Welcome to Ubud, a place that combines a magical sense of being with the deliberate beauty of art and nature. This blog refers only to the people and landscape of Ubud. We spent the majority of our time in Ubud and other village areas in Northern Bali. The two days we spent in the south of Bali were filled mostly with wishing we were back in Ubud. Kuta, Seminyak, and its nearby areas are, well, not somewhere I wish to return. I am happy to answer any questions for those looking to plan an itinerary in Bali.
There’s a tree that grows in Bali called the Banyan Tree. While it can be found in many other places around the world, it seems to have a special presence here. Often you will find it’s trunk tied with a sheer yellow or black & white fabric, which marks it as sacred; this is, of course, the same tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. Even more often you will find that a small shrine has been built nearly into the base of the tree, and the Balinese will bring offerings to the shrine daily in thanks.
There’s something special about the Banyan tree that seems to parallel in many ways what it means to live here in Bali. The tree grows vertically, with roots that take on massive forms and spread to cover huge areas deep under the earth and across the surface. The tree itself can shoot hundreds of feet into the air, with the wisdom of seeing for miles, home and shade for creatures and humans alike. The Balinese seem to grow like Banyan trees, in a very vertical direction. They often stay in the same place forever, sticking their roots deep into the same place. Most Balinese live in these gorgeous and spread-out family compounds with their extended families. Family and community occupy much of the Balinese value system, and indeed, anyone would happily and graciously provide a home for anyone else. But the Balinese do much more than simply take care of their families. In the area of accomplishments and fullness of the soul they are as tall as a Banyan tree. They are the hardest workers of anyone I have ever met. They find just as much worth in creating art as they do earning a wage. It’s no wonder that Ubud attracts all kinds of artists and creators. People stay in more or less the same place for their entire lives, fulfilled by family roots, traditional ceremonies of thanks-giving, a skill for trades and handicrafts unmatched by any culture I have ever seen, and a soul-endearing belief in karma.
For those of you who read about my travels through Egypt and the Middle East, you may remember the emotional and physical struggles I experienced around being a woman in that part of the world. Even in the U.S., everywhere in fact, there is a downside to being of the fairer sex. I work in a relatively ok part of LA, yet I still walk carrying my pepper spray on my way to my car after work. I am always conscious of being kind, yet not too kind, to strangers on the street (how sad to have to worry about being too kind), and am anxious to avoid the wrong types of looks from the wrong types of men.
The number one reason why I love Ubud and would in a moment move my life here is that I appreciate being able to walk up and down the street, alone if I chose, and smile without even a thought.
Here, a smile is just a smile.
It is not a lewd invitation, or an implication that I’d like to make a purchase of some kind. You walk around without fear, without judgement, without pressure to fit in a specific role. On the road, people don’t beep at each other in frustration; they only beep to let each other know they are there. People love each other and are grateful for each other.
One day, we were driving down the road with our guide Dana when suddenly he came to a screeching stop and pointed out the window, “It’s a wedding,” he said. “Let’s go in.” We peered outside and saw a family compound with steps decorated in the Balinese fashion of woven palm and banana leaves in bright colors and intricate designs. We scrambled after Dana to catch up and ran up the steps into this house of strangers preparing for a wedding. They welcomed us as if we were family, invited us to explore and walk around their home as we liked. After we were finished, one of the men who was busily preparing the ducks for slaughter left his work and came over to us. He took my hand and with a slight bow, thanked us for our presence, told us he was so grateful for us to have come to his home.
He thanked us. We had done nothing except unexpectedly intrude into his home and upon his work, yet he was genuinely grateful to have met us and had the opportunity to provide us even with brief hospitality.
This is Bali.
The practice of being grateful in Bali puts the American Thanksgiving to shame. Every single day, women prepare offerings for their own family temples and homes, from very small square packages filled with bits of flower petals and rice, to large offerings of lavish fruits, meats, and flowers piled atop each other in a beautiful package. It is not rare to see women walking up and down the streets with piles of oranges, apples, and roasted chickens packed neatly in a balanced heap upon their heads.
The day we arrived in Bali was the day after the beginning of Tumpek Landep, a ceremony to pay gratitude and respects to all things made of metal. Small offerings hung from the rearview mirrors of motorbikes, sat upon the dashboards of vans, dangled off the ends of musical instruments.
At my last Thanksgiving dinner I gave thanks for my family, my friends and my health; and food was graciously accepted by me, I gave no offering, to anyone, except perhaps an offer to wash the evening’s dishes. I can’t think of a time when I gave individual thanks to everything made of metal in my life. Families in Bali have few possessions – even fewer made of metal: cars, instruments, tools and farming equipment perhaps. They waste nothing, take advantage of nothing, use everything, frequently.
