Travel Writing: Bali Adventure Diary & Reflections on Peace & Magic
(Just a warning this short story is quite lengthy)
Day 2 in Bali
It’s 10:30 at night and I’m sitting outside of my dimly lit Balinese villa on a wooden patio overlooking the rice paddies, illuminated by moonlight. The sounds of the jungle and the gamelan playing in the distant background narrate this most exceptional reality. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much at peace. This place is a theme-park to my senses which by definition makes you feel more alive.
The front door to my villa is hand-carved out of Balinese wood, French style, and it locks only with a large pad-lock long enough to clasp the two circular knobs on each side. It took me about five minutes of fumbling to open the lock until a man noticed my struggle and came over to help me.
I realized tonight why I’ve had such mixed feelings about this place as for years I kept telling everyone that Bali was totally overrated. But I realize now that my second trip here was just underwhelming. But I wanted to come back here for months so I finally made it happen. I was last here three and a half years ago with one of my best friends and we explored much of the island. But our hotel was not very well insulated from the rainforest and it was also one of those excessively large properties that lacked any real cultural touch of Balinese spirit. In other words, it was pretty but it felt empty.
That first night we found a jungle spider around ten inches in diameter on our bathroom wall. My over-confident friend said she wasn’t afraid of spiders and boldly headed into the bathroom to kill it. She then let out a whaling scream, not because of its startling size but because she’d never seen a spider move so fast before. So then I began screaming at an intense high-pitched frequency that only girls can make when something seriously upsets them.
But that traumatic incident, our underwhelming property in Ubud, and the high terrorism alert that year made me leave feeling somewhat stressed out and I actually wondered if I’d ever come back here again. Some parts of Bali are significantly better than others but I discovered from my last trip that choosing the right hotel here totally makes or breaks the trip. Hotels that are less about impressive properties and more about the essence of Balinese culture and landscape create a far richer experience, although ideally, a combination of the two is best.
I realized tonight sitting outside on my wooden patio, listening to the sounds of the rainforest and the gamelan playing in the distance that Bali comes to life at night. You can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to feel this kind of magic all of the time without ever having to travel to an exotic and far away place to feel it. Perhaps this “magic” is simply experiencing things like peace and joy to the full extent which can result from any combination of things. But both are on the positive spectrum of human emotions and they do exist outside of Bali.
After thinking about what constitutes internal peace, I realized what it’s not is simply not feeling perfectly at peace which can be either some war with yourself or simply some conflict such as anxiety, worry, dependence, and fear or any emotion on the spectrum of negative emotions. And when you feel at peace, it means that nothing worries you which means you can actually enjoy life as I do when I’m traveling.
And yet, I’ve realized that the only time I’ve ever felt truly at peace, meaning totally at peace, is when I’m traveling or with my favorite loved ones. And that being around anyone who makes you anxious or worry therefore makes it impossible to ever live a peaceful and joyful existence. As an adult, I’m sadly only now figuring out how simple this truth is.
Tonight I walked twenty minutes into the city on the uneven sidewalk skirting around motorbikes and I headed straight to Ibu Oka. I was disappointed to find that the crispy pig skin was sold out for the day and that the Babi Guling wasn’t nearly as good as when I first tried it in 2011. I blame Anthony Bourdain for this because ever since he raved about “eating the best pig of his entire life” Ibu Oka has expanded to three locations in the small city of Ubud and the quality just hasn’t been the same. But I settled for a dish of Babi Guling as I sat on their wooden deck overlooking the dark, dense, intruding rainforest.
After dinner, I walked back into town and wandered in and out of some shops before I noticed a small DQ stand which specializes only in ice cream and Blizzards -a favorite from summers in Texas. For some reason, seeing DQ in foreign countries excites me which is odd because this is a sign of Westernization which I personally don’t love seeing. The last time I saw DQ abroad was in Phnom Penh and it was fascinating because it was located right next to a swarming Buddhist temple. But the spot in Ubud is perfect and un-encroaching. I ordered a mini Kit-Kat Blizzard (because they didn’t have M&Ms). I figured there was far less likely a chance that I’d end up with mild dysentery from DQ than elsewhere.
