Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, last century, I traveled to Ubud, that magical place in the lush foothills of Bali leading up to the volcanic slopes of Mount Batur. I was invited by a friend, an old writer, by letter, yes. One of those things of paper with a stamp on it and illegible ink stamps to show that it had passed the route all the way from Ubud to Denpasar in Bali, to Jakarta and then by airplane to Amsterdam, where it would arrive only ten days later.
The name of my friend was Duco van Weerlee, an old gentle hippie writer and poet, talking tarot cards, spirits and astrology. While I was never very convinced by his quests into the invisible realms he would enter with his morning exercises of hatha yoga. But I did like him very much. He was kind, careful and did not eat meat to not make animals suffer. He ate small titbits of food all day as he lost most of his stomach to a lifesaving operation many years ago, as he had ruined it by drinking too much hard liquors in the bars of old Amsterdam. He did not anymore, green tea and fruit juices were his beverages and now he lived in greener pastures of tropical Indonesia.
When I arrived in Ubud in search for him, it was already dark and people directed my driver to a forest at the end of the Monkey Forest Road, where we went. It was dark except for small lights shining from huts thatched with palm leaves and woven from bamboo poles, flattened to little matts.
The taxi driver did his very best to find out where I needed to be and soon the car was surrounded by at least a dozen curious onlookers. Finally a young guy explained what was the problem. It seemed my friend lived on the other side of the Monkey Forest which I had to cross to get there. But there was no road leading there and no-one in their right mind would travel the forest at night as it was full of rakshasa’s, wild spirits that could easily devour a man. After some deliberation I decided to unload my luggage and pay the driver. These people were nice and somehow I thought, I would find a solution or a bed for the night. The car drove off into the dark and suddenly I felt a bit eerie. Here in the middle of what definitely looked to be nowhere, surrounded by dark locals with black, glistening eyes and none but one who could speak English, it all felt a bit weird. Maybe it was a mistake to let the car leave.
A hand touched my shoulder and I turned around. A bearded man in a white robe said: ‘’selamat malam’’. It was clear at the behavior of the others he was a respected man. The young man talked to the bearded one and then told me. He is a local temple priest. He knows where your friend lives and is not afraid of the spirits of the forest. He will take you through it and you will see your friend this evening. A torch was found and off we went. The forest was incredibly dark, there was no moon out and the torch showed the moving shadows of the mighty trees that hovered above us, full of vines touching the ground and sometimes almost touching us. I felt very uneasy except for the man in white who walked just in front of me in a very confident fashion. Our little moving circle of light was swallowed up by the black night oozing from this thick forest. Every now and then a sound came from it but all in all it was very quiet, almost as if it was holding its breath as was I if I did not consciously tell myself to breath in and breath out.
After what seemed to be an eternity but probably was less than half an hour, an opening in the forest cover led to the exit and as if staged suddenly a bright white light of the moon shone between hovering clouds over rice fields glittering in its diamond rays. My relief and wonder was amazing. Within another ten minutes the old man was knocking on a door of a small house and the door opened. My friend Duco appeared in the opening and said: ‘Rob, what a late hour to appear, but welcome’. He talked a bit to my bearded guide in, what seemed to me, fluent Bahasa Indonesia. The old man did not want to accept any money from me and soon turned around to walk back. Duco had a spare bedroom and after a cup of tea and very little talk, I fell asleep and dreamt of magic worlds full of demons and gods.
To cut a long story short, I rented a small house in the rice fields, adjacent to that of my friend. The cottage costed me about 50 USD for a month. My stay was there was great. Life was simple and I would drink fresh ice tea and eat a nasi champur (rice with some spiced up vegies and a bit of chicken) every morning for maybe twenty cents.
One of the greatest rituals I enjoyed was may daily shower next to the river. My cottage had a simple bathroom, but it was far more fun to walk a bit to the small river nearby. I would take my towel and toiletries and walk dressed in shorts and flip flops over the small earthen dams through the rice fields, chasing off the ducks who were savoring snails and insects abundant in the water nourishing the young rice shoots. The morning skies were delightful, the cool air touching my skin, my first bath. At the end I would step down into a small clay ravine where the stream was. Water was splashing down with great abundance out of bamboo tubes, which formed perfect showers. Guys on this side and just, but only just visible maybe a hundred meters upstream, the girl’s bathing space. It was so magical, with birds and butterflies and beautiful wet people relishing their morning baths, the water still slightly warmer than the crisp morning air. I would walk the short path home mesmerized with the sheer beauty life had to offer.
I came back to that place thirty years later and the bamboo tubes were still there. They were part of a boutique resort built around the stream, walled in, charging 400 USD a night to enjoy what used to be a free experience. In fact, with the local youth bathing replaced by local youths dressed in immaculate hotel uniforms, the joyful banter and laughter replaced by sweet gamelan music, the experience had paled a bit, but it was still a great experience. The resort customers were obviously savoring their stay and someone was making a good living out of understanding the magic of Ubud, Bali.
Why am I writing all this, what am I trying to say? What I am trying to say is that life and travel are about experiences, about surprises, great and small, about moments of enchantment and deeply felt happiness and about people helping each other freely, smilingly.
Have a great 2016. On behalf of 12Go I wish you a year full of travel and nice surprises, great and small.