When in Bali, everyone tells you to go to Ubud. It’s where the famous film “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed, and hundreds of tourists go there on retreats to either practice Yoga or meditate. It’s known as one of the largest ‘spiritual centers’ of the world, and the name ‘Ubud’ in Balinese actually means medicine. It’s a place that’s supposed to heal.
So I was in for a surprise when I found that it was a sprawling urban center similar to Ho Chi Minh, with motorbikes running in 8 directions simultaneously and noise noise noise at every corner you turn. Hell, Starbucks is even there. How did that happen?
Luckily my homestay was located way back in the rice fields, so at night I heard nothing but the sound of frogs and crickets in the rice terraces. Still, winding down around the river at the end of my homestay and going out to face the traffic of Ubud was definitely not something I enjoyed (although the shopping and yoga class there was, actually, quite good—not what I was expecting).
Ubud is located in the mountains and is surrounded by the sustaining life force of the island—rice fields. Similar to Sapa or Longsheng in Guilin, the cascading mountain rice terraces here are a famous tourist attraction, as they should be. They’re simply amazing. Taking a stroll around the rice fields also gave me a heavy sinking feeling in my heart: I missed Niigata. Even though I was hours and an ocean away from Japan, seeing the familiar beauty of a green patch of rice crops had me reminisce back to my home. Back to Nou.
Anyway, when I went to Guilin a few years back I rented a bike and went cycling through the karst mountains alongside the river, and it was, well, awesome. Don’t know what else to say there. I’m sure you can imagine how beautiful it was to wind around mountains, stroll by the local folk, and take in the fresh air of nature as you whizz around. I kind of wanted to do the same thing in Bali, so I signed up for a bike tour.
On the tour I met a mother daughter duo from England, an older couple and their mutual friend from San Francisco (in their late 50’s) and another solo female traveler like myself from Australia. We’ll call her Jody.
The tour was advertised as, “see Bali on a bike—all downhill!” And man, were they right, because the entire 3 hour bike ride was literally downhill. I think I pedaled the bike for a total of 5 minutes throughout the whole day, and other than that I sat there and let gravity take its course. There was only one area where I worried a bit, which is the part where we ACTUALLY biked through a rice field. Like, not around it, or alongside it—right through it. I’m sure you know rice terraces are basically little mini swamps, so they built a clunky wooden path to take you from rice field point A to rice field point B, and let’s just say it was narrow and unstable. As I rode across, instead of look at the beauty around me I concentrated hard on not hitting a pebble and flying head first into the muddy swamp that is a rice field.
The great thing about Balinese people is—they’re crazy friendly. Everyone was saying hello to us and trying to strike up conversation, a warm smile on their face, not shy in the slightest. The tour guide even took us into a real Bali home, which wasn’t “pre-prepared” for the tour or anything. The guide literally went up to a house and said, “can I bring these foreigners in?” and they responded, “of course, why not?” I felt awkward taking photos of their very, very meager surroundings (bottom rung of poverty) and their personal space, but they insisted that photos were ok and not to worry.
The tour guide took us into a house, (really, just a few connected wooden huts with a concrete kitchen and bathroom) where they raised their own livestock. We said hello to the pigs and cows and chickens, then went to check on the grandma that was making a hand woven basket outside. She was 90, and had been doing that her whole life. She smiled at us so warmly. I always wonder what the locals must think of these glitzy foreigners coming in, ogling at their everyday existence with their huge Nikon cameras zooming in on their simple lives.
A woman nearby was with her baby, a warm smile on her face as she greeted us hello. Our tour guide showed us a post in the ground nearby and said:
“Her placenta is buried underneath here. This is the shrine to the placenta, to life. In Balinese culture, after birth we bury the placenta in its own special shrine in the home, and everyone celebrates.”
“Is it one of the main celebrations in a typical Balinese life?” asked the American.
“In Bali, there are 4 major events in life. The first one is birth, so we have the placenta ceremony. The second one is the realization of adolescence. For this ceremony, when a child turns 14 he or she gains the supposed knowledge of sin, and to erase them, or rather, to give them the ability to control their desires against committing these 7 cardinal sins—we have a teeth filing ceremony. We file down 7 teeth to represent each sin, and everyone watches.”
“That must hurt!”
“Hurt like bloody hell!” (our Indonesian tour guide had a heavy Manchester accent, if you can imagine that)
He continued, “the next ceremony is marriage, of course, and the final and largest ceremony is death—the funeral, the reincarnation of life” (and as you know from Bali part one, the funeral really is a hip happenin ceremony).
