On Wednesday we bid farewell to the Bukit and made the journey north to Ubud. What a contrast! Ubud was incredibly busy, full of tourists, shops and restaurants, with locals offering taxis and trying to persuade you to come in to their place every few steps. There were plenty of fabulous buildings including the centrally placed Palace to admire, as well as many huge doorways with their distinctive style of tall, elaborately carved stone pillars which have been sliced straight down the middle and pulled apart, with the door in between. There has been plenty of wonderful architecture in Bali with oriental style roofs in abundance and statues to admire at every turn, and we enjoyed noticing these on our journey and after reaching our destination. I found walking around Ubud quite stressful as there were cars and mopeds everywhere and often no pavement, but the kids took it all in their stride. We had booked a room in our first homestay in the centre of town, and whilst I am not normally a city person it was exciting to be right in the midst of the hustle and bustle for a short while and convenient to have everything on our doorstep. Staying in a family compound, we could see how they were set up with a central gazebo for coming together, a separate kitchen, and separate buildings for each of the bedrooms/living areas. Much of the available space was filled with small shrines which made up their personal temple for daily offerings to the family Gods. Looking out over the rooftops from our balcony, we could see that this was replicated in all the surrounding homes, and we could see again how the multiple daily offerings really are a part of everyday life for the Hindu Balinese.
Our first outing in Ubud was to the monkey forest, a sanctuary of lush jungle filled with fantastic stone carvings, three temples and hundreds of monkeys, a cool respite from the heat and mania outside. It was a calm and inviting place to explore and we enjoyed watching the monkeys chasing each other round and round a pond, splashing about and getting soaking wet as they jumped in and out looking just like our children. The walk became a bit more stressful when one naughty monkey decided it would like the bottle of water I was holding and grabbed the other end of it, but I managed to keep my nerve and run as quickly as possible away from it emerging unscathed. Not long afterwards another monkey decided it liked the look of my rucksack and jumped onto my back which was slightly more terrifying. My hero of a husband wrestled that one off me and we managed to escape the forest without any further attacks, although Cara was pretty freaked out by that point! There were plenty of people around holding bananas for the monkeys to make them climb up their arms to reach the food, so it’s not surprising that they don’t have any fear of humans- but I really couldn’t understand why people would want to have a monkey on them! We finished our day in a fantastic restaurant called Clear, which had delicious healthy food and an incredibly serene atmosphere with indoor garden and stream. This was a huge hit with the kids on account of a climbing pole near our table, which could be used to scale to the first floor and slide back down again. It certainly kept them occupied before and after the meal, and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Ubud.
On Thursday we spent most of the day around the homestay, Piran and Cara doing some maths and art, whilst Jago had a restful day reading and sleeping, affected by his first episode of traveller’s diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Left to their own devices, Piran and Cara spent the day creating a show for us consisting of a magic trick, a piece on the recorder, and a play based on ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning thief’. At lunch time I took the 2 younger ones out for a walk to the rice terraces on the outskirts of Ubud. It was amazing how just 10 minutes walk from all the craziness of the town centre there was complete tranquility and the most beautiful surroundings with more different shades of green than I ever imagined possible, ducks and herons in the fields, swallows darting all around, butterflies and dragonflies. We sat and enjoyed the peace and quiet in a wonderful cafe for an hour or so before heading back into town and it was one of my most serene moments since leaving the UK. Amazing how so much noise and busyness can make the quiet times so much more blissful! This was my first glimpse into the Ubud that I had been led to expect from the guidebooks and I can see how wonderful it would have been here a few years ago before tourism completely took over.
The following morning we ventured out to explore further with a longer walk along the Campuan ridge, this time with Jago and Ben in tow as well. We managed a whole 9km despite the heat, started off by taking in the fabulous temple of Pura Gunung Lebah with its multiple tiers of shrines, lovely stone carvings and the sound of quiet water rushing by, cool and shady in the valley. We saw fields of elephant grass, rice terraces, and swathes of jungle in the valley with some fabulous places on the hillsides looking out at the view. After just 3km we reached a small village which felt a million miles away from Ubud- another reminder that you certainly don’t have to go far to escape the frenzy of the town. Walking back along the main road we could appreciate all the boutiques and art galleries. There is so much creativity here- particularly paintings, wood carving and stone carving, but it feels very strange that within one village there will be dozens of people each with the same craft selling almost exactly the same things as each other rather than spreading it out across different areas. Having made it back at lunchtime we had another quiet afternoon at the homestay and were treated to another show by the kids, this time consisting of poetry, songs and music that they had written themselves. We haven’t fitted in nearly as much recorder practice as I had hoped, but I am happy we’ve done enough for them to start composing bits and pieces using the 3 notes they know! We ended the day by splashing out on a very touristy outing to see a Legong and Barong show at Ubud Palace, to experience some Balinese culture. We all agreed that the Legong dancers had wonderful costumes and the instruments themselves were fantastic including bamboo xylophones played with ivory tusks, but the music and dancing itself was a bit repetitive and none of us were able to follow the story despite having it all written down in the programme. The Barong dancing, on the other hand, was enjoyed by all. A large friendly monster much like a Chinese dragon with 2 dancers controlling the head and tail respectively, the kids were captivated as the story unfolded. Just before the show finished the heavens well and truly opened and we had great fun getting soaked to the bone in the short 2 minute dash back to the homestay. Being here in the rainy season can be quite fun!
