Indonesia’s Forgotten Islands: November 2015 (Part 1: Blissful Bali)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Getting there…half the fun?  Not usually. But we did spend a restorative day in Bali en route to remote eastern Indonesia, which did much to repair the indignities of a night spent in the Hong Kong airport.  Of course, we did not plan to spend a night in the airport.  We envisioned a leisurely, even restful, trip to Indonesia, ensconced in the comfort of Cathay Pacific business class “pods,” staying overnight en route in Hong Kong and then Bali.  This would be our first taste of Hong Kong.  I was armed with restaurant suggestions from friends and family, and eager to see the splendid skyline, even if just briefly.

This trip was on our calendar for so long, at least 18 months, that it was easy, at times, to nearly forget about it.  That isn’t the source of the name, Forgotten Islands.  The name refers to less well known and explored regions of far eastern Indonesia.  The islands are remote enough that this would be an extra long, 17-day voyage, encompassing some territory familiar to us from prior Indonesian dive vacations (Misool, Raja Ampat, Banda Sea, Ambon), but introducing us to new areas, namely Triton Bay.  We knew the boat, Pindito, from one prior trip, as well as one of the two outfits serving as trip leaders and photography hosts, Got Muck?’s Kerri Bingham and Hergen Spalik.  The other leader, Burt Jones of Secret Sea Visions, we knew by reputation and underwater books on Raja Ampat.  Our frequent travel companion and sometimes butler, Greg, had signed up first.

On this trip, we planned a record 3 overnight stays before actually making it to the boat, in Sorong, West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya).  One overnight was induced by using miles for the airfare to Bali.   No mileage seats available in business except with an overnight in Hong Kong?  OK, we’d never been to Hong Kong, and we’d have to leave a day earlier, but doable.

The trip up the coast to LAX was uneventful, until literally pulling off I-405 onto the airport exit.  Brad came to the house a few minutes before our 8:30 am departure.  He drove us up in our car and would return the car to the garage.  All went as planned until exiting the freeway, we were nearly sideswiped by a wild-eyed and wiry-haired man with a crazed look in his eyes and a remarkably long and fully extended middle finger, who was BACKING UP, in fits and spurts, the entire length of the long exit ramp.  The look on his face was terrifying, one of pure fury or mania.  We guessed he had exited the wrong ramp and was trying to BACK his way onto the freeway!  Brad thought he saw him actually hit a car behind us in the rear-view mirror.

With that as a send-off, it was smooth all the way to Hong Kong.  We did have a remarkable experience in LAX.  The new Villaraigosa Pavilion, an addition to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, had opened since our last trip through LAX.  It was filled with inviting shops and areas to sit, furnished with stately classic pieces of furniture (egg chairs) and beautiful video artworks.  The Cathay Pacific lounge had the best food I’ve ever encountered in a lounge, with offerings like grilled cauliflower salad, eggplant sprinkled with couscous and balsamic, brussel sprouts with bacon.  A mental comparison to Ottolenghi, the gold standard for vegetable dishes and salads, actually passed through my mind.  There was even a dessert worth the calories, lemon polenta cake.  We were both impressed, enough for me to pass up Frontier Grill tacos just outside the lounge.

The flight itself was pleasant enough, although there is just no way to disguise the fact that 15 hours in a plane is an exhaustingly long time.  How sitting, eating and sleeping can be so tiring remains a mystery to me.

Thankfully, there was the entertainment system to explore.  All of my selections were from the “Art House” section and a wonderful lot they were.  The first 3 of my 4 films had interesting commonalities in themes.  I would recommend all four.

Since I haven’t been actually enrolled in a French class most of this year, I’m always looking for other ways to maintain my hard-won proficiency.  So, my first selection was a French film, La Tête Haute (Standing Tall), starring Catherine Deneuve as a juvenile judge trying to make a difference in the life of Malory, a tough adolescent who seems headed straight from juvie to prison.

My second film was also a French language film, a wonderful comedy called La Famille Bélier.  The Bélier family are farmers and cheese-makers, remarkable for the parents and son being deaf.  Their hearing daughter signs and translates for her parents at their stand in the farmer’s market, as well as when her father decides to run for mayor.  Her talents as a singer are nurtured by a music teacher, who trains her to audition in Paris and a shot at entrance into a prestigious music academy.  I loved the song she sang for her audition so much, I replayed that portion of the film 4 additional times and cried through it each time.  Thankfully, it was dark and most of the other passengers were asleep.  Funny and touching, with lovely music and powerful family dynamics, a fabulous film!

