Updated: May 31, 2020
Bali was never on my list of places to go. I really didn’t see the appeal. In my head it was just one big resort with a few different instagram filters permanently stuck to it. That is an unfair judgement and oversimplification of it but also not entirely untrue. While there are lots of really beautiful spots on the island, there are parts of Bali that make you feel like you could be anywhere in the world, on any beach or in any H&M or McDonalds. I’m sure I did let my judgement become a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy because I really did allow myself to get sucked into that part of the island. For the first time in my travels this year, I felt like something in me just got tired. The thing in me that had taken me camping in the Serengeti, hiking through the deserts of Jordan and inside watery caves in the Philippines, was taking a nap and not interested in being woken up. It wasn’t until I reached Ubud that I found a small spark of that spirit of adventure, and even then it took a bit of push from my new Argentinian friend to get my ass moving again.
So the day finally came where I stopped extending my stay at my hotel near the beach. I packed my backpacks and stood in front of my scooter, trying to figure out how exactly it was going to get me and all my stuff on there for the hour drive up to Ubud. It took me a couple tries to get the organization right and then I was off.
I left late in the afternoon so once I got out of the more populated area, it turned into a really beautiful drive. The afternoon sun creating a glow over the rice paddies and through the trees as I went. Had I not buried my camera somewhere in the Tetris game of my bags, I would have stopped to take more photos. Instead I just took my mental snapshots and enjoyed the drive.
As I drove into town, my first thought was ‘I should have come up here sooner’. Ubud had a distinctly different vibe than the rest of the places I’d been so far, as made evident by the section of the main road I’d just driven through that had been turned into a tunnel by the massive trees surrounding it on both sides. The place I was staying was tucked into the back of some shops, so I got to enjoy the tunnel at least four times before I finally figured out where I needed to be.
Once settled, I set out to meet a friend for dinner. We ended up finding a great spot with a live jazz band, great food and a perfect vantage point to watch a violent storm roll through. I walked home ankle deep in water but I love a good storm. I was feeling good about my next week in Ubud and the change of scenery from Canggu.
THE WATER CEREMONY AT TIRITA EMPUL TEMPLE
This was again one of those moments where I realized I how ‘off’ I was feeling. Normally, I’d be up for trying something new, ready to embrace whatever the experience may bring. Yet there I was, basically feeling annoyed and a little grumpy. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Strike that, I didn’t want to. I didn’t really understand its purpose and always feel a little uncomfortable participating in ceremonies just for the sake of doing it. I felt that way even more so because the majority of the people there at the time were Balinese, making me feel even more like I didn’t want to interrupt something that is important to someone with my lack of understanding or genuine connection to it.
However, I wasn’t alone on this trip and we’d already driven an hour out to the temple. So the obvious solution was to learn more about it. Local guides were available to sit and explain the process and the meanings behind it. The spring comes up from the ground and, as the story goes, it has for over a thousands years, imbued with healing properties.
An offering must be made followed by a few minutes of prayer and meditation before entering the pool to begin the purification process. The pool is divided into two sections, with fountains pouring out of different spouts. Some are not meant of foreigners or everyone as the are specific to prayers for the islands or if there has recently been a death in your life. The rest of the fountains are each there to purify you of a character trait you don’t like within yourself. It’s a really ‘fun’ process to make a list of all the things you don't like about yourself. At each fountain, you pick one from the list of things you are not proud of, really feel it, apologize for it, and then ask for it to be washed away. This happens by drinking a bit from the fountain, washing your face three times with the water then finally dunking you head and body under the water, with the hopes of that negativity being washed away. This process is repeated 10 times, followed by a few fountains that allow you to hope and pray that you will do better in the future.
The spring that feeds the fountains
Photo by our guide, Made
Photo by our guide, Made
For all my grumbling at the beginning - also something I asked to be washed away - I was glad we did it. I did somehow feel a little lighter. Maybe it was a moment to reflect on why I’d been in such a weird mood since arriving in Bali or maybe it was just because sometimes saying things out loud or recognizing them for real is cathartic in a way, with or without the water. I’m not sure. Whatever it was, it was needed at the time.
TEGALLALANG RICE TERRACES
Leaving the fountains, we headed to on of the most photographed spots in Bali - the Tegallalang rice paddy terraces. It is one of the most photographed spots because it really is beautiful. I wandered off on my own as I often do to find a quiet spot, take few photos and appreciate the view. It wasn’t a new thought but one that pressed its way to the surface at that moment in particular - Bali is a weird place. It runs the gamut from one extreme to another and back again almost everywhere you look. Below me, a man was legitimately working in his paddy, planting and picking out the pests invading the little pool. Beside me, two men dressed as farmers with traditional baskets, waited for tourists to come by and pay them to pose for a photo. A few terraces above me, girls in flowing dressing spun around, swung through palm trees on swings and climbed into human sized nests for instagram photoshoots. These contrasts exist everywhere I guess, but in Bali what is real and what isn’t seems to confront you much more continuously than anywhere else I’ve been.
BEDUGUL TAMAN HOTEL / THE GHOST HOTEL
One of my favourite things to do anywhere is to explore abandoned buildings. I like the emptiness in them. I like the stillness and the way man-made things look when nature starts to creep back in on them. So when I heard there was a massive abandoned resort in the north of the island, it was the top of my list of things to do. The resort was never finished so it lacked some of the human touches of items left behind but the sheer size, endless hallways and dark corners made it well worth the few hours we spent lost in the hallways.
Bali felt like it was rough on me. The very first night I got there, the place I stayed was infested with bed bugs. Luckily, I didn’t unpack any of my bags for them to get in but I was covered in bites by morning. As it turns out, I react really badly to them. Within days I was covered in big, itchy welts. My laptop was also stolen by another traveller. That gave me the interesting experience of dealing with the police in a foreign country - the first of two times while there. The detective they sent over looked like he was straight out of a movie, with a huge scar running across his forehead. I’ll admit that I did like the drama of him. I didn’t really appreciate the part where he insinuated that I actually knew the guy who stole my computer and was just mad at him in a jilted lover kind of way. I have zero desire to control my facial expressions when confronted in that way though, so it was quickly made clear to him that that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, my computer was never recovered. I later found out that the same person had made the rounds in other places in Ubud, ‘liberating’ others guests' valuables as he went.
My second run-in with the police was on my last day. I got pulled over and ticketed for not having an international driver’s license. To be fair, it is a legitimate law that you are supposed have one. On the other hand, it is a cash grab. The chances of a tourist having one is so low that the police make good money off of the fines. I’ve learned that while my gut reaction was to be annoyed and upset, it's the wrong answer. In the big scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. A smile, a few well placed jokes and banter make an encounter like that much less unpleasant and much, much cheaper.
Maybe it was because I let these things get to me, maybe it was because I’d already formed an opinion of Bali before arriving or maybe I really had just reached a point where I was tired of travelling? I’m not sure. It was probably a combination of all of it. I did let it get to me in ways that I hadn’t before. However, I stayed in Bali for two months. I met some really great people and had a lot of fun along the way. It wasn’t bad, it was just different. It made me consider things differently and take a minute to look at myself more carefully than I’ve had to in awhile. Bali wasn’t a dream vacation for me, it was just another step on my path and offered up a few lessons that I didn’t know I needed to learn.