Monsoon adventures in Ubud

View from Ketut's gallery

Monsoon view from Ketut’s gallery

The monsoon in Bali is a great re-creator. Water falls in buckets from the sky, filling up rivers, irrigation systems, springs and rice fields. What were once yellowing, drooping vegetation – suffering after months of heat – rise again, vibrant with green. And for people, especially busy ones with lots of things to do, the monsoon is the great re-creator… of plans and expectations.

I’ve learnt more than once during the monsoon that it pays to be patient, and fully embrace, as the Italians like to put it ‘Dolce far niente’ – the art of doing nothing. The rains come, and wherever you happen to find yourself is wherever you stay, for hours.

Yesterday I was on my way with Kriszta, Adam and Zsuzsi – all Hungarians – to the bamboo villages of Belega and Bona. The plan was to check out the handicrafts, and perhaps, find a teacher who could educate me in bamboo materials and construction.

Kriszta and Zsuzsi chat in the gallery while the monsoon rains continue outside

Kriszta and Zsuzsi chat in the gallery while the monsoon rains continue outside

Halfway through the rains started, and we pulled into Amaly Gallery – an antique store on the road to Mas – to wait out the shower. It soon became clear that the rains weren’t going to stop. It poured and poured and poured till the road flashed with brown water, and it seemed more appropriate to use motorboats instead of motorbikes on the tributary outside. There was no going to the villages – I’d have to find my bamboo master another day.

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A discussion with Komang from Calo: On weddings, family and freedom

Komang from Calo

Komang from Calo

View over Komang's family's fields

View over Komang’s family’s fields

Today we had an interesting encounter with a Balinese man Komang, 29. He lives in a small village of 2000 people, Calo (pronounced like the Hindi word for ‘let’s go’, challo!). He travelled the world for four years working on various cruise liners, learnt to speak four languages during that time and recently returned home this year, in August, to marry his high school sweetheart. They are expecting a baby in April.

Our friends and current house mates, Adam and Zsuzsi befriended Komang a weeks ago, while we were on a visa run to KL. Today, they decided to meet to catch up and also because Adam (a filmmaker) wished to shoot Komang’s family harvesting rice for a feature he is working on.

We followed A&Z, through a wonderful series of rural roads north of Ubud, past rice fields, gorges and rivers. The tourist density once you get ten km away from town drops dramatically, and you’re left with lots of simple villages and a glimpse into what life must have been like before the explosion of visitors to the island. Forty-five minutes later we found Komang in Calo, in his corner of paradise.

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Monkeying around with Zsuzsi and Adam

Monkey selfie

Monkey selfie

When we were searching for a house, we consciously sought out a place with at least two bedrooms so that we could have guests come share the magic of Bali with us. We’re very pleased to say that we have our first overseas guests: Zsuzsi and Adam who came all the way from Hungary! Mesi met them in India a few years ago, and back then they connected immediately and we’ve kept in touch since.

They only spent a couple of days here before heading off down to Canggu for a wedding. But we still had plenty of time to catch up, share stories and explore new areas of Ubud. We even went on an excursion to check up on their friends’ pet monkey – Kiki, while the owners were away (getting married). Mesi and I have quite a strong fear of monkeys, and it’s not completely unfounded. We’ve both been ‘mugged’ by them in India and more recently in Ulawatu in Bali. We’ve been in Ubud for almost a month and we haven’t even thought about going to the Monkey Forest.

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Gusti: the Guide of Tirta Gangaa

Our guide Gusti

Our guide Gusti

Tirtaa Gangaa

Tirtaa Gangaa

“G’day mate. Bloooody awwwwesoome”. Gusti, our local guide during our tour of Tirta Gangaa bursts out in perfect Australia drawl. This would be a little gimmicky, cringe-worthy even on anyone else, but for some reason it’s just plain endearing on this guy. Maybe because it’s the way he looks – his appearance is comic, in a good way. His body and head are tiny, with over-sized ears and a toothy grin that almost never leaves his face – he’s like a real-life caricature. The cheesy faux accents seem to fit naturally into his entire persona.

We met him as soon as we got to the Temple entrance: “Do you need a guide?” I’m not sure. In our experience, it is very hit and miss with local guides. When they’re knowledgeable and can tell you things about the site you would never have discovered yourself, I find they’re worth every penny / rupee / rupiah. But more often than not, especially in India, they regurgitate some obvious facts from wikipedia, rush through the tour and you finish in one of their mates souvenir stores.

I don’t know why, but something about Gusti made me take a chance on him. To be fair, he wasn’t the best guide in terms of knowledge, but he made up for it in terms of comedy. Every sentence starts with “Well Brad and Mesi…” The first time it’s normal. By the fifth time it’s annoying. But by the twentieth time it’s so ridiculous it’s funny again, and more so as ‘Brad and Mesi’ slowly becomes ‘Brad and Menshi’.

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Tuesday morning at Seniman’s Cafe

Best Coffee in Ubud at Senimans

Best Coffee in Ubud at Senimans

Seniman's Cafe

Seniman’s Cafe

“Look I can do it, I can do it!”

