Biorock – Delphine Robbe, Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

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Delphine“I prefer to see Tuna in the sea than on a plate”Delphine Robbe, Agronomist, Co-Founder of the Bio Rock Project,  Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Delphine was born in Paris. She studied in France and Canada obtaining her Masters in Agronomy Engineering followed by fieldwork in Madagascar in 2002. After that she traveled for over a year and a half in South East Asia, India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Israel, Gautemala etc. and then came to Indonesia in 2004 to do a Dive Master and Instructor Course at Big Bubble, Gili Trawangan (Gili T). Here she met her present employer, Anna Walker who was instrumental in setting up the non-profit organization, Gili Eco Trust, with Anthony Clubbey and Maurice Stevens of Manta Dive. In 2005 Delphine founded the Bio Rock Project in Gili T with Foued Kadachi and Laurent Lavoye.

Recently Mark Ulyseas met Delphine at Scallywags, a beachfront restaurant on Gili T, to talk about her life and work.

What is Bio Rock technology?

The two scientists who invented Biorock Technology was Dr. Tom Goreau, a marine biologist and Professor Wolf Hilbertz, an architect and inventor of electrolysis. The discovery came about when Hilbertz was studying how seashells and reefs grow by passing electricity through the salt water. He observed that calcium carbonate (Aragonite) slowly formed around the cathode, coating the electrode with a material as strong as concrete. And as long as current was passing through the structure it continued to grow at the rate of 5cm a year. When damaged the structure could also heal itself. This discovery prompted Hilbertz to devise a plan to grow low-cost structures in the ocean for developing countries. It caught the imagination of author Marshall Savage who wrote a book titled The Millennial Project.

However, his focus shifted to regeneration of coral reefs when he met Tom Goreau, a marine biologist, who was working on the preservation of reefs affected by erosion, pollution and global warming.

The Biorock process is simple. Build a tunnel shaped steel structure in size 10 meters long x 1.5 meters in width. Then place it under water. Connect electrical cables to a 12-volt battery on the shore and attach the cables to the underwater structure. Through electrolysis with the salt water limestone forms and grows on the structure.

Coral can be broken off from the reef and tied to the structure. The electric current assists in the growth of the coral from 2 to 6 times faster than usual.

Why did you start the project at Gili T?

After one year since my arrival in 2004 on Gili T, I started the Biodrock Project with Foud Kadachi and Laurent Lavoye because I was concerned about the state of the coral reefs around the Gilis. There was too much dead coral, pollution and above all no one was doing anything worthwhile to protect, preserve and sustain the reefs.

I had earned enough money from my job in diving and I felt I needed to give back to the Gilis, to say thank you. This is my way.

What is the importance of the Coral reefs?

The coral reefs protect the shoreline/beaches from erosion by breaking the wave action. But most importantly the coral reef is the habitat of nearly 70% of the fish in the ocean. It also acts like a nursery for the sea creatures. So the survival, good health and continuance of the reefs are vital for all living beings.

The coral reefs act as a classroom for marine biologists; students and tourists to learn all about sea life because it can be observed at close quarters.

What are the results of your work?

I am happy to announce that we have regenerated nearly 1.5 kilometers of coral reef. I could not have done this without the help of the Gili Eco Trust, SATGAS (Indonesian Security Force that assists in protecting the areas from being damaged/illegal fishing etc.), the Professors and students of Mataram University, Lombok; And more importantly the expats and Indonesian businesses on the isles.

In 2006 we conducted the Fourth Indonesian Biorock Training Workshop for scientists/students/divers/artists from all over the world. There were 35 participants. A total of 10 structures were built and installed East-South of the island. Since then many more structures have been put up.

In 2008 we organized workshops for 52 students/marine biologists/diving instructors/Indonesian businesses and restaurateurs.

We are now registered to certify divers in PADI Biorock Speciality.

Recently, CNN  filmed a documentary on the work done on the reefs. This is very heartening as the international community will see how Indonesia is coping with its environment and help will come from all quarters.

Why do you like the Gilis?

