Strolling to Tutmak [Hipstamatic]

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It’s dusk in Ubud and I leave my villa to walk to Tutmak for an early dinner. Walking out of Ani’s Villa I cross the street towards Bridges Restaurant and turn left walking over the Champuan Bridge. I walk carefully on the small narrow cobblestone sidewalk to the right of the bridge. Looking over at the old dilapidated, wooden foot bridge twenty feet to the right, I’m careful to avoid it because it looks like someone could fall through at any moment. The Champuan River runs fast and loud below as I cross the bridge to the other side.

Passing Murni’s Warung I’m offered a taxi by a local. I know it won’t be the only time on my 20 minute walk I’ll hear, “Taxi? Transport?” Walking slightly up hill heading into the city center I try to be as careful as I can of the treacherous pavement. It’s uneven and filled with so many gaping holes anyone could easily twist an ankle or go straight through the sidewalk into the sewer. Quickly and carefully I head into the most run down stretch of sidewalk with stone walls on either side of the road and big banyan trees that form an overpass above.

On my right I come up to Jl Bisma and I know I’m halfway there. Another local offers me a massage and I quickly reply, “No thanks” in Indonesian. Once I come to Beetlenut Restaurant there’s a few men hanging out ready to offer me another taxi ride. Picking up the pace I pass by a group of people sipping happy hour cocktails outside at Casa Luna and pass the Ubud Music Store.

I’m offered a third taxi ride in front of Arys Warung and as I say no, I look directly across the street to Jl Kajeng as motorbikes turn a fast left to join traffic on Jl. Raya Ubud. Continuing on Jl. Raya for about 5 minutes I’m at the intersection of the Palace Road and Monkey Forest Road.

A quick right past traffic has me walking down Monkey Forest Road as I almost lose my shoe in one of the grates on the sidewalk. I stay on the narrow sidewalk and the Ibu Rai Art Gallery is on my left with lights twinkling in front of the adjoining restaurant.

Approaching the football field I cross the street and turn left, walking on narrow footpath next to the football field. I can see the Shisha Lounge in the distance at the end of the field and Tutmak Restaurant just before it. I go in the back entrance to Tutmak and find my favorite platform table vacant near the back door. Ketut, the waitress who always remembers my name, smiles sweetly and greets me. I relax and smile as I sink into the cushions on the floor of my favourite table.

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A Bucket List Dive at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

First dive we swim towards the cleaning station and I feel the gentle swell and surge pushing me right and left as we swim along at about 10 meters. Moving slowly I see blue spotted Stingrays. First one, then two, then a group of four stacked on top of each other. The entire 49 minute dive goes by without one Manta. The water is beautiful, there are plenty of Stingrays, Triggerfish, Oriental Sweetlips and even a rare Octopus sighting. But not one Manta…returning to the surface I’m feeling cold and disappointed. When we got in the water I heard that little voice say, “Say a mantra and be grateful”, but as I got out of the water it was hard not to feel let down.

As we pile on the boat my sea sickness starts to return. It’s the first time I have ever felt queasy on a boat. Nico takes a vote to see how many people want to stay at the site and try again in an hour or so. It is the first time all season he hasn’t seen a Manta at this site and he doesn’t want us to leave disappointed. If we wait it out, there’s a good chance we’ll see a few, the day isn’t over yet. We all agree to stay, have lunch and dive this site one more time.

It was worth the wait. Close to 40 minutes later the captain of our boat starts whistling and yelling, “MANTAS! MANTAS!” Rushing to the side of the boat we’re yelling, “WHERE? WHERE?” As we look in the distance there’s one black fin, then another.

Zuri asked, “Wow – how many are there?” and Murray replied, “Why don’t we get in the water and find out?”

I had my equipment on and did a buddy check in record time. By then the Mantas were swimming closer to the boat. You could have put on a snorkel to swim with them.

