by Rio Helmi

Once upon a time Ubud really was a village. During an early childhood trip here with my family in 1963, my older sister left behind a bag with all our tickets etc, that my father put her in charge of, on the side of the main road in Ubud where we had stopped. Discovering this hours later in Besakih she went into a teenage panic attack but my father was completely assured: “…we’ll get it back”. Which we did with no fuss at all – it was still there, exactly where she left it several hours before, untouched. The main street of Ubud was a much more leisurely place in those days. This is not something I would like to test now.

Eight or so years later on, when I came back to Ubud as a teenager, some things hadn’t really changed. There was one public bus a day to Ubud from Denpasar. An old Ford with a wooden body “made in Bali” atop of its chassis, it carried high priests, merchants, commoners, goats, chickens, and the odd stranger like myself at a stately pace. As the Balinese were much more attentive to the spirits back then, it was necessary to make offerings at certain corners or “dangerous spots”. The conductor would hop off and trot alongside the groaning bus and put the offerings down and mutter a prayer while waving the essence off to the spirit, trot back alongside the bus and hop on. The driver never took his foot off the accelerator

Once off the bus, if you knew what was what, you went to Okawati’s warung under the banyan tree for ‘Proot salad’ while Ibu Rai next door served a mean nasi campur. Five ringgits (a now lost denomination totalling 2.5 Rupiahs) later you had filled yourself with a meal, dessert, coffee, and if you had bad habits a cigarette. It was the hangout. If you wanted something, that was the place to enquire and magically it would appear, or at least some information about it would bubble up. Life moved at walking pace.

It seemed like the entire population of Ubud was remarkable. On good days the late Cokorde would make an appearance outside the palace and give you a hearty hello. He was one of the very-very few who had a car. Pak Roda, in real life a bit of an artist and quite the Balinese flute player, was the startlingly naïve, and rather comic  local ‘constable’. Pak Klepin, in real life an unrepentant prankster, was the local tailor who somehow never could make 5 meters stretch into a pair of trousers (though later you would see his grandson wearing a cute little pair of pants with what seemed exactly the same fabric while you walked around in trousers that were a couple of inches shorter than ordered).  Pak Getén, the temperamental and coarse market sweeper cum Wayang (shadow play) agent, would wobble his push bike all the way down to Sukawati and back to arrange for Dalang puppeteers to perform in Ubud.

By nature gullible, Getén was once conned by the tailor into rolling a used 48 gallon drum all the way up to Tegallalang in the hopes of recouping good money from a supposed buyer there. The road was mainly cobblestones and there were no pick up trucks for hire then. No one in Tegallalang had heard of said buyer nor did they have any use for what was by then a badly battered 48 gallon drum. Needless to say Pak Klepin avoided him for many months after that.

Slowly, as electricity, asphalt, and TV made their way into all the corners of Ubud and the local population multiplied itself, things changed. The tourist boom joined in, and Ubud isn’t such a simple village anymore. In the aisles of the local supermarkets (heavens, now there’s a telling sign of change), once you have run the gauntlet of Ubud’s traffic, you might run into young Russians and other Westerners in leathers and feathers, or a Japanese female saxophone player, or an Australian lady who has rented out a villa to look after stray cats. Activities are not restricted to cooking classes or batik painting, but on the bulletin board outside Bali Buddha you can find notices for Cherokee Medicine Woman healing sessions or “Discover the Inner Child” – or if it’s your lucky day you can get a combination retreat of both for the price of one!

Ubud might not be quite so quaint anymore but it’s still a pretty colourful place.