‘We’re in Bali!’ I said to Helena with mix of excitement and disbelief as we stepped off the plane. Not really knowing what to expect (yet again), I waited with the bags while Helena drew out two and a half million rupiah. Yes, that’s right, two and a half million! ‘We’re rich!’ I exclaimed when she returned with a bundle of 100,000 rupiah notes. Grinning with our newfound abundant wealth, we looked for a taxi to Ubud. ‘That’ll be 300,000 rupiah…’ said a friendly taxi guy. Maybe not so rich after all!
You may well have heard of Ubud. Not only is it famous for being Bali’s cultural centre, it was also immortalised – for better or for worse – by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. On a year long mission exploring pleasure and devotion, she ultimately seeks balance and love. Which she finds in Ubud – true story!
I hadn’t read it. I do remember seeing the film though, and that’s pretty much the same thing, right? (The classic response from studious yet canny English Literature graduates everywhere.)
So people flock here to immerse themselves in the Balinese way of life, doing yoga and meditating, while imagining themselves having a happily romantic bicycle accident with their own Javier Bardem along the way.
Our reason for going directly to Ubud (and not heading straight for Bali’s famous surf breaks) was that Gav and Eleanor Lahney were also arriving that day. Before we left, Gav and I had a brief chat about the possibility of meeting up seeing as we were going to be in the same sort of regions at a similar time, but we hadn’t attached too much weight to it because it seemed pretty unlikely. So it was awesome to get to meet them not only once (in Thailand in March) but now in Indonesia as well.
We had a very chilled few days, exploring Ubud’s variety of chic cafes and restaurants, marvelling at the prevalence of huge wooden penises in the craft shops (they were massive!) and getting used to Bintang as the new beer of choice. Our trip to the Monkey Forest – a must if you are in Ubud – made for an enjoyable afternoon, and after the initial shock encounter with monkeys climbing onto us at will, we got into the swing of things (pardon the pun), happily exploring the forest and feeding the monkeys. They seemed particularly interested in our new GoPro and we have some hilarious shots of monkeys grabbing at it and trying to eat it! It is an action cam after all.
Our other main interest in Ubud was the Yoga Barn – a huge yoga venue with an excellent reputation that, despite its gargantuan size, manages to maintain a sense of calm and wellbeing. I’ve never been in such a large yoga classes before though! Gav and El had been doing a load of yoga prior to coming to Ubud, so they were well into the flow already. Helena and I however had done little or no yoga since our crushing Ashtanga experience in Mysore, so weren’t quite as flexible!
It was good though – we did a gentle class of Yin one day and then followed it up with a Vinyasa Flow the following morning. The thing about yoga is that you have to kind of surrender to the experience to get the most out of it. So if the teacher starts chanting at the start of the class, or meditating on ‘Om’, just go with it – chant away, loudly and proudly. It’s much better than looking around with an embarrassed nervousness that you might somehow look foolish.
So when the teacher of the Vinyasa Flow class, Wes, started not only chanting but full on singing in a hearty baritone with a resounding vibrato, I sang back happily with my eyes closed, enjoying the ambience. Wes was a real character – a kind of shortish, sort of stocky guy, with a hairy chest. He was just wearing a pair of tight denim shorts and he had a trunk that would put most trees to shame – clearly a man who was not shy of a sit up or two. Quite flexible despite appearances – although during the class he did very little actual yoga himself, something I only really realised afterwards. He had practised already that day apparently – that’s what they all say!
Wes’ teaching was very spiritual in its approach, possibly a bit on the simplistically idealistic side for my taste at the start, but just as I caught myself being cynical about what he was saying, I managed to open mind a little bit and accept the essence of the lesson. ‘How is your life right now? How are you feeling?’ he asked, and then replied in response to his own question, ‘If the answer to either of those two questions isn’t ‘amazing’, look around you. You’re doing yoga. In Bali.’ I guess he had a point.
He talked about desire and necessity. ‘What time is it? It’s daytime. How do you know? When will it be night time? How will you know? How do you know when to go to bed? What do you do when you get hungry? Of course, you eat. But do you have to eat right that second?’ Helena and I heard this quite differently at the time, but on reflection I think he was essentially urging us not to make things too over-complicated, to react to the cues around us, to respond to our bodies and yet not be limited by them, to experience our existence in the world as it is, at that moment, to not worry so much. Make of it what you will, it had an impact.
And then he broke us with his yoga class!
After a few days – and more than one trip to the most amazing gelato shop you will ever find – Helena and I bade farewell to Gav and El once more, booking a speed-boat to Gili Air.
The Gili Islands are three small sandy islands just off the north western tip of Lombok; their names being Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan. There are no petrol powered vehicles on the Gilis, and only a smattering of electric scooters. Other than that, the transport options are your feet, a bicycle, or a horse drawn cart called a Cidomo. We couldn’t bring ourselves to get a Cidomo though – let the horses rest! Everyone raves about the Gilis (and on them in the case of Gili T), and rightly so. Fringed by beaches that succumb on every side to clear coral waters, they are a mini slice of paradise. Oh and turtle viewing is all but guaranteed for snorkelers – so we were particularly excited!
