Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Alone at last: the hours dissolve in Amed [January 12]

Travel blog: Away from digital distractions, I discovered a different kind of meditation amongst the outriggers of Aas Beach…

Once you start noticing the piles, they’re everywhere you look, in all shapes and sizes. Driving from the crowded Balinese capital of Denpasar towards the north east coast, I start to count all the different types of objects heaped up by humans on the side of the road.

There are piles of bricks and cement bags, sawdust and tiles, timber and kindling and peanuts and rice and stone carvings and religious offerings of rainbow-hued flower petals. And on the heads of women, balanced magically in reed baskets, there are teetering towers of palm fronds and fresh fish, fruits and vegetables. So many piles of stuff that is being made into other stuff, or that no one has figured out what to do with yet, or to be offered up as appeasements to the Heavenly Rulers of All Stuff.

We Australians often worry about the amount of stuff we create and consume, but we are not alone in these habits of heaping and hoarding. Many of these piles are destined for the building sites that, in spite of the terrorist bombings, are still springing up all around Bali. New hotels, shopping centres, schools and houses are chewing up former rice paddies and tropical jungles to accommodate the ever-swelling population of this island of six million people.

It’s my first trip to Bali in twenty years and I’m determined to avoid the heaving tourist centres in the south. Kuta is a hazy memory of Australians behaving badly, and a friend has instructed me to head straight to Amed where, he assures me, the Balinese still live traditional lives in spite of the influx of foreigners.

My driver, a hotel manager called Agus, speaks wistfully of how the island was two decades ago. ‘We used to share things, be collective, but now we are all individuals and everyone wants to go to McDonalds.’ Agus has worked in Seminyak for ten years but is planning to return to his rural village when he is old. ‘There, if you have no food, your neighbour will feed you.’

As we pass through the coastal villages north of Denpasar I stop counting the piles and begin noticing how the jungle creeps back in, trying to re-colonise the space being taken over by building sites; great flowering vines of greenery stretching up and over and through everything, in a race to re-claim the land.

Agus points out a distant mountain that he climbed with his wife when they were newly-weds. They were making a pilgrimage to a temple near the mountaintop, and after their prayers the young couple camped overnight behind the temple. They awoke to find the mountain ringed by dark clouds and the rain falling heavily – but only below them – while the peak remained clear and cloudless at dawn.

The journey to Amed takes three hours and as we turn south-east along the winding coast road I look for signs for Meditasi Bungalows. Meditasi is Indonesian for ‘meditation’, and I hope the name doesn’t imply an expectation that guests will be rising at dawn to contemplate the nature of existence. Having never been into meditation (too impatient), I’m not planning to start now.

The steep coastal landscape is reminiscent of Italy’s Amalfi coast, but where every hairpin bend on the Sorrentine Peninsula reveals a whitewashed town dissected by cobbled streets, Amed’s villages of thatched huts hide demurely under coconut palms. Meditasi is the last ‘resort’ on the road that winds through the village of Aas Beach, and the entrance is hidden down the end of a steep driveway. The manager, Prapta, greets me with a relaxed smile and shows me to my palm-thatched bungalow, one of only four in this small complex. The bungalows have been cannily designed for maximum exposure to nature and minimum exposure to other people. We enter through a private stone-walled garden littered with fragrant frangipani flowers (which doubles as the outdoor bathroom) and climb some winding stone steps to the back door.

The hut is a single spacious room with a double bed and a large balcony overlooking the shimmering sea. Surrounded by pink bougainvillea, the balcony has a second bed for relaxing on during the daytime. Perfect.

Or not. ‘Of course you probably know that we have no internet connection or mobile phone reception here’, says Prapta, and my heart skips a couple of beats. Five days alone in a bamboo hut with no means of communication with the outside world. Suddenly the hours seem to pile up in front of me, empty and aimless. No gossip from friends and family, no online news outlets to keep me in the loop, and no vehicle to drive myself back along the coast to find a phone signal. How will I get through the long humid days?

I’m still in a state of mild panic as I head down to the black sandy beach with my snorkel and goggles. Meditasi is perched on a half-moon bay about 500 metres long and bounded by rocky outcrops. There are dozens of white outriggers pulled up above the tide-line and I clamber around them to find a patch of clear sand. A couple of fishermen are mending nets in the shade but the beach is otherwise deserted. Timing is everything when you enter the water here, dodging between small but powerful waves and watching out for submerged rocks.

I launch out into the deeper water and suddenly, right there below me, is the alternative universe of a coral reef. Clouds of brilliant aquamarine fish swerve away at my approach, and a couple of clownfish rush for refuge to an anemone. The coral shows signs of wear and tear from the outrigger traffic but the variety of different fish promises days of entertainment.

Back on the beach, I am joined by a small gang of local Balinese children aged between six and sixteen. We chat in phrases of two or three words (‘beach good yes’) and then they gather a pile of smooth grey stones and place them in front of me. Under instruction from the eldest boy, they make a series of ‘hotels’ by placing the stones in neat lines in the sand and decorating them with small shells from the shoreline.

The children belong to the families who own the one hundred fishing boats on Aas Beach that go out to sea around 4:30 every morning. Over the next few days it becomes my habit to wake just after dawn to watch the fishermen return to shore, the flotilla of outriggers gliding landwards like waterborne spiders crouched on the surface of the stippled sea.

The beach is narrow and one day I ask a young local called Wayan if he worries about the prospect of rising sea levels. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘because there will be nowhere to put the boats, and without the boats, no fishing and no food’. There are a thousand fishing boats on the Amed coast and their owners also worry about tsunamis. Wayan tells me he feels safe, though, because he lives between two important Hindu temples and prays to the gods every day to make sure the sea is not angry.

I spend the daytime hours reading novels on my sunny balcony, snorkeling on the reef, eating small mountains of nasi goreng at the Meditasi restaurant and having massages. Late afternoons, when the heat recedes, I walk north or south along the coastal road, peering at the carved temples in the villages and nodding to the women who salt baskets of fresh fish and hang them under the thatched eaves of their huts. One afternoon I see a huge pile of straw propped high up between the forks of a dead tree, an ingenious feedlot system for the agile goats who bleat from the side of the road.

And somehow, in the absence of the usual digital distractions, those mountains of empty hours dissolve and flow past in a smooth stream of pleasure. Solitude produces its own meditative trance, and I revel in the opportunity to do just one thing at a time, giving it my full attention. On the fifth day, as I take my last stroll along the beach front, I’m reassured to see that those little rock ‘hotels’ piled up neatly in the sand are still standing, safe and sound above the tide-line.