Ubud (OOO-BUHD) is a retreat. It starts with geography: the town is close to the middle of Bali, with no ocean in sight. The water comes from a river as well as natural springs in the area.
It continues as a metaphor. Historically, it represented a quieter area of Bali where farmers tended rice fields, raised ducks and pigs, and were far enough away from the administrative South not to be caught up in urban headaches.
And, probably for that reason it attracted many local Balinese artists and dancers who created an artistic community there.
Now enter Western adoration. It started in the 1930s when European artists and anthropologists set up camp there, and published works and studies portraying Bali as an island of artists and free spirits.
Adventurous European travellers (i.e. aristocrats) who had decided that India and Africa were fine and all, but seen a tiger and rhino and you’ve seen them all (or at that time: shot one, shot them all.) were looking for something new, something far-flung that could earn the envy of their cocktail party guests.
In the 1930s, Holland had administrative control of Indonesia. As many colonizing countries of the time recognized, however, it was easy enough to plant your flag around the world – the hard part was sorting out how to pay for it. Soon enough a lightbulb went off in the head of the Dutch government. Tourism! With this brainwave, Holland hung their hopes on Bali, seeing it as the golden goose that could offset costs, and made the country the centrepiece of their tourism advertising campaigns.
The bid worked: the adventurous European travellers took them up on it, and included Ubud on their itinerary.
Unfortunately, the love affair wouldn’t last. WW2 broke up the relationship, followed by Indonesian independence and a violent coup in the 60s (Tends to dampen things). However, the torch would be relit.
In the 70s, backpackers found Bali as a cheap surf destination and then burrowed further into the country finding Ubud – where they could stretch their dollars and stretch their hippie ideas into a new decade.
Already with an artistic backbone from Balinese artists, local Balinese healers (almost like medicine men and women who use herbs to heal), plus an endorsement from Western artists earlier in the century – Ubud now accommodated this new Western group who brought in yoga, organic food, chakra alignment and healing crystals.
In other words, 40ish years ago, Ubud had the major ingredients that North American gentrified urban neighbourhoods have today, including a ton of coffee shops. And, the place continued on its merry way being a beacon for Westerners pursuing an alternative lifestyle through yoga, spiritual retreats, and organic food comfortably away from the mainstream spotlight.
Then in 2006, author Elizabeth Gilbert offered up three words and sold millions:
If you haven’t read the book, you’re probably a guy – but as your intrepid reporter, I did the work for you, picking it up to see what it’s all about. The basic gist: it’s a memoir of her time in three places, committing to one main thing in each, as a means to help her sort through things after a divorce: Italy (Eat), India (Pray), Ubud (Love).
In truth, I was convinced I’d be allergic to Eat, Pray, Love, but I didn’t find it altogether bad. Yes, I admit I had some heavy eye rolls in a few spots, and cringed at others, but all told I found it an interesting story, not least for her experience in Ubud.
As a result of the book’s popularity, Ubud’s tourist industry now opened up. For someone who might once have looked at the town as a colony of passengers on astral planes and guys wearing flowy clothing who tie their hair into what looks like an ice cream scoop on top of their head, things now looked different. Thanks to an endorsement from a bestselling book, Ubud was open to the mainstream.
Interestingly, the book’s influence on Ubud is seen as double edged. While it’s helped boost business for some locals, it’s also seen as overrunning Ubud with more demand than the town can supply. So, ironically, the very reason for visiting Ubud, as portrayed in her book – rice paddies and tranquility – are being increasingly lost to tourist infrastructure.
I tend to think 20 years from now, if things keep up at this pace, Ubud will be more of a virtual tourist spot where rather than visit a real rice paddy, tourists will have to be content with photographs of rice paddies in their hotel lobby and room, showcasing what the land looked like before the hotel was built there.
In my opinion, another side effect from Eat, Pray, Love is the language that people use to talk about their New Age spiritualism as embodied by their yoga, meditation and other personal health pursuits. Now don’t misunderstand me. Yoga and meditation are healthy things to do, and there’s nothing wrong with practicing them – I’m only questioning language that some people use to describe their experience.
A prime example: I was in a writing workshop a few years ago and the instructor asked each of us to explain why you were here, blah, blah – we did the rounds, and landed on one woman who replied: “I’m here because I’m following my bliss”.
If I could equate that sentence to food it tasted like: sour milk, a pile of Premium Plus crackers you ate without water and couldn’t swallow, and under-toasted bread.
