I’ve mentioned before that I have unbelievably terrible luck while on organized tours (although if truth be told, I don’t have that great of a record on my own either). I try to find the path less taken even in the most heavily trodden of touristy areas. So when I arrived in Bali earlier this year, I knew that if I wanted to escape the partying Australians on holiday or the honeymooning couples making out on every street corner and actually get a close glimpse into the daily lives of the Balinese people, I would have to bite the bullet and join a tour.
I had been visiting my friends Tricia and Sam who had recently moved to Australia from New York City. While in NYC they would always try and coax me out for a bike ride along the West Side Highway and it was easy for me to waylay them with excuses like – “Ugh I ate too many cupcakes so my stomach won’t handle it” or “I was out til 4am last night…with you! How the hell do you have energy?” or “I skinned my finger so can’t grip the handlebars”.
Well, those excuses didn’t hold up on the other side of the world when it was only the 3 of us (maybe if I had tried the “monkey bit me” line – hindsight’s 20/20 I guess). So when they suggested a bike tour, I had nowhere to run and was forced to come clean and admit the truth – I couldn’t ride a bike.
Ok so that’s somewhat misleading. I did have a normal middle class suburban upbringing in which every kid on the block (including me) rode around on their shiny new bikes. I just never really got the hang of it. It didn’t matter how many ballet classes, tap classes, and beauty pageants (yes – I was a toddler in a tiara) my mother put me in, I just never learned grace or poise. Gravity is a fickle bitch and mix that with a clumsy oaf like myself and you’ve got yourselves a wrecking ball. So when my brother convinced me to ride down the steepest incline the neighborhood kids had dubbed ‘Thrill Hill’ and I crashed full speed into the fence at the bottom – I was done with bikes…..until now.
The 6 People You Meet On A Tour
We went with the GREENBIKE Cycling Tour as it came highly recommended by one of Tricia’s friends. We had been staying at the Amadea Resort in Seminyak and the reception staff kindly helped to arrange for our guide to come in the early morning to pick us up and drive us over to Ubud where the tour started.
One of the reasons I loved this tour company so much was because they purposely keep the groups small and intimate. We were the stereotypical band of people you meet on any given tour. There was the one taking a quick vacation from her 9 to 5 job (present), the two who quit their 9 to 5’s to travel for a year (my brave friends), the one loud American male who has to touch everything he sees and feels the need to put anything he can in his mouth, his not-so-obnoxious comrade who makes you wonder how the two ever came to be friends, and the solo female traveler who goes on about how she just spent 2 years in North Africa with the Peace Corps and then asks you what you do for a living. To which you uncomfortably reply, “I work in the sales department of a superyacht brokerage firm that sells multi-million dollar yachts to the 1%.”
We started out by taking a van to a lovely breakfast spot overlooking the active volcano, Mount Batur (also very sacred to the Hindu Balinese) whose explosive history has left such a substantial amount of volcanic ash that the locals still use it today to construct shrines for the various villages.
A Balinese Coffee Plantation
The further the van drove on, the more apprehensive I became about the whole ‘riding the bike’ part of the adventure. It was one of those feelings where I couldn’t tell if I actually wanted the vehicle to go slower or to speed up so I could just get the whole thing over with. Well, our guide made that decision for me when he pulled up to a local coffee plantation.
He walked us through all the flora, vegetation, and any other synonym for the word ‘plant’ while stopping here and there to pluck various beans, spices, and leaves to show us. Much to the delight of our guide (one thing I noticed about the Balinese is they giggle – A LOT), Loud American Guy (LAG) proceeded to put all of these in his mouth. Literally – everything. I thought our guide was going to laugh himself into a stroke when LAG didn’t let him finish his sentence before putting a particular bean in his mouth without removing the shell. I would love to show you some photos of these local goodies but sadly they were all consumed before they could make there way over to me (sigh).
We continued on and learned all about how the Balinese make the world’s most expensive coffee through the excrement of beans by the Luwak and we were able to try an assortment of teas and coffees made locally.
Biking Through the Streets of a Balinese Village
The dreaded moment had finally arrived and it was time to head to our bikes. The guide took us to his own community village where we strapped on stylish helmets, adjusted seats, hopped on and were ready to go (well at least some of us were).
After my futile efforts of begging and pleading to ride tandem style or to sit still on the handlebars (I promise I’ll be real good), I finally hung my head in defeat and walked my bike up to the street. My friends kept assuring me it would all come back to me. Afterall, no one forgets how to ride a bike, right? I took a deep breath, shot up a quick prayer to the nearby Hindu gods, and started peddling. As long as the other riders didn’t get too close, I was fine. Stressed out – but fine.
Until about 200 feet later when our guide yelled out (rather belatedly), “POTHOLE” and I had to jerk hard to the right to avoid hitting the hole in the ground. That was the first time I collided into Sam but we somehow managed to stay upright (that time at least).
After a few minutes of ineptly riding through the village streets while chanting “I think I can, I think I can”, I boldly lifted my eyes off the ground in front of me to take in my surroundings.
As I weaved and wobbled along like a drunk driver, I almost crashed into Sam again when I saw the most terrifying sight that could give the bird incident a run for it’s money – Large. Effing. Spiders. Everywhere. According to our guide, they weren’t poisonous so of course upon hearing that, LAG had to pipe up and exclaim, “Oooo I want to touch one.” So we stopped for him to reach his arm up and have the vile thing crawl all over him (having many close guy friends who would have thrown one right on me, I watched this exchange from as far away as I could possibly get). At least this time he had the foresight to not put it in his mouth.
A Balinese Family Compound
We came to a stop at a family compound in the village in order to see how the local culture lived and thrived when we noticed two roosters trapped in individual woven-basket-cage-thingys (very eloquent I know) outside the household. Several of these had also dotted the streets we had ridden through and our guide informed us that cockfighting is a hugely popular gambling event throughout Bali. Though it’s only legal when it’s done as a traditional Hindu blood sacrifice that normally takes place at one of the various temples, that doesn’t seem to deter the locals from partaking in them under the radar (Fellow blogger Backpacking Matt was lucky enough to be invited to one of these and you can read about his experience here).
The Balinese families all live in these family compounds though they tend to vary in both size and wealth. A typical husband and wife will try up to 5 times (OMG could you imagine?) for a male child as they need at least 1 male to always stay behind in each compound to take care of the parents. Upon marriage, the wife will go live with the male in his village.
The Hindu Balinese each make three daily offerings to the gods and the women in the household are tasked with putting these offerings called canang sari (yeah I have no clue how to pronounce it either) together. We had seen these all over Seminyak – on the resort driveway, on shrines, sidewalks, storefront windows, motorbikes, inside shops – literally – everywhere. With the air perfumed by the incense many of these held, walking through the streets smelled like the inside of Doctor Robert’s van in the 1960’s (or at least how I imagined it would have smelled).
We were able to take part in this tradition by helping the women in this particular household make them for use the next day by learning the simple technique involving bamboo, coconut leaves, and flowers.
After saying our goodbyes to the family, it was time to move on and hop back onto our bikes. Maybe since I made some offerings, the gods would spare me anymore embarrassment (right?).
Somehow I ended up out front of the group, so as I stopped to stand still astride my bicycle to wait for Tricia and Sam I just – well – simply fell over. One minute I was standing upright and the next, I was in a bush listening to the echoing sounds of laughter.
Is anyone else completely bad at doing something most 5 year olds can do with their eyes closed? Let me know in the comments below!
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