Bali high

When the tourist crush of a Bali beach resort gets too hectic for Ishwar Persad, he heads inland to find monkeys, mountains, spicy cuisine, and the world’s most expensive — and unusual — variety of coffee

A watchful macaque at the Ubud Monkey Forest. Shutterstock/Ekaterina PokrovskyVerdant terraced rice fields are a typical feature of Bali’s landscape. Shutterstock/Edmund Lowe PhotographyA distant view of Mt Batur. Shutterstock/AwayIndonesian food tends to the savoury-spicy. Shutterstock/JM Travel Photography

The island of Bali is known for being a feast for the mind, spirit, and body — as well as for volcanic mountains, lush terraced rice fields, stunning beaches, vibrant culture, lots of temples, and very sumptuous cuisine. After more than three years of volunteering, gallivanting, and over-indulging through Africa and Europe, this sounds like exactly what I need. Plus I’ve heard that Indonesia has the spiciest KFC around, which would greatly assist my ongoing quest to sample Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe in all 115 countries where he has a presence.

Hence I find myself rocking up in Bali, with the intention of exploring Indonesia’s most famed island, and — with my friends and family constantly pestering me about when I’ll re-enter the world of gainful employment — possibly teaching here for a year. I’ve had my share of tropical island paradises, and I thought I knew what I was in for when I booked a place in Kuta, which sounded like a nice enough area close to the beach on the southern side of the island. Once a quiet fishing village, it was an early favourite of tourists, especially popular with Australians.

I soon discover this is not quite the Bali I expected. Suffice it to say that a concentration of tourist bars means a lot of drunk holidaymakers, and the fourth of the four S’s of mass tourism — sun, sea, sand, and sex — is highly prevalent. Walking around South Kuta reminds me of the spring break holiday period in Nassau, except that here it’s almost twenty-four hours a day, and apparently all year round. But two years of living in the Bahamas taught me an important lesson: do not judge a place by its main tourist drag. Get away, explore the less touristy areas, and you will almost certainly find some of the true essence of a place.

You might also find monkeys.

North-east of Kuta, in the village of Padangtegal, is the Ubud Monkey Forest, a nature reserve and Hindu temple complex populated by hundreds of crab-eating macaques. Well, actually, I should say their diet consists partly of crab, as they also subsist on sodas, fruit, and sandwiches taken from unsuspecting tourists who don’t read the cautionary instructions at the entrance to the temple. Or maybe the tourists also had too much of a good time in Kuta the night before, and don’t even notice the monkeys pilfering their stuff, until it’s too late. Some of the monkeys also appear to have recently returned from the set of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, displaying intelligently aggressive behaviour. Visitors getting bitten is apparently quite common.

The impressive pura or temple at the Monkey Forest, built around the mid-fourteenth century, is one of over twenty thousand in Bali. Hinduism is the predominant religion on the island, but the version practiced here is unlike that of any other part of the world, with elements of Buddhism and animism. I’m also shocked to learn that eating beef — something that would be considered sacrilege by my family — isn’t frowned upon by Balinese Hindus. I guess my Hindu Indian university friends in Britain were right all those years ago, explaining that only Indian cows are truly sacred, when I questioned them about their penchant for Sunday roast dinners at the local pub.

After all that monkey business, I decide to head for higher ground. North of the Monkey Forest is Mt Batur, an active volcano with a massive picturesque crater lake at its base. For the adventurous-minded, a sunrise hike to its 1,717-metre summit is well worth the effort. I wish I could describe the view from the top — but five years living in Montserrat, with its active and very destructive Soufrière Hills Volcano, taught me that such geological features are best viewed from afar. Preferably with a cold drink in hand, and your keys in the ignition. Luckily I found a nearby restaurant where I could do just that, plus enjoy an amazing traditional Indonesian lunch buffet.

 

Which brings me to the most important part of any travel story: the food. My favourite Indonesian dishes are nasi goreng — a spiced fried rice, accompanied by egg, chicken, shrimp, and a prawn cracker; rendang — a slow-cooked spicy meat dish, reminiscent of a Trinidadian stew crossed with a Guyanese pepperpot; and daun papaya — papaya leaves sautéed with dried salted fish and red chilies. Yes, papaya leaves — and it’s delicious. The bitterness of the leaves nicely compliments the salt and heat of the other two ingredients, and reminds me of my days of eating cassava and sweet potato leaves in Tanzania.

My palate is savoury-spicy, and the sambal which accompanies most Indonesian food is right up my alley. The ingredients vary, but it’s usually a spicy condiment made in a mortar and pestle, consisting of chilies, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, sugar, lime juice, and vinegar. This thing could put hair on your chest, as they say, and could rival any flavourful West Indian hot sauce.

Even better news: in addition to having affordable restaurant dining, Bali also has a very vibrant street food culture. I buy delicious steamed meat-filled buns (like the ones Trinidadians call pow) for about thirty US cents each. Another great discovery is “mud rice”: steamed rice with sweet corn, covered in a thick peanut sauce and wrapped in banana leaves — for a measly US quarter. The best thing for washing down all this food is “beer Djawa,” or Javanese beer, a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from ginger, cloves, lime, and other ingredients. Now, drinking non-alcoholic beer is not really my style, but unlike the very affordable food, alcohol here is a bit on the pricey side. Paying US$50 for a bottle of Chenin Blanc that would probably cost four dollars in South Africa, where I recently lived, is not exactly congruent with someone of my employment status. So beer Djawa it must be.

After stuffing myself properly at the buffet at Mt Batur, and praying those macaque monkeys never find out how much food is available at this place, I’m off to a nearby farm to try a cup of kopi luwak. This is Indonesia’s unique coffee brand, made famous by an appearance in the Jack Nicholson movie The Bucket List. Kopi luwak is produced by an unusual process, to say the least. Asian palm civets — small mammals also known as toddy cats — eat coffee berries which ferment in their stomachs, and then — er, let’s say resurface, intact in the civets’ feces. The beans are collected and harvested from the excrement (wouldn’t want that job), washed (very carefully, I hope), hand-roasted (hopefully killing any E. coli that might still be around), and sold as the most expensive coffee in the world, fetching up to US$3,000 per kilo. Thanks, Jack — this will be a very expensive item to get off my bucket list!

I’ve tried some exotic food and drink in my life — from fried grasshoppers in Tanzania to Guyana’s potent Amerindian cassava beer, fermented with human saliva. But drinking pre-digested coffee is taking it to a whole other level. What will my friends say on Facebook? What if I come down with some strange stomach problems for the rest of my trip, and am not able to take advantage of the free drink shots at the nightclubs in Kuta — or, worse yet, never get to sample that extra-spicy KFC? All of these thoughts are dispelled when I have my first cup. As I sip the smoothest and most heavenly cup of coffee I have ever tasted, all my doubts about my well-being, and any acrimonious thoughts against Mr Nicholson, are dispelled. Afterwards I’m in such a Zen mood that I gleefully part with US$40 for 100g of beans, thinking what an excellent deal I’ve got. Farmers in Thailand are apparently trying to replicate the process with elephants — thankfully, with little success so far.

 

I’m sorry to report that my time in Bali doesn’t produce much headway in changing my employment status. But as I eat my last nasi goreng at the airport, I reflect that during my vacation — er, I mean job-hunt — I’ve only scratched the surface of the island. Not to mention the rest of Indonesia. After all, this fourth most populous country in the world spans an archipelago of more than seventeen thousand islands. Imagine the historical sites, the natural wonders, the restaurants and food stalls along the way. I make a vow to return. Meanwhile, my kopi luwak travels with me.