I have been home from Thailand for two years. Which makes it all the more ridiculous when I realized I have yet to finish writing about my travels there. Last I last off with Bali: Part Three when we arrived in a little town called Ubud at an absolutely beautiful guest house. And so it's there that I begin.
I could easily live in Ubud. You know how you can travel to a place for the first time and feel just right there? That's how I felt the whole time I was in Ubud. Like things just fit.
But really it's not hard to fit in Ubud. It's sort of an expat/backpacker/lost boys paradise, like what a town would look like if it started as a tree house. You see all the foreigners wandering around with dazed, happy looks on their face, as if they just can't believe their luck to be in such a place. It is that rare type of town that manages to be accessible to tourists without the presence of those same tourists ruining it and stripping it of all its charm and uniqueness.
Ubud, like the rest of Bali exists in an explosion of eternal green. It's a relatively small town, made of little cream stone buildings with dark brown roofs, along with some more modern hotels (Julia Roberts did stay there while filming Eat, Pray, Love after all, but more on that later). The locals there are like they are everywhere in Bali-friendly and bemused by all the attention the rest of the world pays to their little island. Also like everywhere in Bali a haze of incense and spiritual belief hangs in the air in Ubud. People go about their business and live their lives there. There are markets full of small religious statues and deeply colored scarves, stalls with every fruit you'd ever see at Whole Foods times 100. Little temples pop up as frequently, their pillars draped with colorful fabric. The great thing about Ubud is that it doesn't feel like a Disney theme park version of an exotic island, the way some tourist locales feel. It simply is itself, motorcycles and monkeys on the side of the road and all. It's been there for thousands of years. It will be there for thousands of years. And it feels like that, permanent and solid. You go to so many places, especially in our nation and nothing feels that way. Everything is shiny and suburban new and it just screams temporary. You can't get a firm footing, because there isn't one. It's like a city made of sand castles.
But Ubud is the opposite of that. It's anchored deeply into the ground beneath it.
You can tell that Ubud is the kind of city where people visit and then find it impossible to leave. It's full of expats and their businesses. Which makes for some tremendous eating and shopping. But again it doesn't feel cheap or gaudy. These are people who love this town as much as the locals and you can see it in the way their businesses blend so seamlessly into the town around them. But for someone who does enjoy some creature comforts from the West it makes Ubud such a delight, because you really have the best of both worlds. While we were there we tried to dabble in both of these worlds. One day we ate at Ibu Oka, a traditional Balinese restaurants that serves suckling pig (and roasts it whole right in front of the restaurant). If you've seen the Anthony Bourdain where he visits Bali you've seen the inside of this awesome place.
I am not even a pig kind of gal normally. But this was pig made with divine inspiration. It was tender and flavorful and I ate that chunk of crispy pig skin (with just the most thin, beautiful layer of fat underneath) and pile of cracklings like I was raised on pig skin and cracklings (for the record I was not). We sat on the floor at low tables in the open air restaurant and sipped local Bintang beer, and again, it just fit. It felt easy.
But then Ubud also is stuffed full of great "Western"restaurants. We found a little coffee shop that was straight out of Durham, NC or Boulder, CO or any other college town full of hippies. But it also was infused with the feel of Bali-relaxed, unpretentious, peaceful. No one was in a hurry there. People of all different nationalities sipped coffee and ate bagels on soft, colorful couches as music played. Signs for yoga classes and bike trips were hung all over the walls. Friends chatted about dinner plans. People were friendly, unhurried, eager to exchange stories over hours and multiple cups of espresso.
Or the unbelievably good Italian restaurant we found owned by an Italian expat. I have been to Italy but the Italian food I had at this restaurant was, if not better, pretty darn close to being as good as the food there. We sat up on the open air roof, in the warm, humid air, and sipped wine and ate amazingly good pasta and gnocchi and bruschetta with anchovies. Couples and families sat nearby. I remember looking from the roof over this view:
And just feeling so grateful to be in this place, so at peace with my life in that moment. We liked this Italian restaurant so much (along with its free Wifi and close proximity to our guest house) that we went for two consecutive nights. On the second night the city lost power (blackouts are common in Bali, remember, Julia Roberts movies and all, this is still a tiny island in the middle of the Indian ocean), and we assumed the owners would close things up. But when we asked our waitress she assured us it was fine. Candles were lit, more bottles of wine were opened, and the kitchen made do and food continued to appear. Since we had our laptops we opened up our iTunes and supplied the music (there was music playing before the power went out, we're not animals). It was just this perfect night, watching the darkening town around us, eating incredible Italian food in Bali of all places, listening to the sound of geckos and birds.
