A pink smudge begins to push back the grey light of pre-dawn, and heralds the rising of that great giver of life, the sun. Like clockwork, a chorus of roosters begin their morning crescendo of cock-a-doodle-doo’s, my new alarm, and a sign that it is time to get up.
In my opinion chickens could be seen to represent the overriding theme of life here in Ubud. A grounded, earthy feeling seems to infiltrate daily activities, as humans and animals alike, go about their business searching for food and shelter. Yet, every so often, a rooster will lift his head and call to the heavens above, crying out to something larger than life itself. In much the same manner, the local people will regularly take 5 minutes out of their days to light some incense, and make an offering to the sacred spirits at one of the many shrines that adorn each and every single house in Ubud.
Today is my first day off since I started as a student on Shades of Yoga’s RYT 200hr Teacher Training course offered here in Ubud, Bali. It’s been a long week, filled with both physical and mental exertion, and I’m incredibly happy with how much I have learnt thus far. However, I have been so focused on my course work that I haven’t spent much time absorbing the culture of this beautiful city, and have decided that today I am dedicating to exploration. I considered renting a scooter for the day, but in all honesty traffic here is crazy, and I don’t trust my own ability to safely navigate my way through the streets of Ubud without doing myself some kind of harm. The last thing I want is to jeopardize the rest of my teacher training course due to injury. I figured renting a bicycle would be a great way to see Ubud, as well as go off the beaten tourist track. It would be great cross-training as well.
Over the course of the next few hours I watch the streets and markets of Ubud whizz by, feeling decidedly like a worker-bee in the heart of his hive. Highlights of my morning include a haircut from a local barber who tells me in stilted English how incredibly privileged he feels to be cutting a tourist’s hair. As a 30-year old balding male, I feel bad for the guy that I don’t have more hair to offer up to his sharp edged scissors and the deft movements of his hands. An impromptu jam session outside a stall selling African style djembe drums, didgeridoos from Australia, and various other local instruments I have no idea how to play, is another highlight. I am African after all, and music is rooted in my culture. Much like the branches of the great baobab trees of the African savanna, my musical roots want to spread out and embrace all within its reach. I can’t resist picking up one of the beautifully handcrafted drums, and pretty soon my hands are slapping out some African style beats. This attracts a fair amount of attention in the market place, and pretty soon we have a full on music circle going, as eclectic and diverse as anything I have ever had the privilege of being part of. Music makes the soul smile, and brings people together irrespective of cultural differences, much like the city of Ubud.
The mid-day sun was high and bright when I reluctantly hopped back on my bike. I still wanted to make it to The Sacred Monkey Forest in heart of Ubud before lunch-time. The Sacred Monkey Forest serves not only as an important component in the spiritual and daily lives of the local villagers, but is also the site of several research and conservation programs. Monkeys are an important part of local culture and this is reflected in the Balinese’ rich cultural heritage.
Examples of this include stories and dances such as the Kecak and Ramayana, as well as statues and sculptures of monkeys that can be found all over the island.
I paid the entrance fee, stepped inside the ornate wrought iron gates, and am immediately propositioned by a group of Balinese Macaques. The first thing that strikes me about the monkeys was that unlike the primates back home in Africa, they are completely unafraid of humans. They also all seem to have mohawk hairstyles. Is this natural? It has to be. An entire species of primate running around looking, and acting, like Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols. I momentarily put my bag down to grab some water, and the pack of rock stars make a beeline for my lunch-time snack of bananas and apples. Go figure I think to myself, not only do they look like punk rockers, but they act like them too! I decided I best be on my way before I ended up lunch-less, hungry, and forced to join the local macaque population in swinging from the tree tops in a relentless quest to steal food from poor unsuspecting tourists.
The real reason I have come here is to witness first hand some of the spectacularly old and beautiful temples in the Sacred Forest. According to analysis done on the Pura Purana, an Indonesian holy book, The Holy Monkey Temples were built during the 14th century. I spent a couple of hours feasting my eyes on the three holy temples in the sanctuary. I am blown away by the incredible artistry imbued in these temples. It is absolutely incredible that the Balinese ancestors managed to not only erect these massive stone temples here in the thick of the jungle, but that they managed to do it in such style, with such incredibly detailed images carved out of rock. Of the many thoughts running through my mind during my explorations of the sanctuary, the overriding one is wondering if the architects of these great temples had any idea how invaluable their constructions would be to modern day Bali. Not only have they allowed the Balinese people to stay in touch with their own rich cultural heritage, certainly not easy during the modern era of globalization and cultural monogamy, but these temples have also become a source of invaluable income. Tourism accounts for a large majority of the money that Bali generates, and without it, I get the distinct feeling that this island would feel a lot more third world. Indonesia is the 3rd fastest growing global economy, and a large part of this is directly linked back to the inherited cultural history of the island.
