Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Bali’s Cultural Center ~ Ubud

December 17th, 2015 4 comments

Ubud - lilly pad

In my last post, I wrote about my trip to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival on the island of Bali in Indonesia. We were five women from our Dubai-based book club, and we spent nearly a week in Ubud. Meanwhile, I have more to say about the city itself.

Some believe Ubud is a place of transcendence; by simply being there, one can achieve spiritual balance. Who knows? But what I can say is the city is loaded with inspiring places to visit— green rice terraces, art galleries, temples, museums, a palace, even a monkey sanctuary and nearby volcano. As for me, what I liked about Ubud was a feeling.

The Ubud Vibe

Pronounced “oobood,” the city is small. As the map suggests, it’s a handful of one- and two-lane streets. At first glance, it appears to be a small town with little shops and streets riddled with pot holes. In fact, the city is made of fourteen villages that have organically converged into one small city—while still maintaining its “village” feeling.

Map of Ubud

Ubud street

Nestled in the mountains and rice patties, the main streets of Ubud bustle with travelers, yogis, locals and expats. What I liked: the dress code and customs are casual, and everyone seems to coexist easily, a fact which adds to the welcoming feeling of the place.

Ubud expat family

Removed from the Bali beach scene, Ubud has managed to preserve its culture. With self-imposed rules, the city has largely keep businesses and products local. In the shops I found Balinese handicrafts and jewelry. On the streets my friends and I stumbled upon this temple and Balinese girls performing a traditional dance in front of it. What a lovely sight, and no one seemed to care I was taking photos.

Ubud - Temple

Ubud - Traditional Balinese dance

Ubud - traditional dance

Despite the many visitors, Ubud did not strike me as touristy, but rather as steadfastly authentic. I didn’t notice any of the typical fast food outlets or chain restaurants that one usually sees at a tourist destination. Apparently there are chain hotels outside the city, but I never saw them. I came across one Starbucks, which I couldn’t resist. For me, it’s a little piece of Seattle.

Ubud - Starbucks

Ubud Starbucks Gong

Shopping Like a Millionaire

Did I mention the shopping? Everyone in my group delighted in the endless boutiques lining the streets—what a terrific break from the malls of Dubai. Each time I exchanged $100 US, I got back more than 1,300,000 rupiah. It was a struggle getting used to all those zeroes. I kept trying to pass off 5,000 for 50,000. Of course, that didn’t stop me from buying stuff. I came home with an extra suitcase of textiles, both hand woven and batiks, all made in Bali, in addition to Balinese silver jewelry, wicker bags, and books from the writers festival.

Ubud boutique

Ubud - Batik shop

Ubud shopping

Where Everyone Asks your Name

In the short time I was there, I found the people of Ubud to be chatty and sincere. In fact, I don’t recall being any place where so many people asked my name, especially taxi drivers, but also expats, and almost anyone I sat down next to. A few moments into any taxi ride and the driver (usually named Ketut) would ask my name, where I was from, and how long I was staying. Sometimes I felt I was part of an elaborate ESL role play.

As I wondered around the city alone, I always felt safe. One day I was trying to catch a taxi on the street, and I was late for a workshop at the writers festival. After waiting impatiently, I eventually walked back to the hotel in hopes the staff could get a taxi for me. The hotel employee told me it would be 20 minutes for a taxi to arrive. I told him I needed to be there in 20 minutes. By then I was visibly stressed. I pleaded, “Can’t you just stop a taxi on the street?” And so, he stepped out and stopped one of the many familiar silver vans that fill the streets. Once inside, we exchanged the usual: where are you from, how long have you been here, etc.

This driver was named Kevin. He was from Korea and spoke beautiful English. He told me he taught meditation classes. Wow, I thought, what an unusual taxi driver. Then he pointed out a business as we drove past. “That’s my restaurant,” he said. “The only vegan Korean restaurant in Indonesia!”

“You’re not a taxi driver,” I told him.

