Exploring in beautiful Bali

Having spent three months working in sweaty, restrictive Jakarta, my mother wanted a luxury break. After months of tight deadlines, travelling and visitors, I wanted a holiday that would restore my mind, body and soul. “I want to shop and lie by the pool,” said Mum. “I want to know that my presence benefits the community in some way,” said I. It looked like Mum and I were going to be taking separate holidays until I stumbled on a pair of twin hotels in East Bali that ticked all the right boxes: luxurious, eco-conscious and with access to treatments and experiences to open the mind.

Mum had arrived at Alila Ubud a day earlier than I and, when I get there, we take our fruit basket and sit on the balcony, catching up. “Oh look,” says Mum, “monkeys.”

As we watch, a family of grey macaques scamper around the pool. A pair of adolescents appear on the thatched roof of the rooms in front of us and another group comes across the grass. They seem to be heading our way. Next thing we know, there are eight monkeys swinging in the tree right in front of our balcony and Mum and I abandon our fruit and race inside, closing the glass doors. “Well, you did say you wanted to be close to nature,” giggles Mum as we watch the monkeys devouring our afternoon snack.

There’s no sign of our furry friends as we make our way up to the sculpture garden for our early-morning tai chi session. The class is basic, but the setting spectacular — we’re overlooking a vine-tangled ravine and far below us the Ayung River carries on, smoothing away the volcanic earth. Birds chirp and the sunshine is filled with promise.

After breakfast, we head up to the hotel’s spa for a shirodhara treatment. This is a first for both of us and I’m praying it won’t be too out-there for Mum, who is well-acquainted with spas but has never had warm oil poured over her third eye. Our treatment room is a breezy, open-air Balinese hut pavilion built of heavy, dark wood. Curtains, bowls and other adornments are coloured olive and cream, complementing the jungle beyond and, as we settle in, I am confident that whatever comes next will be nothing short of bliss.

Sure enough, the massage is heavenly, but when the oil starts pouring, it’s like the cells in my brain and nervous system have lit up. Everything is tingling, but this is accompanied by a deep sense of calm and my heartbeat remains slow and steady. The feeling shoots down the front and back of my neck, reaching into my limbs. I’m not sure, but I think I am wiggling my toes with pleasure.

When the oil eventually stops and we’ve recovered enough to lift our greasy heads, I ask Mum what she thought of that. “Amazing,” she mumbles before lying back to stare once more at the green glow around us.

The Ubud experience

Ubud, Bali’s creative and cultural heart, was popular well before Elizabeth Gilbert set the final section of her book, Eat, Pray, Love, here. Like Gilbert, I’m keen to check out the power of a local healer and we book a session with one who we’re assured is well-respected and knowledgeable.

As it turns out, Nyoman Damai works for the government as a traditional healer and is running for election in his regency. We are driven to his home along a broken, narrow road, squeezing past foot and motorbike traffic. The healer’s home is a typical Balinese compound and we are delivered to the business end and greeted by Nyoman, his wife Ida Ayu or Rosemary and their dog, Monkey.

The clinic is a small building with two rooms and an open-air patio. It’s here, surrounded by plants the healer grows, dries and then prescribes, that the diagnoses take place. Mum is first up and she lies on her back on a simple bed. Nyoman examines her feet for a moment, then pulls out a short, stumpy stick and starts probing the pressure points on her feet. She winces and cries out when he presses on certain points and he issues instructions to Rosemary, who will take over the healing side of the treatment.

It’s my turn next and Nyoman was positively gentle with Mum compared with how he drives the stick into my feet. Once he’s finished assessing my health in this manner, the treatment begins — a brisk, businesslike acupressure massage in which he shows no mercy. I’m used to the “no pain, no gain” attitude towards healing throughout Asia and breathe into tender points as Nyoman digs in with his stick, thumbs and elbows. The healer doesn’t have a great deal of English, but he mentions the word “intestine” and then “cervix” while squeezing my left heel.

When Mum and Rosemary re-emerge, the husband and wife have a brief discussion and then Rosemary starts piling up little plastic bags containing capsules of herbs for Mum. There are eight different types and some she must take for a month.

I get away with four different bags of herbs, which will clean and support my small intestine and take care of congestion from a cold I’ve picked up. I ask Rosemary about my cervix and she discusses it with Nyoman. “Just a small problem,” she tells me. “Maybe a little infection. It is dealt with now — no problems.”

We end our treatment with a tisane (a herbal infusion) of some kind of dried fungus. It’s unbelievably sweet, but we’re told it has no sugar.

Back in the car and heading for Ubud to do some shopping, Mum and I both feel fantastic — enlivened and full of energy. The core of Ubud is around Jalan Raya Ubud and Monkey Forest Road, which is unofficially named after the sanctuary at the bottom of the hill. The streets are lined with art and craft shops, cafes, souvenir stalls and taxi drivers offering their services. It’s steamy and busy and before long we duck into a café for a fresh coconut juice, which is said to be good for digestion. Even Mum is happy to head back to our mountain retreat.

Land of the rising sun

That afternoon, we transfer to Alila Manggis, which is close to Candi Dasa on the east coast of Bali. Most visitors to Bali don’t make it to this side of the island, preferring the dramatic sunsets and white sand beaches of the west coast and southern Bali.

