The Ubud Experience
Ubud Writers’ Feastival is for many the comtemporarty face of Ubud. In successfully nurturing this event from infancy to it’s present global standing Janet De Neefe has added another layer to way Ubud is understood. In former times Ubud was known as a special place set on a broad ridge above the campuan, confluence, of two rivers the East and the West Wos. Back in the 10th century the area was known as Ubadi, a special place where many healing herbs grew. Campuan was also a spiritually important place, one of Bali’s Hindu sages, Rsi Markandeya, travelled up the Wos Valley, some say he founded Pura Gunung Lebah.
This temple stands above the confluence and remains important in the affairs of Puri Ubud, Subak in the area and a number of villages to the north, all of which bring their Barongs to the temple during an Odalan. These convergences of barong from surrounding Desa Adat are always a colourful peagent and for me remain one of the great grounding Ubud experiences.
The Dutch Conquest
With the Dutch conquest of Bali in the early 20th century, the island soon developed as an elite tourist destination. Wealthy visitors disemrbarked from cruise ships at the northern port of Singaraja and motored south to Kintamani, Ubud and Sanur, the only places where accommodation was available. In his book Bali Cultural Tourism and Touristic Cultures” Michel Picard says that Bali’s hotel capacity before WWII was 70 double rooms, 48 at the Bali Hotel, 16 at the Satrya Hotel and 6 at the Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij (KPM) Bungalow Hotel in Kintamani and 32 additional rooms in 8 guesthouses. In Ubud guests were taken in at Puri Saren Agung, the palace of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati (1910-1978).
As many as 213 visitors a month, in 1924 arrived, expecting to see the last paradise on earth, the island of the gods replete with beautiful bare breasted women. The Dutch painter W.O.J Nieuwenkamp was first to chronicle the island visually, at the turn of the century, then the German photographer Gregor Krause took great care to emphasise the physical beauty of Balinese bodies and in particular, balinese women bathing. This is an enduring theme and I can still recall, one commercial film crew that I worked with in the 1990s being similarly enchanted.
The famous expatriate German painter, Walter Spies and painter, illustrator and self styled anthropoligist Miguel Covarrubias became part of a community of expatriates living in places such as Ubud, Sanur and Kuta who supplemented images of the island paradise through the 1930s. The golden age of elite Balinese tourism ended with the Japanese invasion and occupation.
The world rediscovered Bali, first in the 1960s when it formed part of the ‘brown rice trail, between Australia and Europe, then in the late 1970s with the emergence of cheap wide bodied jet transport. My earliest encounter with Bali was in 1968. A friend introduced me a record called “Music from the Morning of the World”. It’s title was drawn from Pandit Nehru’s description of the small island of Bali as, the ‘morning of the world’ and its music was undeniably engaging. Already familiar with the Sitar and the musical form of the Raga, this was raw and energetic but in a way grounded and cooperative. It came from a place called Ubud, somewhere in the mountains of Bali invoking images of sarong clad musicians in a verdant blur of lush tropical vegetation.
“I’ll go there some day I thought.”
For 18 years, from 1984, Ubud was my second home. For the last 10 of those my company maintained a permanent place of work and residence in the town. This was also a time of intense learning since, whatever a person’s background, one cannot fail to notice the creativity and devotion inherent in the uniquely Balinese form of Hinduism. Anyone showing the slightest interest in the underlying meanings is always rewarded with generous explanations and, since Bali’s Hinduism is based on Bhakti, opportunities to observe and be part of countless ceremonies. As a teacher and manager of an inter-cultural field study project I was received with immense generosity and, over time, offered opportunities for learning and study that the casual visitor seldom encounters.
Traffic and Tranquility
Bali’s physical structure has a distinct impact on the way traffic flows. Radiating valleys form a spoke like array of ridges offering easy access to the island’s interior. Settlement has developed in a linear form strung out along ridges. Some broader ridges and the lowland areas have developed more clustered and nucleated patterns.
