To Stir with Love

15 Mar 2010

“It could well be a storm in a tea-cup, or rather, a coffee cup.” I am sitting in Casa Luna, satisfying my morning coffee addiction with a full-bodied café latte and eavesdropping (another favorite pastime of mine) on a conversation at the next table. “It might not be a bad thing. You never know.”

Two older folk are engaged in a serious debate. Whether it is their familiarity with the staff or their use of the lndonesian language, they both have that expatriate “I’m living here” manner about them.

Their chatter dips to a whisper and I lean back in my chair, edging closer in a frantic attempt to glean the subject of this solemn discussion. Coffee is ordered and the smell of freshly-ground beans, Indonesian I might add, jolts through the air and the sound, ah the sound, is like music to my ears …. the ssssccchhhhhh of the espresso machine as the black elixir pours into each latte glass and the milk froths to a mountain of glossy foam. The conversation continues and becomes more passionate.

I have just returned to Ubud after a short sojourn in Melbourne. There is no greater joy than to be back in this picturesque hillside retreat, drinking in a dose of culture with a shot of caffeine. Nyepi, Balinese New Year is around the corner. There is excitement in the air as ogoh-ogohs start to manifest into fearsome deities in the back streets. A colorful parade is planned. In the meantime, I ponder life here over a cup of “Java”. It’s hard not to miss Ubud when you’re away. From its charming village temples, to the narrow laneways, frangipani, rice fields, offerings and palaces. It’s a visual delight.

And beyond the visuals is a unique sense of community, of a place that prays together and stays together. Of banjars and village gatherings that celebrate the essence of suka-duka, the support of neighbors in good times and bad.

The recent award presented by Conde Nast to Ubud as “Best City in Asia” is a testimony of all the bright, shining qualities that sum up this precious town, errrr, city.

But something is rotten in the state of Ubud. (Who was that well-known Ubud resident who said if Ubud is now a city; will it become a country soon?) There are animated murmurings in the expatriate community, from the Monkey Forest to the market, from Taman to Tjampuhan. The talk of town is about the impending invasion of one of the worlds giant corporations to be located right smack in the center of Ubud and the question of the year is plastered on everyone’s lips; is Starbucks really coming to Ubud?

For years, Ubud has gloated over being a McDonald’s free zone, rejecting the multi-national burger warlords and maintaining that nasi campur or even babi guling is better than a big Mac. I’ll second that! It has been rather like England’s city of Bath, (albeit guarded by a committed council) focused on traditional life full of lavish ceremonies and wall-to-wall quaint family-run businesses. Ubud-style if you will. Suddenly, in the wake of the almighty “top city” title, Ubud is shaking like a gempa bumi of the identity-kind.

There is power in coffee. You only have to look on the Internet to see that one of the world’s most treasured social beverages is also one of the hottest topics on the WorldWide Web. With more than four billion cups consumed each year, is it any wonder. Coffee, after all, means commerce. It also means conversation.

For some, Starbucks simply means “bucks”, for others, it means an irreversible change to the culture-rich identity of Ubud.

“Starbucks is like a virus. Once one multi-national creeps in the door, a whole host of others will follow,” said a long-time visitor to Ubud the other day. “Next it will be McDonalds, Burger King and KFC. There is no turning back. ”

“Deeper issues of the character of Ubud are at stake here. Consumerism has nothing to do with quality,” an Ubud resident declared. “One of Ubud’s most attractive features is the lack of all those monopolistic brand names.”

“We recognize that the influx of major national companies will homogenize the flavor of our community and have a historically degrading effect on Ubud” was quoted in an email that shot around the island recently. Facebook is now sporting a “Say No to Starbucks” group.

An Ubud think-tank has formed to discuss the future of our beloved village. “But we need action, not thinking,” lamented one visitor. “I came here to get away from places like Starbucks.”

Another resident defended the multi-national’s arrival “Ubud needs that sort of sophistication”. “Maybe this will be good for Ubud.”

It has been said that the location of Starbucks will be next door to the Ubud Palace, an icon in the town. Curious bedfellows.

Some expats have spoken of guerilla-bean warfare. “We must protest, take to the streets against this,” an annoyed resident exclaimed. Is Ubud’s first protest march looming in the shadows? Do our precious ogoh-ogoh run the risk of being upstaged by a team of angry westerners waving banners?
Some would argue that Ubud is already changing. The advent of Circle K every five hundred metres, Gucci bag stores every other five hundred metres and a curious new breed of non Ubud-looking generic eateries are spear-heading the new face of Ubud. Glass-fronted stores are creeping in and brands from down south are now taking pride of place in our main streets.

The Ubud warung is becoming a thing of the past. Is Ubud on the way to becoming just another tourist trap? And one way to dilute the presence of a community is to simply move them out, or rather, tempt them with glistening business deals. The very quality that has made Ubud special could be washed away or filtered like coffee.

In the meantime, there is another movement in Ubud. Slow Food has arrived and its members are passionate about the food culture of the island and the preservation of Bali’s culinary finest.

By the way, Slow Food began in 1986 in Italy to resist a planned McDonalds opening at the Spanish Steps, a Roman icon. Carlo Petrini, its founder, pioneered this worldwide movement and Italy remains one of the few countries that has refused a Starbucks to this day.

So, what is the message here? The good, the bad and the ugly once again. Or is it just a storm in a tea-cup, or a coffee cup? The “buck” stops here or does it. Watch that space!

Janet DeNeefe, is the author of Fragrant Rice, and creator of the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival. She is Australian, but lives in Bali where she owns the Casa Luna and Indus restaurants in Ubud. She is a member of the local Slow Food Ubud convivium.

First published in The Jakarta Post, 13 March, 2010

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