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May 25th 2008 by Tina
Water, Water Everywhere

Posted under Bali

We had fallen in love with Ubud and together decided to spend the rest of our Bali days there rather than running around the island, trying to see it all. Ubud just felt right. Nick’s Pension was treating us well and we were pleasantly surprised by the diversity, ambience, and culinary samplings of the many restaurants. Live jazz was playing somewhere every night of the week and free Wi-Fi was ubiquitous. While our morning treks had given us a good feel for the city and balanced out the decadence of our evenings, many of Ubud’s treasures still awaited to unfold.

We made one exception to spend a day diving the Liberty wreck off the shores of Tulamben on the east coast of the island. We had pre-arranged one night of accommodation and two dives on the wreck the following day. This was intended to minimize our time away from Ubud. In a chauffeured car, we made the picturesque two-hour drive to Tulamben in the afternoon, stopping for rice terrace photos along the way.

Side note: A wise man once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” While money will never buy happiness, it certainly helps grease the wheels in getting things done. We have noted often lately how much easier it is to travel and conduct business in less affluent countries where there is more competition for the same dollar; if you hold that dollar, the world is your oyster or so it seems. Name your desire and everyone knows someone who knows someone who can make it happen…for a small commission, of course. The same idea holds true in affluent countries but that same liberty levies a much higher toll. Money is a powerful motivator.

So we arrived in Tulamben in the late afternoon and settled into a beachfront hotel down the road from the dive shop. Tulamben is what you might call a “one horse town”, composed almost entirely of small businesses aimed at scuba divers who come to dive the Liberty wreck. The town is set against Gunung Agung, an active volcano looming in a foreboding purple haze. Children play in the street and run around the shops; the older ones are often left in charge of customer service while parents attend to other matters. The people are friendly and everyone knows everyone.

I woke before sunrise, which is highly unusual, and walked outside to the restaurant deck to savor a few moments of solitude. The morning tide was high, flooding the black volcanic shore and beating against the retaining wall that supported the hotel. I have always loved the quiet calm of early morning – a time of mental clarity and peace before the mind becomes a pin cushion for external stimuli – I just hate waking up for it. We ate a quick breakfast at the hotel and packed our bags to store at the dive shop. Two guys from the dive shop picked us up on mopeds – a blessing since we were running late – and drove us, with our heavy load, to the shop. We had selected our rental gear the night before and were quick to organize ourselves for the first dive.

“In January 1942 the US Navy cargo ship USAT Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near Lombok. Taken in tow, it was beached at Tulamben so that its cargo of rubber and railway parts could be saved. The Japanese invasion prevented this and the ship sat on the beach until the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung broke it in two and left it just off the shoreline, much to the delight of scores of divers.” (Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok March 2007)

After a briefing of the dive site, we walked across the road and down to the beach where our assembled gear was waiting for us. The wreck was located a mere fifty meters from shore so we could wade in and swim underwater to the site. The trickiest part was wading in against the waves without falling over; the weight of your equipment and the slick, rocky terrain also working against you. Boat diving is so much easier! But we managed and, once underwater, were amazed by the blackness of the volcanic ocean floor. I was so mesmerized by the intense colors of the fish against the black sand that I didn’t even notice the hulking stern of the Liberty until I looked up, startled to find it less than ten feet in front of me.

There is an eeriness that surrounds all sunken ships, similar to the feeling a child gets while walking through a graveyard, her young mind swimming with ghost stories. Shipwrecks all have ghost stories and, through the underwater silence, I always try to listen for them. They are not the chronological details of reference materials but rather the resonating cries of young shipmen; brave soldiers praying to God to return them to their wives and children, struggling against fate with all of their might; a captain summoning the courage to go down with the ship. Those are the stories I imagine I hear, stories that touch my heart and send shivers down my spine.

