November 17, 2014

Travelogue: Ubud

October 19, 2014

I am finding it difficult to find the words to articulate just how remarkably beautiful everything is right now.

At this moment, I am sitting poolside, sipping tea while Lise drinks Bintang in the pool. There is a remarkable serenity to the pool, to this entire small compound of five villas where we are staying. From our four-post bed and private garden with traditional Balinese art, to the gorgeous traditional sculptures and impeccably-polished wood and stone buildings, every single part of this place is considered, maintained, almost-perfect.

The service, too, is careful and considerate, among the best I’ve ever experienced. The driver even picked us up from the airport with cold towels and bottles of water, and the staff drive us all around Ubud whenever we like. They know when we are thirsty even before we do. I feel pampered, relaxed.

We began the day with a multi-course breakfast (finally had my first banana pancake, and it was delicious), and then went into central Ubud where we strolled around and checked out city life. There are a surprising amount of French tourists in town — I feel as though I hear more French than English as I walk through Ubud.

The old world macaques at the Monkey Forest are brazen: the first one we saw took a juice box right out of a visitor’s hand. We spent about an hour in the forest, checking out temples and avoiding stepping on the hundreds of monkeys that we saw.

We had a quick snack at Kafe — a local spot in Ubud that played buddha lounge’ music and serves local, organic food (we had a raw ravioli with sunflower seed cheese that was surprisingly good) — and then hopped in a cab back to the villa where we went for a swim. It has been ridiculously hot all day; a dip in the pool was much-needed refreshment.

After my shower — we have a private outdoor shower in our garden that is quite luxurious — I have made my way poolside and am writing this while we craft some plans for dinner this evening. I am so very excited.

October 20, 2014

It is 5:45am on a Monday morning, and I am sitting on the balcony above the pool, enjoying the stillness. I could say that all is quiet, but that would be a lie — the roosters are awake and crowing loudly. Otherwise, however, not a single other soul is stirring, and I like it.

The great thing about staying in a part of Bali that isn’t completely in the midst of a tourist area but instead in a mostly-residential neighborhood is that it incentivizes early mornings. When everything is closed and quiet by 9pm, you’re almost forced to follow an early-to-bed-early-to-rise routine, and this makes me happy.

Last night, the skies opened up and we were treated to a tropical storm. Luckily, this happened after we had finished dinner and while we were in town enjoying the last of the religious festival procession; we were able to find an awning under which to seek refuge while we watched the musicians go past. It was a lovely break to the humidity and heat of the day.

On our way to dinner, Lise was attacked by a coconut.

The path to Sari Organik was a winding, half-mile long trek through the rice paddies. The green from the paddies almost looked fake, it was that lush. It was as if someone had gone into Photoshop and turned up the saturation. The paddies here are as verdant and sprawling as the ones you see in the National Geographic magazine spreads; it was breathtaking.

While we walked, a coconut fell from its tree, not one step after Lise had passed by, spewing coconut juice all over our legs. Half a second earlier, and it would have landed square on her head. It was harrowing at the time, but we were able to laugh about it by dinner time.

Dinner was at a restaurant on a high ridge among the paddies, and offered views of the lush green fields, as well as the city of Ubud below. It was a little too cloudy to enjoy the sunset, but the view was still breathtaking, better than any dining view we had ever had before, anywhere.

Our bellies were full of organic food grown at the restaurant by the time we started the walk back through the now-pitch-dark paddies back into town. We were thankful for our flashlights. A frog that made a sound like an angry duck made me chuckle all the way back.

We enjoyed the dinner, the walk, the rainstorm, and our subsequent sleep. Now, I wake with the roosters.

October 21, 2014

The roosters began crowing very early this morning; by the time I woke up at 4am, they were already making a cacophony of sound. The rooms are silent — I only notice this avian symphony when I step outside, like now, to do some writing and reading on the balcony overlooking the pool.

