Dawn Report: Ubud, Bali

One of the favorite assignments I give my writing students requires a bit of sacrifice: waking up at 4:30 in the morning, meeting at 5:00 and walking down Monkey Forest Road, one long city block to the morning market. In the early morning, starting at 4, this market is where the local women come to do their shopping: buying fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dry goods, tofu, tempe, and the materials to make their daily ceremonial offerings. By mid-morning, this locals market is transformed into a bustling tourist market, selling every kind of Balinese trinket you could want. I avoid the market then. I love it at dawn.

My instructions to my writers was this:

1. We’ll meet at 5 AM and walk to the market together. Bring your small writing notebook and a small camera if you like.

2. Once we get there, we’ll split up and go our separate ways. Find a place to crouch or sit or stand and watch. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs. Explore.

3. Take notes about everything you see, hear and smell. Create a story about the market in words.

4. If you want to take pictures to supplement your story, be sensitive and discreet. These are people going about their morning shopping. Would you want to be photographed in your everyday clothes at the grocery store? Take pictures of food or people at a distance. But focus on your writing—use your notebook.

5. Peel off and go home on your own, back to our hotel. We’ll debrief over breakfast.

For me, the adventure started right away, leading the pack down the dark alleyway that leads from our (relatively) quiet hotel, tucked away, out onto the bustling crazy busy street. But at 5 AM, the alley was dark and all the shops lining the large pathway to Monkey Forest Road were closed up tight, metal doors pulled down and locked, obscuring the merchandise. There was no one out. It was dark and quiet.

I love watching cities wake up.

When I was a little girl, my mother was a nursery school teacher. When she took her three and four-year-olds to the circus, it was never to see the circus itself, it was to witness the set-up of the circus: the raising of the tent, the feeding of the elephants, the elephants peeing (that made quite an impression on me as a four-year-old), booths being set up.

Now, I too, love the start of things: the silence in Ubud, the garbage truck at the end of the driveway blocking our path. “Selamat Pagi,” I called out to the workers: Good morning. “Pagi!” they called back, and we sidled by the garbage truck and made a left onto Monkey Forest Road.

A lone car drove up the street, when in the daytime, the street is jammed with scooters, vans, cars, honking, and streams of tourists. Not a tourist in sight. Just us: seven stalwart writers armed with small notebooks and pens, wearing our sensible shoes: upscale hiking sandals for the tropics.

As we tromped toward the market, we passed a giant pile of bricks ready for the day’s construction. A convenience store with cartons full of plastic water bottles and other goods sitting out front on the sidewalk, waiting to be stocked on the shelves. A lone rooster crowed from the end of a dark alleyway. Another crowed in response. People live in family compounds somewhere behind the endless shops and stores that line the street—the roosters were proof.

One long block away, we came to the entrance of the market. Outside, all was still, with no hint of what we were about to see when we turned into the epicenter of activity at this hour: Ubud, City Center 5 AM: the market.

Sellers squatted or sat on small plastic stools. Spotlights and flashlights lit their goods in the early morning pre-dawn darkness: dozens of items I could identify and dozens that I couldn’t. Bushels of bananas of every color, turmeric root, galangal, ginger root, cut grass and greens for offerings, baskets of marigolds, hand woven offering baskets so you don’t have to make your own, tempe, tofu, shallots, onion, cabbage, lemongrass, green oranges, jackfruit, papaya, avocados, carrots, lettuce, bumpy cucumbers, long beans two feet long—starfruit, durian, dragonfruit—fruits and vegetables both familiar and unfamiliar, delicious and strange. Solid half circles of palm sugar. Cinnamon sticks. Corn on the cob wrapped in plastic.

I let the sounds of Balinese and the unfamiliar smells wash over me. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to identify them or not. I found a narrow, dank set of cement steps heading down and took them into a huge room full of sellers—shrimp, fish, huge piles of chickens. I found a tiny place to sit, listened to the thwack of cleavers cutting through bone and flesh. A woman in front of me cut open a huge pink mesh bag of garlic.

Women shopped as women shop everywhere—purposeful, determined, with clear knowledge of what they wanted to buy and who they wanted to buy it from. And like women everywhere, they stopped and chatted, they said hello, and moved on to buy the rest of what their family needed for the day.

There were plastic bags everywhere. Little ones, big ones. I watched one seller package her goods the old-fashioned way—she placed a large dollop of rice porridge—at least that’s what it looked like to me—into a woven banana leaf basket and tucked the edges in, creating a beautiful vibrant little green packet—I smiled—and then she dropped the green handmade receptacle with treasures inside into a small pink plastic bag. Plastic was everywhere. The West has definitely made its influence known here.

Occasionally, I saw one of my writers wandering through the stalls, jotting notes, taking in the smells and sounds and early morning sights.

And now I’m back at our hotel—eating banana pancakes, yogurt and cut up papaya, banana and pineapple. Today is a free day, a day for everyone to pick their adventure or their rest. I’m choosing rest. And Surya is taking me to see a healer for my back—it’s been tweaked ever since my dive trip and all the activity of this trip hasn’t helped. I’ve been to Balinese healers before…that should definitely be worth a story. But now, maybe a nap…that 4:30 alarm went off awfully early.

Enjoy images of the market below.

Dragonfruit on a scale.

Long beans.

Chickens, 5:15 AM.

Dry goods.

Flowers for offerings.


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