Leaving Gili we had a long and hot trip to Nusa Penida, which happens to be the poorest island in Bali. Our arrival in Toyeh Pakeh showed us the friendly people and the not-so-friendly conditions they lived in, but no one seemed too upset about it. Our first stop was our hostel, and it was the weirdest one we’ve stayed in yet. With decent reviews and the lowest prices on the island, Nusa Garden Bungalow was the obvious choice. The grounds were beautiful, with a large garden and fancy bungalows, though the atmosphere was anything but. Feeling uncomfortable with our Canadian friend Jen, we resolved to stay away from the spider webby beds, stinky bathroom, cranky owners, and the monkey chained out in front. The island was beautiful, albeit rainy.
Our first day Keenen and I woke up with ooky tummies, but we set out on motorbikes anyways to see the sites. First up was an old underground temple, Giri Putri, in a spacious and smokey cave. The entrance was just a small hole between some rocks in the ground, but it opened into a cavernous space. Inside there were candles, lights, and monks, preparing for the ceremonies leading up to Nyepi, Balinese New year. There were intricate carvings and mosaics on the baths, offerings strewn about all around, and incense smoke hung heavy in the air, making it hazy and difficult to see more than 10 yards ahead. After exploring the cave we visited another temple, this one settled right on the edge of the water with a beautiful view out to sea. We couldn’t go inside, but we could still enjoy the carvings and architecture characteristic of the many temples strewn about the island.
Our next stint of driving, with Keenen and Jen on one bike and me on another, was quite the adventure. The first bit was lovely, we scaled mountains and got incredible views of the surrounding jungle. Nusa Penida, though large, is sparsely inhabited, and most of the space is green. Once we passed the last big village, we encountered the roads less travelled. These treacherous beasts were nothing more than rocky paths through the jungle interspersed with sand and gravel. It seemed as though they had been paved perhaps 50 years ago and never maintained since. The riding was slow going and Keenen even suffered a minor crash, but it made it all the more rewarding when we finally arrived at our destination: Atuh Beach.
This gorgeous beach is situated in a tiny cove along the island. With cerulean waters, sharp red cliffs, and lush green vegetation it is a feast for the eyes. The sea was raging when we arrived, slamming against the rocks and creating giant and far reaching sprays. It was bad enough that we couldn’t swim, but it created the perfect soundtrack for a comfy beach nap under the afternoon sun. In fact, sitting on the bean bag chairs made it almost impossible not to drift off, and we all barely woke up in time to make it back before sunset.
The next morning we tried to visit another popular vista, Angel’s Billabong, but found the roads to be even worse and longer than before so instead we opted to visit the more popular Crystal Bay beach. Here we snorkeled the gorgeous coral reef, seeing interesting and colorful fish that we hadn’t yet seen in Indonesia and simply enjoying each other’s company.
Winter sunset destined our day to be finished with another early night, but Jen convinced us to venture out for pizza and a beer. We ended up spending the night with a group of locals, trading a guitar and a glass of Arak Bali back and forth between our groups. Jenny and Keenen showed off their pipes with every song they knew and the much tipsier locals did the same. Arak Bali is a local rice liquor flavored by what they told us was coconut, although it was sweet and had a distinct aftertaste of burnt popcorn. It’s pretty popular and very cheap in Indonesia, and it’s also pretty common to be offered a mouthful if you stand next to a group of locals long enough.
The next morning it was time to leave Penida, so we grabbed a ferry to the neighboring much smaller island of Nusa Lembongan, which is more tourist friendly and consequently pricier. Our accommodation, ironically also called Nusa Garden, was leaps and bounds above the bungalows on Penida. We spent our first several hours there getting a decent shower (still refreshing even though it was saltwater), getting our laundry done, and soaking up the magnificent air conditioning in our room. Once it got dark outside we went to the beach for dinner and sunset and enjoyed a few happy hour cocktails before turning in for an early night.
The next morning started with a delicious teriyaki chicken steak and nasi goreng breakfast before setting out on a mission to find the underwater Buddha. I wish I could tell you this site was special and ancient in any way, but it’s really just a couple stone statues sunk by divers and tour guides on the island several years ago to create a new attraction. As lame as that is, we still had a great time snorkeling there. I practiced my free diving skills to get pictures of everybody around the statues, and it was fascinating for Keenen and I to see the fouling communities that had grown on each one.
After a quick lunch of Mexican food done Indonesian style we visited the vast mangrove forest on the north side of the island to take a bamboo boat tour. Our guide didn’t speak much English, but she did a lovely job of showing us the old, diverse ecosystem. The mangrove trees were some of the largest I’ve ever seen, with root systems so huge, thick, and entangled that only the smallest fish could navigate them. We got to enjoy the forest right before sunset, and as we neared the ocean the water became crystal clear so we could see the abundance of life that calls the mangroves home. We saw bright anemones and brighter sea stars, and tiny silver jumping fish that flashed in the sunlight.
We stopped for dinner back at the same beach-side Mexican restaurant for a barbecue and the last of the sunset, reclining on bean bags and sharing stories from our travels with the day’s companions, Jen and a new Vietnamese-Canadian friend who’s name was pronounced Fun and I have no idea how to spell.
We could feel the excitement building for Nyepi here, a giant annual week long Hindu ceremony in Bali that functions to ward off the demons. On our way back towards our homestay we were lucky enough to spot the end of a horse dance ceremony and a practice session for a neighborhood’s Nyepi dance performance. We felt very lucky, and it increased our anticipation for the exciting days to come.
