It feels like a million years ago now, but several Christmases back my sister gave me a mortar and pestle because I’d read somewhere that if you want to be taken seriously in the kitchen you should have one of these on your shelf. So you can imagine my reaction when, just the other night, I pulled it from the cupboard to find the sticker still on its bum – confirmation that she’s never been used.
It only took a trip to Bali to notice my little ten ounce Creuset.
Author Helen Simonson is right: Sometimes in life you go to Narnia and sometimes it’s just the back of the wardrobe. Bali is Narnia, an experience that took me many places including the recesses of my kitchen cupboard. In the kitchen gently bruising the rosemary, I found myself remembering this special trip and the 12 of us - a scatterplot of far and away destinations - from Australia, Canada, Belgium, Ecuador, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States – who travelled to paint with artist Tracy Verdugo in a secluded little villa complete with private pool and foliage overhead to shield and warm you. Under this canopy of frangipani and an ecosystem of life was a happy energy, a frequency of gratitude and joy that made you feel so very glad that you came.
I’ve always had an interest to experience this part of the world, to slightly break the bank on airfare alone because you need to take above-average planes to get there, so when in the airport on the first day someone’s t-shirt read, “If not now, then when? I remember thinking to myself these are good words to travel by.
Bali was – and is - an aesthetic experience. So I’m organizing this travelogue in the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. To capture it all, impossible. But here is my attempt:
I left on a Tuesday, arrived Thursday, felt pretty much dead by Friday, and on Saturday I rose again in a very post-surgery wow I survived that ordeal kind of sense. After a long journey, the comfort that comes from having a hot shower with exfoliating pressure is so golden you temporarily forget your fear while under the covers that a gecko might be, and likely is, tacked onto the bedroom wall. Above your bed, that wall.
The island is Hindu, so lots of temples and mala and Buddha. But the Leha Leha Spa in Sanur offered me the greatest spiritual experience. Everything there felt ceremonious, from the way someone handed back your credit card, or turned over a flower in the foot bath, or placed an eye pillow over your face. All of it was done with such reverence that when you come home to a cashier who loudly drops your change on the coffee shop counter, you have to wonder. Leha Leha is the kind of place that puts your zippity back in your doo-dah. And because you’re in Bali for the first time, you don’t know what to expect – especially when, the night before, your newfound Kiwi friend details her experience of a Hawaiian massage that involved a pinching of the nipple. So you lie there on the table with curiosity in one ear and hmmm in the other – anticipating, just waiting for that moment when a hand moves this way and that and you think to yourself yup, it’s gonna happen. But I assure you, nothing on this body was pinched. I may have tensed a little when he gently moved…err, separated actually… my knees to make room for his knee as he hoisted his body onto the table for added pressure or when I flinched, slightly, when he massaged my lower belly at the very moment he asked about my marital status– but no, there wasn’t any pinching of the nipple.
Now the massages on the beach – those were equally divine. For $10 USD you got the same kind of massage, minus the rose petal bath and complementary teas. And no one climbed up on the table with you, but still very satisfying with the sound of the ocean in your hair, I mean seriously. What an experience. One masseuse rubbed eucalyptus balm all over me, scalp n’ all, and I never felt so refreshed or looked so frightening. But when one of them mortar-and-pesteled my feet into the table, I gave out a very long, collapsing scream. If you’ve got feet with screws like me, learn how to say hellno in Balinese.
The elephant sanctuary and monkey forest rank high in the touch department. I think looking into an elephant’s eyes and feeling its skin or holding a monkey’s hand (actually, to be clear the monkey is holding your hand), these experiences urge somehow a confession and a confidence. You make promises to take better care of the earth that is more theirs than ours. It was worth coming to Bali for these two experiences alone.
To end this section on touch, I think it’s a cruel twist of fate that puts me on a toilet in a room without paper while street meat runs through me like lava. And if you want to talk about what not to touch, it was that hole in the ground.
If you’re going to Bali for the elephants and monkeys, nasi goreng is your third reason. It varies like most national foods, but essentially it’s fried rice with egg on top. You can also get it with prawns or satays. The rice has earthy heat to it with a hint of shrimp (paste) and sweet soy, so it’s got some depth of flavor that separates it from your average fried rice special at Long Duk Dong’s down the street.
On satays, I tried one thinking it was beef but for my vegan and vegetarian peeps you’ll faint to the floor when I tell you it was a piece of caramelized fat. But I gotta say, that was the most delicious toasted square of something I ever tasted.