Bali is known for having a ton of massage places (and not the dirty happy-ending massage places you find in Buddhist countries around Asia). And yet, I’ve never actually walked into any of these spots off the street before as it’s never even occurred to me. The last two times I visited Bali, I only received massages at fancy resorts, the Conde Nast ideal with rose petal baths overlooking a landscape of running waterfalls in the jungle. My standards can be too ideal at times which is both good and bad in life, but something possessed me to stop at this place. The sign was decorated in large red writing and outside the door laid a slew of expat flip flops tossed about at the entrance, a sign of the carefree spirit of the islanders.
Sadly, everything about this place on the outside would have usually turned me away but I cast my judgments aside and went inside. The smell of acetone was overwhelmingly strong and I thought about leaving. But they offered a foot reflexology, one hour for roughly $7 USD so I decided why not.
A nice young man named Jaya showed me to a small sink on the floor. He splashed some water on my feet and to my uncomfortable surprise it felt cold. After he quickly dried my feet off he escorted me to a bright orange massage chair, but not before I found myself slightly embarrassed upon realizing that I’d tiptoed across their marble floor in the most eccentric and ridiculous fashion. I was exceedingly careful not to trigger any of the land-mines of stray hairs that could potentially stick to my still somewhat damp first-world feet. I looked up to find a girl staring at me with a curious expression.
Jaya asked me, “what pressure?” and I told him strong. The stronger the better as it’s usually hard to find massages that are strong enough for me. I’ve learned that most women just can’t do it, but I once got a massage in Thailand from a tiny girl who left bruises all over my legs. That was probably too strong but little did I know that’s what they do to you in Thailand.
Jaya’s massage was so good that I found myself relaxed to the point where a legitimate physiological and psychological shift happened inside me. An hour went by incredibly fast and I swear to God I received the best massage of my entire life. And on top of that, he’d somehow forced me into an overwhelmingly peaceful and cheerful state of mind.
I thanked Jaya with an extra 20,000 Rupiah which is like 1.5USD and headed back to my villa in the rice paddies and the night air felt more magical than ever. It’s my second night in Bali and I feel like a new person.
I can’t recall a time when I ever needed a vacation so bad, maybe just one other time. This year has been interesting and despite some significant stress, I actually feel the most solid I’ve felt since I can even remember so it’s also been quite transformational too. I look back a year ago and I feel like I was a ghost of myself who lacked any real control over my life. But the entire reason I flew to Singapore and to Bali was that I desperately needed to get away and far more desperately than usual. I hit a point where I felt totally paralyzed and I couldn’t even understand why.
I don’t think a fifteen-hour flight has ever gone by so fast. I’d placed so much pressure on myself the last year amidst so much personal change that I’d become paralyzed and unable to move forward. I have to find a job, I have to make x amount of money a month, I have to get into Harvard Law School, I have to rescue my poor website from abandonment, I have to eat better, I have to lose five pounds, I have to change my name, I have to etc……The words “I have to” cycled in my mind endlessly on repeat resulting in a perpetual cycle of anxiety. And yet, you can’t actually accomplish anything or even enjoy your life in this state of imbalance.
The thing I love perhaps the most about traveling though is that it creates major instant momentum in your life which makes you feel something. And it’s so easy to become paralyzed and to forget you’re empowered with at least a passport alone. Although jetting off to some place exotic isn’t solving a current state of problems, it’s an empowering reminder that some powerful form of change is always immediately possible.
