“Welcome Home!” The Alena Resort and Ubud. January 2019


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Man, the last two-and-a-half days have been so great. I feel like we’ve seen and done so many things, yet it’s never felt rushed and we’ve had lots of relaxing down time too. Just perfect.

When we landed at Denpasar Airport, my friend Gusti was waiting to be our driver to take us to Ubud. It was really wonderful to see him again, and to be back in this place. But boy, that heat and humidity just hit you instantly. We arrived around 6pm, so that’s dealing with rush hour as we take the two-hour Drive to Ubud. So grateful to have a professional driver to navigate these roads!!

The welcome at the Alena was a little bit overwhelming. Everyone is so gracious and warm and solicitous in general, but they were Beyond tickled that I’ve returned two years later. And it was really great to recognize almost all of the staff. That staff retention really speaks to the hotel treating their employees well. “Welcome home, Miss Tracy!” And we are given flower leis with the Frangipani blossom (Plumeria), which I strongly associate as the smell of Bali. (Although even first-time guests get an arrival this gracious, I remember last time that Yanthi had to run around from the front desk to give me a hug to thank me for having written such clear emails (coordinating airport pickup, etc).

Our rooms are gorgeous, and we’re honestly too travel drained to deal with a sit-down dinner at 9pm. So we nibble on some of the complementary tropical fruits, and Sarah and Jen had brought some peanut packs for a little protein, and then we shower and collapse into bed.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of mie goreng (my favorite: spicy stir-fried noodles), we take the shuttle into Ubud. We shop at market, navigating hundreds of stalls jam-packed with the same items. Constantly being called out to, and encouraged to look and buy. And I am still so susceptible to a certain type of Grandma seller. A bit aggressive, as they all have to be, but with a twinkle in her eye as she tries to show you special item and special price for new very good friend. Someone who is having fun with it, and having fun with my struggles through Indonesian numbers. (As items cost in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, figuring out prices is slow in another language. It is also completely not required in another language. Even if a seller did not speak much English, you know they would know all of the prices and number words in English).

We then escape to air conditioning and some Bintang beer. Served in a frosted glass, even!!! Fancy! We wander through water temple and lotus pond.

Then into the very fancy Starbucks next door, in search of a toilet. Then we explore the royal palace, where we felt like we are literally wilting in this humidity. (but hey, it’s a gorgeous day, when we’d prepared for rainy season). And the people watching is amazing, as some of these Travelers are having so much fun doing mini photo shoots. They are definitely going to have some quality Instagram moments.

Back to Alena Resort and into the swimming pool!! But there’s a chalkboard sign about a charity event, beginning poolside with a free cocktail and apps. The ladies worry we are under dressed, being in our swimsuits, so back to the room for another shower and changing. Then poolside for the cocktail. It was basically a Balinese version of a Mojito, made with arok instead of rum.

It was delicious. As were the appetizers they brought by. Extra fun that I recognized two of the dishes as things Jessica and I had learned how to prepare when we took the cooking class here two years ago.

The charity sign says a portion of the proceeds from the special barbecue dinner would go to help “unlucky family.” We tried to get a little more information about the charity, but it turns out it was a fundraiser for one very specific unlucky family. Our bartender explains that the family we are helping “he has no father. he has no brother. so he has very hard time. Very sad.”

The manager Gusti (different man than my driver friend) comes over to talk with us. He also has a great smile and a wonderful attitude. He tells me that I am to be his reporter on how things have changed, for the good and for the bad too. That is a lot of pressure. I did not sign up to be anyone’s not so secret shopper. (& even if I had some constructive criticisms, I’m not sure I would want to pass them along. Because I think they’ve apologized three or four times already because there was a small wasp’s nest on Sarah and Jen’s balcony. An apology is not necessary, we just thought they should know so they could take care of it. *smile*

The acoustic BBQ dinner that the hotel offered turned out to be a really entertaining night, and not what I expected. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the event, before I heard there was a charity aspect, but Sarah was interested and I didn’t have a strong feeling against it either. It was a little pricey by Balinese standards, but not bad by US Dollars. (OMG!! My talk-to-text program keeps typing Bolognese instead of Balinese!)

