So, if you are reading this, you might be doing exactly what I was doing 8-months ago. You might be researching ways to travel the world. You might even get scared, and start Googling, “Ways to travel Boston,” or, “Jobs to Travel Internationally but Then Come Home Again,” instead. Trust me, I here you.
Last week, I took a solo trip to Bali. And, instantly, I understood why all those other options never would have worked for me.
Let me start by saying exactly how high my expectations for Bali were.
Two summers ago, I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time (I’ve read it twice since). It completely changed my life. It changed how I felt about relationships, it changed how I saw religion, it fueled my desire to travel, and, mostly, it changed how I understood writing. Never before had I read something so philosophical and intelligent and thought-provoking. I mean, truly, it was smart. Elizabeth Gilbert is a writer who could probably sum up all of Einstein’s theories in some neat, funny little chapter, if she wanted to. Whether you’ve read it or not (or seen the movie—which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t do the book justice), you might already know that the ‘Love’ part of Eat, Pray, Love takes place in Bali. Since reading the book, it had been my dream to go to Bali alone, like she did.
The thing about this dream was, it was far-fetched. It was so ridiculous to me, in fact, that I’d all but forgotten it, as if my mind said, ‘Okay, we’ll go back to that when you’re older’. I wasn’t in any way actively pursuing it, and, honestly, it felt as out-of-reach as becoming a famous movie star or going to the moon.
So it seemed a little bit like Fate when, last week, I realized I had this exact opportunity, randomly, to fulfill this dream to travel alone to Bali, like I’d imagined.
But actually, no. Not just Fate. Fate implies that it was the universe, or something of which I had no control, that got me to Bali. But that is not true. I was able, at 23-years-old, to seize this opportunity for myself; I was an active participant in the fulfillment of this dream. I was able to do something that, a year ago, I’d only romanticized as something I might do by the time I was 30. I mean, on Tuesday, my coworkers said to me, “Did you know we have six days off next week? I guess they’re using the school as a parking zone for parents during the University’s graduation. So you can travel, if you want.”
On Wednesday, I booked my plane tickets.
Honestly, I could have gone and laid in the grass at the airport and been completely content. I was just so happy to be there, and so happy to see that the nature outside the airport windows already did not disappoint. The grass was a different shade of green than I’ve seen; I could see palm trees and coconut trees and banana trees with three-foot-long leaves; it was all just so green, compared to Thailand.
As I’d discussed with my friend Gabi the weekend before, who had studied abroad in Indonesia: There are two ways I could do Bali.
I’d done plenty of research. I’d drawn maps and graphs and timetables and schedules and emailed Yoga studios and tour guides and hotel managers and read blogs and news articles and watched Youtube videos. I’d eventually decided to do 3 days in Ubud, since it was the ‘cultural capital’ and their major city (although ‘city’ sounds pretty urban—more like a very busy hippie/vegan town), and then 2 days on Gili Air, the Gili Island that is relatively empty, but still has more restaurants than Gili Menu, which is more suitable for honeymooners.
To say I was prepared for Bali was an understatement. I had six days to cover everything, and I was ready to do exactly that.
Gaby supported this. She said: “You can do Bali that way, if you like. You can get up at the crack of dawn and see the sunrise over the rice fields before making your way to the temples and the markets; fitting in a day-long bike tour; doing yoga in the evening and making sure to stumble across all the top-rated restaurants; getting a massage and facial at night; seeing the dance festival after that, etc. etc. You can do Bali that way.
Or.” She’d said. “Or… you can sleep in. You can wake up when you want to wake up, and lazily have a smoothie for breakfast from some random place, and maybe make your way to a yoga studio. And get a massage in the afternoon. And read in a café for a while. And do some meditation at night, and get some ice cream if you feel like it, and go to bed. You can do Bali that way, too. Whichever you like.”
When I am travelling, I am most always person A. I am the person who makes sure I see every square inch of land that I can within 24-hours: sacrificing sleep, sacrificing money, to make sure I am signed up for every temple-visit, Bike-tour, wine-tasting, spiritual-awakening, and overnight-hike the country has to offer. And I’d planned on doing Bali this way, too.
