A Day in the Life in Ubud

I wake up each morning to a Balinese symphony. Unlike a Western orchestra, this one consists of the sounds of roosters crowing, birds singing, insects chirping, an occasional lizard’s song, a woman sweeping the compound floors with a palm frond broom, dogs barking, scooters passing by and the family in the kitchen preparing breakfast. I’m living in a guesthouse that is part of a family compound for all of about $20.00 a day. A tall wall faces the street but behind that wall are the many buildings that an extended family has shared for many years. When you enter from the street, barely wide enough for a car, you pass the kitchen to the right and greet whomever in the family is cooking. To the left, is Darta’s, the father’s, office, a desk on the platform where family members gather and chat. Just ahead on the left is another covered platform where an elderly uncle hangs out, sometimes helping to cut up food, other times asleep. This is also a ceremonial platform where bodies are laid out before cremation ceremonies and other family events. Continuing back away from the door, I follow a path lined with tropical plants on the left and a little cement pond on the right. The whole compound is open to the sky, so it can be a soggy walk when it rains.

The guest rooms are in the back. There are 3 floors with 3 rooms each. I’m on the second floor in the middle with neighbors from the Netherlands on either side. There is a large balcony/porch in front where we each have a rack for drying laundry and a sitting area. Being outside, it’s easy to get to know the neighbors. I struck up a friendship with Marion who lives downstairs, from the first day. She’s 71, originally from NYC but now of Panama, and traveling alone. We have eaten all of our dinners together, either at our own family’s restaurant (where we also start the day with breakfast – banana pancakes with fresh coconut and palm syrup with fresh fruit) or at a restaurant down the street in town. Since Nadine, my 25 year old neighbor, arrived from the Netherlands the other day, she has joined our merry band.

Marion wanted to buy a gong for her apartment in Panama so Darta arranged for his son to take us to an instrument maker this morning. We drove to a neighborhood outside of town, passing wood carvers, cement sculptures, and a variety of open air shops along the way. We entered the family compound and were taken to the back where there was a huge workshop. Men were making the gamelons – the colorful percussive instruments we heard at the dance and are part of every evening’s symphony here in Ubud. One man was using a drill to carve the intricate pictures, others were painting the details in bright red and gold paint. In the very back we entered a shop where there were huge and small gongs for sale as well as the gamelons, their hammers and some drums and flutes. Marion tried to bargain for a gong (all prices are negotiable here) but between the cost and the shipping, they were too expensive.

Later this afternoon, we stopped at a local music shop where we played with a huge variety of mostly percussion instruments. These are the times that my small bag and large shipping costs dash my desires. I could just imagine pulling some of these instruments out at school and the delight my students would have in making jolly noises.

On that walk, the three of us also discovered Bali Bhuda, a cafe and small shop that was very much like the Brattleboro Food Coop on a much smaller scale. I enjoyed a delicious lunch, complete with a chai/banana shake and fresh organic veggies. Bliss.

On another walk, Marion convinced me to try a fish pedicure. I put my feet into a tank of fish that eat dead skin cells; delicious for them and softer feet for me! Their nibbling felt like an electrical kind of buzzing until I got used to it. A half hour later, I pulled my feet out and was shocked at the effectiveness of the “treatment”.

Yesterday, as we were walking up the street, I convinced Nadine to have her first massage. It was a very basic setting – no fancy relaxing music except the sound of the birds and people and scooters going by – but the price was easy. It was about $7.00 for an hour. I think she’s a new massage convert.

We don’t spend all of our time together. I love the new yoga studio I found and have made the trek there for wonderful classes. Since yesterday was Saturday, there weren’t any classes so I decided to take myself for a hike. I found a 4 hour walk described in my guidebook that looked interesting that would take me to the same area where the yoga studio is. The directions warned that it might be challenging to find some of the paths or streets. They weren’t kidding!

I started out early before it got too hot. At one point, I headed down a path that roved around the backs of several family compounds. I spotted all colors of chickens and lots of Balinese dogs wandering with me. I ended up in some rice fields, greeting the local farmers and then realizing I was at a dead end. I navigated back to the street where I met a couple of American women. They looked at my map, told me I was crazy for walking so far and that the hill ahead was dangerous to walk due to the traffic. I hopped on the back of one of the scooters and got a ride down the hill. She made a mistake too, though, in misunderstanding the map and pointed out the wrong road. I headed out in the wrong direction, still an interesting walk but not where I had intended to go. Some who wander really are lost.