We only descended about 10 meters and suddenly Manta Rays were circling all around us. I was in awe. Excited, afraid and totally in the wonder of it all, I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I watched Murray swim beside an enormous black one. It must have had the wing span of at least 8 feet. Murray was swimming as close as he could possibly get for a good shot with the camera. Their wide, triangular shaped fins looked like bird wings as they smoothly sailed through the water. I was filled with wonder as these enormous, majestic creatures elegantly glided all around me. I counted 10 circling around at once and I could see and feel a few more in the distance. Fins spread as they smoothly glided up towards the surface, then effortlessly dipping down closer to me. Six..seven…eight…nine…cruising all around me. I just kept floating, breathing in and out, slowing my breath down and making my air last as long as possible.

Their flat, black bodies looked like huge bats. The cephalic lobes that wrapped around their mouths remind me of a thick, wide, detachable Victorian era color on a man’s shirt. Acting as a funnel for plankton to get into their mouths it’s a built in water filtration system. The lobes were opening and closing as they swam around looking for smaller fish to help remove parasites from the mucus membranes that protect their skin.

A few more circled above me so I looked up to see 5 huge slits for gills on both sides of their bellies. I noticed some blotches on their bellies and their thin, sting ray like tails as they cruised around me. It seemed like there were at least 16 swimming with us.

I started to silently say to each one of them, “You’re beautiful, you are truly beautiful”. Did they hear me? Could I have a telepathic connection with a Manta Ray? I realized as they swam closer I began to feel more fear. They were enormous. I gently and consciously went in and out of fear and wonder, trying to stay in the wonder of it all.

After almost an hour of passing the camera back and forth and swimming along with them I started feeling really cold so I signaled to Murray and started to ascend. Hovering at the 3 meter safety stop I was still surrounded by Mantas, even more had begun to play closer to the surface. I gently lifted my head out of the water and floated with my regulator in my mouth and just watched them. The blanket like bodies looked flat from my view at the surface. Two came close to me as if they wanted to play, I got scared and started to swim away.

Murray popped his head up to the surface to talk to me and said, “Are you alright? Do you want to go back to the boat?”

“I’m cold” I said, “But I’m happy watching them from here.”

“You can get really close if they let you” he said, “I was trying to tell you to get closer to them. They don’t bite or sting or I wouldn’t be swimming this close.”

“I keep getting scared” I told him.

“Ok” he said, “then let me know if when you want to go back to the boat.” Then his head disappeared and he descended back down.

I decided to stay in. I made sure to stay between 3-5 meters on the surface, put my regulator back in my mouth and went down to play with the ones hovering close to me. There were two enormous black ones and I reached out to them. For the next 10-15 minutes I just swam 3-5 meters from the surface gliding along with 3 manta rays. One would swim directly towards me as if to play a game of chicken and then quickly turn left before I even had a chance to get close. I felt the tables had turned and I was the one moving towards them and they were playing hard to get. I simply stayed in the wonder of it. I felt the fear and just relaxed into swimming next to them and allowing them to come closer to me. Swimming as close as they would let me, I soaked up as much of the experience as I could.

For the next 20 minutes I floated next to some of the most fascinating creatures in the water. As I checked my air and saw it was getting low, I silently started to say goodbye to the ones around me. I smiled to myself as I reached the surface and said to myself it was a bucket list dive.










Life in Ubud – Dance Walk

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I’ve been back in Ubud less than a week and the Dance Walk craze already has me.
Has anyone heard of this?

Inspired by a hysterically funny guy in New York, Ben Aaron, Dance Walk has regulars in Ubud and it’s gaining a fast following.

It’s being organized to bring Ubuders (I still can’t believe I feel like an Ubuder) together to dance outside. The mission is to spread good vibes and transform Ubud into a pedestrian friendly town.

We met at the Yoga Barn at 9am, a group of about 15-20, people of all ages. Mom’s with strollers, little kids, big kids, anyone who felt free enough to dance in the streets. With our IPods ready to go, we danced through the streets, heading up the Monkey Forest road putting on quite a show. We had the shopkeepers checking us out and laughing out loud, tourists took pictures and quite a few videos.