As soon as I saw my bed, which was a beautiful white canopy with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking rice fields, I wavered. Okay, I thought, I can sleep in. Just tomorrow. To enjoy the bed.
I woke up around 9. I read my book for an hour before remembering breakfast ends at 10:30. So I ate breakfast at the hotel, and finally asked the front desk how I could walk to the Yoga Barn.
As I walked, I realized: I will waste all my money, and all my time, this vacation if I am constantly thinking about what’s-next-what’s-next-what’s-after-that. I mean, my god: I was in the Spiritual Motherland of Being-In-The-Moment.
These people, this is how they live (at least, as far as I could see, from my extensive experience driving past them): They sit. They relax. They meditate and pray. They eat when they want to eat. Then they sit some more, in the same spots, talking to the same people, believing to their core that this is where they are meant to be.
So, by the time I found the Yoga studio, I’d made my mind up. I was going to do Bali the Balinese way: relaxed, unplanned, leisurely, doing only what I really wanted to do in that moment. (Granted, I do understand that my experience was not at all a ‘true’ Balinese experience: I know the Balinese are not typically getting high-quality massage-and-facial packages, or paying $10 a class to sit and do Yoga, or paying $20 for a 4-course meal at a 5-star Italian restaurant, or stopping to pay for fancy juices with chia seeds and organic kale… I do know this; but still. I guess I was trying to emanate their spiritual beliefs, in my own nice, cozy tourist-bubble).
After yoga, I thought about asking them where the nearest temple was, after this; or if they knew of any cultural museums in the area. Instead, I approached the front desk and said, “Do you know where Taksu spa is?” I’d written it down in my notebook after finding some blog article about it.
I walked to Taksu and signed up for a Balinese massage (because I was trying to get into the culture, of course), and a facial. In total, it was $40, for a two-hour treatment. The first hour, I had a full body oil massage. After that, I sat for another hour for a deep-cleanse facial. Then, I sat in their garden, drinking a smoothie, included in the package, and read my book.
By now, it was about 4:30 p.m. I decided to make my way to the Palace and a temple, since I was feeling guilty for hiding away in this spa when there was so much of Ubud I hadn’t seen yet. So I walked, and saw the ‘Palace’ (which was pretty grungy looking, and crawling with tourists and selfie-sticks and loud chatter), and this beautiful temple (which was right beside a Starbucks, and again, crawling with tourists and selfie-sticks), and I realized I had nothing to feel guilty about. These places might’ve been nice to visit, but they certainly weren’t do-or-die… they were just tourist spots.
For dinner, I went to an Italian restaurant called Kebun Café, which Gaby had recommended, promising me it had “the best gnocci of my life.” I had tea and a salad (with beets! And spinach! I almost died of happiness) and gnocci with pesto (she was probably right… and I lived in Florence). Then I walked home through the rain, read some more, and went to sleep in my little canopy bed.
The next morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. to begin a bike tour I’d signed up for with the Eco-Cycling Company in Ubud. We started at Mount Batur. The mountain, because of the shifting of the Earth over thousands of years etc. etc., has become two volcanoes separated by a beautiful lake, much like the lakes I’d seen in Europe. It is one of the 10 biggest craters in the world.
The bike ride was easy. It was entirely downhill, and I barely moved my feet; I mostly just glided.
My favorite part of the trip was our experience stopping at a Balinese family’s compound. The compound consisted of a few small, dilapidated bare white buildings, mostly empty of furniture apart from a mattress or a pot above a coal fireplace.
Our tour guide walked us over to the kitchen. This ‘kitchen,’ was a small, very dark room, with a single black coal pot sitting on a hole, under which were some sticks for the fire. This was their stove.
