North Bali Birthday Adventures, or Never Trust Google Maps

With apologies to my father, Greg Winterflood, and to Kuning

Fellow volunteer Toni’s career history is riveting. She’s worked as an archaeologist with Indigenous people in Arnhem Land and as a maritime archaeologist in Victoria, searching for shipwrecks with the kind of undersea gadgets I thought only existed in sci-fi. Some of her diving stories are nail biting, nightmarish even. She’s one of the most exuberant, courageous, hard-working and generous women I’ve ever known and a friend I’ll hold dear forever.

Toni lives in a wooden Sulawesi-style house on stilts in Les village right on the black rocky North Bali coast where she works for LINI, one of the few Indonesian non-profits developing community-based marine conservation areas to promote sustainable fishing. At LINI’s Aquaculture and Training Centre, villagers are trained to breed ornamental fish for export – in particular the aquarium hobbyist’s darling, the dazzling Banggai cardinal which is on the verge of becoming a threatened species due to overfishing. Toni invited me to Les for my birthday, but the night before we’d stay in Amed an hour east as it was a full house at LINI – “full of fish people and shrimp people and non-stop work talk”. She’d been working a fortnight straight and needed a break – I was only too happy to oblige, and was excited about the ride which Toni told me shouldn’t take longer than two hours.

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Photos and words from Toni’s Facebook post: “Words cannot describe how blessed I am feeling! I have moved to the remote far north of Bali to work at the LINI Aquaculture and Training Centre (LATC). Have been here for nearly 4 weeks and loving it. Such an amazing experience and opportunity (and such fabulous people!)”

I’d been to Amed once before with a bunch of vols last year, but back then unlike them I wasn’t riding a sepeda motor. While they snapped photos of impossibly green rice paddies, rainforests and azure ribbons of ocean from lofty lookout points, I got glued to the cracked and blistered vinyl seats of a shuttle bus with broken AC. They plied me with gushing descriptions of postcard panoramas peppered liberally with exhortations of You’ve gotta get on a bike Julz! I bitterly rued my inability to ride, and even more so at the end of the weekend when I bargained with an irascible driver to take me and a Bali Belly-afflicted French couple back to Sanur.

So I was fizzing with excitement as I cleaned the mirrors of fellow volunteer and dear friend Beau’s little yellow Yamaha Mio, fondly known as Kuning. (Beau’s currently in Oz in-between assignments and kindly entrusted me with his bike which I’ve been zipping around on gleefully the past few months – the novelty still hasn’t worn off.) I donned my rain jacket, filled the tank (O that Full Tank Feeling!), selected the shortest Google Maps route to Amed’s Blue Star Bungalows, plugged an earbud into my left ear, snuggled my phone into my riding jacket pocket and placed all my trust in the American woman telling me where and when to turn. So when she told me to turn left off the coast road and onto a narrow one, I did.

Almost immediately I was climbing a series of hairpin turns at such a steep angle I knew I was on a very different route to the coast-hugging one I traversed last year, but the dense glistening foliage and cool air was intoxicating and I succumbed to the mischievous half-smile of What’s around the bend? Let’s just ignore the fact I was slowly snaking into Bali’s mountainous hinterland as the valleys grew heavy with mist and hefty gunmetal grey clouds rolled in from the west summoning an early dusk. The road was vertiginously sheer, but having biked a similar ascent with Beau in central Bali a few months back the peculiar gravity-defying sensation wasn’t entirely alien, but equally exhilarating.

Overwhelmed by the verdant vista and glimpse of distant silver sea I pulled over to snap photos and consult Google Maps. It was only then I thought to zoom in on my chosen route, and only then I learned it squiggled like an escaped mie goreng strand – a dead giveaway the road was very narrow and almost certainly cratered with potholes and washed out bitumen never thick enough to begin with. But the view! I pushed on. I passed a family having a picnic in a bale (a small wooden pavilion) at a lookout point and chuckled at their surprise at seeing a lone female bule on a bike and the father’s cry of “Wah! Hebat!” Wow! Great! But perhaps I should have taken this as a warning.

