I have some sort of a connection with mountains. Maybe because my father’s ashes are spread up there. Maybe it’s just the fact that mountains are visually stunning, and being high up in the sky makes me feel like I’m closer to all the Gods. So when I was given the opportunity to participate in a charity hike up Mount Batur in Bali as a way of seeing the culture as well as the beautiful landscape, I didn’t hesitate. The opportunity came to me on my second day in Bali, and even though my legs were sore from the day prior of hiking toward the waterfalls with jet lag and without much sleep, I felt the urge to take on this challenge as well. Besides, it was a way of donating to the local culture.
There was a woman at the table while we were both having breakfast at the hotel in Bali, and although it was her first day there, she agreed, also, to the Mount Batur hike the next day. Her name was Margy, and we connected right away. We got to know each other a little bit by shopping and having lunch with the owner of the hotel the day before the mountain hike. We had SO much fun being girls, and because she was so open with me when I asked her to join us to tour the town of Ubud on her first day in Bali, I knew Margy was an active and adventurous woman: the kind of woman I like!
Margy and I had to be ready at 5:30 a.m. The amazing hotel owner, Putu, got up early to prepare us breakfast and tea to take with us, and as I write this I am so, so grateful for her kindness. It was dark still, and while in the car driving through the town I was reminded of the morning of my Machu Picchu ascent. It was way too early back then, and it was way too early for this mountain climb. The car ride took almost two hours driving through many unpaved roads, and while driving through the local markets, Margy and I couldn’t believe the huge crowds of Balinese people getting their fresh produce of the day as it was still dark outside. The quiet, long ride in the car toward Mount Batur, was far from mundane. It was a seduction of the senses before the climactic event, and the day would prove to be one of the most memorable moments in my travel life.
When the car stopped we got right to it. I put my hat on along with my long sleeved shirt as it was chilly, and Margy and I each got a long stick to help us maneuver the mountain. The first few steps seemed rough, and I could feel the soreness of my calves from the two days prior when going to and back from the waterfalls. As with all new experiences, there is some doubt, and the first few steps for me were the hardest. My mind and body were still adjusting to the almost 24 hour journey from Chicago, and with the time difference of 15 hours ahead, I didn’t feel quite ready. But when are we ever ready with the perfect set of circumstances in life? I was about to experience my greatest adventure in Bali. The beauty of a brand new day, the fresh mountain air, and the exhilarating feeling of an adventure made me feel SO alive!
Our mountain hike and tour was the route that local village women took to fetch their daily water in the mountain area of Muntigunung, northeast of Bali. That is, until a Swiss banker a dozen years or so ago was hiking this area when he saw local village women hike for some hours to fetch their drinking water. He also noticed that some were beggars, which he didn’t see in the beautiful area of Bali. Determined to take action, the Swiss man started the water reservoir project as well as community based projects to sustain the livelihood of the local village people of Muntigunung. So while Margy and I were hiking the mountain, we were also doing a very good deed by donating toward this worthy cause.
Some hour or so later, I didn’t notice the soreness in my legs at all. I was getting used to the terrain by now. I was getting used to the unknown nuances of maneuvering on the mountain (thank goodness I had the walking stick!), and I was thoroughly enjoying being one with the mountain, its cool air, and the bond that grows with Mother Nature when completely immersed in its beauty. The mountain air was slightly cooler than when we started the climb, and it looked like it might even rain. By now the sky was one with the misty fog in the distance, and our guide told us it was time for a break, as well as breakfast. When we came upon a stone carved structure of what seemed like the perfect spot to observe the mountain’s beauty, we were met by some others. As we saw cameras focused on a brightly dressed couple, it felt like we were walking into some movie set or play. It turned out that a couple were getting their wedding photos taken, and they were dressed in bright colors of green and gold in their traditional Balinese garments. As our guide laid out our spread of the fresh fruit and bread, I noticed he made an offering of the bright, hot pink dragon fruit on the raised mantle, or altar, that you see everywhere in Bali. The Balinese make offerings several times a day so you see the remnants of the flowers, incense, and the little baskets everywhere in Bali. Our guide spoke to the bride and groom and their entourage and even offered them fruit. The group accepted and they started to engage with us. Margy was beside herself in disbelief thinking that this was some sort of an elaborate show as part of the tour, but she quickly learned that it was a genuine bride and groom getting their wedding pictures taken. Even our guide thought it was highly unusual to witness this on the mountain, and he suggested that this was a sign of good luck. So after exchanging our excitement and enthusiasm for the marrying couple, the whole group moved on while Margy, the guide, and I finished our breakfast with a smile feeling good about interacting with the beautiful bride and groom.
