It was the first time I’d driven alone to Ubud, and I hoped for an uneventful journey on roads free of obstacles and mindless maniacs who need lessons in the concept of road-sharing and traffic lanes, instruction on the meaning of traffic-light colours and a lecture on courtesy and safety on the road.
Our old Feroza Prannie was watered, fed and gently reminded of performance expectations. Armed with a detailed list of directional instructions kindly prepared by The Playmate and supported by a street directory – the one that gives one of many alternative names for a particular stretch of road but never one that appears on any street sign – Prannie and I started a 24-hour trip that was full of fun and frustration.
I sighed with relief as we sailed with relatively little angst through the chaos of Simpang Siur and almost smiled as I prevented a filthy, big truck from pushing us into oncoming traffic at the Topahti turn-off.
We ploughed on through many kilometres of roads awash with flowing water, unsure if the drains couldn’t cope with the rains or if there were breaks in the mains. Whatever it was, it demanded utmost concentration to constantly duck motorbikes that suddenly swerved at us to avoid the next gush of water.
I thought we were progressing admirably towards point No 2 on our long list when things went wrong. Perhaps when The Playmate wrote “go straight” at that junction he meant follow the main road, rather than the very little one that extended from the main road in a straight-ish direction.
Too impatient to turn back, we chugged on through alien territory, searching for a familiar landmark or a piece of terrain described on the list. Nothing. The roads were eerily flat and straight when my memory said hilly and winding.
Shortly after I’d burned the outer layer of rubber from Prannie’s sturdy shoes by slamming on the brakes and careering wildly to avoid contact with the child motorcyclist who zoomed across our front from a side road, we came to a halt. And that’s when I knew were indeed headed for Ubud, and that the stop-start journey would be long and fraught.
The giveaway was the ridiculously oversized and mostly empty tourist bus ahead, taking 20 minutes to turn a corner on a road too narrow for even the motorbikes to pass. The monster and its similar-sized kin were all out that day, heading for Ubud with skimpy loads and messing thoroughly with any semblance of traffic flow, both in the town and its surrounds. I felt sorry for us and sorrier for the villagers who couldn’t deliver their crops or collect their children from school.
On our eventual arrival, Prannie rested under a tree and I found a bowl of soup to fill the void left by the nervous energy expended on the trip. Don’t bother to check in, said The Sister, when we met at a well-known Jl Bisma guesthouse. We’ve been here for three days, she advised, and the staff can’t be bothered. So I didn’t, feeling sure they’d want to find out who’d put Prannie in one of their limited parking spots. But they couldn’t be bothered, with very much at all, including moving into the slumber room, I mean the back office, to retrieve The Sister’s laundry on check-out.
Arguably, the worsening journey to Ubud is still worth it, for the town’s fine scenic spots, arts, architecture, food and music. We dined well and headed to a joint known for its live jazz – in the widest interpretation of the genre.
It didn’t disappoint. The five-man band exerted more energy, creativity and genuine effort to entertain than many local musicians whose breaks are often longer than their sets, especially if tips are not fulsome. Ubud seems to create and attract talented musicians who love their art and love to perform. And they are invariably rewarded, if not with money then with audience appreciation and participation. At our Ubud jazz joint, the dance floor was full of locals and guests from around the world, all having a great time together.
At the temple just outside, thousands of Hindus were equally but more quietly enthralled by a presentation of traditional Wayan puppetry on massive screens. Hi-tech comes to temple in the cultural conclave of Ubud. We were kindly invited back for tomorrow’s ceremony.
But tomorrow we were heading home, via a detour to the litter-ridden slum at the rear of the Batu Bulan bus depot, and along dangerously pot-holed Jl Raya Uluwatu, on which a convoy of grotesquely huge and largely empty buses descended from the cliffs, blowing their horns and scattering others from the road.
Is there any onus on the owners of these mammoths – white elephants it seems, by their lack of patrons – to improve our roads to accommodate their beasts? Or will they be permitted to continue bullying their way about, ruining traffic flows and hogging inadequate road space at the expense of the rest of us and for the sake of a tourist dong or yuan? The roads can’t cope, guys. Do yourselves and everyone a favour. Buy smaller buses.