There are no sidewalks in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. There are sidehikes, and sidetreks, but no sidewalks. First, there is the matter of elevation. Sometimes the sidewalks are raised 30-60cm from the roadway, then slope down to meet the road whenever there’s a storefront or driveway, which is every 5 meters. Then the sidewalk disappears without warning, and you’re sharing space with scooters, motorcycles and cars. And by “share”, I mean that, should traffic flow require it, these cars will gladly clamber on to your supposedly inviolate walking territory, exercising right of way by sheer size and made-of-steelness.
Second, there are sidewalk hazards. Many of the sidewalks cover drainage ditches underneath, and they have holes — fist-size, foot-size, leg-size, and whole person-size. And if you’re not watching where you’re going, you can break a fist, foot, leg or whole person. Some holes require jumping over — like, a Carl Lewis-style running leap. As a gesture of courtesy, the locals often put a long stick in these holes, so you can spot them better — or impale yourself on them, depending on how close you’re paying attention. There are also tree branches that cut through the space of the sidewalk at a 45° angle, which means you can easily brain yourself if you’re talking to someone while scanning the ground for person-breaking ditches.
Then, there are the people hazards. These sidewalks are narrow — basically, one Westerner wide. When you come face-to-face with a Balinese person, that’s easy: you break left, because people drive on the left here. But what if you come across another Westerner? There are a ton of Aussies and English people here, who will instinctively break left. But with the right-hand driving folks, you never know. A quick two-step shuffle ensues, usually to the tune of Uptown Funk, and with any luck, both parties pass intact. When in doubt, break left — it’s the law of the land.
Most of the Balinese you encounter on the sidewalk will not be walking; they will be sitting in wait for you. The females will all think your name is Massage; the males will all call you Taxi. Every fourth storefront in Ubud seems to be a spa, and every able-bodied male seems to have a side-hustle as a gypsy cabbie (car, scooter or both). By my estimation, while sidehiking in Ubud, for every minute of walking time, you get 5 offers of motorized transport or professional kneading.
Of course, you only deal with the sidehike nonsense if you’re enough of a chump to walk in the first place. Because every native man, woman and child is on a scooter (aka motorbike, moped, or matic). At first glance, the Ubud scooter traffic looks like madness and chaos — more like the flow of a tropical river than any discernible traffic pattern. Lane lines? Absent. Traffic lights and stop signs? Haven’t seen any yet, and decorative when they do exist. What you do see is people from age 10 to 70 on scooters in every imaginable combination: single, double, whole families, an entire hardware store (while the guy takes orders on his phone), and the winner: a lady nursing her baby.
By law, people are required to wear helmets, but compliance is lax and enforcement even more so. The sensible ones wear long sleeves, pants, and real shoes, but most people drive around in minimalist tropical gear: shorts, tank top, and flip-flops.
If you think this is a public health disaster waiting to happen, you’d only be half wrong: it’s already happening every day. Especially with the inexperienced Westerners, who think they can jump into this roiling fray without mad pre-existing scooter skills and full-body Kevlar armor and somehow remain unscathed.
Every day of my stay, a consistent percentage of my friends got bruised and bandaged from some kind of motorbike accident. Hell, I have a full motorcycle license and I took two weeks to practice and understand the traffic patterns before jumping in. Of course, if you’re only in town for a week, you don’t have the luxury of time. So, in the interest of keeping your body free of rips, scrapes, bruises and breaks, here are some inviolable rules of scooter transport:
- Always, always, always wear a helmet. Especially when riding with someone else.
- Always, always, always wear closed-toe shoes. Especially when riding with someone else. If you just wear flip-flops while riding behind someone, you are a fool, because your feet are sticking out of the scooter, unlike the driver, whose feet are inside, and somewhat protected by the platform and footwell. All it takes is a stray branch or rock to trash your feet and render you a hobbling invalid. Not how you want to spend your vacation.
- If you’re a beginning driver, start out slow and be patient. Remember that you’re on vacation, which means that you don’t need to hurry, ever.
