Its streets are alive with the hum of motorcycles and scooters, the calls of macaques, and the smells and sounds of markets and restaurants, but Ubud — the cultural pulse of Bali — retains, surprisingly, a pleasantly calm and quiet aura about it.
Though the pictures suggest a motorized mayhem, there is a paradoxical serenity to all of this. Along the streets, artists display their handiwork — immense carvings and paintings, beads and sarongs, silk scarves and saris, bright yellow and green oils on canvas depicting life on the rice fields; while restaurants and spas play the soothing sounds of Balinese woodwind instruments, the smell of incense wafts into the air from temples and from small offerings left on sidewalks.
At the heart of Ubud is the ancient Monkey Forest, home to 1,000 year old temple buildings and the families of monkeys who live among them. A cremation ceremony at a temple in Monkey Forest lasted well into the night on our first evening in Ubud. Scooters were coming and going; sounds from the loud hailer echoed out from the from the forest in the dark of the night, and then again in the early morning.
In fact, there’s so much artistic abundance here in Ubud that even the monkeys can’t help themselves. When a roll of breath mints spilled from someone’s pocket onto a pathway, at least one monkey saw an opportunity not for food, but for art of a kind. I know people who have paid good money for much worse art than this.
Monkey Forest spawns a road that bears its name, and this road is the culinary and retail epicenter of Ubud. It’s a dangerous place for anyone who is trying to keep their body and their luggage free from excess weight. It took a special kind of discipline for Meg to walk the length of Monkey Forest Road and not end up with arms full of clothing, jewelry and gifts. The trouble is, at the very top of the road there’s a market. We permitted ourselves (and by we I mean Meg, and by ourselves I mean herself) only one visit to the market. Of course there were cheesy trinkets, wooden phalluses and pointless t-shirts (seriously, who buys a Starbucks tank top in Bali?), but in between these stalls was a fascinating array of foodstuffs and linens, carvings, and clothing so that the whole market is a fascinating compendium of sights, smells and sounds — and Meg proved herself to be quite the haggler.
As much as Ubud’s geographical heart is its monkeyed forest, its essential pulse is a sense of wellness that pervades everything. The restaurants serve a healthful array of fruits and juices, vegetables and organic foods; the spas offer relief for tired muscles and aching feet; and then there’s the yoga.
Set into the surrounds of rice fields down a quiet alley is the Yoga Barn, a haven for the throngs who come to Ubud to practice yoga and meditation. For a very long time, Meg had wanted to take a meditation class, and in Bali she got to take not just one but five. To say that she was in her element here would be an understatement — every day she would find herself at one or more of the yoga and meditation classes on offer. Our 9 days in Ubud, and the 5 days in Sanur before that, were a time of peace and fitness for her (she can, once in a blue moon, be a little high-strung… right Meggy?).
Seeing how much she was enjoying this, I even allowed her to drag me to a meditation class — goodness knows I’ve dragged her to my fair share of whims and wishes on this trip. We lay down, along with 30 other people, in the warmth of the evening in an open-sided studio, and closed our eyes.
The kind lady in the middle of the room tapped away gently, wordlessly, at Tibetan bowls and then slowly dangled them from side to side so the echoing metal gongs in varied pitches and tempos reverberated through the room in soothing vibratos. The idea was to focus on breathing, finding that state of mental relaxation that arrives just before sleep, lulled and centered by the clangs of the bowls, using their sounds to alleviate distractions, like the ones in my head at any given time (“Did I lock the car?… No. You don’t have a car… I think now would be a good time to make a mental list of every book I’ve never read… Which is more complete, Sergeant Pepper’s or the White Album?… Bovine, cartwheel, apparatus, insignia, mangrove, xylophone… Now you’re just listing words that sound silly to you — focus on your breathing, remember?”).
Within 5 minutes the person 3 bodies away from me had drifted beyond the relaxed state and slipped into what must have been a glorious and very deep sleep, judging by the volume of his snoring. Either that or he had taken “focus on your breathing” to an impolite extreme over there. After some time he stopped, or I stopped noticing it, and by and by I was able to relax a bit more. There’s no denying the various soft, metallic, echoing gong sounds were pleasant and soothing.
Then, the pain set in. Two thirds of the way through the one hour session, my lower back started acting up. (“Am I allowed to raise my knees?… Will she tap me over the head with her gong if she sees knees in the air?… Haha that would be funny… Also, ‘sees knees’… Cease sneeze… Do I need to sneeze?… Oh boy… Which is more complete, Rubber Soul or Hard Day’s Night?… Back pain… Back pain… Back pain…”). The last 20 minutes were a flux of various states of comfort and pain, supineness and prostration, relaxation and mental chatter, and I can now add “meditation class in Bali” to the list of things I had no idea I’d be doing on this trip.
My personal account of a Tibetan bowl sound session may sound glib but it’s sincere, and I don’t mean to disparage moments of being quiet and introspective. The world at large would undoubtedly be a calmer, more pleasant place if everyone in it took some time out of their day simply to breathe and be quiet. For Meg, who has always valued quietness but sometimes struggled to find it in crazy New York City, the meditations were “magical” (her word, not mine), and each day she’d emerge from the Yoga Barn a happy, healthy and vibrant young lady, and we’d get together for dinner at one of the many, many excellent restaurants in Ubud.
In what might be taken as a kind of metaphor for our time in Bali, on our last night (in stark contrast to the loud hailer wailing and drones of hundreds of scooters on our first night) the entire town was plunged into a dark silence when a power failure cut electricity as far as the eye could see, so to speak. Street by street things came to a standstill. The hum died down. Music stopped, the rumble of fans and air conditioners slowed their whirrs to silence. People lowered their voices. The flicker of candlelight on tables in restaurants was the only light around, the faces of people over them hovered like floating specters in the darkness. For an hour, the whole town found itself, unwittingly and wondrously, in a state of quiet introspection and soothing relaxation.