He laughed, and appeared amused at the thought. But I was a bit shocked the hotel staff put me in some random guy’s car. Still, it was better than being late. Plus, I enjoyed the ride, talking to Kevin about meditation and soul communication (his specialty). I arrived on time, content and relaxed, amazed at how things work in Ubud.

Do-it-Yourself Spa Trip

Nearly everywhere I walked in Ubud, I passed by a little Balinese spa. So, my writers festival trip turned into a kind of do-it-yourself spa trip with massages, spa treatments, yoga, and healthy eating— all surprisingly affordable.

The place overflows with health food galore—raw, vegan, macrobiotic, you name it—found on every street corner. We ate local Indonesian food every evening, and most of those restaurants had separate vegetarian menus. As someone who eats mostly vegan, it was surprisingly easy for me to eat 100% vegan in Ubud, including some irresistible vegan desserts, and this vegan salad at the Yoga Barn Café.

Ubud - Vegan Salad

The Yoga Barn

While planning our trip, our group, all of whom practice yoga at some level, heard the Yoga Barn was the place for yoga in Ubud, so we agreed on a hotel nearby. Just a quick yogi hop from our hotel, the place offers all manner of yoga classes from 7 a.m. until late in the evening. Plus, at $10 US (130,000 IDR), the classes are super-cheap by any standards.

Ubud - Yoga Barn Sign

I took two yoga classes there, each with about 50 students. My instructors (from Canada and Japan) were dynamic and highly skilled in dealing with huge classes of students of various backgrounds and levels—many of them visitors.

Ubud - Yoga Barn

The amazing thing for me was practicing yoga in an open space, surrounded by trees, the sounds of birds, and the voices of children (there was a school nearby). With breeze wafting through, it was warm yet perfectly comfortable. I walked in feeling a bit overwhelmed and out of my element. Ninety minutes later, I left refreshed and invigorated.

Ubud Yoga barn

Green School

One place our group did visit was the nearby Green School, located about 30 minutes south of Ubud. A few of my travel companions had heard of Green School from Elora Hardy’s Ted Talk entitled “Magical Houses Made of Bamboo”.

green school

Interesting to environmentalists, architects, and educators, Green School is an eco-school with a curriculum centered on environmental values. The school relies on sustainable practices, such as solar power, composting, and bamboo architecture. Awarded the title “Greenest School on Earth,” Green School features open classrooms with natural light and no walls. Their students are both expats and local Indonesian children.

green school mission

Green School offers regular tours, the fees from which fund tuition for local students. On our tour through the campus, we marveled at the bamboo structures, built with cutting edge technology, as well as traditional methods and materials. My favorite structure was the yoga space for students and teachers.

Ubud - The Green School

Travel Details

This year Emirates Airlines started direct flights from Dubai to Denpasar, Bali, so we were happy to test out this nine-hour flight.

The hotels in Bali are of the boutique variety—small, quaint, and in the Balinese style. We stayed at the Plataran Hotel, chosen for its proximity to the Yoga Barn. At around $100 US per night (off-season), I was amazed how perfect the place was, with the staff falling over themselves to provide us with whatever we asked.

Ubud Plataran hotel room

Ubud - hotel patio

Ubud Hotel Pool

In the evenings we enjoyed live music in their bar, including this charming group of Bali-hipsters who played Cat Stevens and Beatles tunes.

Ubud - Hotel Band

Now back home in Dubai, my trip to Bali has faded into just a memory. I spend my free time sitting in my sun room—doors flung open—daydreaming about another trip to Bali. Next time I’d like to hike through a bamboo forest and bicycle through the rice terraces—like Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat Pray Love. And I, too, shall wear a white blazer. Just like Julia.

Ubud Julia Roberts

Question: What are your impressions of Ubud and Bali?

Adventures in Bali ~ Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

November 12th, 2015 8 comments

Ubud Writers Festival - Signage
The 12th annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival—what a marvelous excuse to travel to Bali. We were five women, all members of the same Dubai-based book club, ready for our next international literary adventure.