Appeasing the spirit gods
One of the first things I noticed in Ubud were the curious little square flat baskets on the ground and on various statues. The baskets were made of interwoven coconut leaves, and contained flowers; rice (dry or cooked); pieces of fruit; sometimes a small candy, cracker or cookie; and always incense. What the heck is going on here?
Then I saw a young woman dressed in a formal sarong and colorful ceremonial shirt place one of these at the foot of a statue and reverently sprinkle it with water. Is this some kind of sacred ceremonial gesture? Why yes it is. The offerings are called banten, and they are a consuming preoccupation of the Balinese.
Although Indonesia is mostly Muslim (87%), most Balinese are Hindu. It’s a special flavor of Hinduism, mixed in with Buddhism and Balinese animism. So the banten are not just offerings to the legions of Hindu gods, but also to the Balinese demons pre-dating Hinduism — in particular, the good demon Barong, and the evil demon Rangda.
The Balinese are deeply invested in this contrast between dark and light, evil and good, impure and pure. So much so that they leave as many banten at the Rangda altars as they do at the Barong ones. There must be balance! So good and evil get equal time. Kind of like the US Congress.
Speaking of altars, apparently every Balinese house has three of them: a high one for the major deities, a middle one for the family, and a low one for the demons, with each altar statue wrapped in a formal sarong. Ganesha the elephant-god and Hanuman the monkey-god are popular subjects, and Shiva is ubiquitous. Altars with just the symbol of the swastika are also common, which here only carries its original meaning of a lucky or auspicious object.
Initially, I thought these reverential gestures touching, especially when seeing a formally-clad lady laying down flowers and holy water on a lowly scooter. But after a while, I couldn’t help but notice two things. First, these banten — 1-3 times a day, with items of dubious biodegradability — generate a stupendous amount of waste. Second, are they laying down these offerings out of love or fear? Turns out it’s a bit of both, but mostly fear. Balinese culture is profoundly superstitious. Its ceremony culminates in the new year celebrations.
Nyepi and Ogoh-ogoh
Nyepi (March 28) is the Balinese new year. In the run-up to it, there is a ton of preparation for the new year’s eve Ngrupuk parades. All over the island, craftsmen build giant demons (ogoh-ogoh), musicians practice till late in their gamelan bands, and designers build costumes and headdresses. This means that in the weeks before the new year, you’ll walk by some terrifying half-finished giant papier-mâché baby’s head and wonder what the hell is going on.
One of the magical experiences for me was stumbling upon a midnight gamelan rehearsal. The men are dressed formally, most of them playing a xylophone-like instrument. But gamelan music is tuned to a pentatonic scale. So if you have an ear trained by Western music, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and it’s utterly captivating. My brain was trying to figure out every note: why the hell it was off by just a little bit?
Apparently I wasn’t the only Western music enthusiast entranced by gamelan music. Claude Debussy was famously influenced, and I will now hear the shimmering sounds of Estampes and Suite Bergamasque with new ears. Erik Satie emulated the gamelan sound in his Gnossienne piano suite. More recently, Lou Harrison went so far as to construct his own gamelan instruments to compose original pieces. Some of these pieces and instruments were showcased by Michael Tilson Thomas in the San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox 100th birthday tribute to Lou Harrison in December 2016.
But, back to the ogoh-ogoh. The finished specimens weigh hundreds of kilos and can be a good 6m (20ft) high. They sit on bamboo platforms, and dozens of young men carry, hoist and twist these beasts through the streets of Bali in parades and make-believe battles with other demons. After much storytelling, shadow plays, faux street fights, and insanely loud percussion music, the celebrating Balinese folks burn these exquisitely crafted demons to the ground. At midnight, the town goes into silence.
One thing you have to understand about Balinese people is that they are unfailingly polite. To you, the visitor, they will always smile and never say “no.” I asked a taxi driver, “Do you speak English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said, “Yes, yes.” So I asked, “How good is your English?”, and with vigorous nodding he said “Yes, yes.”
