I was skeptical when our Airbnb host told us to meet her at the big Bintang Supermarket in Ubud before check in. I wanted a quiet, peaceful, typical Ubud experience. Something quasi-spiritual. I didn’t want to stay behind a giant supermarket on a busy main road.
Tria, our host, is a friendly, likeable person who struck up conversation easily. She walked us out of the market’s parking lot, asking as she walked, “do you ride scooter?”
Joel immediately: “Yes, can you help us get one?”
“Oh yes. This one is mine,” she pointed as we approached. “You can use it,” she said and handed us the key. Done. Okay, we have a scooter now.
We entered a little alleyway right next to the supermarket and it wasn’t long before the sounds of cars and scooters whizzing by faded into the background and then gave way to the buzzing of cicadas and locals singing songs in their courtyards. Tria led us through this urban jungle-scape maze. “A bit like a labyrinth here,” she said. We turned left and right and right and left and then I lost track, looking for visual cues instead. We passed the scents of burning incense and cats peering precariously, butterflies flitting over our heads and small snippets of neighbourhood rice terraces, offerings with flowers and sweets and cigarettes perched on every stone deity and placed at each corner, the occasional used coconut shell or rubbish dump in between. It is like the quiet jungle version of a middle eastern medina. A maze giving way to scents and sights here and there.
Tria unlocked the door, and to my relief, the house was even better than in the pictures on Airbnb, and Tria’s dad gave us the best welcome drink a weary traveler could ask for: a giant coconut with a seemingly bottomless pit filled with fresh coconut water. We jumped in the pool immediately.
I was so overwhelmed by this quiet beauty that I almost immediately succumbed to a sort of anxiety to see and do everything there is to see and do in Ubud. I wanted to feel with immediate clarity that I was definitely in Ubud. I wanted to live the Ubud life – be still and zen – but I wanted to see everything at once. It took about two days of me kicking Joel out of bed early to snap out of it.
And then just as I would settle into the peace that I craved for this leg of our journey, the underworld god of the visa realm would rear its head and unsettle our peace. I had applied for a UK visa in Germany, but it wasn’t processed in time, so we ended up shipping my passport to Berlin from Ubud. And then, as it arrived it turned out that they (third party visa company) won’t ship it back. And of course organising what seems like two simple sentences means one mealy email a day that starts with “dear valued applicant” and ends with no other way to reach them.
Eventually I managed to not think about it when I wasn’t thinking about it. But it’s not the best feeling being in Indonesia when your passport is somewhere else, especially with the recent earthquakes and volcano eruptions.
Then again, there are worst places to be stuck in the world than Bali. Ubud is unlike any other place we have been to yet. The jungles, the rice fields, the temples, the waterfalls, all of it. I have to admit, it lives up to its reputation. And, as its reputation divulges, it’s a place where tourist and expats abound. As much as we loved Ubud, we hated driving through downtown. Besides the traffic, it’s the Billabong and Ripcurl stores, and, wait for it, giant Starbucks that really irk us. The only time worth driving through downtown Ubud is before sunrise, when the streets are clear of taxis and motorcycles, but packed with locals selling fruit, vegetables, and chickens and things. And, while I am on the topic of sunrise, very importantly, if you have any intention of seeing the Tegellalang rice paddies as you see them on Instagram and elsewhere, you need to get there before sunrise. We did, and it was a beautifully serene, and brilliantly green and gold experience. There were only a handful of other people on site – a couple on a shoot, one very dedicated instagrammer and her instagram bf, and two or three regular backpackers. We’ve heard that not only does it get packed with tourists, hawkers and shopkeepers are especially aggressive in this neck of the rice fields. And today, in Nusa Penida, we heard that a fellow traveler’s least favourite village visited in Bali was Ubud. A shock to the system.
It’s a precarious balance one needs to navigate when visiting Bali. One of the reasons places are nice to visit is because they cater for tourists – there’s a solid infrastructure to make you feel comfortable. Safe roads, medical products you’re used to and actual medical doctors (instead of natural healers), coffee shops with wifi for when you desperately need to say hi to your mom (or the visa office), burgers and pizza when you’re tired of noodles and rice. But this infrastructure can disappoint you – can make you say “it’s too touristic.” I am not a fan of tourists who complain of ‘tourism.’ Is it just me or is it very hypocritical to be frustrated when you come to the realisation that other people love to travel and see the iconic sites too? (Get up earlier and stop asking people to move out of your photo plz).
But then again, we got lucky with Tria’s Airbnb. I didn’t know anything about Ubud and its downtown and the lay of the land. I just booked a good-looking airbnb with some nice reviews. The Ubud we know is a mecca of jungle villas and backyard rice fields, snuggling cats and tropical fruits, wafting incense and friendly local faces, poolside sun and rainy afternoon naps, and a little bit of river rafting adventure with friends in between.