The acoustic band was 4 very hip young men, with fedoras and vests, 3 playing guitar and one playing percussion. The songs that they chose to sing were a bit of a surprise. I’d sort of expected a lot of Western standards or hits, but they definitely started out with a few surprises, as we had, hey good lookin what you got cooking”, Johnny Cash, some Louisiana jazz into Pink Floyd. And the meal itself was quite good, including salad, a pumpkin curry soup that was amazing, and three different grilled Meats. The chef that we have done our cooking class with was working the grill. He was very excited to see me again. And his English has gotten much better than it was two years ago. And/or he is just more confident now in it.

As part of the band banter, they would ask if anyone wanted to come up and sing or play guitar, and part way through dinner a young Chinese woman took them up on their offering. She sang two songs and played guitar, one in Chinese and one in English. Very brave.

(oh!! As I am writing this it is just starting to rain. It’s really our first significant rain since we got here, and if the past is any indication it should pass quickly. Fingers crossed)

Partway through dinner the Russian family (that sat next to us on the plane from Hong Kong to Bali) Came To Dinner. Their adorable six-year-old girl was really interested in the band and the musicians. She initially went right up front and was very flirtatious, but then got a little shy and needed to hide behind the pillar. But once he started singing the next song, she was out there dancing for all she was worth. It was great. She had more Rhythm than I’ve ever had in my entire life. And she was swinging her arms and feeling the music. And all of us enjoyed it very much.

Yesterday was our second full day in Bali, and we had arranged for Gusti to provide a half day tour for us. So breakfast at 8 and we left at 9 am. Gusti is a fabulous Storyteller, with such a big heart, and an easy laugh. It’s just the best energy to spend time with.

We went and did some coffee tasting.

Sarah was brave enough to try one of those big swings that’s swing you out over a cliff Edge with rice fields in the background. It was gorgeous to see, but way too scary for me, even though they seem to have very good safety measures and harness you in pretty securely.

Then to the holy water spring temple. The best!! This place is gorgeous and was my one regret from last time that we didn’t get to go. When we had discussed itinerary with Gusti the night before, I had been asking him about how the water purification works. Is there a changing room, do people wear swimsuits under their sarongs, Etc. He then asked if we would want to actually do the purification ritual. He said we definitely can and he could walk us through the steps, but that it would require two and a half to three hours, rather than one hour visit at that site. So we would have to decide how we wanted to allocate our time. He asked me to please let him know that evening if we did want to do the ritual, and that, if so, his wife would put together offerings for us to bring. But after discussing it, we decided that we would prefer to see a few more sites rather than spend all of our time at one place.

We were given so much insight into the ways of Balinese Hinduism. And were shown along the way each stop and told about the prayers and rituals you would do if you were doing the purification ritual. First you must make offerings and pray at a Shrine outside. Then there are multiple water spigots, and different ones are used for different purposes. He would show specifically how everyone is supposed to use number one, but on this one side the others are only for use for very specific things. One is for gathering specific holy water after there’s been a death in the family to take back to wash the body and perform rituals at home. One maybe to help with fertility or for blessing a new home Etc. While this is being explained, we are watching several tourists doing it incorrectly. Gusti tsks and shakes his head, explaining this is bad, but not the tourists’ fault. That their guides should be telling them how to do it properly. It is not their fault because they don’t know better.
Then there is another set of 10 water spouts and everyone is supposed to bathe through number 1 through number seven. Making offerings and prayers at each. But again number 8 9 and 10 only have specific meanings and uses.

When we come across a few statues of different Hindu characters who have a giant family, (there are easily 8 or 10 babies crawling all over them), I was surprised at the turn the conversation took. Instead of telling us about these figures and their story, we have this great talk about the changing makeup of Indonesian families. He discusses how having this many children is very hard. How in the past this is how Indonesians did it, but now they are more likely to only have two children. This allows them to provide better housing and food, and be sure that they can afford school fees for both children. He went on to share how he is one of seven, but only he and one brother were able to go to school. And the sadness and hardship that that has left for his other five siblings, who don’t have another option beyond subsistence farming.

