HK, an Italian/French-Canadian couple who are in the process of moving to Singapore and a wonderfully energetic and fun French backpacker, named Vicky, who had rented her own motorcycle to travel about Bali for the next month. Vicky shared many stories of her travels and adventures, meeting people and experiencing local life. Her liveliness and spontaneity were attractive and exciting. I also spent a lot of time with the hotel staff, sitting around the pool and chatting in the afternoons, eating my pre-diving sunrise breakfasts at the restaurant bar and having evening beers while watching the sunset. It wasn’t too crowded and I felt like I could get to know everyone around me easily, which was fun. One night and I went out with Vicky and a few of the hotel staff to the local reggae bar. We arrived a little late and only caught the last 2 songs of the live band, but nonetheless promptly created our own entertainment. We were sharing 2 large Bintang bottles of Arak stage 2 (local alcohol made from palm; the stage 1 is 80% proof while stage 2 much milder and smooth). A few ‘saludes’ and ‘ching chings’ into the bottles and we were approached by a tanned Israeli dread who wanted to check out what all the fuss was about at our table. We had been playing puzzle/riddle games with matchsticks and the dread told us he had the perfect game for us to try. The bar was emptying out. I’d never heard of it, but it turned out quite unusual and entertaining. Basically you wet the rim of a bar glass half filled with water and carefully paste a piece of paper towel over the rim, tearing off the edges so that the glass is capped with the paper towel stretched taught. Placing a small coin in the center and then, taking turns with a cigarette heater, each player burns a hole or burns a bridge between two holes. With practice and a steady hand you can either make big or small craters. The person responsible for the coin falling into the cup loses the game. For us, this challenge lasted for almost 45 minutes. Around 1am, the 5 focused players were surrounded by the last staggering drunks, a few intrigued locals and a some fascinated bar staff, all cheering enthusiastically for our friendly competition. Good times were had by all.

The diving in Amed was fantastic. My first dive was in Tulamben at the USAT Liberty wreck, which has a fascinating story behind it. The Liberty was an armed cargo ship built in 1918 and served as a supply ship during WWII. A Japanese submarine torpedoed it in 1942 approximately 10 nautical miles southwest of Lombok. The ship was rescued and towed towards Bali by a Dutch destroyer, the HNLMS Van Ghent. The damage done to the ship was so great that the attempt to reach Singaraja failed, the crew was evacuated and the ship was beached in Tulamben. The intact ship sat beached on this beautiful coast until Bali' s volcano, Gunung Agung, erupted in 1963 pushing the Liberty just a few meters into the sea. It now sits on a black-sand shelf that slopes from about 6-30m. There were a lot of divers on this site, even though we went at 8am to avoid the crowds. It is estimated that an average of 100 divers descend on the wreck each day. With a couple swim  The next 2 days of diving we did was along the Amed shoreline, with just the dive master and myself. I’ve never had the luxury experience of being one:one with a dive guide, being only one of 2 people on dive sites, seeing amazing things like reef sharks and massive pelagic fish, and I’d never really dived in currents. This was exciting! The tranquility that was created from the remoteness, out there on our own, was spectacularly calming. I loved these dives because it felt like I was somewhere completely removed from the rest of the world, somewhere undiscovered. The serenity was soothing and reassuring. The waters and the marine life around Bali is very undisturbed and the reefs are some of the most vibrant and productive that I have ever seen. There are 2 reasons for this. Firstly, Bali is surrounded by deep waters with unfavorable coastlines creating a lack of safe harbours. Sea culture never evolved around the island of Bali, like it did elsewhere in Indonesia and this can even been evidenced in the small amount of fishing that occurs in this area, even today. Secondly, the Balinese are mainly of the Hindu faith and consider things sacred if they are high or elevated from sea-level. Temples are built in the heights of Bali’s volcanoes and the ocean, being low, is considered dangerous. Historically, most Balinese didn’t like to swim and preferred to stay away from the coast.

