My head thwacked against the window and my eyes shot open. I glanced over at Ariel, dangerously close to the same rude awakening. I had fallen asleep somewhere outside of Kuta and now scanned my unfamiliar surroundings; city buildings and busy streets replaced by a narrow road winding through dense jungle. I fought to keep my eyes open, an impossible battle, given the steady drizzle pounding on the minibus roof.
By the time we pulled into a small convenience store parking lot the rain had stopped, Ariel and I were both wide awake, and the realization we hadn’t planned anything was starting to sink in. We climbed out of the minibus and began searching for our bags, hidden amongst the heavy backpacks and suitcases belonging to our travel companions.
“Do you need a place to stay?” A Balinese man asked, approaching us. “My family has a homestay, not far, I’ll show it to you.”
Ariel and I exchanged glances. So far, trekking off with strangers had led to fabulous travel experiences.
“Ok, sure. We’re just going to look.” We agreed, fingers crossed our luck hadn’t run out.
We followed our impromptu guide down the main road then behind some shop fronts until we reached his family’s homestay. After negotiating a price for the room (free breakfast, score!) and arranging a day tour for later in the week we dropped our bags and set off to explore the area.
The air was heavy with incense. Given all the hype this may seem a bit cliché, but Ubud felt like a jungle fairy tale. Almost as if someone had picked up a community and plopped it amidst an ancient civilization. Even the smallest buildings were covered in elaborate stone carvings and we had to constantly watch our step so as not to kick the tiny incense offerings that peppered the streets.
Over the next few days, Ariel and I made ourselves at home in the sleepy town. In the mornings we’d eat breakfast on our front porch before checking out the market and local shops. Each day we stopped by our favorite coffee shop, Anomali, and chat with Ryan, the barista.
One afternoon, as we scanned Anomali for an empty table I heard someone call my name. My friend Johannes, whom I hadn’t seen in four years, was also checking out Ubud during a year of exploration.
After we were sufficiently caffeinated, the three of us trekked down to the Monkey Forest, which literally is a forest filled with monkeys. The entire time I kept hearing my anthropology professor’s voice in my head, “Monkeys, they may be cute but they will bite you!”
Even though it would have been easy to spend all of our time sipping coffee and wandering through rice fields, we wanted to see the sites. For one and a half days we hired our bus-stop buddy to take us around the not-to-be-missed sites, including a tour of a coffee plantation (complete with tasting!).
The laid back attitude in Ubud was infectious. Everywhere we turned we saw people chilled-out in coffee shops, casually shopping with yoga mats slung over a shoulder, and just spending time with friends. Our last morning we ventured a bit further out of town and found an organic restaurant situated in the middle of a bright-green rice field. Everything on the menu was locally grown, and you even had the option of visiting their garden to select your own veggies.
The time we spent in Ubud was definitely a bit surreal. I’ve read Eat Pray Love several times and even though I wasn’t on a pilgrimage to “find myself” or even retrace Elizabeth Gilbert’s steps, I could see the appeal and understand why so many people choose this place to start fresh.
Just be wary of the monkeys.