Ubud, Bali- Eat, Pay, Leave (2012)
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
“If it is the first secret conceit of every voyageur to imagine that he alone has found the world’s last paradise, it is second to believe that the door has slammed shut right behind him.” Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathnandu
Dawn at the morning of the world. Heard the rooster crowing. Looked out the window: palm trees, red sky, no rain today? Other sounds fill the air- motorcycles passing by, crickets chirping, tree frog singing. Smell of burning coconut leaves, incense, something cooking on a stove somewhere. Nothing but jungle. The air is dead still, another day begun.
Paradise? If you polled a hundred people, you’d get a hundred different answer. White sandy beaches, snow covered mountains, cool, clear lakes, fine dining joints.
My first adventure in search of paradise was when I was only sixteen, hitchhiking to Florida– which seems hard to imagine today. Since then I have been an on-again off-again paradise seeker, and lately the search has once again been joined.
Which brings us back to Ubud, Bali…
When Elizabeth Gilbert penned “Eat, Pray, Love” in 2006, I was an early adopter. One of my favourite pastimes is devouring travel books, wandering around the world vicariously when impossible due to deadlines and commitments. My collection includes my favourite gallivanter Paul Theroux; I have perused most books he's written. Theroux may be cantankerous but his observations are perceptive, his prose fluid.
Other favoured books include Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques which I have read in both French and English; I have been inspired by Mark Twain’s Following the Equator, often overlooked by Twain critics. I love themes examining our relationship with the notion of paradise, our innate desire for exotic locales.
A phenomenon: places pegged as “paradise” quickly became tacky tourist traps. Perhaps this was inevitable as the travel became a massive industry in the latter decades of the 20th century. Once a very expensive proposition to reach exotic locales, but thanks to the advent of cheap jet travel, most places in the world are closer than ever.
Which brings us back to Gilbert. I was trolling through the travel section on Amazon and came across an early review for Eat, Pray, Love, ordered a copy. Her angle: travel to three different countries with a separate quest was brilliant. Her glowing praise would absolutely cause a rush of women to Ubud, where she met her “Love” connection (the place was already popular with new agers, expats and freaks, a mainstream destination for those seeking a calmer space compared to rowdy Kuta Beach).
Mass media can lead to popular traveller’s haunts: Mayle’s Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun led to villa rental booms. Movies have a way of influencing travel behaviour; think South Pacific or the 2000 film The Beach which featured images of spectacular Thailand coastlines- energizing an already active tourist boom in that country. Greece, Mexico, Brazil etc… benefited from starring roles in various films.
“The ancient geographer Strabo was convinced that anyone telling about his travels must be a liar, and in a sense he was right, for if a traveler doesn’t visit his narrative with the spirit and technique of fiction, no one will want to hear it.” Claude Levi Strauss, Triste Tropiques
Gilbert’s third chapter painted a resplendent image of Ubud, Bali, as it relates to second chances at love- a theme that resonated with women on the rebound, or those disillusioned with men- a fairly large demographic! Imagine the impact.
Gilbert's simple template for the forlorn, then a movie hit the big screen featuring a dazzled Julia Roberts and studly Javier Bardam, chamber of commerce scenes, soft light dancing through palms, idyllic rice paddies, dreamy market scenes, and the kicker: meetings her guru, a ninth-generation Balinese spiritual healer who sets her on the one true path toward enlightenment and ultimately, her one true love.
The book was a sensation, over 187 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list, millions of copies sold, but the movie which was a bit of a box office flop. It wasn't take long before Ubud began to receive thousands of women seeking New Age enlightenment and perhaps a guru. The alchemy generated by seekers flipped Ubud into a multi-million dollar resort, including- wait for it- Ubud experiences based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book!
My buddy artist David Trevelyan, who has a wicked sense of humour, witnessed first-hand what he dubbed: “thick-ankled women in over-tight outfits” migrating to Ubud in search of the Gilbert experience. David moved to Ubud twenty odd years ago, loves the place madly, is a remarkable sculptor; his works have been sold around the world. He is deply embedded within a large Ubud expat community.
David has carved a very cool niche (nice pun), lives in a terrific place on the outskirts of Ubud filled with art, married a girl from nearby Java (who works in a high-profile interior design business). There are many benefits from an influx of expats moving to Ubud- better food selection in the grocery stores & an ever-expanding restaurants, (you simply cannot imagine the depth and variety of food), greater amenities such as high-speed internet, stronger power grid, sensibilities regarding the enviroment, etc…
Anticipating the influx of women to Ubud, David and I worked up a book “The Monster That Ate Ubud- A Guide to Enlightenment for the Serious Dim Bulb” poking fun at the Gilbert tribe, influenced by the underground hot dogs, Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers of the late sixties and seventies. One of David’s heroes is that rascal R. Crumb; some of the illustrations and characters in the “Monster” book are an homage to Crumb.
The Monster That Ate Ubud is a critical, satirical, subversive look at the impact of Gilbert’s book on Ubud. In a nutshell, the story follows the misadventures of The Fung Shoe Brothers, who happen to write a book about the wellspring of abundance they have uncovered byr meeting with a Shaman. By sheer coincidence and dumb luck, the book becomes a bestseller and a Hollywood movie. Soon Ubud is crawling with book-clutching seekers; what was once a quaint exotic village turns into a nightmare of traffic and out of control development.
Upon my return trip to Ubud, I lowered expectations, knew things would be different (25 years is a lot of water under the bridge). And yet I have been pleasantly surprised.
Of course the place has grown from the tiny village we discovered in ’86. While not yet a city Ubud is fairly sizeable filled with high end boutiques, tacky tourist joints, villas and resorts, galleries and boutiques. Behind the walls that obstruct views from the street, some of the most spectacular gardens and villas to be found anywhere.
It still doesn’t take long to ride out of town to verdant rice paddies back-dropped with palm and misty volcanos. Visions of paradise…
In all my travels, I have never found anyplace quite like Ubud; its warm-hearted citizens seem impervious to the onslaught of tourism. Even the touts are tame. While many hotels and restaurants have gone upmarket, Ubud and Bali remains one of the great travel bargains on the planet.
The entire region just keeps getting better. At this moment in time, I can hear distant thunder. This morning David’s landlady dropped by and performed prayer offerings at two house temples on the property. All manner of wild birds perform a symphony in the nearby jungle. At night music wafts through the air from gamelan players in nearby temple.
David called it the Magic Zone....Rest in Peace Brother...