Temporary Goddess

Twisting hips left to right, ducking beneath the improbably loaded baskets, we struggle to match pace through the dimly lit market stalls. Our guide turns around infrequently to keep an eye on her goddesses. Both translator and chief haggler, she knows which way to steer us in order to locate the best value products. Vibrant fabrics and clothing in one building, too-cheap tourist souvenirs in another, and between, at street level, lies more variety of fresh produce than I have seen in a long time. Piles of whole, freshly butchered chicken carcasses – feet and head included -piled high at one stall, trays of eggs of all sizes and varieties at the next. Baskets of fragrant tiny limes pass under my hands. Dark, pimply avocados larger than my fist sit alongside futuristic magenta dragon fruit, and deeper into the shadows I can smell the spice stalls with their enticing secrets.

The market visit primes my tastebuds and, thankfully, our lunch delights both the eye and the palate. Perched on wooden stools underneath a canopy of lush trees, we sit passive as the banquet is laid before us by a cadre of waiters. Platters laden with water spinach, peanuts and chilli sambal. Coconut, bean shoots and seaweed salad dressed with lime and lemongrass. Whole fish fried with tomatoes, shallots and chillies. Grilled chicken crucified on bamboo sticks then rubbed with traditional aromatic Balinese spices (turmeric and garlic was all I could determine). More fish, this time pounded and wrapped in banana leaves. And this is only day one.

On returning to the Goddess Yoga Retreat in Seminyak, I’m grateful for its hidden location at the end of an unmarked lane. Balinese traffic is not for the faint-hearted. Good-natured use of the car horn and frequent waving of the hand, drivers appear to negotiate road lanes as a fluid idea. One does not go for a leisurely drive to unwind. Guests come from around the world and for their own reasons. My presence here is thanks to the expired passport of a relative giving me the chance to indulge in new experiences. This afternoon I’ve signed up for a session with a traditional Balinese healer.

Half hidden behind vines and bamboo, I open the French doors of the studio and part the cheesecloth curtains to the side. A short, solid man not much older than myself –though I’m really only guessing — greets me. Softly spoken, his English is much better than my Indonesian. Pak Bagus, or Papa Bagus as the retreat managers refer to him, is dressed simply in a once-white t-shirt and blue batik print shorts with the standard bare feet.

‘Why are you here?’ he asks simply. Choosing not to dwell on the more philosophical sides of the question, I briefly explain my recent diverticulitis. Basic words and some hand gesturing later he nods and directs me to lie down. I untie my sarong and lie face down on the massage table. He places his hands on my back at different intervals and blows gently upon my skin. Without any massage oil I am alternately poked and prodded, stroked and manipulated sometimes to the point of discomfort. I can’t decide whether he’s trying to work the bad stuff out or work the good stuff in.

Occasionally I draw in a quick breath when he works on a painful spot. ‘Big infection’ he repeats time and again. He closes his eyes and his lubed up hands explore, press and release sections of my abdomen. ‘You tell me if pain’ he says and I nod enthusiastically. As he holds firmly in certain spots, I feel sharp twinges on my lower left side. I tell him straight away. He nods but doesn’t really let up the pressure. Most likely as a distraction technique, he asks me about my family – children, husband and so on. He tells me about an Australian group he was dealing with the previous week and I interject with, ‘It’s my first time in Bali actually.’

‘Why?’ he exclaims.  I quickly apologise and explain that I was never interested in the beach and Bintang style of holiday and I didn’t understand what else this island had to offer. I make sure he understands that I recognise my folly. I wax lyrical about Ubud and its stunning natural beauty, the artisans we’ve met, the friendly generosity of the people we’ve encountered and the incredible food we’ve eaten. I hope I’ve convinced him that this will not be my last visit to this beautiful island.

Like a rotisserie chicken, I’m oiled and turned, seasoned with spices and turned again. Meanwhile he expounds on his unique skills set : ‘Astrology, astronomy, massage, healer, ceremony . . . ‘ He pauses for no doubt dramatic effect ’magic’. I leave this last one in the air.

