Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017

© Carrie Clark

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I prescribe a trip to... Bali

An FP takes a milestone birthday trip and sees Indonesia through his teens' eyes

I have to confess, I have always loved Bali. So, as my 60th birthday beckoned, where in the world did I want to celebrate? Bali, of course. But I was no longer the single guy who first visited; I was a dad with a family. So I wondered how my wife Carrie and my teenaged children Sarah (age 13) and Jacob (age 15) would feel about crossing halfway around the world to this exotic place. The Air Singapore flight arrived from Singapore to Denpasar as the day’s light faded into an equatorial evening. We were greeted by the night sounds of cicadas and kookaburras, aggressively eager cab drivers and Ketut, our driver, holding a sign that read "Roberts," ready to take us on our inland car journey to Penestanan.

Our minibus trip passed lit vendor’s stalls, mystical temples, wandering hungry dogs, women dressed in silk and batik sarongs. It was a strange, exotic and intoxicating combination of heat, sweat, chaos, confusion and excitement. There was also a trace of the familiar in the form of MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken signs hanging above dilapidated buildings. Bali still felt familiar to me, but I wondered if the corporate signs of globalization had touched this place as well. I looked at Sarah and Jacob’s faces and hoped the journey would be meaningful for them.

After our disorienting trip into the cooler central Balinese plateau, we arrived at our first villa, Ananda Cottages (www.anandaubud.com). Our teenagers were delighted that we had respected their desire for independence and privacy. “Cool! We have our own house!” A semidetached villa in the rice terrace was next to Mom and Dad's, complete with a four-poster bed, geckos darting on the teak ceiling, an outdoor bathroom and waterfall shower and an infinity pool facing the beckoning volcanoes in the distance.

Jungles, temples and monkeys

We visited during the festival of Galungan, when the spirits of ancestors are said to descend to earth, and the Balinese head to family temples with symbolic rice meals, incense offerings and gamelan music. Sarah who loves being creative was welcomed by revellers and shown how to create the intricate coconut, banana leaf and incense offerings. Jacob, our family musician was invited to try the gamelan and drums. We were off to a good start.

Penestanan is a glorious world of rice terraces, rainforest highlands, valleys with roaring rivers, traditional village life and fabulous Balinese history and culture. There was no end to the possibilities for stimulation: whether it was hiking, white-water rafting, visiting local painters and sculptors, attending dance performances or just sitting and taking in the blissful atmosphere. The Balinese made us feel welcome to observe or attend a local festival, whether it was a baby naming ceremony or a cremation.

Day trips to ancient sites abounded. We visited Goa Gajah, also called the Elephant Cave, a ninth-century hermitage for Buddhist monks, and Yeh Pulu Temple, home to an ancient petroglyth deep in the mythic Bedulu jungle. Guning Kawi is the spiritual burial and meditation site for ancestral Balinese royalty, an unexcavated archeological site that offers a true Indiana Jones experience. The local Monkey Temple, home to a mischievous band of macaques, offered a distraction from the midday heat.

Mount Batur is a volcano, complete with a crater lake and lava fields to explore. It was the entry point for a day-long downhill bicycle ride through coffee plantations and dazzling rice terrace vistas that took us back home to Penestanan.

When we were not exploring farther afield, warungs (roadside cafés and shacks) and restaurants offered local cuisine such as mee goreng, ristaffel or French fries and pizza, depending on our teenagers’ inclination.

One day merged into the next, filled with time spent flying kites, watching shadow puppets, or chilling out playing cards and writing in travel journals. Our days ended cooling off in our infinity pool, where the family unwound with splashes and water fights.

Reef music

After a week of acclimatization, we ventured to the northwest on an adventure to the traditional seaside village of Pemuteran. During the four-hour journey we passed through vistas full of Balinese life. There were colourful celebrants at temple festivals, prayer flags, ducks frolicking in the meandering streams, cows and goats on the road, lunch at a historic Dutch Hill station, panoramas of dazzling rice terraces and teak forests and, finally, the northern Bali Sea.

Pemuteran is the new sophisticated mecca for immersing yourself in the "old" Bali. Our villa dazzled Jacob and Sarah. Villa Wilali (villawilali.com) offered each child their own traditional Balinese room. With our own private beach, pool and staff, as well as an outrigger boat and driver, we were ecstatic and humbled by the opportunity to live a life of luxury in this tropical paradise.