It felt off. Rank. What your feet smell like when you wear sneakers without socks.
Eat, Pray, Love had its fair share of these painful expressions, which accounted for my occasional eye rolls – though it didn’t ruin the book, because I found the author had a groundedness/cynicism that kept her story tethered no matter how far out she went.
So, all of this is to say, it’s not Elizabeth Gilbert’s fault that people casually talked about being: “Close to finding divinity” in conversation. However, I think her book had a legitimizing effect for some people to speak at length this way, but without the proportion, measure and eloquence that allowed Elizabeth Gilbert to give her experience some weight.
I think without these constraints, discussions about one’s meditation and spiritual exploration can easily sound syrupy, self-indulgent and have the gravitas of styrofoam.
In Ubud, where New Age spiritualism is rife, Rose and I were unwittingly about to walk headlong into a miasma of spiritual jibber jabber that nearly made me ill from discomfort and Rose close to rage. Considering we were in Ubud – meant to be a dojo of serenity and calm – I thought it was quite an achievement.
Here’s what happened:
Rose and I went for dinner at a spot which had communal seating: i.e. long tables where people share a long seat. Our server sat us down at an empty table where we were for 5 minutes alone, then the server brought over two more people to sit at the long table.
The woman of the couple said: “Can we sit with you?”, which immediately I thought was problematic – because, it’s a big table with Rose and I sitting at one end – we weren’t lying down on top of it, claiming it as our own. Secondly, the server had led them over to us, so the woman in asking us is essentially saying she didn’t trust the server’s reasoning in sitting her there.
“Of course”, I said somewhat curiously, wondering why she had bothered to ask.
Ok – dinner gets underway, and she starts talking to, who I’m assuming is, her boyfriend:
“OOOF. Yeah, I’m REALLY wiped out. Struggling for divinity is hard. I reached a new plane today – my chakras felt more settled”, she says.
“Congratulations”, her boyfriend says in an overearnest voice while reaching across to put his hands on hers.
“Fuck me”, I said to myself.
She went on: “This nine day course is REALLY tough. I feel hollowed out spiritually – but I’m filling up with clarity, newness and I know I’m close to finding the divine”.
At this point her boyfriend interjects: “Yeah, it’s tough getting close, but once your there, it’s all open, it’s special….”
“HANG ON. JUST LET ME FINISH!”, she interjected right back.
“Oh. Okay no worries”, he replied looking down slightly, and with his blond hair had the appearance of a golden labrador after being scolded.
“It’s REALLY tiring going through this”, she said in reference to whatever retreat she was on.
“I couldn’t agree more”, I said internally.
“I know. I know. But you’re there doing it. You’re breaking through barriers and reaching for the divine. It’s hard work”, he replies once again reaching for her hand.
Now at this point, once the tenor of their conversation had been established at our table, I immediately got nervous, because:
1. I can be a spy – overhearing other conversations.
2. I didn’t want to get caught.
And, Rose? Well this kind of sums up how she approaches conversations around her:
So, while all this was going on, Rose and I were signalling to each other through eye gestures at how the whole thing felt uncomfortable and we wanted to get out of there, mainly because the woman was not just talking to her boyfriend, but felt like she was also broadcasting her struggle for us, which, upon hearing, I took to mean we were meant to chime in with our own trying experiences while being in awe of her own, thus making her feel better about herself.
Throughout all of this, however, Rose’s eye-rolling was working on turbo – as if after every sentence the couple said, a slot machine handle was pushed on Rose, sending her eyes to the ceiling.
At this point, the woman next to us, in what I took as her sensing our stress, began using oblique analogies with her boyfriend to describe her current discomfort:
“You know when you walk in a room and there’s this ATMOSPHERE. I just feel this heaviness between two people. Ugh, it’s so TIRING. It’s SO thick”.
Taking that to mean she was now speaking about us – my only instinct was to leave now, not only to preserve my own sanity, but to preserve whatever dwindling peace was still in the air before I couldn’t help myself and say something or Rose would punch every one of her chakras.
Mercifully the server returned in 2 minutes, though it felt like 20, and we ejected ourselves from the meditation circle, found the street, and after a couple hours huffing around like bulls, relieving our frustration from being pent up in what felt like a pen, we found our remaining tranquility, restored balance and settled in to the rest of our time in Ubud.
Next stop Nusa Lembongan – an island off Bali – to see a circus of manta rays underwater followed by my life flash before my eyes while diving off Komodo island.