I still can’t believe how free I felt when I put on my favorite music and danced in the streets!

Sadly, I only got a few pictures on my IPhone because I was having such a good time, but they are fun!

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Wandering to Thailand…

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So I find myself in the Ngurah Rai airport in Bali waiting for a flight to Phuket. Finally, I’m on my way to Thailand. After 10 months in Bali it seems like it’s finally time to move on and I’m feeling the whole range of emotions. Excitement, joy, wonder and a little sadness. A little sad to leave Bali and amazed there are people there that I love. I spent last night at a birthday potluck for a friend Estee. She had her place all set up for music and she got up and sang her heart out for the first time in front of a group of people. She was terrified and she was great. Her voice was awesome and it was totally inspiring. I love watching people do things they are afraid of and blowing everyone away. This morning I cooked breakfast at Cat’s house for her and my friend Eugenia before leaving for the airport. Scrambled eggs with feta and mushrooms, smoked salmon, bacon, the works. It’s the most relaxed and carefree I’ve ever been before a trip. Cooking breakfast, sitting with friends I love and staring into space soaking up Cat’s mystical jungle garden. After 10 months, there are people in Ubud I’ll be excited to get back to see. So much so, that when I feel like this next adventure has come to a natural end, I’ll head back to Bali for a few months of R&R. It has it’s ups and downs, the trash problem is out of control. The rate of building and construction has destroyed the environmental balance of the island. Everything has its own pace and there’s little you can do to control it, it’s all on rubber time…in spite of all of that, I know I’ll need to come back to ground myself and touch base.

I’m also feeling a little sad because I hoped to meet up with a friend in either Singapore, Bali or Thailand and as I sit here in the airport it’s more clear to me that it’s not going to happen. I’m just going to call him Mr. 80’s (because despite his age he loves all things 80’s – just like when we were in high school) and he and I having been talking about meeting up for months but last week when we talked about it I could feel the energy wasn’t there. He’s still coming to Singapore and Bali, but he won’t have much free time, he has pressing things at home he needs to get back to and he sounds like he just doesn’t have the energy for anything more then what he’s already involved in. I am in such a good place right now that I just have to follow the energy and listen to my intuition. After all this time and effort that’s what’s sticking with me. Allowing myself to follow the energy and trust that everything will fall into place. So I feel a little sad and disappointed not to see him and I know he is too. Right now as the plane lifts over Bali, I am fully grateful that I’m blazing on my own path, listening to the little voice inside, opening and allowing whatever is next.

Selamat Tinggal Bali…Sa-wat-dee Thailand

Oh So Many Ogoh Ogoh on Nyepi Eve

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Yesterday was Nyepi, Bali’s day of silence and New Year. It’s a little like Yom Kippur in that it’s one of the holiest days of the year here and that the night before everyone is out as a community and that’s when the holiday really begins. That’s about where the similarity ends. Everything shuts down here, including the airport. On the day of Nyepi the streets are completely empty, no one leaves their house or their family compound. In fact my friend Cat told me this morning that in Sayan (a village close to Ubud) anyone caught out in the street or making loud noise is fined 50 kilos of rice. This is serious business. I didn’t leave the house…I’m not sure where I’d get that much rice.

The eve of Nyepi is apparently different all over the island. Since this was my first experience I really wanted to stay in Ubud, mostly to see all the Ogoh Ogoh. I’ve been watching people build them all month and whenever I’m driving around with someone lately they have to stop so I can take pictures, I’m fascinated. The creativity and spirituality of the Gods is all over the island…I also have to admit I don’t have much background to give right now about the story behind the variety of Ogoh Ogoh I’ve seen but I will find out and get back to you.

Here’s what I have found out. During the procession, the Ogoh-ogoh is rotated counter-clockwise three times. This is done at every T-junction and crossroad of the village. Rotating the effigies during the cremational parade and the eve of Nyepi represents the contact of the bodies with the spirits. The intention is to bewilder the evil spirits so that they go away and cease and desist harming us human beings.

