December arrived, kicking off the countdown to the end of our trip, whether we were ready or not. I was excited about seeing everyone at home and returning to the comfort of familiar surroundings, but I also anticipated missing the excitement and magic of travel. Somewhat paradoxically, there was also a certain kind of security in our vagabond lifestyle that I had come to appreciate: I knew wherever we traveled I would find new people and experiences that were sure to enrich and expand my outlook on life. How would I fare back in the U.S., without this constant novelty? How might I be able to sustain the enthusiasm and freedom I’d felt on the road once I got home? And, of course, the looming question: What next? Well, one of my most valuable souvenirs from the last year is my intention to live in the present, and so I did my best to put such worries aside to fully enjoy the last few weeks of our trip.
A happy distraction, our friend Eddie squeezed in a last-minute visit at the end of our time in Indonesia. Bringing along his friend Jean, the two met me in Ubud to stay for a few days before we’d all head over to Lombok to join Ramesh. Eddie is one of my best friends, so I was ecstatic to see him when their taxi pulled up to our rental house. Meeting up with old friends while abroad really provides best of both worlds, like traveling along with a little piece of home. And, as this was the end of our trip, spending the last bit with Eddie and Jean provided a way to smooth the transition from the foreignness of travel to the familiarity of home.
By this time, I was quite entrenched in my love affair with Ubud, and I was excited to share it with Eddie and Jean, both first-timers to Bali. I rented an airy, spacious house for us, with a jungle paradise in back. I had loved my little rental in town, but it was so luxurious to have a whole house, with things like laundry, a full kitchen, and cable TV! After spending the first day relaxing at home and catching up, we decided to get out and see some stuff on Day Two. Knowing that I’d probably tour around the island with Eddie and Jean, I actually hadn’t gotten out of Ubud much during my stay, so I was looking forward to seeing a few new places. Fortunately, my friend Bagus is a tour guide, so I arranged for him to drive us around for the day. As Jean was recovering from a recent knee surgery (brave woman to be traveling with crutches!), Bagus tailored the trip appropriately. Jean will have to wait until her next visit to climb a volcano. 🙂
The vast majority of the Balinese practice a brand of Hinduism unique to their island; it blends Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with the indigenous worship of ancestors and nature, using countless rituals to maintain harmony between the godly and demonic spirits. There are offerings and rituals for everything! Religion is completely woven into the fabric of daily life, evident in everything from the cute little daily offerings littering the sidewalks to the festival processions that crowd the streets with color on a regular basis. It follows that temples abound as well: miniature versions for ancestor worship within family compounds, village temples, and the more sacred temples that dot the island. Bagus took us first to visit Pura Tirta Empul, a holy water temple built in the tenth century at the site of a large natural spring. This is the spot the locals visit for purification, and Eddie and Jean took advantage of the healing waters.
Next stop was the coffee plantation Bagus had taken me to previously, so that Eddie and Jean wouldn’t miss out on tasting Kopi Luwak, the “cat poop” coffee. From there we continued on to enjoy cool breezes at Kintamani, with its breathtaking vistas of the active volcano Gunung Batur and Bali’s largest crater lake, Danau Batur, which encompasses another smaller volcano. Just a reminder that we were in the thick of the Ring of Fire; Indonesia wouldn’t exist without such volcanoes. After lunch, we moved on to Penglipuran for a peek into a traditional Balinese village, albeit a nicely manicured one for the tourists; still, the villagers there live regular lives and were open to letting us snoop around inside a family compound, which was fairly authentic. Our plan from there was to make it to Pura Tanah Lot for sunset, but we made a spontaneous stop first at Bagus’ sister’s house. She and her family were wonderfully welcoming, offering us drinks and allowing us to pass around her baby girl—so cute! The family sells smoked whole chickens and ducks, so we picked one up for later; it turned out to be one of the best things I ate all year!