“Every day of our lives, our mother cooks us breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” our guide, who must’ve been at least 25, said. “But she only makes one meal per day, and we just eat it whenever we get hungry. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to get to the market to get our food. People from Bali love breakfast, because it’s the only meal of the day that is fresh. After that, our food sits on the kitchen table all day. So, when I get hungry, I just walk into the kitchen and eat some more of whatever my mom prepared that morning. We obviously don’t have microwaves or refrigerators, so we definitely have some hygiene problems, but we have built up a high immunity.” He said casually, unfazed.
As we exited the compound we passed a rooster stuck in a little straw cage, and our tour guide pointed to him and said, “We are going to have a cockfight at the end of the month. To sacrifice rooster blood to the spirits. That part is legal. But we will also be gambling, which is illegal.”
I don’t want to say any of this with too much pity, or too much wow-aren’t-we-lucky reflection, because 1. It’s been done before, and 2. I don’t really think I saw enough to generalize anything about what it is like to live in Bali (what if someone took you to a random house in rural Texas, for instance, and said, ‘This is how all American families live’).
I will just say that I was shocked, to see how little some of these Balinese people had, because—my god, they seem so happy. As I biked past them, every single person came to the doorway of their shop or compound, or looked up from the ground they were laying on or from the river they were washing clothes in, and smiled ear-to-ear without a trace of bitterness or dejectedness or defeat, shouting out to me: “Hello! Good morning!” Their days seemed so monotonous, and terribly hopeless, without any promise of variation. I just kept thinking—what do they have to ‘live’ for? I don’t mean that question in a religious way, or any deeply philosophical way. I simply mean: What dreams can they entertain for themselves? What goals can they work to achieve? Is there any serious reward for their hard work, besides the same meal on the table every morning?
Perhaps this is why religion, or spirituality, can be seen everywhere. Bali’s predominant religion is Hinduism. I didn’t know much about Hinduism when I arrived. Here’s all I know after my trip: Everywhere I went, each morning, there were small baskets filled with fresh incense and flowers, which were offerings for different purposes (good luck, warding off evil spirits, expressing gratitude, etc.)
Besides the offerings, they have temples everywhere. Each house has it’s own family temple, and it would be ridiculous to pray at anyone else’s temple, because each family temple is for that family’s ancestors. The family temples were my favorite temples—must more impressive than the ones over-hyped by tourists.
And then, besides the temples, they simply have a spiritual language. For instance: “I hope you have a blissful time in Bali; Would you like to come and get a massage, so I can rearrange your chakra energies? Would you like chia seeds in your smoothie… it is good for the soul. Everyone, can you please breathe in, and when you breathe out, breathe out all of the evil spirits that reside within you.”
And, perhaps most fascinating: the word for ‘artist’ and ‘human being’ is the same in Bali. They don’t have a word for ‘artist’ because everyone is an artist. Art is simply a devotional prayer to the gods.
Anyways, so we biked past rice fields and through little towns and saw a more authentic version of Bali than I’d seen before. There were just two other Asian women with me on this trip, but they were very nice.
After the bike tour, I went to this fantastic place called Kafe for dinner, and got a sweet potato/beet/spinach/walnut salad with some healthy smoothie and hummus on the side. It was probably the best meal I’ve had in all of Asia (that’s terrible, I know. I feel guilty for saying it. Okay, okay… the fried rice is good, too).
Then I walked, again through the rain (it’s ‘rainy’ season in Bali… glad I was warned), and ended up buying gelato at some fancy hotel. I sat on the porch and talked casually with the Balinese worker who’d scooped my gelato for me. He told me that this is how all Balinese people learn English: they speak to tourists. Considering I didn’t need to know a single Indonesian word (not even hello!) the entire time I was there, I was impressed by this. I apologized for not knowing any Indonesian, but the man shrugged it off. “We should learn English. It is the language of the world. It is not just for speaking with Americans… it is how we speak with Europeans, Chinese. Everyone.” Still, I thought about how difficult it would be for me, if I had to learn Spanish through random exchanges with foreigners on the streets of Boston, and I told him again how grateful I was that he was trying.
The next day, I got up early, took a van to the harbor, and then took a fast ferry across the ocean to Gili Air.
