My favorite time of year is here! Living abroad and away from my immediate family makes Christmas time a little different and sometimes difficult, but each year I enjoy recreating old traditions and developing new ones with A and friends. I’m almost to the end of my sweet time in New Zealand with my family. We’re putting up the tree before I leave and have been enjoying the start of December when we can unabashedly play Christmas music. Being here has been such a wonderful way to recharge and refresh before the New Year. Though a lot of me wants to stay here longer, I’m excited to head back to Guangzhou, be reunited with A, and dive straight into the Christmas choir season there. One of my new traditions is to sing in several choir performances in December, which make everything even more festive.
Tree in progress
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s time to finish up my series on Bali. It’s been a joy to remember our trip there, and now I’m getting to my favorite part of the whole trip: Ubud.
Heading off early, but not too early, we bid adieu to sunny Seminyak and set off with Mr. N on a one and a half hour drive up to Ubud. On the way, we opted to stop for a tour of a coffee plantation. Our friendly tour guide walked us through a forested area with different coffee and fruit plants and a demonstration of coffee roasting. We also learned about Luwak coffee, which is pooped by a cat-like creature and usually very expensive. Sitting above some beautiful rice terraces, we sampled six teas, six coffees, and bought one cup of somewhat uneventful Luwak coffee. We then stopped by the shop to buy some overpriced coffees from the very lovely tour guides to make up for sampling everything for free.
A short drive later and we finally said goodbye to Mr. N who dropped us off at a small walking path leading up to our guesthouse in Ubud. I can’t say we were sad to leave him. As nice as it was to have a driver for our time in Seminyak, the constant need to triple-check every deal had tired us out. Seminyak was a treat of relaxing beaches and resorts once we got past all the haggling and overly adventurous boat trips, but we felt ready for the more cultural and less fastpaced atmosphere in Ubud.
Lugging our bags up a steep and narrow path, we emerged into a peaceful and green vista of undulating rice fields and the sound of running water rushing along them. Our guesthouse was located right in the middle of these fields with only the narrow path connecting it to the main road. After the hustle and bustle of Seminyak, it was a secluded paradise.
View from outside our room
That first day, we had just a few hours to explore the town before heading back to be picked up for a Balinese cooking class. Our quick explorations revealed a laidback town full of cute little shops, yoga studios, vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants, and stunning old temples. We stopped in at one vegan café that got excellent ratings on TripAdvisor to find that the meatless menu was nearly indecipherable with things like a raw “omelet” with “eggs,” coconut “bacon,” and “salmon nigiri.” Thoroughly confused, we opted to just get drinks. We’ve both enjoyed delicious, raw, vegan food before, but unfortunately, this place just didn’t do it for us. A still feels offended whenever I mention it, which of course amuses me no end…
One of my favorite temple statues
Fortunately, we then found a delicious vegetarian restaurant up the road where we happily devoured salads without complaint. Then it was time to head to our cooking class at Ketut Cooking School, which was amazing. Our teacher walked us and about ten other people through how to make nine different dishes along with sauces and pastes from scratch, which included pounding spices with a long stick and bashing peanuts into oblivion.
We particularly enjoyed our teacher’s laugh, which sounded like an evil cackle (“AhaHA! AhahahaHa!”) and punctuated every sentence whether something was funny or not. I don’t know what was funnier, his laugh or the twisted contortions on everyone else’s faces as we tried unsuccessfully to contain our own laughter and pay attention to instructions. The class ended with us eating all of our dishes and having fried bananas for dessert. Heaven.
We had another early start the next day to go on a bike tour of Ubud’s temples, rice terraces, and villages with Infinity Mountain Biking. I expected we’d be part of a tour group again, so was pleasantly surprised that we had a cycling guide and a driver to ourselves on a very personalized tour. The day began with us driving and then walking around several incredible sites. Our first stop was to a lookout above the Tegalalang rice terraces that left us completely in awe.
Next, we drove to Tirta Empul Temple, that has been known for its holy, healing waters for over a thousand years. Beyond the magnificent temples themselves, what struck me the most, was seeing local people there worshipping and bathing in the sacred waters. The temples in Bali are such an integral part of everyday life, with every village having at least one, and people consistently visiting them to worship, heal, and deliver offerings to the gods.
Following our guide’s lead, we reached our hands into a gushing fountain and washed our faces in the pure water. Our cycling guide admitted to not being an expert on the temples but shared his own personal knowledge and experiences with them as a Balinese native. While it would have been interesting to visit the temples with an expert, I actually found our guide’s kind and personal accounts deeply compelling and memorable. From his descriptions, Balinese Hinduism is overwhelmingly about gratitude. Thankfulness for the most simple things was so powerful at each place we visited; I felt it well up within me as we visited each site. Guangzhou and my wandering lifestyle have gifted me so many blessings and made me appreciate the most basic things. Most of all, for the rest of my life I will value any time I can get a clean breath of fresh air and all the time I spend with loved ones.
Our next stop was Gunung Kawi, just a short bike ride away. This temple is one of the largest and oldest in Bali and has ancient shrines cute into the rock face. Despite being a site as ancient as Angkor Wat, it is still in use today as a place of worship. The long walk down and then back up again warmed us up nicely for the rest of our bike ride (she says with the beauty of hindsight… it was quite painful at the time!).
