Ubud For Beginners

Oct 4, 2015 | Ubud, Bali

Dewa takes me on the 10-minute drive into Ubud. The speeding motorbikes along the hot, narrow road don’t prepare me for the spiderweb of traffic we are about to enter. Ubud’s streets weren’t built in anticipation of an explosion of tourism—the bittersweet of millenial growth. They’re barely wide enough for two lanes of cars, never mind the motorbikes that weave their way through and around them (and likely under them if they could). It’s like those aerial views of Manhattan, where yellow cabs stream relentlessly—only with motorbikes. Apparently, there are very few rules of the road, no traffic lights, and crossing on foot means looking 360 degrees. I ask Dewa how it can possibly be that no one is laying on their horn, that road rage seemingly doesn’t exist. “What is road rage?” he asks. I explain that it’s the pent-up stress of people essentially losing their minds to anger. He seems bewildered and laughs while merely tapping his horn at three people on a scooter about to merge into the web. “Aaah … We just used to it”. That anyone should pound their fist or leave their vehicle to broadcast their rage seems unbelievable to him. Suddenly it seems embarrassing and ridiculous to me as well that Westerners succumb to this, and we both laugh.

Motorbikes have proliferated over the past 15-20 years. With streets this narrow and congested, families rely on them as their vehicle. Parking is a science, with motorbikes and cars fighting for space. Babies ride in their mother’s arms, or in a carrier, strapped to their chests. Toddlers and small children often sit up front—helmets seem optional. Forget about car seats … Dewa tells me that the age to be licensed is 17, but children graduate from bicycles to scooters long before that, if only off-road. But this afternoon I watch as a boy, no older than 10, is in full command of a scooter at one of the busiest intersections while his father sits behind him, holding a rooster in its cage. The kid is smiling. My reality is kaleidoscoping before my eyes …

Ubud’s streets are long and sidewalks—a nod to tourists and rarely level—are a relatively new construction on the major ones like Jl. Monkey Forest, Jl. Hanoman and Jl.Raya Ubud (Ubud Main St). Daily Hindu offerings are laid on the sidewalks at the entrance to shops, temples and family homes. These small pallets of palm or coconut leaves (canang sari) hold vibrant flowers, food and incense, to appease deities, protect and offer thanks. It’s an act that brings into balance, God, human and nature, and I step gingerly around them. Storefronts and warungs (small family cafés) are squeezed together shoulder-to-shoulder. Spas, clothing, jewellery and handicraft shops tumble the length of these streets in a way that makes me dizzy with heat and choice. I resist buying anything just yet, so overwhelmed am I by navigating it all. What catches my eye are the doors and gates that are sandwiched between storefronts. Some have guesthouse or homestay signs posted and I climb the steps, led by curiosity and the magic of a gateway to mystery.

I find another world behind these storefronts—the traditional family compound or karang. The Balinese live in multi-generational dwellings, each with its own family temple. They’re a universe of their own, privacy kept intact by high, stone walls with shrines and ornate temples peeking above. A single, slender doorway leads inside the compound, where upon entering, another wall is strategically placed to cleverly foil demon or “low” spirits who, it’s believed, travel mainly in a straight line. The family temple is a collection of many small, raised shrines. There’s a pavilion with an open platform—the bale dangin—used for ceremonies, often elaborately carved, painted and gilded, and a collection of smaller dwellings for each generation. Roosters abound! Family status dictates how elaborate and ornate a compound is. But what I discover is that everyone waves to me with a friendly gesture, and those with guesthouses welcome me to wander around. I’m drawn to these doorways and feel as though if I did nothing but photograph them this afternoon, I’d be completely happy.