No cars. No motorbikes. No dogs. It’s quiet and I can dive everyday.

Any advice for visitors to the isles?

Don’t throw toilet paper in the bowl. Don’t throw plastic. Save water, save energy. Enjoy Nature don’t destroy it. Don’t walk on the reef. Don’t collect seashells or coral. Don’t buy seashells or coral. As an incentive we offer one free dive on the first Monday of every month to those who spend one day on the isle picking up plastic and other polluting waste from the beach and other areas.

Why do you seem one with the sea?

When I was twelve years old I did my first dive. It was off Reunion Island (next to Mauritius). During this dive I saw dolphins, the angels of the sea. The feeling of being part of a beautiful environment and being one with it was so overwhelming that I had to become a citizen of the sea and protector of it. The sensation of water all around me caressing my body, the colorful sights of fish and coral and the silence…yes silence.  Swimming in the sea is like being an intrinsic part of an exotic world. Do you understand what I am trying to say?

Where do you think this passion and lust for life comes from?

My father. He was a pilot with Air France and he also performed stunning aerobatics. Unfortunately during one of his maneuvers he crashed. I was six years old when he died at 33. I love him very much. I carry him in my heart wherever I travel.

You are now a 31-year old, unmarried? Do you ever think of settling down?

Why should one settle down? Life is one fascinating journey. I don’t want to get married or have babies because I will die by the time I am 33, just like my father. I have so much work to do for the environment and not enough time.

Will you continue living on this island?

No. My dream is to live on an Eco Boat and sail around the world educating people on how to preserve and sustain the environment.

Do you have a message for the readers of Voices Today?

The seas sustain all life on the planet. Help us to preserve it by not plundering its natural resources and polluting its world. I appeal to you to become true vegetarians – no meat or seafood. This will help stem the savage rape of the seas, thereby giving us an extended lease of life.

“Mike”, the world’s first hydrogen bomb, vaporized Elugelap Island and other parts of the Enewetak Atoll on November 01, 1952. (The blast was 700 times more powerful than the explosion that leveled Hiroshima). In the half century or so since then humans have destroyed around a quarter – some say a half – of all tropical coral reefs, which are one the world’s richest and oldest ecosystems and provide vital benefits in over 100 countries. Will the rest be gone within another fifty years – or less?  – Http://coralstory.blogspot.com

(Note: Professor Wolf Hilbertz died of cancer in Munich, Germany, August 11, 2007. The world has lost a true citizen of the sea. Many Indonesians and expats in Bali and the rest of the archipelago fondly remember him for his assistance on the preservation of the coral reefs in this country).

Gili Eco Trust 02 copy

Made Boy and the Goddess of Toye Masem

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What started as a journey to escape the confines of one’s own mind turned into an enlightening encounter with a young Balinese man and an enchanting tryst with the goddess of Toye Masem.

Everybody’s talkin’ at me

I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’

Only the echoes of my mind

People stoppin’ starin’

I can’t see the faces

Only the shadows of their eyes…

Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echoes) by Fred Neil

He began the night drive to Amed feeling like the protagonist from the movie, Midnight Cowboy, on his ‘end’ trip who reaches his dream destination only to arrive dead.

The following morning, after a sleepless night in his favourite room at Wawawewe, he walked down to the beach to catch a fishing boat out to sea. As he sat in the vessel in the warm glow of the sun waiting for the fisherman to check the motor and sails, thoughts of madness echoed in his mind. The agitated sea taunted him by rocking the boat and the errant wind blew his cap into the air.

Suddenly he heard, above the raucous wind and sea, a shout, “Useless…Mark Useless”. Striding purposefully towards him along the pebbled shore was Made Boy.

“Made says you not go to sea. Also, sea take you…you wearing green. Today full moon, you come with me to Toye Masem near Bangle Village. My wife prepare offering with chicken especially for you. Come brother we make offering and do meditasi”, he said breathlessly.

