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East Coast Tour of Bali with 'Scottish John', February 8th to 13th

Today I traded in one of my two "comfort" t-shirts I have worn loyally since the very beginning of the trip. Three months of subjection to dirt and grime have taken their toll. But in the words of Vinnie Jones of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, "it was emotional".

Time to recap...

I celebrated my 25th birthday. A quarter of a century. But what's in a number? Canadian Tammy from Byron Bay, Australia, surprised me with a slice of delicious carrot cake, (from TutMaks, the best eatery in town) dripping with chocolate icing under the blaze of candles. That evening a friend from Uni arrived in Bali for a visit, witty and womanizing, Scottish John.

With some gentle "encouragement" John hired a mountain bike in Ubud and we plotted a tour of the east coast. Procrastination ensued and by the time we had kitted up with supplies and motivated ourselves into action, the afternoon rains had set in. Where was the sun?!? Undeterred, we persevered onwards and after a fast and manic ride on the hyper-busy main road, swerving around traffic and dodging trucks belching out dark fumes like evil smoke machines, the pace quietened down and the rains eased.

We stopped for the night in Padangbai, a small coastal village with clear waters and colourful fishing boats pulled up on the beach. There was plenty of hustle and bustle in this village as it is from here that the ferry to the neighbouring island of Lombok departs. Like many coastal fishing villages in Bali, Padangbai is predominantly Muslim. It wasn't long before we were hounded down by local children and coerced into buying animal-pencils and postcards.

We feasted on fresh fish in a "warung" overlooking the sea. Warungs are cheap and basic restaurants perfect for a big feed after a day's ride. The next morning we were awoken at dawn by the chanting from the mosque and snorkelled at a neighbouring beach, the Blue Lagoon. The name speaks for itself... Unable to resist a fresh fish lunch, it was suddenly midday again and time to leave in the heat of sun. The ride to Tirtaganga, our next pit-stop, involved long uphill slogs and we arrived hot and dehydrated, battling under the oppressive sun. Where was the rain?!?

Tirtaganga is home to the Royal Pools, a peaceful palace with ornamental swimming areas. Beautiful rice paddy fields sweep out into the distance like an enormous patchwork quilt. This area is known to have some of the finest paddy fields in Bali and as we cycled on, postcard-perfect terraced rice fields intricately cut by hand, dropped sharply down to our side. "In credit" from the previous day's ride, we enjoyed long downhills through the fields, mountains to one side and workers building these works of art on the other.

It felt good to be cycling with somebody else again and the pace was fast. Children sprang from nowhere to greet us with ultra-enthusiastic cries of "hallo!" Others seemed to be waiting by the side of the road at an optimum advantage spot. It felt like they were cheering us on while we, neck and neck in the Tour de France, battled for the covetted yellow jersey!

The days generally alternate between a build up of heat and humidity followed by a blast of rain. These fat droplets strike the hot bitumen so suddenly that a layer of rising steam is created. During one episode, we saw a Balinese boy cycling along "wearing" an enormous LEAF, poncho-style, glossy from the rain; having cut a hole for his head to fit through, the rest was draped over his handlebars and body. I sometimes feel distinctly UNadventurous merely cycling unhindered by any object teetering precariously on the bike. Whether its a couple of kids squeezed up front, a few ducks nonchalantly popped under the arm like a morning newspaper or a pile of banana leaves stacked so high that all that can be seen is a little head and two legs pushing up and down, the Balinese get the most from their bikes.

Our next destination was Amed, a small coastal community with black volcanic sand beaches. Relatively untouched by tourism, there are no phone lines and fishing and salt extraction are the main industries. By now the road had deteriorated badly; it was strewn with potholes and hurried repairs. DISASTER struck. John's bike gave out an ominous "ping" and suddenly he was down, from a potential 14 gears, to just the two: fast and slow. The road had become very steep as it followed the coast, rising sharply over each headland and then plummeting down on the other side. Moments later, Possum's chain snapped and slithered off the chainring. The tool I needed was back in Ubud... I too was down to pushing power. Snapping a chain is no big problem with the right tool, a small device known as a chain brake. I approached a local passerby and after a detailed hand gestured explanation of the nature of this gadget he nodded enthusiastically and set off into the distance. He returned with a large hammer and set of pliers... It was raining again and we felt a little miserable.

But the God of bicycle mishaps was sparing us as we were just around the corner from our planned stop, a group of bungalows owned by the family of Baba, a legend of a man with two wives. Tired and dishearted we decided to leave our problems for the next day. That evening we sampled Arak, a local brew of coconut wine with honey, and with the help of two Americans, Julie and Carrie, taught the locals some drinking games.

The following day the sun shone and gave everything a different perspective. The bungalow, which stood magnificently on tall stilts, was bamboo themed and overlooked the beach where fishermen were returning from early morning catches. The open bathroom... Sitting on the loo, a lizard might scurry past or a butterfly flicker by. Vying for space with large leaved plants under the shower, water gushing from a bamboo pipe, standing on a floor made up of big rounded pebbles. The sea before us was crystal clear and the reef just a few metres out. We spent the morning investigating a Japanese wreck from WW2 covered in coral and then were forced to backtrack by bus to Ubud... some of us happier about this turn of events than others. That evening we argued the Scottish/English divide and discussed the relative merits of "travelling". We came to the unhappy conclusion that visiting parts of the world where the majority of population will never have the chance for a reciprocal visit can sometimes leave an uncomfortable feeling.

Returning to Kuta it was suddenly the big city again. "Welcome to the jungle bro," a Balinese rasta called out. Soundbites resound off every street corner: trrransporrrt/helloboss/hashish/marijuana. We went out with Tammy to sample the night life. Leaving each place we would feel our arms tugged at by street kids, excuses to wrap their dextrous fingers round a watch... Young girls stood on show for the passers-by, sheltering under balconies to escape the rain. Women with babies tucked under their arms surrounded us and held out their hands... It's hard to know how to deal with such blatant poverty side by side with the wealth of tourism and we walked home lost in our own thoughts...

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