I could write pages of the things I own made of metal.
But I’ve never thanked them.
We began our trip to Bali with a very specific itinerary in mind. Having used a service called Jetsetter (compliments of my TED gift bag), which provides travel and itinerary planning for a well-worth-it fee, we arrived with 5 pages worth of detailed information about where we would go, what we would do and who we would visit. We had planned ahead of time to put together some travel stories on the different economic cornerstones of the traditional Balinese economy, such as a master woodcarver, silversmith, healer, etc. We had planned an ambitious route which took us to as much of the island as possible, while still leaving time to surf with our good friend, who had given up the LA drill for a bit to do some self-realization and improve his surfing in Bali.
Of course, when we arrived, everything went differently than expected, as it should.
We had arranged to stay one night at a small hotel called Bambu Indah, the soulchild of John and Cynthia Hardy. John and Cynthia ran a very successful silver jewelry company for many years, John Hardy jewelry, until they sold the company and built The Green School, which I will tell you more about in just a skip.
When we arrived at Bambu Indah, we immediately fell in love with the place. It sat admist the palm trees and moist air, overlooking a deep valley of jungle and rice terraces. In the mornings sometimes, we could hear the percussion sounds of a ceremonial procession from clear across the valley. John and Cynthia hardy feel very passionately about being green, and not in the sense that we like to use the green hand soap or drive the green car. They are really green. Every space that is not occupied by a building has something growing on it. Not roses or pretty landscaping fixtures, but fruit and vegetables – things to feed us. Bean sprouts, tomatoes, exotic fruits, all kinds of things grew around our small jungle bungalow, ripe for the picking and ours for the eating!
Through John, Cynthia and Bambu Indah, we were introduced to the wonderful expat community of Bali. The island attracts the most wonderful odds and ends of Western society: artists, kooks, and wild spirits reign free. Our first day in Bali, we had the pleasure of meeting a few of these new friends at the Green School, meetings which serendipitously changed out entire itinerary for the better!
The Green School was built by John and Cynthia Hardy, whose dream to build a sustainable school with a prominent green curriculum has been excecuted with great success. The school, which goes from Pre-K to 10th grade (soon to be 12th grade), attracts students from all over the world, and has a scholarship program available for local families. Like Bambu Indah, every inch of the school is covered in food; in fact, every class is in charge of its own garden on which grow all kinds of produce that is then cooked and eaten every day for lunch! A full barn is almost finished with livestock of all kinds including pigs, cows, and chickens! Cacao, papaya, tapioca, and other tropical fruits grow rampant throughout the landscape. As does bamboo.
Bamboo plays a very special role at the Green School. I suppose it should since everything is made of bamboo. The Heart of School, or the main building which houses the admin space, the library and several classrooms, is comprised of three bamboo vortexes which seem to melt together in perfect harmony. The rest of the classrooms are spread over the acres of land belonging to the Green School, all similarly made of bamboo. Everything in the classrooms is a creation of bamboo: the chairs, tables, cubbies; even the dry erase boards are made of recycled car windshields held together by thin strips of bamboo. To read more about the Green School, please check out my article on the TED Blog.
Sitting in the warung (Balinese equivalent to a cafe) that day at the Green School, we spent time visiting with parents and learning more about the life journeys that had brought these families to Bali. Parents sat with each other under the shade of the thatched roof for hours that morning, no rush to be off somewhere, nobody glued to their cell phone or stuck in their car. Instead, sitting together, in the open air, embracing the wonder that is human connection and the beauty that is nature in its most pure form. As I observed the children running around us, I realized that there was indeed a very different idea of how life is to be lived, and how children are to be taught. Kids were given glass cups (not paper or plastic) and nobody seemed to worry that they would break them. Kids climbed up on high on slippery rocks; teachers gave a warning to be careful, but allowed the children to explore the freedom of adolescent curiosity.
In particular, we connected with one family, a couple by the name of Asher and Avara, and their beautiful young daughter. Asher and Avara moved to Bali from Oregon; now, Asher is chasing his passion for coffee and Avara her love for raw food, incorporating them into the Green School. Asher’s coffee, which he grows in Northern Bali and roasts himself on the roaster he invented is called F.R.E.A.K. coffee, which stands for Fresh Robusta and Enak Arabica from Kintimani. He makes it at the Green School every morning for the parents and faculty. Avara, also an active parent at the school, is in the process of building a “rawung” right across from the existing warung where she will teach living food classes and sell other delicious goodies.