When my time has elapsed, I slowly sit up and find my sarong. Straightening my dishevelled underwear, I listen to his last minute prescriptions. ‘Massage. You need massage in Melbourne. Who can do that?’ I reassure him that there are plenty of places I can get massages. He also does his best to explain that I need to work on my gut bacteria. I thank him, palms pressed firmly together in front of my chest fingers skyward as is the custom. I slink off back to my room before I have to encounter anyone.

The following morning after breakfast, I seclude myself away on a raised bale bengong or daydream gazebo and observe the morning’s goings-on from my corner.Housekeeping staff in cool white cotton pants and cyan blue batik print shirts are occupied with their cleaning routines. Two young men arrive to complete their grounds-keeping duties. Bundles of stiff reeds make short work of the fallen leaves and flowers. The neat lawns are once again spotless. Bamboo blinds are raised on the yoga room to allow fresh air in after the morning’s gentle Yin session.

Fans circling lazily overhead, three goddesses lounge on large soft white cushions, getting lost in the colouring in books. Some women are on a shopping crusade, seeking out a good/known version of coffee and hopefully returning with souvenirs. Later upon travel home, they will no doubt regale their loved ones with grand stories of their trek brandishing their trophies as proof of prowess. Others are already at work pampering their body with some of the selection of unlimited spa treatments.

A low flying helicopter overhead interrupts the gentle drip of the morning’s rain from onto my gazebo roof. So out of place a noise here, we all stop and look up to watch it pass. Operations Manager Joyce steps out of her office and talks briefly to one of the two young men. Gestures are made by both of them indicating mid-calf level but whether it’s about the length of their pants or some shoes, I cannot make out. Shoes are optional and now only the third day in, many goddesses are traipsing around happily barefoot. It’s a custom I’m easily converting to.

Joyce and the other facilitators gather around the table in preparation for lunch. No bell is rung or voices raised. Women just start to gather and take any available seat. Today’s lunch is Gado gado – a salad composed of bean shoots, tomato, green beans, tofu and hardboiled egg with a spicy peanut dressing. It is both cleansing and filling at once. Local tea with lemon is a refreshing accompaniment.

Joyce kicks off the getting to know you session by telling us a bit about herself. Having moved from Sumatra 13 years earlier, she met the retreat’s founder, Chelsea, on the beach one day. Joyce speaks of Chelsea as being one of the most inspiring women she’s ever met. Perhaps she is part founder and part guru.

Theoretically, I know Bali has beaches because my mind’s singular image of a Bali holiday is bogan Aussies drinking Bintang on the beach. I will be perfectly content if I don’t step foot on a Bali beach. Beaches are best windswept, cool and empty of the clutter of other people. Walking slowly along the sand just at that edge where it’s not too wet and the waves get you or not too soft that it begins to feel like exercise, your reward being to just sit and watch the waves roll in ceaselessly. There’s nothing more simple and direct to convince me that I am just one small part of a large world that existed before me and is content to go on without me.

After lunch, I walk a dozen paces barefoot to the air-conditioned spa rooms upstairs above the yoga room. The gentle rain adds a soft soundtrack to our days and its presence almost demands we take things slowly and adjust to island time.

My spa treatment this afternoon is courtesy of Yeni. Her thin, supple fingers are surprisingly strong and she manipulates my limbs and muscles easily. My body is engaged and so my mind wanders. I wonder if her loved ones ever get to experience these magic fingers. She leans in close, whispering, ‘Excuse me, Miss.’ I roll over onto my back whilst she raises the thin, batik printed sarong of brilliant blues to preserve my modesty. She applies a rough scrub of crushed dried green tea leaves and local jungle bee honey, she lets this rest on my skin then slowly rubs it in and off with long firm strokes, making a grand mess all over the shiny, white tiled floor.

Invigorated, I am sent on my way with instructions to shower the remainder of the scrub off. Instinctively I go to smell my arm and it is sweet, almost fruity. I’ll skip the tasting bit. A quick shower off, into my still-wet bathers then into the pool I dive, two steps from our door so no sarong required.

○ ○ ○

The gin was only partly to blame really.  A litre of duty-free Gin, juicy fragrant limes, cold tonic water with generous amounts of ice and the smiling kitchen staff have mastered the art of a perfect gin and tonic – the ideal conversational lubricant.