Saturday was the highlight of my time in Bali so far. We had booked ourselves onto a cookery course at an organic farm 18km outside of Ubud, and it was far and away one of the best family activities we’ve ever done. We were collected at 7.30am and taken to the market where we could see locals buying and selling their produce- spices, fruits and vegetables, dried fish, meat, pastries and even some brightly coloured dyed chicks. We were shown the different spices that we would be cooking with and also bought some different fruits to taste. On arrival at the farm, we were given a basket and knife and set off to harvest what we would need, looking at their farm set up as we went. It was not as different to Hempsals Farm as you might have expected! Different crops were grown in rows of piled up soil with some vegetables rotated and others in permanent position, and despite a stark absence of mechanised tools there were very few weeds in place. Farming here is a full time job 7 days a week and the only labour aid that we could see apart from mattocks and scythes were the cows for ploughing the fields. We enjoyed picking our beans, spinach, bok choy, bay leaves and chillies whilst we had our guided tour. Then the cooking commenced! Working in 2 groups we made 6 dishes: vegetables, chicken curry, sweet and sour tempe (soyabean, and surprising tasty given how little we like tofu), pork satay and tuna sambal, followed by sticky rice pudding. It certainly was a feast and we all enjoyed chopping and cooking together. The best part was that having prepared the food, everyone was keen to try it all when we would normally have difficulty persuading the kids to sample dishes like these. Topped up with rice, we ate enough food to last us several days and it made a really nice change from the nasi goreng and mie goreng that we have been living on for the last couple of weeks.
On our way back to Ubud, thinking that a walk would be nice after all that food, we stopped at the Tegallagang rice terraces as we were passing by. After our experience of Jimbaran we ought to have learned to avoid places on the tour bus trail, but we could not have imagined the sheer volume of people who were walking around these terraces, which had clearly become consumed as a tourist attraction with locals trying to persuade you to take photos with them (for a fee of course), and charging you for entry, and to cross their bridges and their particular bit of land. Whilst the terraces are fabulous, the way they curve around with the river, with the water running down the hillside from terrace to terrace, with so many different shades of green, it is completely unnecessary to pay to come and visit sites like this when the countryside is full of similar fields that aren’t heaving with visitors trampling over the land. Still we successfully managed to walk off some of our meal and arrived back in Ubud feeling much more comfortable after a great day’s activity.
The final day of the week, and of our time in Ubud, was New Year’s Eve. Keen to explore a bit further afield we headed up to the central mountains for the day, near the foothills of Mount Batur. Our first stop was the Botanic gardens where the kids had a fantastic morning at Treetop Adventures, much like Go Ape but far more adventurous with very challenging circuits for them to enjoy. Leaving them to it, I enjoyed walking around seeing the landscaped gardens, wild orchids and thousands of types of fern, and appreciating some peace and quiet by myself for a change. After a quick lunch at a local warung, we headed to Lake Buyan, one of two ‘twin lakes’, where the Lonely Planet described ‘an easy, clear 4km walk- ask your driver to drop you off and pick you up at the other end’. Believing the book, we declined offers of local guides and set off on our walk over to Lake Tamblingan, initially on an obvious wide path which locals whizzed backwards and forwards on, on their mopeds. It was lovely to be walking away from the tourist trail again, particularly after our experience at Tegallagang the day before, and the cooler temperature in the mountains meant we could have a proper stomp. We had a happy walk for a good hour or so before the path just disappeared as we reached a house with some rather scary dogs that were keen to chase us away, and checking the map we realised we should have turned off the path some way back. Retreating our steps we tried various different paths, none of which seemed to take us where we were meant to be heading, and some of which just took us round and round in circles. Ben had a revision lesson on how to use a compass and we all managed to stay cheerful and rise to the challenge of finding our way out of the jungle, until we noticed that I had a couple of leeches on me which had clearly been there some time- big and swollen and firmly attached to my ankles. On closer inspection we all had a few of them on our socks and shoes, although the others weren’t yet attached. After the excitement of pulling them all off, we finally decided we had had enough and admitted defeat. We retraced our steps and sheepishly called our driver asking him to come all the way back from the agreed meeting place to where he had left us in the first place. Although we didn’t manage to find our route, we all felt very adventurous and pleased with ourselves for surviving the jungle challenge! We didn’t quite have to call on our survival skills but it was great that everyone met the challenge with a positive attitude and worked together to escape. Happy times and a great way to end 2017.
We spent the evening in a reggae bar where we had dinner, many drinks and lots of games of cards. Clearly a family run business, the warm up act was a couple of small boys playing the same 2 or 3 pieces repeatedly on their xylophones and the interval act was 2 of the girls doing some Legong dancing. They invited all the men to join them and much to Jago’s embarrassment Ben happily jumped up to demonstrate his hip movements and hand waving. Ben clearly enjoyed himself greatly! When Piran couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer we headed back to the homestay to continue the party while he slept, and we all agreed that dancing to cheesy music on the balcony and seeing in the New Year watching the fireworks over Ubud was the best New Year ever. At half past midnight we all finally rolled into bed, a happy end to an amazing year getting to know our world, and each other, so much better.