I was very excited to return to Ubud, Bali after 30 years. To say it has changed is a gross understatement. The main intersection in town has transformed from a sleepy corner into two lanes with one-way traffic. There are still no traffic Lights or even stop signs and it is very challenging to cross the street and walk on the street as the sidewalks are questionable. It is far more commercialized than it was in 1988.
Although Bali beaches are a major attraction for swimmers and surfers, we were excited to experience Balinese arts and culture and Ubud is the center for this experience. Jules, the brother-in-law of our lodging manager met us at the airport and that was far more modern than in 1988. Bali is one of the hundreds of islands in Indonesia. As I mentioned it has changed in many ways but our lodging was away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists and we felt very immersed in the Balinese way of life where we stayed.
After arriving at the bottom of over 100 very steep stairs to our lodging, two women put our suitcases on their heads and carried them up the stairs. This was impressive (and emasculating). I was huffing and puffing climbing the stairs and was at first skeptical of the living quarters until we finished the climb and entered our lodging. Frances is amazing at finding places to stay that have character, comfort and beauty. We stayed at Amanda Villa in a two-floor apartment above a restaurant and home of the caretakers. Our manager, Ketut built this amazing home in the midst of rice paddies and jungle. The whole aura was magical.
Because we arrived near dark and the restaurant downstairs was not open, we asked where we could eat and buy groceries. The grocery store had two routes from our lodging one involved going back down the 100+ steps and returning. The other took us through an unmarked path without guard rails that was narrow and at times very close to an abyss and at other times through tall grass. It was an adventure in the dark, but we did make it to the grocery store and were able to find a restaurant on the way back. It was an adventure particularly the next day when in the daylight we saw where we had walked.
The next day we booked massages that made it clear why Bali is famous its massages. They were amazing. We were under a thatched roof and were covered in mud while being attended to. Following the massage, we entered a tub that had a different kind of mud and lots of flower petals. We ended up getting massages every day. Though they were incredibly inexpensive, they were wonderful, and we felt pampered.
We soaked up the culture by hiring Jules to drive us to an important pool where hundreds come each day to pray and be cleansed the special spring water. Bali is mystical because of the sense of community it has. Even the large cities are divided into smaller groups of 1000 or so and these groups have much say in their self-governance. Although there are taxes, much funding for Hindu temples and community centers comes from volunteer contributions. The life style is relaxed but there is a reverence I have not experienced elsewhere. Even the mopeds have flower offerings to the Hindu gods and it was a privilege to witness our host family make flower and incense offerings every morning.
A highlight came when Ke-tut invited us to a local wedding. Although we didn’t know anyone except Ke-tut the entire community is welcome. The only requirement was we had to wear Balinese clothing which was fun. Their weddings are very different in that they are all day and night events at the groom’s house. There was a Hindu priest who did a number of ceremonies during the day with the bridge and groom, but it felt casual. There was an abundance of food and the celebration went from early morning to late at night. Traditionally the couple live at the groom’s parents’ property. The divorce rate is only 5% and I envy the sense of community and caring for each other that seems absent in more “developed” countries.
Balinese music and dance are unique. We went to a Gamelan dance and concert our first night and that was very special. The dancers are trained from a young age and their fingers are bent back to enhance their dance movements. We also went to a Kecak Dance where 100 bare breasted men sat around a fire chanting cak-cak-cak while a few elaborately garbed dancers relayed a story. At the end of the performance one of the men walked on fiery sparks as part of the ceremony. This was very unique for sure.
After the Kecak dance, I went to a local restaurant that featured jazz music. The musicians played well and invited to sit in. This was fun and another example of how jazz is a universal language and allows people from different backgrounds to share and communicate through music.
The cost of services was very favorable for US currency and massages were extraordinarily affordable. We had a massage almost every day. Most were elaborate with mud covering the body, a massage followed by a soak in a hot tub with many flower petals. One of our sessions was more of a shaman reading than a massage. The shaman was younger that I expected and used a translator to communicate with us. After he offered his insights and answered questions, he did some bodywork on each of us.
Getting around in Ubud was interesting. Our lodging was far enough away from the town’s center that walking was not a good option. Staying at the highest vantage point in Ubud meant it was worth carefully thinking about going up and down those steep stairs. There was an option to walk through the jungle-like rice patties to local restaurants, massage and the grocery store. This was fun during the day, but tricky in the evening. To get into Ubud center we mostly used moped taxis where we hopped onto the back of the moped and hung on to the moped driver for safety.
Finally, a highlight for me was revisiting Ubud and in particular seeking the woman Tjanderi who had opened the first Ubud home stay decades ago. At the beginning of my 1988 sabbatical trip I spend a few nights in Los Angeles with Chris Reed a former Milton student and good friend. His landlady asked me about my travel plans that included Sydney, Ubud, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, China back to California and ending in Arizona. (I got to see the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon in the same month!). Jan, Chris’ landlady asked me where I was staying in Ubud and I told her that was the only place where I had not yet booked lodging. Jan suggested I stay with her friend Tjanderi and gave me 3 ten-dollar bills to give to Tjanderi, her husband and her sister. When I arrived at Tjanderi’s she warmly welcomed me and fortunately she had an open room for me to rent for $18 for 4 nights. Tjanderi and her family invited me to spend much quality time with them and I learned much about Balinese culture. I remember watching on TV a soccer game played by elephants. Apparently, this is an organized sporting event with several teams of elephants forming a league.
Tajnderi’s home stay was located on Monkey Forest Road very close to Ubud center. When Frances and I went to this location, it had become a restaurant. I asked the manager about Tjanderi and was introduced to the restaurant owner who was Tjanderi’s son. He was very pleasant and told me she had retired and lived nearby with her grandchildren. Frances and I were most fortunate to visit with the 80 year old Tjanderi the next day. It was a wonderful moment and a thrill for me to reconnect with her.
Of all the many places around the world, I have been fortunate to visit, Ubud easily remains one of my favorites. I’m not sure all of Bali is similar to Ubud, but I love the sense of community that I experience in Ubud. Much of the local governing decisions come from town gatherings that every adult resident is expected to attend and participate. When a temple or local community building needs repair, people volunteer to pay for it. Outside of the center of town, there is a sense of calm and peace. There is a genuine reverence for family and tradition. The weather is inviting but even more so are the residents. It offers a model for how we can get along by respecting and each other and accepting our differences. I would gladly go back to Ubud. Mystical Bali!