We got back on our sturdy mountain bikes for a mainly downhill ride through extremely well-paved trails designed for pedestrians, bikes, and scooters. Our desire to own a go-pro has graduated from want to need, as it was such a shame not to capture our winding way through the quiet villages. We passed women dressed in colorful Balinese sarongs carrying tall, golden offerings on their heads; dodged chickens and dogs and gravelly portions of the roads; listened intently to catch the sound of chanting and bells at village temples; turned our heads to look at temple entrances shrouded in incense smoke, lightly perfumed; then eyes back on the road to children running to school, waving and yelling hello as we coasted past, the road an easy downhill slope that was very much to my liking.
After riding for 15km, we arrived at another sprawling temple complex, Goa Garba Temple, but this time didn’t go through the temple itself. Our guide took us along a narrow path through the jungle to a serene waterfall with ancient caves perfect for meditation. Such a peaceful place. And built around the 12th century!
While we were gone, our driver had prepared some small local snacks for us. Then we got back on our bikes for a short trip to the ancient 9th-century temple of Goa Gajah, also known as the Elephant Cave Temple due to its cave with shrines dedicated to the Hindu Elephant God Ganesha. We entered the cave through the carved mouth of a demon but didn’t spend much time inside as it was full of other tourists and worshippers along with heavy incense smoke.
Done with our bikes, we drove to Tegenungan Waterfall. Our guide decided to chill out at the top, leaving us to hike down steep steps to view the waterfall up close. It was muddy and wild from recent heavy rains, but it’s possible to swim in it on calmer days. We slogged back up the hill for a welcome lunch and well-earned rest before heading back to our peaceful guesthouse for more chill-out time among the peaceful rice fields.
Just a few steps
Ok, you know it wouldn’t be a complete post from me without detailed food descriptions. Friends have recently commented that we obviously prioritize food on our travels. That is so true. More than fuel, for us, food is a way to truly get to know a place and situate it firmly in our memory. Searching for good eats inevitably causes us to thoroughly explore a new place. And, it’s over meals that we have our best conversations, rehash our adventures, and relish the moments we have together. At home, we reminisce by recreating dishes and seeking out newly discovered ingredients. So yes, food is always a focus for us. When I think of beautiful Goa Gojah, I can almost smell the sweet incense, made firmer by my memories of the intense spices in the local dishes we enjoyed for lunch. Food is love. This is probably why I get along so well with my mother-in-law, who infuses her love into her delicious home-cooking.
So, we celebrated our last night in Bali and our wonderfully successful honeymoon with a special meal at Mozaic, headed by Michelin-starred chef Chris Salans. One of the huge benefits of fine dining in South East Asia, in general, is that it is extremely affordable. Such a meal would easily be 4x the price in the U.S., so we were determined to experience Michelin-level food at reasonable prices.
Reserving at the restaurant was an experience in itself. A booked several days in advance and received several emails verifying that we were really coming. They also took our credit card information, as there would be quite a hefty fee if we failed to show for our meal. Noting that we were on our honeymoon, Mozaic offered us their secluded gazebo seating option and a special menu for 9 million rupiah plus service charge or $750. Figuring that it couldn’t hurt to ask, A politely responded that we wouldn’t be ordering from the special menu, but could we please have the gazebo anyway. Success, they said yes! Only one of the many reasons why I married this man.
We arrived at the restaurant a bit bedraggled, having had trouble finding a car to drive us there in pouring rain. A polite Maitre-D welcomed us into a warmly-lit lounge area where we sipped cocktails, had canapes, and perused the set menu.
Next, we were walked to our gazebo with the waiters carrying umbrellas over us, because suddenly we were simply too fancy to keep the rain off our own heads. We then ordered wine, because cocktails are for the lounge, and wine is for the meal, when you’re fancy. We had at least six different waiters bringing us things including a long platter with all the raw ingredients that would make up our locally-sourced dishes. Throughout the meal, each waiter would pick up the relevant ingredient and explain how it was used in the dish.
Waiters were frequently coming through to change out plates and silverware, bring us different dishes, and explain ingredients to us. Between all these arrivals and departures, we would devolve into our normal non-fancy selves and wonder at all the loveliness and deliciousness. When the waitstaff came by, we’d sit up straight and nod politely.
Highlights of the meal were a delicately layered tartare with egg yolk in an eggshell, a tomato sorbet that somehow captured all the flavor of a tomato in an iced format that tasted fresh and delicious, fish carpaccio that arrived under a globe with steaming dry ice, and a quail dish using a local spice called kluwek in a rich and velvety sauce that tasted like chocolate. The best part? Sharing the experience with my foody husband who was as excited as me.
Yes indeed, food is love.
The next day, we ended our wonderful stay in Ubud with a relaxed walk around the city, buying a few souvenirs and generally enjoying the scenic environment. I’m so thankful that friends of ours recommended going to Ubud. While enjoying the coast and beach scene in Seminyak was fun, Ubud’s beautiful temples and healing atmosphere will stay in my heart for a long time.
Thanks for sticking with me through this belated, three-part letter/book. It took me several days to write and perhaps longer for you to read. Hopefully, it has inspired you to travel to Bali one day or helped you relive memories of your own travels on that beautiful island. I’ve been regularly checking in on the Mount Agung eruption, and after two months of fearful apprehension, it just erupted last week. It looks like it is now officially in an eruption period that may last some time. After some research, this organization looks particularly robust and well-positioned to help with local people affected by the eruption if you would like to donate to volcano relief.
Wishing you all a joyous start to the holiday season.