Made Boy is a friend. He runs a small shop selling semi-precious stones and sacred stones, and assorted pieces of silver jewellery. He is married to a pretty Balinese woman and is the proud father of Putu, a five month old boy. Made’s long black hair, lithe body and goatee beard gives him an air of serenity personified. This soft spoken individual’s pronouncements on Hindu Dharma and the all embracing Karma to visitors who chance upon him, endears all to him.

Reluctantly, Useless followed Made back to the hotel and put the offerings into his jeep. Then they drove into the hills to Toye Masem.

At Bangle Village he parked the vehicle on a narrow hill road and carried on foot. Nyoman, an acquaintance of Made’s from the village, joined them on the trek to Toye Masem., where there is a shrine and five holy springs.

They walked along a dusty path strewn with boulders, across dry stream beds, rice fields browning in the sun and under overhanging bamboo trees creaking in the wind. The land lay expectantly for the rains like a virgin anxiously awaiting the night of the nuptials.

When they reached the small shrine of the goddess, Nyoman swept the area in front of the shrine of dried leaves and chicken feathers (remnants of previous offerings). Useless at the bidding of Made washed his face and hands in the small spring. Made then poured spring water into a glass and gave it to him to drink. “You take this and sit quietly. Take all bad feeling you have and throw away. Don’t keep them,” he said in a whisper as if not to disturb the deity. Useless drank the sour tasting water like the wine he had sipped while serving mass at the Carmelite Chapel in Calcutta. The water tingled on his skin and in his mouth. He felt a sudden urge to weep. And he wept uncontrollably. He remembered that the festival of lights. Diwali, would be celebrated on October 27th by his son, once again without him. The Laxmi Puja, the silver coins on Paan leaves and the colourful sweets were now ethereal images. He could not smell, feel or touch them anymore. He could only dream them. The past had become the future continuous. Tomorrow would never come in this lifetime.

“Useless it is good to cry. If you don’t you will carry all the sorrow in your heart and it will kill you one day. What you want from life? Tell me now so that when we begin to place offering before the goddess I will speak on your behalf in Balinese,” he said with his hand on Useless’s shoulder.

Then they sat down in front of the shrine. Made handed Useless a Sok Kasi (a woven square basket filled with fruit, Bukakak Siap Pangang (a specially prepared chicken), flowers and burning incense sticks and told him to place it on the altar. After he had done this, he sat cross legged beside Made who began to chant a haunting prayer to the goddess asking her to favour him. The urgency in his voice, the folded hands, the gurgling of the spring and the intermittent thumping sound of ripened cashew fruit dropping to the ground from the surrounding fruit trees cast a comforting cloak over Useless. Ever so gently the goddess had touched his soul. He felt comforted by the gentleness that permeated the air around him. Shakti slowly began creeping into his sinews.

“Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om”, sang Made as he ended his prayer for Useless.

Then he got up and threw spring water over Useless and placed flowers from the offering on his head. The spiritual encounter had ended for he could feel the goddess departing from him leaving behind the beginnings of kindness, love and forgiveness.

Made, Nyoman and Useless sat on the nearby Bale and ate the chicken, fruit and sticky rice in silence.

After the ‘feast’, Nyoman disappeared into the trees and returned with a handful of sweet, succulent cashew fruit and gave it to Useless to eat. He sucked on them reminiscing of Goa and the foul smelling highly potent Fenny (liquor) that is made from this luscious fruit.

As the sun set and shadows emerged from the enveloping darkness the three men returned to the vehicle.

That night , when Useless sat beside the infinity swimming pool gazing out at the full moon cleansing the sea in its silvery light he felt the goddess of Toye Masem pass through him. He was not afraid for he knew then that the path of his life had finally changed course to the sublimity of loneliness..

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti om

The Last Paradise

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This week’s column is dedicated to my Balinese friends in Kintamani, Lovina, Singaraja, Amed, Kuta and Ubud. And to Jill Gocher, photographer and friend – thank you for making me sensitive to Balinese Living Culture. Hopefully the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Bali in December this year (2007) will draw the world’s attention to this island’s problems of sustainability in terms of its people, culture and natural resources.

