Ubud – When reality doesn’t live up to expectations.

12783740_10208670053049384_7347634816739650244_o

Like a lot of people, I presume, I first heard about the Balinese town of Ubud after reading Elizabeth Gilberts book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Of course I then watched the movie. And as Julia Roberts cycled around the brilliantly green rice paddies, befriended an old medicine man and meditated her time away in blissful peace, Ubud shot straight to the top of my travel wish list. Because of course nature and meditation are two of my favourite things, it therefore seemed like an ideal place to sit and ponder life’s existence.

So, I went to Ubud, my last port of call in Bali and in Asia.

My journey originated from Amed, hours of driving through lush, lime green landscape soon transformed into traffic jammed streets, my driver fighting his way through a blockade of cars and motorcycle’s. After silently wondering what this crowded and smoggy town that we had landed ourselves in was called I noticed a street sign that read UBUD. Horrified, I asked the driver ‘Are we in Ubud now?’

‘Yes, this is Ubud.’ He replied.

Hearing these words caused the excitement I had felt to shrivel away to the bottom of my stomach and die. For, this was not the Ubud that they portray in the movie. I sat in the traffic jam silently cursing Julia Roberts for the false representation, making a mental note to myself, never, ever trust Hollywood again!

Congestion, whether it’s on the streets or in the mind, makes me feel discernibly miserable. I need clarity, to think, to breath, to walk. I had intended to put myself in a personal, silent, writing retreat here in the creative and cultural centre of Bali. But how could the creative juices flow when my vision was the never-ending throngs of traffic and my air was contaminated with toxic exhaust fumes?

Not one to quit I persevered, and I decided I would stick around and try and love Ubud; surely it couldn’t really be that bad, right?

I meandered through the backstreets and found the famous rice paddies. I set up home in a little guesthouse down a quiet lane that gave me some peace. And after four months in Asia with little food options that didn’t contain meat, the many vegan and organic cafés in this little town were very welcome.

But, despite my best efforts, and despite the variety of food available for a vegetarian, I did not grow to love Ubud. If you like shopping, lots of people rammed into tight spaces and dirty streets, then Ubud is the place to be in Bali. However, Bali has a lot more to offer than these overpopulated lanes. Ubud is renowned as being a place for healing, but I can’t help feeling that because of the hordes of tourists that now pound the pavements of this town, Ubud now feels a little wounding.

 

Swimming with turtles in Indonesia

12715826_10208573165987268_3244668380520589779_o

After having such an insanely wonderful experience in the ocean depths, off the coast of Bali, I was eager to jump back into the water and recreate that happiness. However, before donning the tank and BCD again I decided to try some snorkelling in the Gili Islands, in the hope that I would be able to come face to face with a turtle. Seeing a turtle under water when diving had been incredible, but this time I wanted to be able to look into its eyes.

The reef surrounding Gili Air was my first port of call. Shortly after entering the water I was witnessing shoals of fish going about their daily business. Box fish, mantis shrimp and clownfish all came to say hello to their human observer, but no turtles. After five hours it was time to call off the search and head back to land.

The following day, fuelled with determination once again, I ventured over to Gili Meno. Maybe I would find turtles there?

A local on the island advised me to swim out to an area called Secret Reef.

‘Turtles are always there.’ He assured me.

So, I followed his advice and propelled myself through the current until I was once again in the midst of Indonesia’s marine life. As I was floating around on the surface of the water a boat overflowing with snorkelers arrived. Now, if I was a turtle and I spotted a group of humans bobbing up and down on the surface in bright orange life jackets, kicking furiously, I certainly wouldn’t come out of my hiding place. So I swam away from my fellow species, out to the insular shelf, where the shallow waters of the reef meets the deep, blue depths of the ocean.

And, low and behold, my human dodging plan worked. A circular shape, like an ocean UFO, appeared in front of me…turtle!

Elated, I swam alongside the beautiful reptile as it glided through the water. Up and down it went, unsure of whether to break the surface. I wasn’t very close, but that didn’t matter. I was swimming in the Lombok Strait opposite a turtle, the very thing I had been looking for, for two days.

With my mission accomplished I started to make my way back to shore, the current gently pushing me in the right direction this time. I had stopped looking for turtles and was marvelling at three giant fish, a species I had never seen before with what appeared to be unicorn horns on their heads. When, out of the corner of my right eye, I spotted yet another large, dark shape gliding along close to the surface of the seabed. It was another turtle, only this time it was much closer. So close, in fact, that I recognised it as a hawksbill turtle, a species which is critically endangered. I left the weird and wonderful unicorn fish to swim with my second turtle companion of the day, ensuring I left enough space between us so that he wouldn’t feel threatened.

It appeared that this turtle was quite happy for this excited human to join him on his little journey. We swam along together until he decided he wanted to have a little break and a snack from the coral. So, I hung back watching him in absolute awe until he looked up at me, staring into my eyes giving me a silent message that my time with him was up. He then turned around and swam away.