We spent the days shopping in the markets or at the many little boutiques that lined the city. The main road of Bali ran in a loop so we would simply walk in circles, catching places we might have missed on our second rotation. There were a few English language bookstores, and there is nothing I love more when I'm traveling in a foreign country than a good English language bookstore. Eat, Pray, Love was, unsurprisingly, prominently featured. The funny thing was they were actually filming the movie when we were there, in and near Ubud. Clearly the town was a little abuzz with this. But when we asked a Balinese person at a bookstore about the movie, and about the medicine man healer, Ketut, who supposedly still lives in Ubud, he merely laughed and told us not to waste our time visiting Ketut. He was a quack.
Which true or not true, I think displays very nicely the sense of humor and characteristic lack of BS of Balinese people.
Side note: My friend and I were this close to being in the movie. Well kind of. At the coffee shop I mentioned a British woman came up to us and told us her daughter was involved in casting with the film. They needed an extra for a scene in a pharmacy, a woman whose role was to walk in and say she needed hemorrhoid cream. The woman took pictures of both of us and sent them to her daughter. As she did it she told us we weren't quite right. The extra was supposed to be 1) British 2) in her 30s and 3) heavy. Which I think both of us were kind of okay with the fact that we didn't look like we could play an older, fatter person with painful hemorrhoids. They got our numbers and said they would call if we checked out. If you've seen Eat, Pray, Love then you probably know I am not in it. Thus we never got a call. However even if we had been "cast", there is no scene in that movie with a plump British woman asking for such a cream, so we would have been cut anyway.
We weren't too crushed by this near brush with fame. After all we couldn't be in Ubud. I know it sounds like an exaggeration to keep calling it paradise, but well, it's the closest I've ever come on Earth to paradise. We spent an entire morning at this insanely beautiful spa nestled right in the midst of all that Technicolor green nature that is everywhere in Bali.
This was my massage room. I know, I hate past me a little too. For about a fifth of what it would cost in the US, we got facials and massages and just pampered to within an inch of our lives. Then because we were not blissed out enough, we took a yoga class here:
This was an open air studio so it might as well have been hot yoga. A puddle of sweat formed around me on the floor. But even though the class kicked my butt, when it came time for "namaste" I could feel the massive, dopey grin on my face.
I was one of them now, one of those buzzed looking foreigners. Because I couldn't not be. I bought art! That's how zen'd out happy I was. I found an art gallery and bought a painting. I've never bought a painting. But I wanted something physical to take with me, some talisman of my time in Ubud, that I could hang up on my wall and look at every day. I carried that painting in its giant tube through Jakarta to Thailand to Japan to Chicago to Richmond. But even though it was a hassle, I liked having it. I liked being able to hold on to it, to feel the weight of it, to reassure myself that there was a part of this place still with me, and that if I had a part of it that meant I wouldn't be truly gone from it.
Or maybe I just needed something to convince myself it hadn't all been a dream. Because it should have been.
I remember loading up our suitcases into our lovely friend, Guspur's van for the last time. We said goodbye to our kind guesthouse owners, to our lovely little room with its porch and koi pond. I watched out the window and saw Ubud go past, with its traditional Balinese temples and markets and its expat cafes and restaurants, with its men zipping past on motorbikes and monkeys perched on ledges. And I felt bereft. Out of everywhere I traveled (not counting Thailand), leaving Bali was by far the hardest.
We hugged Guspur goodbye at the Denpasar airport. And I just knew I wasn't leaving this nice place I visited once. I was leaving a friend and an island that had so thoroughly infiltrated its way down into my very core. I felt Bali in my veins when I was there. I think anyone would.
It took me four blogs to write about Bali, but I still feel like I didn't even come close to doing it justice. It's not just that it was beautiful, although of course it was, more soul shatteringly beautiful than almost anywhere I've ever seen. It wasn't just the people, who were so kind and so generous and lovely.
There was something else there, something like the incense that filled the air, shifting and intangible and impossible to pin down or carry away.
I can't write that. You have to live it. I am and always will be grateful that for ten days I lived it. Bali is in my heart now, soft and shimmering, like the memory of a dream.