Arriving in Bali many Kuta sunsets ago one was confronted with paradoxes interspersed with stunning beauty. The sunset, the full moon, the religious processions and the rural landscape washed by the rains all made up for a never-ending story of beauty beyond my perceived understanding of the known. I knew then in my heart that this was the Last Paradise, the end of the rainbow. Hopefully the arrival of seasonal visitors, foreign residents and lost souls will not destroy a beautiful people and their culture.

So why do I call Bali the Last Paradise? Well it is for me an island that holds a special meaning. Here amid the lush green rice fields, the fertile lands around the volcanoes and the gentle pace, are a beautiful people who live a life that is being increasingly disturbed by advancing modernisation – The centuries old entrenched religious traditions, family support systems and the harmony in which the Balinese live with nature. A long time ago they were sheltered from the vagaries of technology and its sidekicks by the expanse of water surrounding the island. With the occupation by the Dutch and later by migratory visitors from far off lands Balinese civilisation, as I like calling it, is struggling to remain the Last Paradise. Today tourism has become the staple diet of the islanders. The Tamu (honoured guest – also a euphemism for tourist) has often shown scant regard for the hosts and the environment. Bali has a new name now – the best island tourist destination in the world.

Take a drive through the countryside to view the wonders of the island in its purest form; Tempe lovingly wrapped in banana leaf; Offerings placed delicately on the roadsides; Children climbing trees to break mangoes; Colourful rice cakes drying in the sun; Babi Guling roasting on large bamboo skewers over a fire lit by coconut husk.

However, behind the curtain of sylvan surroundings is an ongoing silent invasion: the result of the world becoming a global village – Hordes of invading holidaymakers who are using and abusing the island’s fragile eco system. This is a necessary evil. For without the tourists there will be no income for the island’s inhabitants. But then again how does the island sustain the growing need for water, food, shelter and transport? And the disposal/recycling of garbage?

Just the other day I was invited to speak at the Rotary Club of Ubud by Asri Kerthyasa, the Princess of Ubud. It was at this meeting that I met David Kuper, who along with his Balinese counterparts, has set up a large recycling waste project in Gianyar. He spoke passionately about waste management in Bali and how effective it could be. Is it too little too late considering the extent of plastic that one can see being used for bags, packaging and that ubiquitous bottle of water?

To be a critic is the easiest job, as one does not have to do the work! Lesser folk have to contend with the refuse of mankind. Travel to any part of this isle and you will see how plastic is being used in everyday life. How essential it is. How economical it is. For instance if we are to suggest a ban on plastic bags on this island what affordable alternative do we have, and one that will not damage the eco system or infringe on the daily income of the Balinese? Also, have you noticed the growing number of vehicles on the road? I suppose progress is a natural phenomenon, which we have to deal with. A mass transport system could be the answer, or maybe not. Who knows? And who decides? The Balinese? Or the self-appointed bleeding hearts from foreign lands?

The Last Paradise embraces, nurtures and sustains a living culture. The tight embrace is slowly loosening. Fertile lands are being bulldozed for new housing in all shapes and sizes. The ancient Balinese architectural code- Asta Kosala Kosali – is rarely referred to while building homes. What are we doing as guests on this island to respect the living culture of the Balinese? How many of us can speak Balinese? How many among us have built houses with high walls around them to keep out the locals in total contravention to the island’s social ethos?

It’s apparent that there are more questions than answers. But isn’t it time that the Tamu returned the favours bestowed by the Balinese so that their culture is kept alive and prosperous in a self-destructing world?

In the process of travelling across this isle I have met many rural folk –peanut/corn/rice farmers and owners of small warungs along the way. One is overwhelmed by the simplicity of their lives that revolve around the family, bangar, marriages, births, deaths and religious ceremonies. Interestingly, most of them speak Balinese. For me this is the heart of a civilisation – language.

