By Catriona Mitchell
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the beauty of the place we call home. It’s something to do with being around it all the time; our ability for appreciation is diminished.
So a couple of days ago, awaking to unusually clear skies, I decided to break my monsoon routine and my cabin fever and take a day away from the computer, to do some of the leisurely things I love to do in Ubud. I’m not talking about luxury spas and the kind of pursuits glossy magazines will tell you to seek out in this town. I wanted to remind myself of the everyday wonders that are here, right before our eyes, the little under-appreciated things which are not so little.
There was little traffic on the road at this hour; nothing to deter me from zooming right up to Tegalalang on my scooter. The touts and tourists weren’t out yet, only a couple of men in fluorescent yellow jackets sweeping the road with broad brush-strokes. Some claim that these rice terraces are old as 2000 years. Creating that postcard-perfect image that’s reproduced so often nowadays, they were looking magnificent despite the development that’s gone up all around (concrete-built tourist cafes “with view” which, naturally, block the view).
Turning back towards town, I decided to put-put slowly through small villages on the back roads, taking in the traditional ways of life still evident just 10 or 15 minutes outside Ubud’s bustling centre.
I stopped at Petulu, the ‘White Heron Village’, to breathe in the pungent, fetid smell of birds and nests and to watch these magnificent, orange-tufted creatures repeatedly take flight, bright sunlight catching their wings so they resembled something from the heavenly realms; I passed farmers in conical straw hats raking their rice harvests flat in the sun, while chickens pecked and scratched about in the grain; I passed women scrubbing laundry, standing thigh-high in a stream, squealing with laughter at some bawdy joke one of them had just shared; I passed a field of screaming chainsaws and flying sawdust and men in dust-masks, and nearby, stacks of semi-carved wooden sculpture pieces (Buddhas, horse heads, bulls, ducks) soon bound for the tourist market; I passed a teenage girl, alone in a jungle thicket, making quiet offerings with a look of incandescent serenity on her still-young face; I saw tall papaya trees, pregnant with fruit, and sleepy fleabitten dogs with swollen teats guarding compound entrance-ways, and elderly women who smiled while collecting frangipani blossom into plastic bags, and children in tattered T-shirts blowing kisses to me from behind a banana tree, and groups of young men sitting in roadside warungs smoking, and calling out ‘Selamat Pagi’ and ‘Mau bakso?’ as I rode slowly by.
The skies grew purple and heavy, the rain threatening to re-commence: it was time to head back into town. I decided to stop in for something hot at Tutmak, located right next to Ubud’s soccer field and owned by Ketut, an Ubud local. Tutmak has some of the best caffe latte in town (and for those trying to stay off coffee, also an excellent spicy Indian chai). There was a range of live entertainments on offer before me on the soccer field, as I sipped on my tea: a gaggle of young schoolboys in red-and-white checked uniform chasing a lizard up a tree with a long stick, then attempting to set off damp firecrackers in green coconut shells, with more of a sizzle than a bang; a young child assisting with surveying the field, getting tangled in the plastic measuring tapes; and two young boys, one on all fours, the other riding on his back as if the friend were an elephant and he, a commanding Rajasthani princeling.
My next stop was Milano, located just a minute’s walk away on the far side of the soccer field. Milano Salon is one of those institutions in Ubud that every visitor seems to end up in at one point or another: like the London Tube, everybody uses it. It’s neither slick nor glamorous, nor pretending to be, but the owner, Paris – a flamboyant Javanese with a huge, warm smile and plenty of fashion flair (the colour of his shoes invariably matches his outfits) – is always ready to share his latest international travel adventure (a stint in a youth hostel in Istanbul to visit the Blue Mosque; visits to Montenegro and Croatia), and the atmosphere is bustling and happy as if he, the boss, inadvertently sets the mood for everyone else there.
In the five years I’ve known Lilis, one of the permanent staff, I’ve never seen her in anything but a cheerful frame of mind: she laughs readily, and is gentle and kind, even when scrubbing feet. (When she was off having a baby I missed her. In the way of working Balinese women, she wasn’t away for long.)
Lilis trimmed and scraped, rubbed and creamed, and finished up by steeping my feet in a bath of warm water filled with scarlet petals. They looked altogether more presentable by the end of Lilis’ attentions. (Have you noticed how important it is to have well-groomed feet in this town?) All this to a cacophony of sounds: the local banjar’s gamelan practice next door clashing with the Indian relaxation mantras booming through Milano’s speakers, with occasional percussive bursts of rain against the salon’s roof-top.
