The first thing I notice about the airport in Singapore is that all the restrooms smell like lemongrass.
The second is that they are immaculate, conveniently located and numerous.
To make sure they stay that way, a flat screen is placed next to the exit doors: “Good Afternoon! Would you like to rate our toilet?” From the options of ever-increasing smiley faces, I press the largest and happiest.
I am en route to Bali, and I have entered a pristine, orderly and apparently English-speaking Asia. The airport (like the city) is easy to navigate, mildly exotic and very cosmopolitan. I know I’m only passing through, but I can’t shake the feeling that some benevolent organizer is watching over all the proceedings. Peaceful is not normally a word I would use to describe travel, and yet here I am, at the serene jumping off point for a magical island where even Julia Roberts can find love and equilibrium.
The island of Bali is roughly half the size of Israel. The population of over four million is predominantly Hindu, in contrast to the 250 million population and Muslim majority in the rest of surrounding Indonesia.
The Balinese language, religion and rituals are unique and survive in a traditional setting of terraced rice fields, ancestral villages and local temples.
We are approaching Ubud on Monkey Forest Road. Motorbikes swarm and pass us by like schools of fearless minnows, some of them carrying entire families, or balancing impossibly large sacks of produce.
The road is narrow and is punctuated by Penjor, the decorated bamboo poles that mark the entrance to every family’s gate, guarded by mongrel dogs, all with the same triangle ears. There are stands for suckling pig and fried rice. There is smoke coming off of charcoal grills, a pharmacy and more motorbikes – everything flush against the curb, giving no clue that there are river gorges, rice fields and tangled rain forests hidden just out of sight.
Our destination is the Como Shambhala Estates, nearly 10 hectares of land above the sacred Ayung River, surrounded by waterfalls, lush forest and mist rising from the gorge below. It is in fact, an ancient meditation site, once frequented by a mountain priest and his students. Apparently, the addition of a world-class spa, two yoga pavilions, a Pilates studio, a tea room, tennis court, pool, aqua therapy, two restaurants and 30 guest suites has encouraged the good spirits to linger on.
Our driver’s name is Nyoman, the name given to all third-born boys. He is from the village of Bagawan, which is adjacent to the resort and so intertwined that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The village temple is at the end of the hotel parking lot. On the path down to the Pilates studio is a holy spring referred to as “The Source,” which villagers have unlimited access to. Like all the Balinese we will soon meet, Nyoman is thanking us for visiting his country. As we pass by, he points out his family compound, which houses 25 people, their private temple and enough agricultural space to harvest several hundred kilos of rice a year.
The original resort (named the Bagawan Giri Estates) was built to resemble these traditional Balinese family compounds.
Guest suites and villas are organized in five distinct areas, each with its own elemental theme – Fire, Water, Wind, Forest and Earth. Each has a unique design, landscaping and furnishings that invoke the spirit of that element – Japanese koi ponds in the water residence, a fire pit and bleached limestone in the fire residence, a stone gateway leading to the master villa of Mother Earth.
In 2005, Christina and Melissa Ong, luxury hoteliers and fashion moguls from Singapore, bought the property for their flagship wellness retreat. While their “sister” hotel in Ubud, (the Uma Ubud) focuses on trekking, culture and urban adventures, the tranquil Como Shambhala is all about balance and healing.
“WE OFFER a ‘360 degrees of wellness’ approach,” explains Santi Trian, Director of Sales. We have six different programs that focus on stress management, oriental medicine, Ayurveda medicine, cleanse and detox, all supervised by consultants on site.
We have staff practitioners of acupuncture, oriental medicine, nutrition, yoga and meditation. There is a minimum stay of three nights to ensure that you get the benefits of your particular program.”
Now, truthfully, I am a slothful vacationer.
I overpack, I like to eat, and the only decision I want to make is whether to take a nap before or after lunch. So I take the hotel’s à la carte option (yes, there is one) – room, breakfast and a smattering of yoga classes and healthful walks. But the tranquility is contagious and soon I am losing all interest in leaving the hotel property with its humming chorus of cicadas and wafting scents of mint, lavender and eucalyptus; with raw food offerings of pumpkin and macadamia nut pizza, coconut noodle and vegetable salad, jicama and pine nut maki rolls served on dark teak tables overlooking the sacred river.
“My father built this stairway,” relates Mudra, our guide on the 7 a.m. estate walk.