Intrigued with the lives of this wonderful couple, I began questioning Asher about his coffee and his farm (as I ravenously drank down cup after cup of his delicious coffee!), and he generously offered to drive us up to Kintimani where he grew his beans. The next day Benny, me, Asher and another fellow coffee lover from Spain piled into Asher’s tiny blue jeep-like car and journeyed high into the mountains, about 2 hours, to Kintimani. There he showed us how the bean grew, the different types of bean (robusta and arabica), showed us how they shelled the berry, and explained how they were experimenting with different processes (the dry process vs. the wet process). Asher’s aim is to see if keeping the bean on the berry for longer, in other words, aging it, would create a more flavorful and valuable coffee.
I learned more about coffee that day than I ever thought it was possible to know. It is a beautiful thing to watch someone absolutely explode with joy about what they’re passionate about: Asher could have talked about coffee for days on end, quite literally, and I would have been captivated for every minute of it, quite truthfully. I learned that it is not necessarily important where the coffee came from or how it was grown; the key to good coffee is that it is freshly roasted, as in roasted that day.
We also learned about kopi luwak, a very highly valued coffee in Bali. Bear with me: kopi luwak is coffee made from coffee beans that have been digested by the civet cat. The cat knows only to eat the ripest and best beans, which are ideal for the tastiest coffee. The cat only eats the berry, and the bean goes through its digestive tract still with its outer membrane on, which is then shelled and the bean is processed for consumption. Originally, farmers would go around their farms and remove the beans from the cat’s excrement. Now, sadly, they cage the cats and try to simulate the situation. Kopi luwak sells for 10 to 60 times the price of regular coffee.
Yes, we tried it.
No it wasn’t bad. It tasted pretty much like normal coffee, although it had a distinct flavor. However, I didn’t think it was better than Asher’s FREAK coffee, and certainly not worth 10 times the price.
After our journey through the coffee plantation, we headed back to Ubud, where we met up with Avara in their gorgeous all-bamboo, open-air home. Avara made us the most delicious raw food feast: vegetable rolls wrapped in her homemade rice paper-like wraps made from mango and coconut, a delicious salad with all types of fresh vegetables, and the most delectable desserts you can imagine: fresh chocolate made from local cacao, starfruit, jackfruit and pineapple drizzled in a fresh vanilla bean sauce, and a tart made from local dates. Before we ate, Asher walked outside and cut down a big banana leaf from a nearby tree, on which we then ate our meal.
We spent a little time venturing away from the Green School (although reluctantly). We took a phenomenal cooking class at Casa Luna Cooking School (which we highly recommend!) where we made nasi campur, or a mix of dishes found in a traditional Balinese home and served with rice.
This included a fish curry, a tempeh curry, a fern tip coconut salad (which was my favorite, and for which I’m confident I can sub out the fern for kale), a pepper salsa-like dish called sambal (Benny’s favorite), fried eels and peppers, and green coconut crepes drizzled in fresh palm sugar. (Palm sugar will change your whole relationship to sugar.) Overall the food in Bali was pretty delicious; it’s a blend between Thai and other island flavors.
We were lucky enough to be hosted by families for many of our meals, but when we did go out we went to the Cinta Grill and Siam Sally, both in central Ubud, and both pretty good. And every morning, we took our breakfast (a banana crepe drizzled in palm sugar with fresh fruit grown right at the hotel) on our quaint wooden porch overlooking a valley of rice terraces.
We took some beautiful drives with our guide, Dana, and visited temples, art galleries, and family homes, where on one occasion we were unfortunately and intriguingly witness to the slaughter of many ducks for a family wedding. I have never seen a bird be slaughtered before and it was perhaps one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I will spare you the details however. Let’s just say it gives you a new relationship to and appreciation for your food. My favorite part of our guided journey, however, was venturing up to the Jatiluwih rice terraces, which were just stunning.
We watched men and women harvesting rice: there were different roles for the men and women, but each played a critical role under the heat of the island sun. We even watched the village boys searching for eels in the muddy harvested fields which they would later take to market.
Our last stop was on the coast to visit our friend Doug, who took us out surfing at Ulu Watu. We surfed alongside people from all over the world, who, similar to Doug, had left behind their modern life to be in the sea, chasing their passion (quite literally).
Overall, I could not imagine a place more perfect than Bali. Of course, it is not perfect, perfect, as no place can ever be. There are of course problems that come along with many developing countries, for example, people burn their garbage, which results in piles of garbage along the streets and the constant smell of burning plastic here and there. But on the whole, for the most part, it is a wonderful community of people, living in the most beautiful natural setting. I most definitely recommend it.
I am of course always happy to answer questions if you are considering travel there! Please leave a comment and I will reply as soon as I can!