I’m one of those lucky souls who feel I have a home away from home to hide in when life gets too much. Ubud is one of such sanctuaries in this wretched old world for me. Just as I would at home, in Ubud I get around and chat up people, listen to laments and local gossips. Sometimes I bring small tokens, sometimes I’m at the receiving end. At times I just sit and observe them go by. When it’s time to leave, I’m always looking forward to return.
Known for the longest time as the idyllic town of museums and art shops, modern spiritualism is the tour du jour. After 2002 and 2005 bombings in coastal areas that badly hurt Balinese tourism, Ubud bounced back with literary and yoga festivals, both were founded by native Ubudians and longtime expat residents. Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love that was made into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Julia Roberts in 2010 certainly also had a big hand in putting Ubud on the global tourism map.
Businesses have been growing to cater to your weary mind, tired body, and jaded soul. Beyond the annual festival, studios run classes year round from basic Hatha to AcroYoga. Spas run the gamut from standard massages to hydrotherapies. Forget the kooky Ketut Liyer from Gilbert’s book– there are healers practicing with anything from wooden acupressure sticks to singing bowls. If you know who to ask, or if you ask me nicely, you may even seek all-around session from a top-notch Balinese royal healer.
Recycling had a slow start, but now you’ll easily find secondhand books, vases made of liquor bottles and bags from recycled rice sacks or mosquito nets. As for the boring business of eating and dressing, allow this oft-called unrepentant capitalist to defend the divine rights of any New Age hippie chic to remain well-fed and fashionably-clothed in all its organic and fair trade glory. Raw meals, flourless cakes, stretchy yoga pants in bamboo fibers– Ubud’s got them all.
It all sounds fine and dandy, if only it has actually trickled into the daily lives of regular Ubudians or Balinese. This healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle remains largely a commodity even for the young Balinese manning the shops. The well-trained ones can explain in great detail all the organic ingredients on the menu, yet still relish in fried duckling for their lunch and suckling pig roast during family parties. They wear eco-friendly garb as uniform and are very knowledgeable in chakra charts and mood stones displayed in shops, but rarely exercise themselves, let alone frequenting yoga or meditation classes. I once asked a waiter if the café’s recycle bins were removed and she went blank before realizing that I was referring to the colorful cans usually parked near the toilet for guests to use (staff members apparently just unceremoniously used the large kitchen Dumpster).
Price is often quoted as the ultimate entry barrier. While it may be true that Balinese minimum wage don’t give much room for Rp 15,000 a bag organic cookies or USD 40 fair trade sweatpants, I think it lies deeper than that.
The Balinese have hosted all kinds of visitors since early 20th century, who came bringing their own trinkets and bags of tricks, made several great runs, then one afternoon fade into the sunset just before the next batch of guests arriving with their own trades and tales. The cycle has repeated continuously through several generations of Balinese who finally learned to politely smile and necessarily participate in, yet largely continued on with their tightly prescribed lives within the intricately knitted Balinese society structure. Whatever element that gets adopted into their society is pretty much cherry-picked, most possibly out of convenience.
Some examples. I’ve lost count how many times locals curiously inquired why I’d pay heftily to twist my body around on a thin mat under the glaring tropical sun to center my mind if I could just go straight to semedi (praying meditation) like any Balinese would. A vegetarian chef recounted how he always lost the “we’re all God’s creatures” argument when the locals earnestly pointed that they’d already honored the certain sacred animals cited on Balinese Hindu scriptures, in lovely statues and elaborate ceremonies no less, so why should they deny the pleasure of succulent pork, duck and squid dishes? As for healing, beyond certain remedies or local medicine men they’ve grown up in, the rising Balinese middle class are getting more comfortable with medical professionals than betting on unfamiliar therapies practiced by foreign healers.
Integration happens gradually and adoption takes even longer. So I believe it’s the early education, in school and at home, that’s pivotal in cementing any understanding, including of better life practices to adopt. As noble as any aspect brought in by this so-called spiritual tourism, which may actually preserve Ubud’s oasis identity in the long run, I doubt it’ll make watershed mark if not introduced early in life, before any commercial context takes form. Otherwise, it will be just another passing fad until its timely sundown, just like the hemlines and colors of Balinese sundresses peddled in Ubud market.
You’re being too pessimistic, chided a pal who teaches affordable yoga sessions for regular Balinese kids. Well, let’s see how her young students carry on in twenty years because for now, for all the “Think Globally Act Locally” slogan drummed about, the Balinese is still saying “Adopt Later, Maybe”.