Ubud, sitting astride a broad ridge has also been a crossing, a place where a vehicular bridge spans the valley of the Wos river. Since Dutch times, this has allowed the village to develop along an east west axis as well as the north south axis, typical of linear ridge development in southern Bali. Today Ubud is a confluence of traffic flows. On second thoughts confluence implies a seamless merging, like the branches of the Wos just above the bridge at Campuan. In Ubud the merging is often more like a jamming of traffic flows.
Returning to Bali for the first time in eight years I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of traffic on the island these days. As with most other parts of Asia, motor bikes have been the major contribution to this growth. Seldom does one escape their noisy passing, anywhere near a main road. Just as in Jakarta they appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Most alarming is the inclination for some motorcyclists to suddenly assume command of footpaths as well. Despite these alarming features in Ubud relative tranquility is often just a few steps away. A network of village lanes, overshadowed by trees, adorned with beautiful shrubbery and baffled from street noises by the imposing red brick walls of Balinese family compounds, provides an almost instant retreat. At first I was inclined to stick to the main roads, like all the other visitors, but it didn’t take long before the memory of these shady byways returned. Memory has been the key to re-experiencing Ubud. After such a long break I found that some old friends had passed on, one in particular had forgotten me altogether as dementia set in, other were now adults where once they had been school children and most welcomed me enthusiastically. A few are now very rich and a few have lost their wealth victimes of easy credit, the Bali Bombing and tightened economic conditions.
Impacts of development
Development in Ubud has been extraordinarily rapid. People now in their 50s grew up in a village without electricity or sealed roads. They now manage a globalised village extending its presence into cyberspace, Nis Kala now has a digital mantle. Internet Cafes are on every block and high quality consumer goods in many shops.
Some things are working very well in Ubud. Water management is a significant success story. Signs of litter on the streets and the rice fields are largely absent, regular garbage collection and recycling are long established. Art, Music and Dance are as strong and exuberant as ever. Tourism and development have permitted embelishment of ceremonial and religious life with cash flows enabling detail and lavishness in the material aspects of Bhakti, never before so extensive and flamboyant. The recent cremation of Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa, of Puri Saren Kauh, was possibly the largest and most elaborate yet.
At a more mundane level, some aspects of life in Ubud are challenged by the rapidity of development. Looking out across the sawah from a beautiful the family hotel, my gaze was drawn immediately to the black spaghetti tangle of telephone cables that ran beside a line of elegant young coconut palms. Major telecommunications links are below ground but household connections are a little haphazard breaking the extraordinary views of Mt Agung and Batukau with a discordant clutter.
“I want to have them buried”, said the young hotel proprietor as he showed me to my first floor room.
I simply thought, “He’s right, it needs to be done, and no doubt it will be”.
I didn’t say a thing, realising that when I had a house nearby, I was one of the early adopters. When my phone was connected it ran in front of a nearby losmen. I was embarassed, but had little control. When the land owner later removed one of the supporting polls and didn’t replace it, the situations became even uglier. One unexpected bonus, I later discovered, was that the cables have become tupai super highways. I was entertained every morning by an aerial show of acrobatics and chasings, that seemed to be part of an elaborate patrolling of tupai territories. I wasn’t complaining, nor was I in a position to do so, having an Internet Cafe just meters away gave the place great amenity, besides the mountain views are still excellent.
There’s no doubt that in time, despite the rapid development and the discordance that can sometimes stand out to challenge the traditions, change will be tempered and adjusted according to the old Balinese adage “Desa, Kala, Patra”, allowing the strength of the traditions to infuse the new and to tie it back into the principles of balance and harmony that have characterised much of Balinese culture.
I was heartened by Rio Helmi‘s description of his recent late night stroll in Ubud posted on Facebook, he wrote:
“At the open wantilan the gamelan was accompanying dancers training, I recognized a few of them who I have known since they were kids. A couple of old friends were hanging out. The best dancers looked great even wearing ordinary clothes. Late in the evening, Ubud can still be a village.”
Rio also wrote an interesting piece on his Blog entitled Piece of Mind: Conde Nast Names Ubud Top Asian City.