After dinner the women slowly disappear one by one until I’m sitting here in the evening’s heat with an empty glass. My eye catches the light reflected in the pool. I realise that I’m still wearing my bathers underneath my loose top. Peeling it off over my head I drop it on the thick soft grass. I lower myself in quietly and begin my expert dolphin moves. Diving down to touch the rough pool floor then rising again, my head breaking gently through the surface.

I float on my back looking upwards gazing at the few visible stars, hearing only the rippling water. The knot where my bather top ties behind my neck is bulky and awkward as I try to arch my head backwards. So I untie it and also the clasps behind my back, flinging the wet top onto the rattan sun lounges. Diving below the surface once more the cool water swirls around me.  After a few laps around the pool, no one has appeared from the villas.

Climbing out, I go search for the light switches. Palm flat to the wall and quickly they are extinguished. Only the lights inside the pool remain on. The ability to turn these off eludes me. Caution is thrown quickly aside as I whip bather bottoms off and I dive back into the pool. So refreshing is the feeling of water on my skin.

○ ○ ○

Our Balinese cooking class scheduled for today is to be held at Hotel Tugu Bali in Canggu Beach. Sleepier than Seminyak, it draws less of the Aussie bogan and more of the surfer type though it is still a month off from the start of surfing season apparently.

 

Greeted on arrival by our chef de jour, a short woman introduces herself as Sri.Though later I discover she is only the assistant to Iboe Soelastri, the true cooking guru. This older woman of indeterminate age had mastered the subtle skill of wielding the cleaver through the meat with one hand whilst her second hand massages and rotates the meat and also overseeing our preparation so the pace of the dishes is on time and in order. The guru won’t allow Sri to finish a dish until the perfect taste profile has been reached. Following a recipe is all nice and well for us simple folk but being guided by over forty years of experience, our guru advises of more salt or sugar or lime to balance.

Our first dish is to be a minced spiced beef parcel wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Banana leaves are ubiquitous here. Folded and made into boxes to hold offerings of flowers and incense, lining the steamer basket and placed underneath dishes for presentation, they literally do grow on trees. In the segregated boxes next to our chopping boards lay a rainbow of ingredients. Sri shows us to how to rub the long red mild chillies between our hands back and forth. This loosens the seeds so when you slice it open they fall out easily. Lemongrass will get the root ends bashed firmly with the handle of the knife to break up the fibres. Some of the bulbs get peeled and some don’t and I can’t see a pattern but I duly do as I’m instructed. Large shards of coconut are grilled over the open flame, slightly catching alight adding a lovely charred edge.

Under the low roof of our open air kitchen, the intense heat and humidity is taking a toll on us. The sweat doesn’t take long to drip down my back between my shoulder blades and run down my thighs. My linen skirt and loose top cling to my now damp skin. I’m thankful when they produce refrigerated wet towels to cool ourselves with, reminding myself that one of retreat co-ordinators referred to this season as winter this morning as she wrapped a scarf around her neck.

We grind our spice pastes on a lava stone mortar and pestle unlike anything I’d ever seen. About the size of a dinner plate, it is mostly flat with small pits. The technique involves a rocking back and forth of the pestle and long dragging strokes. The chillies and shallots release their juices to help bind the pastes. Some pastes are fried off in coconut oil, others boiled in water to achieve a more mellow flavour.  Between taking photos and chopping chillies, I absent-mindedly wipe the sweat off my upper lip with my hand and soon feel the familiar burn. Next time, I’ll use the edge of my cheesecloth apron.

Nasi goreng fried rice, and snake bean and toasted coconut salad are then served in the cool dark hotel restaurant. Before we are delivered back, I can’t resist a stroll down to their private beach for a stickybeak. I know I said that I’d be content not to step one foot on the beach this trip and technically that is still valid. Under the oppressive sun I stand on the manicured lawn and look out towards the grey sand and gently breaking water. I decide that nothing is to be gained walking another 200m to feel sand under my toes. Turning away, I’m more than happy to leave the skin cancer seekers to their own devices. Food packed up and driver summoned I’m very happy to be ferried in air conditioned comfort back to the retreat where the quiet and mostly empty grounds are now a familiar sight.

