Here’s looking at U(bud), Bali, Indonesia
Even in the dead of night we could tell that we had made the right decision in coming to Ubud. Driving through dense forests filled with palms, there wasn’t a KFC or Dunkin’ Donuts in sight and in its silence, the town exuded the calm kind of welcome that we so badly needed after the madness of Javanese cities.
Our first impressions were confirmed the next morning when we emerged from our room to find a hotel pool just across the rice paddy from us and a huge flock of chattering ducks in between. Since it was already technically lunch time, we decided to give Annemarie her first taste of ‘real’ Asia by heading for Warung Ibu Oka where meal choices are limited to big or small portions of that day’s spit-roasted pig, complete with intestines and fried skin. Forcing down her initial urge to vomit and chastising herself for the millionth time for choosing Bali over a trip to Barcelona with her friends (there was no mini-fridge in the room, we had actually expected her to use that squat toilet and sleeping in a room with no airconditioning in Bali was like trying to get some rest while lying in an oven!), she took her first tentative bite quickly followed by her fiftieth and had soon cleaned her plate of belly, skin and intestine. Maybe she would make an okay backpacker after all.
After a quick wander around the tiny town through the modest Royal Palace and past the Water Palace we were more in love than ever. Across every threshold, on every motorbike and scattered across every path were offerings – small baskets filled with flowers, crumbs and inscense – just one sign of Bali’s enchanting cultural identity. As we cooed over the tiny trampled gifts, we were politely shooed onto the path to make way for a procession. Women dressed in white shirts, prayer belts and colourful sarongs made their graceful way towards one of the local temples, balancing huge woven baskets on their heads. Trailing on their skirt tails were beautiful children who were alternately pulling on their mother’s hands and ‘helping’ their fathers to carry the drums they were beating and the pyramids of fruit they had hoisted onto their shoulders. Just as Gary recovered his wits and pulled out the camera, the last of the procession filed in through the gates and, improperly attired, we were forced to leave the celebrating to the locals.
Our next stop was Monkey Forest, a small unenclosed forest just outside of town with a scattering of temples and a liberal serving of wild monkeys. Having already had a few run-ins of our own with aggressive primates (remember we were chased off that island in Vietnam?) Gary and I were a lot less excited about the outing than Annemarie. Her enthusiasm was contageous though and, realising that these monkeys were a lot more tame and a lot less threatening than the Vietnamese ones, it wasn’t long before we too were gasping over the baby monkey clinging to its mother’s fur two feet away or the elderly female monkey who was sitting, chin raised and eyes closed in complete bliss as her mate tenderly picked the ticks out of her coat. Time and time again we were reminded that only one gene seperates us from the primates, although there was one demonstration that stuck out more than others.
We were wandering around one of the trails looking at a temple and discussing the atrocious weather when Gary let out a small yelp. “There’s a monkey on my back!” he croaked, hunching his shoulders and covering his face to protect his best asset. “Get it off!” he pleaded in vain as Annemarie and I giggled hysterically and wrangled the camera out of his hands to take a photo. This was no cute little monkey here for a photo opp though, this was a monkey on a mission. As we laughed and snapped away, he used his time to search all the pockets of Gary’s backpack – obviously searching for large unmarked bills or jewellery that could be melted down. Finding only an old Kit Kat wrapper and a snotty tissue he moved in for the kill, snaking his hand down Gary’s waist and into an open pocket where his victim’s snappy responses narrowly prevented him from getting away with a credit card and enough cash to support a banana addiction for a month.
The best part of Ubud though, and a definite highlight of our entire time in Indonesia, was the traditional Legong dance we attended. The first surprise of the night was the venue. After trudging through puddles for 45 minutes to get there only to be led by an attendant down a dirt road, through a narrow alley and past some ramshackle houses, we didn’t have particularly high hopes for the evening. Imagine our surprise then when we turned a sharp corner to be confronted by a huge redbrick gate opening out into a paved path lined with flickering tealights and smiling young balinese men in white sarongs and headscarves. The little path led to a small room filled with 200 seats, all of which were draped in white cloth and wrapped in serene bows. At the front of the room was a small, softly lit stage designed to resemble one of the Palace gates. Settling down with ice cold bottles of beer we prepared to be wowed – and we weren’t disappointed.
Performed by a live band of 20 or so musicians and a group of women ranging from in age from around 13 to 50, the Legong was one of the most graceful and entertaining dances I have ever seen. Dressed in beautiful costumes laden with fresh flowers, gold jewellery, elaborate head dresses and shimmering sarongs, the dancers floated across the stage using their hips, feet, heads, legs, arms, fingers and even eyes to depict a collection of stories from Balinese folklore. The younger girls told stories about star-crossed lovers, syncing their movements perfectly and blowing flower petals at the audience. The older dancers moved with a little more substance and a lot more humour, batting each other with palm leaves in their portrayal of two amicable brothers turned into monkeys and enemies. There was even a guest appearance from a dragon, an ape (as part of the Barong dance) and a man named Mario who, to Annemarie’s infinite confusion, was dressed much the same as the girls (only with more makeup).
Wowed by their endless energy and lulled into a stupor by their rythmic movements, Annemarie and I watched in a trance for half an hour as Gary ran around the venue snapping away to his heart’s content. Tourist cliché or not, our Balinese dance experience was a perfect introduction to the people who were to warm our hearts with their genuine smiles and unerring devotion over the next 10 days.
More pictures from Ubud are available in the gallery