We have just hiked down into the river gorge and are contemplating the winding steps of volcanic rock that lead back up.
The stairway looks like it has been there for centuries – moss-covered stone blending in with the hillside. To our left is the sacred spring, surrounded by offerings of incense, flower petals and rice. Mudra has been working for the resort since the days of Bradley Gardner, the original owner, who taught him English. He points to a small bathing pool by the spring.
“I built that pool,” he says with pride, a flower petal from the morning offering tucked behind each ear. Scattered throughout our walk are hotel staff workers patiently snipping the jungle back, vacuuming moss off of rocks, sweeping up leaves with handmade brooms.
With the exception of some management figures who stay out of sight, the staff are local Balinese who act as if we are personal guests in their home. We are Mrs. Jane and Mr. Jonathan, and no one ever asks our room number or expects us to sign anything.
On Sundays a girl’s dance class appears, complete with a gamelan orchestra, to have their lessons on the lawn. The resort supports the local kindergarten and uses their resources and staff to educate the community.
Mudra points out proudly that the circular logo of the Como Shambhala is the Balinese icon for “continuous learning.”
Diah, who is giving me the history of the resort, explains, “Balinese culture is about three levels: one’s relationship with God, with one another and with a larger community.”
But it’s changing.
“I miss my childhood,” she adds wistfully.
“I miss the disappearing rice fields.
Sacred rituals are being used more and more for the tourist industry. In the south, in the beach areas, the traditions are not so strong. They cut down all the trees there. People litter and do improper acts near the temples.”
AFTER A few days of equilibrium, harmony and general mulching of our souls, we are ready for a little tradition-seeking ourselves.
After all, we’re only 20 minutes outside of Ubud, a spiritual magnet that pulls seekers from all over the world. And since, coincidentally, that’s where the shopping is, off we go.
Once inside of Ubud, traffic crawls to a stop. Our driver, in an attempt to be helpful, points us towards the Ubud Center, a confusing maze of alleyways selling the same hemp baskets, I Love Bali T-shirts, baggy beachwear and faux oriental knickknacks. As I jump away from passing motorbikes, I catch a glimpse of courtyards where laundry dries on the line and chickens patrol below. On the steps of an occasional shop, the three daily offerings of petals inside their sculpted leaves are smashed and shoved to the side.
In a few minutes I am too sweaty and disoriented to buy anything. In fact, I never want to shop again, ever. We take refuge in a shaded courtyard where even the ceiling fans aren’t moving. The afternoon slows to a halt in what seems to be part living room, part café. On a couch in the back, a backpacker contemplates picking up his guitar. Single patrons are ensconced at tables, intent on their laptops. A tattoo artist, with no clear patch of skin visible, draws intricate designs over and over with his pencil. I am informed there are no cold or bottled drinks. Desperate, I order a tepid health juice of mint, cucumber and celery that our waitress assures is made with holy water.
I know I’m missing something here, but I just don’t have the stamina to keep looking for the famous spiritual Ubud. Nyepi, the Balinese New Year is coming, and in preparation, shops, museums and public facilities are closing. We were scheduled to see a ceremonial dance, but performances in all the temples have been canceled to make room for rehearsals for the festival. Is this all there is? Well, when in doubt, eat.
So we find ourselves at Indus, an Indonesian restaurant with carved wooden décor and a balcony overlooking the sunset. With surprise, we realize that a six-piece Cuban band is tuning up. When they launch into an imitation of the Buena Vista Social Club, the floor is suddenly filled with dancers wearing T-shirts that proclaim: “Eat, Play, Salsa.” It is unexpected, delightful. White-haired gents are dancing salsa with petite Asians. Mothers are twirling daughters. Women are tangoing with other women. A blonde in red stiletto heels towers over a smiling Ubudian. The partners rotate, switch, practice, laugh. Monday is Latin night and these are the regulars.
Typical of Bali, everyone is included and it all looks effortless.
Tomorrow we will be heading down south to the beaches, but I am reluctant to move into travel mode. As the car pulls up in front of the Como Estates, I am greeted by the sound of water falling from fountains, and below them, the soothing Ayung River. The front desk staffers approach us with their gentle smiles and say the words I have started getting used to.
“Welcome back home, Mrs. Jane. Mr.Jonathan.”
This is the first of two parts.