Upon realizing the time, Bagus hurried us out of his sister’s house, and the race was on to Tanah Lot. By the look of the sky at that point, we weren’t even sure we’d get a sunset at all, but we powered on, arriving with plenty of time. Pura Tanah Lot is one of the seven sea temples that line Bali’s southwestern coast, each within eyesight of the next to form a chain. It perches atop a large offshore rock and is famous for fantastic sunset shots. We joined the photo-snapping crowds and then waded across the tide to the base of the rock to be blessed with water from a holy spring beneath the temple. Luckily we did not encounter the poisonous sea snakes believed to guard the temple from evil spirits! In the end, we were fortunate to get a gorgeous sunset; those tropical stormy skies can really put on a show.
The next day was spent in Ubud, where no visit is complete without a trip to the Monkey Forest. I had encountered plenty of monkeys already, walking along the back of the forest to my friend Mark’s house; they’re mesmerizing and a little creepy to watch. They’re also cheeky bastards and will swipe anything they can get their weird little hands on: sunglasses, hats, etc. I was carrying a plastic bag one day as I timidly passed by a monkey staring me down, and out of the blue he slapped the bag, just for the hell of it. I suppose they have to find ways to entertain themselves. With Eddie, Jean, and Bagus, I made an official trip into the forest—this one much better than six years ago, when it was pouring rain. I was surprised to find a few monkeys playing in a pool; I had no idea that monkeys liked to splash around. They ran, jumped in, played with each other in the water, and most amazingly, used a coconut shell as a cup to drink! Fascinating. On our way out, we passed a lively procession heading for the Monkey Forest temple for yet another festival of some sort. After some shopping (and there’s plenty in Ubud), we met up with Bagus and Susanna, another traveler who’d met Ramesh in Nusa Lembongan, to sample some of the nightlife. We started with jazz at the upscale Jazz Cafe but quickly moved on to the ever-popular Laughing Buddha, where an awesome Hungarian violinist (Helga Sedli) and her band had the whole place clapping along to Gypsy Jazz and Folk. Losing some of our party along the way, Eddie, Bagus, and I wrapped up the night at XL, an outside shisha bar with inside dancing and a dog sleeping through the pounding music on a couch. And then, it was just Eddie and I, walking across town to get home, which is a very different experience at 3:00am than in normal waking hours—cool, quiet, and peaceful…until the dogs heard us. Then we were surrounded by barking, which escalated to being physically surrounded by barking dogs as we proceeded down the street to our house. Bali dogs are tamer than they used to be, but they’re still a pretty wild bunch. With clasped hands, Eddie and I just continued walking, talking in the most friendly tones we could muster, and arrived home safely. So, yes, Eddie, perhaps we should have taken a taxi.
And then, it was finally my last day in Ubud. I spent the afternoon finishing up some errands while Eddie and Jean had a spa and shopping day. We met up with Bagus, Mark, and Susanna later for a farewell dinner at Mangga Madu, where we not only had tasty food but also swarms of termites! Mark had warned me of the few termite nights at the beginning of the rainy season. It only lasts for twenty minutes or so, but hundreds of them flock to any light source, shedding wings all over the place. We had actually encountered this the night before at the house but managed to shut the doors and kill the lights in time to keep most of them out. Unfortunately, on this night, we made the mistake of leaving a lamp on and would come home later to piles of wings from all of the termites that had squeezed their way through door cracks. Pretty gross. After the termite swarm subsided and I said my goodbyes to Mark and Susanna, we caught a Legong performance. Legong is a Balinese form of dance characterized by subtle but expressive eye and hand movements. The dancers, in glittering costumes, look like dolls, with their wide eyes and graceful-but-stilted movements. In that performance, they were acting out stories from the Ramayana, though I can’t say I was able to follow. Beautiful to watch, though. Having checked off our last tourist attraction in Ubud, we said goodbye to Bagus and headed home to pack and sweep up termite wings.
(A big thank you to Bagus for being such a wonderful host and friend during our visit. I hope to return to Bali soon and see you again!)