With a little nod of my head and a wave I said a thank you for letting me hang out with him for a while and watched him disappear into the blue void.

12710805_10208573167347302_918322845008380901_o

Fear vs Adventure – Exploring Liberty Wreck

12640414_10208471940816702_1353775880164371390_o

Ever since I had become a certified scuba diver I had been itching to get back into the water. The main reason being was to feel as comfortable down in the depths of the ocean as a shark. I don’t know why scuba diving has such a nerve-wracking effect on me. To be down there, below the surface, swimming along the ocean floor with creatures that those Earth dwelling humans above don’t get to see is remarkable, there really is nothing like it. But, there is a black ball of fear that sits in the bottom of my stomach and slowly, slowly the content of the ball starts to seep out and spread through my veins.

Maybe it’s the thought of all the things that could go wrong? Nitrogen narcosis being one of them. Maybe it’s the fear of my mask filling with water and the worry that I won’t be able to clear the water out, even though I know how, and I would be blind at the bottom of the ocean. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fear of getting lost from my buddy and being alone under the sea. Whatever it is I am determined to fight the nerves and obliterate that ball of fear to nothing but specks of dust. Because being able to discover a part of the planet that is so untouched, and so vast and mind-blowing, is truly incredible. And I will, no matter what, become as natural underwater as Jacques Cousteau. With that in mind I signed up for my next dive, and my first real fun dive in Amed, Bali.

I’ll admit that I knew nothing about Amed. Normally I research each destination I travel to but I had decided that in Bali I would be more spontaneous and just go with the flow and see where I ended up. So when I found out that near Amed, the area of Bali I had never even heard of, there was a shipwreck diving spot, this was of course the place I wanted to explore. Scuba diving a shipwreck is on my ever growing bucket list but I had never expected to be able to do it so soon, as such a novice. The Liberty Wreck, however, is very close to shore and perfectly accessible, even for snorkelling. The USAT Liberty was a US army cargo ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II, off the coast of Lombok. It was then intentionally beached at Tulamben where, when the ever present Mount Agung erupted in 1963, it was pushed back into the ocean by the lava flow from the volcano. For a history lover, such as myself, this was just too good of an opportunity to miss. So I pulled on the wetsuit, and my BCD, and wobbled down to the shore with a heavy tank of oxygen on my back.

I had never done a shore dive before. Luckily, the water was calm and I was able to shuffle myself back into the ocean without any issues. Fins on, regulator in, I descended into the unknown. It was strange to be back underwater; however any nerves were soon washed away when a blue spotted stingray welcomed me to his world as I reached the ocean floor. And so I started swimming, dive master at my side guiding my way. There was nothing but an empty aqua void in front of us until, out of nowhere, a massive, dark shape towered in front me. And this was the moment, the real WOW moment underwater that I had been waiting for. It was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and I have seen some pretty incredible things! It blew my mind more than coming face to face with Mount Everest, and the highest mountain on the planet is some tough competition. If I had been able to talk, which is unfortunately not possible underwater, I would have been speechless. Truly, speechless. The lack of verbal communication is the only drawback when scuba diving, you can’t shout to get the attention of your dive buddies when you see something wondrous, or share in the ecstasy when you are in the moment, until you get back on to dry land. Under the sea communication is through sign language and wide, excited eyes. So, internally screaming with joy, I ventured further, swimming around the hull to inspect the coral that has made this ship their home and the marine life that has migrated there.

It wasn’t long before another dark shape appeared, this time above me. A round, black disc, not as grand as the ship but still as fabulous. It was a turtle, my first sighting of these modern day dinosaurs underwater. Again the excitement consumed me and I almost spat my regulator out, which is not really something one should do underwater considering the fact that without it I am cut off from my oxygen supply. I managed to compose myself and keep the very tool that was keeping me alive in my mouth as I floated underneath the real life Crush, watching him glide so elegantly, silently calling out to him ‘Dude, this is totally awesome, dude.’

Crush swam off into the void, I presume to find Nemo and Dory and go off on a little adventure of their own, while I approached the part of the dive my dive master had warned me about on dry land. ‘Just stay calm and follow my lead,’ she said. It was time to go inside the ship, yes that’s right, to swim inside it. A ship that had been underwater for fifty three years, a ship that was part of one of the biggest wars in history. Surprisingly I was calm, totally calm, as I swam through metal that held a thousand untold tales, through gaps and holes that were once rooms that people lived, breathed, laughed and possibly cried in. In fact, since the moment I had first laid eyes on USAT Liberty I had been as comfortable underwater as an Orca. Mission accomplished.

Back on terra firma I was as giddy as a school girl who had just met her favourite boy band. The only word that I could repeat was wow. Wow, wow, wow! Because there is really no other word in the English dictionary that can describe the indescribable magical adventure that I had just experienced.

12615151_10208471967297364_4370653517976508454_o