A witch comes out to cast a spell, and I'm entranced for the rest of the day.

Shaking shaggy locks a muppet would be envious of, the evil spirit has a hard time battling the forces of good. It waves 12-inch white claws and hits the other dancers with leafy branches to the accompaniment of the beautifully chaotic gamelan orchestra.

Again stepping out of character in our traveling, Dan and I joined the rest of the wedding group for an all-day cultural highlights tour of Bali.

We had an ambitious list of attractions to get through, most of them offering shopping opportunities--batik factory, wood carving workshop, silversmiths and an art collective.  Others were scenic, as in our lunch stop at a buffet restaurant built on a cliff overlooking a trio of volcanoes and a quick trip to a valley terraced with rice paddies.

My favorites, though were a little more mystical: the dances illustrating legends, the Hindu temple and the forest of sacred monkeys.

 Our first stop was the batik factory. Batiks are also made in Southwest China and other Asian areas, but the Balinese ones are world renowned. Made by dying drizzled patterns of hot wax, batiked fabrics are traditionally used in Balinese dress and now for everything from shoes to book covers to formal gowns.

In a pavilion outside an air-conditioned shop craftswomen gave a step-by-step demonstration of the art. The shop itself was too expensive for our budget, but it was interesting to see another culture's batiks after the villages of Guizhou Province in China.

Next, our guide directed the bus to a silver workshop and later to a wood workshop. They were similar to the batik stop--the artisans worked al fresco while the high-priced wares were displayed in shiny cases inside an over-air-conditioned building. I tried to buy some silver earrings but the prices weren't advantageous so we decided to try the markets in Legian later, where our bargaining might be more successful.

Before lunch, we took in the dance performance, my highlight of the day. The sounds of the gamelan orchestra, a group of instruments apparently all built to be played together in one group – meaning a xylophone from one gamelan couldn't be played with another group of musicians--is THE soundtrack to Bali. All of the hotels and shops play it nonstop, and soon it became part of the background of our trip.

The dancing was striking because of the energy and focus it must take to keep the body rigid for so long. The tour guide Legros told us it takes years of training to be able to control fingers and toes that way, and that every slight positioning of the fingers conveys a different message.

After the performance we headed farther inland, stopping at the Elephant Cave Temple. To enter the temple everyone had to have their legs covered, so the women all had fun watching the guys borrow sarongs and figure out how to tie them around their waists like skirts and then try to walk down the stairs to the temple's pools and altars.

When worshiping at this temple, Hindus first go to the yellow-skirted fountains in a purification pool to wash their faces and hands. Then they go to a small cave to make offerings to rocks that represent their deities. The cave has been used as a temple for hundreds of years.

The rock face around the cave opening is carved in the shape of a face—but not an elephant's face as the name of the temple would suggest. Legros told me the cave was named “elephant” because it was large, like an elephant. Outside the whorled rock, large altars near the cave entrance were piled high with cookies and fruit as offerings. We were there during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, so I wasn't sure if the temple always had this many offerings or just on this holiday.

On the way to lunch by the islands' central volcanoes, we stopped at a botanical garden to sample local-grown passionfruit, snakeskin fruit and guava and to drink cocoa and coffee from the area's farms. I also tried Kopi Luwak coffee, which is made from coffee beans digested by a kind of Sumatran civet cat. The poop coffee, as we decided to call it, tasted a little stronger than usual coffees but wasn't that unusual. I had heard of it before, apparently it fetches astronomically high prices in Europe.

In the evening, just before sunset, when regrettably the light was bad for pictures, we entered the monkey forest near the mountain village of Ubud. The forest, now a park, is full of monkeys who come out to the central areas to eat and pose for the tourists. Legros said the monkeys could get fierce if you carried any food or shiny things into the park, so we left most stuff in the bus while we went in. The monkeys were getting a dinner of sweet potatoes though, so probably wouldn't have been interested in our food anyway.

The day was finished by fish, prawns and clams at a restaurant along the beach in Denpasar before we got back to Legian, completely exhausted.

This taste of Bali's culture was a great break from the tourist-swamped areas of Legian and Kuta, though I couldn't really say we went 'off the beaten track' or anything. It was a good sampler pack for things to see in Bali (and probably the rest of Indonesia), so if time permits later in our Big Trip, Dan and I might revisit the archipelago.

**Click here to see photos of Bali!**


 
Banana bread for fish food stuffed securely up the sleeve of his wetsuit, Dan was ready for the water.

I was adjusting equipment when the dive master asked us to move for a second. A tiny woman, shorter than I, walked by us to the collection of scuba tanks under a tree.

She grabbed one, and hoisted it up. As easily as picking up a child, she lifted the tank to her head and balanced it lengthwise on a coiled towel resting on her grimy baseball cap. Gently swaying, she walked toward the water, the heavy tank an exotic hat.

Our first dive at Tulamben was on the USAT Liberty shipwreck a few yards offshore. To get there we needed to walk for about five minutes down the rocky beach and then swim out. To get their paying divers' equipment to the site, the scuba shops use an army of these porters—mostly women. As we labored to cross the rolling, fist-sized rocks in our wetsuit booties, I looked at our porters' feet. Battered, plastic pink flip-flops. What big, soft babies we tourists were, I thought as I struggled to put my tank on and walk to the water.

