I'm not much of a traveler; I lost most of my interest in visiting new places over the 20 years that I spent as an international teacher. During that period, I traveled a lot: international conferences, holiday trips with my wife when the kids were small and we had their grandparents around to watch them, and the coming and going from the places where I lived and worked back to Bali on each vacation. I enjoyed the travel for the most part, but now that I have no reasons to visit another country, I'm content with staying on this tropical island. However, I do like to get out and around Bali to visit friends, shake out some cobwebs and see what new developments are happening in other areas.
Since my last stroke in May, I've been following doctor's order to restrict my activities on the motorcycle. But, the kampung can get claustrophobic, the weather has been lovely, the main tourist season is winding down, and I've felt the need to prove to myself that I can still do the 2-3 hour trips around Bali that I love. Being out on the road in the countryside where the air is clear and laced with the sweet fragrances of cloves, oranges and frangipani is one of the activities that I most look forward to. And, the road from Singaraja to Kubutambahan to Kintamani to Ubud is one of my favorite roads on the island; the lack of traffic, the incredible scenery, the smiling faces and the transition from the heat of the coast to the coolness of the mountains is exhilarating.
So with a few trepidations – would I have another fugue state, would I have another stroke, how would I deal with traffic once I reached Tegallalang – I packed a bag for a few days and headed off into the brilliant morning sun. After four months of being confined to Singaraja, the openness of the road and the possibilities of some new adventure in Ubud heightened all my senses and the sense of foreboding quickly vanished. This sparsely traveled stretch of Bali's over-congested roads can take a driver back to the simpler days of the past. As I left the coast behind, I could breathe deeply the intoxicating essence of cloves drying in the sun alongside the road.
Up through Kintamani and down to Ubud, the road was clear and the weather gorgeous. Making the sharp turn to the west in Kintamani, I was surprised that the usual police detail checking licenses and vehicle registrations was absent. This alone was enough to make me think that I had slipped into a fugue state again and taken the wrong road; my confidence was suddenly shaken and I was sure that I had never taken that road before. I missed imagined roadmarkers that would tell me I was on the correct path to the southern entrance to Jalan Raya in Ubud. I pulled over, smoke a cigarette and gathered my thoughts. Calmed, I drove down the road still concerned about the lack of vehicles carrying tourists. But, just as I was about to pull over again to check on directions in a small warung, I came up to the tourist spot where carloads of holiday visitors stop to get a few photos of Bali's fabled rice terraces. Ah, I was on the right road; time to forget about the earlier signs, things were all right in the world.
Pulling into Jalan Kajeng in Ubud, I parked in front of my favorite homestay and wandered in. One of the family members shouted out, “Bapak, you're back. How are you? You're room in the back is free.” And, indeed, it was. All of the other rooms were filled with young tourists, but my room in the back of the homestay was empty, as if it was waiting for me to come on this test drive. Shortly other family members came back to greet me and inquire about my health. Did I go the hospital after the last visit? What did the doctor say? Did I want some food?
I settled in long enough to text my old American friend to inform him that I was back in Ubud and almost instantly he called to invite me for lunch. The family brought me some hot water for coffee and an ashtray. I took off for a delicious lunch at my friend's house along with the usual rapid fire conversation about the state of Bali and Indonesia along with a few grandparent stories. Back at the homestay later that afternoon, the family informed me that they were having some family ceremonies the next day and I was not to eat outside because I would be eating with the family.
Living in the city of Singaraja has its benefits, but the downside is the ceaseless amount of noise coming from multiple sources. The homestay in Ubud, on the other hand, is an island of tranquility in the center of one of Bali's favorite tourist and expat destinations. I spent my first night relaxing with some reading, writing and listening to old hippie music from the 60s. Unlike the old days, my bed at the homestay is just the right amount of softness and with the fan, I can easily lapse into a comfortable sleep unbothered by the trials and tribulations of life on a tropical island.
An early morning walk up Jalan Kajeng confirms that the long arm of the spiritual seekers and the greedmongers is spreading everywhere. New spas and “traditional” (non-Balinese, however) therapy shops have sprouted along the street like mushrooms after a night's rain. The Eat, Pray and Love ladies scoot up and down the street on their small motorbikes making their social connections for the day. Unlike the scene 20 plus years ago, these are foreigners connecting to foreigners. Despite the usual PC Bali expat line, the gap between “locals” and foreigners seems to be growing. I beat a hasty retreat to the homestay, take a shower and wander off to visit my favorite bookstore. The family stops me as I'm leaving to remind me not to eat in a restaurant today.
Down Jalan Raya in central Ubud, I give my friendly “no thank you” to the many offers of transportation. Arriving at the bookstore, I see a sign that it's closed; I check around the side door and it's open. Within five minutes, I've found a 1956 edition of Being and Nothingness, a copy of Tim Hannigan's excellent book on Raffles in Java, and a copy of Graham Greene's Monseigneur Quixote. And, I tell the shop girls that the front door says the shop is closed.
Back home, I get a huge plate of lawar – a Balinese specialty. I finish the plate and lay down on my bed to read Tim's book on Raffles. I'm asleep in ten minutes. Off again on another walk, I stroll down to the music shop that has been around since my first visit to Ubud in 1989. I buy some earphones so that I can listen to music while writing later in the night. I stop in one of the chi-chi restaurants for a beer and listen to a rather loud conversation about spiritual cleansing. I think that perhaps my problem is that I haven't had my chakra aligned correctly. But, as the Aussies say, no worries. I head back home as the sun is beginning to set. I do my ritual greeting with the family grandpa only to realize that many years ago he and I were the same age. I have to check my mirror or that painting in the attic. One of the ladies follows me with another plate of lawar. I finish off the lawar, have a few vodkas and tonics, work on the new introduction to my book on Bali and drift off to sleep.
As I leave for Singaraja the next morning, I make sure to say good-bye to everyone in the family that is around. Clouds fill the sky and a light rain falls gently on my helmet as I pull out of the homestay. Fifteen kilometers up the road the sun peeks out and by the time I reach Kintamani, I have a sight sunburn. Two schoolgirls shoot past me on their little motor-scooter and giggle. Life could be worse than living on this endlessly fascinating island.