Bali. Beautiful, weird, bewitching, get-under-your-skin Bali. This is a place that attracts more than its share of hyperbole, much of it justified. This is also a place that attracts more than its share of hurling Australians, but I digress. Did you know that Australian English has more synonyms for vomit than any other form of English? But I digress again. Fortunately the chunder from Down Under is pretty much confined to the Kuta Beach area and the rest of the island remains the land of hyperbolic beauty. One of the best ways to explore it is on a bicycle. Or so we thought…
All of Bali slopes. It slopes continuously from the shore to the tops of the dormant volcanoes at the centre and it is notched regularly by deep, canyon-like, river valleys running back down from the summits to the sea. Consequently cycling becomes an exercise in going up, up, up, and then turning around and going down, down, down. Or vice-versa for true masochists. Lateral motion is dependant on the infrequent bridges across the rivers.
One day Lorraine and I set off in mind-buggering heat on heavy iron bikes and began laboring up the slope. We ground along on these rusting pigs until we could grind no more. At this point there happened to be a bridge across the deep gorge immediately to our west. We went over the bridge, pointed our bikes downhill and hurtled down the slope like cartoon fools. Chickens, children, old women, mangy stray dogs – all of them had to jump out of the way as we whipped through village after village. The canyon was cloaked in jungle so it was hard to assess how far we had come down relative to how far we had gone up, so we stopped to check the map.
Where we were was a long, long way down. We had missed the next bridge back over and were so far down that we would have to either fight our way back up for many kilometers or keep going down, cross, and then similarly fight our way back up on the other side to our guesthouse. Then I noticed a small line drawn across the canyon quite close to where we were. This line was marked “Circus Bridge” and appeared to be connected to the roads on either side by a winding dirt path. Our guesthouse was pretty much directly across. Score!
“Dunno what the ‘circus’ part is about, but if it’s a bridge we’ll take it!” I said.
Lorraine agreed and so we walked our bikes on the jungle path down to a point where we could hear water rushing. Then, as we rounded a bend, we saw it: the “Circus Bridge”.
It was an I-beam.
Someone had laid an old iron I-beam across the gorge. Water surged over boulders six to eight meters down. The beam was perhaps 15 cm wide. And it bounced when you put weight on it.
I don’t consider myself to be truly afraid of heights. What I’m afraid of is falling from heights. If I have a hand-hold that protects me against the prospect of a mangling fall, then I’m reasonably okay with being up high. But if I don’t have a hand-hold I am decidedly not okay. And so it was. No hand-hold. And two heavy bikes. I tried pushing the bike ahead of me, but it began twisting in a suicidal fashion so I quickly retreated. I tried putting it on my shoulders, but I felt wildly unbalanced, so I abandoned that plan as well.
We were just about to turn around and trudge back up to the road when an old man appeared at the other side of the bridge. He waved to us, flashed a toothless smile and then trotted over briskly.
“You want come over?” he asked.
“Yes, but we don’t think we can get the bikes over,” I said.
The old man chuckled, picked up my bike, hoisted it to his right shoulder, put out his left hand behind him for me to hold on to and then led the bike and me across, much as if he were helping an invalid across a city street. I flapped my jaw noiselessly while he skipped over to get Lorraine and her bike. (At this point Lorraine would want me to make note of the fact that, unlike me, she did not need to have her hand held. What this has to do with the story is beyond me.)
“Thank you, thank you sir! How can we repay you?” I asked once I got my voice back. I reached for my wallet.
The old man smiled his toothless smile again, shook his head and said, “You like the woodcarving? You come my shop! Buy if you like!”
He didn’t want money for helping us, he just wanted to sell us some woodcarving. We had been wanting buy some Balinese woodcarving, so this was perfect! He led us up the path a short distance to his shop and ushered us in. Once our eyes adjusted we saw that he had, without any doubt whatsoever, the singular most god-awful, hideous and tacky collection of woodcarvings on the entire island of Bali. The entire island.
But it was a small price to pay to cross the Circus Bridge.