Language contains within it the soul of a civilisation. The eternal seed that continues to germinate new generations that nourish a living culture. Wayan, my Balinese landlord, told me the other day that Balinese children were being influenced by other cultures and were beginning to speak a kind of Indonesian slang. He was worried that his mother tongue would soon go out of fashion. I assured him that as long as he spoke his lingo and it was taught in schools the Balinese language would never die out.

This conversation revealed an interesting fact and I beg to ask the question, “Are we seeing a clash of cultures?” Bastardised cultures imposing themselves on the fragile and sensitive living culture in Bali, the profane eating away at the membrane encasing the Last Paradise. A few may smugly observe that this is a form of evolution but some would say that it is an invasion of alien thought processes that can easily be repulsed by the sheer depth of Balinese culture embedded in the island’s social fabric.

The barometer of a living culture also reflects in its flora and fauna. One says this with reference to the Bali Starling and how friends and the people of Bali have saved it from extinction. By doing so they have kept intact their own culture. The state of flora and fauna on the island is a reflection of the health of its people. It is heartening to know that the Bali Starling is the mascot for the Bali 2008 Asian Beach Games! Government recognition like this brings with it acceptance, respect and preservation of the species.

Bali has, is and will always be the balm for many a weary soul who has built a nest and procreated on its land. Today it is tethering on a razor’s edge between sustaining a rich cultural heritage supported by a vibrant people and the surge of modernity raising its ugly head ever so often. What the future will bring is anyone’s guess but for many of us in the Here and Now, Bali is the Last Paradise. We can cherish, nurture and sustain it by honouring our hosts, respecting the living culture that embodies all that is in harmony with the island’s eclectic mix of people, flora and fauna.

In the words of my friend Made, “Bali for me is my life, Bali die I die”.

And for all those “foreigners” who grumble about the travails of everyday living and working in Bali here’s a quote from my (late) father Noel Eric, “If you want to see dirt look in the gutter. But if you want to see beauty look at the stars they reflect the beauty of the earth”. It’s that simple. The question one needs to ask is that if we continue to rape and lay bare the earth that sustains us, what sort of planet will our children inherit?

Bali is alive and throbbing today. What the morrow will bring is for the Gods to decide. Till then let us pay homage to the land, its people, seek shelter in their homes, eat the food offered to us, speak the language and honour them. For this, I know, we will be blessed in the Last Paradise.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

A Bohemian Rhapsody – Amed

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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.

Dances with Dolphins…And homage to Lord Ganesha.

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Bali, the name only conjures up idyllic beaches, sun tanned heavenly bodies and massages that electrify your very soul. Or, so I thought till I decided to drive like a headless chicken through the countryside armed only with a smile, a map of the island and complete ignorance of the language! The usual expats smirked and nodded their heads in disapproval. Buddy, they said, you’ve got a touch of the sun to do this. Having driven on Indian roads has its distinct advantages, I told them. And then went on to describe the experience of driving through the night in pouring rain to Manali and then onto the snow bound Rohtang Pass. They didn’t believe me but who cares! Let them drown themselves in Bintang while I immerse myself in the Bali countryside, sampling the delights of going where no faint hearted expat had driven alone before.

I checked the brakes of the Feroza, a sturdy out of production jeep much like the good old Jonga to make sure that when I encountered the gnats (the locals on their two wheelers) snapping at my tail lights I’d be able to swerve and brake.

The over 500km journey started from Kuta in South Bali along the coast through Tabanan to Gilimanuk at the western tip of Bali (where ferries operate for Java) then onto Lovina Beach in the North and back across the mountains in the centre of the island southwards to Kuta. The journey took me three nights and four days of revelations. Of course the local wine did help me during this delightful ordeal.

When driving through Tabanan I lose my way and stop for directions at a Police Post. Before I could alight from the jeep a cop walks up to me and says, Kupu Kupu, while pointing to a road leading off to nowhere. I ask him what Kupu Kupu means and he waves his arms like he is in the Mardi gras parade. I figure that he is probably talking about a bird park. So I take a detour and head down the road to Kupu Kupu. I find it in Wanasari a small hamlet not far from the centre of Tabanan town. It turns out to be a butterfly park. I pay the Rupiah 50,000/- and enter the Park. It’s not really a park but a large area beautifully landscaped with flowering plants; water lilies, fountains and a “nursery” for the numerous chrysalises that have been neatly arranged like a clothesline. This exotic park is completely covered with a fine mesh to protect the denizens.

