I have been wanting to visit Bali almost as long as I can remember. Just the name conjures, for most of us, images of beauty and thoughts of peace. I knew that Ubud was the geographic and cultural heart of Bali, and from everything I’d heard about it, I expected to promptly fall in love the moment I arrived.
Only…it was crowded. Traffic and noise and far more crowds than I had anticipated. I knew that Bali, and particularly Ubud, have skyrocketed in the last decade with tourism numbers. Yet somehow I expected Ubud to be quieter, less condensed and fast-paced. My first evening, I walked around the main streets of the town, wondering where the peace and beauty were.
Like most worthwhile and true things of that nature, they take time to reveal. To unfold and discover. Even amongst the busy town, pockets of peace presented themselves to me; moments of incredible beauty, and doorways that open into magical places, all around. True to its nature, once I gave Ubud a chance — and got away from the main streets of town — the area came alive to me, with that culture and peace and warm embrace I had hoped for.
Finding the “real” Bali
After a good nights sleep, on my first morning I decided to take a walk through the rice fields just outside of Ubud. This is where I really appreciated the delightful guest house where I was staying, Puri Cantik. In the quieter section of Ubud called Bisma, and off an even quieter alley, Puri Cantik is tucked away — a true oasis of serenity in the bustling town. Its location on the west side also means that it’s very close to some of the best nature walks, through rice fields and the Campuhan Ridge Walk. The rice fields are where I set out that first morning.
It was lush, green, and gorgeous. I passed little cafes and yoga bungalows; art studios and coffee houses. All of these were interspersed a fair distance apart, with nothing but waves of green rice acres between.
And this is where I had one of those chance encounters, that you can’t plan or prepare for, that changed the course of my visit to Ubud.
After walking for about an hour, I came upon a small dwelling alongside the dirt road where an artist, Gusti, displayed his paintings and ink drawings. After chatting for a few moments, he told me that if I took a path just there from the road, it would lead to the river, and a sacred spot for cleansing rituals and blessings. Did I want him to take me there? He would show me the way personally.
For a moment, my typically American suspicion took hold. What nefarious plans did he have? Why would he just walk away from his shop? Though admittedly, I hadn’t passed another person on the trail for 20 minutes, and it was hardly the place for an art heist. And somehow, I felt his sincerity, his honest desire to show me something not readily available to those who did not choose to look. I didn’t hesitate for long, as I could hear the water from where we stood, and the path was obvious. He would show me the way, and then leave me alone.
So we set off, along the hard ridge that separated the rice plant rows and irrigation streams. “This is a special place,” Gusti told me as we walked. “It is healthy and healing; there are no bad spirits. There, you can let the negative energy out, and welcome only the positive in.” We passed a small paddock where a lone cow brayed at us. Gusti offered his arm occasionally as we descended, to help me steady myself. “Do not rush,” he said. “Steady, control your step.” A moment later he plucked some flowers off a nearby branch, handing them to me. “For the blessings, the offering,” he said.
As the river came into view, Gusti suddenly stopped and turned to me. Gazing straight into my eyes, he asked very seriously, “Are you happy? Is your soul feeling good?” He stared at me, waiting and really wanting my answer. At that moment I realized I was happy, utterly.
After 10 more minutes of steep descent along a dirt and rock path, we reached the narrow river, rushing over rocks. We climbed down to the water’s edge, standing on the large rocks alongside. I held the flowers between my palms, in Namaste or prayer position at my third eye chakra, as Gusti directed. He chanted some words, asking me to repeat them, and talked about healing and good energy and health and blessings. He took a palm branch and swirled it around the water, and then directed me to toss my flowers in. I did, watching them carried up into the current and quickly swept away, and exhaled.
Gusti then turned silently and went back up the way we had come, leaving me to commune with nature and enjoy the silence for a while. Finally, I had discovered the heart of Ubud and Bali, in one of those unanticipated encounters that put a stamp on you.