However, on one and only one day, they will get in your face. That day is Nyepi, which is Balinese for “shut up and stay home.” Because on Nyepi, the bad demons come flying over the neighborhood. If there’s nobody on the street, then the demons just kind of look at each other, shrug, and go, “Nope, nuffin’ to see here,” and move on. A relatively demon-free year can then ensue. But woe betide the neighborhood if somebody’s outside the house doing stuff. Because that gives the bad demons a landing spot, with predictably dire consequences. Did I mention the part about superstition?
So on Nyepi, the day of silence, everyone stays home, fasts and meditates. The entire island of Bali shuts down, even the airport. Some cities go so far as to shut down electricity. I spent the day meditating, reading two books (both by social psychologist Timothy Wilson, in case you were wondering) and doing a 36-hr fast, conveniently obviating the need for food in a restaurant-less city. At the end of one of my walking meditations, I ventured to the edge of the hotel to see who was on the street. Nobody, except for a sole fella with an enforcer t-shirt. I resisted the smartass impulse to ask him what he was doing on the street, and returned poolside to savor the quiet of the day.
The ostensible purpose of my stay in Bali was to work on my next book. It’s safe to say that I got no writing done the first two weeks I was here. Okay, maybe three. Or four. If the point of leaving San Francisco was to avoid distractions in the form of talks, concerts, classes and people, Ubud scores a giant fail for that. There may be no SF Symphony or City Arts & Letters here. But there is Yoga Barn, and that is enough to keep your day full. The whole day, every day.
See, if you are into yoga, healing, or meditation, then Yoga Barn has something for you, from 7am to 9pm. They have yoga classes with excellent teachers all day. They have offbeat classes like Thai Yoga Massage, Sound Healing, and Shamanic Breathing. And they have the Garden Kafé serving vegetarian and vegan food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And smoothies. And desserts. Oh, and a spa, with all kinds of massages and facials. Basically, it’s heaven for the Affluent Western Woman (AWW).
So what happens is that you’re sitting at lunch, chatting away with your newfound friends from Australia, or Norway, or Germany, or Colorado. And then someone says, “Hey, why don’t you come to Yin and Meditation class? Emily’s great.” And you think, well, why don’t I? I can always postpone the meeting with Angela Merkel till later. And that’s how I experienced a whole panoply of classes I would have otherwise neglected:
Sound healing: This amazing musician named Punnu Wasu who can do Sanskrit kirtan and Urdu qawwali and the harmonium, and his band of musicians assembled most likely that very day, play a bunch of devotional music while you lie down, head-first. What ensues is the most pleasant musically-accompanied nap you can imagine, and much cheaper than Wagner’s Ring cycle. He also does a kirtan session, which is phenomenal if you’re into that whole devotional-call-and-response-to-pagan-deities-in-languages-you-don’t-understand thing.
Thai yoga massage: You use your body to stretch and knead another body. Taught by the outstanding, multitalented, dreadlocked Carlos Romero (aka the Venezuelan Lenny Kravitz), who also teaches vinyasa flow, Acroyoga, and capoeira. I have yet to meet a woman (or man) here who doesn’t have a teacher crush on him (to be clear, I just want to be him).
Shamanic breathing: For 90 minutes, you hyperventilate your heart out with open-mouth breathing. This disrupts your blood chemistry in a way that induces whole-body tingling, some cramping, and potential hallucinations. See, I knew you’d love it. An inexplicable crowd favorite.
Bali Spirit Festival
Through sheer happenstance, the annual Bali Spirit Festival, a 7-day feast of yoga, music and dancing now in its tenth year, was happening during my stay. Through the generosity of an old friend from Boston, I came into a pass for the festival (thanks a million, Maria!) and decided to attend. As a result, I experienced some more classes that I can now report on:
Afro Flow Yoga: The delightfully energetic Leslie Jones leads you through a combination of African dance, chants, and yoga poses, all accompanied by her percussionist husband Jeff.
Contact improvisation dance: I always thought of this as the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of dance, but the way Baptiste taught it made a lot of sense and was much strenuous sweaty fun. Basically, roll into, lean on, crawl under and carry your partner till it gets old, then switch partners and do it all over again.
