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Ubud, the star of Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love was Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir about her one-year spiritual journey to three destinations including Ubud, Bali. After it was released in 2006, foreign visitors seeking a similar experience started flocking there to spend time at one of its many yoga retreats and wellness centres.

Foreign visitors have actually been coming here for some time and a number of them put down roots. It’s that sort of place. Canadian musician Colin McPhee spent most of the 1930s here in a quest to understand gamelan music, a unique ensemble of instruments that often accompanies dance performances and religious ceremonies. McPhee tells all about it in his book A House in Bali. When McPhee left before the outbreak of WWII, that same house was occupied by Belgian painter Theo Meier and later by Hungarian pianist Lili Kraus, until she was thrown into a prisoner-of-war camp.

Miguel Covarrubias, a painter and art historian from Mexico whose work often appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, was there in the 30s and also wrote a book about his experience that is considered a classic, the Island of Bali.  Margaret Mead, the world renowned American anthropologist, and her British husband Gregory Bateson stayed for some time but instead of painting or making music they conducted research on the lives of Balinese hill people. So it was an interesting time.

Those who are credited with attracting so many interesting and talented people to the Ubud area are Walter Spies, a German painter and musician who first travelled there in 1925, and Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati, the head of the district who encouraged Spies to stay. Indeed, Spies was so taken by the place that he moved there permanently and urged colleagues from around the world to join him.  He also co-founded an artists’ cooperative, Pita Maha, that influenced the growth of modern Balinese art.

Artistic endeavours continued through the years and the work of both expats and locals flourished. Dutch artist Arie Smit, who came in 1956, formed an artistic community that encouraged young artists, providing them with materials and organizing exhibitions. His work can be found in the Neka Art Museum, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Balinese paintings on the island.

These foreigners, and there have been many of them, added to what was already an amazing artistic environment. “Everyone in Bali seems to be an artist,” was how Covarrubias summed it up. Ubud had been a centre of art for centuries although most of it had been commissioned for royal houses and Hindu temples and the culture had remained virtually unchanged until the Westerners arrived.

There was the Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad who resided in Ubud for almost a century and was involved in the founding of the Pita Maha arts association. He stayed true to his identity as a Balinese artist, designing temples and carving stone reliefs.

Ubud is not a typical Balinese village but you don’t have to travel very far from it to find one if that is what you are seeking. It has all the comforts that foreign tourists could want, a wide assortment of hotels and home-stays, probably every type of restaurant including those serving vegetarian and organic dishes. There are nightly shows of Balinese dance.

Every October there is a literary festival where Indonesian writers are showcased and in March there’s the Bali Spirit Festival of world music, dance and yoga. You can join others and take a bird walk, cultural walk, ecological walk, rice-paddy walk. Or you can just walk around by yourself.

Courses are offered in just about everything: cookery, music, dance, yoga, batik, language, traditional culture and so on. You can volunteer at one of the charitable foundations. And of course you can shop!

I met some interesting tourists during my stay in Ubud. One was a young Australian woman who works with a non-governmental organization; she was treating herself during this visit, something she didn’t do often, and the first day was spent at the spa followed by dinner at an organic restaurant that is in the middle of a rice paddy. She’d like to return for a special ‘girl’s vacation’ with her mom.

There was the retired Dutch couple who had been visiting the country for several years, each  time spending some time in Ubud where they volunteer with a Dutch-based NGO; Indonesia was once a Dutch colony and they feel quite at home.

Then there were the gutsy women of all ages riding motorbikes through the streets, the ones there for long stays. In 2005, Elizabeth Gilbert was probably one of them, although in the movie version of her book she was on a bicycle. But I think you get the picture.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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