Last week Laura and I took a trip to Bali, as she had a business deal to close and, I mean, who doesn't love going to Bali? Right before our trip, Mount Agung, which had been slowly boiling over for a few months, began spewing ash into the air and sending hot mud down the side of the mountain. The airports in Bali and Lombok were shuttered for a few days, stranding thousands of tourists and sparking some perhaps overzealous media coverage. A post on Medium used the headline "Escape from Bali during the volcanic eruption" to describe how a foreigner executed a daring, slow-motion 48-hour escape from the island. The highest drama from his account was when he got into a scrape with some shady taxi touts.
I will admit that before we left, I felt a bit apprehensive as I tried to recall as much of Dante's Peak as I could. But the reason I am writing this post is basically to say there is nothing to worry about (with regards to safety, that is - bad travel insurance policy, that's another story). Bali is totally safe as long as you remain outside the evacuation zone around Agung, and now is actually a pretty good time to go since the crowds have thinned out. So, let me recount for you my harrowing journey to Bali as it was seized in the throes of volcanic convulsions. Please be warned, it will primarily be a tale of me eating, drinking and driving around the countryside.
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Almost as soon as we touched down we made a bee-line to Ultimo in Seminyak which Laura had talked up for like a week as being the "best Italian restaurant in Bali." It lived up the hype. A course of oysters, salmon tartare, beef carpaccio, gnocchi and carbonara along with a bottle of wine and cheese platter came to 800,000 rupiah or approximately $60. And let me just be as honest as possible - this gnocchi was truly divine. It was velvety, rich and creamy. Each bite was like being hugged by an old childhood memory. I will never forget it.
The next morning I roused myself from bed well after noon, as it is possible - though I am neither confirming nor denying this - that I ended up drinking several bottles of wine. Lura and I made our way down to Double Six Beach in Kuta where we spent the afternoon sitting at a little table on the sand eating bakso and drinking beer. Double Six Beach is where you will usually find all the beach bums, back-packers, obese Russians and all the other detritus of Western civilization that has leeched into Bali. But it also has really gorgeous sunsets. There is something about the clouds on this beach. They form a line of puffy marshmallows on the horizon that are ignited in the most spectacular way as the sun sinks behind then.
Anyway, Laura claimed the bakso here was magic, and it was pretty good. But you can probably leave your wizard robe at home.
The next day we got up and cracked over to Tanah Lot, which is a famous temple because when the tide rolls in the temple is entirely surrounded by water. It is a very Instagrammable location. We came at pretty much the lowest point in the tide, so we missed out on the photo-op but that was OK because the temple is set in this really nice, shaded park overlooking little coves with cool rock formations. It's very relaxing. Tanah Lot would normally be a mad-house, as it's a popular destination for tours and tourists. But because tourist numbers are way down in Bali right now the place was not crowded at all and we were able to enjoy the little park and the gentle crash of the waves without too much human interference.
Oh yah, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that before we made it to Tanah Lot we stopped in Denpasar for some ayam betutu. If you've never had ayam betutu before, you really must. It will change your life. It's basically a whole chicken steamed, roasted or some times smoked. Before cooking it is smothered in a spice paste that truly embodies the flavors of Bali - galangal, garlic, chilies, shallots, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, coriander. It is rich, spicy, flavorful and just a beautiful must-eat if you're in Bali. Served with a side of sambal matah (the greatest sambal in the world) and plecing kangkung, it doesn't get more Balinese than that.
The following day I woke up with no pants on (don't ask) and we went for a picnic to the Bali Botanical Garden. Many people when they come to Bali get stuck in the beach bum lifestyle in Kuta, or they might go to Ubud to do yoga because that is the kind of weird shit white people do in foreign countries. But for me, a gentle aimless drive around the countryside is really a treat. Bali has beautiful and varied terrain. It has hulking volcanoes, gorgeous beaches splashed with strawberry sunsets, lush rice fields broken by palm trees and everything in between. As long as you have a sopir (driver) and you ignore the people driving on the wrong side of the road and frequently committing acts of almost-murder with their vehicles, than a drive through the Balinese countryside is one of life's great pleasures.
The Botanical Gardens are up in the mountains of North Bali, nestled between a bunch of volcanic caldera lakes. It is an absolutely beautiful park with gorgeous vistas and lots of shit for flower and plant-loving nerds like my Mom. We had planned on bringing some food and grilling it on a portable grill while sitting on the edge of a caldera lake, but it quickly became apparent that no one in our group knew how to make the grill work. We even enlisted the help of an old man who makes a living taking photos of people with the lake in the background. However, I began to have some doubts about Pak Photographer's qualifications when he immediately started waving the lighter around the nozzle of the gas canister.
We were thus forced to eat a banana we found in the garbage, enjoy the sights, and then turn around and head back down the mountain in shame. But this was actually not such a bad thing, because we stopped at a little tofu restaurant. Now, if you're in America you may be skeptical of tofu. It is something that vegetarians tend to talk about and try to pass off as meat while judging you. And much of the mass-produced tofu you find in major super markets is not very good. But tofu, like cheese, can be very complex when you put time and effort into developing it. This little mountain restaurant only made tofu, so they knew what they were doing. The tofu we tried had a wide variety of textures and a rich depth of flavors. Until you have tried real, serious tofu you can't call yourself a real, serious eater. It's like someone eating Kraft Singles and thinking that is what all cheese tastes like. Preposterous.
Later that night, we arrived at our final destination of the evening: an all-you-can-eat buffet in a high-end resort tucked away on Nusa Dua. The buffet was pretty good, but I always feel some measure of anxiety at a buffet because you need to plan your strategy carefully or risk fucking everything up. By the end of the night I was extremely, almost uncomfortably full and I had weird dreams. I will say this though. I have never in my life seen someone eat so many oysters as I did at that buffet.
So that pretty much brought out time in Bali to a close. We of course ended up eating some babi guling (roast pig) and ayam taliwang (spicy Lombok-style roasted chicken) and pork satay washed down with Bintang because how can you not? It was a great trip and I am glad I only live 1 hour away by plane. Throughout our stay there was no overt evidence of the eruption or imminent danger, and the island is totally safe (if you're not near the evacuation zone, of course).
I feel for the tens of thousands of villagers that have been displaced (and I had some water filters shipped to Karangasem near the volcano to ease my conscience), but I also think it's important to overindulge in the natural disaster coverage of the eruption. This is a big and serious volcanic event, and travel plans should be considered soberly, but the island of Bali is not about to explode. A big eruption is possible, even likely, but the worst thing that could happen is your flight will get cancelled or delayed, requiring a detour by bus and ferry to Surabaya on Java to catch another international flight.
On the other hand, if your travel plans are flexible, or you are up for a bit of adventure, now is actually a great time to visit Bali. Crowds are about half what they would normally be, the island is safe, and it is still as beautiful and fun as it always is. Moreover, the economy in Bali relies heavily on tourism so this volcano will do serious damage if it keeps erupting like this and keeping visitors away (the last eruption in 1963 lasted about a year). The holiday season in Bali is typically one of the busiest so this may be the only time in our lives when Bali is actually fairly empty and relaxed during the high season. So why not seize the moment, and help juice the economy? I know I will be going back soon.