On Thursday night as the sun set, there were about 30 Ogoh Ogoh’s gathered at the temple by my place with all the Balinese dressed up and ready to roll. There was a huge parade through the streets, music, gongs, cymbals, I even saw a little fire dancing later on in the evening at T-junction as they were rotating. It started around 6:30pm and at 10:00pm they were finishing parading around the streets. By midnight everything was quiet, everyone had to be in their homes and Nyepi had officially begun. Around 11pm I sat on the steps of the Palace,  a major intersection, which is usually busy, jam packed with people, motorbikes, cars and crowds. I could hear the crickets it was so quiet. One or two motor bikes drove by and no cars. Everyone was hunkering down to stay home, keep quiet and respect the Balinese holiday.

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Melasti Ceremony just before Nyepi

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We’re quickly approaching Nyepi, the traditional day of silence to bring in the Balinese New Year. I asked my friend Gede to take me to Lebih beach to a Melasti Ceremony the other day. It’s one of the most important of the Hindu rituals here in Bali. It happens once a year, starting about 3-4 days before Nyepi. Each banjar goes to either a beach or a holy spring during that time in a parade precession, bringing all their ceremonial symbols of the Gods to the water to purify all the elements of the universe. This means Barongs, Spears, Kris’ and Umbul-Umbuls (banners) to name a few. Some banjars arrive at the beach with various big trucks full of Balinese dressed up to pray and purify. Others walk to the beach in a procession carrying Gong Pulu’s (iron gongs), Ceng-Ceng (small bonze cymbals) and other instruments to play as they walk through the streets.

One explanation of this tradition is to purify the Bhauna Alit (the small world) and Bhuana Agung (the universe) from bad influences, bad deeds and bad thoughts. Some say that Bhuana Alit represents the heart and soul of each individual while Bhuana Agung represents the universe. Going to the water to pray purifies every level of our being.

Now begins the parade of Ogoh Ogoh’s through the street before we go into a full day of silence…

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Trash… Trash..Trash…in Bali: 3 nights at the Waka Shorea Resort

Turned out spending 3 nights at the Waka Shorea Resort in the Bali Barat National Park with limited WiFi was a unique stop for me and Becky on our adventure around Northwest Bali. An opportunity for a little creative retreat, we could finish reading a few books, write some blog posts…

Becky is a travel writer and sent a media query to see if it someone would be interested in having us come stay to write a review. They offered us 3 free nights! That could have been our first warning had we been paying attention to the signs. She does this regularly and I’ve been her travel buddy a few times… usually the first night is free,  maybe two nights and then they offer us additional nights at 50%. Three nights free seemed great, and the location sounded cool, near Menjangan Island with great diving.  Usually, when we arrive  the General Manager comes to find the travel writer doing a review of the resort, that’s just standard. We learned quickly that things at the Waka Shorea were run a little differently…by night #2 we had not seen or heard from anyone.  When we first checked in a soft spoken and really young man helped us and said he would send the Dive Master to meet with us the next day. It never happened,  we never heard from anyone for the next 3 days. No one came to talk to us about diving. Saved us $115.

The Waka Shorea calls itself,  “An Environmental Sanctuary” on the most Western Peninsula of the Bali Barat National Park. It’s accessible by a 20 minute boat ride from Gilimanuk. This was a little bit of a mystery to us also, we read something on trip advisor about a short boat ride to the Peninsula where the resort is, but no one mentioned it in the email confirmation or let us know on the phone. So we went with the flow when we arrived at Gilimanuk,  jumped on (literally) an old rickety fishing boat that was luckily carrying a few cases of Bintang and cracked open a beer and held on tight. For most people a rough sea ride on a dilapidated boat and a beer may not go well together, for us, it did the trick.  Once we arrived, we walked off the pier to the beach and the friendly hotel staff that greeted us said, “Welcome to the hotel, we know the trash on the beach is not very nice.” He then started to tell us about the snorkeling, diving, cycling & hiking that’s all right here for the resort guests.