The sounds of roosters is but one of the indelible marks left upon my senses after yesterday’s adventures. The things we saw, heard, tasted, smelled and felt will linger long after this vacation; photos and written descriptions will not ever do them any justice.

Dean, our driver (more on him later), took us to Tanah Lot to start the day. It is a temple, a series of temples that were built hundreds of years ago in the water, on little rock formations just past where the surf meets the land. The smell of the Indian Ocean, the salty scent that permeates the air is refreshing, invigorating.

Along the way to Jatiluwih to see the rice fields, we stopped at a cafe to try Luwak coffee, a smooth coffee made from coffee beans that have been first eaten by civit cats and then harvested from their poop. I personally like my coffee a little stronger, more caustic, but it was surely a unique taste experience.

We also stopped at a local fruit vendor, and Dean bought us some jackfruit, rambutan, and some mangosteen. It was Lise’s first time eating mangosteen, and she was smitten with the monkey-brain” fruit. These are all fruits I have had growing up, but here — where the fruits are sold directly after being picked from the tree instead of being shipped across the ocean and sold in crates in Chinatown — they taste different, fresher, crisper. The flavors linger on your tongue long after the first bite.

There are no words to describe the terraced rice paddies of Jatiluwih. Imagine the lushest terraces you have seen on all the nature shows (even those shots are dull in comparison to the actual paddies) and then imagine them stretching, literally, as far as the eye can see. Our hike through the rice paddy valley left me with the kinds of images and vistas that have been imprinted on the insides of my eyelids; on days when I am stressed, I will close my eyes and be re-transported there, amongst the serenity of the unending rice fields.

The drive to Tamblingan took us high into the mountains. We could feel our ears popping as we traveled higher and higher, feel the air chill considerably against our skin as we went up in altitude. It wasn’t cold, but compared to the seaside heat, the mountain air left a welcome frisson on our bodies.

Allow me, for a minute, to describe one of my ideas of paradise, if I were to believe in a material afterlife: it would involve, most likely, a large expanse of completely-still and clear water, surrounded by a dense and green forest, and would be relatively quiet save for the chuckling of children and shuffling of animals.

Tamblingan Lake in the mountain, and the temple and small village, were pretty close to my idea of paradise. I will not attempt to describe it, only to say that I told Lise that if I were to be told I had to spend the rest of my life in one spot, in one moment, it would be there in Tamblingan, with her.

On any other day, I would wax poetic about the delicious mie goreng and mango duck curry we had for dinner, but after a day that left such other indelible marks on all our senses, I will just stop here for now and let everything wash over me again.

I want to tell you so much more about Dean, our driver and guide, and about all the things he taught us, but the sun is rising now, so first, it’s time for a swim.

Dean is the kind of tour operator that doesn’t like tours; he said that himself. He is a laid-back, fun-loving driver that loves Bali and loves meeting new people. He is not the driver you want to hire if you want to visit the typical tourist spots (even the ones we do visit, he takes us to back entrances and neglected stops) but is instead the kind of guy who will take you to a local cafe and chat with you before going shopping with you at the market.

Dean doesn’t guide” per se, but instead has conversations with you as you drive. Throughout those conversations, you learn about him, he learns about you, and you all learn about Bali. Dean doesn’t teach, but through exploration you learn so much. Here’s a short, selected list of some of the things I learned from our first day with Dean:

  • They don’t pay income tax in Bali.

  • Every village is known for making something: umbrellas, roofs, bricks, etc.

  • Palm trees stop growing at a certain altitude (we saw the last palm tree as we went up into the mountains).

  • Villagers like to bathe in rice paddy streams because the water is cooler, fresher.

  • Students have different school uniforms for different days of the week.

  • Some men really love cock-fighting.

  • Baby fern leaves are a staple of traditional Balinese diet (urab).

  • The Balinese religious year is 210 days; temples all have a ceremony every year.

  • While some people use modern machinery for parts of the process, much of the rice farming in Bali is done by hand, a laborious process from flooding to planting to harvesting to husking to storing to burning to re-flooding again.

