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A Balinese Adventure

Our bonding process continues the next day on a white-water rafting trip down the Ayung River. We divide into three rafts, and once we get the hang of bobbing around the rocks and rapids, we start attacking, splashing, and racing one another's craft. A stealth cameraman captures our antics on videotape, which we screen at the visitors' center when our 11-mile adventure is over. What the video doesn't capture is the beauty of the jungle river, its steep banks thick with vines, giant ferns, bamboos, and palm trees.

The next day we hit the road in earnest. It's hard to leave the Chedi, where I've fallen into a routine of writing in my journal on my patio at sunrise and then going for a solitary swim in the great granite pool. At the same time, it's exciting to head into terra incognita. Suzie, Jane, Christina, and I travel at the same speed and fall into a foursome on the first leg. Blond and pretty, Suzie doesn't just elicit the usual hellos from the kids; she provokes wide-eyed, openmouthed stares. But our own jaws are constantly agape, too, as we pass gaggles of geese bathing in muddy rice paddies; sleek bronze roosters in bamboo cages, waiting for the next cockfight; and women in pink and gold sarongs on their way to the temples, balancing fruit and food offerings on their heads.

For the most part, these paved back roads are cycling and scenery dreams. It's the main roads that prove to be the nastiest, since they are perpetually crowded with trucks and buses that honk as they pass, leaving hideous fumes in their wake. Ironically, the most gruesome leg of the whole trip is the steep, steady two-mile climb that begins immediately after I've so cleverly escaped the rowdy Aussies at the Ulu Danau temple.

Even with frequent stops, I often feel that it's time to pack it in and walk or hitch the rest of the way up this long, horrible highway. Finally I can stand it no longer: I decide to give up. But just then I see what I think is a pack of dogs up ahead. That's all I need-wild animals attacking me as I push my pathetic bike up the road. So I call on every ounce of strength left in my exhausted body, shift into 8084's lowest gear, think of my trainer back in New York urging me to do those extra reps on the leg press, and forge ahead. Only to discover that the wild dogs are a clan of gray rhesus monkeys that couldn't be less interested in me as they preen, pose, and spar with one another by the side of the road.

I catch my breath, ogle the monkeys, and see from my route map that the top of the hill is less than a mile away. After a peanut butter sandwich and about a half gallon of Gatorade, I take off, determined to make it to the summit. When I reach my goal I practically collapse on the Toyota's tailgate, where Madé and Linda welcome me with a cookie tin and the good news that from here on, it's downhill.

It's also a new world. We sail at 4,000 feet along a narrow back road with fields of blue hydrangeas on one side and volcanic lakes edged with dark green mountains on the other. Suzie, Christina, Jane, and I have wound up together again, although we quickly part company once the near-vertical drop begins. Now our video game is on fast-forward as we hurtle through a windy wonderland of pines, bougainvillea, and fresh cloves drying beside the road. Soon we find ourselves in a tree house at the Puri Lunbung Restaurant & Bungalows, while a gamelan trio plays softly below us. Later we soak in the elegant stone pools of the Banjar Holy Hot Springs, then have poolside massages at the Mas Lovina Beach Cottages, where we are to spend the night.

That evening we dine by the pool and watch Bali's classic Legong temple dance, performed by a trio of young girls wearing heavy makeup and red-and-gold sarongs. Like all Balinese dances, the stylized Legong re-creates an episode from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, this one involving a king, a captive princess, and a raven bearing bad news. But it's not the story or the dance's stiff body movements that grab you; it's the intricate hand play and the amazing facial choreography. The little girls change their expressions so fast that they seem magically to be turning into different people.

Our longest run-a flat 50-mile swing around the northwestern coast-takes us through the drier, poorer part of Bali. Although Betsy and Linda warn us not to expect too much in the way of scenery or challenges, this turns out to be my most rewarding day of cycling. With no awesome vistas to distract me and no major ups and downs, I feel at one with my bike and my surroundings. I ride mostly solo, crossing bridges guarded by fantastic stone creatures and passing through villages where kids on bicycles suck me into impromptu drag races. The sea, punctuated by brightly painted outriggers with madras sails, is almost always at my side.

I make great time, reaching our hotel by mid-afternoon. The year-old, 30-room Mimpi Tulamben Resort caters to divers, but anyone would be delighted by its 16 cottages, designed like Balinese houses with walled courtyards, gardens, and separate pavilions for sleeping, bathing, and lounging. The pool seems to hang above the sea. Though the pebbly gray beach isn't particularly inviting, what lies beyond it is: some of Bali's richest undersea scenery, especially around a sunken U.S. warship from World War II.

At sunset, throngs of villagers dressed in their best sarongs proceed down the beach for an important full-moon festival. As at most of Bali's Hindu ceremonies and festivals, travelers are welcome, so we put on our sarongs and head to a small temple crowning a bluff.

The religious event turns out to be more like a carnival. Food stalls and games of chance occupy the front courtyard. On the other side of the temple gates, several dozen kneeling gamelan musicians hammer on xylophones and monster bells, creating a deafening score. In a tent across the way, village girls are being made up and costumed for the Legong. Their performance turns out to be much less polished than that of the professional troupe we saw the night before-and much more ingenuous. Meanwhile, back in the front courtyard, boys in starched white sarongs with yellow sashes huddle over a dice game, betting on animals rather than numbers. The next afternoon I take a walk in the dirt-poor village outside the Mimpi compound and see some of the kids from the festival, now dressed in tattered T-shirts and shorts.

Mimpi is another place I don't want to leave. I'm also a little sad because the 28 miles we'll travel today, to the beach resort of Candidasa, on the island's eastern coast, will be our last. The backdrop for this final ride-the bleak lava-covered fields and the ominous hulk of the great Mount Agung volcano-fits my melancholy mood. But soon we're taking on hills, and the land gets lusher, and once more I am overcome by Bali's beauty.

We stop for a swim and lunch at the Tirtagangga Water Palace, a fabulous estate built in 1947 by a local rajah with terraced lawns, gardens, and pools fed by giant statues. Here, you don't just swim: you dive into Balinese mythology. Then it's a straight shot to the Serai Hotel, a few miles south of Candidasa. A sister to the Chedi, this two-year-old property-with its huge pool, white-sand beach, and sleek teak-and-stone guest rooms-is a great place to end our journey. It also marks the culinary highlight of our 10 days on Bali, thanks to Australian chef Jonathan Heath's superb Asian and Mediterranean dishes.

On our last day, we have the option of biking or hiking to Tenganan, a village in the hills behind Candidasa inhabited by the Bali Aga, an indigenous group that adheres to an ancient, pre-Hindu code of conduct. I'm tempted to take one last ride on number 8084, but I've learned from skiing that last runs are often disappointing. So, along with about half the group, I decide to hoof it to Tenganan.

With its wide cobblestoned pedestrian street edged by shops and galleries selling baskets, wood carvings, and textiles, Tenganan brings out the shopper in all of us. Or is it that because the trip is coming to an end, it's time to focus on the real world?In any case, I'm not convinced that my amazing 200-mile Bali odyssey is over until I return to the Serai and see number 8084 being loaded onto the Toyota. Ketut lets me keep a water bottle as a souvenir. On the way back to Denpasar, I hold on to it as if it were a talisman, as if it could somehow magically bring back these last 10 days. The car is claustrophobic; I hate the air-conditioning; I feel cut off from my last views of Bali. Once again I ask myself the famous question, "Is Bali spoiled?" But it no longer has any relevance. If anything is spoiled, I am.


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