ZenThai Yoga Massage: Like Thai yoga massage, but with more zen! Taught by an Australian surf god named Gwyn, with emphasis on acupressure points.
Laughter yoga: After the uproarious sounds of this class made paying attention impossible in my quieter class next door, I decamped to see what the hell was up. Teacher Kay-Wararuk Sunonethong was utterly charming with exercises that seem goofy at first glance (“Very good, very good, hahaha!”) but are quite effective in changing mood. Psychologists call this embodied cognition: emotions follow the body’s actions. Her winning motto: “Please keep being silly.”
The Healer Hustle
Of course, for every great teacher and healer in Ubud, there are scores who are mediocre, unqualified, or downright dodgy. To be fair, most of these self-styled healers sincerely believe in what they are doing. However, no amount of belief is ever going to turn an ineffective healing technique (e.g. bloodletting, which hastened the demise of George Washington and Lord Byron) into an effective one (e.g. penicillin).
Said healers also hang out at Garden Kafé, because that’s where the open-minded AWWs are talking about their latest cleanse, juice fast, 7-day silent retreat, yoga teacher training, colonic treatment, or chakra clearing. If so, they’re already 9/10 of the way towards booking a session with someone who convincingly presents a solution to their real or imagined problems.
For example, this is what this one guy who calls himself Nadao Medium (name modified to prevent free publicity) did to a friend of mine. Stacy is sitting there having dinner, minding her own business, when Nadao comes over and says in all earnestness, “Sorry to interrupt you, but I just got a transmission about you and had to share it.” Like gearboxes and differentials? No, a transmission from beyond, silly. Next thing, he’s telling her about how she had a big shift in her life at age 8 — omigod, how could he know?! — and how she’s a true seeker and he has some answers for her, if she’s interested. Would she like to book a session?
Stacy did end up booking the session, for $100 and 2.5 irretrievable hours of her life. For a sense of scale, $100 is a lot of money in Ubud — we’re talking ten one-hour massages. I should probably mention that Stacy is young and pretty, and during the session Nadao kept pointing out that her relationship with her boyfriend was not going to last, oh and by the way, her sexuality was shut down. He also made a bunch of completely misplaced pronouncements about her life that left her perturbed the next day when I spoke to her.
Dear friends: one of the most reliable ways of inflicting misery upon yourself is to believe in magical thinking. That is, to think that someone else has the solution to your problem, and that solution is of a supernatural nature. Look, it’s cool if you still want to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But if you’re over 6, people will start looking at you funny. Belief in healers with magical powers is pretty much the same thing.
But you know what? You don’t have to believe me. In 2005, my personal hero Derren Brown came to the US to film Messiah, a TV special in which he impersonated 5 different practitioners of the spiritual and supernatural arts: a medium, an alien abduction specialist, a psychic, a dream interpreter, and an evangelical Christian preacher. His goal was to have prominent professionals from each of those fields endorse him as the genuine article. 4.5 of the 5 did. You have to watch the whole riveting show to see what happened. Expect your brains to be rearranged.
What people like Nadao the Medium are doing is cold reading. It’s an art and a science, and if you get good at it, you can fool pretty much anyone. Palm reading is a form of cold reading, because there is no proven correlation between the lines in your hand and life events. So are all forms of astrology and tarot. I do pretty good palm readings. Afterwards, even when I tell people that I totally made everything up, they still want to believe it was all true. It was not. It was bullshit. Manufactured it personally, so I should know.
In fact, as you’re sitting there right now, reading this page, I’m getting a transmission about you. Ah yes — you are a very self-assured person. Outwardly, everyone sees you as confident and competent. And yet, you have areas of self-doubt that you’ve gotten very good at hiding. In fact, you may even think that you’re a fraud at the very thing that everyone else thinks you’re really good at.
Here’s another intuition about you: as you were growing up, you had a turbulent relationship with your opposite-sex parent, particularly starting around age 11 or 12. And I have a feeling you have a scar on your left knee.
