Christmas in Bali

Note: This post was originally written Dec 26, but I didn’t get around to formatting and adding pictures until Jan 1.

For the past 7 days, I have been exploring the beautiful island of Bali. Located just east of Java in the long Indonesian archipelago Bali is famous for perfect weather, white sand beaches, incredible surfing and scuba diving, rolling hills covered in splendid rice terraces, and a strong local arts scene. Almost exactly the same size as King County, Bali is also famous for tourism, hosting about 6 million tourists per year.

Spotted on the guesthouse’s bookshelf.

Not interested in the parties of Kuta, I immediately headed for the town of Ubud, two hours north of the airport and urban center at the southern tip of the island. Once a quiet village surrounded by nothing but rice terraces, Ubud is now a bustling town full of yoga studios, vegan restaurants and tiny little shops selling artsy junk to tourists. It’s quite pretty, and I could see how people can fall in love with the place. It’s also home to an incredible, never-ending traffic jam, the result of too many tourists and businesses trying to cram into a road network designed for a tiny farming village. Fortunately the town itself is very walkable.

Looking out over the rooftops of Ubud.

Part of my goal with Bali was to get some final relaxation in, soaking up the sun and the chill vibes for a few last precious days before heading back to the Big Dark. I attended yoga classes and got massages in the day, sipped a couple fancy cocktails and read my book each night before turning in early, and generally ate like a king. While not as cheap as, say, Vietnam, Bali is still quite affordable, and I generally had a delightful time.

Nasi campur, the iconic Indonesian dish.
Don’t worry it’s a paper straw.
Truly delightful ramen is a performance art.

But I wasn’t just a slug – I also did activities. I found a Discover Scuba Diving course on the Northeast coast, where a dive master teaches you the basics, then stays close by your side on a shallow dive to bail you out if you get into trouble. We visited the wreck of the USS Liberty, a cargo ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese in WWII, towed to the beach, then pushed out to sea by a lava flow in the 60s.

It was so cool! Getting used to the equipment was tricky – you really have to fight down the reflex to panic, and maintaining buoyancy is hard. But I got the hang of it pretty quick and started to really enjoy myself. There was coral and so many fish, and swimming through the wreck of the ship was amazing. I think that traveling somewhere tropical to get fully certified may be a future vacation.

For obvious reasons I did not take any photos diving, but we stopped at a nice viewpoint on the drive back.

I also climbed Mt. Agung, the highest mountain on Bali. It’ll be a while before I can get my next mountain hike in, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for just one more summit. I hired a guide and we began at midnight for a dawn summit, which we nailed. At just 3000 meters Agung is not nearly as tall as Kinabalu, but it’s isolated enough that it felt like the top of the world.

The guide had a timelapse camera that we played around with while waiting for the final ascent.

The ascent was long and steep but incredibly cool. Though it was clear above us, a thunderstorm was raging out over the ocean, lighting up the distant clouds again and again, silent but for a low rumble almost unrelated to the light. It made me think of something Murakami wrote – “A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time.”

The master at work.
The mountain’s shadow.
An offering to the mountain spirit.
The trail back down.
Bali’s mountains rival the Cascades for beauty.

On Christmas I hung out with a couple of women traveling together from Colorado who I met at the guesthouse. We hired a car and driver and went on a tour of various waterfalls and temples. Our original plan was to rent motorbikes, but the driver was so cheap and the Ubud traffic so ridiculous that we decided to spring for it. It made for a wonderfully relaxed day of sightseeing.

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In the evening we met up with some other guests and had a wonderful Christmas dinner together, then polished off a (small) bottle of surprisingly good Indonesian brandy back at the guesthouse. It was all I could ask of a Christmas away from home.

Bali is a weird place. It’s expensive (for the region), touristy and a bit pretentious. It’s also genuinely beautiful, and Ubud at least manages to retain that easy island feeling. I can’t say I fell in love with the place, but I enjoyed my last week in Asia.

And now I’m headed home. As I write this I sit in the Bali airport, awaiting a plane to Taipei and then another back to Seattle. The feeling is bittersweet. I have had a tremendous time traveling for the past three months but I’m also ready to sleep in my own bed, see all my people and be done living out of a 40-liter pack. I’m ready to have a computer again, and a kitchen. I’m even ready for winter, to not start sweating every time I walk outside, to have Jack Frost nip at my nose a little bit. To settle down for a while, to be used to where I am and not constantly have to make new friends.

Look out Seattle! I’m coming home!

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