A Bali Pilgrimage

You Can’t Go Home Again, the title of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel, came to mind recently when I made my way up to Ubud. Nowadays (and for the past year), my life is (centered around) the beach. So, even though Ubud is merely a one hour’s ride away – without traffic, that is – it might as well exist on a different island (or planet), given the infrequency of my outings – and the mind-boggling changes it has undergone.

Once, and for more than 7 years, Ubud was home. I moved around often; from the early days, when I lived in a family compound on a street that was barely heard of (and which now boasts a large hotel, vegan food mecca and several tattoo shops), to a small cottage (some would still call it a ‘villa’) on a street that was quiet enough when I moved there, but soon became ground zero in of the most sought-after neighborhoods; rice fields disappeared, making way for a voluminous number of warungs and stores and cafés and resorts and laundry outlets and hostels and villas and Airbnb-guesthouses (many of them illegally run by expats, further driving locally-run, simpler homestays into the ground). All, in the space of two years.

The locals started to change as well, swiftly becoming outnumbered by tourists and travelers and newly-landed foreigners who were keen to snap up large tracts of still-fertile land on which to erect their dream-villa or retreat or raw-vegan-smoothie-and-clean-food ‘paradise’ or addiction rehab ‘sanctuary.’

It’s true that change happens. But I’d begun to wilt and worry at the dizzyingly rapid pace with which Ubud was switching gears. With the growing influx of foreigners whose priorities (and manner of dress) were blatantly out of sync with the local Balinese way of life and culture. T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like: Namaste Bitches.

With all the traffic, idling vehicles and toxic piles of trash-burn, I was also having trouble breathing – and walking. Which is when I pulled up stakes and decamped to the beach: wide open spaces, views out to the sea and surrounding islands, streets NOT clogged with traffic, sidewalks actually constructed for walking, and a 10+ kilometer promenade, along which I could stroll without dodging multiple obstructions along the way. Far from perfect, but amen: I. Could. Breathe. Again.

Still, the siren song of Ubud calls me back, still enticing me with its promises – and bounty of choices. It becomes a pilgrimage of sorts: I make lists before I go; schedule a massage, pick up the best tahini, get my hair cut and colored, walk the Campuhan Ridge, soak in the Tjampuhan Spa’s grotto-decorated pools, pop in for a documentary (screened at my request, can you imagine?), order food at my still-favorite Padang eatery, deliver a gift for the baby girl of Balinese friends, catch up with a longtime Dutch elder and expat, see friends who are in town – from India, from the US, from Australia.

On my last, most recent visit, I was standing on the main road (Jalan Raya), checking my messages, when a handful of Balinese friends honked and waved as they scooted by. Others, with more time on their hands (in this now-frenetically-paced town) stopped long enough for us to catch up on news; Wayans, Ketuts and Komangs among them. The staff in Bali Buda chatted with me, asked where I’ve been; the same happened later at a warung I’ve frequented often. The ibu at the market smiled. The taxi driver (who once, many years ago, found me crumpled on the sidewalk from a spiked bout of pain) called out to me, waved and winked. And pak Wayan, the owner of a couple of souvenir shops, pulled up on his bike, and, with worry lines spreading across his forehead, said that he had to close one of the stores because he could no longer afford the rent.

I even stumbled upon sights that had become so commonplace after years of living in Ubud that they barely register: a roving group of boys leading the Barong with ear-curdling sounds of gamelan – drums, bells and whistles; and a royal cremation in progress.

All of it, as close to family and home as I get in this part of the world.

In at least some respects, Tom Wolfe was wrong: Notwithstanding its massive changes, and no matter how I might not even recognize Ubud in a few more years, in some of the most meaningful ways, you absolutely can go back home again. I did.


Apropos pilgrimage, my upcoming memoir – about a nearly 2-month walk along the Camino de Santiago Compostela pilgrimage route in Spain – launches soon! More details here as the release date approaches…


  1. Now, who is that “longtime Dutch elder and expat” ? Do I have unsuspected competition ? When will you be in Ubud again ?



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