Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bali - The Island of the Gods

Written by Karen.

There are certain places on this planet that I have long dreamed of visiting.  Bali - The Island of the Gods - is one of those places.  I have long lusted over colorful pictures of swaying palm trees, rippling green rice fields, tropical birds and monkeys, exquisite foods, elaborate dance and friendly-looking people.  I have watched - and re-watched to the point of memorization - travel shows that featured Bali and the oft-considered conclusion that once you have arrived…that people decide to just never leave.   To simply “Go bamboo.”  That Bali is - could be - the end of the line for those who wander by slowly traveling, just like us.   

It all sounded so unbelievable to me.  Could this purported tropical island paradise be for real?   Or was it photoshopped magical thinking?  

Well, a lot of one and a little bit of the other actually.  Just arriving at a destination is not enough to easily find the achingly beautiful parts of Bali - who it was - even just a few years ago - and who it is today.  Perhaps Bali, like other quickly-developing countries, is indeed changing in some ways so quickly that the changes become more pronounced year after year.  

We spoke with a local man who told us that just 8 years ago there were only a few small homes with mostly rice paddies along the now incredibly bustling, busy and built-up Monkey Forest Road.  Later, with that knowledge, we walked back to Monkey Forest Road to imagine what it used to look like, and marveled how dramatically things can change in such a relatively short period of time.  

The Monkey Forest Road is one of the main roads in Ubud and is the way to get to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary - hence the name.  Today, motorbikes chug by endlessly, trucks belch and burp exhaust, people navigate slowly and carefully along the side-of-the-road, pop-up stands sell tourist items, food, vegetables and fruit, and restaurants, cafes and storefronts line the road.  It looked like the street has been busy and active for years and years.  There is little left of its rural past.

I asked the local man if he thought the traffic-clogged streets and hoards of tourists walking around - or settling down and opening up businesses and changing the complexion of his town - was a good thing, or a bad thing, or somewhere in the middle?  He replied that he thought it was a good thing.  Over the next half hour or so, he explained what it was like to live poor and work in the rice paddies.  We learned about the cycles and seasons of the rice harvest and how difficult the daily routine was.   He explained, “Working in the rice fields is very hard work.  Back-breaking.  Now we have no unemployment here.  Anyone who wants to work has a job.  We are making money.  That is a good thing.”  We heard similar statements made throughout our stay in Ubud.  

Southeast Asia as a region struggles with infrastructure. It is one of the most interesting dichotomies to consistently see:  on one hand, it is very common to see people staring down at their modern smartphones or driving newer vehicles, while basic living conditions such as garbage pickups, sanitary septic/sewer systems, drinkable water and workable public streets/sidewalks are not wide-spread or even standard. 

And Ubud, Bali is no different.  

Ubud is a collection of about fourteen little villages that work together and comprises the collective “town” of Ubud.  Over time, the different villages have filled in, making it seem to the outsider that Ubud is one large town with different neighborhoods.  Ubud is considered to be of special religious, artistic and cultural significance and therefore is a huge tourist destination.  It took a few days for us to slow down and see beyond the in-your-face constant congestion caused by traffic and people.  We were all here looking for something.  

Travel is a balancing act between personal expectations and attitude with actual reality.  Somewhere in that continuum is where you will find your experience.  It really depends on how hard you look.  

For the first several days, Adam and I bounced around Ubud looking for quiet serenity and magical beauty and finding none.  At least as it stood compared to the rather high expectations that I had established for the place.  Ubud seemed fast-paced, noisy and jam-packed with traffic, tourists, locals and pop-up stands, taxi stands, with none of my expectations being met.  I didn’t want to concede defeat, however.  I really, really wanted to like this place.  The answer, for us, was to change our strategy: slow down and put our expectations off to the side.

Surprisingly, I started to slow down when I kept seeing little square, shallow boxes made of what looked to be some sort of leaf and filled with little bits of food, fruit, and rice scattered on the ground.  Why were they discarded on the sidewalk?  They seemed to be some sort of offering.  But they also seemed to be forgotten about and were being kicked around or stepped on as they dried in the heat.  Cats, birds, chickens, monkeys, and dogs that wandered the streets would eat the food inside of the offering boxes.  It seemed like such a contradiction to notice these little square boxes made with care and detail and filled carefully only to be discarded in such a fashion.  It seemed like a good enough place to start discovering Ubud.  

Bali is one of over 13,000 islands that comprise the nation of Indonesia. While the archipelago nation of Indonesia is the most populous Muslim majority nation, Bali has gone in a different direction.  This Indonesian island is predominately Hindu, bringing together religious ideas and components from India, Thailand, and others, and infuses their beliefs into almost every aspect of day-to-day life.  

