Penestanan is exactly what I hoped Ubud would be. Lush vegetation and tropical plants, winding narrow walkways towered over by tall trees, a yoga room with a vast jungle view and a teacher that ends the session with laughter meditation, a writer host, two lovely women and a huge ghecko family sleeping in my roof.
Finding a balance between productivity and overactivity is crucial if you’re also going to relax when you’re traveling. I’d been so busy planning what I wanted to see, thinking about which things I could group together in one journey, moving from the hectic Ubud to ‘Firefly Eco Lodge’ on the outskirts, was incredible. I knew I wasn’t going to meet other travelers here, it was all couples again, bar the three English girls who were more interested in taking alternate pictures of all of them, back and front facing, on the swing than saying hello. But it’s so when you’re surroundings are that beautiful! I was curled up on the sofa in the open space with a cat named ‘Maow’ at my feet, listening to the sound of running water and the jungle, and a mythical sounding prayer call from over the rice fields, followed by tinny drums. Going to sleep in a ‘bamboo birds nest’ elevated 10ft in the air… I woke up one of the mornings and went to see if there were any rice farmers working yet and started talking to this man. He was asking which birds nest I was staying in and I was asking him what he was doing waving his hands around just under the surface of the water. He said he was cleaning, ‘cleaning cleaning’. I asked him if I could take his photograph and he started jumping around. This was definitely the happiest I’d been alone. Having amazing conversations about Balinese cockfighting and the various offerings with the staff. I don't think I would have been so aware of my surroundings, or so susceptible to such conversations if I was not by myself. I realised that It was absolutely fine If I didn't tick everything off, if you're still, things will happen that you didn't expect and hugging Erika and Komang goodbye, I felt that these were so much better.
Undoubtedly the best part of ‘tour day’, we stumbled upon a Balinese cockfight when we were looking for the mass of birds that fly over Petulu at sunset. The birds didn’t seem to fancy the threatening heavy clouds but Fabri, remembering our previous conversation, pointed to the side of the road and said because there has just been a festival, there is now a cockfight. Amidst all the tourist-centered bullshit you get anywhere that’s been hit by a sudden increase in numbers, Balinese cockfighting is one of the visible forms of culture that has been reasonably untouched. Or completely untouched, I don’t know enough to make any claim here. But I would reason that not so many tourists want to flock to what is arguably animal cruelty. However also arguably part of their belief system that they can justify if you ask. Conscious that this is usually a male domain and unsure how they would react, I approached hesitantly, asking if they were okay with me taking photographs. I stood on the roadside smoking a strangely sweet tasting cigarette one of them offered to me, watching the haggle as one man narrated to me, asking me to step up when they attached knives to the bird's feet. Just as I was preparing myself he told me that the fight had been called off because no one wanted to buy one of the birds. Probably just as well, despite my curiousity!
The previous day I'd agreed on a good price for the days use of Fabri, the driver who took me to Jungle Fish pool bar and back (I won't write about it because it's fairly uninteresting and predictable- it was beautiful, but the kind of place where couples with lots of money take photographs of each other at the side of the infinity pool and drink expensive cocktails, there was certainly no one there for me to talk to). Lots of the tours advertised in Ubud included temples, waterfalls and rice fields, but it was proving difficult to find one with the right combination. Besides, they're half day tours for double the price and without the benefit of negotiating where to go and how long for.
Rice Terrace -
Tegalalang Rice Terraces is one of the most photographed places in Bali. I actually went to Ceking Rice Terrace but it's not so dissimilar. The thing that did strike me though was how much rubbish there was. Especially plastic, mounds of plastic bottles in the water. It was the same at Tegenungan Waterfall. So much so that I don't have a photograph worth posting. I understand that it's the closest waterfall to Ubud so the numbers of visitors are part of the problem, but I think if there's an entrance price, it should at least be clean. It was far from a natural beauty!
Coffee tasting at Bali Geo-
A younger boy comes running down the lane, out of breath. Lisa asks him if he’s okay when he says hello frantically, trying to catch his breath. He says he’s just nervous, he’s working at the farm to practice his English and he does just that. Showing us the various plants and telling us about the origin of Luwak coffee. Luwak coffee is the part digested coffee cherries defecated by the Asian Palm Civet – a kind of cat. They gave us a tasting board of a variety of teas and coffee’s, but Luwak was extra. I did read about Luwak before I came and thought I’d try it. But even though people talk of its superiority and its expense, I couldn’t get past the process.
