After the jam-packed days in ultra-modern Singapore and the dusty and sensory streets of Yogyakarta, Marco and I moved on to Ubud, Bali’s cultural heart.
Described as updated, vegan and surrounded by the verdant green rice fields of Bali, we were curious to see how this burgeoning destination would truly be. It seemed like the green oasis of relax that every honeymoon needs. Of course that wasn’t really the case.
Like most newbie tourists to the island, we chose a hotel smack in the middle of the city on Monkey Forest Road: the loudest, gaudiest, most touristy road in Ubud. This was no Eat, Pray, Love, this was Eat, Dodge Tourists, Shop.
So the image wasn’t accurate. No problem. We weren’t looking to fly across the world just to hide out in an all-inclusive spa. We wanted to see the city for ourselves, to understand the grit as much as the grace.
We spent six days in the city trucking up and down Monkey Forest Road. We tried a new restaurant every night, explored an English book store, talked to the owner of a vegan café, saw a traditional dance, discussed cultural differences with a 20-year American expat. Was it an Eat, Pray, Love oasis? It was, however, a full-throttle exploration into the culture, art, cuisine and tourist sites of the city.
Morning and night we passed by the exact same people as they asked us without fail, “Massage? Taxi?” “No, No,” we replied with a smile. Their politeness proved that these were not your usual hawkers. You couldn’t dodge them, but they didn’t persist. In Ghana vendors grabbed my hands and wrists, physically pulled me toward their booth or into their shop. They called to me from three stands away. They held my shoulders until I looked at their jewelry or drums or fabric. Here in Ubud, they tried: “Maybe tomorrow?”
That’s why when I found this TravelFish blog post about an (admittedly not recent) article disparaging the whole of Bali simply because of these hawkers, my defense system went into alert mode.
The article in question is titled, “Bali, Why Bother?” In it the author, Carolyn Webb, posits: “Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops.”
A part from the fact that it is a simplistic, silly statement, it’s fundamentally fair. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion, and Webb’s opinion is that Ubud isn’t all that great for a holiday. The problem lies in everything that follows, like this little anecdote:
I was once strolling along one of Ubud’s main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word “taxi” is used loosely in Ubud – they’re not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)
This tout smiled and asked if I wanted “transport”. I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution.
He looked as though I’d just told him the sun was a balloon. I don’t think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.”
Just how is it wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. First, she describes a sort of interaction with a local. Oh, what a terrible thing to happen while traveling! Because being forced to interact with the citizens of the city your in is clearly not what people do on holiday.
2. That is not called prostitution.
3. It is very likely that the tout truly didn’t have any clue what Webb was “on about”, considering she is in Indonesia where the national language just so happens to NOT be English. Oh but silly stupid “taxi” driver, how could he possibly not understand her strange, illogical sarcasm? Pfft.
“In the space of a week,” Webb writes, “I started to hate walking the streets of Ubud – a bizarre thing when you’re supposed to be relaxing on holidays.”
The problem here isn’t Ubud, it’s Webb who decided to go on “holiday” to a developing country.
Because despite the images of green rice fields, perhaps Ubud really isn’t a holiday destination. Then Webb’s beef should be with the PR agencies, books and blogs that make it seem otherwise, not with the city.
Besides not realizing that developing countries are not the posh streets of Australia (surprise surprise), it seems Webb traveled to Ubud having done no more research than, “Perfect weather, lovely countryside once you get away from the towns. Fantastic, fresh cuisine including home-grown fruit, meat and coffee. Sumptuous but cheap hotels. Beautiful culture with Hindu temples every 20 metres, lovely dancing and artwork.”
She mentions being appalled by the large variety of wooden penises sold at the “tacky souvenir shops.” If this expert tourist and journalist had done even a minimum of homework, she would have known that in Indonesia the phallus is a symbol of harmony, balance, fertility and eternal life. Shiva, the most widely worshipped (male) god of the Hindu trinity is often represented as a Lingam, or phallus. Statutes, images and shrines to Shiva abound on the predominately-Hindu island of Bali, and the phallus symbol might just be another example. Even the national monument of Indonesia is an enormous phallus.
Perhaps us Westerners aren’t used to seeing erect penises lining the streets and filling the shops, but then again, Ubud isn’t the center of Western culture. As the TravelFish article said, “Welcome to Asia, Carolyn.”
I understand, patience is slim at day six of “massage yes” and “taxi? Maybe tomorrow yes?” with each and every step and I’ve had my fair share of irritation with hawkers of all types from all countries. Vendors in the Vatican City who block already crowded sidewalks with their wares, others that sneer at you as they look your body up and down. I’ve been pulled into shops, ripped off, and badly treated. For all that, I’ve also had dozens of conversations, successfully haggled and left satisfied with my purchases.
Indonesian guidebooks explain that the culture dictates everything be done, settled and resolved with a smile. While not always easy, each hawker took my firm, yet smiling, “no” with a smile of their own. They didn’t push it and I didn’t blame them for trying.
Because if you go to a place like Ubud and get mad at those trying to make a paltry living, then maybe you shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
Because Ubud doesn’t exist to serve you. Like Mumbai or Paris or Cape Town or any city in the world, Ubud existed before and it will continue to exist with or without a mark of approval.
Traveling in poorer countries can be tiring. The rules of the game aren’t always the same as our own and haggling can exhaust you by the end of the trip. How many times did I get ripped off during these 20 days? Too many times to count (except I did count and don’t want to repeat the number here!) was I upset? Yes. Do I use it as a reason to complain about Indonesia? No.
Besides, I have the salty tap water on Gili Air for that.
More articles on Indonesia:
That Time I Drank Poop Coffee
Photo Essay: Meditations in Borobudor (my all-time favorite site visited during our Indonesia trip)
Is Indonesia Just a Tropical Italy?
Travel Lessons: Yogyakarta’s Batik Mafia