A girl, no older than seven, spins a glass top on the communal table. She’s trying to outdo her dad, John a middle aged Englishman – sporting relaxed grey singlet, and relaxed grey goatee. They’re competing for the important title of being the best spinner of the glass tops. The girl, Mabel, is adorably competitive. The way John interacts with her is inspiring. They laugh and flip through magazines, talk, play at the communal coffee table. A father-daughter excursion to the best coffee in Ubud. Mabel moves back and forth in the specially designed rocking chairs that dot the cafe.

One of John’s friend, Tegan, comes into the cafe. She’s in her early 40s, by herself, Australian, friendly. They exchange greetings. It’s soon clear they are both part of the expat scene here in Ubud.

“I was speaking to Diego last night and he’s joined some transcendental club”.

I’m not sure what a transcendental club is, but it seems exclusive.

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Navigating the Bali Rental Market

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

We arrived in Bali not as tourists, but as potential future residents. It meant travelling the island with a different eye. We spent our days scooting around soaking in the vibe of neighbourhoods rather than sight seeing. The important questions: Can we see ourselves being part of this community? What are our neighbours and landlords like? Does it feel safe here? How long will it take to get to yoga? Is there decent coffee in ‘roll-out-bed’ distance? Finding a house in Bali is one for the explorers. We used two methods with limited success: real estate agents and Facebook groups. However, the most effective was simply getting on a scooter and jetting around neighbourhoods, looking out for “FOR RENT” signs that landlords placed outside their empty houses. Whenever we saw one and the house looked good from the outside, it was usually a matter of calling the accompanying number and waiting 5 to 10 min to be shown the house. No appointments, no missed connections, simple and efficient.

I get the feeling that Bali, at least now is slightly tipped in favour of the renters. There’s so much construction going on and enough vacant houses that we felt we could hold out to find the house that was perfect for us. We saw a lot of houses in Bali over four weeks. I lost count but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around 30. The thing about looking for a home of course, is that basically every single inspection is on some level, disappointment, until you find the right one. Every time we jumped on the scooter we felt the excitement of hope – that maybe this time, this house, would be the home we’d been searching for. And every time, except the last, we left empty handed.

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Papa Nyoman, the reflexologist

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic on Mesi

When you first see Papa Nyoman, he doesn’t strike you as an extraordinary healer. In fact, he looks very ‘ordinary’ – he’s diminutive, thin and sports a pair of unremarkable glasses. Cigarette poking under his 80s-era moustache, with loose blue singlet and long fisherman pants, he could be an accountant on vacation.

The only thing that gives him away is the line of people waiting to have his treatment. People from all around Bali, indeed the world, come to Papa Nyoman for his reflexology, a craft he has practiced for 20 years. In the two days Mesi visits him, he treats a Russian couple, a young Chilean, a woman from Botswana, a slightly unadjusted Singaporean and me, while she is there.

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Sehbatu: A visit to the waterfall temple

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

Robert, a Californian who leads tours around Bali, took us to Sehbatu – a small but enchanting waterfall temple situated just a few kilometres outside of Ubud.

The waterfall is fed by cool groundwater rushing up from deep within the Earth, where it has waited decades, perhaps centuries, to see the light of day. The Balinese, who believe that the water at this site has powerful purifying properties, have set up a modest temple next to the falls, and the entire complex – temple, waterfall and pool – is surrounded by jungle. It is a beautiful mix of the natural and the sacred.

It is not surprising to me that much of Balinese spirituality revolves around water. In many ways it is simply a reflection of how important the element is to life on Bali. The island’s hilly interior and rainy season mean that rivers abound – providing a drinking supply and irrigating the water-intensive rice fields. Water, literally and spiritually, nourishes the island.

To receive the purification powers of the waterfall, one enters the waist-deep pool at the base of the falls. An offering is made before thrusting one’s head straight under the falling stream. The waterfall is small, less than a few metres, but its power is unmistakeable. Straight away you feel the chilly bite of the ground water. On several levels, it shocks you awake. You can’t hear anything except the white noise of the crashing water and the rest of the world disappears. Breathing is possible but not easy and you have to concentrate not to panic as your lungs and senses are stressed.

The Sehbatu temple

The Sehbatu temple

But once you settle in the process can be strangely calming. It’s not unlike meditation. To keep your head under the falls you have to quieten the nerves, concentrate on the breath, and remain in the moment (you actually have no choice on that last one). Robert suggested we consciously think of something we wanted to let ago of, something that didn’t serve us anymore. On an adjacent waterfall, you can do the opposite, lie your back up against the rock, chest to the sky, water flowing right over you and open up to something new. Our small group took in turns to do this and all found it a moving experience.

While we were there Balinese locals came to the waterfall, and performed similar purifications. One of these women came to us while we were seated at the temple to provide a traditional cleansing with the altar water, guiding us through the steps of ritual, before smiling and going on her way. She wasn’t a priestess, just an ordinary Balinese woman.

We’re moving to Bali!

We're moving to Bali!

We’re moving to Bali!

Ubud's famous rice paddies

Ubud’s famous rice paddies

Mesi and I had the crazy idea from a long time ago that we’d move to Bali. Back then it was clearly a dream – an ideal for some unspecified time in the future when circumstances – work, relationship, finances – would magically coalesce and we’d end up in some paradise of our imagination. This ideal was even more fuzzy given that neither of us, up until four weeks ago, had ever been to Bali. It was a half-plan based on a romantic daydream. Elizabeth Gilbert would be proud.

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