I ate Jaffles most days, a lovely little sandwich with roots in South Africa and Australia apparently. And if it works with cheese – egg, meat, tomato – banana, even – you can jaffle just about anything between two slices of bread. Yum!
When ordering a bag of peanuts from the market, ask for the ones grown above ground – they’re crunchy and delicious.
The morning cafes were salty and sweet. With each passerby, you were cloaked in soy and sugar wafting through the air. But if you were on the beach early enough, the smell of burning plastic bottles wafted as well and you couldn’t walk quickly enough to the cafes.
The day before I arrived in Bali, locals had just celebrated their independence (from the Dutch), the proof of their joy in flying kites on the beach so majestic it left you feeling awestruck. In fact, there’s so much national gratitude during this celebration that it’s customary in Indonesia to take a bit off prisoners’ sentences during special holidays, or so I read in a magazine at the Leha Leha spa, so no doubt there were several additional people who were themselves awestruck with joy.
We went shopping in Ubud, which I thought was an unexpected mix of modern and ancient, hip and haute. If Ubud sounds familiar, this is where author Elizabeth Gilbert went in 2006-ish and wrote her national bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.
As I write this travelogue, I still think about the meandering pathway to the beach where you’d pass by street vendors and say ‘jalan-jalan’ for, I don’t want to buy anything I’m just walking. You could always see the locals going about their business on this pathway, women sweeping up crunchy fallen leaves and men lounging about.
The Wi-Fi password at one of the beach cafes was: mylifeisamazing and you have to imagine for a moment what those words internalize for every patron who enters them on their cell phone. Passwords are mantras, too. Daily prayers, even.
Misspellings are amusing no matter where you are. Please enjoy some “white race” with your side of prawns or how about a quick stop at the spa for a “medicure” before dinner? If neither appeals to you, pick up a souvenir t-shirt that reads, “This is the live.”
Every one of us enjoyed watching the Balinese women carefully arrange their early morning offerings.
In Tigalalang, the city of rice, we saw some lovely rice fields. Conceptually, we may understand how rice is grown but seeing a rice field really establishes newfound respect for the process and the amount of work involved. How much is that bag of rice? Sure, no problem. I’ll pay double that.
Before this trip, I had never before seen anyone walk with a selfie stick while taking a series of candid photos as I did in Hong Kong – or see so many varieties of cell phones.
When on the beach at 6am, you can hear men chanting Ommmmmm from some far away distance, the vibration running through and around you. It felt pretty special and there you go, your fourth reason to come to Sanur. I think I will remember that sound always.
When the cashier in Hong Kong said that I owed her twenty dollars for the croissant I’d ordered, it just sounded delightfully absurd to my North American ears. The amusement ended of course when the concierge said that the only room available was four thousand HK dollars a night (you know, a mortgage payment) and you suddenly realise that you’re going to spend the next 12 hours on the airport floor to the tune of crying babies and intercom announcements.
When you come to Bali, bring a strong constitution because the line in the road is merely a suggestion. I witnessed two moped accidents. I wish I could un-hear one woman’s cry as her body scraped along the pavement in one sudden blow.
I never tired from hearing my Aussie friends look for their sunnies (sunglasses), or that must-have singlet (tank top) from the market, or wish out loud for a doona (duvet) in their rooms. And then there are expressions too fantastic-sounding not to share as in, “Pop your lippy on and let’s go.” Am I alone in hearing for the first time the expression, Do you want to bonk? Be still my heart I never laughed so hard. Oh, hmm. Hard. Wrong word for this paragraph. What do you get when you group together for dinner a couple of Aussies, a Kiwi, a Swede, an Ecuadorian, two Americans, and a Canadian? They’re going to ask us to leave we’re too loud, that’s what.
Tracy is the reason we came together so it’s fitting that I close this travelogue with her. She’d say, “Don’t get mad get wise at it” when one of us wanted to Frisbee throw our art away. “When one expectation doesn’t work, do something else,” she would add. “Figure out what lights you up.” These are just some of the words we lived by under the Bali sun with her. If Tracy is anything she is foremost a kite, tacking in the wind. She is the upward force that pushes ahead, reaches high. You can reel her in to ask the question, “Which colour should I use?” but no sooner does she answer – and she doesn’t really answer but guide – is she up again discovering new heights and always willing to take you there. She’s dynamic and real and the voice in your head telling you brush before brain.