After traveling so much over the years, I had to stop thinking of traveling in terms of a vacation. And it was at some point later when I learned that actual fulfillment in yourself or in a relationship could never be obtained through anything remotely relying on the external – it has to come from within as cliche as that sounds. At some point, so many things became a necessity and a spiral of dependence which all the more indicated major problems in me at the least that went unnoticed for so long. It’s a problem when you rely on things to keep you going or even a relationship going. You can rely on doing things or a distraction of any kind for so long before it reveals its hollowness once removed. You end up going through the motions in a vicious cycle because that distraction is what’s necessary to prevent you from facing fear and reality. The days blur together and you don’t really feel any real profound emotions yet you convince yourself that this is how it’s supposed to feel as an adult, even when you think you have “everything” and feel lucky.
Day 4 in Bali
Tonight I decided last minute to go to a yoga class at a place in Ubud called the Yoga Barn. I like yoga but I find it hard to sit for an hour on a mat, but when you’re in Bali you feel it’s a right of passage especially when you’re in Ubud which is essentially the yoga retreat capital of the world.
I hired a taxi to drop me off and I immediately loved the location but I also felt a bit out of place at first. It reminded me of that movie The Beach. The retreat was a pristine commune built inside the rainforest. It’s the kind of place where people consume things like cashew milk, raw juice, and make homemade cacao bars that are stored in glass containers to avoid toxin exposure.
I peeked through some dense palm trees and noticed a studio of people engaged in some kind of meditation chant. The chanting initially made me uncomfortable as it triggered an association to both Spahn Ranch and The Beatles White Album. It’s impossible to me it seems to disassociate any kind of hippie community from the cult-like image of the Manson clan although clearly, the difference is this new breed of modern day hippie – the yuppie hippie. And I guess I find myself included on the outskirts of this circle because obviously, I’ve traveled to Ubud for the third time.
I signed up for the 7 PM hour long Vinyasa class and I believe this was the wisest choice. The large studio was gorgeously decorated with cedar-colored wood and dim orange lights that looked exceptionally stunning against the panorama floor-to-ceiling windows that were filled with the dense green rainforest.
At some point towards the end of class, I became exceptionally distracted by the subtle but steady change in color of the forest at sunset against the burnt orange glow of the wooden interior. I couldn’t look away and I became truly fixated upon these colors. The shade of the forest shifted from green to dark green and then to this shade I’ve never actually seen before in real life, only in those VSCO filters you use on Instagram. The most radiant shade of dark forest green mixed with teal blue created a subliminal color that made it near impossible for me to concentrate on yoga as if it wasn’t hard enough.
That color provoked the most incredible feeling though for which I desperately wanted to capture with a camera but I couldn’t. Sitting in the back of the studio, I scrambled through my bag for my iPhone in a desperate attempt to capture a piece of this awe-inspiring moment but it didn’t turn out.
Class ended and after purchasing a cacao bar and dodging a lingering small-talk conversation with the guy who sat next to me, I left and walked down a dark road. I hadn’t a clue which way I was going but I didn’t care. Bali’s feral dog problem has improved dramatically, but it’s still easy to get spooked by a number of potentially rabid dogs wandering about on the streets. I was almost attacked the other night and totally lost my balance in such a way that reminded me of one of my favorite old TV shows Keeping Up Appearances, where Hyacinth falls into the bushes and yells“there’s that dreadful dog again!”
I found myself in yet another predicament as this dog appeared even more unfriendly than the last. As I was stopped in the road, unsure of how to navigate, I heard an exceptionally cheerful Australian voice behind me shout, “don’t look at it, just keep walking!”
A girl named Tamara ran up to me and grabbed my arm in a hurry as we ran past the dog. She too just came from the Yoga Barn and had only just arrived in Bali. It’s funny the nature of the people you click with but we somehow became instant friends. But Tamara was easily the most radiantly positive person I’d ever met in my entire life, so uplifting that I found her both inspiring and fascinating and I couldn’t help but smile when she talked. But as it tuned out, she too was in Bali on a solo adventure, also in her thirties and also recently just divorced too.
We reached the main street in Ubud when we stumbled upon this beautiful zen cafe serving teas and vegan food and we grabbed a seat on the floor. Bali has this vibe that actually makes a Texan want to become a vegan. She told me she was an Ayurvedic therapist and I told her about how the last time I was in Bali, I picked up an interesting book on Ayurvedic medicine.