Our days were filled with swimming and body surfing in the warm Bali Sea, snorkelling off shore, heading to the local reef by outrigger, walking to local temples and mosques, or discovering village life and the local community beach.

Pemuteran Beach is well known for initiatives in sustainable development. There is a turtle hatchery and the Biorock reef project. Sarah, the social conscience of our family was thrilled with the sustainable projects in this region.

The unique Biorock reef project is a world-renowned attempt to rejuvenate the local reef, which was previously destroyed by blast fishing. It uses a mild electrical current passed through a metal platform, which speeds up the accretion of minerals and the formation of young coral. It has since attracted vibrant tropical sea life.

We delighted in family swims offshore to the mind-blowing Technicolor world of funky-shaped coral formations with an indescribable array of tropical fish.

Our underwater visits were punctuated by hanging out on the beach at guesthouse warungs, sampling traditional foods and drinking Balinese coffee.

We were fortunate that Pemuteran was celebrating a full moon festival during our visit. Imagine a beach-side temple illuminated by the full moon as young female dancers moved to the hypnotic rhythms created by a gamelan orchestra. There was a lot for Sarah and Jacob to reflect on, about how their lives differed from the youth of Bali: no kids playing with iPods, or distracted by text messaging.

Near Pemuteran, Menjangan Island offers the most pristine scuba and snorkelling in all of Indonesia. Journeying to Menjangan was like an image from the jungle scenes in the film Apocalypse Now, as the meandering river flowed amidst the tropical landscape out to the open sea. The warm waters of the island attract magnificent sea life including sea turtles, white-tipped sharks and manta rays. Jacob was even able to follow a sea turtle with his underwater camera.

We were sad to leave Pemuteran after a week but we had one more special journey to stimulate our teenagers: a journey to the Gili Islands in Lombok.

Giddy in Gili

So off we went by fast boat across the deep Wallace Strait that separates Bali from Lombok, and Asia from Australasia to the traveller’s mecca of Gili Trawangan. Our children loved the idea that we were crossing over one of the deepest sea trenches on the planet.

After two hours of ocean travel under the clouded volcanic peaks of Bali and Lombok, we arrived at a South Sea island paradise of palm trees, low-rise buildings surrounded by white sand and iridescent blue waters. No sooner had we arrived that we were whisked away on a cidamo (donkey cart) to our island getaway. Our children were thrilled by the absence of cars, just the whooshing of donkey hooves on sand.

Gili T as it is known is well regarded in seasoned traveller’s circles as a relaxed place for R&R like Goa, Kathmandu and Koh Phi Phi were in the past. Our new adventure base was Luce d’Alma (lucedalmaresort.com) (the name means light of the soul) a spacious Italian-owned lodging with an 80-metre pool bounded by individual palm shaded guesthouses.

Days here were filled with bicycling round the island, hanging out at the beach, magnificent snorkelling just steps into the Pacific or out on glass-bottomed outriggers, and hanging out in the funky village centre filled with great places to drink and eat and listen to music.

Our children experienced some sought-after independence on this small island, exploring the coconut plantations, searching up the lone hillside for a hidden cave abandoned by Japanese soldiers in World War II, connecting with the local Sasak farmers and fishers or having a tropical treat offered by a beachside vendor. They loved it. Gili T is a cross between the grooviness of the Riviera and the splendour of the South Seas in an Indonesian setting.

A short boat ride away is Gili Memo that has the feel of a Robinson Crusoe hideaway, as well as Gili Air an island reminiscent of the South Pacific.

Our final adventure was a day trip to Northern Lombok. The scenery was magnificent as we ascended Mount Rijani, the second highest volcano in Indonesia, which offers visits to traditional Sasak markets, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu villages, as well as treks to gigantic jungle waterfalls where we took a dip.

Bali continues to be an esthetic and spiritual paradise, particularly if you go off the beaten path. My return to Bali at age 60 was deeply rewarding, particularly as seen through the eyes of my teenaged children. Their openness, fresh perspective and zest for adventure made the journey a profound joy.

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