Bali Expat Billabong

Stopping on your travels for a longer period of time than, let us say a week, you expect yourself to adjust your pace and style to…

Well, to what is a question on Bali in general and Ubud in particular. The first tourists coming to Ubud under the auspices of Dutch colonial powers enjoyed the peacefulness of the rural setting of endless rice fields, the intricate arts and crafts and the natural beauty of tropical paradise amply enhanced by the natural beauty and shape of the local beauties.

Talking to the people that were lucky to visit after the war or independence and before the waves of mass tourism, like our friend K. De Groot, you can get a sense of wonder and enchantment:

Ubud was a lovely little village with ONE Main Street lined with delightful “local” shops & artists studios…with all the “locals” bringing their offerings to their shrines….we were in heaven … then with a car we explored the island for another 10 days…NO traffic! Only gamelan music rising from the rice paddies and charming villages and temples galore!”

For us, who came here for the first time fifteen years ago with our girls, we could still find the green expanse of rice paddies, but on the outskirts of a place that had grown from a village into a substantial town. We were lucky that we had it largely to ourselves as we came here shortly after a nightclub terrorist bombing that scarred away all but the hardiest of travelers. This time, again, we are visiting on the heels of another disaster, a near eruption of the local volcano. While the Balinese complain about the  tourists being scarred away, we complain about the lack of the emerald green.

Most rice paddies have been sold to developers of hotels, resorts, bars, and boutiques. Every second house is offering a home stay or rooms in the back of the family compound. A few small patches of rice can still be found squeezed between large houses and the larger swathes of paddy fields on the outskirts warrant organized tours with busloads of selfie sticks yielding tourists. Then they go back to their fancy resorts and enjoy a n afternoon cocktail reception with a performance of the local dance troop representing a stylized Day in the Life of the Balinese Village.

Meanwhile around the corner the local farmer works the rice field unnoticed and uncelebrated.

It is an adjustment for the locals, some dreaming in vain to ever have a piece of land and a home, while some enjoying what a new life style can offer with the monies from the sales of the expensive lots.

If the early tourists had no choice but to accept what locals could offer, this has changed dramatically and nowhere more than in the Ubud center. The visitors from rich countries got what they wanted. Coffee shops (the Starbucks building now competes in size with the former Royal Palace), mini/maxi/super markets, galleries, boutiques, WiFi, air-conditioning, massage and nail saloons on every corner, swimming pools, yoga classes, cooking classes and ATV adventures. With western amenities at very affordable prices visitors are tempted to stay longer, creating an expat community, living its own, separate life altogether.

Here we are settling in Bali for just two months, not exactly long term like many expats we meet, but not as typical tourists jumping from destination to destination, following the fixed itinerary of “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium”. We like to see ourselves as somewhere in between, trying to catch what is left of the old Balinese peaceful way of life, even as we gratefully accept the western comforts of air-conditioning. (And who wouldn’t, for God sake?) We enjoy a break in Mie/Nasi Goreng (Fried noodles/rice) line of dinners with an occasional decent Italian pasta or French onion soup, topped with great panna cotta and cappuccino. Or, and I can’t believe I am saying that, a decently sized BEEF hamburger with French fries.

While we have wholeheartedly embraced the local culture, we were also delighted to find cinemas here in Ubud. Twice a day they show many European movies in Paradiso.

Here you buy the tickets for 50,000 rupees each in the lobby, leave your sandals in a cubby and are ushered barefoot upstairs to the theater. The set up is inviting with comfortable sofas and armchairs complemented by coffee tables. What you appreciate the most– the hall is well air-conditioned. You may wonder if the price of 50,000 rupees is not too high, but it is not even four bucks. It is a great deal indeed, because you can use your ticket as a voucher to pay for any item on the (alas, vegetarian) menu offered by waitresses before and during the film presentation. I am quite Ok with vegetarian ice cream. If you are used to lying down at home, stuffing yourself in front of your home entertainment system, then you know what I am talking about. Of course, here you cannot surf remotely through the channels and you are not allowed to terrorize your own live-in partner to bring you another beer or ice cream from the fridge.