Dan was signed on this trip as a snorkeler, while I was refreshing my kinetic memory by going diving for the first time in four years. My father taught me to dive when I was only 8 years old, but I hadn't been in the water with gear on since Alaska in 2005. Worse yet, except for our week in Malaysia in September, I hadn't even gone swimming in years.

But once in the water while I waited for the other divers, a German couple on their first sea dive since their certification course, I started to relax.

I'd added a little too much weight to my weight belt, but soon I was able to focus on looking around me at the parrot fish swimming by in search of a handout and the silhouette of the wreck.

The USAT Liberty was a cargo ship that was torpedoed by Japanese in the Second World War, rescued, beached, and then shrugged off into the water by an erupting volcano in the 60s. Now, it's one of the most popular dive sites in Bali.

There wasn't any coral near the beach, just rocks, algae, grass and many schools of stripy yellow fish and parrot fish. There were plenty of divers too.

As we were suiting up, a group of ten or more were coming out of the water and, farther down the shore, another large group were following their porters. Under the water there were even more. I don't think I've ever seen this many divers in the water.

Dan was following me to take pictures with our underwater camera, but there were so many divers he got confused and focused on the fish instead.. Used to so many visitors, the fish mobbed him when he slipped the banana bread out of his sleeve.

 They started out politely enough, nibbling at the brown crumbs, but then a school of foot-long brown and purple fish started to dart in and edge out the others. When about 50 of these bigger fish were surrounding him, Dan decided to ditch the last of the bread and escaped their scaly advances.

While Dan dodged the fish, the Germans, dive master and I followed the shore's slope down to a more interesting part of the wreck. At about 40 feet I started to see more than just fish and grass.

Big sea fans and antler-style coral growing off the wreck sheltered iridescent worms and spiny sea urchins. We watched a six- or seven-foot barracuda in his hidey hole under a broken beam, swam through the archway of a broken hatch (but not into the interior of the wreck) and saw a cyclone of jackfish performing for a pair of divers with some impressive photographic equipment.

The second dive was to the east of the wreck, on a shelf near the point. This dive had better sea life but not as interesting terrain. Dan didn't get much out of snorkeling on the second dive, but enjoyed the overland trip to the two sites.

It was an important festival that day, Diwali, so the roads were clogged by slow-moving religious processions and pilgrimages of people trying to get to the temples or to the feasts.

I felt sorry for our driver, who instead of enjoying the holiday was ferrying tourists around. The roads were so blocked on the way back that the driver decided to go the long way around, along the sheer, arid cliffs of the east side of the island. Here, there were no tourists in evidence, just the gates of the occasional secluded resort.

The villages we passed were stick huts and at every stream flowing to the sea we watched women and girls washing laundry or themselves.

It was a good day, a nice contrast to the shopping and eating lifestyle of Legian.

** Please click here to see photos from the dive!!**
 
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"I've never been on a vacation like this before," I tell Dan from my perch on the poolside of our $12-a-night hotel.

He sips his one-dollar 'Arak attack', a cocktail made of coconut spirits and lime juice and adjusts his $10 sunglasses. “Me either.”

Later, we go out for a meal ($10) and some shopping (all told, $5). I contemplate getting a pedicure (at $6) before Dan's brother's wedding on Wednesday.

This is Bali as legions of Australian vacationers know it--a sunny, romantic paradise with climate and terrain not unlike their own continent, but with prices way, way cheaper.

Walking down the street to the Legian Beach Hotel, the resort where Dan's family stayed (at prices much higher than our own hotel but still cheaper than a medium-nice hotel in Oz) from looking at the passers by instead of the potholes, we could have been in Australia. There's the balding man and his ever-smiling wife running a restaurant, a mother and children bargaining over souvenirs, the surfers on mopeds racing to the beach, the plump couple strolling with the sun on their shoulders. Except for me and a German couple we met diving, there are Aussie accents everywhere.

We stayed in Legian, a "sleepier" area near Kuta, the most famous of Bali's beach towns. There's a beach with a steady supply of one- and two-meter waves and the surfers who ride them. There's two or three covered rabbit-warren markets selling batiks, fake batiks, beachwear and wooden carvings. There are restaurants clearly aimed at Western palates serving up club sandwiches, nachos, surf and turf and tall bottles of the local Bintang beer.

What we seem to be missing are actual Indonesians. Other than wait staff, hotel cleaners, shop assistants, masseurs and security guards, we meet no one. Later, a tour guide confides in us that the restaurants tourists find so cheap along Melasti Street are far beyond the spending power of most locals. Coming recently from China, where prices were similar but restaurant dining was firmly in the price bracket of the locals, we were surprised by this. We tried to find out more about the local living conditions from an Indonesian woman on our dive trip, but the language barrier didn't let us do more than chit chat. This is the first time in our travels that we haven't been able to connect with some local people, and we missed them.

**Click here to see pictures from Bali!**