Elizabeth Gilbert Meets Badfish in Ubud

Hand-carved teak sign
Hand-carved teak sign

One likely definition for “irony” is this: an event that “seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.” One ironic event that happens every time I visit Ubud is that almost every day, and at almost exactly the same time every day—3 o’clock—I find myself sitting in a window seat in Starbucks, gandering at the scene outside. Ironic because at home, I never, and I mean never,

go to Starbucks for coffee. I might buy a bag of their Tribute, a special blend they concoct and distribute only once a year. However, I do not waltz in to Starbucks, fire up the wi-fi, and disturb the ethers with my musings while sipping a cappuccino grande. I do, however, occasionally saunter in and purchase a piece of their “Chocolate Loving” cake to go and down it at home with scoops of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla and Belgian Chocolate.

Kuta Beach
Kuta Beach

Another bit of irony happens whenever I wash up in Kuta Beach; Kuta Beach might have as its advertising slogan something like this: “created by, made for, and caters to Ozzies who love their Fosters out of a can.” Do not get me wrong, I like Aussies, some of my best friends are Aussies. They are fun to travel with, fun to party with, fun to talk with, and some of the most interesting travelers you’ll find out in the world. Most of the Aussies I’ve met look at everything in a clearly positive light. But you get a bunch, and when I say “bunch,” I mean like thousands—it’s a very short flight from Oz to Bali, so you get a bunch—of them on vacation in a street full of bars all at once, and you’ve got…well, Kuta Beach, where you can buy motorcycle helmets in the same shop you find hand-carved Buddha heads hanging next to hand-carved bottle openers shaped like a penis.

The ironic bit happens at dinner time. I might find myself in a place that I also never visit when I’m at home—Hard Rock Café. But in Bali, the Hard Rock serves the greatest cob salad in the world. You can go to Hard Rock in Dubai, you can go to Hard Rock in Cairo, you can visit Hard Rock in Paris, you can visit Hard Rock in Rio de Janeiro. But their cob salads taste nowhere near as other-worldly as the ones in Kuta Beach. Maybe it’s the water, maybe it’s the way they grow food, maybe it’s the gods of Bali.

Another bit of irony occurs whenever I think of the book, Eat, Pray, Love. Ironic because it’s a book I should have written—I got divorced, I lost everything including my cat and pot-bellied stove I’d owned for years, friends turned on me. So I traveled to distant places. Elizabeth Gilbert did not mention the name of her ashram in India where she “prayed,” but I’m pretty sure it was the same ashram I spent months in many years ago. I went further than Elizabeth Gilbert, though, because I also fulfilled one of my life-long dreams: I traveled along the Indonesian archipelago and washed up on the island of Komodo and photographed the Komodo dragons in their only natural habitat.

Yet another piece of irony is that Gilbert’s book is humorous ( I did laugh out loud a couple times), and it’s a genuine piece of chic-lit (ok, ok, so maybe I’m more in touch with my feminine side than a grown man might admit), and nicely written. I would not label it “great literature” or a “classic,” but it has great sentences, great use of words, great imagery. The problem is that her book brought thousands of tourists into Bali. Mostly middle-aged women looking for their “love” part of the title, their own private Javier Bardems. You would walk around Ubud at night, and the restaurants and bars would be packed, literally jammed full, of these women from all over the world. The locals had a name for them, but for the life of me now, I can’t remember what it is. But you know it’s ironically humorous….maybe something like Bardem Babes, but in Indonesian. Generally, you don’t see many Americans in Bali (that is, in relation to the number of Europeans and Ozzies, of course, even Japanese tourists seem to outnumber Americans). It is a much longer flight to somewhere from America—you have to cross an ocean to get anywhere. But after Gilbert’s book, you were awash in American accents of middle-aged tourists prowling Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road and Hanoman Street.

Roadside flora
Roadside flora

Here’s the sad part: for a while, and maybe still, the local merchants and shop owners loved all the tourist traffic. But that’s where the real irony appears—in the word “traffic.” If you’ve ever visited Bali, you know the country oozes natural beauty. However, it is not exactly a rich country. So the roads, which were not long ago footpaths and bridle trails, are very narrow, and sometimes not well maintained. You might find pot holes large enough that if you drove in one, they might not find you for a week.

Roof of house in Ubud
Roof of house in Ubud

The problem, and irony, is that there are now too many tourists, some of them traveling in huge buses (bus besar in Bahasa Indonesian). You put a big bus on a bridle-path street with giant pot holes and mango trees lining the sidewalk, and another bus coming in the opposite direction, along with thousands of motor cycles, and you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Which is exactly what is now happening in Bali.

So I’d like to thank Gilbert for a wonderful read, and a pretty good movie, but the irony is that she may have caused more harm than good on Bali, the island of gods and demons.

Pleased to Meet You

15 comments

  1. Ha! Yeah, I’m really upset because I’ve actually done everything she did, just never had the discipline to sit and write it. Maybe this blogging with cure that issue??? And one day you’ll be reviewing my book!!! I might pray for that…

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  2. Not a fan of the Aussies at Kuta. There’s plenty of beautiful – empty – beaches in Oz. Why don’t they stay home and get drunk there? We avoided Kuta.
    Not surprised to hear of the American hordes following Gilbert to Ubud. Yes ironic, and also moronic. snark snark.
    Alison

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    • I first visited Kuta before many of the roads were actual paved roads. So I have a soft spot for it, and I usually spend a night or two there upon arrival and departure, mostly to make it easy to get to the airport, rather than drive an hour and a half (or longer depending on traffic) from Ubud, and avoid the stress of possibly missing the plane. I can somehow overlook the “stuff” in Kuta. But I wouldn’t spend a week or two there, certainly not a month.

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  3. Yes, I don’t think Gilbert actually thought she was promoting any place, but if you’ve read Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point…that book was probably Ubud’s tipping point to over population of tourists. Up side…if you were a young Balinese guy or an older Westerner, finding a date was made a lot more easy. Just saying…

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  4. This brings me back to my admittedly brief stay in Bali, the first leg of 6 1/2 weeks in Indonesia. Your take on the influx of tourism is certainly thought-provoking for someone like myself who does the utmost to avoid bustling crowds of tourists, and it is indeed a double-edged sword, both helping to improve the economy while taking a toll on the natural beauty of this tropical destination. Good read and awesome pics!

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    • Yes, I too try to avoid crowded, touristy situations. And cities in general. Did you get to Sumatra while you were in Indonesia. Once out of its cities, it’s a more pastoral island for the most part. cheers and thanks

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      • Indeed I did, we flew from Jakarta to Medan after spending 3 nights on a klotok in Kalimantan. Spent a great deal of time in Tuk Tuk on Samosir “Island” (quotations because it just barely touches land) and then we went to Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh, spending a good week in each location. Sumatra was the best!

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  5. That is a great description of Kuta, Bali. I am planning to do a post on it soon. I actually liked Kuta even though as you say it is totally Australian and touristy. If you know what you are getting into it can be fun. Ubud, however, I did not like. It felt like Kuta but at Kuta you expect beaches and parties. I expected Ubud to be bucolic and peaceful and Balinese.

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  6. Jeff, Thanks for stopping by. I have to admit, there is something to like in Kuta. I’ve seen it change year by year since I first visited in 1987, so the hustle is not a surprise when I land there. I do like the energy, the vibes. And if you look, you can find peaceful places right in the middle of all the motion. I look forward to reading your take on things. Ubud is not for everyone, I think. If you get off those main roads, you are in some pretty fine country, though.

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