When the three of us were alone, our guide got up to the edge of where we were standing and was calling out, asking and wishing for coffee. He mumbled something about how we might get our coffee but he wasn’t sure. I then joined him near the edge and was looking out and below. I was thinking, WTF? Was he kidding? I saw no one and nothing except for the green of the mountain below. Was he trying to test how stupid we Americans were? I just didn’t understand what he was doing at all. I was thinking that maybe it was some Balinese thing where one wishes for something and later the person gets the wish somewhere on the mountain. Again, I had no idea if he was just joking or just wishing out loud for his morning coffee. Then, out of magic or thin air some woman with a pink hat, a pink zip up, and a red shirt appears out of nowhere below the mountain with her one hand carrying a tray (expertly, like a professional waitress) and then carrying a large carafe with the other hand climbing, almost floating, up that mountain towards me with the most glowing smile. I will never, ever forget her amazing face and her beautiful smile, and I could hear her panting from the strenuous climb up the mountain. I had no freaking idea HOW she could do that! I was so out of my mind with gratitude and disbelief that I was just standing at the edge, and I knew not what to do because if I reached over to help her, I would have fallen to my death down the mountain. Luckily, the coffee angel knew what she was doing. When she served us, I couldn’t refuse even though I am not a coffee drinker. But her kindness was worth tasting. Besides, I thought it might give me a little boost of energy for the rest of the mountain hike. Well, the thick, rich Balinese coffee was freakin’ delicious! Perhaps it was the ambiance of being on the mountain, in another country, on the “Island of the Gods,” but it was a damn good cup of coffee. After I took a photo of the coffee angel as well as a few more pictures to preserve the moments forever in my memory, it was time to continue with our hike.
By now the rain was getting harder. Our guide decided we might want an umbrella so we stopped by a little house where a young pregnant mother was outside with her shy son who was about two years old. Our guide started talking to the young mother, and seconds later a man comes out of the house, a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, with a large curved blade in his hands. He steps down to where he is surrounded my huge leaves all around him, and as I’m watching him it looks like he could be in a photo from a National Geographic magazine. He cuts one large leaf and then moves a bit little looking for another. Our guide tells us he’s looking for another big leaf. As the man comes out with the two leaves, Margy and I realize that these would be our umbrellas, and the looks on our faces were that of pure joy just like the looks on smiling kids when presented with the most amazing toys! We couldn’t believe how warm the Balinese were toward each other, let alone to complete strangers. Margy and I didn’t care at all that it rained because it kept us nice and cool. And with our new, fun umbrellas the rain at the time was more warm and welcomed than the splendor of the sunshine. I swear we were so happy!
The quiet moments of hiking on the mountain in the gentle rain without any words exchanged is a spiritual matter. You begin to feel what love is as you hear God’s whisper, the sound of birds, and the sounds of silence all at once. Imagine an expanse of dense green all around you while the white of the sky effortlessly blends in with the delicate white puffs of fog. It’s as if the sky and fog are slowly seducing and dancing with one another. I was in a trance at the quiet beauty and the simplicity of the moment when we were just walking, without words, when I heard something ahead and below the mountain. I heard a familiar sound in the distance, and when I realized what it was, I stopped in my tracks and had to share it with Margy who was ahead of me. The sounds were coming from the harmonious chanting of monks, and with the ever gentle echo among the mountain, I was brought to tears at the exquisite beauty of the moment. The experience was sublime, beyond words, and as you can’t imagine falling more in love with someone because you absolutely, deeply love the person so very much, I fell deeper in love with the beauty of travel and how moments like these were just far too beautiful to express in words. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to stand still for hours, listen to the rain, the birds, and the chanting of the monks reverberating on God’s mountain, but I had to follow the lead of our guide. Margy was behind him and I was behind her along the narrow path, but I allowed myself more distance so I could linger a bit longer to listen to the sounds of the most gorgeous orchestra of the universe. And as I trailed behind I cried harder, surprising myself even. As my tears fell on that mountain a part of my spirit was left there because for the next few nights in Bali, I had various dreams and visions. I saw the Tree of Life, enormous but floating and rooted in mid air. There were people under the tree, including myself, and there was a wedding. I was wearing the Balinese linen white dress that I bought the day before. These dreams and visions kept reoccurring for several nights, and I’m not sure what to make of them. I only know that they took place on that mountain and the sky was white and foggy having an ethereal quality.