The beaches here are volcanic, with silver, silty sand and some pebbles. Towards sundown, Mum and I walk along the beach, delighted to find ourselves amid village life. A team of men are working to haul in a monstrous fishing net — some are submerged in the sea while others strain their sinuous bodies, their feet dragging along the sand. They are watched by a few locals and their children, some fishing, some swimming, some just resting. A woman walks by with a basket on her head; she is walking towards a large group of women squatting among the pebbles and preparing garlands and decorations made from palm leaves. Tomorrow is an important festival in the Hindu calendar and the women have to double their usual output of floral offerings.

The next morning, we arrange a private yoga class, held by the sea in a wooden pagoda next to the hotel’s tiny temple. The Balinese teacher is gentle and takes each of our strengths and weaknesses into account. It’s a magnificent start to the morning.

After breakfast, I leave Mum poolside and go to spend the afternoon learning about a typical village of the area. At Selumbung, I meet Pak Sugita, a gardener who looks after the hotel’s organic gardens. Today, he is allowing me into his home, which he shares with 12 people. The walled compound comprises a temple, an indoor kitchen, plus a smoky outdoor kitchen, sleeping rooms and a covered concrete patio where Sugita’s wife, niece and sister sit, making baskets to hold offerings. Sugita grows coconut, cacao, vanilla, mango, jackfruit, mangosteen and hairy rambutan in his family garden.

Sugita’s wife joins us and demonstrates how she makes the glutinous ceremonial cake, abug. I help her by sprinkling the desiccated coconut and raw sugar in layers, then watch as she wraps it up and steams it above a gas saucepan in the indoor kitchen.

Sugita shows me around his garden, then prepares a health drink for me called jemu. He, too, has picked up on my cold and decides to make me jemu bras koncur. It’s a neon-coloured, chalky concoction made from grated turmeric, white ginger, rock sugar, Balinese rice and lime, all ground on a lava-stone pestle and mortar called an ulakan. Sugita tells me every family has two of these — one for food and one for making medicine.

Next, he shows me how to make coconut milk, something that, until this moment, I have definitely taken for granted. He smacks open a couple of coconuts with a knife and then starts grating the white flesh on a sturdy, spiky palm frond. While Sugita grates and grates, I take in the life around me. I’ve been here an hour now, so the animals, kids and adults are all used to me. Other villagers pop in, the women chatting and occasionally shrieking at one of the kids or a stray chicken.

Sugita’s children are at school, but his son pops home briefly on his scooter to pick up something. After he’s gone, I notice a blue plastic sack is wiggling and walking around. Sugita sees me watching and laughs — it’s his son’s fighting cock. They can’t let it out of the bag as it will go for everything.

When he has grated a mountain of coconut, Sugita soaks it in water, then takes it to the three stoves made from breeze blocks and wood. His wife blows on the fires to get them going, sending up a cloud of acrid smoke. When the oil separates from the milk, it’s done. This oil will be used for cooking — to make virgin coconut oil for the skin, Sugita uses the heat of the sun to evaporate the water and extract the oil.

As we share a meal of gado gado, a tofu and vegetable salad covered in a spicy peanut sauce, Sugita shares more gardening tips with me, describing how to grow coriander seedlings in eggshells and how to keep a mango tree’s fruit within easy reach. He tells me about his personal efforts to increase environmental awareness in his village and those surrounding it, including collecting plastic bags and containers and encouraging people to reuse them. I am dumbstruck. If this slight man, whose feet make barely an impression on the earth, can make such a concerted effort to reduce his footprint, why can’t more westerners? Talk about grassroots environmentalism!

That evening, I happen to run into the executive chef at the hotel and I tell her I’ve spent the day with Sugita. She recommends finishing the day with the megibung, an eastern Balinese ceremonial meal designed to share. This contains many of the ingredients from Sugita’s gardens and will top off the cultural learning for the day. It’s a magnificent plate of local specialties: pepes ikan (spicy fish meat rolled in a banana leaf); turmeric rice; jackfruit with pork and coconut sauce; baby fern tips; ground chicken wrapped around a lemongrass spear; fragrant pork ribs with galangal, lime and turmeric; and urtan — Balinese pork sausage.

On our last day in east Bali, we start the day with breakfast in the organic garden Sugita tends for the hotel. We sit in a bale (wooden platform) and watch the farmers in the adjacent fields tending to their rice paddies. The grains are fat and today’s task is keeping the hungry birds at bay using long, thin bamboo poles in a pulley system. The mostly elderly men swing these across the crop, shouting the Balinese equivalent of “shoo!”.

Our stay in Bali ends much the way it began — no, not being attacked by monkeys, but being laid out on a massage table. This time, we’re by the sea and the light beyond our eyelids is golden sunshine. The Balinese massage is firm and soothing, rolling and stretching our muscles and nourishing the skin with coconut oil made just a few kilometres away. From environmental sustainability to pure decadence, this mother-daughter getaway has ticked all the right boxes — and then some.

Did you know?

Both Alila Ubud and Alila Manggis are recipients of the Bali Tri Hita Karana awards, which promote a balanced relationship between fellow human beings, God and the environment. They both work in harmony with the local communities, with the vast majority of staff coming from villages nearby. These hotels are Green Globe Certified and contribute to the East Bali Poverty Project. For more information:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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