Pura Tirta Empul -
The most famous part of the water temple is the 'Jaba Tengah' - the courtyard that contains two purification pools. The water is said to have somewhat magical powers and Hindu's travel pretty far to purify themselves in the 30 spouts. I watched as they followed a ritual; meditation in preparation for the pool, then they bring an offering and make a prayer, put a flower behind their ear, and dunk their head under the spout. This is probably an unfactual description, but for want of a better one and not wanting to quote from other sources, this is what I took from it. Me and Lisa followed suit, dressing in the tourist sarongs - luminous green colour with a red belt, and following the spouts from left to right. I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to be taking part in something so sacred to Hindu's, lacking a clear belief system myself, but they seemed to welcome it so I gave it a go. I'm not sure I'd go so far to say I was purified, but dunking your head under several spouts of cool water definitely has an awakening effect!
I was so excited to see men making what Fabri tells me are called Benjor. Incredibly detailed tall decorations placed upright by the roadside during festivals. Again, I really want to find out more about these, they're amazing.
I fell into a little slump after the high of the first few days. Aware that there was a lot to do and at the same time feeling like there was nothing to do. On the first walk into Ubud from the Monkey Forest I was disappointed by the lack of individual shops. Instead, the roads were lined with identical tourist caves all with the same stock, 'boutique' stores with overpriced merchandise and a few designer shops like Seafolly and Polo Ralph Lauren. Side passages lead down to small art galleries with nothing appealing, generic restaurants on repeat and booths selling rice paddy, waterfall and Mount Batur tours. It was a busy, hot, incohesive jumble and I didn't enjoy it.
Neither did I enjoy being chased down the lane into The Yoga Barn by the scooter driver who'd not given me a helmet, driven me in the wrong direction four times and asked for 40k when we'd agreed 4k! In retrospect I should have been more sceptical of his acceptance of 4k, but at the time I didn't know there was such a huge disparity between Go Jek's prices and those on the street and Go Jek had suggested 4 for the same route. Entering the yoga barn in a complete panic, thinking I saw him looking for me when I emerged from the toilets, it definitely took away from the ambience of my surroundings for a while.
I lay down for an hour and a half under a thick rug in a class called sound meditation and I'm honestly not too sure what happened. The aesthetic looking 'Swami', a resident yoga and meditation teacher with his dreadlocks piled on top of his head said he was going to come round to each of us and apply an ointment he'd concocted himself onto our 'third eye'- perfectly designed to relax, open up and stimulate you. You were then to lay still and I suppose meditate to the various sounds... I definitely didn't. Various instruments I am unable to name were played and then the woman sang in a way I can only describe as confusing. First, in a soft American accent as if a cassette was playing, then warbling her voice and crying out. The younger of the pair, an asian man with a long beard, probably in his early thirties, was walking around blowing into a long horn. At one point it was really loud and it almost sounded like I was being sucked up into a portal. I opened my eyes and he was standing right above me with the horns mouth over my stomach as if he was attempting a form of exorcism! This is the last point I remember. I was not aware of falling asleep, but neither was I meditating through the rest of the hour and a half, and this was a few songs in. Maybe that ointment really did work and I reached another dimension! But maybe, and most likely, I fell asleep in my little rug cocoon and woke up more than a little disorientated. The woman who had been singing was asked by the Swami to say a few words; she spoke about how she had been told by her elders in the amazon that she had the gift of singing and that it became her dream to sing to people from all around the world. As she walked around the room our different faces confirmed that, and she felt so honoured. Stating that she saw our ancestors in the room, she prayed for the 'beautiful people of Bali and for all of the people that will pass through you'. For a minute I pictured with a little amusement all the people that may 'pass through' me, and it was an interesting thought. But, on the whole, I don't think I experienced the same thing as the rest.
After another difficult scooter ride (we couldn't communicate in English and I didn't know where the accommodation was other than using google maps- but he didn't understand how google maps worked and my phone had died so I couldn't call my host) I ended up staying in my beautiful, but remote airbnb the next day. When I told myself to be realistic at the beginning of the trip, acknowledging that I would have some days where I didn't feel the good kind of alone, well this was it. I drank luke warm bottles of bintang and instead of writing, took a four and a half hour nap. But, I did have a really good conversation with Ayu about her faith as I sat watching her making 'Banten'. In particular I watched her twist and cut and staple coconut leaves until they formed three jagged prongs attached at the base. She pointed at the holes and said these were the eyes. This one was going to be used to flick the holy water onto the shrines. The shapes are so intricate I'm really curious to find out more- how many different banten are there and how are they grouped into different functions? This is all in preparation for what I later find out is titled 'Tumpek Landep' - a festival that comes every 6 months. From what I understand it's a celebration and recognition of metal, including transportation and electronics. Ayu says 'have you seen all my scooters? I really like scooters so I have to pray to keep safe on the road'. The next morning Ayu let me follow her as she visited each shrine in turn. At one point she knelt down to a collection of offerings on the ground by the restaurant, and told me that it was her son. In response to my puzzled face she explained that it is customary to bury the placenta of your child in the earth and this forms their shrine. I told her that some eat the placenta after childbirth to replenish the nutrients, she pulled a face and said 'some people are animals!' and laughed.