I thought a lot about diving more often, getting my instructor certification and making diving a more substantial part of my life.

Gods and spirits have been an important part of Bali's daily life for hundreds of years. Gunung Agung – Bali's holy mountain – is internationally regarded as one of the eight "Chakra" points of the world. This may be more than a coincident. Watch out, the moment you feel the magic of this island, you're addicted for the rest of your life.”

After my magical time in Amed, I set off on a new adventure, driving back along the coast towards Sanur, where I caught a local boat to the island of Nusa Lembongan. Nusa Lembongan sits slightly north of Nusa Ceningan, which is slightly north of, the much larger island, Nusa Penida. These three islands are nestled in the deep-water channel between Bali and Lombok, and from everything I had read, I was starting to realize that there is some world-class diving to be done amongst and around these three islands. I had learned that there is some diving available here for beginners, but most of the dives require a decent level of experience, as currents are strong and unpredictable. From dive the world’s website, “Lying across the Badung Strait from Sanur is Bali's premiere scuba diving destination - the clear waters of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida islands. With its adjacent deep water trenches, the main attraction at Lembongan Island is the common encounters with the curious and otherwise very rare oceanic sunfish, or mola mola.”
So off I was to see a sunfish and hopefully dive in some strong currents (specifically skill-building diving that I wanted to have more experience with).

Staying in Nusa Lembongan for 5 days was magical. The diving was superb. The company was perfect. And the small village feel of the island captured my heart. I stayed at Secret Garden Bungalows where the BigFish Diving outfit is located, just up from the beach. My bungalow was cheap and cute, the people around were friendly and the chilled-out island vibe put me at ease instantly. This is a small place. And it’s beautiful. After a few days of diving with a very small group – 2 people doing their advanced open water (AOW), a dive master trainee (DMT) and an instructor – I was seriously considering that this might be the place to do me DMT. Big Fish only takes on one DMT at a time and the instruction is top notch. Challenging diving in current makes this an ideal learning environment. It’s a short boat ride away from Dempasar and I could afford to stay in one of the Secret Garden bungalows for a few months, no problem. Paradise.

Diving around Nusa Lembongan, we saw Mantas, a Bamboo Shark, Marble Rays and more. The currents were sometimes so strong at certain sites that we’d arrive, assess and then the instructors would decide we should try a different site. This meant that the instructors needed to really know their stuff and be prepared for the unexpected at all sites. We went hunting for Mola Molas, but were a bit too early in the season to have any luck. Chris, our instructor had some other instructor friends visiting and on my birthday, we all went out for a few celebration dives with no other fun divers. It would be my last day of diving, because I had to fly back to HK the next day. After no luck seeing Molas at Crystal Bay, we went into the channel between Nusa Ceninigan and Nusa Lembongan to a dive site that pretty much looked like a washing machine on the surface. Crazy! We had a quick vote, showing that we were all up for the adventure, and then geared up and prepared for a negative entry. In a negative entry you basically deflate your BCD entirely, do a backwards roll off the boat holding your BCD’s bottom dump toggle and upon hitting the water you descend, head first, as fast as you possible can. This is to avoid being thrashed around and/or separated from your dive buddies by the strong surge currents on the surface. Once we reached 20 meters, we basically entered a jet stream ‘highway’ of current. No point trying to look at much (except the patterns of the schools of fish in order to predict the current ahead of you). It was like flying underwater. I couldn’t help but laugh with excitement into my regulator. This was wild. There were a few tense moments when our group became slightly separated and we weren’t sure what lay ahead in terms of current patterns. A couple strong upsurges and down currents took us by surprise and once we actually had to try and hold on to something. This didn’t always work, but we all were safe and having the ride of our lives. I was so overwhelmed with adrenaline and the pure rush of accomplishing something challenging. I loved the learning and I loved the experience. This last dive sealed the deal for me. I now know that I will be a dive instructor someday. Not sure exactly when, but it will happen.

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