Wandering in Bali

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Apr 12, 2014
  • Location: Bali

We left Ubud around noon in a taxi bound for the east coast of Bali, to an area called Amed that many had recommended to us. We weren’t sure about it. That is, we weren’t sure if we should head north to spend a night near a volcano, or beyond that to another beach area, or maybe even to the west that we’d entirely neglected, or none of those options and just head for Amed, the jumping-off spot for the other islands—the three Gilis and Lombok—that would round out our time in Indonesia. This is always our dilemma: what to see, what not to see, what’s just beyond the horizon that we need to consider. Usually the answers are obvious. Usually it’s clear that a trip to Laos or Thailand or Sri Lanka needs to include specific iconic places.


Maybe it’s fitting that in Bali, as in all of Indonesia, nothing is clear. For one thing, there’s just so much of the place. 17,000 islands to the entire nation, many of which, like Borneo and Bali and Java, are worth an entire month or two to themselves. And because it’s all islands, it’s a challenge figuring out how to hop from place to place. Perhaps that helps to explain why so much of Indonesia is empty of tourists that clog places like Thailand. Bali is the exception. Everyone in this hemisphere goes to Bali—or at least flies into Bali and heads south to the beaches of Kuta and nowhere else.


In my last morning in Ubud I sat on our veranda and watched the morning life. Just off our porch at our guest house was a Hindu shrine that the boys adorned each morning with hibiscus flowers and incense and a platter of food, plus some of the decorations made from palm leaves that the older women of the house, sitting cross-legged for hours, make throughout the day. It’s a remarkable part of life in Bali, this expression of spirituality everywhere you look.


By 11am I was packed and checked out of the guest house, waiting in the open-air restaurant for Dolora and Liam to return from a run to the post office to mail the shadow puppet that Liam had made a few days earlier. While waiting I glanced up the wall to the rafters, and there, running across a beam, was a rat. Yes, a rat, in broad daylight, in a restaurant. Oddly, it thrilled me, as if spotting an orangutan in the wild, rather than repulse me. Maybe it’s because we’re in Bali, a land where nature has overrun man’s attempt to civilize it, rather than an apartment in New York City. The ants are everywhere, including our toothpaste tube, and so is whatever heavy creature thudded across our roof last night. Fish, butterflies, mosquitoes, monkey, cats, rats, lizards, ants—this is the jungle, this is the equator.


We hired a taxi for $25 to take us to Amed. At first a woman asked us if we needed a taxi, we said yes, we negotiated, we agreed, we waited for the brother to show up, and waited, then we walked away to the dozens of other taxis at the end of the road, she insisted we wait one more minute, we scowled and waited and left, she hopped on a scooter and rode alongside us, ordering us to wait, we ignored her, we hired another driver who had to fetch his cab in the parking lot, and while waiting the woman on the scooter appeared to ask us one more time. “No,” I said firmly, and she stared at me with a burning look that hit the back of my skull.


Off we went. From the first depression of the accelerator our driver moaned about how bad business has been, how far Amed is and how much petrol costs, and how hungry his children are. Translation: Pay me more than the agreed amount.


I expected a picturesque drive but for the most part, it was just shop after shop running along this main road out of Ubud and for another hour to the east. Remember that Indonesia is the fifth most populated country at around 250 million people, and all those hundreds of millions are living somewhere—and that somewhere is on this road that I want thinned out and open to nature.


Nature came in the form of a rainstorm, Bali style. The wipers were useless against the deluge, and it felt like we were inside a carwash, or to be more romantic, inside the ocean itself. This prompted the driver to moan about the struggles of his job and his life overall—translation: pay me more, pay me more. The rain abated and suddenly we were in an ocean of green, green everywhere: the rice terraces and the overhanging banana fronds and the mango trees, and looming over it all, a volcano in the perfect shape of a pyramid.


We arrived at the sea and eventually at our hotel, the Bali Bhuana. Yes, I paid the driver more, and off we went forever in different directions. Within minutes of checking in we were down at the beach—if you can call it a beach. The beach here is black from the lava and unswimmable in a frolicking sort of way because the coral starts within feet of the shore. That’s what brings people like us here, yet I somehow forgot that I’m more of the riding-waves kind of guy than the suspended-over-fish kind of guy. Had I made a mistake coming here? As if in answer to that question, we heard a loud thump on the surface of the water. We swiveled our heads, and there it was—or rather, there they were, dolphins, a pod of dolphins just 50 yards away doing their gymnastics in the air. One of the workers at the hotel said, “I’ve never seen them so close to shore. You see the break out there where the coral ends? They’re out there sometimes, but here, right here? Never.”


Thank you, dolphins. And who knows, thank you spirits of the dead that took on the shape of dolphins to greet us: my parents, Charlie Dossi, my sister Kathy, my aunts Loretta and Minnie, Judith—all souls I’ve prayed to throughout this trip, prayed to as our planes accelerated and as our buses careened in the night, prayed to in churches and mosques and temples and shrines to protect us and especially my little boy as we mosey our way eastward around the globe for 25,000 miles on all forms of travel: planes, trains, buses, taxis, camels, elephants, bamboo railroad, bicycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, ferries, cruise ships, kayaks. Some have been modern and efficient, some have been rickety and smelling of death. Through it all, here we are on the eastward shore of Bali, welcomed by a pod of dolphins putting on a show for us.




Do you ever watch the sun rise? Sure, we all watch the sun set at the convenient hour of 7 or 8 or 9 at night, but do you ever rise early enough and turn to the horizon in the east to watch the sun rise?