Overlooking the holy spring water temple is a very rich fancy residence that belongs to the government, or maybe the royal family? I’m not entirely sure. But he explained that the Obama family got to stay there when they have come to Bali two years ago. And that back in the day Gusti had gotten to visit, because it used to be open to the public, but after the nightclub bombings, they were no longer open to the public for security purposes. But with a twinkle in his eye, Gusti tells us that if we work hard and become president of the US, then we could probably stay there too. Or because Hindus believe in reincarnation if we lead very good lives, maybe in the next life we will come back as powerful rich people who could stay there.

Further Explorations through the temple, we approach a set of gates. We are told that the gates are there so that one can make a prayer and clear their mind of all of the bad thoughts, so that bad thoughts all stay outside and then you can enter through the gates with pure thoughts. Once inside we saw the holy Pond / water source. I was quite surprised to see that it is a cold water underground spring. Full of bubbling roiling motion as all of this sand is moving around, and there are gorgeous water plants growing on top, and swallows swooping everywhere eating the mosquitoes. Good job swallows, by the way. Gesturing to this protected holy water pond: “Only the very most holy of priests can go inside” says Gusti. “If I were to go inside… Ohhhh…” and then he tsssks, “I would be in very bad trouble.”

Then to another set of temples and structures, where people, after doing the water purification and after changing out of their wet sarangs into dry clothing, will do prayers with further offerings, guided by a priest.

We are told how on the specific holy days for this Temple, the wait to do all of the prayers can be hours and hours. Because this is the only Temple for this specific purpose in Bali. He says he and his wife would get in line at 8 a.m. and maybe not be done until 3 p.m. or later.

We stopped at the tagalong Rice Terraces, and it’s a very beautiful Vista. Gusti drops us off at the entrance and tells us that when we are done to ask the parking attendant to call Gusti, and he will come find us. As the parking lot is a bit away. I ask if the parking lot attendant has gusti’s number. He laughs and says “no, they have a loudspeaker. And they will say, “Gusti. Come!” But there are many people named Gusti in Bali, aren’t there? He laughs and says they will say “Gusti Alena.” And the system seems to work. The man uses his walkie-talkie and then suddenly an announcement is made over the loudspeaker. And the appropriate driver comes to pick up their tourists.

As we start to make our way down the rice Terraces, I can see that there our many many uneven stairs without a railing, and some muddy trails on the climb down, and it’s freaking midday afternoon sun, so I decide that I have gone far enough. And find a small bush to provide me with some shade,while Jen and Sara climb down to explore. I was affirmed strongly in my choice, as I watched the pained exhaustion and hot faces of everyone making the climb back up. Also gave me the chance to do some amazing people watching, and family Dynamics and exhausted travel grumpiness came out in strangers. And the Vista was truly gorgeous.

We then went to explore the holy elephant cave. Now Bali does not actually have elephants, but the cave does have a temple to Ganesh inside. I’d also read online that is named after the elephant spring that is nearby. I may have to do some more research on that. The entrance to the cave is truly striking, with all of these carved faces. And it is staggeringly hot inside. I am used to caves being cool and damp. But this doesn’t go deep or far enough to have that coolness Maybe.

Along our drive, as dogs are often wandering beside the road, I asked Gusti what the Indonesian word for dog is. He tells me it is ajing. Then he says Chee-ching is Balinese for dog. “But please, don’t use this word around other people. I will get in trouble” We are confused, but learn it is an insult /bad word. Gusti points out bad drivers and says they could be called Chee-ching. And now it’s all I can do to keep myself from calling someone that.

It’s now 2 p.m. and time for us to return. I am starving, as we had breakfast early. We did not pack snacks with us, but I Do buy a sweetened iced tea which helps. On the ride back Gusti is explaining there was one more stop he was intending, which is a walk down to a waterfall. He says Tracy may not want to do the walk but it’s alright and Jen/Sarah might. The man is not wrong. But actually, once Sarah and Jen realize that the waterfall requires a walk a ways down a hill and then having to climb back up, they decided they don’t care either. So we returned sweaty, exhausted, starving, and so happy.

We have lunch at the resort because we are starving, rather than risking shuttle into town. And their food is quite good. It’s just a bit pricier for Bala standards. But you can’t beat the convenience. After lunch we do some swimming / floating in the pool, and reading poolside, while Sarah goes to take a nap.

