I’m standing at the new Denpasar airport, everything is so sparkling and clean I could be in any other country in the world. Gone are the yellowing tiles and the stench of cigarettes from years of indoor smoking. Gone are the small nods to Balinese culture. Denpasar has achieved a sterile level of anonymity, blending with all the other airports of the world. Once I get past customs though, I remember where I am. The smells of South East Asia waft across me path, and the warm, sticky air smacks me in the face. Yep, I’m back.
I shove my way through the throngs of drivers from upscale hotels waiting for their guests and competing taxi drivers all scrambling over one another and into the warm embrace of my old friend Gede. In the chaos it is easy to spot him, he is like a drop of calm in an ocean of panic. The man just oozes chill.
“It is so good to see you friend,” Gede takes my backpack from my shoulder and saunters through to his car. It is amazing how quiet the other drivers have become in my presence now that they see I am spoken for.
Bali is dark, hot and it’s raining. Gede and I begin the long drive north, away from the lights and busyness of Kuta and toward the tranquil backroads of the villages around Ubud. Lights flash past me, Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds. “Are you hungry?” Gede asks, as always thinking of his stomach. “I have surprise for you.” I smile, knowing that no matter how tired I am from my flight, or how much I just want to have a shower, I will give in to Gede’s surprise.
“What surprise?” I ask, he just laughs at me.
Around an hour and a half later we arrive into a small compound, and it’s dark. I can hear movement though, and a child laughing quietly. A dog barks, somewhere close by. Gede smiles, and all of a sudden I am whipped into a group hug. It’s Gede’s family, and I haven’t seen them for three years.
After the excitement dies down, Gede’s wife leads me into the house where she has prepared dinner for us all. Among friends, I sit, laugh, eat and enjoy. This is what travel is all about, these connections that you make that last a lifetime. This is why we do this, to find this joy and love in an extended global family.
As I wander through central Ubud the next day, I note the changes. The increased traffic, the noise, the general hubbub. The market has also changed; the haggling is harder, the people more resigned. The locals have been robbed of their beautiful, peaceful natures due to increased demand from tourism. I note that while the Starbucks is packed with tourists, the local coffee places are pretty quiet. My favourite, Anomali, on Jalan Raya Ubud is no different. I am the only person with white skin as I sit down with my order. Throngs of tourists wander up and down the street, none stopping, all sweaty and most in yoga pants or carrying mats. The outside world has been well and truly established in Ubud.
As much as I want to hate all these changes to a place I have grown up loving, I understand that change is necessary. While they seem more resigned and embittered, the locals around the markets are still laughing and helping one another. The same sense of love and light permeates their every move, every whisper, every smile. The many temples are still busy with traditional ceremonies. The children still laugh and play in the back alleys and laneways.
The changes may be happening, and there is little I can do to stop it. But it is good to know that the essence of what I love about Bali, and in particular Ubud still remains.