Several people that have visited before me told me that I would love Ubud. Turns out they were right.
It took almost two hours to get there from the coast by taxi, mainly because my driver got lost a few times. My homestay was a bit hard to find, even for me. After turning off the main road and up a steep, gravel hill, I had to load myself up with my rucksack and backpack and walk a few more hundred meters down a narrow, paved path with a giant concrete wall on one side and a small moat on the other. After passing several other structures, I arrived at the entrance of Nirwa Homestay. It's was like a forgotten temple that has been reclaimed by nature. Tropical trees and plants fill every nook and cranny of the multi tiered home. I had a private room on the second floor with a balcony and a killer view of the nearby rice paddies and semi-wild jungle. My bed was big and comfy and had mosquito nets neatly tucked into each corner of the purple linens. There's also other wooden furniture scattered throughout the room as well as my own bathroom complete with toilet paper and a toilet that flushes it. You can hear a bit of the main city noise in the distance but mostly you just hear the birds chirping and the breeze passing by. Yeah, this will do.
"But wait, what is this Homestay you speak of?" you may be wondering. Basically traditional family houses are built in walled compounds with several structures, including its own temple, inside. Some of these have been converted into affordable accommodation for travelers, and is a more unique, authentic way to stay in and around Bali. I totally recommend it!
Anyways, after settling in, I headed out to explore the area. Very near to my Homestay I found the Cantika Spa. It too was full of greenery and I became just a little bit calmer the second I stepped into the courtyard. I found their menu of treatment options and saw that I was in desperate need of a massage, manicure and pedicure, in that order. The receptionist called a beautiful, young Balinese girl with jet black hair that is even longer than mine, who spoke pretty good English and escorted me to my treatment room. She left the room again briefly so I could take off everything except the pair of disposable, mesh underwear she handed me. I laid face down and proceeded to experience one of the best massages of my life. Balinese massage is deep tissue and kind of a blend of shiatsu/acupressure and Thai stretching. For such a petite person, she seemed to have superhuman hand strength and for once I didn't have to request more pressure. I'm a bit of a massagochist (masochistic massage preference) and firmly believe (pun intended) that massages should hurt a bit if your masseuse or masseur is properly penetrating your muscles and releasing tension.
This was truly a head to toe massage, including scalp and face. I was blissfully relaxed when it was time for me to shower off with surpringly good products and hot water. I tied my wet hair up, redressed and went outside for my nail treatments. I sat in a comfy, reclining chair while my masseuse tended to my hands and another girl tended to my feet. I chose a bright Barbie-pink shade of polish for my toenails and clear for the fingernails as usual. I was served some delicious ginger tea in a wine glass with a decorative palm frond origamied into a bird sticking out of it. As I looked out over my incredible, virid view, I felt like a pampered jungle princess. Or maybe a naive village virgin that was getting primed and perfected in order to be sacrificed to some ancient Balinese gods. Either way, it was awesome and I tried to savor every second of it. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around how this only cost me 341,000 IDR (including 10% service charge) which is less than $25 USD. How is everything so cheap here???
Staying both on the eastern edge of town and true to my sustainable travel philosophy, I didn't feel the need to rent a motorbike, as many tourists do here, and opted to walk instead. This of course prompted every local guy lurking on the sidewalks to shout "Taxi? Taxi! Taxi, yes?" at me as if it was the local greeting. This became quite annoying and I briefly thought about the millions of dollars I could make by designing, printing and selling "no taxi" t-shirts in Bali.
I feel like I've become quite the hedonist whilst in Ubud. I've suppressed my materialistic impulses for the most part since I started traveling in June but I kinda went nuts here. I guess it's the combination of the dirt cheap prices and being alone with absolutely zero responsibility, resulting in endless amounts of free time that I fill with shopping, eating and excursions. Not to mention I've completely blown my original budget for Bali but I don't know if/when I'll be back.
I booked two out of town trips from the combination laundry/travel shop downhill from my Homestay. The first was a four hour cycle tour, which actually started at a tea/coffee plantation where they employed the old try-then-buy technique and had us sample 10 different tea and coffee varieties, and then directed us to the shop in hopes of selling us some stuff.
During this detour, we also had the opportunity to sample Indonesia's famous Kopi Luwak coffee, which I was already familiar with only because I've seen Anger Management starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. If you haven't heard of it, Kopi Luwak is pretty much the most expensive coffee in the world. This is because it is made from beans that have been eaten, partially digested and pooped out by little mammals called civets. The manufactures would have you believe that they employ people to scavenge the forest floor to collect this special scat left from free range civets. But it's all lies! Only after I had bought some mangosteen tea and coconut coffee did I see the little creatures locked up in tiny cages with nothing but a branch and a water bowl. If you just look into their eyes for a second, you can see how sad and spiritually broken they are. I had to leave before my anger and disgust reached a tipping point, causing me to go all PETA on their asses and free the little civets. I know I haven't completely planned out my time here, but I definitely don't want to spend any of it in an Indonesian jail.
Moral of the story is: DON'T BUY KOPI LUWAK COFFEE.