After picking her brain about my dosha type, she imparted some timely wisdom on both relationships and goals that really stuck with me. She told me this story about how she hiked 500 miles in Chile over the course of a month but had she only worried about the finish line far into the mountains, she never could have done it. I’d spent so much time stressing out about getting at least a 170 on this damn test which honestly feels like scaling Everest, that it literally impeded my ability to move forward and to focus on the process and to just have faith that it will pay off and that I can do it. But the real problem was fear-based of being terrified of failing which creates worry and procrastination and discouragement. But discouragement is essentially when your courage is weakened by fear. She gave me some really helpful books on overcoming these problems for which I’m very grateful.
She then gave me this metaphor for relationships that resonated with me as well. Romantic relationships are often like a beautiful rose in the beginning, but you have to recognize if it’s wilted. And just because it was beautiful when it started, the reality of the present is that it’s wilted and dead and it will never be the same again. This is interesting to think about because more often than not, people try hard to “work things out” when in reality it’s over and has been over before it reached that point and yet we’re blind to accepting that fact.
Earlier that day, I was thinking about how much we validate romantic relationships based upon the past, but the past doesn’t necessarily reflect the present, although I feel we unconsciously and consciously give the past or “history” a high amount of priority over the present. The habit is to look back upon what you had and to validate much of your relationship or marriage primarily with the concept of time or an anniversary.
I can’t help but feel that celebrating anniversaries serves to perpetuate this fallacy in seeing and thinking and in this way it makes no sense to celebrate just one single day that happened in the very beginning of a relationship, especially if this relationship is long-term. Anniversaries and occasions are myths consisting of romantic gestures that we’re programmed to find as a meaningful sign of love. But feeling love is more profound than interpreting meaning or validation from any romantic gesture.
When you’re in love with someone, you don’t find yourself listing an external-driven checklist of qualities to explain why you feel that way because you just feel it for reasons that can’t be explained in those terms. I can’t help but wonder how many long-term couples are genuinely blissfully happy to be with each other, meaning you are genuinely as happy with each other whether you’re living in a five million dollar mansion or in a cramped and dingy apartment located in the middle of the most boring place on Earth with nothing but each other for entertainment.
We talked for awhile before we parted ways, but not before she gave me some book recommendations and helpful advice on both relationships, positive thinking, mindfulness, and goal-setting that I found helpful.
Day 5 in Bali
I checked out of my hotel and hung out by the pool for a couple of hours indulging in chicken satays and an iced chocolate milkshake. This has officially been the best vacation of my life for many reasons. The infinity pool at the Maya Ubud is pretty gorgeous although Bali has its fair share of impressive infinity pools. I booked this hotel with this pool in mind and it was the perfect way to end my vacation and seal my thirst for coming back to Bali. I stayed a night here and a few nights at a more affordable but lovely authentic Balinese villa out in town so it balances out well. It wasn’t my intention, but I think I tallied up a visit to five impressive exotic infinity pools over the last nine days, including three in Singapore. It just kinda shamelessly happened like that and so I found myself in a perpetual state of chill.
I could have stayed for eternity wasting away by the pool, but unfortunately, my budget-friendly vacation was somewhat exceeded and I needed to get back home to America. My flight was at 10 PM so I grabbed a ride into Ubud city center and walked around the town. I went back to the Starbucks for like the fifth day in a row because as you can imagine, it’s beautifully decorated out of Balinese-carved wood and they serve an iced chocolate drink which is perfection on a humid Bali summer day.
I left Bali this time around feeling like I finally got to know this place for the first time. And I left with more of an understanding of what’s required to create this kind of peace and magic I feel when I’m traveling. It’s amazing to see the transformation the country has made over the last seven years too. There’s an elegant flow to life in Bali and in all of my favorite places I’ve realized. It’s some kind of underlying rhythm expressed through harmony in culture and the environment and then within yourself.