After these 2 films, I was on a roll with troubled adolescent male rehabilitation and the power of song, so I had to watch a third film combining these themes: Boychoir.  Dustin Hoffman is the headliner, playing a choir master in a prestigious East coast boarding school for vocally gifted boys.  A troubled new boy named Stet, with a less illustrious pedigree and formal training than his fellow students, but more natural vocal talent, lands at the school and challenges the pecking order while trying to find his way.

My final selection was a German black comedy, in the vein of Pulp Fiction crossed with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, called Desaster (Disaster).  It is set in a villa in Saint Tropez, where thugs of various allegiances try to out maneuver each other.

Greg had texted me advice on where to find the “Fastest Way to City” train, 24 minutes.  He had passed through Hong Kong one day prior, so I was completely taken aback at the ticket kiosk to be told the train wasn’t running.  It seems a barge exceeding its height limit struck a bridge connecting the airport to Hong Kong, closing it, interrupting the train service and bringing traffic in and out of the airport to a virtual standstill.  We joined the cab queue, not immediately realizing it was immensely long, snaking back and forth, worse than a memorable immigration line in Cancun on a summer Saturday that took more than an hour to traverse.  After waiting in the line for 45 minutes, we estimated we had 45 more to go to get to where we could board a taxi, which would probably take at least an hour to reach our destination.  Our window for a good night’s sleep was closing rapidly.

Maybe we could wait out the night in the lounge.  I’m amazed to recall that it was actually I who suggested we forfeit a paid-for and non-refundable hotel room in downtown Hong Kong in favor of an airport lounge, but Steve immediately jumped on this suggestion.  Neither one of us banked on the lounge closing between 2:30 am and 5:30 am, so that’s how we ended up spending part of a long in-transit night stretched out on benches at the airport.  At least we were freshly showered by that time.

It has been a long time since I intentionally passed up a real bed for sleeping in a station.  In the summer between college and med school, I did a backpack version of the European grand tour of multiple countries.  My boyfriend at the time, Gary, and I, intentionally spent several nights on trains, partly to save time and largely to save on hotel rooms.  Every 3 nights or so, we picked a destination about an 8 hour train ride away, and booked a sleeping couchette. My recollection is  that is how we picked Munich and Bruges as destinations.

Sleeping in a station also gives one a little insight into the defensiveness one has to adopt when sleeping in public.  This must be a daily exercise for the homeless, constantly on one’s guard, lest one be fleeced in the night.  Not exactly a restful sleep.  The benches are designed to discourage full length stretching out.  They are 3-seaters, 2 joined and a single.  A problem for me was I was cold, despite long pants and a hoody jacket and socks.  I was surprised on a nocturnal restroom run to see a fair number of other people sacked out on these benches, covered with BLANKETS.  Did they come expecting to sleep in the airport and just happened to have BLANKETS with them?  Not something with which I usually travel.  Shop towels, yes, for cleaning cameras and housings, but not a blanket.

Given my recent purse off body-snatching incident in Cuba, I am very conscious of my new PacSafe purse (complete with steel core running through the strap, among other theft deterrent features) containing money, both our new passports and other essentials I didn’t want to replace.  To catch a bit of sleep, I turned it so the zippers were toward my body, used the extra zipper hook that must be unlatched prior to unzipping, and tucked it into my arms, themselves tucked into my armpits for warmth and tried to sleep.  Needless to say, it was not particularly restful.

We were among the first to present ourselves for readmission into the lounge when it reopened at 5:30 am.  It was then that I realized we must have been more than a little discombobulated during our sojourn there the prior evening.  We had thought the lounge was small, the number of restrooms too few, but somehow had not completely registered that the main part of the lounge was upstairs and that we had been there before.  Now the check-in lady’s comment about the showers being downstairs made sense!

Saturday, October 24, 2015-Sunday, October 25, 2015

Recuperating  in Bali

Despite the not so restful night in Hong Kong, I managed one more movie on the 5 hour leg to Bali, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was funny, not mordant at all, but really touching and appealing.  A high school senior is induced by his mother to befriend a classmate who is being treated for cancer.  Thomas Mann plays Greg, who with his best friend/ co-worker, Earl, makes short films parodying classics.

