EAT (quickly), PRAY (it’ll be over soon), LOVE (our freedom): A story from Ubud


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.

Talk soon.





Monkey Free, Monkey Do.


We’re in the Planet of the Apes.

There are monkeys all over the place. Some are sitting, staring like this guy above, others on hind legs, waiting, and others scampering after each other to say hi or settle a real estate claim. But no matter what they’re up to, all of them are interested in one thing: our banana collection. And, the truth is, we haven’t got one. No collection and no bananas. And, as we advance towards them on the pathway ahead of us, we’re both wondering if maybe we should have invested in one.

We’re in Monkey Forest, in Ubud, Bali – its name says it all. It’s a huge green space in the middle of the town Ubud:


which is essentially one big monkey exhibit, with no cages, electric fences or any other sort of containment. Monkeys roam and monkeys rule. And, their decisions are based almost entirely on the single pillar of their economy:


I assumed that “official” meant the proceeds went to the upkeep of the forest and wasn’t trying to trip up a naive tourist, who somehow couldn’t decide between these bananas for $1 or a stall to the right, just out of frame, selling for half that price.

In any case, watching most people walk in to the Forest with a bunch of bananas is to watch someone lose their childhood. Starting out, there’s some coo-chee-koo talk, still firmly within the mindset that they’re chatting with Curious George.

Then, the turn. One monkey shows up, lunging towards the person who, surprised by how quickly it moves, drops the banana, and says out loud: “OH”.

A second monkey shows up followed by four more behind him ready for the pillage, and the person starts backing up a bit, saying: “Oh, Oh, Oh. Oh my gosh” – until finally, a monkey crawls up the person’s leg, now one of 20 surrounding him and the person drops the entire bunch with a nervous squeal: “AHHHHHHH”and runs down the path into the forest.

Of course, there are other tourists. There are tourists, who, upon seeing these squealing wusses, decide that they’re much more cultivated. In fact, they’ve got a purpose here this afternoon: they’re animal behaviourists. They’ve decided they’re here to study monkeys up close, in the flesh. The closer the better.

Soon enough, however, many of these tourists look like riders on a roller-coaster who really, really want to get off.

He or she will bend down to the monkey – meeting the monkey on equal terms: after all, as an animal behaviourist, one should remain objective and not create bias. The person then offers the monkey a piece of banana. Success. The monkey goes for it. Now this time around the person offers another piece but holds it back slightly.

The monkey then decides to clamber up their arm, which is exactly what the person wanted. Now the animal behaviourist can get a photo with a monkey. Click. But, in that moment, when the person was getting their picture taken, the monkey wasn’t being fed any bananas. So, the monkey does it himself and decides to start looking for one, all over the person’s body. Pulling on hair, pulling on ears, pulling on their shirt, searching for what was promised.

At this point, the animal behaviourist quickly trades in the calm exterior of their scholarship for the panicked bleets of an innocent bystander with: “AAAAH. GET THIS F*^CKIN MONKEY OFF ME”!.

Amazingly, this was the best case. We saw another woman who, while not imagining the monkey next to her was Curious George, seemed to approach it instead with the image of a chimpanzee smoking cigarettes – a harmless curiosity. She edged closer and closer to it, staring down at the monkey, until it was touching her left arm. Ready for a photograph – the monkey, no doubt sensing he wasn’t going to get a reward for his portrait, leaned over baring his teeth, and bit the lady’s arm.

Thankfully it didn’t draw blood, but it didn’t help our own progress through the Forest as Rose gasped in horror: “Its teeth!”.

“Yeah, they’re pretty big eh?”, I replied and kept walking into a little spot next to a river, mainly to keep moving and not think about their teeth. As we got farther down the narrow river path, we realized it was a dead end.


And, in true horror movie fashion, a second later there was a rustling above us on the embankment. We looked up and saw a wave of monkeys fly off the edge, land right in front of us, and as I turned my body to protect against what was surely going to be a rough banana inspection, they flew off again.


This was enough to cement Rose’s fear who asked/ordered we get out of this little alleyway where sooner or later we’d be mugged by an ape, something which in retrospect might be worth it just to be able to use those words with a policeman:

“How would you describe your assailant?”


Oddly, there’s more to this place than just monkeys. I take back “oddly”.  We’re in a Monkey Forest – I think it’s already odd enough. I’m not sure it can get any odder.

But, along the way someone decided to build a pair of terracotta Komodo Dragons, overlooking a river below:


Interesting enough. Not quite sure why, but as I said, it already feels like a paralell universe so why not?

The other interesting thing we discovered was a temple in the Forest, which true to its origin had plenty of monkeys inscribed along its outerwall in various forms of monkey-ness, including what I’m convinced is the sculpted image of a monkey having its way with a dog without, in my opinion, even the slightest pretence of seduction.


There was also a sign on the temple saying: “Prayer in session, please do not enter.” I had a look over the fence, but didn’t see any sign of people. Plenty of monkeys, though. Did they mean to leave the monkeys in peace so they could pray for more bananas?

Une mystere.

After walking through another gauntlet of monkeys in front of us:


we wandered down a sidepath where a woman breezed past us holding a plastic bag. A guide who worked in the Forest stopped to say: “Please tuck your bag away. The monkeys will go for it”. She nodded at him, as if in comprehension, but then did nothing. The guide sucked air through his teeth in frustration.

Witnessing the exchange I shook my head in sympathy with the guide who said: “People. They don’t listen”.

“So, they’ll just take it from her?”, I asked. “They look for food. Think there’s banana.”, he said.

Having seen other guides like him shooing away greedy monkeys and untangling them from some women’s hair, I thought he had a pretty daunting job. Maybe he’s no shark wrangler, but putting himself between bananas and potassium addicted monkeys all day can’t be easy.

We chatted with him a bit more then wandered off down another trail, leaving the possibility of hearing the sound of a crinkling plastic bag and a woman’s screams behind.

Soon enough we walked into our own dilemma. Between us and the exit was yet another gathering of monkeys plunked down across the path, as if they were at a music festival waiting for the next act.

And, lo and behold, guess what we were? Right. The next act. As I walked through the gang, they closed ranks afterwards, leaving Rose on the other side. Now when Rose gets scared she tenses up, puts her arms out in a way that looks like she’s about to do jumping jacks, and makes low pitched growling sounds: “errrrrrErrrrr raaahhhhh” that pitches in frequency according to how scared she is.

At the moment, she was doing a pretty good imitation of a tiger roar, as the monkeys began slowly wandering towards her. Somehow, she managed to evade the posse (maybe the roaring helped), and came next to me. Here, I wanted to take a photo of the monkeys heading towards us from behind. As I went to open my bag to get my camera, one monkey bolted ahead, running up to me, ready to climb up my leg and have a look.

So, with Rose’s increasingly louder growls along with her imitation of the Dog Whisperer when he touches a problem dog: “SHHHT”, I decided I’d keep my camera in its sleeve and we wandered off. Rose ensuring, with repeated Cesar Millan skills, that we were away from harm’s way.

That brought our session to a close in Monkey Forest. My only wish was that if one had got on me, I hoped I would have had the presence of mind to say out loud:



More from Ubud coming.

Talk soon