A Realisation in Ubud
A two-hour scooter ride through wet rice paddies and shadowy rainforest, and I was descending into the valley of Ubud. Overwhelmed by the busy streets of Kuta, Bali’s version of Cancun or Ibiza, I needed a break from Bintangs and bad clubs, from tourists and crowded beaches. I wanted Bali. So it was time to suss out the so-called spiritual heart of Indonesia.
Like many tourists, I was searching for somewhere less touristy, forgetting that through my very existence, I created the problem I was struggling to avoid. I made my way to Ubud under some friend’s vague recommendations that went something like: Get out of Kuta – it is full of Australian bogans, check out Canggu’s beaches, or go to beautiful Ubud.
I tried Canggu. While more quaint and dignified than Kuta, the built-up beach town still lacked the thing I desired. In Canggu, it was easier to find a burrito than a local dish or to speak English than Indonesian. On the main beach, a two-story mega club called Finn’s pumped generic house music all day long, and slung expensive cocktails to relaxing tourists while the Balinese staff stood around looking bored and disinterested. Finn’s was built on an old aquifer, blocking a main source of water for the town and claimed business from many of the local beach vendors. After a month in Canggu I left, feeling like it had been infected by the same bug as Kuta.
Nestled among rice paddies, ancient temples and steep ravines, Ubud is a small village that was originally an important source of medicinal herbs and plants for the area. In the late nineteenth century, under King Gianyar’s rule, the rich lords of the Sukawati caste moved in, and supported the emerging art scene. The first foreign migration occurred after 1927 when a German painter named Walter Spies, who was interested in Balinese art, music and drama, shared Ubud’s culture with Europe. Then in the 1960s, another artist, Arie Smith founded the ‘Young Artists Movement’, precipitating the second wave.
Fifty years later, Eat. Pray. Love. hit international bookstores. The Oprah-endorsed, bestselling memoir followed a recently-divorced Elizabeth Gilbert, who satiated her spiritual yearnings in Ubud, finding love in the valley (which she recently traded in for her best friend). Elizabeth provided spiritual nourishment for the masses, and Ubud entered bucket lists worldwide.
I scooted across town, which took 10 minutes, looking for accommodation. I passed at least 30 crystal shops and meditation/yoga centres, restaurants boasting organic, gluten-free, vegan, raw alternatives, and many signs for magic men and women claiming to be healers, yogis, numerologists, enlightened humans and life coaches – most adorning the Trip Advisor stamp of approval.
Shops selling local artwork and sculptures, what Ubud was originally famous for, still existed, though their upscale interiors were telling of the stat that 85% of tourism businesses in Bali are owned by non-Balinese people. And as white skins in colourful flowing silk zipped around on scooters with yoga mats strapped to their shoulders or didgeridoos under their arms, it seemed to me that Ubud, the spiritual heart of Indonesia, had a blockage. Or maybe a haemorrhage.
In the last three years, the number of foreign tourists in Ubud has risen from 70,000 to 240,000. When combined with the expat numbers, which must be significant considering Bali itself is now holding at least 10,000 Australian retirees, the tourists dwarf the town’s small local population.
After finding some cheap dorm room accommodation and eating at a restaurant, which was full of white tourists being served by Balinese locals, a friend and myself went to the Yoga Barn for a Tibetan meditation singing bowl ceremony, which she assured me was worth the $20 and the hour wait. The Yoga Barn was the size of a small primary school, with over 10 studios connecting through its lush rainforest. Now with tickets, we still had 45 minutes to kill, so we stood around the foyer chatting to other tourists. Then we spotted a puppy crawl between two doors.
We followed the wagging tail into a large empty yoga studio, and found three local staff sitting on the ground, taking turns picking up and patting the puppy. We sat and joined in. I spoke the little Indonesian I knew, while they spoke what little English they knew. Somewhere, in that threshold between languages, we discussed our families, our friends, and shared stories. I asked if any of them practiced yoga, assuming that they would get hooked up with free classes from working at Ubud’s biggest Yoga centre. They said they’d tried two classes when they were first employed, but had not done any since.
I snuck an awkward glance at my friend, who looked ashamed, and tried to change the subject. Remembering the delicious coconut I had just consumed, while almost craving another one, I asked if they liked drinking coconuts. They said that while 20,000IDR ($2AUDdollars) a coconut was cheap for tourists, a whole coconut was unaffordable for the Balinese, who purchased small plastic sachets filled with a mix of coconut, water and sugar for 20 cents each. Considering their island is covered in coconut palms, I thought this was pretty messed up. Somewhere a bell rung, and the three men stood up to prepare the room for our meditation, we shook hands and said goodbye.
The base wage in Bali currently sits around 400,000IDR ($44AUD) per week. Which puts the coconut or the Tibetan bowl meditation into perspective. For the Balinese, these things are totally inaccessible and as Ubud, and the country, is gradually transformed by tourism, with crystal stores and swanky vegan restaurants, backpackers and four-star hotels, their land is becoming alien, a place where their value is not in their culture or their consumption, but as labour to sustain the ever grinding gears of tourism.
The Tibetan bowl meditation left me feeling more weird than relaxed, and as we walked back to our dorm, I tried to justify my visit to Ubud as innocent. I was just looking for the “thing”, the unspoilt land, the pure experience. But then again, so was everybody else.
Cover by Marvin Meyer