The Liberty is more than a hundred meters long and lies in ten to thirty-five meters of water. It is coral-encrusted and teeming with vibrant marine life. Though the outer shell is largely intact, the sheer size of the coral-camouflaged mass makes it difficult to envision its former seafaring appearance. We were able to swim through parts of the interior and I, being naturally claustrophobic, was surprised to find that the confined spaces didn’t wake the hyperventilating beast within. We were fascinated by the sunken ship’s rapid transformation to a thriving marine ecosystem. There was such vibrant life in and around it, creating an artificial reef. The gentle current and good light from above and water clarity made for ideal diving conditions. Normally, my attention span for a single dive is about forty minutes. Our first dive on the wreck lasted fifty and I came up wanting more.

We walked back to the dive shop to spend our required surface interval by the pool. As we deposited our weight belts and dive accessories into our designated bins, we noticed a very backward situation in the division of labor. The dive guides and front office shop personnel were all men, laughing goodheartedly over the lighter tasks of the day while the grunt work of transporting the heavy dive setups over two hundred meters between shop and shore was born by the women! Small-statured women, ranging in age from about fifteen to fifty, labored in the hot sun carrying not one but TWO metal air cylinders on their heads, some with BCDs attached! To clarify, air cylinders weigh upwards of forty pounds each – it is a struggle for me to carry one just a few feet – and a wet BCD adds at least another five. Wearing flip flops on the uneven gravel terrain, the women carried the heavy equipment back and forth all day long as dive groups embarked in intervals to the beach. They even carried the equipment for the male dive guides! It was like the Twilight Zone or an episode from the original Star Trek series about an alternate universe. So the women have to give birth AND do the heavy lifting? It’s madness, I say! I told Aaron not to get any ideas.

Our second dive on the wreck was as thrilling as the first. We did not penetrate the ship the second time but rather slowly worked our way around the exterior, studying the coral formations and making some fun underwater videos. It had been a superb day of diving and had wet our fins sufficiently to hold us over for a while. Our dive days have likely come to an end for this trip anyway, with perhaps an odd exception. We’ll be spending Euros soon and, with that (barring a miracle in the currency markets between now and July), will come a “look but don’t touch” lockdown period, which we are fully ready to embrace since it is the only way to see Western Europe with deflated dollars and no jobs. We are confident that our sacrifices will be fruitful.

We had pre-arranged for our driver from Nick’s to pick us up that afternoon and, after two hot plates of post-dive nasi goreng from the local warung, we were back in the car and on our way to Ubud. We decided to do a bit of sightseeing on the way, stopping first in the neighboring town of Amed. The drive from the main road to the sleepy fishing town cut through expansive rice fields set against a mountain backdrop. The fields were full of villagers working together to bring in the harvest while other farmers tended to younger crops and walked behind man-powered plows. The black sand beach at Amed was fit for swimming, as demonstrated by a group of giggling naked boys splashing around in the carefree manner of youth. The small, wooden fishing boats curved around the shore; their white paint glowing against the black sand. We only stayed for a few photos but would love to have spent a few days there.

Our next stop was a famous water palace, called Taman Tirta Gangga, meaning Water of the Ganges. Our guide book made little mention of it but it had been recommended highly by a fellow diver. Unsure what to expect, we walked through the requisite vendor stalls and bought two tickets at the entrance. Our first glimpse of the water palace took our breath away. The grounds were composed of sparkling pools, their glassy surfaces almost perfectly still on the breezeless day. Landscaped stone walkways, an ornate footbridge, statues and fountains accented the pools and gave the grounds the appearance of a watery playground. We were delighted and skipped like children over the walkways and stepping stones. Our favorite pool was stocked with carp and had a maze of stepping stones within it that made you feel as though you were walking on water. There was no palace on the property at all but rather an old temple and a posh hotel and restaurant so we took our time through the magnificent grounds and then continued on our way to Ubud.

We arrived in time to settle back into our cottage, sit for afternoon tea, pick up our moped, and head out for a quiet dinner. With four more glorious nights ahead in Ubud and no agenda whatsoever, Bali was starting to feel like a dream…a dream from which I didn’t want to awaken anytime soon.

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