20 March – 1 April 2014
Ubud! Sure, there’s plenty to make fun of about this healthy yoga haven of a town (where you can overhear things like “I got really high at this amazing durian party”), but for these long-term travelers, it was an oh-so welcome respite. The city was gorgeous, easy-to-navigate, safe, and seemed to have managed to incorporate modern conveniences without losing its soul. Of course, those who knew it before Eat, Pray, Love, probably think differently, but at least it hadn’t become centered around bar culture. Quite the opposite, in fact: opportunities to find healthy food, dance, yoga, and devotional practice were woven into daily experience right along with the ubiquitous Balinese temples, statues, and offerings. We got to experience many of our favorite things that we mostly hadn’t seen since leaving San Francisco six months prior: modern dance, salsa, ecstatic dance and contact improv. It was so easy to be healthy, find community, and get involved in things like sound healing, taoist-tantra and permaculture. In fact, it would have been hard to walk down the street and not get drawn into some kind of esoteric-yet-groovy practice. Okay, maybe that’s why it’s so easy to make fun of Ubud. Clearly, we drank the Kool-Aid.
We would be remiss if we did not mention our other favorite pastime in Ubud, something we had been missing out on since leaving SF: shopping. Ubud is a hip and fashionable scene, with boutiques that could fit in on Valencia street in SF, and it’s also awash in awesome festival clothing. We were a bit taken aback by the strength of our pent-up shopping desire. Being out of the US for six months hadn’t purified that conditioning. All we can think is that after wearing mostly the same clothes for that long, it was time for a change. The marketing angle of Ubud’s fashion scene is summed up by one store’s tag-line, “Evolve in style”. Its a familiar message: you’re going to do something anyway, so why not spend a little extra and do it with some excess of style or comfort or convenience? Now applied to spiritual growth.
We installed ourselves at a homestay called Rumah Roda (check out the book about living with this family) on a quiet side street and didn’t budge for two weeks. Life was uncomplicated; we had friendly, cool neighbors, a big room and a giant balcony on the top floor overlooking the city. We went to the Bali Spirit festival, which was on beautiful grounds with a pool, massive dance floor, delicious, healthy food, tarot readings, hoop, acro-yoga, and seemingly every other kind of physical-spiritual class I had every heard of. I got to see the Kirtaniyas (who I had seen in Vrindavan) play again, and at the night stage we saw the mesmerizing Persian-electronic group Niyaz, monkey chanting with Cudimani, and a Swedish-African singer-songwriter couple.
We went to traditional Balinese dance at a temple (videos at the bottom), and we also went on an “herb walk” through the rice fields just north of Ubud with a guide named Westi from Nadis Herbal. This store was my favorite in town for local, healthy skincare products and essential oils (face cream with ayurvedic herbs, seaweed, and rose oil, anyone? yummm). Westi gave us quite a talking-to about modernization, rice paddy politics, and traditional Balinese culture. The rice paddies are a five minute walk outside Ubud, and there are a few locals selling out to developers building fancy hotels there. Critical of the development, our guide kept warning us that he couldn’t promise there would be any rice fields left if we visit next year.
Jessica fell more and more in love with Ubud each day. She had never before been to a place where such a breathtaking variety of art forms are so readily available, to learn or to behold. Besides being simply a beautiful place to exist, it’s also a unique incubator and a crossroads for expression through dance and music.
The last two days of our stay were the most extraordinary. We were lucky enough to be there for Balinese new year, Nyepi, and the Ogoh-Ogoh parade that precedes it. We already loved seeing the gnarly demon statues everywhere, but Ogoh-Ogoh gave us a deep respect for this culture that acknowledges its demons so prominently. We got to watch massive, often hypersexualized demons parade through town while children danced along and musicians played. The island was purifying itself. Nyepi is a day of total silence and darkness, where no one is allowed to leave the house (save the spiritual guards who walk the streets making sure no one leaves their house). The idea is that the island goes black and seems uninhabited so that any demons passing overhead will leave it alone. Even the airport is shut down for the day. The staff at Rumah Roda all went home, the lights were kept off all night, no appliances were used, and the guests spent the new year’s day with the owner, Darta. His wife cooked us simple meals – even cooking fires are to be kept low.
We loved Bali a lot and could see ourselves spending more time there. So why didn’t we stay? At some point in a long journey like ours, it becomes unclear how to decide when to stay and when to go. Do we stick with whatever awesome place we have found or do we keep exploring? In the end, we left because we knew we’d be back. And, our visas were expiring.