I don’t. I can’t remember when I’ve done it consciously, ever made it a point to sit on a bench in front of a vast body of water and watched the sun peek over the horizon, first a sliver of gold that spreads the color rose on the underside of clouds. The only time I can remember is 25 years ago in Sri Lanka, when I climbed the tallest mountain, Sri Pada, throughout the night with a column of pilgrims, all of us arriving at the peak in time for the sun to rise and to cast an enormous shadow of a pyramid behind us across the land of Sri Lanka.


Poor, neglected sunrises. Lucky, admired sunsets. One brother jealous of the other.


I shook Liam awake this morning at 5:45. “C’mon,” I said, “let’s go see the sunrise.” He pulled the sheet over his head and I hopped up, got dressed quickly, and before I reached the door he was up, too, putting his shorts on backwards. Down we ran to the edge of the sea.


We sat on the edge of a wall and admired the early colors of a sunrise that was still 15 minutes away. With each passing minute and with each shift in the clouds the colors changed and the patterns on the underside of the clouds changed. At one moment there was little and the next moment all was splendor—radiant reds and pinks and oranges. And I thought, I am in Bali watching a sunrise over a still sea, with coconuts overhead and with my son by my side. Well done, Jim Toner. Well done.


And then Dolora arrived. This surprised me, she being the lover of sleep. She brought with her our snorkel gear that we’d rented for two days. She set them down and joined us just as the first sliver of sun peaked over the horizon. You’d think the sliver would stay that way for a while, like a child in a closet playing hide-n-go seek with one eye peering out, all still and unmoving. Not the sun. It has things to do, like heat up a hemisphere, so there in a speed too quick to believe, it was up, a full orange circle sitting on the table of the sea. Amazing, to see the sun in motion, and profound, to feel the heat on your face of a thing 90 million miles away.


Heat and light. The light of the rising sun made for perfect snorkeling conditions, so into the sea we went. What draws people to the area of Amed is that the coral is just a few feet off shore and then running a hundred yards or more out to the open water. The coral itself is spectacular, but since it makes for a perfect hiding place, it attracts all types of fish. And that was the show below us, made even more spectacular by the slant of sunlight on the prism of the water, creating rainbows all around us. I’d call it breathtaking—this stunning combination of coral and rainbows and tropical fish—but I needed all of my breath to stay afloat and to survive out here among the beasts of the sea.


I’m not a snorkeler. I’m not a man of the sea. To be honest, the sea terrifies me—or at least alarms me. When I’m swimming in the surf I like to believe that there isn’t a single fish in the entire ocean. So when I first go snorkeling I’m a wimp, staying in the shallow end and making sure that Dolora and Liam are ahead of me. But by the third time out there I’m feeling better, confident that no orcas are about to swallow me whole. It’s just me in an aquarium of nice pretty fish.


Oh, but the colors! And the patterns of the coral! And the wild creatures like the sea worms sticking inches out of the seabed! It was all astonishing, all the more so with Liam in the middle between Dolora and me, his little hand softly holding ours on both ends. My sweet boy, floating in the Bali Sea on a Friday morning in April.


A few points:


+ These were colors more vibrant than I’ve ever seen before. There was a blue of a sea star that was… electric! And the blue of a tiny fish that was on fire… if blue could be on fire. It made me think: What have I been viewing my entire life? What has color been my whole life? Here beneath the sea was every color of my world intensified, shot through with light and vibrating from within. It reminded me of a peach I ate in the south of France when I was in my early 20s, a peach so emphatically delicious and juicy—an opera of a peach—that I wondered, What have I been eating my whole life? All those American peaches, they’re just cardboard, yet I had no notion of that until I had this firework of a French peach in my mouth.


+ While snorkeling I had no camera. I couldn’t save these sights for some future time. It was all here all now, a Buddhist event that made that hour all the more intense for its fleetingness. I was making a sand mandala, and then I would blow it all away. My point: There is a downside to taking pictures. Each click robs the moment of some electricity, some of its soul.


+ One of the unique joys of snorkeling is this prolonged sensation of floating, of parachuting without end.


+ Lesson #412: Get out of your own way. I came to this beach in Amed hoping for a beach, for the white stuff that led into a sandy sea, for a sea with some waves to ride to shore but not waves so mammoth that they dash you into paralysis at the floor of the ocean. Well, none of that here—and how lovely. How lovely to be in a quiet cove for a couple of days on a black sand beach that really is no beach at all, that leads into an ocean that immediately chews the bottoms of your feet with coral, that is really just there for snorkeling. So go snorkel, day after day, and each time your fears will drop to reveal a splendor of color and wild shapes of fish that my imagination could never conjure.


With that, we’re off to another island this morning, a small island called Gili Air that can be circumnavigated in 90 minutes. No cars, no scooters—just bikes and horses, or so we’ve been told.


And that brings Bali to a close. I’m not sure we did Bali justice, having just explored a small portion of her. Yes to Ubud, yes to a bicycle ride that took us to a volcano and along rice terraces, yes to a couple of beaches for snorkeling. Yes to some astonishing vistas and walks and interactions with the locals. Yet I have a sensation that there are still layers to this place that we never uncovered. If I were 27 instead of 57, I’d be comforted to know that I’ll be back here someday to explore the north and the west. But in all likelihood this is it for me and Bali. As Bill Clinton says, There are many more days behind me than in front of me. Mortality is always in the air with me—every time I look in the mirror, every time I take an awkward step off a curb, every time I stop for an extra breath.


Bali behind, Gili and the turn of the globe ahead.









1 Comment

  1. Joe

    I will be sad to see you finish your trip. I love reading about all of your adventures, thoughts, and experiences. Reading all of your posts, make me want to plan my own trip to some faraway place. Thank you to all three of you.

    Joe Garcia
    Copperopolis CA

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