It’s beyond lush. It’s fecund. When my back is turned, I’m sure the plants are growing taller and winding their tendrils around whatever outcrop they can find in their fervent search to conquer all. I feel that if I sit still enough for long enough I might be able to even hear them grow. I didn’t know there were this many greens in the world. Each leaf is slick with the fine rain. If I didn’t know better I’d think the plants were artificial. They’ve been allowed to grow just wild enough to complete the illusion that I’ve just walked onto a movie set.
Veritable rainbows of cheap plastic ponchos are what the locals use to cover up during now, the wet season. We visitors let the rain cool and dampen us knowing it’ll dry quickly. There’s a sense of smug satisfaction in not caring about getting wet. We’re on holiday – who cares? There are deep and wide gutters to catch the downpours of the wet season and large storm water grates which no doubt catch a drunken reveller or three on their way home from the numerous bars on the main strip advertising 2 for 1 cocktails at happy hour. The bars are squeezed between the market stalls all selling the same items and the touts attempting to convince you that you need a taxi. Occasionally there is a gate left ajar and I side-step out of the stream of tourists to peer into someone’s life for a few moments. Scrawny chickens dart out of the corners and there’s always a panting dog laying on the ground somewhere. It’s dark back there and the relative quiet is inviting but I don’t dare step across the threshold. Better to discretely peek into the world than to step inside and break the spell. I’ve read enough stories to know which side to stay on.
Inside our resort compound I sit on the wide tiled veranda of our bungalow. A chilled wine in my glass of the one bottle that I bought from Melbourne airport duty free. I couldn’t resist pink wine from the Yarra Valley where we have family connections. Our bungalows are built on the grounds of the old Lotus palace. The Lotus temple next door is thankfully free of rabid monkeys that exist elsewhere. Those grey freaky fuckers climbing all over stuff can stay away from me thank you very much. The resort staff calmly wanders the paths meandering around the pavilions and many statues that sit amongst the foliage. Their bare feet barely make a noise on the stone paths. Folded, gilt-embroidered fabric headscarves, white linen shirts and sarongs, they carry themselves with a grace foreign to me.
Today’s soundtrack features the melodic beats of small drums in the distance, mixed in with calls of birds I do not know. Driving up from Denpasar to Ubud, we witnessed processions of young boys decked out in their Sunday best walking along the streets. Smiles from ear to ear as children and mothers alike squat on their front steps to watch these boys perform. Yesterday was the start of a holy festival lasting two weeks and the street poles are festooned with elaborate bamboo structures that rise three meters and more into the air. I can imagine them dancing in the breeze should there be any.
Dinner and the obligatory Bintang beer has been ordered, so it’s adieu from me for now – or whatever the appropriate Indonesian phrase should be.
Overnight the dying leaves have fallen and white delicate flowers, which once I discovered are called plumeria in Hawaii, but here and in Australia are known as frangipani. The paths are littered most prettily. I’m sure it’s not just my artistic eye that sees the beauty in the everyday things here. Each corner of life here is adorned. Every few meters along the street, statues are enrobed in patterned sarongs and offerings placed at their feet. Structural posts on the each of the pavilions are carved just so. The doors to our bungalow have not a single square inch plain. Gold and red and black with borders and leaves with smiling or laughing or threatening gods stare at me when I go to close or open the doors. Two narrow doors, both must be opened to enter or exit.
It was after 5 am when we woke and all was still and dark. Knowing that this was my chance, I got hastily dressed and ventured into world. Only a few cars and scooters on the road moving much quicker now the rest of the town is still in bed. Shops are shuttered, their advertising muted in the blanket of night. It’s still cool and the air smells fresh as I breathe it deeply in.
I’ve taken up the same position on my veranda at the small round marble table and I sit back and watch the day dawn. It’s only the three hour time difference that allows me to this. My body thinks it’s already 8.30am. I’m not sure that in the short time frame we have here in Bali my internal body clock will adjust but I’m not complaining as it will gift new experiences and perspectives of an otherwise hidden part to this Balinese world. There’s a rooster crowing in the distance and other faceless nameless birds in the trees closer commence their morning song. Through the thick foliage I can start to discern the sky growing lighter and lighter. I am the only person I can see. I know I’m not alone as I can hear gentle movements of sandals on stone.
The morning chorus is slowly getting louder as more birds join in the song. Someone is turning off the lights which have illuminated the paths and pavilions during the night. In the bungalow next door, two men, who are possibly Scandinavian from overheard snippets of conversation, leave their bungalow to join the early morning walk to the rice paddies just outside town. The sky is pale in the early light and the low insect hum is being drowned out by howling dogs.
My sister went for a morning run before both the air and the streets heated up. Down almost empty streets she ran, passing a small food market, avoiding the barking dogs and circling back to our bungalows. Meanwhile I sit on the veranda and wait. We’ve tried to order tea from room service but it’s either slow in coming or the message got lost somewhere along the way. I’m not much bothered as I’ve nowhere pressing to be and no immediate plans for the day.
The tea arrives in a utilitarian stainless teapot; the cups are standard hotel issue which means multiple refills are needed before I feel that I’ve had my much anticipated morning tea. The milk is made up from powdered milk so it’s overly sweet and there’s no cooling effect on the hot brew. I’ve come to like tea in other countries. You never quite know what to expect. In Japan it was strong and almost fruity with lots of milk – most fortifying in the afternoon when I stepped out of the cold, driving rain into the tea shop haven. I couldn’t resist the dainty sandwiches of crust-less fluffy white bread with whipped cream alternating with thinly slices strawberries or kiwi fruit. Here in Bali, the tea appears strong by colour but not by taste, though it is quite tannic as afterwards my mouth feels tight and puckered. I’m grateful for the large pot to slack my thirst.
