"Will you be coming back mate?" The Australian immigration officer at the airport asked us as we were leaving Bali for Melbourne. "I've been in Ubud 18 years and it's not the exotic place it used to be. Going home to Tassie (what the Australians call Tasmania) in a couple months and staying there this time."
Bali is a Hindu outpost in the world's largest majority-Muslim country. Everywhere you look in Ubud, there is a temple with rich statuary, frequently wrapped in black and white cloth, symbolizing good and bad, yin and yang.
In every house, every store, every sidewalk there is an offering to some spirit or god. There are four offerings to be made daily if you want good luck; to your house, temple, village and the greater community.
And then there are the celebrations. A temple's birthday is celebrated every six months and usually for three-full days. Same for birthdays, twice a year.
Pregnancy is cause for ceremonial celebrations. A child's first year of life has several additional birth celebrations, presumably because many did not survive for long. "Everybody must have a boy," our guide told us. "I have no boy so I will keep having children until I do. Girls leave when they marry. Boys take care of the parents." There will certainly be lots of parents who will need taking care of in this, the world's fourth most populous country. As our friend Fred Harris says "When the ship's leaking, it's not the time to take on more passengers."
It remains a very sensual place. The weather, the clothes, the hippyish vibe and the omni-present sexual sculptures all contribute to this.
There are wildly-colorful dances in the villages and temples every night, performed mostly by the villagers. Though admission is charged, the dances go on with or without an audience. The monkey chant dance in Jungjungna outside Ubud had fewer than a dozen spectators and about fifty performers. There's no orchestra. About forty men dressed in traditional lungis called sarongs, act as the backdrop and hum 'chak, chak, chak kechak' throughout the dancing.
Since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship there is a wildly corrupt political system with about thirty parties. This has generated a fabulously rich uber class but most Indonesians live on a few dollars a day. And, in Ubud, everything is overcrowded. There is also a remaining security concern from the terrorist attack in 2002. The most up-scale tourist restaurants and hotels perform a check on every arriving car and passenger.
For many, this is still paradise. Ubud has survived bombings, volcanoes, earthquakes and colonizers, but I'm not sure it's surviving the overpopulation and the onslaught of tourists since Eat, Pray, Love.
So will I be coming back mate? Not so sure. It's the old yin and yang problem.