But I digress. Back to the bikes!
Next we were driven to a little restaurant overlooking the volcanic Mt. Batur and fed a morning snack of fried banana and fresh papaya. My group consisted of me, a Canadian family (typical mother, father & tall, lanky, teenage son) and our small yet smiley Indonesian guide, John. The fat-tired, blue mountain bikes were lined up in rows outside and we each chose one based on height and seat preference.
Honestly my hands and forearms got the most workout because 90% of the ride was downhill and I had to keep pumping the brakes to stay at John's pace. We followed a mostly paved path amongst mandarin orange groves, around traditional home compounds, through a small but bustling city and even off-roaded down a rocky dirt path straight through a tiered rice paddy field. We shared the road with cars, trucks and a mini motorcycle gang of stone-faced rural school children in their khaki-colored school uniforms. Seriously, some of these kids driving looked like they hadn't even reached double digit birthdays yet. Altogether we did 35 km (21.7 m) through the Bali countryside and enjoyed a freshly prepared lunch of Nasi Goreng, noodles, veggies and tempeh/tofu for me, but chicken for everyone else.
The next morning I woke up at 1:30 AM in order to be ready to get picked up at 2 AM for my sunrise hike up the Mount Batur Volcano. After being the inaugural passenger, my driver picked up several other patrons from France, Austria and Brazil until our van was full. When we arrived at our destination over an hour later, we found the parking lot packed with other tourists and locals alike. Apparently the hikes are most popular on the weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, so I would recommend going on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
We were divided into smaller groups and assigned guides, although this seemed superfluous since there were so many people that we could basically herd ourselves up the single trail to the summit. It was like we were all at a massive concert and having to climb up a rocky, gravely, sandy path towards the really, really cheap seats at the top of the amphitheater. Or maybe we were walking up someone's really steep, badly maintained driveway. I was wearing proper hiking boots and still found it tough to grip the ever shifting volcanic rock beneath my feet. I have no idea how people in crappy tennis shoes or even socks & sandals were able to trek successfully. Once you got towards the tippy top, it became solid sand and felt like hiking up a giant dune near the beach. Since I'm used to living at sea level, I had a bit of trouble breathing with the altitude, but I really believe yoga teacher training strengthened both my mind and body so I am better able to tackle the challenges I take on.
I reached the top just as some fiery colors were appearing on the horizon and did in fact get to see the sun rise from the summit, albeit slightly obscured by hoards of other tourist silhouettes and selfie sticks.
I was glad that 1) there was no precipitous, in contrast to my failed sunrise hike in Sri Lanka and 2) I had a Brazilian buddy to share the experience with. She was older and slightly slower than me but we both made it to the top and shared a mug of hot tea to celebrate. I ate my rather disappointing pre-provided, styrofoam packed breakfast which consisted of an impossible to peel hard boiled egg, two slices of white bread with mystery spread, a green banana and a mandarin orange. I also brought a chocolate my treat that I had resolved only to eat if I reached the top. Determined to leave no trace, I put the peels and wrappers and everything back in my bag, whereas many people just left their rubbish wherever they dropped it, which made me smad (sad & mad.)
The descent was just as challenging, if not more so, than the ascent. Gravity is a cruel bully that persistently tried to pull me down so she could sadistically laugh at me. I only had one close call where I lost my footing on loose rocks but was able to catch myself and stop short so that only one butt cheek touched the ground, kind of like I was sliding into home plate after a successful run around all the other bases.
When I reached the car again, it wasn't even 9 AM. I just wanted to go home and have a proper breakfast and take a nap. But instead our driver stopped at a coffee/tea shop exactly like the one I had to go to before the cycling, complete with caged civets, and I begrudgingly sat and sampled the same coffees and teas and breezed through the shop and back to the van. I finally got back to the Homestay around 11 and the host graciously still offered to make me a green pancake. And I was eternally grateful. I napped for the next few hours and decided to expend as little energy as possible to find lunch and later dinner.
The next few days consisted of shopping/haggling in the local market, an traditional Indonesian cooking lesson that yielded a six course lunch, and a trip to the sacred monkey forest which was just like the jungle book, sans King Louie the orangutan. Only small monkeys that all looked like they had 19th century aristocratic facial hair lived in and around an old temple and climbed tourists to steal their bananas, which were all bought at small stalls throughout the park for monkey-feeding anyways.
I also kept up with my yoga, doing my own 1-2 hour practice in the mornings on my balcony before breakfast. With the exception of the last morning when I decided to attend a local class labeled "Ashtanga" but it turned out to be "vinyasa flow" for naive tourists that have never done yoga before. I was thoroughly disappointed and considered leaving without paying the 100,000 rupees but I didn't because I'm too nice.
I got one more full body massage and a hair treatment at my favorite Cantika spa and indulged in Nasi Campur and homemade rice wine for my last meal in town. Bali, and Ubud specifically are fast approaching the top of my favorite travels list and I've vowed to return one day.
The next morning, my Homestay host drove me over two hours to my next destination, Balian Beach on the west coast.