When traveling alone, it’s often helpful to have a secret mission. It keeps up the morale and gives you a pathway into your surroundings. In a foreign land, a secret mission is especially useful, helping you to look like you belong there—you’ve come for a reason, and you know what you’re doing.
My goal was to find out how those cows got up onto that mountaintop.
Seeing cows might not be high on most travelers’ priority list when they come to Bali. With an island full of colorful ceremonies, ornate temples, and surfers’ havens, livestock doesn’t command much notice. But, when I arrived in the town of Candidasa (“Chan-dee-dasa”) to find it a bit too touristy for my tastes, I looked up to see a group of local bovines and felt they just might have the answer.
They stood high on a rounded precipice overlooking the village, which overlooked the sea. The hill where they stood loomed over the other hills it sat upon, the sides so steep and rounded I couldn’t see how cows could climb it. Did people farm up there too? I wondered, imagining what might lie in that hidden world. Did people live there? I’d visited a nearby village of Bali Aga, where I met indigenous Balinese people who were here before Hindu settlers came long ago from Java. In this dusty little village, people made (and sold to tour groups) traditional crafts like musical instruments and hand-woven sarongs. Maybe more lived high upon that hill, I thought.
I decided that finding those cows was my mission for my brief stay in Candidasa. Traveling by myself, I wanted to avoid the typical tourist activities and crowds, in part because after months of traveling I was tired of people asking why I was sendiri, alone. Women in particular must expect these questions when traveling by themselves. Having the same conversations over and over, and constantly feeling I had to explain myself, grew exhausting. Discovering my own purpose, something off the beaten path, gave me renewed energy and led to more engaging conversations that focused on something new, interesting, and special to the place.
I imagined what Candidasa must have been like before the strip of ocean-front restaurants and bungalows sprang up, and if whomever lived on top of that hill—if anyone—had been affected much by the tourism. Candidasa was still a small-ish village, and tiny compared to the surfing mecca of Kuta. Travelers can certainly connect with nature without going too far. For $10, I stayed in a lovely bungalow by the ocean where at night I heard nothing but surf. The day before, one of the fisherman-by-night, guides-by-day took me to a snorkeling spot out beside the sea stacks, the huge rocks jutting out of the sea. I enjoyed snorkeling above the coral, feeling like I was flying through the air as I gazed down at the colorful fish below. But I still craved a closer connection with the past, something unstructured. And as nice as the visit to the Bali Aga village had been, I wanted an experience that was fresh, and all my own.
I asked a couple of people if there was a village up on the hill, but no one seemed eager to go. Then I talked to a young guy named Han, the friend of a young woman I’d been chatting with in the sarong shop where she worked. Amiable and easygoing, he worked as a tour guide and said he’d be happy to show me what’s up there, though there was no village on the hill. That’s okay, I said; something was still drawing me there, and I couldn’t leave Candidasa until I went.
We found a concrete path leading up the hillside, and followed it, passing a group of women and chickens by a simple concrete dwelling weathered by long years standing by the sea. Soon, we came to a dirt path and followed it on its windy way up the mountain. A woman walked by, eyes purposefully ahead, but a slight smile glimmering on her lips. She looked young and agile at first glance, but as I looked more closely, couldn’t begin to pinpoint the age of her weathered, wizened face. Like Changing Woman, that Native American legend whose form moves through the cycles of age continually, she seemed timeless. And apparently, she was en route to find the cows.
She paused along the trail where it skirted the forest line beside the sweep of grassy meadow, and as we caught up to her, I greeted her in Indonesian. “Selamat pagi, apa kabar?” (“Good morning, how are you?”) She just smiled shyly and continued along. “She doesn’t speak Indonesian,” Han said quietly. We were united, at least, in one purpose—finding the cows. This was her daily work, he said, watching over them to make sure they stayed nearby.