UBUD, Indonesia — Gunung Penulisan, Bali's third-highest volcano, towered broodingly above us, burned almost white by the tropical heat, with the green of the paddies and the bright colors of the peasants in startling contrast.
The terraced fields groped for footholds as they straggled up the precipitous slope. The air was heavy and humid. Far below we could see the brilliant china-blue sea where a cooling equatorial breeze would be blowing ashore like a benediction, carrying with it the breath of perfumed air. Our bicycle ride had become a grueling challenge.
Suddenly, the top . . . a narrow downhill defile . . . and straight ahead, the ancient, weathered shrines of Pura Tegeh Koripan, Bali's highest temple, backed by great lava ridges descending like dragon backs into the crater, with its silvery lake and black smoking peak. Beyond lay manicured green plains and blue seas and far-off Lombok island, with its own smoldering mountains.
Gasping for breath after the steep climb, we rested atop the volcano's crater rim and marveled at the impossible beauty of the scene.
The world drops away quickly in Bali. A benign enchantment takes the place of matters which once seemed of utmost importance.
At first glance this volcanic equatorial island, one of 13,677 which make up the Indonesian archipelago, does not seem like a place for a bicycle tour. Bali rarely experiences temperatures below 85 degrees. It receives rain most afternoons. It is humid enough to give one's hair a natural perm. The roads are narrow and bumpy. And the island is dominated by high-reaching mountains, which rise inland like curves in a mathematical drawing.
In fact, Bali is heaven-made for cycling, as I discovered last April when I circled the lush equatorial island with Backroads Bicycle Touring. The island is blessed with cooling onshore breezes year-round. There are very few bugs and mosquitoes and few cars or trucks outside the main towns. And the shortest trip from one place to the next is guaranteed to be filled with unexpected vignettes.
Our 12-day, 260-mile journey began at the Eden-like Bali Hyatt on Sanur Beach, the island's luxury resort area. After catching some rays by the hotel's grotto pool, I joined my 21 fellow tour guests in the hotel parking lot, where we were outfitted with our 18-speed Schwinn touring bikes, flown in from California by Backroads. (Backroads has since replaced its touring bikes with mountain bikes.)
Our trip began with an easy warm-up ride across the flat coastal plain from Sanur to Kuta. The air was languid and sweetened by fragrant acacia and jasmine. A bewitching sea breeze rippled the rice paddies, carrying on its soft breath the tremulous notes of temple gongs and delicate wind chimes. I found myself quickly seduced into Bali's leisurely cadence and a way of life immune to the modern world.
" Allo . . .!" " Allo . . .!" A happy voice chimed. "Where you go?"
An old man with willowy body and long, epicene face, emerged from behind a mossy wall, preceded by a large flock of ducks which he was leading to feed in the paddies. They waddled en masse, steered by a long bamboo pole tipped by a red flag which the old man held out in front. "Quacking!" in chorus, they did a quick turn and slid down an embankment into the fields.
Unlike Sanur Beach, Kuta is a "people's" resort--a place for surf, sand and cheap food. Australians descend here in droves. My memories are of souvenir shops, mangy dog packs and persistent hawkers, including chirping massage girls who for a few cents will rub your cares away on the beach. I was glad to get away into the countryside, where serendipity brought unexpected rewards.
Beyond Marga, the roads were lined with tall, swaying bamboos, penjors , woven from palm leaves and flowers. A group of women glided by, carrying lofty pyramids of fruit and blossoms on their heads. They were gorgeously costumed and bewitchingly pretty, golden skinned, with frangipani worn in glossy black hair. Ahead, they turned off the road and headed into the fields. The temptation was irresistible: We hunched our bikes onto our shoulders and merged into the stream of heavenly beauties.
"Please, wait here," warned a sprightly eyed maiden before disappearing through a candi bentar , the split gate entrance of a small, mossy temple which lay hidden amid the rice fields. Moments later, she shyly beckoned us into the temple through another gateway guarded by statues of fierce looking giants.
The women erupted in giggles and squeals of delight as we knelt down beside them on the grass. Wisps of incense curled through the air like filigree ribbons of muslin. Offerings of flowers and fruit were laid out beneath thatched pagodas known as merus , where three serene priests were seated like Buddhas.