Less than ten minutes after our arrival, the British couple asks to leave. They speak in hushed, agitated tones to our local guide, Sang De (sounds like “Sunday”), who is dressed in a traditional Balinese sarong and a lightweight white shirt, with a swath of batik cloth wrapped around his head. The wife, eyes to the ground, kneads the brim of her straw hat between her index finger and thumb while the husband stows his camera and begins to walk back toward the parked, still A/C-cool, van.
Sang De kindly nods at their concerns and I try to eavesdrop over the din of morning market bustle. I catch only a few words from the husband, something about “muddy stalls” and “the smell.” We are a group of ten strangers, of mixed ages and races, from Australia, Canada, the United States, China, Britain, and the Philippines. We may have had different reasons for coming to Bali, but at the market this morning, we stroll with Sang De thanks to a shared interest in Balinese food culture.
Earlier, on the drive up from my hotel and into the rice terraces on the outskirts of Ubud — where Sang De lives on a traditional family compound with his parents and multiple generations of brothers, their wives, and children — we pass the time with talk of Balinese eating habits and the infamous babi guling, or suckling pig, that is being offered at every roadside warung and food stall we pass.
We are en route to a small market that, Sang De says, doesn’t suffer from the same onslaught of tourists as the central Ubud market. Thanks to a booming tourism industry and the worldwide success of Eat, Pray, Love (the best-selling Elizabeth Gilbert book and the God-awful Julia Roberts movie), many Balinese believe that Ubud and its market have become more for show — less authentic — and forgo shopping there. It’s a Bali theme park attraction, like an Epcot stop-off where you can still learn a thing or two, but in the comfort of everything shiny and new.
As we climb out of Sang De’s van, a group of local women, balancing overflowing baskets of fruits and vegetables on their heads, exit the market and hurry across the bustling street. Although it is early, just after 8:00 a.m. (and approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit), the day is old for market sellers and goers. In Bali, like so many cultures around the world, an early morning trip to the local market begins each day and the goods for sale dictate, for the most part, what a family will eat. This unpredictability is something many Americans can no longer tolerate, as we clip through the aisles of our brightly lit grocery stores.
Some of the vendors are already packing up for the day and by 10:00 a.m. little more than a stray eggplant or broken egg on the hot, cracked pavement will remain. According to Sang De, the savviest and most scrupulous of Balinese cooks will arrive by 4:00 a.m. to claim the best produce and stock up on bags of bright orange chrysanthemum blossoms, ribbons of green coconut husk, and incense for their religious offerings, a daily requirement on this predominantly Hindu island.
The market entrance is a driveway that leads down a steep, muddy hill to a two-story building with an open expanse of pavement beside it. Vendors huddle under makeshift umbrellas of tarps and sheets to escape the already piercing sun. As we begin our descent, Sang De points out baskets of fiddlehead fern, bunches of bright green cassava leaf, and young stalks of lemongrass for sale. As we reach the bottom, he directs us to dodge monster mud puddles filled with rotten vegetables and dog waste.
The smell of market life in Southeast Asian climes is strong —a mixture of sulfur, overripe fruit, and motorbike exhaust. If the driveway leading us here is the mouth of the market, then we are in the messy belly of it now. Stalls are on top of each other and packs of stray dogs circle the periphery looking for a handout.
Crates of warm, fresh eggs, their shells speckled with bits of feather, sit next to baskets overflowing with furry rambutan, leathery snakeskin fruit, and ruby-colored lychees. A blanket of cacao beans dry and roast directly on the hot pavement, away from the haphazard shadows cast by the stalls. An old lady, with soft, sun-browned skin and a hunched spine, butchers ducks in her lap with a small paring knife, tossing the slippery, crimson duck hearts into a pile on a nearby table.
I don’t know what the British couple expected to see that day at the market. Perhaps scenes fit for a movie screen, the very same shiny and fake island I feared I’d find. To be sure, that Bali is still there, along the main drag in downtown Ubud, on the party-hard beaches of Kuta, and tucked safely behind the gates of five-star resorts. But among the sun-washed stalls, stray dogs, and kind-eyed Balinese market vendors offering free samples, I found the Bali I came for.
The chaotic and mud-caked Bali. A day-to-day place clouded in thick humidity, the constant waft of incense, and the smoke of roadside grills. Not the British couple’s Bali, but the actual, lived-in Bali. A place very far away and ever-so-slightly uncomfortable; where the unfamiliarity that many travelers dread, but that I hunt and hunger for, is ripe for the picking. A place that is not like home.