Finding Neverland has taken me many years, across continents and through the minefields of social disparities and conflict of interest. Now I rest my weary self on Milton’s Paradise regained, eight degrees south of the equator. The spirits of Bali hold me close to their bosom magnifying the good and bad within me. The choice is there for us all. Many intrepid travellers have fallen by the wayside; others have created a niche for themselves surviving on the nectar that the island has to offer. Circumnavigating Bali in search of this nectar I come across a place on the north east coast that nestles on the rocky side of hills overlooking the azure sea. Amed, the seventh heaven, which lingers in a time warp embracing the rustic beauty; the innocence of village life wrapped up in breathtaking landscape with Agung the sacred (the largest volcano on the island) looking down benevolently on the mortals below.
Driving for two and a half hours from Ubud in the hills down along the coast past Candidasa and Padang Bai I make the mistake of asking a Balinese for directions to Amed. The reason is that the Balinese understand directions based on the NSEW system and not by road names. So off I go down a northerly direction along narrow roads hugging the hillsides along the Mediterranean like coast. The long drive takes me through villages, across bridges partly submerged by flowing streams and children bathing in the gurgling waters. The countryside is alive with the wind whistling through the trees, the raucous sound of birds and the clinking of coca cola crates being unloaded at the warungs by the roadside. One cannot get away from consumerism that eats into the island’s life. Passing through a village I stop to light a cigar and to take in the fresh sea breeze. Nearby four Babi Gulings (suckling pigs) are being roasted over a pit lit by coconut husk. One of the four men who are rotating the large bamboo skewers gives me a toothless grin and asks for a cheroot. I reply in the negative and instead offer him a cigarette. The bond is made and soon I am sitting on my haunches rotating the skewers and chatting in sign language with the aroma of sizzling pork permeating the air around us. I am invited the next day for a feast in the village. It’s a celebration after a cremation. The Balinese sometimes bury their dead when they cannot afford the cremation and after a period dig up the body (when money is available) and then cremate it. In Bali people spend a fortune in cremating their dead. It is more important than marriage! In fact banks offer loans at reasonable rates. In the small warung across from where we are sitting are youngsters gyrating to the song “It’s my life”. They know what life is and accept it without any pretensions. I am still attempting to comprehend the subtle nuances that make their lives so fulfilling.
Half-hour later (which feels like an eternity in serendipity) I carry on my journey along the coast past Selang, Lipah, Lehan, Bunutan, Jemeluk to Amed. Even though the names change from area to area the whole strip along this coast is loosely called Amed. The beaches are lined with brightly coloured fishing boats and the surrounding area has some of the best coral reefs. In fact coral from these reefs have grown over a Japanese shipwreck from World War II that lies submerged in shallow waters metres from the beach.
I am waved down at a warung called Wawa Wewe One (in Balinese it means – like this like that) by Wayan. a young bloke with pants hanging precariously on his lower hip, boxers shorts showing and a t-shirt that reads Born to die rebel for Life. After a warm Balinese smile, handshake and greeting me Om Swastiastu he is sitting in the car directing me to the Wawa Wewe Two hotel down at Lipah beach. Wayan informs me that the area is predominantly rural with fishing, cultivation of peanuts, corn and rice. The entertainment being cock fighting and Saturday night live at Wawa Wewe One.
I check into Wawa Wewe Two that has a number of cottages built at different levels overlooking the rocky beach. The balding Rastafarian Made (pronounced as Maaday), who is the proprietor of the hotel, has a perpetual grin on his face. Initially I mistake it for dementia but then realise he is in a perpetual state of exhilaration. Saturday night at Wawa Wewe One café is made up of a live band, gyrating local and expat hipsters with lots of Arak thrown in. The “throbbing musical evening” commences with the band playing songs in slow motion! Methinks it’s the magic mushrooms which the locals eat here. But as the evening wears on everyone is on the dance floor swinging to “Sweet Home Alabama”. Even the pet dogs are on the dance floor. The following morning I witness the fishing boats returning with their catch and landing on the beach where the hotel is situated. The eight fresh mackerel that I buy for ten thousand Rupiah makes me wonder as to how these fisher folk exist on such meagre earnings. Their catches are quite small but the dignity with which they conduct themselves is truly inspiring. Putu, the head cook and bottle washer, serves me a breakfast of fried fish and rice with a large dose of potent sambal. As I don’t eat fish I hand the fabulous spread to Wayan. Putu, observing this tells me to “waitamoment” and soon serves me an English breakfast. God save the Queen! From now on I name Putu, the Queen of Amed and bestow on her the honorary title of “waitamoment”.