The movies are not the only attraction shown in Paradiso. Once in a while there are even live music performances. For a few extra bucks we can enjoy the piano music of an Iranian new age composer, complemented by a video presentation on the large theater screen. More vegetarian food and drinks offered. All those goodies described above enhanced by intimate lighting and enjoyed in a reclining position would lullaby almost everybody in the hall, if it were not for the young pianist banging the keyboard with such fervor making sleep quite impossible!

Our youngest daughter and our friend K.’s (see above) son, who has just recently returned from spending some months in Ubud, BOTH tried to convince us we should absolutely try yoga, but not any yoga, yoga at YOGA BARN. Yoga Barn (YB) located just a few meters from the split of Jalan Hanuman and Monkey Forest Road has, just like Ubud some time back, recently exploded and grown into an institution among visitors and expats. Unless you count the staff in the reception and coffee shop as avid followers of yoga, please do not expect to find any locals within YB’s legal boundaries. To be fair, we were told that all locals have been offered free yoga classes, but I guess they are too busy serving the Western customers and taking care of their families to participate. So I would say it is more western/expat institution than anything else in the whole of Ubud.

I never fell for yoga, and neither for massage, nor chiropractor, nor any other non medically prescribed activities seeking improvement of human body and/or mind. But you never know and as the co-leader of this expedition, who is always right, says, “Be open to new ideas!” My wife also advised me to stop dredging up bad memories from the one and only yoga class I took in my twenties (and not in the female company of my wife).

So here I am, dutifully walking down Jalan Hanuman in the high noon heat, disproving the old saying that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun (for those too young to know the very funny song and the unbeatable Noel Coward kindly click here: For now in the midday sun us two and all the yogis walk outside. Or I should say yoginis, as I am fairly wading through a constant stream of lean, young and middle aged females in tight leggings and lose T-shirts with a foam mat in a matching pattern casually slung over their shoulders. Not exactly the cover girl type of beauties. Those can be found on the lounge chairs at the pool of an expensive resort, or with a glass of wine or perhaps a mojito in their well manicured hands lingering over a dinner of 3 pieces of green salad (dressing on the side) in a pricey air conditioned restaurant. Those ladies pouring down the street are rather of the thinking, strong will kind, with the inner beauty revealed only if you make a concerted effort to find it.

I was kind of unsure of what to expect from it all, as we progressed through the huge YB campus down the stairs passing by the organic café and then the green cleansing juice bar to the plaza in front of the reception looking for all purposes like a huge barn.

Now that I am back in our House in the Hidden Garden and can reflect more, I would like to say it was actually good. If not good, then very interesting. My major concern before coming to Yoga Barn was my total inability to sit on the ground with my legs crossed and twisted. But nobody broke my spine, crushed legitimate joints or torn any ligaments. My wife signed me up for a class called Tibetan Bowl something. This class must be a commercial success and Yoga Barn’s true cash cow. The class is taught by Teacher/Master/Guru who is a male. He must be, to balance out the gender ratio among F/M attendees which is about 95:5. (Those five Ms were dragged there by their freshly minted girlfriends, met at their last youth hostel or home stay). If he is of Italian descent it helps, Italian accent is always good marketing, and, oh, his body mass index should be below 20. Better than being bald, I would recommend Master’s hairdo to be shaped like a Caribbean dreadlock volcano shortly after explosion. If all of the above is incarnated in one person then most of those 95 female attendees are guaranteed to become returning customers.

Tibetan Bowl may have been envisioned (wrongfully so) by me to be a yoga class, but my fear of breaking my neck or any other parts of my skeleton during this class was mercifully discarded by the Master himself:

“Do not worry about anything, sit or lay down if you want. Close your eyes if you want, just smell the incense and listen to the music of the bowls, gong and bells!”

And I did follow his instructions exactly to a T.

With mat and pillow provided the Italian guru gently spread perfumed oil on my forehead as I was listening to the first pleasant tones of Tibetan bells. I was lying on my mat with eyes closed thinking of…..many pleasant things. If hard pressed, I could probably recall a few, but I should not tell them in mixed company. My co-participant presumes I have fallen asleep and tries to jab me in the ribs. This is, of course, a huge misunderstanding, only because I knew from the Master’s clear instructions how important the act of deep breathing was for reaching the highest meditation levels! To interpret this effort by some, my wife in the first place, as snoring, is absolutely outrageous! Nevertheless after an hour or so I felt strongly rejuvenated and almost agreed to sign for an Ecstatic Dance class.