Ubud Writers Fest - Entrance
Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned literary and cultural event, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) celebrates both Indonesian and international writers, including well known writers, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon. This year’s theme was “17,000 Islands of Imagination.”


An important event indeed, and yet the festival had a cozy, intimate vibe to it. I wonder how many other literary festivals begin with a free yoga session each morning? Attended by expats, visitors, students, retirees, and locals, the festival was held in a cluster of outdoor venues, all within walking distance of each other.

Compared to the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai, I found UWRF more flexible and flowing; participants buy day passes and drift from session to session—often in flip-flops and tank tops. While UWRF was more costly than the Jaipur Lit Fest (which is free), the Ubud event was more contained, without the sheer numbers at Jaipur. This made it easier to move around and find a seat.

I found the topics of the panel sessions smart and focused, delving into all aspects of writing, including how writers juggle their creative work, how they get their ideas and inspiration, and even how they stay happily married to a fellow writer.

In short, every day of the event was worthwhile, and I felt lucky to be there.

About Bali & Ubud

Ubud bali-map
Bali, known as “Island of the Gods,” is one of thousands of islands that make up Indonesia. With a population of more than four million, Bali is home to Indonesia’s Hindu community and is renowned for its art, music, dance, and natural beauty. Located in the center of the island, the city of Ubud, nestled in the forests and rice paddies, (population 30,000) has positioned itself as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali.

Open rooms & Open Minds

In Bali’s warm tropical climate, this festival takes place in open rooms and large gazebos, with breezes wafting though. Located just below the equator, Ubud hovers around 85°F/30°C year round, with varying humidity.

Ubud Writers Festival - Venue
Coming from Dubai, it was a bit of a shock to be outside without any air conditioning and in the heat and humidity all day. (We only had A/C only in our hotel room.) I had to wipe sweat from my brow and dig my fan out of the bottom of my bag.

UWRF panel discussion

By the third day, I gradually adjusted to the climate and the environment. I learned to pace myself, dress lightly, drink cold beverages, and fan myself. In the end, it was a revelation to spend my days free of air conditioning, feeling a warm breeze on my skin. In fact, even hotel lobbies and restaurants are all open spaces or covered terraces. This also goes for yoga studios and even restrooms. So, after Ubud, I’ve vowed to spend more time outdoors and to fling my windows open.

Ubud Tropical Outdoors

Controversy at the Festival

Before the festival, I read on the UWRF newsfeed that some of their sessions had been cancelled. “Nothing we can do” was the gist. Later, I discovered the cancellations were due to censorship of a sensitive issue in Indonesian history—the violent events of 50 years ago, the anti-communist purges of 1965 (as dramatized in the film The Year of Living Dangerously).

Of course, the thing about censorship is that it makes people discuss the topic even more. I would have never thought about this tragic event in Indonesian history if not for the censorship. During various panel sessions, references to the censorship and to this piece of Indonesian history popped up again and again. To know more, read this article in the Guardian.

The Festival

For me, a literary festival is all about the writers— seeing writers whose work I have read and discovering new books and authors. Here are highlights from my week spent this year’s event, which wrapped up earlier this month:

Chigozie Obioma


UWRF Chigozie Obioma (2)

A Nigerian writer, Chigozie Obioma teaches literature and writing at the University of Nebraska. His debut novel The Fisherman was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

As part of the writers’ festival, I had the pleasure of taking a writing workshop from this young professor entitled “Create Audacious Prose,” inspired by his piece “The Audacity of Prose,” (its title a takeoff on Barak Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.)

In his workshop, Chigozie Obioma challenged the minimalist approach to writing fiction, a trend in the US right now, and he encouraged us to write audacious prose, lyrical and dynamic, but not overwritten or filled with an excess of adverbs and adjectives.

Michael Chabon

Ubud Writers Festival - Michael ChabonUWRF Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

American writer Michael Chabon promoted his latest book Telegraph Avenue and described how he immerses himself into the world in which he is writing, and in this case, the worlds of midwifery and vinyl records. He explained how in Telegraph Avenue he wrote from the point of view of an African-American midwife. He argued that a writer can write fiction from any point, regardless of age, gender, race, or culture. At another session, he and his wife, fellow novelist Ayelet Waldman, discussed sharing the writing life within a marriage.

