My future retirement home (part 1)

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September 18th 2007
Published: October 16th 2007
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Our late-night arrival in Ubud, though clouded by weariness, pissed-offness, and a general sense of frustration, had nevertheless been accompanied by images of art galleries, silversmiths', handicraft shops, and spas lining the streets on our way to the town. And our first morning in Ubud only reinforced the sense of an artistic streak running through the region, which continued through the fortnight we were there. Waking up in our room, which we'd not yet seen in daylight, the painted carvings on the door and flowers on the bedside table seemed like nice touches, but it was only when venturing outside that the sheer quantity of "nice touches" became apparent. Statues of creatures from Balinese Hinduism were dotted throughout the guesthouse's grounds. Exotic flowers including orchids and frangipani lent their colours and scents to an overwhelming background of lush greenery. A statue gushed a stream of water from its mouth into a small swimming pool, the sound calming and peaceful. Lanterns lit the stone path at night. Even the swim-up bar was discrete, not disturbing the overall feeling of a serene natural habitat.

We witnessed the morning rituals that were to become commonplace to us, with offerings being presented to the guesthouse's shrines, or left in front of doors. Their purpose was manifold, to please the gods or celebrate a birthday or wedding or wish for some unspecified event. These offerings ranged from as simple as a square of banana leaf bearing a few grains of rice, up to ornamental constructions of bamboo bark, flowers, petals, incense, and food that the people of Ubud could be seen preparing in the evenings. Through the day, the ground offerings gradually disintegrated from their initial state of perfection, scuffed by passing feet, disturbed by curious animals and insects. Before the next day began, the debris was swept up and fresh offerings placed anew.

Our first guesthouse was a little beyond our normal budget, so we moved after a day of investigating other options. Ubud boasts numerous guesthouses offering cheap accommodation in large, interesting rooms set in grounds awash with statuery and other details. With a small river snaking through the town, many guesthouses also offer attractive locations on the slope down to the water, stone steps winding through forests of foliage. We settled on a first-floor room at the corner of a building, set back from the road down an alley, with high ceilings, plenty of light, plus a balcony which caught the breeze and gave us a view over (one of) the guesthouse's garden(s). It lacked a swimming pool but the nighttime dip we'd had in our first guesthouse's pool had been a reminder that if the air temperature outside is only mild to warm then the water temperature will be a good bit chillier. This was our home for 2 weeks.

Though the town itself was not short of foreign tourists, and many of the restaurants would not have fallen within locals' budgets, and the profusion of art galleries and spas would have been somewhat less of a profusion in the absence of overseas visitors, it seemed as though Ubud was trying hard to hang on to an original identity not related to tourism in the slightest. It didn't feel crowded or soulless, didn't have the sense of trying to be all things to all holidaymakers. Maybe this was due to a large number of the tourists not having Western faces or requirements (Australia is the only "Western" country in Bali's Top 5 tourist nationalities). But there was no nightlife in the sense of clubs or rowdy bars, no full English breakfasts of greasy bacon and HP sauce being gobbled up by sunburned Brits in wifebeaters, no hordes of backpackers emptying the minimarts of instant noodles.

What there were in abundance though were interesting cats. The average Southeast Asian cat is a fairly miserable creature, uncared for by humans and very wary as a result. Even in appearance they're unappealing, with a stub-tailed breed being inexplicably popular and all in possession of dull brown eyes. However Ubud was an oasis in this desert of feeble felines. Star of the show in terms of personality was next door's cat, a black and white piece of furry aloofness who we named Glamourpuss, as a tribute to Fergie's song of a similar name (the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie, that is). Glamourpuss showed no fear at all, letting us approach and pet him. He would engage in various activities such as biting branches in order to pretend he hadn't even noticed we were there, but would then crane his neck upwards when his chin was tickled. We once came back to the guesthouse room to find him sitting imperiously on one of the balcony chairs. Unfortunately a moronic dog also lived next door, and every time one of us looked thorugh the gate to find Glamourpuss, it would bark manicly. After one encounter on the street where I raised my arm to it threateningly, it subsequently gave me a wide berth but would still bark from a safe distance. It made no sense that Glamourpuss, a vision of cool in a marble-effect collar, could be sharing housespace with such a tool of a dog.

The award for best-looking cat went to Library Cat 1, a ginger female who prowled the reading room in search of strokes and tickles, and responded with a stream of purrs. On our last visit to the library, we had our one and only encounter with Library Cat 2, a similarly friendly tabby in constant need of tummy rubs. The library deserves special mention because, in addition to its superlative cat collection it also had a well-stocked lending section with books available for a massive refundable deposit but nominal daily rate.

The final cat we had extensive contact with was Delicat, from the eponymous restaurant. Though of a short-tailed breed and annoyingly vocal when food was in the offing, Delicat liked laps and could put up with much stroking punishment. We frequented the restaurant often, partly because of the cat, partly because of the lugubrious wit of its Icelandic owner Gunnar and his constant companion, a glass of Bintang, and partly because the food was both novel and delicious (e.g. Swedish meatballs with mashed potato).

One other cat deserving a mention was a shy female who daily did a circuit of the guesthouse buildings on roofs and windowsills, as well as our balcony. She had a belled collar that alerted us to her presence in the vicinity. Her route also included the ceiling of our room, part of which was made of bamboo strips and which was elastic enough that her footsteps made temporary depressions in it as she trotted across. Unfortunately she was extremely skittish and we never established contact, likewise with the various cats that would peer down at us from the alley walls then disappear as we approached.

Obviously nowhere is perfect and Ubud had its annoyances. A resident league of taxi drivers, whose numbers far exceeded the amount of custom generated by locals and tourists combined, provided a background drone of "Transport, sir?" wherever you went. Walking 300m could easily elicit 10 such requests, each driver seemingly ignoring the evidence of his own eyes and ears that you'd declined all previous offers. Even more futile were the queries encountered when walking against the flow on the main north-south street, which was one-way heading north - it would take longer to travel almost anywhere south on that street by car than on foot because of the detour necessitated by the one-way system. Unlike in Yogyakarta, though, this hassle was never intended to needle.

There was also a scam perpetrated by a couple of itinerant newspaper-sellers, in which they would target foreign tourists and try to sell them papers at 10 times the real price (their price labels had been carefully stuck over the genuine ones). I only realised this when I felt guilty that I'd been buying my papers from the minimart, and was then surprised to be quoted an exorbitant price from one of the guys.

Restaurant bills also had a suspicious habit of being calculated incorrectly, either due to individual items being billed at a higher price than indicated on the menu, or items ordered but not brought still being billed, or addition going awry. I'd been in the habit of not checking bills if they seemed "about right", but after realising after the fact that we'd been overcharged for one meal containing precisely 4 items, I started checking everything - and uncovered a slew of mistakes as described above. At least the means to recoup some of the losses incurred were available, with obvious FX arbitrage opportunities courtesy of one moneychanger buying Malaysian ringgit at 2,600 rupiah and another selling them at 2,100.

My only other disappointment in Ubud was the dismal portions of satay that I received. 3 or 4 skewers does not a satay make. After a couple of occasions where I ordered this with the same result, I gave up.

My second blog from Ubud will cover the more cultural aspects of our stay.

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