The afternoon we landed in Bali was cooler and more pleasant than what we’ve generally experienced there.  Although I had requested a car when I booked the hotel through Agouda, no one with a familiar name on a placard was waiting for us.  Although our cab driver didn’t know where Bambu Indah was when we boarded the taxi, he made no false turns getting there, after a series of phone consults en route.

Arriving at Bambu Indah was tantamount to arriving at an oasis after a prolonged and difficult desert journey.

Soaring bamboo reception hall at Bambu Indah, near Ubud, Bali

Soaring bamboo reception hall at Bambu Indah, near Ubud, Bali

The property was created by John and Cynthia Hardy, whose jewelry workshop we had visited on each of our prior stays in Bali.  We had stayed in this area outside Ubud before.  There is a series of high end resorts aligned along the Sayan ridge overlooking Bali’s longest river, the Ayung.

Bambu Indah overlooks the Ayung River and rice fields outside of Ubud in the highlands of Bali

Bambu Indah overlooks the Ayung River and rice fields outside of Ubud in the highlands of Bali

We arrived as the sun was setting over rice fields in the distance, just enough time for a quick swim in the long, natural pool before an excellent dinner.  I had a mojito with a local twist, made with arak instead of rum.  A starter of dry papaya fruit wrap proved to be a variation on a spring roll, essentially salad inside of a thin dried papaya wrapper.  I loved my pepe entree, fish infused with spices, steamed in a banana leaf, served with a variety of small plates of rice, condiments and sides.

A delightful Indonesian meal at Bambu Indah; from front clockwise, pepe (fish with Indonesian spices steamed in a banana leaf), eggplant, salad, sambal, shrimp chips, vegetable fritters, rice in the center

A delightful Indonesian meal at Bambu Indah; from front clockwise, pepe (fish with Indonesian spices steamed in a banana leaf), eggplant, salad, sambal, shrimp chips, vegetable fritters, rice in the center

The Hardys are innovators in ecologically sensitive building with bamboo.

Minang House at Bambu Indah, Ubud, Bali, a replica in black bamboo of the last Sumatran Minangkabau rumah gadang (large clan house). During our stay, construction on another building resulted in it being the dining hall, although it is usually employed for yoga and specials dinners.

Minang House at Bambu Indah, Ubud, Bali, a replica in black bamboo of the last Sumatran Minangkabau rumah gadang (large clan house). During our stay, construction on another building resulted in it being used for dining, although it is usually employed for yoga and special functions.

Bambu Indah means beautiful bamboo in Indonesian, and like the jewelry workshop, the property features gorgeous examples.

One end of the interior of Minang House, the dining pavilion during our stay

One end of the interior of Minang House, the dining pavilion during our stay

From the reception building to the dining hall, the grounds are filled with wonderful architecture.  The nucleus of the development was when the Hardys bought and restored traditional Javanese bridal homes, originally as a compound for family and visiting friends.  Structures like these hundred year old examples were traditionally built by Javanese men for a new bride.  Now they serve as a unique boutique hotel property.

Our Sumatran bridal house, Manis House, was indeed sweet (cozy), but a bargain

Our cozy Javanese bridal house, Manis House, was indeed sweet and a bargain!

Organic gardens form much of the landscape and the products are put to good use in the restaurant daily.

The pool is an algae pool, maintained without chemicals.  It was the perfect temperature to cool off in, with a rope swing at the deep end.

To make the most of our short stay, we rose at 6 am the following morning to shoot before a guided walk at 7 am.  The street on which Bambu Indah comes off is a series of family compounds.

Typical Balinese architecture, seen in temples and in family compounds

Typical Balinese architecture, seen in temples and in family compounds

Even at that relatively quiet hour, we encountered wandering chickens, barking dogs, families on stoops, patrons having breakfast at food carts, a whole microcosm of Balinese life.

Proud Balinese grandfather with his grandson, near Ubud, Bali

Proud Balinese grandfather with his grandson, near Ubud, Bali

On the street where we stayed...street scene outside of Ubud, Bali; note offering on ground in foreground

On the street where we stayed…street scene outside of Ubud, Bali; note offerings on ground in foreground

Floral components of the offerings made each day

Floral components of the offerings made each day

There were relatively few cars, but the quiet was interrupted periodically by the ubiquitous motor scooters.