At the book signing, I asked him where our book club should begin if we’re reading his work for the first time. He recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.

Mohsin Hamid

Ubud Writers Festival - Mohsin HamidUWRF How to Get Filthy rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani writer most known for his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (also made into a film). I saw him on a panel entitled “On Who We Are” exploring the topics of migration and deportation. A funny and thought-provoking speaker, Hamid argued that all individuals should have the right to travel and live wherever they want, regardless of borders or nationalities.

Later, at a session devoted to him, “Mohsin on Mohsin,” he told the story behind The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel which took seven years to take shape after he tried different plots and points of view. The book eventually got the attention of publishers after 9/11. He also spoke about his imagination, his children and his life in Lahore, where he currently resides. Finally, he explained how his latest book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a novel in the guise of self-help book.

Teju Cole

Ubud Writers Festival - Teju ColeUWRF Every Day is for the Thief - Teju Cole


The first author I saw speak at the festival, Teju Cole is an experimental writer and photographer from Nigeria, now living in New York. His was one of the opening sessions of the festival and he began by saying it didn’t get much better than this—being in a tropical paradise and talking about literature. He discussed his experiences as a walker, writer, and photographer, someone who likes to roam around exploring and discovering.

When asked where our book club should begin, he told me the best place to start was with Every Day is For the Thief, his novella about a Nigerian writer who returns to his homeland.


UWRF Xinran (2)

UWRF Buy Me the Sky by Xinran

A London-based Chinese writer, Xinran is best known for her book The Good Women of China, which I read when it first came out. I enjoyed seeing her on a panel about women and self-sabotage where she expressed that Chinese women have a particularly difficult task overcoming ingrained cultural values. In China, she explained, boys are considered “roof beams” while girls are referred to as “chopsticks.” Hence, the title of her latest novel, Miss Chopsticks, a book I’ll to try to convince my book club to read. (Apparently it’s more upbeat and less harrowing than The Good Women of China.)

In another session, Xinran discussed her recent book Buy Me the Sky, which tells the stories of Chinese men and women born and raised under China’s One Child Policy, a policy which, she argues, turned the entire Chinese family structure upside down. She explained how parents with only one child are downright phobic over their child’s safely. Furthermore, these only children often live as “little emperors,” narcissistic but also facing isolation and confusion. Interestingly, the abolishment of China’s One Child Policy was announced on the same day that the festival began.

Eka Kurniawan

Ubud Writers Fest - Eka Kurniawan

UWRF Beauty is a Wound Eka Kurniawan

Declared a “writer to watch” by Publisher’s Weekly, Eka Kurniawan is a rising Indonesian writer. During my flight to Bali, I read his piece “A Slacker of Jakarta,” which was published that week in the New York Times Magazine. I enjoyed his personal yet universal story about familial religious expectations, and I was excited to know the name of at least one Indonesian writer as I headed to UWRF.

Eka Kurniawan discussed his novel Beauty is a Wound, translated into English, which critics describe as uniquely Indonesian, an epic and stunning story told through magical realism.

Ashok Ferrey

UWRF Ashok FerreyUWRF Ashok Ferrey (2)

Ashok Ferrey is Sri Lanka’s biggest selling author in English. I saw him on a panel of short story writers, and I was struck by the beauty and horror of the story he read aloud about the tsunami of 2004. Because he is the host of a television show in Sri Lanka, he has a terrific reading voice. I have never read any books from Sri Lanka and I think Love in the Tsunami is a good place to start.

Antoine Cassar

uwrf antoine CassarUWRF Passaporto Antoine Cassar
During the panel session “On Who We Are,” a poet from Malta, Antoine Cassar read aloud an excerpt from a long poem entitled “Passaport.” Published in 11 languages, the poem is printed in a little book resembling an actual passport. His poem, full of angst and political fervor, was riveting and relevant, as it addresses the rights of migrants and refugees.

