Some days tell you only, “Quiet now. Relax. Just look and listen,” and the only response is, “Okay. Show me.” Some days blindside you with adventure and leave you tingling, sputtering, “Thank you. Thank you… Thank you.” This is the story of one of those days.
I blinked my eyes open at dawn and greeted Ubud, Bali, for the first time. An eerie yet strangely comforting chant emanated from a loudspeaker across the rice paddy, or uma, to the porch of my homestay. Morning prayers. I watched as my coffee’s steam mirrored fog lingering over the terraces. I listened to the hallowed voices for probably an hour, completely captivated.
After a chat with my host mother Wayan, I decided to get an early start in getting to know Ubud. On her recommendation, I wandered to the Ubud Market where I dusted off my negotiation skills and bought a sarong, having realized nearly every woman and girl wore one. Leaving the market, I ducked down into a quiet ravine, eager to get off the noisy Jalan Monkey Forest [Monkey Forest Road].
I followed a narrow staircase from the sidewalk to an inconspicuous path shrouded in vines. Next to a creek and completely cloaked, my senses settled. The din of morning commerce faded away. I changed into my new sarong as I watched ripples spilling and chasing each other over smooth, algae-coated stones. I caught a waft of sweet incense smoke curling around me from a family altar across the stream, and it hit me. I was lonely.
I remembered seeing a flyer for a gathering place called the Love Space which hosted yoga classes, massage, painting workshops, and more, free to everyone. That was exactly what I needed.
I began my search for Love Space on Jalan Jembawan, a narrow, dusty street where people talked and laughed in the road. Charred-sweet smoke hovered above saté carts as friendly, mangy dogs sniffed for scraps. Everything but vehicles were in the street while parked motorbikes took up the sidewalks. I liked the vibe immediately.
After a while, I had circled back at least three times looking for Love Space. No one I asked knew what I was talking about. Just as I was about to give up, a voice shouted from across the street, “Hey! I like your sarong!”
I turned to see two men sitting on the curb, chatting and smoking. One of them was dressed in khaki pants and a polo embroidered with a hotel logo, while the other, the sarong-liking one, wore a t-shirt and a traditional batik sarong and udeng [head covering]. A freshly picked frangipani peeked out of the udeng. “Thanks,” I said and approached.
“Are you going to a temple?” he asked.
“Because you’re wearing a sarong. You must wear a sarong to enter temples.”
“Oh. I guess I just like them. I bought this one this morning,” I said, smoothing out the creases.
I asked if they knew of this Love Space.
“You mean this place?”
He gestured behind him toward the base of the doorway where faded, hand-painted letters read, L O V E S P A C E. The interior was vacant and under construction.
“Oh,” I said, clearly deflated.
The man in the sarong smiled a kind and honest smile, the kind that emanates from your eyes and just happens to make your lips curve upward toward them in reply. He snuffed his cigarette, and unlike every other smoker I’d seen thus far in Bali, he did not throw it into the street, instead rising to dispose of it.
“Do you want to go to a temple?”
He walked over to a motorbike, inspecting it and adjusting the side mirrors. His friend, silent until now, spoke to him in Balinese and rose to leave.
“Um, yeah. Definitely. But you…” I stammered, “you mean now?”
“Yes.” He offered. “It’s my day off. Have you heard of the Temple of the Holy Water?”
Now, that was intriguing. “No, I haven’t. It sounds lovely.”
While my logical self debated whether it was a good idea to hop on a stranger’s motorbike on my first full day in a new country to who-knows-where and no friends to tell where I was going or when to expect me back, my instinct was already hiking up my sarong and kicking down the passenger footholds of his bike. I just knew I’d be okay.
The adventure began with the crank of engine as we waved farewell to his friend.
The ride out of town was invigorating. We stopped in the village of Tegallalang at what’s considered by many to be the most spectacular rice terrace and at a luwak coffee farm and roastery.
Luwak are small mammals whose digestive tracts cleanse coffee beans of their sharp acidity without breaking them down. When they pass through the animal, people gather, wash, peel, and roast them. They make some of the most expensive coffee in the world, prized for its smooth, sweet taste.
When we approach the Temple of the Holy Water, my face was sore from smiling so widely at every passerby.
The only largely Hindu island in the most populous Muslim-majority country, Bali is home to a proud and vibrant culture. Many holy sites have endured centuries of colonization then Indonesian unification and independence. One of these ancient sites is the Temple of the Holy Water, or Tirta Empul.
Built in 962 A.D. around a large spring, the temple has welcomed Balinese families to cleanse their bodies and spirits for generations. Greeting us at the entrance was an enormous banyan tree where the colorful remnants of dozens of offerings, or canang sari, lay. Their purpose is to praise and appease the gods and invite good energies to meaningful sites and frequented paths.
Locals distribute the small canang sari on woven palm leaves, and you can find them in abundance throughout the streets, temples, by storefronts and at just about any entrance in Bali. They contain a cornucopia of flowers, herbs, and sweets. The older ones surrounding the tree had been picked clean by wildlife, which is just fine with the Balinese. Once the offering is placed the deed is done, and it’s up to the gods what happens to it.
Walking inside, I was humbled by the age and intricacy of the stonework surrounding us. We soon encountered large bathing fountains. Graciously and patiently, my new friend instructed me on how to give thanks, wash, and drink from the pure waters.
I feel my sarong suspended in the cool, refreshing current; round stones beneath my bare feet ground me. I stop at nearly every spout one by one to wash and pray. I skip the last two, which are reserved for the dead, and emerge having never felt so welcome and at home somewhere so different and far from my own.
On the ride back into town, I close my eyes, and every other sense heightens. I feel the Bali air, pregnant with incense smoke and fresh fruit, the rumble of the motorbike beneath me and the wind rippling both my sarong and tangled hair. A plump equatorial sun filtering through the palm fronds above to dance on my skin. My new friend expertly navigating both asphalt and sidewalk back to the heart of Ubud. My heart is gaping open, and I’m free.
As the beautiful chaos of Ubud blossoms in front of us, I open my eyes and shrug off any doubts I had left. I thank the gods and all of Bali for the honor of their presence and guidance. I begin to see my fate twisted among every one’s here, like the gnarled, interlocking branches of a banyan tree. Like one of these fallen giants destined for carving, out of the jungle I feel myself emerge, raw and expectant, into the hands of Bali itself.
Shape me, I pray. I am ready.
Some days, you just have to surrender.
Natalie does her best to live an earthbound existence through slow travel, permaculture, and movement arts. She values minimalism and aims to leave a positive wake everywhere she visits. Find stillness in motion with her as she shares these explorations on her blog: Dirty Hands, Restless Feet (http://dirtyhandsrestlessfeet.com/).