Many times throughout my life I have noticed that Sundays are often a day when I truly come alive and get the urge to do something on the spur of the moment. I clear my mind of all the things I should be doing and open it up to doing something I will enjoy.
I arrived in Ubud, on the beautiful island of Bali almost two weeks ago. It’s been over nine years since I was last here, so I figured it was time for another visit to see for myself what changes this cultural and artistic centre for Bali has undergone. I wanted to see if all the horrible rumours of how it had been ruined by too many tourists and over development were true or not.
After a breakfast of banana pancake, a mixed fruit plate, and tea, served to me on the patio of my room by the father of Natalia Homestay where I have been living, I dug out my map, which I had searched high and low to find. There are literally hundreds of small tourist agencies in Ubud and a few large Information Centres, but none seemed to have any such thing as a map. Who needs one if we have a phone with the ever popular Maps Me? Well, I do! In the end, I was fortunate enough to find one at a small agency on a quiet street near me.
Since I know from past experience when I set out to explore for the first time, or the second as it was in this case, I can find myself going in many directions which often leads to getting no where, Therefore, I decided to focus on visiting just the temples in my vicinity. The Royal Palace, in the centre of town and about a 15 minute walk from my homestay, was my starting point.
When I arrived there, I was surprised and a bit dismayed to find myself in the midst of a huge traffic jam with hoards of people milling around. I quickly discovered that the Balinese Hindus take Sundays to meet at Ubud’s largest temple to pay respects to their gods and goddesses with dance and music. The men were all dressed up in lily white shirts and hats with colourful sarongs as were the women with colourful, lacy tops matched to equally ornate sarongs. The children don’t wear such traditional clothing but were decked out in their Sunday best.
Since the doors leading into the Palace grounds or the Pura Desa, the Sanskrit word for a walled city or palace, were closed to the public, I did what most of the tourists were doing and that was to witness what was going on and snap some pictures. The Balinese are very used to tourists being everywhere so they are able to carry on with marvellous ease with whatever they are doing while we watch. I can’t help wonder if the onslaught of tourists will eventually change them.
From somewhere above, I could hear traditional Balinese music with the soothing sounds of the gamelan, an instrument unique to Bali. My eyes floated upwards to an elevated pavilion housing a group of men deeply immersed in their music making. Then I spied through one of the gates leading to inside the royal compound a strange looking apparition with long, blonde hair. I couldn’t tell if it was a man , woman or beast. A closer look, however, did reveal a group of women creating a graceful dance with hand gestures unique to the Balinese method of dance. This form of dance took me back to a performance I attended on my first trip in 2010. Although initially the movements appear graceful, upon closer scrutiny they are actually very structured. I learned that their dance mirrors their whole way of life based on their Hindu religion.
At this point, I feel I should explain how the Hindu philosophy is so intertwined, not only with Bali’s culture and way of life, but also their architecture which is known and used around the world. All their buildings are designed to connect nature, humanity, and the gods. This is also the premise of Hinduism so must be incorporated into everything. Harmony and balance are the key to a good and purposeful life.
To understand this more clearly, let’s start with the family compounds like the one I am staying in at Nataliya Homestay. My pictures below will give you some idea of what a typical Balinese home looks like. Private homes will not be as elaborate as the temples, and the temples won’t be as large or elaborate as the Royal Palace. However, all three of them will reflect a similar layout which must reflect three concepts.
Buildings are constructed with three spaces in mind: the outer or lower layer with an entrance gate made of stone and wood, indicating a hierarchy of wealth and importance created by the grandiosity of the statues and sculptures. The second space is a larger open air area surrounded by the living quarters if it’s a private home, or small pavilions if it’s a temple. The third space is sacred and reserved for the shrines to the gods and goddesses, but again if in a family home, it might also include shrines to dead ancestors. All of their structures are surrounded by an outer wall to protect its occupants from evil spirits.
