Bali: Seek Shop Buy in Ubud

UBUD, Bali — I truly believe I’m the only straight male on the planet who liked “Eat Pray Love.” Loved the book and I liked the movie. I’d love the movie but Julia Roberts is truly annoying. Still, the movie captured the magic of Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital where author Melissa Gilbert overcame her fractured marriage through Hinduistic healing, an all-natural diet and shtoinking the whoopy-doo out of a Brazilian.

I visited Ubud back in ’93 with the Irish PR babe and there is a romantic element to the place you don’t find anywhere else in Indonesia. Ubud is so green it’s as if they placed a town in the middle of a forest and filled it with artists, writers and spirtual healers. No one was in a big hurry. Traffic seemed minimal. The air was always clean.

I took a whirlwind trip there yesterday and Ubud is like just another big tourist trap. I’d blame “Eat Pray Love” but Gilbert has enough fame and money. I won’t give her credit for having so many readers it changed an entire city’s feel. Her Hindu healer? So many people visit Ubud on “Eat Pray Love” tours that he charges $25 a visit.

A woman prepares coffee beans in a coffee plantation near Ubud.
A woman prepares coffee beans in a coffee plantation near Ubud.

Talk about spiritual cleansing. How about wallet cleansing, pal. Hope your spot in the afterlife is the bus station in Bakersfield.

I hired a driver through Courtyard and did the whole Ubud experience. Eat Pray Love? How about Seek Shop Buy?

Actually, this tour was absolutely wonderful. He took me everywhere, to places there’s no way I’d find without getting lost or getting in a head-on collision in the mad traffic that skirts in and out of the city.

I first wanted to see Gunung Kawi, one of the most remarkable Hindu shrines in the Hindu world. The driver — I still can’t pronounce his name — drove up the eastern outskirts of Ubud high atop a hill. I then had to walk past a posse of hawkers selling everything from coconut juice to “I Love Bintang” tank tops to a small stand where I had to make a donation and don a sarong.

My server at Bali's cool, refreshing coffee plantation
My server at Bali’s cool, refreshing coffee plantation

It’s to cover my legs which granted me absolution in the eyes of their gods but also made me wonder how in God’s name they could walk in searing heat in those things. My legs started to sweat 10 steps down a deep ravine. The long twisty hike was worth it, though. I passed terraced rice fields and a clean, running river to this area where 10 25-foot carvings faced each other.

Each one is dedicated to a member of the 11th century Balinese royal family and carved right into the rock.  Hardly anyone else was there. Either it was due to the off season or no one wanted to make the steaming climb back up to the parking lot. It’s only in the mid 80s here but the humidity is near 90 percent. It was atmosphere more appropriate for African violets than a hike.

We got back in the van and kept climbing higher. The temperatures dropped and the forest grew thicker. We finally stopped at the edge of a jungle path where a small, thin youth of about 18 (he may have been 28, considering how little Balinese seem to age). He took me down a path showing me various plants used in their making of coffee. I smelled vanilla, cinnamon, lemongrass. It was the sweetest smelling jungle I’ve ever hiked through.

Then I saw the lukwa. These are mongoose type creatures that look like giant ferrets. They’re really quite cute, even trapped in their cages. But the guide explained they love eating coffee beans. What these Balinese do is let the lukwa run amok in the trees, eat and then, um, defecate. They take the lukwa dung and — I am not making this up — dry it and use it as coffee beans. I knew they use everything in the Third World but …

I sat down at a crude wooden bench and a pretty 29-year-old (I guessed 17) put down 10 little cups of fluids. It was the biggest coffee/tea sample: vanilla coffee, lemon coffee, gingseng tea, giner tea, red rice tea, coconut coffee, mocha coffee, rosella tea, Bali coffee.

Ever had all natural coconut coffee? It tastes like warmed coconut milk. And vanilla coffee? It’s like a warm vanilla milkshake. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for a cold Colorado morning to drink coconut coffee from my 14th-floor balcony and look out at the Rocky Mountains.

We made a photo op at an active volcano totally spoiled by the tour buses who disgorged hundreds to the viewing post’s buffet lunch then did the real Ubud eating experience. Ubud is all about nature and health and spirituality. Back in the 19th century, a member of Bali’s royal family set up shop here in south-central Bali and his descendents encouraged Western artists and intellectuals to visit.

In the 1930s, they got the message. They attracted more and soon Ubud was crawling with new thoughts, open discussion and great, inspired work. Today the royal family finances numerous cultural presentations such as the annual writers conference I just missed in October.

The off shoot of all this is very healthy food. Vegetarians, vegans and other annoying disciplines descend here to eat from some of the best all-natural cooks in the world. I had lunch at Casa Luna, one of the many bakery cafes lining the narrow, crowded streets. You can tell how natural a restaurant is by looking at the drinks. I don’t care how healthy beet, carry and mint juice is. I ain’t drinking it. Nor did I touch the orange, spinach & ginger even if it does give me, as the menu said, in English, a “vitamin C and iron boost.”

I had a coconut banana smoothie that was nothing short of spectacular. It made up for the nasi campur, an Indonesian diet staple that’s basically a smorgasbord of Indonesian delights on a bed of rice. But Casa Luna put its healthy twist on it and I barely ate enough to cure my hunger. The coconut rice had no flavor, the corn fritter tasted like a crunch cracker, the green bean salad looked like something served on one of the Apollo missions and the red peanut and coconut steamed in a banana leaf tasted like mushy cornmeal.

However, the Super Brownie, home made broken-up brownie in a water glass filled with homemade vanilla ice cream was orgasmic.

Who needs Vitamin C? I needed a shopping boost. The driver took me to an artisan shop south of Ubud where an artist’s colony paint and display their wares. I walked in and some tiny, dark-skinned Balinese were mixing paints. Another was starting work on a beach scene. Others sat around hoping someone would buy their work.

The shop looked like a sprawling museum. Each room had more gorgeous paintings of every Balinese scene imaginable. Terraced rice fields. Sunsets on the Indian Ocean. Balinese dancers. Hindu temples. I could tell they were too good for my tastes. The art I have on my wall is from local hacks around the world whom I buy from in public squares. The beautiful turquoise scene of a terraced rice paddy, with workers in conical hats tilling under a setting sun, went for $800.

I settled on two small paintings of a sun setting behind a Hindu temple and a back-lit mother and child ascending a mountaintop and got the guide to drop from $100 to $60.

Eat Pray Love? I did none of the three. But I could still write a book on Ubud.