Later in the day Wayan takes me into the hills to village Bangli in an area called Toyemasem where four holy springs are located. I park my trusted and rusting Feroza on a side road and carry on foot across the rice fields up into the hills. We reach the temple dedicated to Goddess Masayu. Its not really a temple in the true sense of the word but a grey stone carved column. Wayan gathers a few wild flowers and hands them to me along with some lit incense sticks. I place these offerings at the foot of the column and pray for my family to the sound of the stream rushing by and the giggling of the village children observing me and whispering “Thakur Singh”.
The springs are located at walking distance from each other along the steep hillside. I taste the water from them and wash my face hoping to be absolved of my iniquities. What I experience dear reader is one of wonderment. The water from each spring tastes different: sour, bitter, sweet, and sweet salty! You must visit this place. There is a presence here that I cannot explain but which I can feel deep down. As we walk back I sense a presence watching my back. I convey my apprehension to the villager who is our guide and he tells me the Goddess Masayu is benign and that I should not be afraid.
On our return drive to Wawa Wewe, I ask Wayan about the phenomenon and he nonchalantly informs me that the Balinese practice a form of animism and therefore their form of Hinduism is partly different from that in India. This simple village lad has just enlightened me without even knowing it. This is the nectar I was looking for in Bali: The simplicity of living woven into a rural existence on the threshold of modernity, yet retaining the beauty of life.
For lunch “waitamoment” serves us corn and rice, seaweed salad, grilled chicken in peanut sauce and topped with the potent sambal which I immediately term “after burner” because the effects are felt only the following morning. Who cares? We tuck into the spread washing it down with local arak diluted with orange juice. An hour later I am lying comatose on a deck chair next to the infinity swimming pool that seems to meet with the sea on the horizon. The warm afternoon sun is comforting and I feel myself drifting into a luxurious slumber. Minutes later I am rudely awakened by “waitamoment” who has a hot cup of tea in her hand and a smile that livens my mood. She grandly announces that there is a Metajen (cockfight) in the village, which is commencing under the hour, and that Wayan will take me to the venue. So I dutifully sip my tea and await Wayan’s arrival.
Mind you the authorities here frown upon cockfights and when I write about it, it is not to glorify this blood sport but simply to convey how rural life often comes in conflict with perceived western notions of right and wrong.
The Metajen (cockfight) is held at the local meeting place on the beach a few km from the hotel. We arrive to the cacophony of voices and the shrieking of cocks, with intermittent oooohhhhs and aaaahhhhs.
Wayan introduces me to Kadek, one of the main promoters, who is famous for his cocks that win most of the fights. Witnessing a few wins by his cocks I promptly give him one of my Ramayana cigars to the delight of the onlookers, light it for him and rename him Don King.
Before each fight there is much discussion as to the contenders. When this is decided a man carrying a leather purse opens it and flips through the felt pages that have very sharp knives mounted on them. The knives are as sharp as scalpels. The contender’s leg size is measured and then the appropriate knife is tied onto the leg with red thread. Soon both gladiators face each other to the loud shouts of “Menang” (win) and “Kalah” (lose). Like the gladiators in Roman times it is a fight unto death. The vanquished is soon cut up and taken away for someone’s dinner while some of its feathers are given to the owner of the winning cock. Don King loses only two of his gladiators out of the ten that he has entered in fights.
I have to leave the coliseum as the sun is setting and Wayan is keen to show me the peanut, corn and rice cultivation before I head for home. Back on the road the silence in the car is deafening. Wayan slips his cassette into the tape deck and soon life around returns to normal with the reggae beat of “Welcome to my paradise”.
The rest of the evening is spent walking the fields of dreams with Agung the sacred glowing in the setting sun. Nightfall is minutes away when I turn onto the highway to head back to Ubud. Wayan alights from the jeep and folds his hands saying “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om” and I reply “Suksema” (thank you in Balinese).
Night blankets the countryside as the headlights of my car weave patterns on the darkened road. Another day in paradise tomorrow is yet to come.