The trash on the beach and the state of the grounds of the hotel makes you want to take pictures and start a campaign against them instead of for them. There are dead tree branches lying all around the pathways. Although the trash that washes up on the beach doesn’t  from the resort, it’s floating in from elsewhere; they really need to do something to clean it up every day. Picture this… Becky and I sitting at “our table” on the beach front restaurant looking a crystal blue sea  & washing up on the shore just a few feet in front of us, was a random flip flop, a variety of plastic bags, potato chip and candy wrappers. This is what we saw from our table as we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The food became an ongoing joke between us. We read on trip advisor that it was “warung style” food. It’s just that there was no Indonesian food on the menu except Gado Gado. Not even Nasi Goreng. It was all pizza, pasta, chicken & tuna. The prices were the real joke; $8 minimum for anything on the menu. It’s double what you’d pay in Ubud for warung food. I’d pay that at a Western style restaurant that had all organic, carefully prepared food with love and high vibes. (which is how they describe food in Ubud) One night we decided to skip dinner and just hit the mini bar in the room. We had to ask them to use butter to cook our eggs in the morning because we could really taste the re-used oil in the pan. It sounds spoiled…it was actually that obvious, you could taste the nasty oil. Once they used butter it was better. It was a 20 minute boat ride to the mainland, so our meal options were limited. The food was an ongoing source of entertainment. I ordered the chicken wings for lunch…they were out of chicken wings. We ordered the Tuna Garlic Butter and I swear they cut off the ends of the Tuna and served us that. We’re not sure what happened to the middle of the filet but we had our suspicions when we saw some of the staff leaving to get on the boat that they may be taking the rest of our fish in their backpacks. Anything’s possible.

On a positive note, the resort had enormous potential if they addressed the maitenance of the grounds and the food. There were barking deer that wander by the rooms, wild pigs roaming by the pool with the other guests and black monkeys hanging in the trees on the pathways. The rooms are quite nice, comfortable beds and kept very clean and cozy.

By giving some constructive feedback (complaining) to “a manager” we finally met with “Mr. Ari”, the Sales Manager, who had just arrived.  I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone in a professional role of “Sales Manager” of  a resort play dumb about the various feedback we gave him. We talked about the food, the upkeep of the grounds, the trash…etc. Only after about 30 minutes did he finally relax a little when I said, “we aren’t really telling you anything you don’t already know are we? How often do you get complaints like this?” Mr. Ary relaxed bit, chuckled and admitted he has heard these complaints but wouldn’t let us know how often. He let us know that there is actually no chef in the kitchen. Different members of the staff cook, they aren’t trained and sometimes (probably most of the time) they are interns from the local tourism school. That explains everything right there. He became quite sympathetic about the food.  Ary originally told us the resort had been open for 5 years, we found out just before we left it’s been open 10 years. Ary was not quite on the ball.

The most insulting yet amusing part was half way through our talk, his boss, another, “Director” was sitting at the bar about 10 yards from us talking on his cell phone. He must have just arrived because we spent most of  our time in the bar/restaurant on our lap tops with no WiFi and had never seen him. (we were in nature!) When Ary went over to his boss to suggest he talk to us (perhaps just listen) his boss said “No”. Instead he stayed at the bar and declined to come meet us.  Just sat there, talked on his cell phone and then walked away… Amazing. Becky’s a travel writer. Unbelievable.

The next morning when we were leaving these two men were having breakfast at the table next to us; we were the only people there. We went over to introduce ourselves and give some constructive feedback. I mentioned we had just come from Puri Lumbung Cottages and what a wonderful job the owner was doing there with the area and some of his plans. They know of the place because it’s highly respected in the area, so when he found out we had been talking with Nyoman at Puri Lumbung, he asked me if I would put them in touch with him. It was funny, I laughed. They are interested in asking him for ideas and if he would consult. Sadly for them, what we will remember most is the trash all over the beach and in the water. We got back on the rickety old boat taking us across the peninsula where we were met by a driver from the Matahari Beach Resort and Spa, the only 5 star resort in the northwest of Bali.

