After a few days relaxing and sorting out plans for the week, we hopped on a culture tour of the island. Like in Thailand, the way to get around is to meet and connect with people. So it wasn’t a surprise when a man approached us on the street, offering to give us a cultural tour of the island. We walked past the motorbike shop where he was having his bike repaired and he offered us a business card. His name was Made (pronounced “Mah-day”) and ran a side business giving tours of the arts and crafts villages of the island.
Okay, sounds a little sketchy. Perhaps a little unsafe. But, dressed in khakis, sneakers and a collared shirt, Made seemed more organized than the massive group tours booked through a guide office. Besides, it’s better to take a risk and see the island and hear about its history and culture from the perspective of a local.
He picked us up in his van at 9am during a downpour and, right away, trekked us off to a famous Balinese cultural performance, the “Barong dance.” A performance usually given during special ceremonies, the dance is now used as a tourist attraction and held daily in temples and stages all over the island.
The dance, depicting the classic juxtaposition of good vs. evil, features a giant furry spirit with golf-ball sized pupils, perky elephant-like ears jutting out from its temples and a smattering of gilded decorations that are quite dazzling when the creature prances about on stage. We tried on the costumes after the show and were surprised how steamy and sweaty they were. I certainly don’t envy the performer who sweats beneath the heavy headpiece everyday.
From the Barong dance, Made trucked us inland to the area known for its arts and crafts. We stopped at a open air display where women were giving demonstrations on the batik process. The tedious and meticulous work of applying brown wax and color to fabric in multiple stages was quite impressive. The indoor market next door was jam-packed with tourists sifting through piles of vibrantly-colored sarongs, shirts, dresses, scarves and all-things-fabric. This was definitely the place where tour groups descend like locusts and, while it’s lost most of its local charm, being able to see the batik process was fascinating.
Along the same route, we stopped at a woodcarving store with men and women lounging on the outdoor patio, whittling away at creatures made of crocodile wood, ebony, sandalwood and other native Balinese wood species. The store inside was packed with hand-carved pieces, even life-size horses, elephants, turtles, komodo dragons.
The next stops took us to a silver and jewelry shop, and an artists’ collective of gorgeous paintings of life in Bali–scenery of rice paddy landscapes, women working in the fields, beautiful portraits of local Balinese. Toward the end, though the tour felt more like a shopping excursion than a genuine informational tour, it was fabulous to see the talent of the islands artists.
Next stop? Lunch, which we found perched atop Kintamani, an area known for growing sweet, cherry-grapefruit tasting coffee and an array of glorious foliage and spectacular views overlooking the caldera of the Batur volcano.
The restaurant’s main table was a bar on the very edge of the platform. You didn’t have to lean far over the bar to see the foliage plunging below into the lush valley. Looking across the Danau Batur lake at the Abang mountain, you could see a tiny village nestled at between the base of the mountain and the water’s edge. That village, Made told us, was the last village on the island of pure Balinese people. As the island’s population grew and welcomed visitors–first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, now vacationing tourists from all over the world–the original islanders migrated inland and tucked themselves against the mountain.
After the gorgeous lunchtime view, we trekked back down the hill, stopping at one of the many shops along the road boasting “WE HAVE LUWAK COFFEE.”
Indonesia is known as one of the main countries where the rare and controversial Kopi Luwak coffee is cultivated. The coffee cherry, once harvested, is fed to the civet cat, a picky eater who only consumes the juiciest and ripest cherries. Once passed through the digestive tract of the cat where it undergoes chemical changes from the cat’s acidic stomach, the beans are again harvested from the cat’s excrement, cleaned, roasted and sold at a premium.
Sounds tasty, right? Of course we bought a pot of luwak coffee, along with a sampling of other coffees grown in the region.
The spread included a pot of the murky luwak coffee, ginseng coffee, Balinese “female” arabica (peaberry), Balinese robusta, lemongrass tea, ginger tea, and fresh hot cocoa. While we didn’t see the harvesting or processing of the cherries, we did see the roasting process, which involves a wood-stoked fire, a flat pan, and about 15 minutes of slow stirring by a jovial Balinese man relaxing next to the flame. Coffee, once roasted, then is ground into a powder and brewed simply by pouring hot water on top. No filtration process siphons out grounds, so sipping the luwak coffee from the swirly green ceramic pot involved a little bit of chewing as well.
Sipping on coffee and tea from the hut atop the hillside with a view of a bamboo plantation on the nearby hillside was a great ending to our tour. As the afternoon waned, we watched the sun dip below the green hills before Made drove us back downhill to Ubud, the cultural town in the center of the island and our retreat for the next five days.