Tea by lake Batur, and climbing Gunung Abang (part 1)

Of late, it seemed, we had both been feeling the call of wild nature, and the pull of open spaces. M. heard the whisper of the wind and the promise of sunrises and sunsets – for me, it was the water and the mountains that beckoned. M. is my ‘housemate’ of two months, in practice my house companion, though it feels as if she is more, and our living arrangement, the product of pure chance, seems to have created a close and unexpected bond.

We heeded the call and straddled my faithful Scoopy, our few belongings either squashed beneath the seat or wedged around my feet. At the Arjuna statue, we turned our backs on Ubud, threading our way out through the rice fields, thirsting for new landscapes and energies, and for adventure.

Our destination was Danau (lake) Batur, which lies nestled in a caldera. Soon we had gone beyond known territory in its direction – I revved the little scooter and it leapt forward, eager for the open road. Gradually, the way began to rise, and we started the slow climb to Kintamani. Our engine growled, straining against the gradient, and the air temperature dropped. The road stretched onwards and upwards, long and straight, with the sparse traffic and few roadside dogs offering little distraction. Every few kilometres, a Titan of a tree would appear, so huge that from a distance it seemed to stand in our path. At the foot of these giants, towering and great in girth, colourful baskets of offerings decorated modest shrines. Near one, a woman knelt with sticks of incense. Focusing on her task, and wearing only a kamen, or sarong, and a thin, lace kebaya (blouse) she seemed oblivious to the chill. For my part, I huddled against the wind in my jacket as we passed, glad of jeans and shoes, while she lingered on my retina, a blur of bright pink, dandelion yellow and brilliant white.

At Penelokan, with its wide vista over the caldera and volcanoes, a right hairpin swung down towards the lake, and suddenly a different Bali opened up before us – a broad expanse of blue, the pattern of fish farms in the shallows, and colourful roofs dotted around the shoreline in the villages. By the time the steep and winding road brought us to the water’s edge, the warmth had returned, and as we began to skirt the lake, through lava rock and wild grass, we had entered another land. The road surface here was smooth but its path undulating – I drove gleefully along it, dropping from one bump to the next, leaning into the bends then accelerating out, intoxicated by the ride. Then, suddenly, the asphalt was full of potholes, worn, cracked, or disintegrating, in places buried in sand. Simple homes lined the last stretch, and tiny shops too, selling fruit and veg, or noodles, biscuits and other ubiquitous Indonesian fare, or assorted items of daily necessity. They were shabby, some crooked or irregular in shape, with patched up concrete facades and breeze block walls. Traffic was two-wheelers only, and helmetless riders followed the path of least resistance through poorly parked bikes and ground debris, dodging assorted obstacles and the odd satay vendor and, as faces from doorways and front steps beamed carefree smiles and simple content as we passed, I was reminded of Northern India.

Around midday, we arrived at our accommodation, where our host Edi, a wiry, suntanned and genial man, greeted us from behind his face mask. His wife joined us and tea was served. Banana fritters were promised as a mid-afternoon snack. When M. responded with enthusiasm, fritter time was brought forward and, minutes later, we had piping hot crisp sweets to fuel our conversation.

Afterwards, we napped and lazed around outside, drinking in the clean air and basking in the light, carefree atmosphere of the place.

Later, we roused ourselves lethargically from our inaction, and rode out in search of hot springs. Up a short dirt track, we found a modest, local establishment, where we paid 80,000 rupiah for a dip of indefinite duration, and received a locker key with a number on a battered wooden ring. The spring flowed into three, swimming-pool-blue baths, fed into them from the earthenware urns of weatherworn but graceful statues, stone attendants caught in a perpetual task. Two clean, threadbare towels were brought, and glasses of tamarind juice appeared, thick, pulpy and betel-but red.

For two hours we lazed and wallowed and floated, now sharing moments of silence, now happily following the meanders of gentle and free-flowing conversation. We were undisturbed, save for the arrival of two local lads who grinned at us before establishing base camp in the furthest pool. They paid us no more attention, and passed the time deftly backflipping into the water, or leaning over the edge into the neighbouring pool, leaving only two skinny, bather-clad bottoms visible over the tiled rim. The sun slipped towards the horizon. Behind us, Gunung Abang remained serene, teased by a few thin clouds drifting against a clear sky. But in front, Mount Batur looked ominous – a deep orange glow coloured the skyline behind it, but its summit disappeared into a dark, dense mass, ringed with fiery sunset light.

As nightfall loomed, we prepared to leave, and, with hair wet and skin tingling, we rode home, glowing with content, the night wind in our faces, and thoughts of dinner on our mind. We ate a hundred yards from home, in a modest, open-fronted warung, where a kind but nervous women with an earnest frown cooked us fish freshly caught from the lake, and mixed vegetables with garlic and chilli, which she served us on bright green and orange plates with rice. We sat at worn wooden tables covered in tacky red plastic cloths, with a white floral pattern, while the air grew cool and the curtain fell on a blissful day.

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