Munduk: The Bali We Dream Of

Sitting with owner Nyoman Bagiarta in the restaurant of Puri Lumbung Cottages we’re overlooking a sweeping view of rice terraces and clove trees. Nyoman sat with us before dinner to share the history of how he built the 30 charming cottages over the years and his vision for preserving the area over the next 30 years.  He left his job over 15 years ago as the director of a tourism school in the area, and started with  5 abandoned rice “Lumbungs” which Balinese farmers used to store rice over 80 years ago by converting them into charming hotel cottages in the hills of Munduk. Since then the business has  grown into 30 cottages with balconies overlooking  sweeping rice fields and mountain views that are inspirational and tranquil. Nyoman explained years ago when he was working at the tourism school,  he realized responsible tourism (now called “eco-tourism”) was the way to build tourism in Bali as well as preserve and invest in future growth of natural resources. This was part of his inspiration behind creating the Puri Lumbung Cottages.

Munduk is a sleepy village in the northwest of Bali, tucked away on a mountain side that overlooks LakeTamblingan and Mount Lesung. Many call it a rare part of Bali that is still unspoilt and reminds them of what Bali was like 20 years ago. According to Bagiarta the Tamblian area is much respected as a holy area for the Balinese. Archaeologically the area has some cultural treasures, such an ancient stone Lingam-Yoni and number of old stone wash basins used my metal smiths in the area thousands of years ago. The importance of preserving the spritual culture is balanced by the significance of the area also being rich in environmental resources. These two issues are hand in hand in Bail. The waterfall and the lake are popular day hikes for visitors staying in the area.  They are also the main sources of water supply for drinking water and for land irrigation that supports the livelihood of the people, as well as being an obvious sanctuary for the ecology of the area.

Bagiarta has written several proposals over the years to protect the Tamblian Twin Sacred Mountain Springs and create a small-scale model project for planting and preserving both domestic rainforest trees and coffee as well as conserve sources of water and endangered species of domestic trees.  The Tamblingan area is significant in three ways, as a strategic function for the water supply from the Lake, as a religious center and as an ecological sanctuary. Over the years he has written several proposals and received funding from various Rotary Clubs to restore the function of the tropical rainforest around the foot of Mt. Lesong as a reliable water source for Lake Tamblingan and all springs and rivers in the area. He has proposed to restore the function of the area as a spiritual center, establish maintenance for the trash and garbage issues that plague all of Bali already, develop areas for public use for children, locals & foreign visitors, provide areas set aside for the study of wildlife and to establish parts of the area as a protected rainforest district & nature reserve thereby restricting access to motor traffic. Preserving and investing in the future of the area has become his passion. He believes this work comes from mirroring what is inside him and reflecting it in the world around him.

Aside from being one of the most restful and cozy places I’ve stayed in Bali, the energy at Puri Lumbung has a restful, authentic feeling. The cottages are small, very clean, the bedding is fresh, each room has a balcony with table and chairs. There are afternoon activities provided by the hotel to show guests, about local Balinese cake making, weaving, agricultural farming, anything that will educate visitors about the history and culture of the area. The hotel has been a retreat for writers and artists for over 20 years. The area and the setup of the cottages lends to a creative retreat with an inspirational setting.

The kitchen, in terms of actual equipment and the chef, is one of the best in Bali Bagiarta likes to boast. The food was excellent and reasonably priced. Everything was fresh and delicious. They also serve local coffee from the area (one of the area’s oldest sources of income); if you are a coffee drinker you will be pleasantly surprised by the local Bali coffee. It’s a rare gem in the Northwest of Bali with a very authentic feel of life outside of the usual tourist locations on the Island.

You can book room at the Puri Lumbung Cottages through Agoda on Trip Advisor or check their website. http://www.purilumbung.com/index.html

Trip Advisor:  Puri Lumbung Cottages