Because lunch was so late, we plan for a late meal in Ubud town. Knowing that we are getting up early this morning to go to the monkey Forest just as it opens at 8:30 am. Because the included breakfasts here at the resort are staggered 3 course Affairs, it takes about 45 minutes for breakfast. So we have to get up at 6:30 a.m. or earlier.

So for dinner, we take the 8 p.m. shuttle into town asking for a 9:30 p.m. return. The front desk is very concerned that this is not enough time and that the 10:30 p.m. return would be better, but that is way later than we want to be out. Also we legitimately are just going to pick one of the first places we see, eat quickly, and return. And that’s what we do. 🙂

A staff change has happened as well, which means that I get to reconnect with two more of my friends from last time. “How are you? How is your family? How is your mother? We are so happy to see you.” (When Jen had gone to reserve the 8 p.m. shuttle for us earlier in the day, she returns saying “I only had to invoke the magic word of “Miss Tracy” and everything was easy.”) It is very humbling and a little bit overwhelming. It’s also honestly surprising to legitimately be this remembered. I mean, I only spent five days here two years ago. And presumably they have many guests in the meantime. But it does help to stand out. Being a bigger girl and also someone who had learned a few Indonesian phrases. So I guess it really is rare that anybody else does the language. Or maybe it is just that other Travelers aren’t as interested in having a conversation with the staff? Which is a huge missed opportunity on their part. Firstly, I just think one should be open to experience and meeting new people. And when traveling, the hotel staff are going to be one of the easiest barriers of entry in making a connection with locals. But also, what type of person doesn’t View service workers as peers? The answer is “a type of person I’m not interested in being friends with.”

Up early for our pre-monkey breakfast. As we are going to the monkey Forest, we are traveling light. One of the recommended and best ways to avoid potential problems with the monkeys, is to basically not bring anything with you. If you bring a backpack or purse, the monkeys will often jump on it or try to get things out of it. Especially if you have any type of food or candy or snacks inside your bag. There are so many signs begging you to please not bring any food inside. Do not hide it in Pockets or bags because the monkeys will find it. So we’ve got a bit of spending money zipped into a pocket or money belt, and our camera in our hands, and that’s it. Sunscreen and bug spray applied before go to the front desk, where I asked for the 8 a.m. shuttle. But oops. They have not offered at 8 a.m. shuttle for over a year. It starts at 9am. Happily they are able to arrange for a driver for a few dollars to take us into town, as we really wanted to get to Monkey Forest as it opened at 8:30 before it got too crowded, or too hot, or too full of tourists acting poorly.

Monkey Forest is great. But there are definitely some Bad actors in the early arrivals. A French couple who have brought food and are feeding the monkeys, and agree to them to climb on them, and trying to pet them. It’s the worst. Plus Sarah is extra stressed out, because the travel doctor they visited at University of Washington also warned them about a simian Herpes the long tailed macaque can carry, which is fatal in humans if monkey bites are not treated right away. Now that is a pretty obscure disease, I’ve never heard of it before and I’ve done several Travel Medicine consultations. Well, there is a small but real rabies risk, as well as basic infection risk for you to be bit or scratched, this was not what I had heard of before. After Sarah told me about it I did a bit of Google searching back home and was eventually able to find out about it. But in any case, definitely the fear of death was put into Sarah and Jen, so they were even more concerned and frustrated when people were behaving poorly. We eventually just had to wait 5 minutes for that couple to get past us because they kept showing up where we were taking photos and ruining it.

We spent almost two hours wandering through the gorgeous Forest, and observing the antics of the seven different macaque troops.

Then beverages at this adorable hipster pretend French cafe, with tables looking over the rice paddy, it was really cute. And would have looked at home in Seattle or Brooklyn. The staff even wore plaid shirts with suspenders as their uniform. And my lychee iced tea was served in a mason jar.

Then we returned to the hotel, had another glorious shower and now we are relaxing. Well, Sarah and I are relaxing. Our Intrepid Jen really wanted to visit a Balinese art museum that is about a two-mile walk from Ubud shuttle stop. So she has headed out To do that exploration. And we will meet up with her for dinner and maybe to see one of the dance performances tonight.

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