This is simplified picture of how Balinese buildings are constructed with their religion in mind. It can go much deeper and be more complex when you have to consider that nine of the most important deities must be represented in their art work and carvings which must be placed in either a north, east, south, or west direction. Gardens and pools must have the same consideration in order to be balanced. Everything is well thought out and placed according to its significance. Animals, for example, although an important part of any family, are considered to be at the lower rung of the ladder and will be found at the entrance which is the lowest level. The middle level is for the people, and the higher or back level is for the gods. Interestingly enough, this same structure is true for the whole island with the gods high in the mountains, humans in the centre or the plain, and monsters down below in the sea.
Since I could not find any gates that were open to take a closer look at what constitutes the Pura Desa, I decided to keep on walking east on Jalan Raya Ubud, what the locals and tourists alike call the ‘main drag’ of Ubud. My intention was to find a nice little cafe for my daily cappuccino for fuel, in order to seek out a few more temples or museums or whichever came first. For some reason, I decided to turn right onto a little side street which looked vaguely familiar. A second surprise occurred when just a few doors down, a little coffee shop I ducked into last week in the midst of a heavy down pour, appeared out of the blue. Since their coffee was freshly ground upon order, I made a mental note to come back again. Now here it was again just when I needed it. Sensing that I might want some peace and quiet, the young barista suggested that I might like to sit upstairs where I could read the guide book I found on their book shelf. When I reached the top, I was in for my third surprise when laid out in front of me was a stately Balinese guest house with a lovely pool, a mass of greenery, ponds with lotus flowers, intriguing statues, and comfy chairs all under a roof top to shield me from the scorching sun.
I had the whole place to myself until about an hour later when a youngish couple joined me. We smiled and greeted one another and right away connected. Within minutes after establishing that we were all Canadians…they were from Ottawa…they joined me for some enlightening conversation…. meaning it was in the realm of the spiritual which I am more than ever open to discussing as seems to be the case for many people who either have chosen to live here or come back year after year. In the course of our conversation, I learned that Lynn was an aviation specialist with the Department of Transportation for the federal government and Brian was a healer. It wasn’t long before he sensed the pain in my lower back and offered to give me a short healing with meditation to help clear it. We all closed our eyes and after five minutes he asked me if I felt any difference. I did feel noticeably better and was able to get up from my chair without a twinge. The pain had gone. As I write this, I admit it’s still there but somehow different: it’s lighter, and I feel I have more control over it. After exchanging emails and promises to keep in touch, we parted. I don’t know if our paths will ever cross again, but what I do know from this experience is that there are many good people in this world who want to help make it a better place.
It was around 4 p.m, when I left this little piece of paradise. By this time the sun had disappeared to be placed with dark clouds indicating the daily rain showers were on their way. Within minutes I was forced to take shelter making this a perfect time to have a late lunch. I found what looked to be a quiet restaurant called Griya on that side of Raya Ubud that has a river running along it on the way to the Campuhan area. Luck was with me once again in finding this quiet spot advertising a daily special of roasted veggies, beans, a delicious tomato sauce, and homemade tacos with a generous mound of lettuce, tomato and cucumber on the side. This generous portion of really tasty Mexican flavours along with a bottle of mineral water cost $6.00. I also had the luxury of eating at a table covered with a nice white table cloth right by the gushing river.
Fortunately the rain didn’t last too long so I was able to do a bit more exploring before darkness set in. This time I walked on the other side of the street back towards the centre. The first street I came to was Bisma Road so decided to climb the little hill hoping it might take me to the rice paddies which it did…eventually….but not before having to walk past a variety of restaurants, hotels and spas. I could see they are rapidly gobbling up those precious rice fields.
Having seen enough, I continued on to Puri Saraswati, a temple to the Hindu goddess of art and literature, which sits on a lovely water garden and lotus pond next door to a Starbucks.
My next stopping place was Puri Lukasan another beautiful temple sitting on a hill overlooking a tiered garden. It is now a museum and art gallery displaying old and modern Balinese art. The price of admission includes a buffet lunch which I didn’t need so gave it a pass.
As I passed by the Royal Palace again I heard strains of that familiar music I heard that morning. I had to stop because here was a wonderful opportunity to witness up close some more Bali dancing from the ladies. My thought was that this had to be a perfect ending for my Sunday walking tour which had brought me full circle.