How did I do? If those things sounded eminently plausible to you, it’s because they’re plausible to everyone. We all have insecurities; everybody was a teenager at some point; and all kids fall a lot. However, as I’m cold-reading you and creating this warm and oh-so-special personal cocoon between us, your mind is only paying attention to the hits, not the misses. And you’re completely ignoring the base rate — the degree to which my oracular pronouncements are true of the general population. Oh, and you have an obsession with underwear — in fact, you’re wearing some right now!
Now I’m not saying that these treatments bear no benefit whatsoever. Hell, there are studies that show even chiropractors sometimes get good results. This is because meaningful contact with another human being can itself be curative. Someone sits down, listens to you, and pays attention for a full hour — something neither doctors nor spouses seem able or willing to do these days.
The other problem with these treatments is that they’re nonspecific. I’ve gotten some significantly tingly feelings when someone did Reiki on me, but what did it accomplish? Did it solve the problem or merely treat it temporarily? How do you measure the before and after? How big a dose did I get? Are there side effects? Real drugs undergo rigorous testing to answer all of these questions, and even they don’t work all the time. If all you want is an experience of healing, hey, knock yourself out and stimulate the local economy in the process. But if you have appendicitis, may I suggest a scalpel.
I’m nowhere as good as Derren, but here’s my challenge to Medium Anao specifically, and healers in general: if I do a session with your client, and they declare that it was as good as yours, then you’re a fraud. Taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities is totally uncool, so if that’s your business model, I’m coming for ya.
So, in the interest of reader safety and getting this rant out of my system, here’s a list of healing modalities you’re better off avoiding. Keep in mind that I’m trained not just as a doctor but also a clinical hypnotherapist, so I’ve been moving in these circles for a while, and my experience with the woo is usually firsthand:
Past-life regression: Daydreams that you pay a lot for. It’s fun to make up stories; the whole business of books and movies is based on it. But there is no scientific evidence that this stuff actually works. And under hypnosis, it’s trivially easy to implant memories and prompt all kinds of weird tales. In my live stage hypnosis shows, I routinely get people to pretend they’re aliens, speak in an alien tongue, and have someone else interpret it. This does not make Planet Xorkon real. You already have a real life with enough problems that you don’t need past ones to pile on top of it. Let’s stick with that.
Intuitive healers: Some of these people have a talent, but it’s just really hard to quantify what they’re doing. Mostly they make you feel good about yourself. If that’s worth money to you — hey, you look great today! Really, you do. And you’ve got so much kindness and generosity in your heart. That’ll be $150, thank you.
Colonic hydrotherapy: Nature created one-way streets for a reason — arteries, veins, bile ducts, digestive tracts. Do not try to reverse that flow. Colonics are totally unproven, with risk of colon perforation. Surely one can find more wholesome entertainment than this.
Psychics and mediums: This is straight-up cold reading. Incredibly manipulative, and dangerous even as entertainment.
Astrology: Let’s say you have a problem in your life. Is it more likely to be caused by some random person 10,000km away, or the person occupying your seat right now? Well, the average planet is 100 million km away, and stars 100 billion km. So quit blaming Mercury in “retrograde” instead of the reprobate in your seat who’s good at making bad decisions. This is magical thinking at its worst. I’ve noticed an astonishing number of perfectly smart, educated women who believe in this nonsense. Superstition is the opposite of power, and makes you incredibly easy to manipulate. And no, putting “Vedic” in front of anything does not make it less bogus.
Cleanses: Cleanses seem like the custom-made antidote to Judeo-Christian feelings of guilt, sin and impurity — some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card after abusing your body for too long. Friends don’t let friends do cleanses. But they do encourage them to lay off the sugar, processed food, alcohol and crystal meth.
The good news is that your body is exquisitely good at clearing waste out of your body. If your lungs, kidneys and liver weren’t working at it around the clock, you’d be dead in minutes. There is no central repository of toxic gunk hiding somewhere in your body that can somehow be released through ingesting fruit juice, water, clay, maple syrup, lemon juice, motor oil or any other voodoo concoction.