The next morning we simply had to jump in the water, so we signed up for a day of diving with Tamarind Divers, which we loved and might return to for our divemaster certifications next year. They took us and newly certified Jen to a spot called Manta Point, a violent and swell filled little cove on Nusa Penida where manta rays are known to hang out year round. The first bit of our dive was relatively uneventful as the swell dragged us back and forth, though we did see an octopus changing colors and a few schools of beautiful yellow jack. Then as we were losing hope the moment we had been waiting for arrived: a giant manta, perhaps 5 M across from wing tip to wing tip, flew gracefully right through the large group of divers that had amassed at the site. It almost touched Keenen, and we felt extremely lucky to have experienced it. Overjoyed we continued to swim around until our tanks ran low, and spotted a bamboo shark at the end of the dive. Our next site was Crystal Bay, and we were lucky to be able to watch another Nyepi ceremony from the beach. The second dive was quite beautiful with the clear waters and bright colors.
After returning to land and getting cleaned up, we made it back just in time to see a Nyepi processional pass in front of our hotel. We followed it to the beach, where we learned that in this ceremony they carry their gods down to the water to be cleansed for the new year and make offerings to the ocean. We spent the remainder of the evening relaxing in a pool before getting a late dinner and calling it a night.
The following morning we woke up bright and early again to get back on the dive boat. This time divemaster Carlo took us to do some drift diving on the north side of the island, and we were blown away by what we saw. There were vast thickets of branching Acropora coral, as far as the visibility allowed us to see in either direction. This fragile but formerly dominant genus of coral used to cover reefs around the world from the Caribbean to the Indo Pacific. Over the years it has been destroyed by various factors, including hurricanes, dredging, pollution, and climate change. This has in turn created a major loss of habitat for reef fishes. Prior to this dive the only evidence I’d seen of the immense fields I’ve read about was coral graveyards; lofty piles of hard coral skeletons with no living tissue and covered in algae that can be found in almost any reef. Here the coral was alive and well, and although some of it was bleached there was much more continuing to grow.
The divemaster told us stories of a group of Chinese tourists who had carved their names into some coral heads on Nusa Lembongan, and I saw many times while I was there tourists carelessly stepping on, kicking, or breaking coral. It has only served to inflame my desire to educate others on the importance of the reef environment to Earth. It simply breaks my heart when people carelessly destroy something that took hundreds of years to create. Remember to treat the earth with love and respect as best you possibly can, it is your home!
We spent a quiet night in after our dives, packing to prepare for Canguu. The next morning we took a ferry back to the main island of Bali to visit the surfer haven that is Canguu and observe Nyepi. The Balinese people create giant paper-mache statues of demons called Ooga Ooga to parade through the streets the night before New year’s day. We had seen them being built all over, but tonight was finally the night they would take to the streets.
Each neighborhood creates a few statues, and a group of traditionally dressed men (or children) carry them through the streets to a common location so that the neighborhoods can compete against one another. Most of them also have groups of musicians that play a series of percussion instruments with a festive and fun feel. We followed the parade to a large street corner where each neighborhood had a chance to strut their stuff. Every Ooga tells a story, and while the men carrying it twirled tilted the giant statues, a narrator dramatically told the tale while the percussionists beat away. Some neighborhoods even had dancers. Dressed in traditional Balinese clothing, they spared no detail in trying to impress each other. We watched the whole show and every once in a while the whole crowd had to split to let fire trucks through. It had an air of chaos to it, and definitely seemed like no one really knew what was going on. This seems to be the trend in all of Indonesia.
After exciting the demons, paying homage, cleansing, and celebration, the next stage of Nyepi is the day of silence. For 24 hours, 6 am to 6 am, no one is to leave their home or hotel, not even tourists. The most devout Hindus do not speak, eat, or use electricity. Being found in the streets at any point during the day of silence means being confined to the temple by religious police. The purpose is to trick demons into believing that every one has left the island, that no humans are left for them to terrorize, encouraging them to leave for another year. Hindus use this day for reflection, prayer, and meditation… But tourists tend to use it to party. Being at a hostel with a pool, alcohol, and a bunch of rowdy 20 something’s made us no exception. The police put a stop to our shenanigans around 3 pm by confiscating our speaker, and things got a lot more respectful after that.
The best part of the day was after sunset. No electricity meant no lights on the entire island or any of the smaller surrounding islands, which meant no light pollution. The stars were magnificent. Everyone at the hostel spent several hours on the balcony, reveling in one of the best night skies any of us had ever seen. The milky way was plainly visible, along with another smaller milky cluster I’d never seen before. We hunted for shooting stars and constellations, and a kiwi taught me how to find south in the southern hemisphere sky. It was a brilliant end to a peaceful day, and I only wish I was camera savvy enough to have recorded it.
Our last day in Bali was spent on the surfer beach of Canggu, getting pummeled by the waves, soaking up the sunshine, and watching surfers ride the waves. We spent a good bit of time at the hostel conversing with people from all over the world, continuously learning that humans are fundamentally the same no matter where you go.
The laid back and friendly attitude of Indonesia is infectious, but sometimes I found my western self irritated at island time and island work ethic. Being here is a good reminder to slow it down and enjoy life as it is. Although we loved Indonesia and will definitely be back, it was time for a change of scenery. Our next destination? Bangkok! Thailand is notoriously backpacker friendly and incredibly cheap, and we can’t wait to see what it has in store.