We continued to bike throughout the countryside, and everything was perfect. Rice fields flew by me on both sides, children were running through the streets playing and shouting ‘hello!’ as we passed by, and we took a few pit stops to observe the everyday life of Bali locals. At one pit stop we saw the women preparing a huge feast and making hundreds of offerings for the gods (the Balinese put out these offerings every day, a small tray with some fruit and flowers and incense); while the men sat opposite of them doing—
Balinese men don’t do anything. Literally. They don’t even work. They just sit around all day and stroke their roosters (like, their actual pet rooster, you dirty reader—cock fighting is abundant in Bali, which is why you can hear a rooster EVERYWHERE). When you go to the rice fields, it’s all women workin it. They’re carrying barleys of rice that must weigh over 70 kg. I even saw some Balinese women in the city carrying blocks of cinder like construction workers. I just didn’t see the men doing jack sht. Let’s just say, wasn’t really a turn on for me to see a guy sit around all day petting his rooster (Bali men, def out for potential boyfriend candidate).
Overall, the bike tour was probably one of the best parts of my trip. I learned so much about Balinese culture, and the group I traveled with was fantastic. I told them my mom and dad Vietnam War romance story in the car, and as soon as I finished everyone cried: “Make that into a book!” I’m on it, people, I’m on it.
The Australian girl Jody, my fellow solo traveler, became my friend. We met up in Ubud with my other friends from Shanghai (my Japanese co-worker and her boyfriend), and we went to see the traditional Balinese “fire dance.” And that’s literally what it was. A guy dancing in hot coals and kicking them around (sometimes at the audience). He was a badass.
Jody and I also went to a place called the Yoga Barn, which is basically heaven for all yoga enthusiasts. Really, it’s like the Vatican for yoga fans. It’s a giant maze of open air wooden architecture in a forest. Aside from the mosquitoes eating me alive while I did downward dog, it was quite possibly the best yoga experience I’ve had.
With my co-worker and her boyfriend, we went to the monkey forest. Her boyfriend is a silly American, so he brought in, like, 100 bananas. Let’s just say, we got attacked.
While Ubud was nice, I recommend future Bali travelers to stay at small villages to the north of Ubud instead. Ubud is becoming so urban and crowded; I would hardly call it a ‘retreat’ anymore. Balinese people are hella nice, so I bet you could pay them a fair share of money to live with them in their home in some village 15 min north of Ubud—and trust me, you’d have a great experience.
Jody and I went to an island off the coast of Bali called Nusa Lembongan. I chose this island because all tourists said it’s quiet with turquoise beaches, and what I wanted more than anything was quiet.
While there I acted as interpreter for my hotel, helping all the Chinese guests get accommodated. Throughout the process I met two Chinese couples, one from Chengdu and another from Fujian. The Chengdu couple have their own wedding photo company in Tibet, and were traveling all over southeast Asia to explore other options for business development (aka, having a mind blowingly good time). The Fujian couple were newly married, and as I wrote in my post below, 22 years old. If that doesn’t make me feel like a ‘leftover woman,’ I don’t know what else does.
I went snorkeling with the Chinese couples, and it was—really—one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. The ocean floor is like another world, and I want to explore more of it.
The Chengdu couple and I became really close; we exchanged Weixin information and we still chit chat about this and that whenever we have time. I look at their continued travel photos and I long in jealousy. Although the two of them couldn’t speak English, everyone was itching to talk to them because they were so alive and upbeat and full of that joy for living—to the point where words weren’t necessary for communication. They were infectious with happiness and inspired me. They promised that if I ever go to Chengdu I can stay with them, and they’ll be more than happy to show me around Sichuan—and even help me plan a trip into Tibet (they have the hookups, since their company is there).
And last week, the couple sent a surprise gift to my office:
A scarf and necklace from Tibet.
One of my better memories was having a pina colada on the beach with Jody, watching the sunset at Nusa Lembongan. I’ve never really had an opportunity to talk with Australians, and since Jody was a nurse I got to learn about how healthcare works down under. Whenever I swap stories about American healthcare and some other place (i.e. Europe, England, Australia), it really makes me question my decision to live in the USA forever. I mean, look at Breaking Bad—paying all those hospital bills can turn you from teacher to drug dealer (i.e. bad health insurance and some bad luck can essentially destroy your life). Either way, I immensely enjoyed conversation with Jody and promised her I’d go down under to see her in Melbourne someday.
The beaches in Bali are clean, the sand white, and the ocean a clear, azure blue. Many people swat Bali away as being a tourist hell hole resort, but really, it’s much more than that. As I sat with my Pina Colada and chit chatted it up with Jody, I thought about that ‘Bali magic’ I kept feeling on this island. From the warmth of the people to the beauty of its natural seas and mountains, the place had truly enchanted me.
Bali is where you go to heal. And that’s exactly what I did. I did spring cleaning (or a more appropriate word in Japanese 大掃除) on both an emotional and mental level. After months of stress and anguish from a slew of bad events in Shanghai, I finally felt at peace with myself and in control of my life.
In Bali, I learned to find peace with myself.
Because in life, if you’re content with yourself–then everything is going to be alright. Really.
Here’s to another Bali sunset in my near future.