For the last couple of months we have been living in Bali and learning that time here slips by very easily. So easily in fact, that part of me feels I should probably be alarmed about this careless drifting towards the end of my life, but the trouble is that I simply feel too relaxed to care.
The last six months have involved a lot of travelling, and seen us in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and Singapore. But now, and with a deep and satisfied sigh, we have unpacked our suitcase and settled into a place that feels like “home”.
We are in the village of Penestanan, which is a suburb of the small and wonderful town of Ubud. Apart from a few excursions, here is where we stay until the end of September. Home for us is in a house with an unusual collection of quirky rooms, owned and run by the delightful Sudi and his family.
After spending a month in the downstairs jungle room, we have now moved up to the top floor. It’s a blissful spot, offering fresh breezes and stunning views. Everyday the local kids come to the fields to fly their kites. I watch them from our couch, marveling at both the designs (which are usually in the shape of giant birds and butterflies), and the fact that the kites are often three times the size of the child !
We do have housemates though ….. just like everywhere in Bali, we share our place with numerous geckos. These small lizards stick to the walls and ceilings and keep the room free from insects. They also have the habit of hiding behind household objects and leaping out whenever you move them (it’s a bit like living with Kato in the Inspector Clouseau fims). It’s a bit freaky at first, but soon becomes just another part of the fun.
Days here are very easy, very pleasant, and often beautiful in a myriad of quiet and subtle ways. We get up with the sun and breakfast on weetabix & raisins whilst watching the morning haze lift from the neighbouring rice fields. Jane soon walks down to the pool to do her hundred lengths, whilst I sit back and dream before braving the news on the BBC. An hour later, when Jane’s shift is over, I go down and swim my own set.
The pool is the main reason we chose to stay at our present address. Its a gorgeous place and most days we are the only ones who use it. Orchids from the surrounding garden trail overhead, dragonflies skim the water, and the local finches come down to drink and watch us swim back and forth.
The path down takes us by the house-shrine where Ganesh the elephant god (adorned in garlands of marigolds), sits in regal majesty before fresh offerings of incense and biscuits. My relationship with him is evolving; no longer just a stone statue, he has started to become a definite presence … some sort of living being that offers strength, wisdom, protection, support and good luck. I always stop to say hello and give my respects.
The sweet smoke from his incense often coils across the pool to mingle with the caramel-like fragrence of the frangipani flowers in the garden. As I reach one end of the pool, I turn to swim back and am greeted with the light of the morning sun streaming into the surrounding orchard, where bananas and papayas hang ripening in the trees. I ponder to myself that if this place smells like heaven and looks like heaven, then surely I must be actually be in heaven.
Of course its not really heaven. For a start, St Peter at the gates has been replaced by the Immigration Department who suspiciously questioned me about my intentions before they would validate my visa. However once you are away from the hassles of Indonesian bureaucracy, the exhausts from downtown traffic jams, and the dank wafts from its third-world sewer system, living in Ubud actually does feel pretty close to heaven on a regular basis.
Life falls into certain rhythms here. Balinese culture is heavily influenced by regular ceremonies that underpin peoples lives. Every six months there are important purification ceremonies. Every full moon, and every dark of the moon there are temple ceremonies. Every month or so there are important dedication ceremonies and every day fresh offerings are made to the gods of the house and fields. Last month was the annual “metal implement blessing day” which has taken on a modern twist as all the cars and scooters get covered in flowers and woven-grass sculptures.
Earlier this year when travelling in India, a friend described to me how once a year his town set up a speaker system to broadcast the recital of Hindu texts ….. without a minutes break …. for an entire week ! Although he wasn’t a religious man, he said that this event had the effect of “purifying the air” and the town felt clean for months afterwards. I personally think that the constant ceremonies of Bali must have a similar effect. There is something intangible here, something special.
When I have spoken to Balinese about this way of life, they have often rolled their eyes at the sheer number of ceremonial duties that take place. But they still live it and feel it deeply. To my own eyes these events have the very real effects of binding communities together and reminding people of the better angels of their nature.
Not only that, their religious events are also an amazing spectacle. Processions are taken seriously but are good natured, and colourful. Women dress in their very feminine finery and carry boxes of offerings on their heads. Whilst the men play a gamelan orchestra of gongs, xylaphones and drums or band together to carry large statues aloft on bamboo rafts. When we first arrived here there was a cremation ceremony for a important elder, where the whole village took part to see her off. Jane and I looked down from a nearby rooftop open mouthed whilst an extraordinary ceremonial “dance” unfolded below. Please click on the picture below to see the video.
