ubud, bali, indonesia

Just as crows hoard shiny objects, I hoard pictures. It’s no secret that I love to take them, collect them and smoother my walls with them. National Geographic is my publication of choice and I have stacks of carefully torn out magazine pages of dream destinations: the sahara, the great salt flats, the dead sea, you name it. My iPhone camera roll is also filled with screenshots from instagram travelers, who are living the life in beautiful foreign lands. One location, in particular that I always thought was out of reach was Bali, Indonesia.

I’d long been attracted to the island by the lush greenery, the zen atmosphere, the crystalline waters, the rice terraces and of course, the pilgrimage of Liz Gilbert. Bali. I associated it with healing and restoration, with beauty and mystery and soul searching and all that jazz. In other words, I had high stakes. Though my expectations for a 5 day trip did not include a complete spiritual transformation, I did experience the magic and the allure that makes Bali an incomparably special place.

The plane shuddered to a stop. My knuckles were white from a particularly turbulence filled descent and a landing that looked as if it had just missed the turquoise blue ocean. By some stroke of luck, the girl I’d been sitting next to suggested we find a taxi together. I didn’t realize how much I’d need her support until we stepped outside of the beautiful Denpasar airport and were smacked in the face with humidity and the incessant, persistent and unyielding queries of “taxi??? TAXI????’ One driver followed me and my travel buddy nearly half a mile murmuring “taxi???” even after our increasingly unfriendly “NO”s.

It seemed that the Balinese taxi mafia (!!?) has effectively scared off more affordable options, like Uber or GrabTaxi, so we walked over to the arrivals area and managed to convinced a metered taxi to take us to central Ubud, where we were both staying. The route through Bali looked to me like a combination of Thailand and the Azores, Portugal. It was clean and lush green, with well populated roads, surprising injections of street art and a melange of dark moss covered brick, grey stone and magnificent statues. It was soggy and damp, the middle of Bali’s rainy season.

Bali smells clean and somewhat spicy. Each day we stayed in Ubud it rained at about 1 pm- thick, heavy and unyielding sheets of rain. Motorists sped through the wet roads, splashing us and contributing to the fast-moving floods that surged down streets. After the rain, and again each morning, early-rising Balinese put out tiny offerings to the Hindu gods. They are little baskets made from palm fronds and filled with flowers, bits of food or rice and a stick of incense, which contributes to the air’s light spice/perfume scent. They are everywhere! On the street, in front of shops, on statues, even on parked motorbikes. At the end of the day, when they are trodden and sad, they are swept up and replaced.

One of Ubud’s attractions is its Monkey Forest- a sanctuary for over 700 Balinese long-tailed monkeys (scientific: Macaca fascicularis, English: Macaque). They are adorably cheeky, calculating and perpetually hungry. They eat primarily sweet potato, banana, corn, cucumber, coconut and other fruit- so we basically have the same diet. This does not curtail their penchant for human sweets, which I experienced firsthand after a monkey attacked my backpack, stealing a lozenge wrapper which he proceeded to suck on for the next 20 minutes. Satisfied with that level of human to monkey contact, especially after watching other visitors get mildly mauled for bananas, Lauren and I sat down to chat with a Monkey Forest Guard. 10 minutes later, I had a monkey sitting on my head, as comfortably as he would a tree branch, much to my (kind of) horror. Everyone watching thought this was hilarious as he pawed through my hair, but once he started to get a bit nippy, it was game over for me. Shaking myself free, we left the monkey forest and headed for lunch.

That night, we decided to attend a traditional Balinese dance. After forking over 80,000 IDR (~7 USD), we were led to a dark, outdoor meeting area packed with chairs. There, we watched as over 150 Balinese dancers and singers performed the Kecak for us- also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. It portrays a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey army helps Prince Rama kill an evil king. Using only their voices and hands, the dancers perpetuated a rhythm throughout (almost) the entire 90 minute performance. It was sort of hypnotic. At the performance’s close, a dancer in a trance-like state performed, holding a dragon figure, dancing through burning embers. I couldn’t believe the color of his feet afterward- completely black and singed, though he seemed calm and collected.

On one of my last days in Ubud, I went for a run. The morning is the only time this is really possible, before it gets too hot and before it rains. I decided that my chosen path would be through the rice fields. Not much running got done because the humidity was overwhelming and the view was spectacular. The rice fields are steamy and so green and quiet. The air hardly moves here, and if you go early enough, you can see the farmers start their day’s work. The view out into the fields of Ubud is beautiful- miles and miles of green punctuated by palm trees. It’s a dreamy running or walking route and is the cherry on top of an early morning in Ubud.

5 days was not nearly enough to explore the beauty of Bali. Still, I felt that I got a good sense of the community- a mix of foreigners, soul-searchers, yoga teachers, middle aged divorcees, and the implicitly kind local Balinese. Tradition abounds in Bali, as does the mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths. Craftsmanship is intricate, ornate and everywhere, as is color. The smell of frangipani and incense is omnipresent, giving the island a scent of sacredness. There is undeniable magic here, and I feel lucky to have been touched by it all, even that particularly enthusiastic monkey.