Balinese street scene, scooters are ubiquitous, the numbered boards? Probably closing up and shop and numbered to ensure they are installed in the correct order

Balinese street still life: one scooter whose noise did not disturb, but the numbered boards? Probably closing up a shop and numbered to ensure they are installed in the correct order

Balinese thatch-roofed building near Ubud

Balinese men prepare for an upcoming festival

Balinese men prepare decorations for an upcoming festival, probably Odalan (a Hindu ceremony celebrating the anniversary of a temple, performed every 6 months)

Back at Bambu Indah, we ended up doing a self-guided walk down to the river.  Orange arrows and dots at periodic intervals made way-finding easy.  It was a delightful walk, past a farmer at work in his fields.

Down a spiral staircase, a secret garden! Rice fields bordering the Ayung River, near Ubud, Bali

Down a spiral staircase, a secret garden! Rice fields bordering the Ayung River, near Ubud, Bali

To cross the river, there was a narrow bamboo bridge to negotiate.

Bamboo bridge crossing the Ayung River near Ubud in Bali

A spiral staircase led down to the water level.

The calm of early morning with lovely reflections, on the Ayung, outside Ubud, Bali

The calm of early morning with lovely reflections, on the Ayung, outside Ubud, Bali

Bamboo draping over Bali's longest river, the Ayung, near Ubud in the highlands

Bamboo draping over Bali’s longest river, the Ayung, near Ubud in the highlands

It was a relief to get some exercise after being cooped up so long in transit.  It also worked up enough of a sweat that we cooled off in the pool with a morning swim before breakfast of banana crepes, mushrooms and tomatoes with toast and Balinese porridge for Steve.

The rest of the morning was occupied for me being massaged and scrubbed for 2 hours, in an adjacent open air bamboo pavilion, with an even more expansive view of the distant confluent rice paddies.  That left just enough time for a shower, final packing and lunch before our pick-up for the airport.  Lunch was complementary, a nice gesture by the hotel, to offset construction on site.

In less than 24 hours there, we became fully immersed in the Bambu Indah lifestyle and were greatly restored from our night in the Hong Kong airport.

Burt had advised us to instruct the cab driver to take the new toll road to shave off time getting back to the airport, where we were to meet up at 3 pm.  It costs 10,000 rupiah (about 75 cents) and can save up to 25 minutes, but many drivers are unwilling to pay the toll.  Our driver was willing if we paid it.  Very curious, an economy where that much saved time would not automatically trump a tariff which seems small to us, but must look large to a Balinese cabbie.

Our short flight to Makassar landed in the evening.  A new overnight option opened since our first trip to Raja Ampat, an Ibis budget in the airport, a 3 minute walk, saving us the trip into Makassar but limiting our dining options.  Kerri swore KFC is “way better” than in the US, but it tasted exactly like I remember from my last time, decades ago.  The rooms are small, but have everything you need and the overall vibe is that of a hipster hostel.

Shhhh! This could spoil our foodie reps! Let's just say there were limited dining options in the Makassar airport!

Shhhh! This could spoil our foodie reps! Let’s just say there were EXTREMELY limited dining options in the Makassar airport.

-Marie

Coming soon: Part 2 (Raja Ampat and Misool)

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5 thoughts on “Indonesia’s Forgotten Islands: November 2015 (Part 1: Blissful Bali)

  1. Marie & Steve,

    Yet another cool blog from you guys! Our paths nearly crossed again as I was on the Pindito one trip before yours started. We went to Gangga Island after a long delay in Sorong due to the smog and poor visibility. Oh yes the dining options are very limited at Makassar airport, especially at 3 am! I would have considered your tour if I knew Kerri, Hergen, and Burt were on the boat.

    I’ll stay posted,

    Mark

  2. Hi Marie and Steve,
    What a wonderful place. Interestingly, at least as seen in your photos, not much has changed since I was there in 1988 and 1991 and made my documentaries there. I’m so glad you had this experience. When will you go back? Jann

    • Hi Jann, I think you would be amazed at the increased number of vehicles and scooters and traffic. At least friends of ours were who had spent a month there years back. That was what was so nice about this stay, it was an asylum, very special. We spent another couple days in Bali 3 weeks after this stay, on our way back…that story in a future installment!
      Thanks for reading,

      Marie

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