When we stepped under the roof of where the working community gathered, a deluge of rain missed us within seconds. The people looked at us like some angels from heaven because they really needed the rain, and the fact that the heavy downpour came immediately upon us stepping under their roof seemed like such divine timing. A frail old woman wearing dark sunglasses greeted us and blessed us with holy water. She was trying to speak English, and although we didn’t ask why she was wearing sunglasses in the pouring rain we understood it was because she lost an eye somehow. She was the village healer, and Margy and I were grateful for our very first blessing with the holy water. It must have been about 40 minutes before we could move on as the rain wouldn’t let up so we finally continued our hike after seeing the water reservoir and engaging with the workers who were making the straw baskets and hats.
The very next stop was where the cashew nuts and the rosella flowers were harvested, and we were presented a tray with 5 different kinds of cashews, rosella flower snacks, and tea. I didn’t realize I was getting hungry. Then it was time to tour the factory where they made beautiful hammocks made by hand. I really wished I had a need to buy one, but just like that time I was in Turkey and was close to buying a carpet, what was I going to do with a hammock if I lived in a high rise in the city? But at least I contributed to their community by donating, and I was having a great time being immersed in the culture. Their project actually won an award one year for sustainable development, and I was really, really proud of this fact knowing that my donation was for a very good cause.
After I don’t know how many hours since the start of our 5:30 a.m. adventure, it was time for lunch, the last part of our tour. We were driven to a place from Mount Batur maybe about 20-30 minutes away, and when the car pulled up Margy and I were beside ourselves at the beauty. As we walked through the lush garden path of the Poinciana Seaside Resort, flowers adorned some of the statues as well as by the pool where we were being seated. And right in front of the gorgeous pool was the view of the perfect beach! As we ate a delicious Balinese meal with a stunning scenery before us with the sound of the ocean waves surrounding us, I could see why they call Bali the “Island of the Gods.” Only I think they should call it “The Island of the Goddesses!”
As we drove away, the simple beauty of the open road looked so gorgeous to me. Since we were away from the mountain there was no more rain. Motorbikes passed us, as usual, and the countryside was just a simple, quiet beauty. My body was sinking into the car seat, and I felt a combination of complete fulfillment, nirvana perhaps, and just absolute and complete happiness. It was only my third day in Bali and I had five and a half more days left. How blessed I felt knowing I had more blissful days ahead of me!
Just when we thought our day was over and we were on our way back, the driver ended up taking us to a coffee plantation. Again, I don’t drink coffee. But this was a lush, tropical garden sheltered from the sun and heat. Margy and I were seated on a dark wooded bench, like a picnic bench, along with our guide, and I would experience my very first coffee tasting presented to us by a pretty girl. There were a few teas, too, but the coffee was the focus. This was where I had my very first cup of Kopi Luwak, THE most expensive coffee in the world. It is very rich (ha ha), very smooth, and very delicious. After the tasting when I was in the little shop, I wondered if I could get the Kopi Luwak in Chicago as I passed up buying it, although I bought a coconut flavored coffee as well as vanilla flavored, and I also bought some perfume and three different scents of incense. While waiting in line to pay my mind already fast forwarded to the day I would remember this amazing, absolutely spectacular day in Bali: I would be staring out my window in Chicago, sipping the Balinese coffee, smelling the burning incense, and smiling at the good fortune that I was blessed with on this unforgettable day.
I was too blissed out to remember the long ride back to the hotel. When I came to my room to unload as well as change my clothes for dinner, I realized that my beautiful umbrella would be withered by the next morning. I wished there was a way to preserve it, especially for the great memories. How great the gorgeous leaf would look in my Chicago apartment, I thought. But no. It would never be. I was a child again wanting so desperately to hold on to my toy, my happiness. And just like a child I slept so soundly that night with dreams and visions of being on that great mountain, floating on air under the Tree of Life.