Those offerings that I noticed on the ground are a part of Bali’s Hindu customs. Three times a day, a woman in her religious dress gives an offering to the various spirit houses and individual shrines or on the sidewalk in front of a business or home.  It is a simple routine, done with purposeful intention, despite people stopping to watch and the ongoing chaos of life surrounding them. 

I was one of those people who stopped to watch.  I was entranced with the grace, the beauty, and the deliberateness shown each time an offering was presented.  We saw hundreds of offerings during our stay; each part of the offering had significance and meaning.  It never seemed that the woman was rushed, bored or disinterested by having to take the time - each time - to put on her sarong and perform this ceremony: light the incense, shake the drops of holy water over the offering with a flower blossom, speak the words, lower her head in prayer, despite the noise and distractions that surrounded her.  An oasis of calm and reflection.  

We walked the streets - taking care to walk around the major streets - and learned where the rice paddies were on the outskirts and the edges of Ubud.  The locals are extremely friendly, smiling fully in return to my grin.  We were fortunate to spend time in a local homestay a little bit outside of the major ‘downtown’ area.  There our balcony overlooked a tropical jungle, complete with a meandering river and two large Komodo dragons.  Of course there are free-range chickens and roosters wandering about in the underbrush, and deciding that it was time to crow about something at 4:00 am.  We were able to talk with the members of the family - one of the huge benefits of staying in a family homestay - and began to understand what life is like from their perspective and ask questions about things that we had seen that puzzled us.  

We slowly started slipping into a simpler way of life.  Waking to the sounds of a rooster - or three - and then moments later to the sounds and smells of incense from the offerings to the gods, and then to the smoky smells of breakfast wafting upwards from the outside kitchen.  

We varied our time in the busy center and in the calm tranquility of the rippling rice paddies and tropical forests.  We were on our way to discovering Ubud, and my love affair with Indonesia - and with Ubud particularly - was intensifying as we began to find balance and beauty.  The magical paradise is still here.  It's different than what it used to be, and from what I thought Bali might be, and it will certainly be different when we go back again.  

I found Ubud, Bali to be a bit elusive with her charm and beauty at first, but it was definitely worth the time and effort to try and find it. It is still early in my relationship with Bali - there is so much to see, explore and try to understand - but I'm hooked.  For me, Ubud, Bali is a series of contrasts between the past, present and future with all that entails with its staggering traffic and crowds that are the tangible reality of Ubud today.  That reality affects Ubud's past and its traditions, but it also can shine a light forward and help bring levels of financial prosperity to the region.  Change and balance.  It's hard to get it just right.  While I'm not yet ready to "go bamboo", I can totally understand the reasons of the many who call Ubud their home.  

An offering with burning incense, rice, various food and little gifts
The offerings are seen on the sidewalk drying out before eventually getting swept up.  These are pretty dry and have been kicked around a bit.  These are the offerings that first caught my eye.  
'Fresher' offerings from the sidewalk or stoop into the street
A woman in her religious dress performing the offering ritual

We took many walks/hikes through the rice fields.  This one had a bamboo wind chime that clanked and clunked with the wind.  It was a beautiful sound, and the only sound around.  
View of some of the houses on the hill overlooking the tropical forest
Flooded rice paddies at sunset

A spirit house in the rice fields. 
Rice nearing harvest time
Besides bamboo wind chimes, rice farmers used pieces of cloth tied on top of springy bamboo spears and 'scarecrows' such as these to scare away the birds.  Interestingly enough, we saw lots of ducks living in these rice paddies.  
Flooded rice fields
A unique-looking bird that I saw on our hike
I saw this statue on one of our rice field walks.  She looked very peaceful and content to me.  
This flower smells like honey and is one of the flowers that is used in the offering ritual.  This flower is dipped into a bowl of water and sprinkled over the offering.  
Lotus flower.  One of the most magnificent flowers that grows in ponds throughout and around Ubud, Bali.


Gus Burkard said...

Hi Karen and Adam,
WOW, what a thorough and complete intro to the current lives lived in and around Ubud, Bali. It is good to hear that you are going in with your eyes (and other senses) wide open. Thank you for sharing your detailed observations and thoughts as you meander through the rice paddies and the streets of Ubud! Though we can get a glimpse of why you would want to go bamboo, we hope you and Adam find your way back to life in small town USA.
Much love,
Gus n Cam

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hey Gus!

Thanks for your feedback and comment. Although the idea of going bamboo is tempting, we are definitely planning on coming back to the States in late April. It will be good to see you both again. :)

Karen (and Adam, of course!)