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“In three hundred metres, turn left,” said Ms Google Maps. I grimaced; I wanted to turn right, in the direction of the coast, not left, deeper into the mountains. But I’d come all this way! Suddenly the road crumbled into a rocky track, more ruts than level surface. I’ve been on some fairly woeful roads in Indonesia but this was the worst. It disintegrated downwards and then emerged over a small hill – perhaps it was only bad in this section and the asphalt returned at the top? I slowly edged my way down the crater rims, mentally apologizing to Kuning. The rain clouds rumbled close. It was then I decided to turn back – when you’re apologizing to your friend’s motorbike I figure that’s a sure sign it’s time to drop your stubbornness and turn tail. As I edged Kuning around tenderly I gazed tremulously up at the path; the half-inch garnet asphalt clung to the rubble in the shape of a rib cage – a classic Thank god my parents can’t see me now moment.

Luckily it didn’t take too long to find the coast road I should have been on in the first place, and that the rain started when I was back on wonderfully wide and delectably firm demarcated asphalt. A magic stretch of road it was, curving gently through rainforest wafting with heady aromas of sodden earth and sated plants, tantalizingly unfamiliar to my desert girl’s nose. It was that rich and strange mix of scents and the hushed grey softness of the jungle that made me grateful it was raining, and despite the rubble rib cage track I was glad I was given the runaround by Ms Google Maps. She’d led me to spectacular heights and misty shrouds, triggering beautiful memories of the day I traveled on the back of a motorbike across Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass, which translates to ‘ocean of clouds’. Having said that it felt great to yank her out of my ear and ditch her after a trio of Balinese guys sheltering in a bale told me Amed was “lurus lurus lurus, belok kanan” – keep going straight, turn right. Brilliant. And damn was I happy to see the sign pointing to Amed. I grinned at Toni’s assurance it would only take two hours… whack on an additional hour and a half for blind trust and wanderlust.

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Hot tip if you’re ever in Amed: Blue Star Bungalows are worth staying at just for their resto. That night I dined on one of my favourite Indonesian dishes: pepes ikan, fish grilled in banana leaves. While pepes in West Java is usually a smoky green package of whole little freshwater fish stuffed with ginger, lemongrass and bay leaves, the Balinese version contains meaty chunks of the catch of the day (usually snapper, tuna or mahi mahi) marinated in silky bumbu Bali sauce – the ubiquitous mix of creamy candlenut, ginger, chili, shallots, tomatoes and a touch of terasi is slathered on every type of meat here. You can imagine my elation when, after I requested sambal, the charming young waiter enquired “sambal apa?” What type of sambal? “Ada sambal matah, sambal merah…” I love the combination of Bali’s celebrated salsa-like sambal chock-full of shallots and lemongrass, with a splodge of simple, smooth sambal merah (chilis, garlic, tomatoes, fried) on the side. And just when I thought my pre-birthday dinner couldn’t get any more delicious out came dessert: crunchy coconut fritters topped with vanilla ice cream. Divine.

*

Indonesia is home to countless culinary treasures, but one that has attained truly iconic status among some Bali volunteers is the Beng-Beng: possibly the world’s best cheap chocolate bar. Crispy wafers drizzled with caramel and encased in chocolate of surprisingly not-too-shabby quality, they’re rarely sold for more than IDR 2,500 (26 cents). Annie, who lived outside of Ubud, reckoned she sourced the cheapest at 1,800, and was mortified when, last October, I peevishly informed her of the 3,000 price tag at some small kiosks in Sanur. I whipped up a birthday greeting for her not long after. At the end of that month, when I was racing around like a mad chook as supervisor of the International Writers Liaison volunteers and right hand gal to the International Program Consultant at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Annie, one of my wondrous IWLs, gave me a care package containing a soothing lavender eye mask and SIX Beng-Bengs. What a legend.

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“Everyday low prices in my hood… Beng-Bengs Rp1,800.”

After I’d been for a sunrise dip and delighted in the duel ‘Oh, Indonesia!’ sights of a beach combing chicken and a jukung-style boat made out of a bathtub, I returned to our bungalow where I’d left Toni pretending to sleep. When she appeared from behind our door proffering a plate with a Beng-Beng speared by a birthday candle–“Happy Beng-Beng to you! Happy Beng-Beng to you!”–I honestly did not know how the day could get any better.