The sun is making an appearance this morning pushing its way through the trees. Shafts of golden light puncture the thick foliage. The flying insects stop bothering me as they retire for the day. A young girl in a bright blue and green saronged outfit carries a tray laden with flowers and food in banana leaf trays to deposit on the steps of each bungalow and pavilion as an offering to whatever gods oversee us here. My shocking lack of knowledge about local Balinese culture rears its head so many times during the day as questions spring into my head with no one to ask.
I think I will seek out the local art museum today and try to fill some of the gaps in my head. If this trip hadn’t been sprung upon me so suddenly then I may have looked in Bali and its people a bit before we left. As things turned out, my niece discovered at the check in counter that her passport didn’t have the necessary 6 month validity in order to travel to Indonesia. Tears flowed from both my niece and my sister at the shock of the mistake. A mother and daughter yoga retreat in Bali had just evaporated in front of them. Flights were delayed by the helpful customer service assistant, a phone call from my sister to me securing that my passport was valid for enough time and I discovered that I was travelling to Bali the following morning.
So that is how I come to find myself sitting in this movie set perfect location, in a country I know so little about watching the world go about its business . I’d be perfectly content to sit on this shady veranda, calling room service to bring me food and refreshments when I want them and occasionally launch myself into the pool to cool down. If I never left this spot, I’d already know more about Bali than if I was still at home in Melbourne. My version of this Bali is calming, ritual filled and eye-pleasingly colourful. The constantly changing noises, the warm moist air and the rich quality of light - I can feel them soaking into my skin as here in my chair.
If I stayed here long enough, would I develop tough feet walking barefoot as the locals do? Would I adopt the brightly coloured sarong which allows air to flow whilst remaining modest? I do know that the things that seem so insignificant and quaint whilst visiting might start to grate and annoy with time. The shower where only half the water seems to make it into the tub doesn’t bother one bit right now. Crumbling footpaths are easily stepped around for now would no doubt represent a greater significance later. The animated sounds of the Indonesian language are very entertaining to listen to but my complete ignorance of even the smallest and simplest of phrases would soon alienate me.
No wifi so I can’t check in which is fine as the disconnection helps me anchor myself here in Ubud. I pour another cold frothy Bintang beer in the frosted glass. Set back from the main road this multi level restaurant clings to the sharp rills of one of Ubud’s side streets. Many water courses flow along and under the roads. We landed in the middle of the wet season and I can’t imagine this place any other way. It’s fertile and damp with wildly scented air - spicy sate, meats grilling, incense burning on the offering plates and sweet, sticky fruit. There’s also an underlying smell that took me days to pin down. It’s the rich smell of decay. The heat and the humidity take its toll on everything from the fallen leaves and flowers, the street-side offerings of the previous day and the rubbish that accumulates in gutters and more.
Staff lounge in their chairs idle checking their mobile phones. There’s no reason I should expect Balinese connectivity to be any different to Australian. The constant rain pours off the thatched roof conveniently providing a curtain to the raised seating platform upon which we chose to eat our midday meal. The sound is at once comforting in its familiarity and isolating as it softens the noise from the road up the moss covered steps.
It was down those same steps we ventured taking them slowly with two paces, their rise being higher than what we are used to. Taking the chance we walked away from the main road drawn by the darker unknown gully beyond. Beneath the trees and their parasitic vines, the lay of the land cannot be known.
Tiny white ants scurry along the low squat table as I write. They don’t seem interested in my local beer or the simple yet tasty food we ate. Gado gado, a salad with tofu in a smooth peanut and coconut milk dressing and Ikan Pepes, sliced fish in a strong spicy tomato sauce were stand out dishes from the locally influenced menu. No pizza or burgers for us whilst in Bali. In fact, we made a plan to avoid any restaurant that had these on the menu. The food was m much more tempting to us than the local insects thankfully.
We were attracted to the elevated pavilion which over hangs the river slightly with foliage covering enough for me not to have to thin k about and question its foundations. Construction is fascinating here in Bali. Bamboo is often used as scaffolding and the vast majority of the work is done by hand with men lugging baskets of rubble and supplies on their heads. Branches are fashioned into a low railing perfect for leaning against. Cushions are covered in the ubiquitous black and white check I see adorning statues at the gates of each temple or compound. Personally I wanted to push the sarongs aside to pay witness to what was underneath. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
At the fabric gallery we visited earlier in the day down a narrow side road, I learnt that white symbolises righteousness, truth and purity. Black is part of the Lord Vishnu, part of the holy trinity worshipped at every Hindu temple.
Whilst my sister takes advantage of the AUS $7 massages next door, I sit and soak in the early afternoon. One chilled Bintang beer at hand and the minutes into one another. I can see how days pass into weeks and then into months too easily here. I’ve already chosen my balcony and room further up the ravine where I want to while away a whole chunk of time. I just know that I’d lose track of days and even start to eye the incomers badly. Bloody noisy Australian waltzing in like they own the place showing no respect! I don’t like this future self too much.
Instead I’ll pack up my journal, pay my bill in multiple hundred thousand of rupiah and stroll back to our resort so we can meet our shuttle to Seminyak. The bill was summoned and I discovered only cash was acceptable here so I’ll wait for my sister to return from her massage before we stride into the un-named masses. For now, I’ll sit cross legged and watch the stumpy tailed feral cats scamper along the tilled roof tops in search of any forgotten food. Thin and small they are no patch on my two fat cats lazing about at home.