Gunung Penulisan, Bali's third-highest volcano, towered broodingly above us, burned almost white by the tropical heat, with the green of the paddies and the bright colors of the peasants in startling contrast.
The terraced fields groped for footholds as they straggled up the precipitous slope. The air was heavy and humid. Far below we could see the brilliant china-blue sea where a cooling equatorial breeze would be blowing ashore like a benediction, carrying with it the breath of perfumed air. Our bicycle ride had become a grueling challenge.
Suddenly, the top . . . a narrow downhill defile . . . and straight ahead, the ancient, weathered shrines of Pura Tegeh Koripan, Bali's highest temple, backed by great lava ridges descending like dragon backs into the crater, with its silvery lake and black smoking peak. Beyond lay manicured green plains and blue seas and far-off Lombok island, with its own smoldering mountains.
Gasping for breath after the steep climb, we rested atop the volcano's crater rim and marveled at the impossible beauty of the scene.
The world drops away quickly in Bali. A benign enchantment takes the place of matters which once seemed of utmost importance.
At first glance this volcanic equatorial island, one of 13,677 which make up the Indonesian archipelago, does not seem like a place for a bicycle tour. Bali rarely experiences temperatures below 85 degrees. It receives rain most afternoons. It is humid enough to give one's hair a natural perm. The roads are narrow and bumpy. And the island is dominated by high-reaching mountains, which rise inland like curves in a mathematical drawing.
In fact, Bali is heaven-made for cycling, as I discovered last April when I circled the lush equatorial island with Backroads Bicycle Touring. The island is blessed with cooling onshore breezes year-round. There are very few bugs and mosquitoes and few cars or trucks outside the main towns. And the shortest trip from one place to the next is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected vignettes.
Our 12-day, 260-mile journey began at the Eden-like Bali Hyatt on Sanur Beach, the island's luxury resort area. After catching some rays by the hotel's grotto pool, I joined my 21 fellow tour guests in the hotel parking lot, where we were outfitted with our 18-speed Schwinn touring bikes, flown in from California by Backroads. (Backroads has since replaced its touring bikes with mountain bikes.)
Our trip began with an easy warm-up ride across the flat coastal plain from Sanur to Kuta. The air was languid and sweetened by fragrant acacia and jasmine. A bewitching sea breeze rippled the rice paddies, carrying on its soft breath the tremulous notes of temple gongs and delicate wind chimes. I found myself quickly seduced into Bali's leisurely cadence and a way of life immune to the modern world.
" Allo . . .!" " Allo . . .!" A happy voice chimed. "Where you go?"
An old man with willowy body and long, epicene face, emerged from behind a mossy wall, preceded by a large flock of ducks which he was leading to feed in the paddies. They waddled en masse, steered by a long bamboo pole tipped by a red flag which the old man held out in front. "Quacking!" in chorus, they did a quick turn and slid down an embankment into the fields.
Unlike Sanur Beach, Kuta is a "people's" resort--a place for surf, sand and cheap food. Australians descend here in droves. My memories are of souvenir shops, mangy dog packs and persistent hawkers, including chirping massage girls who for a few cents will rub your cares away on the beach. I was glad to get away into the countryside, where serendipity brought unexpected rewards.
Beyond Marga, the roads were lined with tall, swaying bamboos, penjors , woven from palm leaves and flowers. A group of women glided by, carrying lofty pyramids of fruit and blossoms on their heads. They were gorgeously costumed and bewitchingly pretty, golden skinned, with frangipani worn in glossy black hair. Ahead, they turned off the road and headed into the fields. The temptation was irresistible: We hunched our bikes onto our shoulders and merged into the stream of heavenly beauties.
"Please, wait here," warned a sprightly eyed maiden before disappearing through a candi bentar , the split gate entrance of a small, mossy temple which lay hidden amid the rice fields. Moments later, she shyly beckoned us into the temple through another gateway guarded by statues of fierce looking giants.
The women erupted in giggles and squeals of delight as we knelt down beside them on the grass. Wisps of incense curled through the air like filigree ribbons of muslin. Offerings of flowers and fruit were laid out beneath thatched pagodas known as merus , where three serene priests were seated like Buddhas.