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Miraculously, it did. On the one-hour ride to Les we spontaneously stopped at Tulamben to lunch there after a snorkel. Tulamben is home to the Liberty wreck, a US Army cargo ship torpedoed by a Japanese sub in 1942 which then beached on the shore. A volcanic eruption in 1963 shifted it and it conveniently sank into the Bali Sea about 20 metres from the coast, and is now one of the island’s most popular dive sites.

fish_ss9_197423Our snorkel was immediately special as I spotted five of my favourite fish, Cephalopholis argus, the peacock grouper, within a few minutes. Apart from its scintillating cerulean spots and oxide and indigo hues invoking a Western Desert dusk, there’s something about its slower, purposeful, majestic fin movements and tendency to pause pensively on rocks I find extremely alluring. But my birthday luck was soon shattered by the terrifying sight of my least-favourite fish, the titan triggerfish: the pit bull terrier of the sea! Although it was relatively small I lurched backwards and thrust my fins up in defense while thrashing my feet and squealing into my snorkel. Toni surfaced and shrieked with laughter. “I’ve been attacked before!”

I told her the hilarious tale of the time I was lolling about in the shallows in Lombok with my cousin Stephen and his French babe holiday fling when I was walloped on my right ear by what I thought was a tennis ball. I leapt up, scanned right and left for the little bastard who’d pelted the ball, but there was no one around. Stephen and the French babe fell back into the water cackling. “It was a fish! You were attacked by a fish!” It didn’t take us long to retreat to the shore, and since then when I glimpse the dark, menacing, malevolent face of the titan trigger, I get the hell outta there.

Freestyling away from the titan trigger at Tulamben and the luminous reef fish flitting around the algae-blanketed boulders and into deeper waters brought us directly over two divers. One of them had white hair swaying like an anemone, and was taking photos of something in the murky depths below. I was startled when I saw it because of its formidable size: like a torpedo in slow motion lurked the longest fish I’ve ever seen. I immediately thought it was a barracuda, but ruled this out as it was just so enormous–two metres long at least–and cruising deep; I was sure barracudas weren’t bottom feeders. “What IS that!? WHAT is THAT!?” I yelled into my snorkel to Toni, though of course it came out as “WHAG IG HAG!?” “I GON GO!” she yelled in reply. Keeping our distance we followed the giant for a minute before it dissolved from view.

Back at the dive resort we flicked through fish books whose pages were as wizened and soft as old rupiah notes; they did not contain the mystery monster. That night at Les, Alex Azzopardi, a South African man of the sea who set up LINI’s Banggai breeding program listened to my descriptions–“two metres long, 30 centimetres tall, pointed face, prominent black spot near its tail”–then drew a near-perfect outline and said “Sphyraena barracuda.” He flicked straight to the barracuda page. There it was, replete with big black disc near the tail. “Damn, I thought I’d discovered a new species!” I jibed. Alex then told me about a fish species he had discovered, but was simply pipped at the post by an Italian who’d also spotted it and submitted photographic evidence to the relevant authority before him. The one that got away indeed. On the shelves surrounding Alex’s table sat a small collection of marine species books, a capacious jar of lavender, wintergreen and slate sea urchin exoskeletons and a foot-long snow white cuttlebone. Little ocean girl Julz beamed – as she did every time she admired the homes of those who live by the sea.

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Pterapogon kauderni, the Banggai cardinalfish

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Paracanthurus hepatus, the blue tang, but thanks to Disney it’s now known universally as Dory

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*

I left LINI defiant in my absence of Ms Google Maps in my left ear. In Toni’s ‘office’ Alex and his lovely wife Pat had talked me through the route to Sanur, which featured a grand total of three turns. After half an hour I hit ceremony traffic–a weekly occurrence in Sanur–and after idling for ten minutes was directed by a pecalang (village security) resplendent in red shirt and checkered sarong off the main road and onto a narrow one which appeared not too dissimilar from the one which led me astray two days before. Best laid plans.

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Others had taken the detour too which snaked behind small dwellings and through corn fields, but were too fast for me to follow. (I’m a very slow and steady rider Dad, see? Toni and I have a term for it: Turtle Time.) Though it definitely was not in the same league as the rubbly rib cage I still smiled wryly when the ribbon of ocean reappeared and the road towards it widened – it was cleaved with runnels which warranted another “thank god they can’t see me now”. Never use Google Maps without zooming in first, and never assume “just three turns” means just three turns. But my god, wasn’t the ride back magic.

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At a strip of beachfront warung I stopped for a coconut about 45 minutes from Sanur. The owner, Ibu Wayan and I chatted cheerfully, and I told her sheepishly how I’d been led astray in the mountains on my way to Amed. “Kenapa pakai Google Maps itu?” she chided me. “Di Indonesia selalu ada yang senang bantu!” Why use Google Maps? In Indonesia there’s always someone happy to help.

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