On our final morning, the goddesses assemble in a circle on cotton bolsters in the yoga shala ready for our group meditation. Loose light clothing and the obligatory mosquito repellent to scent my ankles and neck and I’m ready to send love and good vibes to my compadres. Laura, our yoga goddess, looks calm and relaxed in her stretch leggings and loose singlet. Pale blonde hair pulled back off her face, she is the epitome of a yoga teacher. Tall and slim her lithe limbs appear so at home in poses that confuse and elude me though she continues to encourage us “no matter what body turned up for you on the mat this morning.” This morning to finish off our week’s retreat, we have an OM circle. This mantra chanting is supposed to provide vibrational healing both mentally and emotionally.

Each will experience the circle differently; no expectations and no pre-conceptions.Focussing on my breath and centring my mind, I get better at the whole omming thing as the chant progresses. When I’m tapped gently on the knee, it’s my turn in the centre. I feel the cool hard floorboards beneath me. Across my skin I sense the breeze from the fan or as I like to think of it the breath of the divine Goddess blowing her healing energy into my abdomen, supporting the work of Papa Bagus. There’s no pain in my intestinal region only a strong awareness of this area.

As the circle comes to a close, we all stretch our limbs then wander over to our breakfast table. The infectious grin that is plastered across Laura’s face even during complicated yoga poses and her cool relaxed demeanour in the high humidity betray no concerns. Over breakfast, I ask Laura more about her move from Australia. Doubts were raised continuously by others in her life and she hop-scotched between home and Bali six times before she managed to shut out those other voices and relocate with true intention.

Sitting here at the table, I think about how I’m going to miss having a selection of tasty healthy foods prepared freshly for me at each meal. Platters of brightly coloured tropical fruits are offered up each morning for our viewing and consuming pleasure. Dragonfruit of such a strong shade of fuchsia with tiny black seeds that it looks like a child coloured it in. Snake fruit with scaly brown skin and an off white fibrous perfumed flesh. Mango is less creamy and sweet than I’m used and slightly astringent. Papaya perfectly ripe and not the least bit funky. Mangosteen is a delight once you cut through the thick skin and reveal its sweet white flesh. There are also the tastiest eggs poached or scrambled as you like, seedy brown bread and juices in new combinations each day.

There will be no limitless spa treatments at my disposal, no strong fingers tracing the muscles of my back.  My white cotton sheets won’t be changed each day with the corner turned down and a small affirmation card on my pillow. The lyrical sounds of the housekeeping staff talking to each in Balinese will no longer be a soundtrack to my afternoons lazing on the couches in the lounge. Good thing I’m looking forward to going home.

 

Ommmmming

Seated on our green cotton bolsters in the yoga shala or yoga room, the goddesses are assembled in a circle ready for our group meditation. Loose light clothing and the obligatory mosquito repellent to scent my ankles and neck and I’m ready to send love and good vibes to my compadres. Laura, our yoga goddess, looks calm and relaxed in her stretch leggings and loose singlet. Pale blonde hair pulled back off her face, she is the epitome of a yoga teacher. Tall and slim her lithe limbs appear so at home in poses that confuse and elude me though she continues to encourage us “no matter what body turned up for you on the mat this morning.” This morning to finish off our week’s retreat, we have an OM circle. This mantra chanting is supposed to provide vibrational healing both mentally and emotionally.

Laura explains how the session will run with a short personal meditation then the OM circle with the use of mala beads. Mala beads are a string of 108 beads and a central ‘sumeru’ or summit bead.  Essentially the string of beads is a tool to keep the mind on the meditation practice. Made from woods, seeds or crystals, the beads are held in the right hand, rotating them around the circle but never across the summit bead. As to why there are 108 beads on a string of mala beads? Well, there are no doubt 108 answers to this question, most playing with the mathematics of the numerals and how they intersect with the universe.