Our first stop, Gili Air, is like the best of every world island. It’s quiet and super relaxed but there are enough bars and cafés to keep things interesting. We booked one night in a little guest house, Ananda’s B&B, and lucked out – it was beautiful! Fabulous rooms and a great breakfast meant we extended to five nights almost immediately. It was owned by a Scottish lady called Elaine who came to Gili Air 22 years ago and fell in love with the place so never left!
It was here where we also discovered the Indonesian ‘warung’ for the first time – like a buffet style restaurant with local dishes. There’s an awesome warung in the centre of the island; you go along, are offered white or red rice, and then you just point to what you’d like and they pile it all onto your plate. You can have as much or as little as you want, and they just add it all up at the end. Helena was in heaven because she’s the most indecisive diner ever – mainly because she just wants to try everything. It also comes with sambal, which is a must, but go easy on the Sumatran chilli. I got carried away the first time we went and I think I nearly did myself a mischief!
Our daily routine was established pretty quickly on Air: wake up whenever the sun or heat opened our eyes, pop over to the main house balcony for a breakfast of fruit, pancakes and eggs, then wander towards the beach and pick up some snorkelling gear. Snorkel around in the sea for an hour or two before getting out and drying off with a little lunch. Meander towards the western side of the island to take in the sunset before a visit to the warung for some dinner followed by a relaxed hour or so overlooking the sea in our favourite beach bar, ‘Munchies’. We became almost like regulars in munchies briefly, welcomed emphatically by Aman who, upon learning that we were from England, proceeded to greet us with a very cockney, ‘Awright geezer!’ each and every time. This guy was incredible actually – he could replicate a whole range of UK accents demonstrating a curiously acute sense of hearing for a non-native speaker of the language. (He is from Lombok!)
So we whiled away our days for a few days and relished the slower pace of things, the island lifestyle! The turtles were a massive highlight, to the extent that I’m pretty much at a loss of what to write about them. We had heard loads of stories about how many there were and so were gutted to miss out seeing one on our first day. On our second snorkelling venture however, we saw a huge green turtle almost immediately – I spotted it and almost choked calling Helena over frantically without wanting to disturb the turtle so she could actually see it. There was no need to panic however, as this guy (or girl) was just slowly scavenging around on the sea bed for something to eat. We snorkelled with it for about 15 minutes before it finally swam off into the blue. Delicate, gentle and yet majestic creatures they are, and so exciting to see in the wild. We absolutely love them.
Feeling no need to move anywhere, we reasoned (unfathomably in hindsight) that we should leave Gili Air and head to Gili Meno. Where we had happened upon beautiful accommodation on Air, the opposite was unfortunately the case on Meno – we had inadvertently booked a rather shabby and grubby little place in the middle of the island. And we booked for two nights – what an error! I don’t want to write bad things about Meno though as it too is beautiful and a perfect destination if you’re really looking to get away from it all. My only recommendation for anyone visiting Meno is to splash a little bit of cash and book a comfortable resort – it’s worth it. The island is the smallest of the three, with a perimeter of less than three miles and although it too has wonderful snorkelling, it was just that bit too quiet for us I suppose.
We moved on to Gili Trawangan and were happy to find a bit more life – well a lot more life really. Before we got anywhere close to even looking for any accommodation (we’d foregone pre-booking in favour of a search on foot as we were arriving early in the day) we found ourselves at the desk of Freedive Gili – we pretty much stepped straight off the boat and straight into their shop. Within minutes we were contemplating a week on Gili T to allow us to Freedive with the group there and things were looking a lot more positive once more!
I won’t write much about Gili T here as I covered it in our free diving blog, but to summarise, it’s a lively island where you don’t have to go looking for the party, the party will come and find you! We had some lovely meals out at various restaurants but our favourite eating destination was the night market that appeared every night a short walk from our room.
The night market is basically a collection of barbecues and warung stalls all selling fresh seafood and Indonesian dishes for wallet soothingly cheap prices. You could eat there for a month and not have the same thing twice if you really wanted to! Couple your food choice with a cold Bintang and what more could you ask for?!
So our Indonesian experience thus far had been mainly one of slowing down, recharging the batteries a little bit. It’s a funny thing, that when you travel for an extended period of time you sort of begin to tire yourself out. ‘How’s the motivation?’ was a question we were first asked in the Philippines by Brendan. ‘Not too bad,’ came the response, realising as we answered that we were flagging just a little bit. And no, before you say it, I’m not bemoaning the experience, not at all, just reflecting on the need to change pace sometimes.
After our final day of diving, we took in a final sunset – which from Gili T produces a glorious silhouette of Mount Agung on Bali – before eating once more at the night market and going for a short walk in search of ice cream. We found some, you’ll be pleased to hear, but we also came across an outdoor cinema that we hadn’t seen before. We decided that we could quite happily sit on bean bags on the beach and relax in front of a movie for a while, so we did. And what were they showing that night…? Yep, you guessed it, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’!