I'm sitting at a round table on an open-aired tiled patio, under thatched roof, finishing off breakfast at our spa in Ubud, Bali. The only other guest up this early, Alice strikes up a conversation about her experience in town.
“I don't know where to find the tranquility and peace here,” said Alice, a 30-something former fashion consultant from the States. “It's not easy to find.”
Nearby an attendant is cleaning the pool, in that slow back-and-forth motion that soothes and relaxes just watching. And we're surrounded by various flowered statuary, potted plants, and birdsong. Incense is burning somewhere, and butterflies are chasing each other in a merry game around massive flowerheads.
It is utterly peaceful, but I couldn't agree with Alice more. Ubud is really all it claims to be- but far less besides.
The small city (or collection of villages, slowly merging with growth) is built on a series of hills and gullies in east-central Bali. The millenia of carving by water lends an incredible variety to the visual landscape. My bedroom is level to the peak of the roof of the cottage next door. Palm trees seem to reach for the sky a few metres away, while the aforementioned pool seems to float on the land.
|Not pictured: inner peace|
The physical construction of the community is stunning as well. Strangely, the architecture reminds me of nothing less than ancient Rome, or at least what I imagine ancient Rome to have been like: each walled unit opening into a decorated and gardened courtyard. The various levels of each building, which rise three or four stories into the air, display a hodge-podge of porticoes, columns, balconies, thatched roofs, brickwork, plaster, statuary, and all manner of flourishes and colour. Take a look at HBO's Rome series and you'll get a sense of what' I'm talking about.
Then there's the landscape it's set in. The town is surrounded, and infused, with rice. You can walk a few steps down an asphalt lane, past a store selling the latest cell phone SIM cards, and stumble into a field of knee-high rice plants right out of the 18th century.
And unlike many other places in SE Asia, people of Ubud seem to genuinely respect their environment. There is a refreshing cleanliness to the town, even in the out-of-the-way corners one usually finds heaps of rat-infested trash, where the tourists are unlikely to look.
So what's not to like? Why can't my new acquaintance see what should surely be before her eyes?
Ubud was featured in the movie Eat Pray Love as a place the Julia Roberts character could go to meet a spiritual need. And indeed, it has a long history as a place of arts, culture, and spirituality. It was here long before the tourists, and was obviously built on far firmer moral and economic foundations than keeping Australians in Foster's Lager. It has always had a connection to the deeper truths, to mysticism, to New Age before it was New Age.
The stories of Ubud draw people here, no matter what the degree of spiritual need they might have. Some are truly hurting. Some just come to watch the show.
Perhaps, I think later as I walk down the alley to the main road, we can turn to hard physics to solve this new age conundrum.
Quantum physics is spooky. 20th century classic physicists were genuinely disturbed by the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles. Electrons and protons and all manner of energy particles seemed to behave like they 'knew' they were being watched; that they 'knew' what was going to happen before an experiment even started; that they were in some sort of communication between each other, instantaneously, no matter the distance.
One important element of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg principle, says you can measure how fast a particle is moving, but you can't simultaneously say exactly where it is; or, if you tried to measure exactly where it is, you couldn't say for sure how fast it was going at that moment. In observing the particle to make the measurement, you change the nature of what you are measuring.
Perhaps that is what we have done to Ubud.
In Ubud, the store called “Bliss” pitches facial treatments and massages. “Truth”, prominently displayed on another, sells gem stones. “Peace” sells t-shirts. Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, is a bookhawker. Buddha has been enlisted to shill everything from vegan desserts to wifi to mojitoes. Krishna runs a cargo shipping company. Dharma, Karma, Ananda, Brahma, Puri, Ashanti, and a variety of other Hindu terms direct tourists to everything from painting to antiques to palm readers.
In trying to draw more people to their community, to make it easier for them to find the peace and tranquility they are seeking, Ubud has become loudier, noiser, and hungrier. It is impossible to walk more than a few metres downtown without being pitched for a taxi ride or massage.
In the hustle and the vibe, in getting busier to make a living, move more tourists, the very thing they are basing their economy on moves a little farther away, finds a home somewhere else.
That won't stop the tourists from coming. Ubud will feed for years off the image and promises made by Hollywood. Its just that most of the people who come here won't find what they're looking for- and even though they observed all the forms, did all the right things, they really won't know the reason why.