Nusa Lembongan

In the Hands of the Elements

When the rain falls in Asia it plummets from the sky with purpose and drive.  Perpendicular daggers strike the earth with great ferocity, saturating everything in their path.  The sizzling equatorial sun can very quickly be replaced by monsoon downpours, and just as quickly re-appear an hour later to set beyond waters so calm that a storm then seems inconceivable.  You can be cycling through impossibly beautiful countryside, getting sunburnt and dehydrated, oblivious to the black clouds building overhead, until minutes later those clouds tear apart with an angry roar, soaking you to the bone, and a torrent of muddy water floods down the track, forcing you to take shelter.  This type of rain can last many unrelenting days, seemingly with the same speed and force with which it began.  The noise is deafening against the tin roofs and whole towns can grind to a habitual halt as communities sit, watch and wait for it to pass.  Water, here, is both friend and enemy; a vital ingredient for the flourishing rice industry and yet the cause of so many fatal floods.  In this land you are in the hands of the elements.

A foolish traveller sets foot in Asia expecting eternal sunshine.  A wise traveller sees the rain’s fortune and opportunity; perhaps a friendly shopkeeper offers you shelter in his home or a lady teaches you to weave baskets used for spiritual offerings, maybe you share a laugh with a child amused by your drenched clothes, or you discover that although the croak of a hundred frogs outside your window keeps you awake well into the night, it is also unexpectedly pacifying.

At the particular point I write this, the tides have turned on our small island.  We have watched the most spectacular display of forked electrical drama in the distant sky, creeping ever-closer, and we’re now at the centre of a ferocious storm, with thunder booming directly overhead and vibrating through the soles of our feet.  Vertical rain pounds the paradise around us.  The charge of energy that runs through our bodies with each clap of thunder ignites a child-like excitement and an instinct to run outside and play in the wild weather, but our beloved beach front terrace is no longer elevated enough for us to observe the bay from because the gathering wind has generated waves so high they threaten to sweep us off the platform and into the blackness of the night sea.  Walking a very short stretch of the sea wall tonight we were hit by a mass of foaming water, a drenching upsurge trying to suck us from solid ground. This small land mass offers such minimal protection in the high swell that surrounds it and I’m all too aware of our vulnerable position.

But, this is Asia: the morning will no doubt bring rays of ultra-violet promise for the day ahead, and this tempestuous weather will be a thing of distant dreams.

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Finding My Barefoot Bliss

Bali: once a far-off, exotic land we dreamed of from the gloom of the English winter, and then suddenly a real place, twinkling before our eyes in the dark, humid night.  As the ferry makes the short crossing, local men teach us Balinese phrases to revive our road-weary minds and help us shift cultural gears from Muslim Java to Hindu Bali.  Sighting that long-awaited land from the top deck makes every minute of the 15 hour bus journey worthwhile, and we’re full of anticipation for what is to come…

Our dream for Bali was to find a quiet coastal spot where we could settle and let the cogs of daily life slow down to a virtual halt.  In reality it seems we’re about two decades late.  Natural beauty has been swallowed up by resorts over spilling with sunburnt, singlet-wearing Aussies.  The worst offender is the infamous Kuta Beach – the island’s dreadfully tacky tourist hub.  Aside from being the birthplace of the Asian surf scene, it thrives on under-age hedonistic debauchery and all-night parties.  It is the complete antithesis of our Balinese fantasy: filthy, noisy, crowded, tacky, over-priced and unrelenting.  Sketchy looking characters hiss offers of drugs from dark doorways, and surly hawkers bully you to buy mass-produced, wooden penis key rings with such aggressive insistence it takes steel willpower to stand your ground.  You can of course haggle over knock-off DVDs, but you’ll later find they don’t work, and the overall experience is an exhausting test of tolerance.  Perhaps all inquisitive explorers should dip their toes in cess pits like Kuta, if only to then wash their feet and walk on to greener (and cleaner) pastures.  For us, however, it provides no answers in our quest for seventh-heaven.

Cut to two days and one fast-boat later: We’ve swapped the overcrowded mainland for a tiny patch of paradise on a quiet offshore island.  My bare, happy feet point west, back towards Bali as I sit perched on an elevated terrace overlooking insanely turquoise reef.  Brightly painted local fishing boats bob gently on the surface.  It’s late afternoon, the sun still strong, but a generous breeze keeps me comfortable – the same breeze which is guiding the rolling surf towards the reef edge, where it breaks neatly in a long, foaming line.  Ben is out there somewhere and as I squint to make out his silhouette amongst the other board riders, I’m aware of voices and laughter beneath the terrace.  Peering over the ledge I see women and children collecting seaweed from the shallows.  In all shades of green and brown, it is in abundance on this island, brought ashore by regular storms and strong tides.  It will be laid out to dry along the narrow, rocky footpath which lines this small bay.  Eventually it may turn up on my plate, a cheap and nutritious alternative to leafy greens used in many local dishes.

Behind me is a lush, well maintained garden, dotted with Hindu statues, intricately carved wooden archways, sweet smelling frangipani trees and colourful religious offerings to the gods, lovingly placed on stone shrines each morning.  It’s a tranquil place where the wind and waves make more noise than the softly speaking locals.  It is simply divine.

Cooling off in the swirling currents of this shallow, turquoise lagoon is about as refreshing and delightful as life gets, but it’s not my only option; behind me, centred in the gardens, lies the enticing infinity pool – a veritable luxury to a backpacker.  In a moment of disbelief I check my wallet.  Surely they haven’t really charged me £9 to stay here?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll explore the underwater world, or take a class at the yoga shack.  Perhaps I’ll accept a local woman’s offer to observe a ceremony at her temple.  I could venture to the organic eco cafe on the rugged, untamed back road that weaves through the village, or take the lazy option and indulge in cheap, spicy snacks overlooking the sea.

But one thing I know for sure is this: if I stay in this spot long enough with my bare, happy feet still pointing west towards Bali, Ben will return from the boisterous surf (potentially very sunburnt and physically ruined from the experience), a cold beer will be placed in my hands, the sun will sink in a magnificent display of orange and pink, bright stars will shine and one fine day in paradise will roll peacefully into another.

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