We sat to the side, mesmerized, as a pemangkyu , temple priest, began to recite powerful mantras, which were answered with soft chants of praise. Then the priest moved among us, sprinkling holy water as a blessing and purification. I held out my hands. The priest smiled gently, then gracefully brushed holy water onto my palms.
We picked up our cycles and moved off into the half-light, warmed by our benediction and cheery goodbys: "Selamat jalan!" . . . "Selamat jalan!"
You can't escape religion in Bali. It lies at the core of the island's identity, regulating the plan of a town, the order of a home, the daily routine of behavior. Every village has at least three temples, every family its own temple, every intersection a demon statue to ward off evil spirits who might seek to cause accidents. Bali's 210-day calendar created eons ago around the growing cycle of rice, charts almost daily religious rituals.
The Balinese practice a unique form of Hindu dharma that blends Hinduism, Buddhism and ancestor worship with a deeply ingrained sense of animism. Here, spirits are granted the same needs as people. There is no self-conscious solemnity, no penances, no punishing gods. Balinese religion is a joyous manifestation.
Cycling helps bridge the time warp between the rush of the west and Bali's benign calm.
We cycled at our own pace, lingering here for a photo, pausing there to admire Bali's ethereal landscapes: its silvery sheets of water and brilliant green rice terraces ascending the mountains like emerald-carpeted stairways to the gods.
The whole landscape--as carefully crafted and contoured as any piece of stone sculpture--has been molded to rice growing. Each individual plot of rice, sawah , is irrigated and contained by dykes of black earth, one flowing into the next like folds of green silk.
That night we slept a slumber of spiritual contentment at the Bedugul Hotel, which perches on the rim of Gunung Catur volcano, overlooking a platinum lake. Hungry as vultures, we feasted on an Indonesian banquet of suckling pig, delicious spiced seafoods and gado-gado , the national dish of steamed green beans, soybeans, potatoes and bean sprouts covered with a rich, spicy peanut sauce.
While we ate, a mystical gamelan orchestra played haunting, discordant tunes, while young dancers with exquisite features and seductive miens entertained us with the traditional legong and barong legends, and Rayamana ballet, their slender fingers shivering as gently as falling rose petals.
I arose at dawn and watched the mists lift off the tiered pagodas of Uludana temple: inspiration for the exhilarating ride down the mountains to Singaraja and the north coast, where we spent a night at Lovina in a traditional losmen (guest house) with rooms fashioned of brick and ceilings of woven palm.
"Be sure to drink at least two liters of water before noon," our tour leader Darren Armor warned us as we prepared to tackle 5,758-foot Gunung Penulisan on day six. "If you haven't finished both water bottles by noon you'll regret it on the climb of the volcano."
Five of us suffered up the mountain that day while eyes watched us from the safe shade. The rest wisely hopped aboard the "sag" van provided for tourists too weary to pedal.
When morning came, everything appeared delightful. The climate felt delicious, the heavens so clear and blue with the sun shining brightly, that all nature seemed sparkling with life. We whisked downhill to Balina Beach for two days of well-earned rest on the coral-lined coast.
Here, we snorkeled, sunbathed, swam and watched colorful outrigger prahus with triangular sails come ashore, the sun silvering the splash of fish caught in their nets.
The energetic among us took short day trips: to Goa Lawah, the sacred Bat Cave, where the noise of a million alarmed squeaks sounds like rushing water; the pretty walled village of Tenganan, where we bargained for "flaming cloth" Ikat weavings and the water palace at Tirtagangga, where we swam in pools fed by clear mountain streams.
Suitably rested, we cycled west through lush river gorges to Ubud, a conglomerate of villages which form the cultural heart of the nation. Bali's most accomplished artists, performers and craftsmen live here.
In Celuk, I watched young boys and girls craft exquisite jewelry. In Mas, I heard the tap-tap, like a toy percussion orchestra, of young artists carving exquisite statues and masks.
That night--our last--we flirted, danced and sat around drinking Bintang beer, pursuing the fireflies of our recollection as the real fireflies flew by and the geckos called from the eaves.