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Bali, Indonesia  |  October 24, 2000

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Straddling the Wallace Line, continued
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Our heads spinning with potential material purchases, we luckily reached Ubud. Known as the cultural heart of Bali, it is the place to sample Balinese dance, art, puppetry, food, and spa treatments. Will and I partook liberally. Everything was in walking distance of our second-floor room with a brick porch overlooking rice paddies, a pool and tropical gardens buzzing with colorful birds. Hip tourist shops and restaurants lined the major street, Monkey Forest Road. Although a bit contrived and too similar to quaint towns like Carmel, California, we did have a marvelous time.

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One morning we walked over to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Small moss covered Hindu temples lie hidden amongst ancient Banyan trees. Monkeys stretched out in the sun while they snacked on coconuts. After our stroll, we treated ourselves to a two hour spa treatment: one hour of deep muscle message, a whole body scrub, yogurt wash, and scented bath. In the evening, we attended a dance performance at the Ubud palace courtyard. Beautiful women worshipped demons. Witches possessed entire towns. Giant dragons saved the day. Afterwards, we dined seated on pillows under a private thatched roof in the middle of fountain and flower bedecked gardens. A festival dish of duck smoked for twelve hours in betel leaves was served.

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Ubud was beautiful and decadent, but we still were eager to discover 'Bali'. Minutes north of Ubud, we began to spot the terraced rice paddies that the island is famed for. Giants steps carpeted with the lushest green shag were carved out of the mountainside. Mists hung in valleys. Brightly covered women stooped to impregnate the fertile soil with seedlings. I could not help but contemplate though, that from under the tightly bound and cultivated earth a wildly majestic jungle longed to be liberated.

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Volcanoes gave shape to the island, richness to its soil, and legends to the inhabitants. Will and I drove around Gunung Agung and climbed Gunung Batur. Both erupted violently in the twentieth century, and the explosions were interpreted as violent reactions from angry Gods. At the crater rim of Gunung Batur, vegetation became sparse. As we headed for the top, lava fields of black crust and dry yellow weeds replaced grass and trees.

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A young sprightly descendent of villagers that survived Batur's eruption guided us towards the crater's summit. We panted and struggled up the sandy slope. Each time I thought we had made it to the top, another precipice appeared above. Finally, exhausted from a supposed 45-minute jaunt that turned into a 2.5-hour grueling climb, we were rewarded. 360-degree views of the crater, lake and surrounding countryside
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and tea made from volcanic steam reinvigorated us. Our guide showed us places to take a steam bath, strangely crackling rocks and volcanic flowers. We were the only ones on or near the smoldering site.

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After sliding down the sandy volcanic slopes of Batur, we headed for the sea. Coastal Balinese homes were decorated with colorful flowers, rattan towers to the spirit world and thickly thatched miniature spirit houses. People smiled as we drove by. Each town seemed to be celebrating something. Locals decorated in their finery flowed in and out of similarly adorned temples.

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The accessible beaches on the north, though, were chock-a-block with tacky establishments catering to the backpacker set. The beaches themselves were equally uninspiring. Dive shops demonstrated no knowledge or care for the natural environment.

Instead of staying at the beach, we decided to stay one night in the jungle. Hot springs heated by nearby volcanoes were pumped through dragon spouts into a pool created for sultans in the 1800's. We soaked in the therapeutic water gazing at the tropical landscape that would soon only be a memory. From our lovely penthouse balcony next to the springs, we looked out over the treetops of palms, papaya and evergreens.

Towards those final days, it felt odd to be living a dream that you knew the exact moment you would be waking up, or growing up. Astounding, beautiful, shocking, touching, exhilarating we had experienced all we had hoped and more. At the same time we were ready to pack in our backpacks and reconnect with family and friends.

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At the turn of millennium, people are still beautifully diverse. A multitude of faces, costumes, customs, cuisine, religions and architecture awaited in each country, city and region. Yes, McDonalds, MTV, Coke and Starbucks often had a presence, but each location still had its own distinct flavor.

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The real tragedy is that we are rapidly destroying the diversity of the natural beauty that surrounds us. Will and I were luckily able to view parts of Asia in it's glorious natural state: underwater in Thailand, on the Sun Khosi river in Nepal, in the Malaysian jungle, on the Tibetan Plateau, in the mountains of Lao, and so many other places. On numerous occasions, though, I felt that the earth was being suffocated. Civilization is not so slowly cultivating, developing and encroaching on the natural landscape and the beautiful species that exist in its shrinking boarders.

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