When In Ubud, Make Eye Contact With Strangers

Sunday, 01 April 2018

Ubud festival

All photographs courtesy of Asia Stec Photography

Two years ago when I first visited Ubud, one of the things that really stood out to me was how truly welcoming the locals were.

Whenever I walked past someone on the street, they would look me in the eye and smile. These were genuine smiles too; radiant, abundant smiles that emanated from the eyes, not just the mouth.

Mount Agung fundraising

They were welcoming me to their neighbourhood, and immediately I felt at home.

I sensed that they saw every interaction — every time they crossed paths with me, and I presume with anyone else — as a chance to have a positive exchange, a chance to contribute to the positive energy in the community.

So despite being an outsider, I felt like a genuine part of the community.

I had been told Ubud has a certain magic to it, and it was precisely in this warmth, openness and sense of community that I felt it too.

Coconut


I’ve been lucky enough to travel a decent amount the past few years, and Ubud is the single place I’ve visited where this social warmth is most apparent.

It surprised me too. Before arriving, I had subconsciously presumed that its recent rise as a remote working hotspot might have already taken its toll on the spirit of the locals and how they generally viewed and interacted with overseas visitors.

Indeed, right in the centre of town, the interactions are typically more transactional in nature — sudden friendliness driven by commercial motives rather than a genuine desire to say hello.

This is commonplace throughout regional South East Asian tourism hubs, and completely understandable. But where I stayed — more local and residential but still only a short 5-minute walk away from “Main Street” — this dynamic was entirely replaced by a more pure human spirit.

Stone carving


Fast forward two years and I’m back in Ubud, staying at the same guesthouse.

The surrounding area feels much the same — small stone-paved side streets tucked away along the creek of a hidden valley; intricate Hindu carvings illuminated by streams of sunlight breaking through the dense jungle palms.

Not much has changed in the physical landscape, but the warmth and energy of the locals seems to have dampened ever so slightly. Perhaps those two additional years of tourism growth has started to weigh down on people. [1]

Rice fields & palm trees

Over the following few weeks I paid more attention to other tourists for clues on why this might be.

Firstly, I noted that a good proportion of tourists did appear conscious of the town’s unwritten rules on social interaction. They had picked up on the custom to make eye contact, smile warmly and say hello to strangers on the street. They were proactive in looking for that eye contact too, even from other tourists. They played their part in keeping Ubud’s positive energy flowing.

But the social habits of the majority weren’t quite as synchronised.

The thing is, what we consider completely normal back home is interpreted differently here — and I think the impact is significant.

Artist


In many parts of the West — like the UK, where I grew up — very rarely do you pay attention to people you walk past on the street. Nor does any stranger expect you to acknowledge them when you cross paths while engrossed in conversation with a friend.

Got headphones in? That’s license to look straight ahead and plow through anything that gets in your way.

If you don’t make eye contact or smile at someone you don’t know, it’s not considered rude, it’s completely normal.

But I notice that, in Ubud, that same conduct creates a disconnect between locals and visitors.

Streetside

Almost every local you pass is looking to make eye contact with you, and in doing so they’re giving you an opportunity to say hello, an opportunity to show them that you respect them too. It’s the equivalent of a handshake, it’s just that it takes place at the most common of human interactions.

When you’re not mindful of that, and you walk through the streets innocently minding your own business, it’s almost the same as ignoring their offer to shake hands. Whether that’s the reality or not, that’s how I’ve interpreted the looks of locals who have in essence been blanked on the street by their foreign guests.

(I’ve been the unknowing blanker myself, and it was the subtle look of disappointment I received that made me more aware of how important it is to proactively engage when I’m roaming the streets here.)

Path beside rice fields

Spider

Woman & spider


My observations are of course but a tiny sample size, but if this is indeed the default approach of many visitors, I can only see interactions between locals and tourists becoming increasingly transactional — like they already are in so many other places.

The magic of Ubud is kept alive because everyone in the community participates — and that includes us tourists.

So if you visit Ubud — and anywhere else for that matter, help leave a positive impression on behalf of us all and be mindful of how well your actions harmonise with the local environment.

In Ubud specifically, that starts with making eye contact with strangers, smiling and saying hello. If we all did that, it would go a long way to keeping this special place special.

Craftsman


Rules of thumb

My personal rules of thumb for social interaction in Ubud. Design inspiration from Goldiana Spa, Jalan Jembawan №06, Ubud

Update

[1] Asia Stec pointed out that the impact of the eruptions of Mount Agung in November 2017 — and particularly the Western media’s portrayal of them — has contributed to big decline in tourism (30% I read somewhere), which was the first thing that came to her mind when trying to explain the change I observed in mood of the locals.


Disclaimer

This article represents my own interpretation of the discussed based on personal observation, conversations with locals and conversations with other tourists, during a cumulative total of 6 weeks in Ubud. As such, I do not claim my assertions to be factual, or for the article to represent a complete or necessarily accurate picture of the situation on the ground, nor of the complexities of fostering more sustainable models of tourism.

Different opinions, perspectives and observations are more than welcome to help paint a more complete picture.

Special thanks to Asia Stec Photography for allowing use of her photos.


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