A cheerful Balinese girl, Nyoman, guides me through the mini labyrinth of walks while announcing the tongue twisting names of the butterflies. The place is swarming with butterflies in all shapes; sizes and colours flitting from flower to flower like young beautifully painted ballerinas. The experience is ethereal. I feel I am in Neverland with Peter Pan and his buddies. The sensation is soon lost as Nyoman hands me a Tarantula at the end of a long stick politely warning me not to let the Tarantula climb to the end that I was holding. There are other insects not so creepy like the Rhino beetle and the large Stick insects that are male and female in one, sort of unisex. Imagine a stick insect taking itself out on a Date! Nyoman didn’t see the humour in this remark.

Back on the road I meet the Kupu Kupu cop again who then gives me directions on how to get out of the town. In Bali the road signs have absolutely nothing to do with logic or for that matter the traffic.

The drive to Gilimanuk along the coast reminds me of a stretch of road between Bombay and Goa. There are large coconut groves all along the coast. The sea on the left is grey and the mountains on the right are carpeted in lush green vegetation.

A few kilometres short of Gilimanuk harbour I notice a sign, “ Welcome to Taman Nasional Bali Barat”. This was the National Park that so many locals had told me about at the warungs where I had stopped for a breather. A man walks up to me and introduces himself as a ‘Forest Guide’ named Bardi. He looks more like he is off to see a matinee show. His is wearing the famous Balinese Batik shirt. He asks for Rupiah 300,000/- to ‘guide’ me through he Park. I suggest Rupiah 50,000/-. We finally settle on Rupiah 100,000/-.

Bardi is a talkative chap. Like all good Balinese he questions me about my life, age, marriage, children, women and the odd Hindi film star. His loud voice frightens away a herd of Samba. I politely tell him to shut up and offer him one of my Ramayana Cigars. There is a muffled silence for the rest of the trip.

According to Bardi the park is either 19000 square acres or 19000 sq km. Apart from a small stretch of about 20km of dirt track, the authorities have kept most of the park out of bounds to all humans. I spot Wild Fowl, Eagles, Samba, Leaf Monkeys (large monkeys with long tails like Langurs except that these ones are dressed in black). Besides this the park is also home to Barking Deer, Salt Water Crocodiles, Commodore Dragons, the Spitting Cobras, King Cobras, Green Snakes, etc. Alas, the king of the jungle has left the place. The last Balinese Tiger was killed around the turn of the last century.

I am soon on my way to Lovina a few hours away. As I approach Lovina the fields look different. Gone are the rice fields and instead there are vineyards stretching for kilometres. Certain Bali companies make a special Balinese wine from these grapes. I recommend you try the Rose. It has a floral bouquet with a sweet after taste and is an acceptable table wine.

Lovina Beach is not really a beach. Unlike Kuta the beach is small and the sand is black. The coast is dotted with hotels, warungs and a large fleet of catamarans. I check into Bayu Kartika Beach Bungalows that is situated right on the beach. It’s a large property that has seen good days. The service if there was any is lack lustre and lethargic. I walk down to the local warung for dinner. Wayang the owner suggests I hire a boat the next morning to view the wild dolphins about 20 km off the coast. The price is fixed for Rupiah 150,000/-.

At six am next day Kadek the boatman wakes me up and soon we are heading out to sea along with many other catamarans laden with tourists. Behind us the sun is rising over the hills and the sea appears black. Suddenly a school of playful dolphins appear cruising between the boats, leaping and racing one another to the utter amazement of the onlookers. Sitting in the low-slung catamaran I can’t help but feel one with them. In the crisp morning air there is the sound of laughter, clapping and splashing. The whole show is like a well-choreographed dance, the stage being set between the boats and the backdrop the many hues of the rising sun. The dancers are almost humanlike denizens from the deep come up to meet their avatars. Kadek tells me that Lord Ganesha takes the form of a dolphin in the sea. I believe him. The beauty, the joy and the power these gracious creatures project could only come from divinity.

