Dec 10, 2014

The Faces of Ubud

I expected to make a lot of friends from my yoga classes — each is filled with young people from all over the Western World. I imagined we’d chat after our morning vinyasa practice, go out for a healthy lunch together, discuss which difficult poses we were trying to reach… The reality is, most people in yoga class don't talk to each other. After class is finished, the room empties with a flash of color-coordinated lululemon outfits.

Once back on the streets of Ubud though, I can’t help making new friends wherever I turn. Take for example the day I found myself riding on the back of a retired policeman’s motorbike after meeting him for all of five minutes. Or ended up at a tiny, cramped restaurant with the vegan ice cream guy ordering me a mystery lunch. Here are a few of the familiar faces around Ubud:


The 25 year old daughter of Suastika Lodge (my B&B) stops laughing long enough to tell me I can move into her room and stay in Bali forever. I tell her I’m extending to the 23rd; that there’s no place in Bali I’d rather be than right here. She’s happy to hear it.

“What does ‘suastika’ mean?” I ask. No doubt she’s been asked this question by every Westerner who visits the lodge.

She points her finger up and down, saying, “Good question! People think it means a bad thing, but it’s not. Suastika in Hindu means peace… in social, in environment… it was my grandfather’s name."

As we’re talking her dad comes by with a banana pancake topped with shredded coconut. He places it in front of me. “For me?” I ask. “Really?”

“Just special for you,” he says. “You always like second breakfast.”

Ayu holds her belly as she laughs and smiles with her whole wide face. “You are professor of food! You are always eating! That's why you have a big body!”

"Nooooo!" I bury my face in my hands and pretend to be devastated, causing Ayu to crack up again.

She regains her composure and sighs, "Ahhh, I want to sleep."

Ayu is getting over her appendicitis operation from two weeks ago, and can’t walk very far before needing to rest. She tells me even before her appendix was removed, her stomach has always been a weak one. She has all the sweetness and weak constitution of Tiny Tim.

She says, “I want to he-burr-nate like beer.”

"Hibernate like beer? Maybe if you drink too much beer, you can hibernate. Ohhh, you mean hibernate like a bear!"

She covers her face. “My bad pronun-shi-ation!”

"No, no, it's good," I tell her. “If it’s a girl, it’s she-burr-nate. If they do it together, it's we-burr-nate.”

No! You’re joking me!” We both laugh. I coach her English pronunciation, and in exchange she teaches me the Bali caste system, Ubud’s latest Royal Family scandal, and the meanings behind upcoming festivals.

She looks at my plate, but the banana pancake is gone. She points, "Where did it go? Did you eat?"

"Yeah, I ate it while we were talking."

"I didn't even see! How did you do this? You are professor of food!" As she laughs she holds the very real stitch in her side, where the scar of her surgery is still bright red. I realize even eating a big breakfast of whatever I like is a kind of freedom.


There is a new hotel under construction around the northern block of Suastika Lodge. This is where the guys like Anton usually call out “hello” and laugh to themselves when I pass. Today there’s an older man among them, and he shakes my hand firmly as an introduction.

“My name Tiwi,” he says in confident English, “like the television. I’m retired police officer. I’m a head of security here on Sunday.” He has the walkie-talkie poking out of his shoulder bag to prove it. “Where are you stay?” I told him, and it turns out he lives just a few houses down from my B&B.

“Why you not ride bike here in Ubud?”

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know where to rent one.” He nods and considers this.

“Come to my house tomorrow, and I will borrow you my bicycle. I will ask my wife first.”

“Thank you, that’s so kind!”

“Where you going now?”

“There this seafood place that I was recommended for lunch, but I can’t remember the na—”

Warung Mina?”

I'm amazed. “Yes, that’s it!”

“I take you there.” He gets atop his motorbike and motions for me to take the seat behind him. With thoughts of wiping out with bloody road rash or crashing into the backend of another motorbike, I get on, trying to hold my fear down. He’s a police officer, so he’d be the safest driver in town, right?

Vroom - he takes off! I hold onto the backend of the seat with both hands and close my eyes, but I focus on my breathing and don’t let myself feel scared. I even open my eyes a few times to see us speeding towards red lights. In two minutes flat he deposits me safely at the restaurant. I thank him profusely for his kindness.

“I am retired policeman,” he smiles. “I help everybody.” Tiwi turns his motorbike around, and rides away.

I think how easy it is to fall into an adventure... but it hadn't ended yet. Fifteen minutes later he shows up at the restaurant again with Anton, and they take a seat at my table as I am (very unlady-like) trying to pick out the bones of a grilled fish with my fingers. "Don't worry," Tiwi says. "It's the Indonesian way to eat with our hands."

We talk for awhile, and I try to imagine this entire scenario playing out back in the US (hey I just met you, and this crA-zy, but there's some seafood, so ride with me maybe), but it seems impossible. When the two guys finish their meals they return to the construction site, and on my bill I find Tiwi paid for my fruit smoothie. I make a mental note to come by his house later to thank him.


Whatever crack is in normal ice cream that leaves me addicted and craving more isn’t present in Kokolato’s vegan version. I stop by the shop to try their cold pressed coffee flavor, and feel content after a single scoop. Budi, the 26 year old behind the counter, speaks in fluent, slang English. As we’re talking he keeps rubbing his eyes.

“Man, I’m so tired,” he says.

“Do you have to work a lot of hours?” I ask.

“2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eight hours. I think that’s normal?”

“Yeah. Did you stay up late after work then?”

“Yes, I was playing football on PlayStation 2.”