So, the next day looking for a place to eat my lunch, I ended up sitting next to him. Fortunately, I remembered his poem vividly and was able to ask him more. He told me his plans to leave Luxembourg and return to Malta. When I said that I’m from Washington State, he explained because he’s from an island, he’s obsessed with islands in general and a few in particular—including Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State. He told me he hopes to visit it one day.

Imagine my delight—I have been on Orcas multiple times, including spending a week on that very island this past August. I told him more about the island, showed him some photos on my phone, and he educated me on a few things, too. So, there I was, sitting in Bali, talking to a poet from Malta, who was teaching me things about an island in my own home state.

In my next post, I’ll share more about other interesting characters I encountered in Ubud.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

February 19th, 2015 13 comments

Jaipur Literature Festival

This was my second visit to Jaipur’s vibrant festival of literature. What brought me back a second time? In short, its colorful outdoor venue and upbeat vibe. It actually feels like a festival! Also, the fest’s big-name authors are another draw for me.

At last year’s event, I was thrilled to see Jumpha Lahiri, as well as Jonathon Frazen, Cheryl Strayed, and Reza Aslan. This year I saw Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. V.P. Naipul was also there, but sadly, Elizabeth Gilbert cancelled due to health reasons.

Both this year and last, I traveled with my Dubai-based book club for the event. Last year we were six women and this year we were ten! It’s a wonderful thing to travel with a group of friends who share a common interest—in this case, a love of books.

Jaipur Literature Festival - Book Club

About the Jaipur Lit Fest

Considered the “Pink City” and the gateway to Rajasthan, the flamboyant city of Jaipur hosts the fest. The mostly-outdoor event is set in the Diggi Palace Hotel. With greenery, colorful tents, intricate interiors, and structures draped with bunting, the event has a truly festive feel. With an ambiance like that, people are chatty and it’s a great place to interact with fellow readers.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Jaipur Literature Festival

The largest free literary festival in the world, the Jaipur Lit Festival features both international and South Asian writers, including Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners and many celebrated Indian authors. The program includes talks, discussions, panels, debates, and music.

With a diverse showcase of writers, this year’s festival was a celebration of freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and diversity of thought—and occurring at a time when India faces various cultural and religious challenges.

I attended a variety of panels including “Writing Resistance: Of Battles and Skirmishes,” presented by UN Women as part of the Women Uninterrupted series (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

I also attended the panel, “Matters of Faith,” which reflected the religious diversity of India (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing

However, my favorite panel was “Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing.” Reading from their travel memoirs, the writers included Charles Glass, Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple, Brigid Keenan, Sam Miller and Samanth Subramanian (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival - Wanderlust Panel

What a delight to see Paul Theroux! After reading so many of his travel memoirs and novels over the years, I was excited to see him on various panels, including this one where he read from his upcoming memoir about traveling stateside (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival - Paul Theroux

At the time of the lit fest, our book club was reading White Mughals by the India-based historian William Dalrymple, so it was a lot of fun seeing him, too. Along with Namita Gokhale, Dalrymple is one of the directors and founders of the festival. A prolific writer, Dalrymple was an animated reader as he read from his travel memoir From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival - William Dalrymple

Of course, there were books to buy. This year the festival book store was sponsored by Amazon India, which meant (sadly) that there were fewer books for sale and more devices. I hope next year they bring back more actual books to the fest—as books are the soul of any literary event.

Jaipur Literature Festival - reader

Jaipur Literature Festival - Book Store

The event also had food outlets, stalls for shopping, including those wonderful Jaipur textiles, and my favorite—the tea wallahs selling masala chai in little clay cups.

Jaipur Literature Festival - tea sellers

To find out more about this event, see the Lit Fest webpage or read my post from last year. I’m looking forward to next year’s festival, and I hope to be there for the full four days and I hope Elizabeth Gilbert makes it next time!

Question: What are your favorite literature festivals around the world?