In Search of Magic Realism in Ubud

20141001_151221 Procession at Wos River bridge, Ubud. Photo by Karen – Oct 2014.

The sun has set on my fourth day in Bali. Its my first time in Indonesia, and I’m travelling alone, so I am privileged to be seeing everything through the naive wide-eyes of the first-timer. That is just one of the gifts of travelling – fresh experiences. So what are my first impressions?

At first glance, Bali is the epitome of duality. An eclectic mix of old and new, where tourist-consumerism meets simplicity. A harmony of noise and quiet reflection. Where internet connectivity fluctuates, making it hard to connect to the outside world in a place where people from around the globe find it so hard to leave. A tasting plate of colour, flavour, aromas, heat and music. An island where creativity and the arts are entwined with spirituality. An oceanic moist island of magic. It’s a place where magic realism is bound to thrive.

Note to self: research Balinese literature, and seek out magic realism authors/novels – when internet connectivity is more stable.

Two days ago I arrived in Ubud, after a night/morning in Seminyak. Or, more accurately, recently I arrived in paradise. A paradise that is a balance of yin and yang, darkness and light.

My home for the next week is an ex-ashram that has been reborn as a group of hill-hugging villas. My little slice of paradise overlooks Champuhan Hill, with a perfect view of endless tropical flora and moist clouds embracing the earth. Somewhere down the valley a river flows by, and over on the horizon the mighty volcano Mount Agung is occasionally seen, when the clouds and mist momentarily part.

Travelling solo is not at all a lonely experience. I have already met a few of my neighbours. Who, by the way, have insisted in invading my space whenever the fancy takes them. Its okay though, I quite like their company. There’s Kutut and Waylan – the two long-tailed small marsupials that like to play on the villa balcony. Apparently they might be the source of the sounds I heard last night – a noise similar to a drunk’s hiccup. There are also geckos sharing my room. That’s okay, as they keep the mosquitoes under control – sort of.

On the other side of my villa is humanity. Busy Jl. Raya Sanggingan is the closest road. It’s not as busy as central Ubud, but it still has a steady hum of scooters during the day. Its even busier in Ubud at the moment, because of significant ceremonies, with devotees from all over Bali attending. And tomorrow the street will become even busier, due to the 11th Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, with people from all over the world attending. Which is why I am here.

Despite signing up as a volunteer on a whim, I’m not regretting my rash behavior at all. I attended the volunteer orientation yesterday, and completed a shift in First Aid. So far, so good. With two days before my next shift, I have time to explore Ubud, and learn about Bali.

Unlike other parts of Indonesia, Bali culture is built on a unique version of Hinduism. In just the few days I have been here, I am already witnessing how important these beliefs are to everyday life. Especially now in Ubud, in the midst of ceremonies. Yesterday, sitting on the steps of a warung (street-side cafe) I watched thousands of Balinese proceed down the street. White clothing was accentuated by splashes of colour. Carrying creative sculptures, and offerings of fruits and flowers, this colourful and musical procession went past. Unlike Christian ceremonies of my childhood, among the reverence was a sense of playfulness. Again, that duality.

This sense of duality is what also struck me when I visited Neka museum yesterday. Full of paintings, architecture, stone carvings, ancient keris (knives), Neka is an art gallery/museum that blends the ancient with the new, traditional with contemporary. And among the paintings and the ornately carved doorways, I found story. Non-written stories.

Many of the paintings and carvings featured epic stories: of battles fought over eons; gods who took animal form to cavort with maidens, leaving behind demi-god offspring; of kingdoms lost and won; ageless heroes’ journeys; of revenge and acceptance; beautiful mythical sea-maidens; and times when animals were much more than simple beasts. Contained in the art were stories familiar from around the world, told since the beginning of time, in many languages. This art had a sense of playfulness. Some were even mildly erotic. And much of the works had obvious religious themes. There were also modern themes of the impact of Dutch colonisation and the more recent invasion of tourists and expats. Despite this, there was strong proof of the continuing survival of Balinese culture.

Then a thought struck me: the artwork I was most attracted to were painted versions of magic realism literature. If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you would know I have a thing for magic realism. Not the emerging works, which are best placed within other genres, but the older works from South America and Europe. So my latest quest began – to find magic realism literature from Balinese authors.

With minimal internet connection, a simple search on-line was not an option. Instead, I needed to connect with people, find some leads. Have a yarn. The first person I talked to when I left my villa today was an expat artist from USA. She told me how there weren’t many Balinese fiction writers. This had a bit to do with the very strong oral storytelling culture. However, she did have a book of short stories at home that she felt would fit what I was seeking. So I arranged to meet her tomorrow, to borrow the book.

Strolling down the road, I stopped at the bridge, where the two rivers meet. The procession of people returning from the purification ceremony, held on a beach many miles away, was about to come down the hill. I found a place to respectfully watch, and waited. The sounds alerted us to the procession’s arrival, before any people were sighted. And then they came. Like the day before, but even bigger and more vivid, thousands of people past by. Women carrying offerings on their heads, and men struggling under the weight of gilded towers.

After the gods had passed, the barongs and rangdas arrived. Women and men were hidden under huge effigies, and groups of men led strange shaggy dog-lions and hybrid dragon-beasts. As they crossed the road, and moved towards Pura Gunung Lebah temple by the Wos River, the policemen opened the roads to traffic again. An endless sea of scooters, stretching up the hill into Ubud central, surged forwards. I walked up-hill, dodging scooters, people and trucks, feeling light as air despite the steep climb and humidity.

A short while later I found myself passing a bookstore. Perhaps they will have the novels I am seeking? I looked and looked. Lots of best sellers from Western nations, and an endless selection of Bali-inspired reflections by writers from other countries. There were some beautiful books on Balinese artwork and its environment. And there were many books on Hinduism. No local fiction though. So I asked the assistants if there were any fiction by Balinese authors. They said no, but one assistant handed me two books written by Balinese authors. She called them novels, not fiction. After that slight lost in translation moment, I read the covers. One was a modern story, with a whiff of potential magic realism. The other had been written in the 1930’s. It was this older book I selected: The Rape of Sukreni by Anak Agung Pandji Tisna.

I feel as if my search for magic realism in Bali is off to a good start. Now if you would excuse me, its way past midnight and I have a book to read. And a Writers Festival to attend in the morning. Oh, and Ketut and Waylan have snuck through the open balcony doors, and are making a dreadful noise running around on the wooden floors and in the rafters. Perhaps they were the uninvited guests who ate half my banana today? I’ll go and feed them on the balcony, and then settle in to read under my mosquito net, as I listen the sounds of nature.


  1. I visited Bali many years ago and thought it was beautiful. The only downside was that if you sat on the beaches you were constantly hassled by vendors selling, as I remember, watches and pens! This was in the late 80’s but I assume this still goes on, if not to even a greater degree now there are more tourists.
    Have a wonderful stay.


    1. I’ve heard that happens in some of the tourist-laden beaches, Mel. I’m about 1hr inland. Ubud is a village of artists. Of course this attracts a different sort of tourist, and lots of pensioner-expats. I might try to find a quiet village on the coast, before flying home.


Comments are closed.