I felt a bit like Mowgli walking through the Monkey Forest, in a bit of a dream like state, taking photographs of a monkey posing on a statue, some operating and drinking from a tap, a baby monkey struggling to eat an orange. It was actually pretty difficult to get any photographs because of how many tourists there were, despite it being mid morning. You start taking a photograph of a baby monkey looking really excited about his orange and then you turn around, there's suddenly five other people wanting the same picture and the monkey sacrifices his orange for the sake of some peace.
I stood for a while talking to one of the baggy-trousered men whose job it is to keep the peace between the monkeys and the people. He told me how it can sometimes get dangerous when tourists beckon the monkeys over to them and they don’t have any bananas. I didn’t have any bananas anyway. I'd read somewhere that the monkeys were fat enough with all the tourists feeding them bananas. Besides, who was there to take the classic photograph of the monkey on the head?
Bare feet on a flower. Ants crawling. I open the heavy wooden doors to the street and an offering laid by the road. It's 8.50.am. I'm sitting on a wooden chair at a wooden table with a fruit salad, a latte and a croissant. Apples, grapes, pineapple, banana, papaya, dragon fruit (of which is a luminous purple colour), half a lime and a sprig of mint to garnish, little tears of mint throughout. When I entered I'm looking at the menu - which is attached to an upside down canvas stand, and a middle aged European man sitting to my left says 'Coffee's good'. He's at a slant on the sofa browsing emails on his ipad with his morning cup. In smooth succession the man I learn later to be the French owner says 'which coffee'. Either side of him are the two waitresses in printed shirts tucked into high waisted skirts and different, but not opposing printed headbands. The furnishing is beautiful. Printed pillows, two runners, one across the other. Twelve identical pieces of fabric with five ties onto the upper beam and two pieces of string attaching them to the base. Head height from my seated position are two low-level lamps, the nearest red and the furthest orange. There's a cool breeze and the muted sound of jazz. Huge potted plants line the wall behind the partition on my left. The three young men in the bakery, white hats, white shirts, white aprons, are sharing a joke. It seems as though it involves the taller waitress but I'm unsure how. They broke off their work when one of them dipped his hips and wiggled his pelvis, making a very quiet but slightly audible 'woo woo' sound and laughing. He does this several times intermittently between conversation. 'Is this your first time?'. 'Yes first time in Bali, I arrived last night'. 'What's your name'. 'Anna'. 'Anna'. 'Nice to meet you'. The young girl smiles and nods, leaving my table with the empty glass and bowls. Periodically more weathered Europeans hop off their scooters and pick up some breakfast from the bakery whilst I'm eating. They act as though not tourists but locals, or seasoned travelers at the least, coming in as part of a natural routine.
When I was on the plane I was watching 'In Pursuit of Silence' and I wrote down a quote from the narration; 'We lose a lot when we don't allow people, and not just allow but encourage people to go out by themselves, whether they're literally into the woods, or metaphorically, to just go and chart your own journey by yourself'. I'm not in any way going to write as if I am a pioneer, one of the very few young women to travel alone because I am not. There are plenty of women already writing about this, and travelling for much longer periods than my four week hardly strenuous stint. Nevertheless it still puts me in an interesting position and raises questions. I don't know that I'm going to enjoy my own company for four weeks, actually I'm pretty afraid of being lonely. But I think some experiences can only happen when you are alone. I'd like to meet people who choose to spend extensive periods of time alone. Like the focus of the documentary I watched; Greg Hindy, the Yale graduate who at 22 years old took a pledge of silence and walked from New Hampshire to Los Angeles. What are their reasons? Either way I cant say I gave it any thought during the first few days because the private house I ended up staying in was also occupied by two Italians; Marco and Daniele, and from the first interactions; I sat on the side of the pool as we mocked the British weather and he told me I must put sun cream on because I was 'milky', it was really easy. Amazing seafood feasts on the beach front, lots of incredibly cheap and incredible organic cafe's, small gatherings at the house, it was a really good introduction to Bali.