I met a young man along the road and showed him my map. He offered to take me through the rice fields and to the river for a nice view. I declined, not wanting to pay for his guiding and started out. Very quickly I realized I had no idea where to go and went back and said I’d take him up on his offer. It was a wise decision. He showed me through the fields and we talked a lot as his English was quite good. He is the father of two girls. His family compound has 15 people including his brother’s family. Men never leave but bring their wives into their family place.

About an hour later, sweating in the heat, we came to the river which was the destination of my original hike. It was worth the walk. The views down were of the river at the bottom and terraced rice fields. It was a brilliant green everywhere I looked. My guide helped me to descend down a steep and slippery path. When he said we should go all the way to the bottom, I hesitated as it was a scary route. Later, we decided to go back up and take a set of stairs to the river. That was a lot easier. We could hear screams on our descent and at the bottom, I saw several rafts of Japanese teenagers, splashing each other in a grand water fight.

We walked a kilometer or so north along the river’s edge, gradually ascending through fields of rice and tall grass. We startled one snake (and yes, there are poisonous ones here in Bali) which made me wonder again about this plan but all was fine. At this point when we were close to a village, I decided 4 hours and several miles of walking was enough in the mid-day heat. We called my guide’s brother to be my taxi, negotiating heavily about his guiding price and the taxi.

Just inside the village, we realized we wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon. It was a holiday in the village and everyone for miles around was part of a huge procession to the temple. I stood to the side, the only Westerner around, as people of all ages passed in their temple finery. The gongs played as various groups walked by carrying giant animals, black and white umbrellas, golden casks, flowery offerings and yards and yards of fabric over their heads. I don’t know what it all meant but it was a fascinating sight.

That’s one of things I like about Bali, never knowing what’s around the next corner. Eventually, my guide’s brother showed up through the traffic that had backed up behind the procession and got me back to town. No wonder that massage felt so good!

I’ll add a few pictures here although they never seem to capture the whole experience. Add the smell of incense, the sounds of the gongs and the scooters and the sweet taste of palm syrup and coconut and that will get you close!

(I’ve heard that some of you who subscribe by e mail don’t see the pictures. Just go to the website and you’ll see a few. I wish I could post them all but internet access is prohibitive. I took almost 200 in just the last two days!)


Leave a comment


  1. Barbara

     /  February 19, 2012

    Okay, I’m running out of words to describe my reactions to your posts! Fish nibbling on your feet? Hikes into the countryside with just a map? You are a wild women!! But looking good!

  2. It looks as if you could have sat in that tank and gotten a full body nibble. Must say this is a particularly good post. Love the description. PS hope you have a good hat, you look a bit pink here. Sending love.

  3. Mary Kay

     /  February 19, 2012

    Love the pedicure! At least you can see what is nibbling at your toes! Awesome!

  4. Candice Stein

     /  February 19, 2012

    I am disappointed when I open my laptop and don’t find a blog piece from you. Is a book in store? I needed to read the fish pedicure part twice to make sure I was not misreading. You have taken sense of adventure to a new level!

  5. Penny

     /  February 19, 2012

    Oh my gosh,Ellen. What an adventure you are having. Keep up the fantastic blogs. I love them.

  6. Laura

     /  February 19, 2012

    Really, Ellen, you have found your calling (or one of them.). Clearly you are a top notch travel writer. When you publish, I will purchase and recommend.

  7. Sue Wright

     /  February 21, 2012

    Hi Ellen, Just wanted to let you know that I am very much enjoying all your blogs – someday I want to do what you are doing 🙂 take care, Sue (from Northern Tier)

  8. Stephen Maire

     /  February 23, 2012

    If you get a chance, visit Bersakih. Spectacular setting.

  9. Beth-Ann Betz

     /  February 24, 2012

    Hi Ellen,
    Your adventures are facinating. You are living a dream so many of us toy with doing now and then. I admire you for your courage! Janie Sherwin forwarded your blog piece to me. Keep em coming. Very best to you, Beth-Ann


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