Sonrisa misses me, I know it. I promised her I would get her up and running, and back in the water as soon as I possibly could. But, the fact of the matter is, visa runs are non-negotiable. So, when our visa ran out, I promised Sonrisa we wouldn’t have any fun without her. Nope, no exploring, no fun. All I want to do anyway is to lay facedown – preferably atop a cushioned ice block - with a beer in my hand while an Indonesian grandmother tenderizes my lower back with a meat cleaver.
So far, my plans have been thwarted.
On our last day in the highlands, our taxi driver takes his life in his own hands by trying to corral me in the parking lot. A man standing between our bungalow and my breakfast table? Not wise. He’s waving the laminated tour sheet in my direction attempting to squeeze in one more, last minute, must do, tour attraction. I speed right on by, letting Leslie block while I slip through the gap like a wide-receiver.
“Maybe a paddle on the lake?” I hear her say, “A paddle on the lake sounds nice. Let us eat breakfast first.”
“No.” I tell her, as I spoon the last of my strawberry jam onto toast. “We’ve been here almost five days, and I have not had a single massage, yet. I thought we were coming here to relax!”
“You tell him we aren’t going anywhere today, then.” Leslie says.
I will. You bet I will. I didn’t come to Indonesia, the land of $7.00 massages to spend all my time spinning circles on the taxi circuit. I am one spilled Bintang bottle away from a tantrum. You see, I spent the first three months of this year being stomped on by tiny Thai ladies at least once per day, sometimes twice per day. But Sonrisa ripped me from this happy place and installed me in a boat yard where I get no massages. I am a baby out of bathwater. Don’t test me.
“I’m not going anywhere today, unless it is to get a massage.” I tell the taxi driver as we reluctantly emerge from the dining room to find him still blocking our path.
“Okay, okay, I know a perfect spot. Let me make a call.” He calls someone from the Taxi Mafia who reserves us a spot at god-knows-where. I am placated, and so I hop into the backseat of the taxi. Leslie follows behind.
Swerving down the roads, we make a right hand turn into an ally squeezed between cinder block walls not wide enough for the car to fit down. Our taxi driver reaches out of his windows and folds the side view mirrors down. We just fit. We pass a vegetable garden, and a little house with a Grandma shelling peanuts. Then, the road gets even narrower and we can no longer get through. There is an open grassy patch to the side, so our taxi driver pulls in and parks. “We have to walk a little way further.” The further we get from the beaten path, the more hopeful I become.
We disembark our vehicle and continue on foot until we arrive at a “homestay”. There is the main home/house of the people who own the place and a gate welcoming you into their land. In the center of several buildings, there is a courtyard with a Buddha statute, chimes, and incense that smells of jasmine. The owner leads us to a series of picnic tables perched on a deck built out over a cliff. Here, the view opens up to overlook a stretching valley of rice fields. Several little bungalows are built in layers down the side of this same cliff, and at the bottom is a small pool with a disappearing edge. It’s a gorgeous property, obviously hand built over the years by the people who live there.
“Wow! We should have stayed here!” Leslie says.
“Yeah, especially if they have massages.”
We are offered a tea, and when the massage therapists arrive we are led down a stair pathway, then tucked into an open air, three sided canvas tent. The open side of the tent leaves the rice field in a wide view. An irrigation river gurgles past the massage tent, rolling steadily downward to water the rice fields and also provide ambiance for the massage tent.
“Now, we are talking.” I disrobe and find my place on the table. Leslie is still pantomiming instructions with regard to her injured back as I am being slathered with a layer of coconut oil and vanilla. “AHHHHHHHhhhhhh!” With my eyes closed, I notice there is also a bamboo wood wind chime clunking its hollow song to the rhythm of the wind and that is all. I melt into a puddle of gak on the table.
“You’re having a beer after a massage?” Leslie nags.
“Detox to retox!” I explain, but I reach across the table and twiddle my fingers in a series – my unspoken marital sign-language of “…but can I have a taste of your mango smoothie?” She pushes her smoothie my direction.
Off in the distance, a belch of smoke puffs out of the mouth of the Agung Dragon.
My vacation has started.
We enjoy a traditional Balinese favorite of crispy roasted duck, broth, braised greens and pumpkin, Balinese sambal (like a salsa, but with lime juice, lemongrass, torch ginger flower, shrimp paste, and purple onions instead of tomato), and rice, of course. Can’t go without rice!