Seeing as every single other person on the boat got off at Gili T, I understood quickly just how secluded I’d be on this island. And it’s what I’d wanted, originally: seclusion, a chance to lie on the beach and do nothing and tan and read.
The only problem was—rainy season, remember? So it was cloudy when I arrived on Gili Air, and started raining within minutes. And what, exactly, are my alternative options on Gili Air, if I am not lying on the beach?
First, I spent three hours reading in my hotel room. I took a nap. Then I woke up and considered just staying in my room the rest of the day. I know, that’s pathetic. But I was so tired from moving around, and also, the rain was depressing. Thankfully, I found the energy to get up (and the motivation: I promised myself a snack, if I could get out the door). I ate some yoghurt with fruit, overlooking the ocean (which definitely has a different kind of beauty, in the rain), and was extremely well attended to by two boys who live on the island and work at my hotel; since I was the only customer, they stood near me the whole time I ate. I liked their company.
After my snack, I took an hour and a half candlelit yoga class. It was peaceful, for the most part, and filled with at least 30 other tourists (no idea where they’d all been before, or where they went afterwards).
After the class I wandered, and ended up at some random restaurant because it was selling pasta.
I was trying not to attract any extra attention (feeling a bit like some strange loner girl as it was, reading her book and not really talking or looking at anyone, while mostly everyone else was here with a boyfriend/girlfriend), when this cat came to my table and just wouldn’t stop meowing. Meowing is an understatement—this cat was screeching, right at my table. I kept smiling at it and kind of shooing it away before going back to my book, thinking, Please leave me alone, I cannot be the girl who sits by herself and feeds the stray cats.
But the cat wouldn’t shut up, and people kept looking at me like, Uhm, can you please control your friend, so finally I just pushed some of my pasta onto the seat beside me and the cat shut up, happily eating his share.
So that was Gili Air. I left the next morning. Overall, I can’t say it was my favorite part of the trip. But I will say one thing: I felt lucky, that I had the opportunity to be disappointed by a place. I mean, if I’d done the whole office job back in America, and had accepted a quick 10-day trip to Asia as my consolation prize, my night on Gili Air would have felt disastrous, like But this was 1/10th of my trip! Instead, it was just a mediocre solo adventure to an island, (which I know I would’ve regretted had I skipped), and one of many adventures I will have in Asia before my time to leave.
The last thing I will tell you about is my experience after arriving back from Gili Air on Monday afternoon. I was staying near the airport, and my flight wasn’t until Tuesday morning, so in classic “Me” fashion, I began thinking about what I could do in the 5 hours I had left (before sleeping). It dawned on me that I felt very unfulfilled with what I’d done in terms of following in Liz Gilbert’s footsteps—I hadn’t meditated once, I hadn’t fallen in love, and I hadn’t visited a Medicine man. Seeing as only one of these was something I could Google (and not waste $500 learning how to do), I found a Medicine man, not too far from the airport, and emailed him.
After receiving a response from him, saying he could help me, I grabbed myself a taxi from the airport and was dropped off 20-minutes later on this desolate side street. All I could see on this street were two men sitting on the front stoop of a random white building.
“Ah,” I stepped toward them, my taxi driver still watching. “Bali Chy Healing?”
They pointed down the street.
I turned the corner and saw the sign. I entered this ‘shop’ and sat down in a chair while I waited for an older (mid-60’s?) dark brown Balinese man to finish his conversation with another patient. The Balinese man looked sweet, with large, thin-rimmed square glasses, a wide smile, and black hair graying around the ears. Like a grandfather, maybe (not mine, of course).
While I waited, I read a pamphlet about him. It said: “Sami is a traditional Balinese healer and doctor known as Balian Usada. With his holistic treatment he is able to diagnose and find solutions to physical ailments, emotional trauma, and spiritual consciousness issues… Sami had the opportunity to meet high spiritual beings (for example Sri Chinmoy), who regarded him as a superior being as well… He is now a very wise man.”