I laugh in surprise. With his gelled hair, tales of playing PS2, and Western music playing from the ice cream shop speakers, I tell him he seems like an American. He takes this as a great compliment. “I like Americans!” he smiles.

Besides scooping ice cream, Bodi does short cruise ship contracts, so he’s seen the coastal cities of Western Europe, the Caribbean, and America’s East Coast. I’m amazed to meet a Balinese person who has traveled so extensively when most can’t afford a single plane ticket.

Kadek, a 19 year old girl who also works the shop, comes in and Bodi messes around with her, asking where her muscular boyfriend is today. Then Bodi turns to me and asks, “Have you eaten lunch yet? No? Come with me.”

I follow Bodi out of the ice cream shop, passed the expensive super-health-food Bali Buda Restaurant, and into a tiny, overlooked space just across from the Radiantly Alive Yoga Studio. I’ve walked by it so many times, but it’s so cramped with dried goods I thought it was a convenience store. I sit down on the bench next to Bodi and he calls our order in Indonesia to the back of the shop.

“This is where locals go,” he whispers. “It’s more cheaper.” I’ll say! The fantastic chicken soup with sweet soya sauce Bodi orders for me comes out to a whopping $1.50 USD — and even that, he paid for. (Do you notice this trend of people buying me food? I like it.)

Back at the ice cream shop, a parade of interesting personalities come in: a German architect living in Bali with long, dangling eyebrow hairs, who tells me, “Ubud is the navel of the world. People come to Bali to find themselves, and that is crazy! You come all the way to Bali to look for something already inside you.” He’s followed soon after by an older Californian woman with dyed hair like Spanish moss, also living in Bali, who sniffs, “I won’t talk about this place with you; I won’t disillusion you to the real Bali.” She complains about the drivers, and how the guy up the street is “too busy to open my coconut,” then leaves. Bodi watches her go from the door and tells me, “She comes in everyday, just to sit; she never buys any ice cream.”

It’s time for me to go to yoga class. I say goodbye and Bodi holds the door open for me, saying, “Come here whenever you have free time. You can have ice cream samples — as much as you want!” Ah! Someone who speaks my language.


“I forget your name. Lee?”

“Lee!” I throw my hands up mockingly. This is the third time my new friend has forgotten my name within ten minutes. “Now I’m Lee!”

“No, no! Your name, tell me?”

“How could you forget my name, Kuti?”

“I’m not Kuti!” I’ve called him this name before by accident, and it’s stuck. Roki laughs and gives in. “Okay, for you, I am Kuti. Only for you.”

“And I’m Tricia.”

“Twisher. Twisher,” says Roki. “Okay, I won’t forget.”

Roki is 22 and works as hospitality/housekeeper for the guesthouse connected to Nani Spa. The complex is down a long, narrow alley, like a tiny artery off the main vein of Ubud’s congested tourist district. Roki is originally from a village on the east coast, but now lives in the guesthouse full-time because Ubud pays better than most of Bali. Roki tells me he makes 700,000 IDR ($70 USD) in a month.

“Wow!” I say. “Wa…wow.”

“Why you say wow? Is it cheap?”

I nod. “Yes, cheap.”

“I think it’s expensive, you say ‘wow’.”

Roki is all jokester. He tells me how he had to learn traditional Balinese dancing in school, but he had to play the girl’s part. He wore makeup and a dress, and when he saw himself in the mirror, thought, “I am beautiful!” I tell him he should dance for the people here as entertainment, and he pretends to move his arms around like the dancers in the Ubud Palace nightly shows. Even one of the girls working the spa laughs at him.

Roki asks me, “Have you been to Monkey Forest? Or the big temple?” He points to the west.

“No, not yet,” I admit.

“Come back to Nani Spa and I’ll take you there. Very close, very close. It’s good Balinese culture. Come back to see me. You… what’s your name again?”


The reason I’m at Nani Spa is for a pedicure (I cringe at how indulgent it sounds). My pedicurist (we’ll call her Surya) is diligently scraping my heels. This is only the second pedicure of my life, and just like the first time, I feel guilty to have someone attending my feet. I have this urge to sit Surya up and say, “Oh dear, you don’t have to do that,” and have her take my chair to relax instead. But I need some help removing the dead skin from endless hours walking the world, and leave her be.

I try to make conversation, but she can’t communicate very well, e.g. “Me study. Me university [in] two years. Sorry, me English not good.”

Surya is only 17.  I think of my kids in Japan, how they’re just short of her age, but they will never have to hunch over a foreigner’s feet to wash and anoint them. Our futures are guided, restricted or made accessible, by the cultures we are born to.

Like most Balinese people, Surya will probably never see the world outside Indonesia. Her future lies with the spa, with finding a good marriage, with following the rituals for festival preparation that take up a lot of a grown woman’s day. I think how precious it is, how insanely lucky we are not only to be born, but into what circumstances.

I meet Roki as he’s walking by, and soon we’re laughing and joking around. Without realizing Surya is finished, the pedicure is over. I give her a tip, and tell her, “For your future.” She looks at me, confused, and I have Roki help me translate. She goes, “Ahhh!” when she understands, then smiles at me. “Thank you!” It’s not very much, what I’ve given her, but it’s the prayer and hope for her that I attached to it that I wish serves her more.

In two weeks she will still be at the spa, while I will be on another plane, with the money and freedom to go where I wish. It feels like an inestimable wealth to have.

It begins pouring rain for the first time that day (the longest run of sun all week). I slip down the empty, narrow alley back to the main tourist street, and make my way through the rainfall dodging broken drain blocks and wandering dogs, thinking, What a life! What a life!

~ ~ ~

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