A jungle walk, Balinese dance, and ARMA Museum

by measuringcoastlines
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Ubud, Bali

Has it really been just three days? Travel has that effect where every day stretches into new dimensions. With no routine to speak of, your sense of a “day” loses its familiar frame of reference, and you’re left baffled by how much or how little time you somehow have left on the clock.

On Thursday morning I went for a big long walk away from the buzz of my area of Ubud. I went up the Penestanan stone stairs and followed the road through quiet villas and houses and jungle, explored the little village of Penestanan, had a bite to eat, and started wandering again. Spotted a bright blue kingfisher above. I wanted to see the rice terraces, but couldn’t seem to find any. A local guy stopped and volunteered directions – which always sets off the red flag of “when are you going to ask for money?” He led me to a narrow trail that he said would go to the terraces, but he was politely yet suspiciously persistent about accompanying me, so I ix-nayed that idea. I kept walking west instead, passed what I quickly realized was a cockfighting ring – not something I’m too keen to see – and ended up at a busy road, sweaty and annoyed. But I did find a very nice taxi driver, a young man who seems earnest and gentle, and who I feel comfortable calling on for trips around the island. I will say this: Bali feels light-years from India in terms of women’s safety. I feel I’m treated respectfully, not like potential prey. That’s not to say there’s no need to be careful, but it doesn’t feel like much more caution is needed than in North America. I’ve talked to numerous solo females here, and the general sense is yes, this is a good place for us to travel.

Hubud, Ubud, BaliIn the afternoon I got my membership for Hubud, the local coworking space, and set up my laptop, feeling a bit like the shy new kid in school. Some people were buried in their work, others were chatting about recent parties. I wasn’t sure if I’d even feel like working; I had some light coding to do, but I hadn’t looked at my work in a few days, and it’s always hard to dive back in at first. But I got into the groove easily enough. The atmosphere is relaxed but productive. And later in the day, I met some of my deskmates and got into some great conversations about nonduality and travel and more.

Friday was quieter; I set up with this lovely view of the garden, got a little work done, but mostly got some plans sorted out for the next few days. I’ve hired the driver (Wayan – which is a very common name for interesting reasons) for a full day on Sunday and asked to see a beach and a waterfall that’s not too crowded, maybe some other stops too as time allows. Monday I’m going horseback riding in the morning!! I checked that the stable has a good reputation and found many people raving about how well the horses are treated and cared for, and also that they insist on helmets, so I’m happy.

I wandered around Ubud looking for clothes – the stuff I brought from my previous Indian travels is a bit heavy-duty for this tourist area – and ended up outside Ubud Palace just as the Barong and Legong dance show was about to start. I wasn’t sure which ticket seller to trust, so I somehow ended up just walking in and finding a seat near the front.

Watching the Legong dancers is a bit like spending time in a music box with a clockwork automaton that’s been infused with humanity. The music is repetitive and hypnotic with precise and intricate patterns, and the dance matches it – tight, precise little actions, everything exact down to facial expressions and eye movements. I found I most enjoyed the performances where you could see the dancers’ faces for this reason – they were entrancing. The ones with masks lost me after a little while. I could see there were stories being performed but didn’t know what they were. When the Barong  appeared, they drew out its appearance for a long time; a little long for a jaded Westerner, but I could imagine that in an ancient palace, it would have been absolutely captivating. There was a little toddler near me totally enraptured, eyes huge, which was as much fun to watch as the actual dance. I’m glad I went; today I saw Barong statues and girls learning Legong in a big class, and it meant something to me that it wouldn’t have yesterday.

Today I wandered for a while, drank from a coconut so huge I must be hydrated for days, wandered down little side streets, got a $5 half-hour foot massage from a luxurious resort spa, and then wound up at ARMA Museum & Resort. When I saw it on the map, I had expected, oh, a typical museum where I’d go look at some artwork for a bit, hang out for an hour maybe, and head back. Walking in, I discovered it was the sort of idyllic tropical paradise that you associate with places like Bali. Lovely buildings covered in carvings, surrounded by the lushest greenery. Painters and carvers working in the shade.

I explored the museums first. There’s both modern and classical Balinese artwork. There was only one modern piece that grabbed me, a giant oil painting of rice fields, each stroke a small tube of paint, so tactile it took strength to resist reaching for it. The classical Balinese paintings seemed to have the same intricate, precise, detailed character of the dance and music. I saw one that solved a mystery for me; my hotel’s bathroom has some tiles with a painting of nymphlike women with a man holding one of their scarves, and it turns out to be the story of Rajapala and Sulaish (plot summary: she’s an angel, he steals her shawl so she can’t go back to heaven).

As I wandered the grounds of ARMA, a man came up to me, smiling warmly, and suggested I visit the water gardens down the stairs. “This is all art, both inside and outside,” he said. I took his advice and spent the next while among water lilies, watching a lizard crawl on a giant stone lizard, looking out at a rice field, taking so many photos. I came back up totally entranced, and he was there as if he’d been waiting for me. He recommended I stop by the temple, where the schoolchildren were doing ceremonies before their classes, so I wandered off that way. I watched three girls in a little ritual, one serving the others with sprinkled water and rice on their foreheads, giggling and free in a way I frankly just don’t see in Vancouver. I was surprised how much it moved me.

I had a drink at the café, starting reading the booklet I’d been given on arrival, and discovered that the man who’d made the suggestions to me was Agung Rai, in fact the founder and namesake of ARMA Museum. And that it truly is his love and passion to guide visitors through this view of Bali’s culture and heritage, and pass it on to other Balinese as well.

ARMA was such a beautiful, opening experience for me, the most I’ve felt connected to this place since arriving. I’ll be back there more during my stay here – I’ve already signed up for a batik class on Tuesday.

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