I skipped a few (boring) parts. On the front, it said he could do energy balancing, reading and life coaching, kinesiology… and some other stuff, mostly stuff I’ve never heard about. I thought about what I wanted and decided my ‘energies’ probably needed balancing, and I probably needed some life coaching, since I was here and all, and paying $70 (I’m embarrassed to admit that… my co-teachers all laughed when I told them how much I’d spent, and said, ‘I could’ve told you how to be happy for free! I could’ve balanced your energies for a discount!’)
An older, bigger woman, with jet-black hair and a sweaty face, suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Come, come!” She said, motioning for me to follow her. “You have appointment?” She asked.
“Uh, sort of. I emailed,” I said. She nodded, and that was that. (Note: if you’re ever in Bali, just say you have an appointment, even if you don’t. How will they ever know?)
“Lie down,” she pointed to a bed behind a curtain, and then said, “But first, take off all your clothes.”
I did as she said and lay down on the bed. She explained that, first, she was going to give me a massage and do some acupressure to ‘get my energies flowing.’ For the first 15-minutes, as she worked, I asked various questions, like I was writing some research report on the whole thing. “How did you become a healer? He trained you? Who trained him, though? Wait, what are you doing now… can you feel the energies? Are there different energies in different parts of the body? How will we know when they’re balanced… can you feel the imbalance right now? Also, just curious… can the Medicine Man tell me my future? Can he read my mind?”
Finally, as I relaxed, I quieted. Actually, I probably pretty much fell asleep. It felt really nice. If nothing else, the $70 got me a great massage.
After at least 45-minutes, she finally called the man in. She told him, through the curtain, that I was “ready.” He came in and said, “Just relax, Caroline. Don’t think. Close your eyes.” I did as he said and there, in the dark, he put both sets of fingertips on my head and kept them there.
For a while, I stayed relaxed. My mind was still thinking ferociously, as it always does (it gets worse, I’ve found, when I try to think, ‘don’t think of anything! Be in the moment! Relax!’ When I tell my mind not to do something, it tries really hard to do the opposite).
After a while, my mind drifted and I thought about how much trust I was giving these people. Then I really thought about it. I mean, wait a minute. My bag, with my purse and debit card and credit card and cash, was sitting right beside him, not me. And I’m lying here, in the dark, on some random road on a deserted street, with my eyes closed. What the hell is keeping him from stealing from me? I thought, and then, even worse, Oh my god, what the hell is keeping him from KILLING me? Seriously, why hasn’t he stabbed me ALREADY? It would be genius. Stab me, put my body in the backyard… no one in the entire world knows where I am anyway… take all my debit cards/credit cards etc., and you could probably make a pretty good life for yourself… for at least a month or two… in Bali. And no one will ever know.
As I’m thinking this, I opened my eyes (just to check, you know… that he doesn’t have a knife in his hand, or something), and he said, like he was reading my mind, “Okay. We are done.”
I met him in the front room, right by the road. I had no idea where the woman went—I never saw her again.
He smiled at me and took out a big book and said, “So, Caroline. What is your problem?” I realized he meant what is my physical ailment—why am I even here in the first place—and I know I can’t really say, “Oh, I don’t have one, I just want you to tell me my future like someone in Bali told Elizabeth Gilbert hers. And maybe also tell me my purpose in life, and anything else you think is fun I should know.”
So, instead, I said weakly, “Oh, I don’t know. I wanted my energies balanced…” I have no idea what that even means… “And, also, I want to be more in-the-moment, I guess?”
He nodded and said, “You worry. You are very self-critical. You get stressed. You have a lot of knowledge… but you are not wise.”
He drew a triangle on a piece of paper and turned it to face me. Then he wrote, at the top of the triangle, the word ‘Spirit.’ Below, in the middle, he wrote, ‘Mind.’ Finally, at the bottom, he wrote, ‘Body.’
Then he drew a chart and wrote ‘Emotional,’ with all those really nice attributes he’d given me below (stress/nerves/anxiety/self-critical); on the other side of the chart, he wrote ‘Think.’
