Sunday, 26 August 2012

Ubud: Illness, rice fields, hitting the backpacker trail

Ubud is often called the 'cultural centre of Bali'. It certainly had art galleries and traditional performances aplenty, but I get the feeling the description is more reflective of the town 10 years ago. Now it bears more resemblance to the slightly less flattering image it has earned from the book Eat, Pray, Love and the subsequent Julia Roberts movie; a nice place where middle aged women in linen trousers do yoga, eat tofu and hunt for handsome younger men.

Although this isn't really our cup of tea, we did have some real fun in Ubud and managed to find some of the charm that it probably had in greater abundance in the past.

Ubud had an entirely different pace to our time in Tembok, filled with new sights, sounds and smells, festivities, frustrations, rural rice fields and urban tourist chaos.

We had a bit of a stuttering start to our time there. After arriving at Waka Di Ume, Dave was floored by a bout of severe food poisoning that put him out of action for two days and lingered for a week. I played nurse and we were grateful to be in surroundings that delivered complimentary bottled water every day and provided room service breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon and delicious banana pastries, and cheese burgers for dinner, to sustain my vigil. Not to mention the free, fast WiFi that allowed us to download plenty of movies for entertainment!

A quick mention here of more breakfast peculiarities from posh Bali resorts, assumedly catering for their guess at Western eating habits... garlic bread and a spoonful of mashed potato???

Dave pulled through, of course, and we were able to start enjoying the area. One highlight was an early morning trek through the rice fields. Our guide took a small group of us to the paddies and on the way we passed groups of kids heading to school, dressed in blazers and batik pattered shirts (way more interesting than any of my uniforms were!) Some of the children were hanging around outside the school, drinking tubs of weird coloured soft drinks and sweeping the small, quiet street with stick brooms. Their energy, palpable even at that early hour, was infectious.

The weather inland around Ubud was generally cooler and cloudier than it had been on the coast, but at pre-8am the day was already heating up. In the rice fields the bright white sun reflected back at us from the surface of the water. 

Intricate irrigation systems feed the large square 'pools' where the rice is grown. The precision of the planting - all straight lines of little lush green tufts - is a marvel, considering it's all done by hand. We walked along narrow earth tracks that interlace through the delicate crops and provide precarious protection from soggy feet. Close up, you see the rice sprouting up as neat individual plants, but looking out over the paddies in all directions, it became fields of solid green almost reminiscent of English rolling countryside. Except the oaks were palm trees, the hills were distant volcanoes and the sturdy farmhouses were tiny bamboo huts.

Men in sarongs and conical hats worked the land with long bamboo-handles tools. Ducks - farmed among the rice to keep the crop free of bugs - flapped and quacked around the water. The low, intense sun beat down from a bright blue sky smattered with white wispy clouds. It was beautiful.

While we were staying at the resort, we took a couple of jaunts into Ubud for food and shopping, and to get our bearings in time for leaving the security of pre-arranged accommodation.

Cafe Wayan, on the busy Monkey Forest Road, fed us well one night with nasi campur (rice and stuff), mie goreng (fried noodles), fresh garlic-roasted peanuts and unusual green pancakes stuffed with something sweet and served with ice cream. It was a sharp contrast, in both price and quality, to a disastrous meal of nasi goreng (fried rice) at Warung Lokal, and taught us a valuable lesson that cheap isn't always cheerful. But we've also learnt since that even cheaper can be GREAT (more on Gili Air's tasty £1 offerings in a later post).

On the Thursday of our second week away, we did some advance recon to find a place to stay once we hit the backpacker trail. Goodbye luxury, hello self-sufficiency! We found ourselves a nice homestay in central Ubud, on the street Jalan Hanoman. It was in budget and within an hour of beginning our search, so, deposit paid, we left happy with our first foray into 'by the seat of our pants' accommodation.

After two weeks of lovely honeymoon indulgence, on the Saturday, as organised, we arrived back to the Wayan family (not the one with the eponymous Cafe) only to be told the room had been given to someone else and they were full. All our considered planning! What of our deposit?? We would get it back. Where would we stay?? We were on the streets! Laden! Surely disaster?! Of course not. The fates had smiled upon us and gushing apologies, kind Ibu Wayan went next door to find us a room within the Indra family homestay. 20,000 rupiah more per night (about £1.30) but with free WiFi and a good room with a hot water shower, ceiling fan, clean (dolphin print) sheets and a sweet little veranda, plus breakfast each morning. Done deal! Dave was a master negotiator and bargained the rate down by 30,000 rupiah per night.

The guy in charge was a gently-spoken, middle aged man named Karta. The Indra family milled around the smallish home compound and seemed to consist of a very old parental couple, Karta and his wife, another couple who we assumed to be Karta's brother and his wife, and 4 or 5 children - boys and girls aged around 7-18. The homestay was cool and quiet - the perfect hideaway from busy Ubud. We had relatively little to do with the family, aside from pleasantries (like the evening "Selamat Malam" to the old couple as they sat watching Asian soap operas at the communal TV) and discussing breakfasts with the teenage boys on duty each morning.

And oh the breakfasts! Different each day (always with black Balinese coffee that you had to play very safe for the last couple of sips to avoid a mouthful of grounds, and fresh fruit salad of banana, papaya and pineapple with grated coconut): banana jaffle (that's a toastie), banana pancakes, black rice pudding made with coconut milk, and on the morning before Galungan, steamed rice with sauteed green veg and various spicy meats.

More on Galungan (the most important annual festival on Bali) soon...

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