I didn’t even need my rain-jacket to zoom just around the corner to Warung Lada, on Jalan Hanoman, one of the most charming, unpretentious little eateries in Ubud, specializing in Javanese food which is pre-prepared and laid out on display: all you need do is point at what you’d like, and it’s served in a series of small, tasty portions with white or red rice and different kinds of sambal. The dishes vary but generally there’s chicken curry and hard-boiled eggs turned in turmeric, ginger and onion, grilled chicken satay and spiced fish in banana leaves. For vegetarians, the fried eggplant is a marvel, as is the crunchy, sweet chili tempé. Sitting upstairs is a must: the simple Javanese décor is charming, and it gets you away from the noise of passing traffic.
After lunch, it was time for the day’s piece de resistance: a 90-minute hot-stone massage at Putu’s Traditional Massage.
Putu Parwati used to work at Ubud Sari and at the Viceroy, but two years ago she decided to set up her own salon so that she could have more time with her family. The result is a homely little place, painted in bright pink, up Jalan Suweta, and to go there is to experience a kind of Balinese immersion. The massage isn’t always the most serene – the massage rooms are at the front of the compound, and family members of all ages wander in and out of the reception, children play and tamper with the relaxation CDs, men sit outside on a bench chatting or slurping soup, but this somehow all adds to the charm. You feel yourself immediately embraced into the family, absorbed into their daily lives.
And Putu is a magnificent masseur. Particularly if you like strong pressure – though she’ll always ask “How’s my pressure?” and adjust it to your needs. She’ll come to your house too, if you prefer.
To complement her training in Bali, Putu also studied in Thailand for a year, learning Thai massage, herbal compresses and hot stone massage. I hadn’t tried the hot stones before. Putu gave me her regular one-hour treatment (with pressure so strong it almost had me screaming – just the way I like it), using organic coconut oil prepared by her father, and then brought out a bucket of smooth, flat stones, heating in boiling water. She and an assistant rubbed me with the stones methodically on my legs and back, my arms and even my face, also placing them in key positions on the body where they sat until they were cool: on tired muscles and at chakra points, against my kidneys, on the palms of my hands, on the soles of my feet, the idea being that the heat of the stones directly relaxes muscles and improves blood circulation.
By the time they had finished, my body too was like a stone: it was near-impossible to get up. (NB This is Putu’s beautiful daughter in the pics, not me!)
Putu always serves hot ginger tea after the massage. Today she told me about a huge ceremony held the previous evening: she had taken her young son around to six different temples on foot in the middle of the night. She had a book to lend me too: Bali Sekala & Niskala – Essays on Religion, Ritual and Art, by Fred B Eiseman; it contained all kinds of useful information about Balinese culture, she said, more accurate than she could describe herself. It even had the Balinese zodiac in there; if I liked, next time I came to see her, we could sit down and read mine together.
It hadn’t been my plan to end there. It was only mid-afternoon. But after a shower at home (using my favourite shampoo and conditioner- made by hand in Ubud by Ketut Jasi from Cantika Spa, with volcanic ash and fresh avocado and rose petals – the smells of Bali right there in a bottle, and organic too), and with the rain threatening to come down once again, I was feeling pretty ready for a snooze.
Dinner later comprised a soup at Igelanca on Jalan Raya, another excellent local warung, near Ganesha Bookstore. Rio and I always go there when in need of restorative: he has the vegetarian soto soup, and I the kari sayur (vegetable curry). The staff, all women, don’t even need to ask us what we want; they just go about preparing it. I guess that’s one of the privileges of being a ‘local’.
This kind of leisurely day needn’t make a big dent in your wallet. Here’s a list of today’s venues and costs:
Tutmak: Jl Dewi Sita by the soccer field
Indian Chai 16,000Rp / $1.50
Milano Salon: Jl Monkey Forest (down laneway next to soccer field)
Pedicure 80,000Rp / $7.25
Warung Lada: Jalan Hanoman, near the Jalan Raya corner
Nasi campur vegetarian 22,000Rp / $2.00
Putu’s Traditional Massage: Jalan Suweta 45, tel 03611 971 036 / 0819 99624684
90-minute Hot stones massage 100,000Rp / $9.00
Warung Igelanca: Jalan Raya Ubud, near Jalan Jembawan corner
Kari sayur 30,000Rp / $2.70