Ubud, the Balinese town with a population of 30,000, is sometimes dubbed the new age capital of the world. That’s right, the world. It’s a factoid that if true, is impressive when you consider the competition.
I grew up not far from England’s new age capital, Glastonbury. In Glastonbury, it’ not uncommon to see grown men and women dressed in pagan themed clothing roaming up and down the street while banging a small drum and chanting. Don’t know what I mean by pagan themed clothing? Imagine a toned down version of a wizard’s costume (without the pointy hat).
Some of Glastonbury’s residents look like they arrived for a festival in 1971, did rather too much acid and then forgot where they actually lived. Unsure of what to do next they set up a wigwam just outside town until they sobered up, with the intention of going home one day. But they never did remember their address. And soon became permanent fixtures.
Ubud is markedly different. The town’s metamorphosis into a new age global capital seems to have happened more recently. And accelerated after the runaway success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. If you’ve managed to avoid Gilbert’s book, it’s the story of one woman’s search for everything. But can more be accurately summarised as Gilbert’s search for a new boyfriend after having an existential crisis and leaving her husband back in the US.
The basic premise is this: scoff a load of pasta in Italy then sit around meditating in India, before moving to Ubud to visit healers and find a nice boyfriend. Why does this matter? Because it seems to have inspired many other women to follow in Gilbert’s footsteps, ostensibly in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment but also secretly hoping to bump into their own Brazilian Felipe.
Now my new age credentials are pretty shaky to say the least. I used to rock a tie-dye tunic when I was about nine years old, I occasionally burn joss sticks and I quite like vegetarian food. If you’re a something of an ignoramus like me, then you’ll soon grow acquainted with an entirely new lexicon. For example, before I moved to Ubud I had no idea that the word ‘sacred’ could be applied to so many different types of activity. Sacred healing workshops, sacred moon rituals or retreats that urge you to release your shadow or unleash your inner goddess.
Life in Ubud is an education and before long you’ll be well versed in juice fasts (clue it’s not about drinking your juice really quickly) and you’ll know how to spot someone who is on one from 50 paces (from their scowl and their hollow cheeks).
Inevitably some of this will rub off. Before I moved to Ubud I was appalled by the idea of green juice but now it’s become a regular part of my fluid intake. Although I’m still not at the stage where I’m willing to substitute it for solid food.
Another thing that sets Ubud apart is the economics of new ageism. This is no cottage industry. It’s a booming multimillion-dollar industry. The luxurious Yoga Barn, for example, draws tens of thousands of wealthy westerners clad in designer yoga gear every year. A monthly-unlimited pass at Yoga Barn costs around $200 a month. About twice what I used to pay for my gym membership in London. And nearly twice as much as the monthly minimum wage in Bali (US$116).
Being a new age capital and a haven for artists and creative types means that the town’s a magnet for likeable freaks. Sure there are plenty of expats who’ve been here perhaps a little too long and let it get the better of their grooming habits. But there’s a lot to be said for its eccentricity. Because despite the fact that its nightlife is atrocious – most of the restaurants are deserted by 10pm and you’ll be hard pressed to score a drink after 11pm – it could rarely be described as boring.
Yet despite all the meditating and joss sticks, Ubud is not without its tensions. As with many towns and cities around the world, Ubud’s identity has changed over recent decades and continues to do so. And not everyone appreciates the arrival of more ‘bules’ [local slang for expat]. On the surface at least, the Balinese are extremely gracious and accepting in the face of all this change.
So what’s my excuse? I came to Ubud because I heard about a coworking space, called Hubud. How can I describe Hubud? At first appearances it’s a bamboo office next to a monkey forest with reliable internet where you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the slogans “Corporate Escapee” and “Post-Cubical Survivor”.
But it has another special pull: the community. There are so many talented and intriguing people from all around the world: the private equity guy who does deals in board shorts, the writer penning screenplays and the internet entrepreneur who goes surfing every morning. There are a lot of very creative types and I’ve made some fantastic friends, who I hope will remain in my life for many years to come.
When I see tourists ambling around town now I feel a bit sorry for them. Ubud is so much better to live in than it is to visit.