Wiping the sweat from my brow for the umpteenth time, I glance at the time and realize that it is already late in the afternoon. Where did the time go? Is it possible that I have spent the entire morning and afternoon wandering around the markets and ancient sanctuaries of Ubud? Apparently I had. I reluctantly leave the temple, hop back on my trusty steed, urge my legs to move the pedals and head up Jalan Suweta, aiming for the rice paddies just out of town. I want to finish my day with a sunset walk through some of the local villages and rice paddies. I have not had much chance to spend time interacting with the local inhabitants outside of Ubud’s tourism based city centre.
The first thing that strikes me about the outskirts of Ubud, is the overwhelming abundance of greenery. Rice paddies dominate the landscape, and wash the land in a deep emerald green that soothes the eyes after the glare of the harsh midday sun. I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and love deep within. Where is this feeling coming from? I think about it as my legs begin to burn from all the peddling, and my mind wanders back to a class we had earlier on in the week. We dealt with the various chakras and what they represent. The Heart chakra, represented by the color green is your heart power station, connecting you to your emotions.
It is the center that allows you to love and give unconditionally. The heart center governs your relationships. It is the energy center that integrates one’s physical reality to one’s spiritual connection. It all makes sense to me now. The Balinese people surround themselves with rice paddies, which inadvertently triggers their heart chakra centre, and is possibly one of the reasons for their incredible generosity of spirit. They fill their days by spending time with their families, working outdoors in the rice paddies, and celebrating their connection to the spirit world by making regular offerings and celebrating a plethora of holy days.
I hop off my bike and take a stroll through the jungle and bathe in the emerald green of the paddies. I wonder if the ‘western’ world would be a better place if we surrounded ourselves with green, instead of cold, grey, emotionless steel and concrete? Would more people walk around with smiles on their faces if they made offerings to something other than themselves?
Slowly, the world around me changes from bright green to a luminescent orange glow, and I realize the sun is beginning its inexorable march towards the horizon. My stomach begins to growl and I decide I better feed the beast within, before it starts to feed on me. I locate the bike, wave my goodbyes to the friendly locals that have kept me company for the last couple of hours, turn on my autopilot and decide to make a silent promise to myself to learn from these humble people.
My energy reserves are running low, but thankfully the way back into town is mostly downhill. There is no shortage of local restaurants, called Warung’s, in Bali, and I’m sure each traveler has their personal favorite – mine is Atman Café, located in the heart of Ubud. Atman uses locally grown fresh produce, and whips them up into tasty oral treats, at very affordable prices. Being a creature of habit, I seat myself in my regular spot overlooking the street, and order my favorite local dish. Its called Rujak Salad, a South-East Asian dish made of fruit and vegetables, topped with a sweet and spicy dressing containing water, palm sugar, tamarind, ground sautéed peanuts and red chili. I decadently, and somewhat guiltily, order a vanilla milkshake as well. Life is all about balance, right? I can’t be one hundred percent rigid in my diet everyday, so I figured I’d earned this milkshake. I literally throw the delicious food down my throat and suck the milkshake down through the ecologically friendly, re-usable, bamboo straw it is served with. The cafe is a hive of activity with tourists popping in and out, and I can’t resist sharing some of my experiences to the many friendly faces, in between tangy mouthfuls of my dinner.
It’s 10pm and my aching body is caressed by the soft, spongy mattress in my room. Gentle, meditative music is coming from my MP3 player, and I can’t help but reflect on the lessons I have learned on what has been an incredibly inspirational day. In accordance with Balinese Hindu philosophy, peace and liberty are obtainable in our lives only when we respect the three harmonious relationships known as the ‘Tri Hita Karana’ doctrine. The first is that the Gods blessed life and created nature and all of its contents. The second, that nature offers sustenance to support the needs and activities of human beings. And finally, human beings have an obligation to establish a traditional village structure, to build temples in which to worship, hold ceremonies and make daily offerings to preserve nature, and to solve problems together. I witnessed all of these firsthand, in only one day of exploration. I challenge those of you reading this post to incorporate these lessons into your daily life, and who knows, the next time you climb into bed, you might fall asleep with a broad smile on your face, I know I am.