There is no doubt that Ubud is quickly becoming modernised, but Bali’s deep and unique culture remains reflected in everything around. Family homes are a good example, consisting of numerous, stone-carved detatched rooms built around a courtyard. Each room has its own dedicated place and function, including some just for the gods to live and thrive in. It’s a way of representing an ordered and beneficent world. Appreciation of art and beauty are everywhere here, in the form of statues, paintings, wood carvings, fountains and flowers.
Another spectacle here is nature itself. The surrounding countryside is so outrageously lush that walking through the rice fields and river canyons of Bali is a journey into Green. Shades and shades and shades of it. There are certain things here that I love to do, and simply getting on my scooter and exploring the back roads is one of them.
There is no doubt that another of the things I love to do here is EAT. Food has become a central part of our existence and after more than a year of being without our own kitchen, we are enjoying the novelty of making our own food again. Jane does her amazing salads and I have become proficient in cooking peanuts, which we buy raw and gently heat up with salt and pepper. Better than any pack of KP, they make a nice lunch which we wash down with our own brew of iced rosella tea.
However Bali still remains one of the few places in the world where eating out is actually cheaper than cooking for yourself. Ubud is the home to at least four hundred restaurants and cafes, many of which serve outstanding meals, and each day involves excited discussions about where, and what we will eat. We like to try at least one new place a week as well as return regularly to our short list of favourites.
There is a nice place called Laba Laba, run by three beautiful sisters who live gracefully and greet us with peaceful smiles. Not everything there is to our taste, however through trial and error we have discovered they do one particular stand out dish. A filling and healthy plate of vegetarian Gado Gado with sweet peanut sauce costs just £1.70 and is one of the most delicious things we know.
Then there is Cafe Vespa ….. our local eatery where we go if it rains and don’t fancy the ten minute trip into town. It’s a popular hang-out and the tables are often filled with “internet zombies” who spend hours plugged into mac books, whilst nursing their single glass of water. However we always manage to find somewhere to sit and order two dishes of their amazing pasta with fresh basil and spicy tomato sauce.
Our favourite of the moment is “La Mien” a Japanese noodle joint in the middle of town. Its a small, funky place run by a friendly bunch of young locals. It has traditional red lanterns hung outside, and a mural of manga-charecters inside. Undaunted by the complex menu, we first tried it on a whim, and immediately fell in love with the clean tastes and ultra fresh ingredients.
It’s one of those places where the food is so good that your stomach is thanking you for the next couple of hours. Its also a great place to sit and watch the goings-on in Goutama Street.
Ubud has a cosmopolitan street life. There are locals passing through on their way to temple; the men in sarongs and head-scarfs, the women dressed in colourful lace and balancing stacks of offerings on their heads, . There are numerous tourists from Europe, Japan, China & the States. The new arrivals clearly disorientated, the veterans confidently en route to favourite eateries. The ex-pats are easily identified by their nonchalance and “I’m an Ubudian” vibe as they cruise through on scooters and bicycles on their way to the next social meet-up. Occasionally dancers from the local shows hurry by in full makeup and golden headgear that look so dazzling that it makes us gasp. Then there are the street animals: dogs down below, cats up on the roofs, the odd rat flitting around the shadows and geckos waiting by the lights ready to ambush any insect the comes within range.
I confess that it is the women that I watch the most. Ubud is renowned (at least in my eyes) for being a town full of beautiful women. Balinese women are often extremely pretty, gentle, good humoured and an absolute joy to meet. That alone makes for pleasant people watching, but Ubud has also become a magnet for independent women from across the westernised world. Travelers, artists, students, entrepreneurs and writers. Ever since this town was made famous in the film “Eat, Pray, Love” they have come in numbers for yoga classes and new age lifestyles. Ubud offers a relatively safe and gentle environment. Some are just passing through but many others have settled down and made their home here. As we sit and eat our noodles Jane points them out to me as they walk on by………. but makes sure I don’t get too interested.
After our meal and a stroll around the block, we return home to knock up an exotic fruit salad and watch a film. The ride back takes us past Campuan Temple, which is alive and ablaze with light for the latest ceremony. Today is “Iron Fence Day” where people commit to guarding their minds against negative thoughts ……….. I think we could all do with a bit of that.