What’s Bali Really Like?
It is said that Bali feels like a blend of Hawaii and India.
Located eight degrees south of the equator, the island of is just a bit smaller than the state of Delaware. The climate is balmy tropical year round and the locals are so warm they welcome guests to their island as family.
Sometimes, the best way to help learn about a place you want to see is through personal stories. Here are a few of mine while living in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali.
Smiles everywhere. The prevailing spirit is all about karma, or do unto others…Once, on an island road trip, we stopped for a photo op when I noticed my guest walking far into a rice field where a lone woman was collecting rice. Today, she will tell you, what happened next, is her favorite Bali memory.
She tells the story, “I felt drawn to meet her, so I approached her with prayer hands and a smile. I showed her my phone and motioned, is it okay to take your picture? She nodded yes. Then, I noticed she was collecting rice scraps on a small bamboo mat. I realized she wasn’t a farmer, just a woman who was picking up the scraps the farmers left behind.
I thanked her for the photo and handed her all the bills I had. When she saw the money, she went to remove a small gold band on her finger to give to me…She appeared not to understand why I would give her money. I gently pushed the ring back on her finger and smiled as big as I could.
We hugged tightly; I was so moved she would offer me her ring. I will never forget the look of joy in her eyes or the grace of her smile.”
Unlike festivities geared for tourists (like the luau in Hawaii), Bali offers a more authentic experience by witnessing Balinese everyday life that revolves around Hindu beliefs. The sun had already set when the plane landed for my first time in Bali. I remember feeling disappointed that I couldn’t see anything out the taxi windows.
Forty-five minutes later, at the hotel, I was handed an official notice, explaining the next day was a national holiday, called Nyepi, or the day of silence, fasting and self-reflection. I was advised to stay inside because everything would be closed, even the airport. My visions of Bali would have to wait another day. The only channel airing on TV was yoga classes!
When it was over and I diligently practiced being quiet all day… my first steps onto the streets of Ubud were something that can only described as surreal. In the early morning light, before the shops were open, I saw several women carrying large trays of flower baskets in one hand, like a line of waiters delivering a meal to royalty.
Then, they would kneel down in front of shops, place a small offering at the door, and gracefully whirl the smoke from incense toward the sky while reciting a prayer. As I watched them in awe, the Balinese women, like ballet dancers (in flip flops), moved from shop to shop, giving thanks to the Gods and praying for prosperous day.
I soon discovered an offering was also placed at the door to my hotel room. I was welcomed and blessed.
Yoga, Spas & Healing Centers
Ubud village of Bali is the holistic heart of Asia where spiritual tourism is big business. With overflowing options for yoga classes and styles, my plan was to visit them all and see where I got that feeling.
The one where I’d feel comfortable practicing my downward dogs. Honestly, as a beginner yogi, I felt intimidated to join the Yoga Barn, the most famous of them all. The Barn, as it is referred to by locals, has the most beautiful studios I’d ever seen. Architecturally stunning with bamboo structures built in the middle of an open air flowering jungle, complete with their own café where students sip green juice through paper straws.
Was I good enough, young enough, thin enough? I wasn’t sure, so my first yoga class was not at ‘the barn’. I saw a tiny street sign that pointed down an alley which just said ‘Yoga 10 am’. I showed up early and climbed the wooden steps to the deck built as high as the coconuts. Sweating already, part nerves, part heat, I was the only one there.
Waiting, waiting, when a young boy came flying up the steps, “So sorry misses, welcome.” bowing in apology. He began sweeping the deck with a short broom made from straw. When the teacher arrived, dressed in all white, she welcomed me with a tight hug and said, “My name is Maddie, today, the class is private just for you”.
Later, as I tried to maneuver a squat pose with some semblance of grace, she said, “Feel your energy, not your body”. I think of her every time I find a pose difficult to do. After class, the young boy climbed a palm tree and hand delivered a coconut with straw to me and the teacher! Eventually, I joined the Yoga Barn studio where the staff was just as welcoming as Maddie.
With 50,000+ followers, a huge selection of classes from sunrise to sunset, an onsite wellness center, yogis from all over the world call ‘the barn’ their oasis of calm in a sacred paradise. Name any holistic modality and you will easily find several options in Ubud along with spas on every corner.
Think rice, fresh veggies picked hours before service and coconut served every way imaginable. Add tempeh (fried soy bean), noodles and satay sticks alongside intricate cuts of exotic fruit on a banana leaf plate – and you know you’re doing your body a favor.
It’s not just the freshness of the farm to table food here, it’s also the pride you see in the platters that are placed before you like little pieces of art. Cafes are called Warungs, and since the customers in Ubud are primarily health conscious, vegetarian food is predominant. Don’t worry if you’re craving western food, pizza and tacos are here too next to juice bars and coffee cafes.
Two must try items are sambal, the Indonesian version of salsa, and Jamu, a tonic made from turmeric, fresh coconut juice and lime.
Legend says, that the Supreme God created the sky for Gods, the Earth for animals and seas for fish. As for man, an earthly island paradise was needed and Bali was born. Visitors agreed and began to spread the word about this heaven on earth, where man and God, nature and spirits, exist in harmony.
By my 2nd day in Bali, I fully understood this island’s pull for so many. Private drivers and guides line the streets of Ubud to beckon tourists for day trips. As soon as you leave the heart of city (which can get crowded with tourists and traffic), your eyes will feast on lush jungles and rice fields, volcanos, beaches and waterfalls.
From sacred rivers to hindu temples – the magical allure never fails to fascinate, heal and bring wonder. It seemed at every turn in the road, I was gasping that such a place still exists. A local took me on a hike to see ancient meditation caves carved into giant rocks deep inside the jungle. As we got closer, walking through the mist from the natural springs, the essence of Bali magic came alive.
It was like I had a meditation teacher whispering in my ear the importance of solitude and self-reflection. Be still and listen…and what I heard was, “stay awhile”. And so I did, and so it is.