When you are on the road for an extended period of time, even as a male, you have to use the help of hairdressers, no matter how laughable your head cover is. After two months on the road, while in a relatively remote place, my wife suggested it was time we both went to get a haircut. She even suggested I may have a good reason for looking presentable, as we shortly planned to leave for Ubud, the center of social and cultural life of the island.

“I don’t think you really want to look like an over-aged hippie, honey?”

After a few seconds as I tried to catch my breath to soften the blow to my confidence, she added:

“Or do you?”

“Of course not!” I bravely barked back. “But where should we go?”

“Oh, the cook’s wife suggested a fancy new hair salon just a few steps down on the Main Street!” You could almost hear this trap door falling loudly and I was on my way to execution.

After seeing the lady hairdresser rummaging for a long time through drawers and brand new boxes to find her comb, scissors and different electric powered instruments, I got a strange feeling something was not quite right. But I was raised to be respectful of all women in my life, especially those making their living in harsh conditions of male chauvinist dominated world. So for the next fifteen to twenty minutes I was wondering how to gently and with all due respect escape out of the hair salon, without having one or possibly both of my ears detached from my skull! Only after I could not take the tugging and poking any more, I jumped from the chair and unceremoniously left the place, uttering over the shoulder my closing remark:

“I think it is short enough!”

My wife stepped in, paid for the services rendered and concluded our visit with a statement:

“I think my hair is quite all right! I guess I do not need my haircut today.”

Walking back to the safety of our small resort, I was wondering if instead of being a guinea pig in a completely unknown territory, should I not have waited for Ubud’s fancy “Men only” barbershop and hair salon, where I had a very nice haircut last year for my birthday.

It cost me about seven times more, but I never ever felt any fear of losing even a part of my ear. It turns out it is barely a block from our House in the Hidden Garden and every time I pass I ponder how being served by trained professionals catering to the Western clientele has some advantages, including not hiding for the next few weeks till your head injuries are fully healed, and your hair cover recovers to such an extent that your children stop asking you on FaceTime:

“Dad, what happened to your hair?”

I hope you don’t think that we rely in our eternal efforts for physical and mental development strictly on interactions with expat community. As a matter of fact, thanks to staying in a local residential neighborhood, we are integrating into the community with little effort. We are quickly being pulled into the local’s lives such as following their never ending holiday schedule, preparation of offerings, participation in processions and their temple duties, observing Balinese dance rehearsals, motorcycle blessings, and attending weddings (no funerals as of yet). From our Western perspective we are offering access to our medical kit and brainstorming of strategies to increase sales to western tourist buying local Balinese products in Ubud market or, at the very highest level of submerging into their lives, chit chatting with neighbors about lives and deeds of other neighbors or, God forbid, their or our relatives! Another week or two of this and we be forced to leave Bali for good.

Footnote: Bil-la-bong, noun Australian

A branch of a river forming a backwater or stagnant pool, made by water flowing from the main stream during a flood.

11 thoughts on “Bali Expat Billabong

    1. Kind of embarrassing photos of mine taken shortly after getting my haircut were banned from further circulation!


  1. Buddhist precept: “The only thing permanent is change.” I once had my hair dyed( unintentionally) bright bright red.


  2. I just read this in a coffee shop in Sebastopol and looked like a fool laughing to myself. I traded electrical work for housing at a Villa outside of Ubud…love the description of the Yoga Barn! I remember sitting in the cafe and wanting to make funny faces at people to get them to lighten up. Good luck on the next leg of your travels!


  3. Very funny Dad! Don’t worry, I’m sure your hair will grow back soon 😂

    And I hope you try another class at the yoga barn! Too bad you couldn’t get into ecstatic dance.



  4. I am so glad I went to Bali many years ago. I will treasure my memories on a non-Westernized place. Gail


  5. You are in one of our four favorite places in the world – so enjoy following you! Short haircuts are head coolers, Mirek!! ;o) Ksenija, did the basket fall off your head?? Y


  6. You are in one of our four favorite places in the world – so enjoy following you! Short haircuts are head coolers, Mirek!! ;o) Ksenija, did the basket fall off your head??


  7. Starbucks in Ubud?! That is so sad! We were there 20+ years ago. I treasure those memories! Please keep writing — I’m so enjoying your posts!


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