From Ubud, I drove north, seeking the peaceful shores of another lake, and another mountain to walk up. So I headed for Lake Beratan, and the volcano I thought was Mount Catur – though the locals, I soon discovered, call it Puncak Mangu.
Soon, I had joined the main road that runs from Denpasar all the way to Singaraja on the northern coast. After these congestion-free months, in and around Ubud and on my other forays further afield, the heavy traffic, and the ratio of four-wheelers to two, was a bit of a shock to the system. But to begin with, the highway simply felt busy. Soon, however, as more and more trucks began to speed pas, honking their deafening horns end engulfing me in their backdraft, it became unnerving. And when oncoming vehicles began drifting merrily into my lane, heading full-tilt at me as they overtook, and forcing me well over to the left, it became scary. Finally, as I drew into Bedugul, and I had earned a respite from the speed merchants, it had become just plain old tiresome.
I stopped at an IndoMaret store to check my exact destination. As I eased my stiffened frame and sore behind off the scooter, I reflected that being irritated at road users was nevertheless a luxury afforded me – a great many people, I knew, in a great many places around the world, would gladly have traded their lockdown (or tentative post-lockdown) lives for my freedom of movement, and the leisure to be pissed off at bad drivers.
I got back on the bike, eager to arrive. I had been getting steadily colder as I gained altitude, in spite of a jacket, jeans and shoes, and the sky was veiled and moody. The wind on this unsheltered plateau found its way into my sleeves, collar, and around my ears. Soon, however, Google maps had guided me to my pre-booked accommodation. The online photos and description had not lied, and my roof for the night did indeed look like little more than a raised wooden tool shed, set in the garden of its owner’s house. The garden in question was a haven of flowers, shrubs and bushes in bloom, some in brilliant, bright tones, others in pastel shades, with here and there the odd bonsai, like small and twisted sentinels, standing stoic amidst this riot of colour. I entered through carved, saloon style wooden doors, swinging creakily in a lone frame, a symbolic barrier between home and highway. From the front door of the house, beneath a porch atop the gently sloping lawn, a teenage girl appeared, plump and purposeful in her stride. Clad in black from head to toe, she beamed at me from behind her black mask, and welcomed me politely. As she led me to my hut (there were two), I looked up at the stark backdrop of jungle-clad cliff and threatening sky.
My wooden box contained a double bed, with a tiny bedside table and kettle. It was clean and not unpleasant, with just enough room to shuffle around and squeeze by the door to a toilet and shower, at the back, under the eaves, with the sky peering in. But it let little daylight in, and once I’d pushed open the glassless windows, was not the best place to warm up. For this purpose, I went out again in search of hot food, which I found in a Chinese eatery (not quite a restaurant), where a bird in a cage – either slightly hard of hearing or with malicious intent, chirped, yodelled and called so loudly it made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and my eardrums ring.
My mission for the afternoon was to find the start of the trail up Puncak Mangu. In this I was unsuccessful, and with all tourist information outlets closed, and my random efforts to question local people leading to nothing, I felt like a blind man wandering around in the dark. I finally struck lucky when I returned to base to find the house owner, Wayan, back home from the fields. Wayan was a short, slightly portly man, with nicotine-stained teeth and a few grey bristles of stubble scattered sparingly around his chin and upper lip. But there was warmth in his smile, and joviality in his eyes. I explained my predicament, and he was at once able to tell me where to begin my walk – a spot by the lake with boats for hire and scenic views.
I sat down by my host who, his breath heavy with the smell of cigarettes, began to tell me about himself. Wayan was a trainer he explained, though at first I was unsure what he meant – it was clear he was not putting in any hours at a local gym. He talked of team-building and leadership qualities, and by and by I was able to establish that he ran itinerant camps for school children, many from international establishments, during which participants camped out, cooked together, met local farmers and helped them with their tasks, honing their skills in the art of working for the good of the collective. He explained that students would come from as far as Jakarta, and other Indonesian islands too. In the high season, they might organise as many as five or six five-day camps per month.
“But now, finish,” he said matter-of-factly, waving his hand vaguely in the air, which could have been a gesture of resignation, or an imaginary cigarette he was twirling.
We sat in silence for a few moments on our hard, irregular wooden bench. Wayan offered me coffee, which I politely declined.
“Now we work in the fields,” he continued, making eye contact, and his open, honest face triggered in me a surge of benevolence and empathy for him.
“What do you grow?” I asked.
“Strawberries,” he answered.
I nodded. The final kilometres of my route had been lined with stalls selling this ubiquitous fruit – that and the local specialty of crackers and dried snacks, made mainly from cassava flour, but also sweet potato and peanuts. They all looked very sweet or salty, and colourful.
“It seems like everybody here grows strawberries,” I ventured, “is it strawberry season now?”
“We can grow them all year round,” Wayan said. “But many people growing them also.”
“So there’s a lot of competition,” I concluded.
Wayan nodded. “Yes, many competition.” He paused, then added with a grin, “So we grow vegetables also.”
“And who do you sell your produce to?” I asked. “Local shops? Supermarkets?”
“We have a, what’s the name in English…” Wayan rubbed his chin. “A distributor!” he said triumphantly. “We have distributor who delivers to supermarkets and many place in Bali,” he explained.
“And what do you sell to the distributor?” I asked.
Wayan thought for a moment, then looked at me earnestly.
“Strawberries!” he said.