  • Rice husks are used a pig feed; husks from Java are brought to Bali as Java, a predominantly Muslim island, has very few pigs to feed.

  • 60% of the economy in Bali is fueled by tourism.

  • Killing a cat is bad luck; dogs, less crucial.

  • All the temples in each housing compound face the mountain, the seat of god.

  • Do not drink from the Absolut Vodka bottles lining the shelves at every roadside vendor — they are not filled with alcohol, but instead with gasoline for motorbikes.

  • The maximum height for any building in Bali is the height of the tallest neighboring coconut palm; buildings rarely exceed two storeys.

October 23, 2014

I feel guilty, slightly, for skipping a day of travel journaling. I know I shouldn’t, as this is my own exercise for myself, but I do feel a bit guilty nonetheless.

My phone is dying. It’s funny that a piece of technology that can cause so much stress while connected can also be stressful while on airplane mode.” As our primary trip camera, we are dependent on my phone for capturing trip photos; now that it won’t charge anymore, we have about one more day of photography left.

This is mainly troublesome because so much of what we see is impossible to describe in words. This morning’s sunrise over the rice paddies as I write this, for example.

We transfered to the Bambu Indah yesterday evening, and the architecture here is nothing like I’ve seen before. The compound is nestled in a forest with abundant streams — the pool is a frog pond purified by volcanic rock — and the main building is a magnificent structure that is, in the honest sense of the word, breath-taking. It looks as though Calatrava build a sprawling cathedral out of bamboo and planted it in a Balinese forest. It is, indeed, remarkable.

Our house is a traditional Javanese bridal hut built upon a shrimp pond, nestled away in the corner of the compound. It is quiet, rustic, beautiful. The house has an illuminated glass floor, but so far we have yet to see any shrimp. (Lise did see some fish swim by below us, though.)

This place is definitely nothing like any place I’ve ever been before. The views of the Ayung terrace are almost spiritual.

The past few days have been inconsistent in terms of organization, but delightful in terms of experience. Such is most travel, particularly leisure travel: even the best laid plans can go awry, but there is always a great amount of fun to be had when things don’t quite go the way you expected.

Our Tuesday morning began with a guided walk through a local market, where we learned many things that we may not have noticed if we had simply done an early morning stroll ourselves. I won’t get into all of them here, but here’s a particularly tasty nugget of knowledge: in Bali, the bank comes to you.

Some of the vendors at the market require small business loans, but instead of going to the bank, employees come to the market daily to talk to vendors, collect interest, and just do general banking stuff.

The market walk was a pre-amble to a cooking class — we were taken into a family compound, and proceeded to cook a three-course meal with the members of the family. (It wasn’t just a demo—we actually made all the parts of the meal under their guidance and ate what we made!) As part of the class, we also learned about the traditional Balinese family compound, participated in a ritual offering, and learned about family dynamics. It took a few hours to make the meal, but it was worth it. So delicious!

That afternoon was slightly more hit-and-miss. The tour operator we had booked to take us to Uluwatu didn’t speak much English, and tried to make us pay at all the stops even though everything was supposed to have been included. our first stop on the way to Uluwatu, a park called GWK, was underwhelming. It was, essentially, a construction site with a giant Vishnu head in it. (Not a giant Buddha head, as Lise sheepishly learned.) Uluwatu itself was stunning — watching the sun set as the Indian Ocean crashed on the giant cliffs below your feet is awe-inspiring — but was swarming with too many people.

The highlight was the Kecak Fire Dance, which took place in an outdoor amphitheatre on the edge of the cliffs and looked out at the ocean. The dance itself was remarkable: it told the story of Rama and Sita (and a host of other characters like Hanoman the monkey) and wasn’t accompanied by music, but instead by fifty chanting men creating a beautiful canopy of sound. The costumes and dancing were stunning and I was entranced.

