It’s quite incredible what the mind remembers and chooses to forget. Or, is it what the mind forgets and chooses to remember?
This last week in Ubud has been incredible and wild and emotional and bizarre and just a FREAKING TIME WARP.
I walk around wondering how things can possibly change so much in 15 years, and yet also remain so very much the same.
I walk around grinning from ear to ear and also perplexed and disillusioned and ready to cry at the drop of rain. (And it’s rainy season, so…)
The magic lingers, that’s for sure. Whether it’s truly something here on the Island of the Gods or within me when I’m nestled in its jungle forest town of Ubud, I’m not quite sure. For lack of sounding too wooey and wishy-washy, it just…is.
Still, fifteen years is a long time. I’m pretty sure I’m that Annoying, “I Remember When…” Girl to anyone I meet, because all I want to do is talk about how it used to be and how it’s changed. (This recent New York Times article on that very topic is trés apropos.) I don’t necessarily think all the change is bad, however. It’s just different. Same, same, but different. Also, it’s just not what I know; what I knew—and loved.
But all places evolve with time. The world we live in evolves and we learn to adjust and appreciate the gaps that are filled between the then and now. In 2016, I travel with a computer, digital camera, iPhone and a Kindle. In 2001, I had about a handful of journals and pens, an Olympus camera with several rolls of film that I’d have to wait months to develop, paperback books that I’d read and leave wherever I finished them and calling cards to use at a payphone or Internet cafe. I’d sit somewhere and read a book or make conversation. Now the WiFi password is the first thing people ask for when sitting down somewhere, all so they can remain tethered to the very world they’re likely trying to escape. I’m guilty of it too, and I wish I knew a better way to turn back the digital clocks, so to speak, and exist in the pure space of just being; of eye contact and brief encounters with strangers. Those connections—the ridiculous conversations about roosters and hens and chickens and eggs that you have with locals—don’t need passwords, and yet they’re the most exclusive and special of all.
So yeah, I find myself adjusting to how this one-time sacred space of treasures without commodities has now become so connected and exposed to the Western world, with its Starbucks and Polo stores. But I’m also questioning how to exist within it, and still be fulfilled by its core that touched me so deeply as an innocent abroad in her 20s.
I feel a continual push-pull and yin-yang; a Bali high and a Bali low. But through it all, what brings me back are the constants: the things I remembered both before I stepped foot on the crooked, uneven sidewalks of Jalan Monkey Forest for the second time and also the things I forgot, but was reminded of upon returning…
Things I remembered:
The smell. It’s burnt coconut leaves mixed with soot and lemongrass scent. There are variations on it—a dash of frangiapani here, or vanilla there—but at its center, it’s a native scent of sweet burning that is so innately Bali. It’s the one I’d smell in Costa Rica or Yelapa and think, “Ooooh. It smells like Bali.”
The kindness. From the taxi drivers offering “transport” to the waitresses who always repeat your order back to you to the hotel staff that outnumbers you, but remembers your name, it’s all legit. They’re just that nice. I even asked a Balinese man if anyone ever gets angry and he didn’t seem to understand me.
The morning sounds. And also the afternoon and evening sounds. At daybreak, there’s the sweeping: the sound of hard straw or dried bamboo scraping against the concrete. Depending on where you’re staying (aka how much you’re spending), there’s also the roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing you awake. In the afternoon, there’s a pervasive cricket echo throughout the air, as well as chirping birds mixed with the rattling vroom-vroom sound from the scooters, or a honk from the vans who use their horns on the one-lane roads when turning around a windy bend so whomever’s coming from the other way knows they’re there. And in the evening, you’ve got your geckos loudly pronouncing themselves: “GECK-O, GECK-O.” I (mostly) love them all.
The Bali Belly. Last time, I definitely remember having stomach issues, which has been adorably dubbed “The Bali Belly.” I tried local foods, but there came a point when the only thing I could eat was this asparagus soup from one of the few restaurants on Monkey Forest Road. (Super weird, I know.) Thankfully, despite my bringing several antidotes, my tummy’s come a long way and all has been good in the digestive department—even with all the curries, tempe and satay I’ve had. Ironically, there’s now a ton more Westernized food options—pizza, burgers, quinoa salad, avocado toast—that it’s possible to avoid succumbing to the BB at all. But why come to this exotic side of the world if not to take risks and taste the damn rainbow?
The stray dogs. Thankfully, there aren’t nearly as many now, and those that are here just mind their own business and try to get by with a life on the streets.
The offerings. If there’s a symbol of Bali, to me, it’s the colorful daily offerings left in front of businesses and shrines to offer peace, good luck and prosperity. They’re made of dried palm and coconut leaves and are full of rice and fresh flowers—including my favorite, the frangiapani. They often start out vibrant and billowing with incense, but by midday, they become a casualty to the rain and foot traffic. No fear, though: They come around again and again and the intent lingers.
Things I Forgot:
The mosquitos (and other insects). The mosquitoes are not the malaria or zika kind (or so I’ve been told), but they’re the biting kind, oh yes they are. I actually can’t believe I forgot about them. As soon as I got my first bite I was like, “Ohhhhhh, right.” Then I immediately remembered the incense coils that you burn to shoo them away! I love that I forgot the poison, but remembered the cure. Then there’s the ants crawling all over everything, as well as the dragonflies flitting about.
The absence of hot water. I guess I forgot about this because 15 years ago, I stayed super cheaply without A/C, in which case even if there were hot water I wouldn’t have wanted to shower with anything but cold water because it’s just that hot. Since I’ve been mixing it up this trip by staying at super nice hotels and super cheap hotels for a story I’m working on, hot water is a welcome premium. That said, even some of the nicer hotels struggle with their water heaters. This is jungle living, yo.
The nicknames. My taxi driver from the airport took to calling me “Boss.” Also, I love being called “Ibu,” which is Balinese for “Miss.”
The shoeless wandering. It’s pretty standard to walk around without shoes in Bali for several reasons: One, if you get caught in one of the many daily downpours, whatever shoes you’re wearing will likely fail you, in which case it’s just best to go barefoot. Two, it’s customary to take your shoes off when entering a room—whether it’s your hotel room or a store.
The prayer hands greeting.
I don’t remember doing this back in 2001. While you do occasionally see the Balinese—a high population of which are Hindu—placing prayer hands to their third eye when blessing the temples with offerings, you rarely see them offering prayer hands to each other, which leads me to believe it’s the Eat, Pray, Love-ification of Bali, which as I’ve observed this week comes in all forms: the presence of a Starbucks, the yoga studios certifying new teachers weekly and the various gemstone healing shops. Some feel genuine, most feel fake.
As I have just left Ubud for two days by the beach in Canggu before heading to Cambodia, I am mixed with a range of emotions similar to those I felt years ago:
Will I return?
What will change?
How will I feel?
Who will be here?
What will be here?
I think when I left 15 years ago, part of me knew I’d be back at some point. This time, I don’t know. But whether my visit will be physical or continue only in my heart and mind, I am certain the soul of the Bali I first fell in love with—its smells and sounds and kindness and bare feet and geckos and mosquitos—will still be here, taunting me with its sweet, sweet pleasures.