Chugging back to shore two adrenalin hours later I feel like I have just alighted from a giant wheel. My legs are woozy and my head bursts with excitement. Kadek points to a monument to dolphins on the shoreline. I now understand the reverence in which the Balinese hold dolphins.

The boatman informs me that there is a hotel a short drive away that has wild dolphins in its many swimming pools and that one can actually swim with them. I immediately check out of the depressing hotel I am staying in and drive to Melka Hotel about twenty minutes away but not before stopping by the Holy Hot Springs tucked away in the hills. The water from the spring inside a temple is piped through to a bathing area where people can bathe and seek the Almighty’s blessings.

At the hotel Karl Guenter Meyer a German who is married to a graceful Balinese called Mirah greets me. He has two angelic children. Karl and Mirah own and operate Melka Hotel. The sprawling grounds are home to wild dolphins, samba, barking deer, exotic birds and snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, porcupines and racoons. And by the way they also have over fifty tastefully decorated rooms (superior, deluxe) and one presidential suite.

The moment I meet him I am dragged to the swimming pools where the dolphins are kept. Karl informs me that the dolphins had been rescued from the fishermen’s nets in which they were caught and that he has a full time Vet on the staff to care for them.

There are three salt-water swimming pools in which the dolphins are kept; where children and adults can swim with them. The dolphins in pool one are named Ucil and Gombtoh. These two are very mischievous. As I stand near the pool to photograph them in training, Gombtoh sneaks up under water and suddenly splashes me.

In the other two pools are the three musketeers and an imaginatively named duo called Jack and John. John looks suspiciously like a Jane but I don’t mention it to my host and instead photograph them doing their act.

The rest of the menagerie is amazing. The sambas eat leaves from your hands. While monkeys gently hold your hand. The Porcupines are like lap dogs and the Barking deer a bit skittish. The small kangaroos from Irian Jaya are cuddly. But crocodiles are rather aloof. I wish someone could make them look a bit more active. I want to enter the large enclosure to wake them from their reverie but Karl thankfully dissuades me.

Karl is a true Indian Hindu. He has built the largest Ganesha in Asia on the hotel grounds.
The imposing structure has Lord Ganesha majestically seated on top. On the first floor is Lord Shiva and Ma Durga while the ground floor has a sacred Shiva lingam. He has a full time priest. As I enter a priest appears and lights a lamp and begins chanting hymns to the Lord Ganesha. He offers me Prasad and blesses me.

Karl narrates how he regularly visits his Indian Guru Mohan who lives near the hotel. He goes on to tell me that as a child in Germany he was fascinated by Lord Ganesha and would collect any image of his beloved god. His dream of honouring his god came true some years ago when he came to Bali looking for a bride and a home. He found his wife Mirah and with her started Melka Hotel. As his dream had come true he built the imposing statue of Lord Ganesha to honour his god who he first saw in Germany (as a six year old child) in the form of a small stone statuette. He patiently explains that Lord Ganesha’s avatar in the sea is the dolphin. This is why he had rescued the six dolphins and kept them safely in his large salt-water swimming pools. I tell him that his actions are good for his Karma. He doesn’t does say anything but grins like a Cheshire cat.

In Karl and Mirah I can see the intrinsic love for each other and for their environment. I jokingly suggest to Karl that his hotel should really be called the Menagerie Hotel. Karl nods in disapproval. Probably he hasn’t read My Family and Other Animals.

I thank Karl, Mirah and hug their two beautiful children Maharani and Mahaindra. As I drive out of the hotel with a lump in my throat it dawns on me that I had just witnessed a part of Bali I did not know existed. The wonders of true love between people of different races, colour, and religion all coming together in perfect harmony, like a symphony written by the dolphins.

I had just danced with the dolphins and didn’t know it.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om