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A rice paddy festooned with saput poleng (at left) in Ubud (Photograph by Don George)

Road Lessons: Around the Bend in Bali

Last fall I attended the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival on the Indonesian island of Bali. I had fallen in love with the artful atmosphere and fervent grace of Ubud at the same festival the year before, so I had arrived in the city full of expectations. Yet on my first day there, as I walked down the main street, I found my senses pummeled by a noxious non-stop stream of cars and motorbikes, exhaust fumes, chaos, and noise.

Had that other Ubud been just a dream?

After I had walked a dozen blocks, my heart sinking lower with each step, I stopped, dizzied, to regain my bearings. At that moment a motorbike veered off the road in front of me. The driver, a middle-aged man in a turban and sarong, parked and walked toward me with a broad smile. “Are you lost?” he asked. “Do you need some help?”

Before I could answer, he said, “Come! Follow me!” and set off walking down the broad paved passage where I had stopped, away from the main street. He turned his head back toward me and waved with his arm, saying, “Come! Come! I’ll show you something special!” and then resumed walking.

“Well, why not?” I thought, and sprinted to catch up.

He walked briskly down the road and then onto a two-foot-wide dirt-and-grass path that led into a grove of trees. We walked through the trees and stepped over a sandal-wide creek. Thigh-high grasses lined the path and we wound deeper into the trees. After five minutes, we ascended a muddy bank. Reaching the top before me, he spread his arms wide. “Look!”

Pristine rice paddies spread before us, a sea of lush shoots rippling gently in the breeze. In the distance a row of palms and other green trees separated one patch of paddies from another. A dilapidated wooden storage shack listed on the left, and in the far distance three thatched roofs rose from the paddies.

“Isn’t this beautiful? This is what you were looking for, right?” he inquired, his smile as wide as the sky.

“Come! Come!” he said, setting out again. “This is the way all of Ubud used to be.” Then he abruptly stopped. “Take a photo!?” he said, at once asking and exhorting, sweeping his arm as if he were the emperor of the emerald land before us.

As we walked, he pointed out strips of white cloth tied to wooden posts that were meant to keep voracious birds away; a sacred black-and-white checked saput poleng cloth fluttering from a six-foot pole in a corner of the field, balancing the spirits of good and evil; and in the far distance, towering bamboo poles that had been erected for an upcoming festival.

After about 15 minutes threading the paddies, we came to an area of lush and luscious-looking, meticulously tended vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees, the whole plot about the size of half a tennis court. “Look! Beautiful!” my new friend said. “These belong to Warung Pulau Kelapa. You should eat there!” He pointed to a sign I hadn’t seen: “WARUNG PULAU KELAPA ORGANIC GARDEN YOU CAN PICK VEGETABLES SPICES & HERBS AND CONTACT OUR CHEF TO COOK.”

We walked around the fields for another five minutes, then returned through the grove and up the paved roadway to his motorbike. He stopped and I extended my hand to thank him. He met mine with a business card. “I’m a tour guide,” he said. “If you want to take a tour of Bali, let me know. Tell your friends, too. I know all the best places!” I assured him I would, and he navigated his bike back into the stream.

I waved goodbye, then walked again toward the grove and the wonderland beyond. When I reached the middle of the rice paddies, I spontaneously sat and absorbed: the swish of the breeze in the shoots, the smell of the sun on the mud, the tickle of the grass on my legs, the sun on my face, the breeze on my back, the rice paddy peace.

I thought about where I’d been just an hour before: a block away, a world away.

And I thought about how everything can change in a second, how mystery and magic attend to us wherever we are, and how sometimes serendipity arrives on a motorbike to unveil the truth of a place—and of the world we all wander.

Here are four books that capture the essence of Bali: 

  • A House in Bali (1947) is Canadian musician Colin McPhee’s classic account of Balinese music and dance and their central role in Balinese life during the 1930s; it remains one of the most penetrating and illuminating books on the island’s elusive, alluring culture.
  • In Fragrant Rice: My Continuing Love Affair With Bali, Australian Janet De Neefe recounts how she fell in love with Bali—and with a Balinese man. De Neefe, co-founder of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and owner of two restaurants, a guesthouse, and a cooking school in Ubud, has been a resident of Bali since the mid-1980s, and her book–part autobiography, part cultural narrative, and part cookbook–is an insightful introduction to Balinese culture and cuisine.
  • In A Little Bit One O’clock: Living With a Balinese Family (1998), William Ingram, co-founder and co-director of Bali-based Threads of Life–an organization dedicated to the preservation and promulgation of traditional Indonesian weaving–offers an intimate account of his own introduction to life on the Indonesian island.
  • Bali Soul Journals (2013), a hot-off-the-presses read written by Bali resident Clare McAlaney with photographs by Trish McNeill, presents a sumptuous exploration and evocation of the heart and soul of contemporary Bali.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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