Monday 9 September 2013

Is this Bali's most unusual hotel?

I'm (temporarily) back in Sydney - home from Ubud, about to leave for South Africa - but before my head fills with new things, I wanted to write about the place in Bali that will linger longest for me: Michi Retreat.

Gate to "the way"
Michi's backstory, briefly: a complex of villas and rooms, it was built beside the rushing Wos river (and about 15 minutes south of Ubud by scooter) more than a decade ago as a place for creatives to gather, swap ideas, relax and make art. 

In true "retreat" style, it has a meditation pagoda over a lotus pond, a yoga studio, a spa (and salon, complete with beehive-hairdryers) and Buddhist and Hindu sculptures all over the grounds. Its name even means "the way" in Japanese.

Mermaid by the sparkling pool
These days Michi is run as a hotel (it's on Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Agoda and Wotif), albeit one that draws seekers of all persuasions and is a work of art in itself - with everything from fruit painted on walls and mermaids by the pool, to Gaudi-esque sculptures and praying-frog statues. 

It's definitely one of the most unusual places I've stayed - and one of the most well-travelled, thanks to Michi's reclusive owner, a retired professor originally from Manchuria who has lived everywhere from Kathmandu to Krakow, and now writes history books (his latest is about America in the early 20th century) in Japanese.

My Turkey room
For two weeks, I stayed in the bamboo-walled Japan-room called Hotaru, which means "firefly" in Japanese, before moving next door to Turkey (a light-filled, mosaic-mirrored room called Anadolu) for another two weeks.

There are rooms called Mekong, Feng Shui, Only Yesterday (reminiscent of Paris in the 1920s). There's a Zen villa with shoji walls. A Rajasthani room called Merra. A blue-walled Mediterranean room with Grecian mosaics. 
Cafe Michi

One of the reasons I felt so at home at Michi was its refreshing and very un-hotel-like lack of rules. 

You won't find a compendium in your room explaining which number to call for housekeeping or what time you can have breakfast. Or any signs saying when you can use the pool. You can wander wherever you like (peeking in unoccupied rooms, their doors wide open for airing). There are no daily yoga classes or activities. 

My daily breakfast table
Michi's restaurant too is more like a common room, a place to sit at the mosaic-topped tables and read, work, chat to fellow guests about matters of the spirit, mind and body (this being Ubud) or gaze at the parallel lines of the rice fields across the river. 

And there can't be many hotels that have a resident professor. He rarely sleeps, and welcomes guests to his attic-like apartment between 9pm and 11pm any night of the week. 

The prof
The first time I visited him, his speckled sausage-dog Bubu announced my presence with a few yaps. “Come in, come in,” the professor said, ushering me to a chair among the papers and handing me a glass of palm wine infused with snake. (Other guests get grappa, or cognac.)

I listened to him, rapt, for almost three hours, as he told me stories from his unwritten memoir. About Istanbul, where he taught and stayed in a hotel a few doors up from Agatha Christie, who was writing Murder on the Orient Express at the time. About living in a hotel in Kyoto for 20 years (“Why not? Clean sheets, restaurants, two bars, no need to cook!” he said). About honeymooning with his second wife on a cargo ship as it crossed the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco. 

He's 83 this year but feels “about 60” and says he'd like to have “one last love affair” before he steps into the void. One night I saw him dining in Michi's restaurant with a 20-something Russian guest; when he came over to my table to give me a glass of Argentinian wine, ever the generous host, he whispered to me, "Her father used to work for the KGB!"

Michi's kindly staff
There are sustainable aspects to Michi too. Its setting couldn't be greener, literally. Most of Michi is made out of recycled materials. Drinking water comes from an on-site spring (I didn't buy a single plastic bottle of water in the month I was there, yay). There’s no air con, just fans and the cooling trade winds that blow along the valley. 

It's not all rainbows and lollipops. Every new guest seems to have the same double-barrelled first impression: wow, this place is incredible and boy, is it run-down. The rooms are kept clean, tidy and lovely. But the place is so detailed - every surface, indoors and out, has been painted, mosaic-ed or inlaid with stones, marble or mirrors - it needs regular upkeep, which it hasn't been getting lately.

Mosaic in the
Mediterranean room
But Michi’s star is rising, it seems, as it attracts more people who catch its spirit and want to help restore it to a new glory. There's talk of a new manager, creative work-parties to spruce the place up a bit, long-term rentals for artists. 

I loved staying at Michi - for the simplicity and sense of freedom I felt there. For the professor's presence, working in his bookish nest every day and night, inspiring me to write. For how it arouses wonder and curiosity in everyone who comes down its driveway, and reminds us of the things that matter more than material perfection.

Leaving Michi was like leaving home all over again. The professor gave me a present (a book of Tagore's poems) and the staff stood in the driveway to wave me goodbye. May it brush off the cobwebs soon and become one of Ubud's quietly shining stars. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

On being an un-tourist in Ubud

Almost at the end of my month-long sojourn in Ubud, Bali, and I've got that end-of-summer feeling when suddenly I realise this isn't going to last forever. I've also been thinking about how different this trip is, compared to my usual way of travelling.

