Sometimes I have to pinch myself.
Imagine. We're sitting in a taxi, heading north in Bali. Blink 182 is dominating the soundtrack and Real Madrid paraphernalia adorns our seatbelts. Of course, we're the only ones wearing any.
Our driver stops no fewer than three times on the three hour journey to take a toilet break. He grins widely as he apologizes for stopping once more. What has he been drinking? And how is he driving? The clutch must be suffering with that shift technique. As for the horn – it must be one of the first things you learn to use here. You drive on the left – in theory. But in reality, it seems you just drive wherever there's a fraction of space. An army of mopeds is weaving its way around us.
We zip past small family businesses selling elaborate palm-leaf temple decorations; past workshops with intricately carved, gold-etched wooden doors lined up like dominoes; past stone-carved statues of the elephant-headed ganesha in every size imaginable.
We pass lush green rice paddies, the conical hats of the workers bobbing out above the fields; intricate family homes with the thatched roof temples peeking over the compound walls; shops displaying a row of bird cages; across narrow river gorges and banana tree-lined streets.
On our left, a house is being built, supported by thick bamboo poles. To our right, a group of children in patterned, light-weight school uniform shirts, and brimming from ear to ear, are choosing a snack from the roadside “warung” (stalls). Alongside, a scooter repair workshop and a shelf full of Absolut Vodka bottles filled with petrol .
Now almost at our destination, the traffic thickens. Scooters buzz around us like a swarm of bees. A woman rides her moped, a mobile in one hand, a birdcage hanging off the handlebars. As if that wasn't enough to negotiate, a baby is strapped to her front, one child stands holding the handlebars, another child sits behind.
We grind to a halt behind a group of local people wearing brightly coloured traditional dress – the women balancing temple offerings precariously on their heads, the men playing the gamelan (gong). Temple processions take priority on the road. It's all part of daily life here – the hubbub in Ubud.
It's hard to believe that inner peace-seeking yogis the world over flock to such a chaotic place.
We brave the madness. The smell of incense fills the streets. Offerings to the gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons in the form of flower petals in banana-leaf baskets abound on the pavements, in front of shops, and at road junctions – watch your step!
“Massage, miss? Manicure, pedicure, miss?” “Where you want to go, sir? I can make you a very good price. 500,000 Rupiah for 10 hour tour.”
The noise! We can hardly feel ourselves think. And it's hot. We're sweating buckets just carrying our rucksacks along the road to our accommodation. Sweating even more so must be the women we see shovelling gravel from a truck, which they then transport further as huge loads on their heads. Seems it's all in a day's work for Balinese women.
We pass traditional warungs cooking up the ubiquitous nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), and babi guling (suckling pig). Interspersed are a glut of raw food cafés promoting infused tonics and detox shakes – they go hand in hand with the yoga craze here. Serious health food fans sup on these colourful cleansing beverages of orange, carrot, and ginger, and kale, spinach, parsley and lime, through bamboo straws, and munch on salads (“It would be good with a piece of steak,” says R – that's my boy!)
There's more yoga to be found in the shops that dot the streets selling peace, love, and friendship accessories. And if you can turn a blind eye to the abundance of tacky wooden penis bottle openers that adorn every trinket shop (yep, seriously!), there are some gorgeous little boutiques to have a nosy at.
We turn the corner to our family compound accommodation – a waft of fish sauce from the alleyway warung. Our room is one of the small buildings that ring the central courtyard with a view of the family shrine. The temple comes to the family here. And generations live together in a commune-based relationship. A birdcage takes pride of place.
It's a quiet oasis. Hard to believe the bustle we have just left behind. Kites fly high in the sky behind the rice fields. We can hear the gamelan from a temple in the distance. The sound of frogs and a symphony of other critters entertain us at sunset.
This was one place we really didn't expect to like. But a few hours are enough to make us want to explore this wonder for the senses for a few days.
For now, we relax in our quiet oasis. Ready to venture out into the hubbub again tomorrow.
This is Ubud. This is Bali.