Now I am well fed, that paddle around the lake doesn’t sound too bad. We turn our taxi driver around and descend the swerving roads to a lake bubbling with the local vacation crowd. Zooming around a race course outlined by buoys, overfilled ski boats with numerous outboard motors threaten to swamp and topple over with every curve. I’d much rather take a rickety traditional fishing canoe steadily leaking water through a nail hole that has rusted through. Leslie will no doubt keep us bailed out and dry while I paddle.
I paddle my ship out into the fray. There is something I enjoy about switching between the calm of my bamboo chime, rice terrace massage to the frenetic pace of this scene with the ski boats, the Balinese Temple selfie tour, next to the mosque singing it’s 3 p.m. prayer, and a sky flapping with the sound of kites. Alternately I squint my eyes into the sun, until a cloud rolls over and lays a mist over our revelry. It’s like a an Affagato, an espresso shot over vanilla ice cream. Hot and cold, busy and calm. I feel like it’s a great day for the end of our Balinese Highland Tour.
Where to next?
We don’t have a plan, yet.
While there are a few schools of thought with regard to exactly how long we need to stay out of Malaysia, we have decided to stay away ten days so we know for sure we have met all the requirements for getting our visas renewed. It has been five days here in the highlands, and now we have to decide where to go next. Leslie has been showing me a series of five star hotels on the edge of a cliff side. But, no. Their massages are far too expensive for me.
“I just want to go back to Ubud, eat pizza, drink beer, and get at least one massage every single day.” Maybe she thinks I’m kidding. “This is the spa-cation vacation!”
I book a bungalow in Ubud for $22.00 per night.
The next morning, the taxi driver is still waving his laminated itinerary in my direction, but I refuse to say one thing about it. “Take me to Ubud.” Leslie asks him where we might be able to find a good traditional shirt like the Indonesian men wear, and he offers to take her to the knickknack emporium an hour and a half out of our way. I furrow my brows in her direction, and she has the good sense to decline.
Upon arrival, we tuck our things into the Bungalow, and I am pleased to find my ability to read Yelp Reviews is serving me well. This time, my strategy has provided a room that looks like we have a whole house to ourselves. We have a kitchen, bedroom, living room, restroom and HUGE open air, roof covered patio where I will sit each morning and watch the neighbor’s cantankerous cow who never goes where he is supposed to when asked. In the evenings, a nearby hotel has outdoor concerts or plays, and we can listen to a symphonic performance of traditional Balinese gong, chimes and flute music from our patio. Down a stone mosaic pathway, we find a beautiful little swimming pool with the view of a river. A statue of Ganesh watches over swimmers’ safety. It is a perfect home base for the next few days.
What is my secret? I always find the cheapest property with a 4-Star review and complaints about the slow internet.
Once I have Leslie settled in for some computer work, it is time for me to do the real reconnaissance I am here to accomplish. “I’m going to go find a good place for a massage. Be back in an hour or so!”
I poke my head into the spa I had chosen based upon a similar yelp review strategy, and they take me back for a massage. Unfortunately, my spa review strategy isn’t yet as refined and this massage was terrible. I waited out a full hour, handed over my seven dollars, and commit never to return. Defeated, I return to the bungalow to do more research.
“Did you find one?” Leslie asks.
“No, it wasn’t good.”
“You already had a massage!?” She asks.
“Well, how am I supposed to know if a place is good if I don’t take it for a test drive?” Leslie shakes her head, but I know, she knows I’m right. I scroll through my prior search and find my second choice.
“Where are we going?” She asks.
“To find a good massage. A bad massage is like getting no massage at all.”
My last five days in Ubud went just as I planned. We ate delicious Balinese food for $2.00 per person for dinner! We had a pizza night, a burger night, and EVERY night is gelato for dessert. For the first three days, I got a massage every single day. Then, facing the fact that I am about to live through another affordable massage-drought, I upped the ante and enjoyed both body scrub AND a massage the last two days. Leslie worked her way through a series of beautifying treatments: toes, fingernails, hair mask, facial, and on the last day, a massage and a facial.
I also got my “hairs did.”
And, because I am such a great, repeat customer the spa threw in my very first rose petal bath.