Tree necklaces:
Ubud is my kind of place
I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere, particularly overseas, and didn’t visit any of the local attractions. I've been here four weeks and I haven’t been to Ubud Palace or any museums or art galleries. I haven't been rafting, taken a cooking class, climbed Mt Batur at sunrise (though I did do that a few years ago). I went to Ubud market for the first time yesterday (and didn't buy a thing).

There it is again...
Much as I love Lonely Planet guides, I didn’t bring one this time. Nor did I re-read the "bible" of Ubud: Eat Pray Love (there are references to it everywhere here). I had a basic tourist map - until I lost it. I didn’t bring a phone that could Google maps for me.

This was all by design, not chance (except for the losing the map part). I wanted to travel differently, without an eye on stories I’d have to write (I might not write any stories about Bali, actually, besides these blog posts), and I really came seeking peace and time to work on a few writing projects that deadlines always kept me from starting back home.

Along for the ride, like a
gecko on a windscreen
I've been an un-tourist in Ubud, and it’s been surprisingly liberating. (Next I’ll try to stop taking a notebook and camera everywhere, but one change at a time...). 

It's been a dose of slow travel, quiet travel, even old-fashioned travel reminiscent of a time before TripAdvisor when it took much longer to reach faraway places and when you got there, you stayed a while. 

It's not so much a holiday, just life in a different place, at a different pace. I like it a lot.

I've spent whole days reading, writing and swimming at Michi Retreat, where I stayed for most of my month, the longest I've ever been resident at a hotel. I felt like a character in a Graham Greene novel, particularly at the eccentric, arty Michi, which was built as a creatives' retreat anyway.

My feet love Ubud
I rode my rented scooter to Ubud some days, through villages whose names I didn't try to find out. Had $4 foot massages that I just enjoyed. Went to yoga classes in the open-air, timber-floored studios at the very Ubudly named Radiantly Alive (in travel-writer mode I would've gone to Ubud's famous Yoga Barn too, but I wasn't, so I didn't).

Ubud graffiti-art
Sometimes whole afternoons would slink by while I hung out in organic cafes with new friends. When we got tired of talking, we eavesdropped on conversations at neighbouring tables (out of curiosity, not malice) - which was always edifying.

I'm open to most things but Ubud does wacky like nowhere else. Whatever you want, you can find it here: infrared saunas, magic-mushroom shakes, flaming hula-hoop performances, miracle coaches (a step up from life coaches). I overheard a girl saying she was going to get her hair "decontaminated" (um, what?) and every second person seemed to be on a 12-day detox. One of the nightspots here is even called Laughing Buddha.

Getting back to those cafes ... Eating well, preferably organically, is the number one pastime of un-tourists in Ubud.

From the “orange amazing healing” juice in Dayu’s Warung to the “Om omelette” at the uber-chic, shoes-off Clear Cafe, whose mantra is "Eat the food you wish to be" - Ubud's edible experiences are in a class of their own.

My favourite places here have drinking straws made of green glass or bamboo (so drinking your raw vegan tropical smoothie at Bali Buda - which is delicious, by the way - is like sipping a flute). But my top five edible Ubud experiences would have to be:
Cubby-house dining
at Warung Saya
  1. Clear Cafe's more-delicious-than-it-sounds vegan chocolate “mylk” shakes, made with coconut ice cream and locally harvested cashew nut “mylk”.
  2. The best little restaurant in Ubud, literally: Warung Saya, a cubby-house in Jalan Gautama and the toughest place in Bali to get a table because there are only two - tables, that is. Looks so pretty at night with fairy lights framing its open window that passersby stop to take photos. 
  3. The iced cappuccinos at Casa Luna, whose Australian owner Janet de Neefe runs Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival every October, which began as a healing project in the wake of the first Bali bombing 10 years ago. Also Seniman "coffee studio" for its recycled-bottle glasses and designer rocking chairs.
  4. A rice fields walk that ends at Sari Organik, a two-tiered cottage in the a sea of green with volcano views, and incredible salads. You can even pick your own ingredients and they'll make them into a meal for you. 
Circus-tent with a view
5. On the way to Sari, you'll pass the relatively new Cafe Pomegranate, a cafe-in-a-circus-tent with 360-degree views of those rice fields; I love that they give you a rattan fan and a small brass bell to ring for service.

It's my last day in Ubud tomorrow and I'm not ready to leave. It's not that I haven't seen or experienced everything; I know I haven't and one more day won't change that.

It's more like leaving someone you've only just met but know you want to spend more time with. I don't just mean Ubud, it's the whole un-tourist thing. I'm not sure I can ever go back to the other way of travelling now, not completely. Part of me will always be looking for the un-tourist way, just as Ubud taught me. So we stay up talking into the wee hours, linger over coconut smoothies, swap email addresses at the airport. Come back soon, Ubud says. I know I will.