A few things infuriated me: first, the fact that at least a third of the crowd arrived late, after the show had started. One couple arrived 30 minutes late to a 50-minute show. The other was the early exodus; about a third of the audience left before the show was done, some of them leaving as early as twenty minutes into the show. I find it hard to believe that people can’t just sit still, on their vacation, for fifty minutes to enjoy a mesmerizing part of local culture.

The tour included dinner at a seafood restaurant in Jimbaran Bay, and while we weren’t expecting much, the initial impression of the restaurant was like a giant cafeteria on the beach. Since it was already dark by that time and there were no lights, we could barely see what was on our plates. While the setting and service was lackluster, the seafood was surprisingly fresh and tasty. We went back to the villa with full bellies.

All in all, it was a day of ups and downs; the cooking class and Kecak Fire Dance were delightful and memorable standouts, so while the rest may have missed the mark, we were still happy.

Yesterday was much more relaxed, but I’ll write more about that after I swing in the frog pond and eat some bubur ayam for breakfast.

The sun is about to set in an hour; I am spending that time in a small hut overlooking the rice paddies and enjoying a slight breeze while I write.

After the day I have had, I am enjoying the respite.

Yesterday and today have been polar opposites, but both incredibly fun in their own way. While this morning was physically intense, yesterday was anything but.

Our morning yesterday was spent eating a traditional Balinese breakfast and then swimming in the pool, soaking up some sun, and chatting with Herb and Marsha, a couple from Atlanta we had befriended over the past few days. After checking out from our villa, we went into town for babi guling at the most famous place in Ubud for the dish. (I am tempted to buy a t-shirt with a smiling suckling pig on it, the universal sign in Bali for babi guling.) After a stroll through town and a few quick peeks into local shops, we ended up at the spa for the afternoon.

Balinese massage can be painful. This massage was just as painful, if not more, than a sparring match in the boxing ring when I was young. While it did loosen me up quite a bit, it took some time to allow the pain to pass. The massage was followed by a full-body scrub inn a mélange of spice, and then coated in yogurt before a long soak in a tub. I left the spa relaxed, but also smelling like spicy lassi.

There was a bamboo band playing when we got to the Bambu Indah. We listened to them play as we watched the sunset over the rice paddies, and then had an amazing Indian dinner (the fish curry was divine) at the hotel restaurant. I even got to try arak, the local palm moonshine.

It was, in every way, a relaxing, delectable day — and the complete opposite of today, so far.

After watching the sun rise, swimming in the frog pond, and eating my bubur bali, I learned that Lise wasn’t feeling well. As happens with many travelers, her stomach was acting up. She insisted I go on with the plans for the day while she stayed at the compound, resting, napping, swimming, and just getting better. 

My ride with Dean was peaceful at first; we drove and chatted and laughed. We stopped at a water palace that was a stunning sight to behold, and I walked all around as there were only two other visitors there at the same time. It was peaceful, serene, beautiful — and then the craziness began.

Our next stop was a temple on one of Bali’s highest peaks. The air was already getting thin by the time we got to the parking lot — I should have thought twice before agreeing to climb up the 900 steps in 94° heat up to the temple. Both Dean and I were winded by the time we got to the top; we took some time to sit and catch our breath before admiring the majestic view.

By the time we got back to the car and started driving back, I could tell something was wrong with Dean. He was clasping his back and breathing heavily. At the foot of the mountain, he had to get out of the car to stretch his back, which was now spasming. I told him that it was best we canceled any further plans and just call it a day.

We had to stop four more times on the drive home, twice for Dean to stretch and twice for him to get a quick back massage. Three hours later, and here I am, finally relaxing near the frog pond, resting my tired legs and lungs, and my worried mind.

The good news is that Lise is feeling somewhat better. Tonight we will head into Ubud for smoked duck at Bebek Bengil, and then we are off to the airport early tomorrow morning for our flight to Lombok.

Check out more notes from my various travels.

→ Travel