This is the first post in a series called Slow Travel – a way of experiencing new places without a guidebook or checklist of things to see and do. Instead, slow travel for me is a celebration of a place in all it’s small, local ways – the people, culture and feel of a place as experienced on foot. (preferably)
We’re on our way from Denpasar airport to my hotel. At one point ahead of us in the road, a bus is attempting to turn into the narrow street which is choked with cars all pointing in different directions. Nobody is hooting, or yelling. Instead, we wait patiently while everyone tries to figure out a way to get the bus unstuck. This is nothing unusual on this narrow, winding road to Ubud. My lovely driver informs me with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders that travelling the 42km between the airport and the hotel can take anything from 45 minutes to five hours.
As we drive, my young driver explains that each village we are passing through on the way to the hotel is dedicated to one specific craftsmanship. Wood carving, stone carving, batik, jewellery making – skills are passed down from one generation to the next. He himself is skilled in the art of batik, although he works at the hotel because he likes cars. He tells me this with twinkling eyes , as if he’s let me in on a secret.
We arrive at the hotel an hour later, where I’m warmly greeted with a lemongrass-scented cool cloth and a welcome drink. My luggage is whisked away, and I’m led to my villa – home for the next few days. It is absolutely beautiful. The outdoor deck has a daybed and an infinity pool overlooking the valley and jungle. The cicadas hum and I spot a squirrel run-jumping across the branches of a tall tree. Through the thick bush I catch glimpses of the river rushing along the valley floor. I have packed a mountain of books, a new notebook and a fresh pen to enjoy five days and nights of reflection and quiet in this peaceful place. I feel unbelievably lucky.
I fall asleep with the curtains open and am woken at 5am by the Hindu call to prayer drifting across the valley. I make myself coffee and glide into my cool plunge pool, watching the mist swirl over the trees. The jungle is waking up for the day and I’m so grateful to be a part of these mysterious, cool morning hours.
I don’t know it yet, but while I am enjoying the view an important morning ritual is taking place throughout the grounds of the hotel – the placing of the canang sari. These are woven square baskets made of palm leaves, filled with flowers, rice, betel leaves and sometimes money, placed each morning as a daily offering and an expression of gratitude to the Hindu god Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa. Each offering is topped with a smoldering incense stick, as it is believed that the smoke of the incense carries the sari – the essence of an offering – to heaven.
I spend my first day outside on deck, staring into the jungle, reading, writing and sleeping. When I do venture out of my room for food and to take a few pictures, I am greeted with warm smiles and gentle, efficient service. I am called ‘Ibu’ which is the Balinese greeting for a woman over the age of thirty. I like it.
I book an early morning rice terrace walk on one of the days. I report to reception at 7am, where I am met by my lovely young guide. After a short drive across the valley, we are dropped off at the edge of a rice field. It’s been raining and the track is wet, and muddy. I look with some regret at my white Converse sneakers (the only pair of closed shoes I packed) and then forget about keeping them clean. As we walk, my guide explains how the rice field is made up of many small plots, each plot belonging to a different family. I’m surprised to learn that rice isn’t seasonal – it can be sown and harvested all year round. Her family has a few rice plots, although not in this particular field. She explains that when it’s time to harvest, all the families chip in – help and harvests are shared equally in the community.
It’s only 8am but the humidity is stifling and already the sweat is pouring off me. It’s with some relief that we move into the shaded area at the end of the rice field, on our way to the local temple which is part of the guided walk. Before we go in, my guide wraps me up in a sarong so that I’m dressed appropriately. There are men working in the outer courtyard, preparing for a festival. A woman drifts through the temple placing offerings to various gods. The sun slants through the trees and the only sound comes from the sighing wind and the birds calling to each other.
My guide asks if I’d like to see the holy pool. She warns me that are a lot of steep steps, but of course I say yes. On our way down we pass an elderly man walking up. He pauses every three or four steps to catch his breath. He smiles and greets us. He is in no hurry.
Towards the bottom of the steps, the sound of water rushes up to greet us. We walk a bit further until we get to the holy pool. They have purification ceremonies here – although it’s open to the public, the elevated, inner pool in behind a locked gate that only temple priests are allowed through. There are fresh offerings at every source of water. The air is damp and cool on my hot face, and the light is ethereal. As I take it in my guide explains how the purification ritual works, and that I’m welcome to participate in one if I’d like to. The only rule is that you have to be naked. I politely decline and she smiles.
The light is so magical that we don’t want to leave, but our ride is waiting. We both stop on the staircase to take pictures of the sun on the misty air. She tells me she has never seen the light quite like this before. It’s hushed and peaceful, and we don’t speak while we walk up. At the top the spell seems broken, and we chat about her family, her work and life in Ubud as we drive back to the hotel. I can’t wait for breakfast, and a dip in the pool.