“You are also very active. Very creative. Very innovation.” (English is his second language; let’s bear in mind). He wrote these words below ‘Think’. Then, randomly, he drew a bunch of + signs under ‘Think’.
“You think too much. That is your problem. When you think too much, you are not in the moment. To be happy, you must be in the moment.”
“Yes, but… how?” I asked.
He looked up at me, exasperated. “I just told you!” He said, laughing, but sounding frustrated. “This is what I’m talking about. I told you!”
“Oh… Okay! Okay! I see now!” I said conciliatorily (Did he tell me? Was I not listening close enough?).
After a moment, he continued. “See, you want to know Who you are. You want to know Where you are. You want to know How to be happy. You want to know Why life is like this. You want to know What can make you happy.” He wrote these words in the corner of the page.
“You are 23, Caroline. 23. You don’t need to know. Step-by-step, yes?”
“Okay,” I nodded. “Okay.”
“You want to know how to be happy… To be happy, you must be Healthy. You must be Aware of yourself. You must be Present. You must be Positive. And you must be Yourself. You see! It spells Happy!” He showed me on the paper, and then said, kindly, “You can keep this, by the way.”
I continued to nod. I mean, I didn’t really know what else to say (I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any questions—I didn’t want him exploding on me again, and ripping up the paper in frustration, or something).
“You cannot reach your spirit until you calm the mind. Just be happy. When you reach the spirit by being happy, you can find inspiration (he wrote in-SPIRIT-ation on the paper), from the universe. Do what makes you happy, help other people, and find inspiration—and you will be happy.” It began sounding a bit like circular reasoning to me (you know, X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X), but still, the more he said it, the more I could believe it really was that simple. It felt a bit like he’d taken a burden off of me. If my only ‘homework’ from him was to be happy… well, that’s a fun thing to focus on, isn’t it? Much better than becoming some meditative guru and spending hundreds at a retreat, or something.
When I asked, “To find my spirit, should I meditate or pray?” He shrugged and said, “You can. Or, just be happy.”
Okay. I think I can do that.
The crazy thing about this whole trip was, I didn’t have to sit at a desk for 5 years to save up for it. I didn’t have to land a book deal or go through some traumatic mid-life crisis. I didn’t have to try all that hard, really… the opportunity more or less just fell into my lap. And that in itself is CRAZY to me. I mean, Bali? Indonesia? What do I even know about Indonesia? I don’t think it really hit me, how lucky I am here, until I realized just how graspable the whole world feels to me right now. It’s all so much more within reach than I’d realized.
May of last year, I’d stopped researching work opportunities abroad and, instead, I’d begun emailing colleges in the local Boston area about Admissions Counselors positions because I figured I could travel that way (in the local area, to local high schools). Then, in June, I began researching opportunities to be an event planner in Boston, because I figured I could travel to different venues around the city.
Looking back, I feel sorry for that girl who, for even a brief period of time, narrowed her dreams so severely out of practicality and convenience… And out of some obscure pressure from this imminent ‘Real World.’
This is just as much a ‘Real World’ as any other. I get a salary at the end of every month that pays for my rent and my food and my transportation; I wake up and drink coffee from 7-11 to save money; I get tired and frustrated and my motorbike breaks down and my packages get sent to the wrong post office and all of it is real life.
But then, on a random Monday in January, a little over a year since I talked to someone from a Boston company about being a travel agent to help other people travel the world, and a little over 2 years since I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time, I ended up in front of a medicine man in Bali.
I’m living this life that scares me sometimes, because I don’t always recognize it as something I’ve prepared for or studied for or navigated before; but, at the same time, there are moments like my trip to Bali where I can look up and recognize exactly where it is I’m headed. It makes me realize just how much I’m capable of doing, not just someday, but soon, now. I've learned that I have total control over my own version of 'reality' and the 'Real World.' If I want my 'Real World' to include spontaneous solo trips to Bali, and who know's what else, than I can make that happen--I just need to remind myself to keep dreaming that big.