If you have a parasite, take a pill. If you have a heavy metal problem, do chelation therapy under medical supervision, or listen to less Metallica. Otherwise, consider all cleanses to be snake oil. The Master Cleanse, developed in the 1920s by a felon jailed for damaging people by practicing medicine without a license, is a particularly popular culprit.
Also, know that fruit juice is bad for you. Yup, you heard it right. It’s basically sugar water, and it spikes your blood glucose to the stratosphere. Buying “cold-pressed” fruit juice just broadcasts “I’m credulous enough to drop $8 on a glass of juice and too lazy to chew.” Fruit was meant to be eaten whole, with the fiber and everything. May want to peel that pineapple, though.
Veganism: A plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health and that of the planet. Veganism, however, is more like an ideology than a diet. No stable community anywhere on earth follows a vegan diet, except for affluent Westerners who have the time and money to afford this kind of indulgence. It’s nutritionally deficient, pointlessly expensive, and just plain weird. I mean, tofurkey? Really? And do you appreciate how much environmental havoc soybeans farming wreaks? Vegans also make for difficult dinner companions and tend to be judgey. I know this because during my two-month vegan stint, I was insufferable. Cheese, I promise we’ll never be separated for that long again.
In the end, I’ve learned that the business model of preying on people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities remains robust. Since predators are going to keep preying, it’s incumbent on us to educate ourselves and remain vigilant against the never-abating tide of nonsense, sophistry and bullshit.
Besides Yoga Barn, Hubud (“Hub in Ubud”) was the other place that everyone told me about. This is the first co-working space in Asia. Starting at $30 a month, you get a shared workspace and access to fast internet. Hubud prides itself on hosting tons of events — talks, workshops, skill shares, startup weekends, hackathons, and Fuckup Nights (really). They foster an atmosphere of collegiality, and everyone is super-friendly and helpful. If you’re able to work remotely, Hubud allows you to gaze at a rice field and monkey forest while you pad around barefoot (no shoes inside!) and create a great startup or novel.
Outpost, a newer co-working space, is Hubud’s crosstown rival which I have only heard good things about. Co-working spaces like these are ideal harbors for the digital nomad. I appreciate a space where people have their heads down and get stuff done; otherwise this book ain’t ever gonna write itself.
But really — why Bali?
Every decision has a push and a pull to it. Bali sounded like a great place to camp out to do some thinking and writing. But I’d also gotten a bit tired of San Francisco, its incessant talk of “crushing it” and unicorns (both the billion-dollar valuation kind and the rainbow-farting kind), bullshit startup culture (“I know! Let’s deliver pre-digested food directly into people’s stomachs!” — that was Soylent, a real company), casual squalor, stupidly expensive housing, rampant materialism, egocentrism and preciousness. My six close friends who were the impetus for moving to San Francisco had all left town, so I was also starting to feel lonely. I probably ate 90% of my meals alone.
It was also getting harder and harder to get people to show up to anything — to receive an advance commitment of any kind. It seemed like people were more interested in company as a fungible commodity, like something you could order via an app — Uber for friendship, y’know? — versus my company specifically. But it was also impossible to get anyone to do anything spontaneous, because omigod I’ve got a board meeting at noon on Sunday, conference call 6am Tuesday, and some other utterly forgettable crap 9pm every day that ends in Y. In the pursuit of success, all these fabulously talented, hardworking people hadn’t noticed that they had lost control of their own time — which is my definition of enslavement. A golden cage is still a cage.
On top of all this, stuff happened in November 2016 that made me realize that the religion of the United States is one thing above all: greed. That is not my religion. More on that in the book I’m working on, Happiness Engineering: Redefining Success in an Age of Anxiety and Greed. If you’re one of those fabulously talented, overachieving people who’s starting to think that maybe your priorities are misplaced, drop me a line if you’d like to be featured as a case study for the whole world to read about.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m quite happy here. The environs are pleasant, everything I need is walking distance, work is good, and there is much novelty and wonder at hand. Do visit if you have a week or two to trade concrete for green.