We each will chant ‘OM’ as a group 108 times. At each interval of 5, one goddess will lay down in the centre of the circle face up with arms outstretched palms upwards. Each will experience the circle differently. No expectations and no pre-conceptions .Focussing on my breath and centring my mind, I get better at the whole omming thing as the chant progresses. When I’m tapped gently on the knee, it’s my turn in the centre. I feel the cool hard floorboards beneath me. Across my skin I sense the breeze from the fan or as I like to think of it the breath of the divine Goddess blowing her healing energy into my abdomen. The work of Papa Bagus yesterday is supported by the Goddess circle this morning. There’s no pain in my intestinal region only a strong awareness of this area.

When we’ve reached the final bead, we are lead through a short prayer and an awakening ritual ready to prepare us for the day ahead. Hands together palms touching at heart centre and gently rub them together to warm then place over our closed eyes, let the early morning light filter in as I slowly blink my eyes open. Stretching the limbs and we all wander over the few paces to our breakfast table.

Platters of brightly coloured tropical fruits are offered up each morning for our viewing and consuming pleasure. Dragonfuit of such a strong shade of fuchsia with tiny black seeds that it looks like a child coloured it in. Snake fruit with scaly brown skin and an off white fibrous perfumed flesh. Mango is less creamy and sweet than I’m used and slightly astringent. Papaya perfectly ripe and not the least bit funky. Mangosteen is a delight once you cut through the thick skin and reveal its sweet white flesh. There are also the tastiest eggs poached or scrambled as you like, seedy brown bread and juices in new combinations each day.

Sitting here at the table, I think about how I’m going to miss having a selection of tasty healthy foods prepared freshly for me at each meal. There will be no limitless spa treatments at my disposal. I, personally, will miss Yeni’s strong fingers tracing the muscles of my back.  My white cotton sheets won’t be changed each day with the corner turned down and a small inspirational affirmation card on my pillow. The lyrical sounds of the housekeeping staff talking to each in Balinese will no longer be a soundtrack to my afternoons lazing on the couches in the lounge.
Good thing I’m looking forward to going home.

Papa Bagus

The small studio is half hidden under more vines and bamboo and I open the French doors and part the cheesecloth curtains to the side. I don’t really know what I’m in for but being open-minded I’m pretty up for whatever might come my way. I’m here for a consultation with a traditional Balinese healer. The other night Kat’s testimony was so compelling that I implored Adriana to see if the healer can find a time to fit me in. A short solid man not much older than myself, though I’m really only guessing, greets me. Softly spoken, his English is much better than my Indonesian. Pak Bagus, or Papa Bagus as the retreat managers refer to him, is dressed simply in a once-white t-shirt and blue batik print shorts with the standard bare feet.

“Why are you here?” he asks simply.  I choose not to dwell on the more philosophical sides of the question but briefly tell him about my diverticulitis last week. Basic words and some hand gesturing later he nods and directs me to lie down. I place my iced water on the side table, untie my sarong and lay face down on the massage table. He places his hands on my back at different intervals and blows gently upon my skin. Soon the pummelling and kneading begin. Without any massage oil, his hands soon warm up even more from the friction of his movements. Over the next two hours, I am alternatively poked and prodded, stroked and manipulated sometimes to the point of discomfort. I can’t decide whether he’s trying to work the bad stuff out or work the good stuff in.

Occasionally I draw in a quick breath when he works on a painful spot. He’s quick to explain that my outer thigh muscles are tender because they correlate to my stomach infection. “Big infection” he repeats time and again. These spots have been tender for quite some time and I know our body bits are all inter-connected but it’s reassuring when these things are reinforced. I roll over at the requested time and the procedure is repeated. Muscles are held first, breath blown then long firm strokes followed up by massage and manipulation with oil. For the first time in my experience, all the massages I am receiving in Bali my stomach is getting its fair share of attention. Papa Bagus is no exception.

I’m glad of this as his ministrations certainly ease some of the tension in my belly. He closes his eyes and his lubed up hands explore, press and release sections of my abdomen. “You tell me if pain” he says and I nod enthusiastically. As he holds firmly in the certain spots just above my pubic line, I feel sharp twinges on my lower left side. I tell him straight away. He nods but doesn’t really let up the pressure. This happens a few more times and I wonder why I’m supposed to mention the pain. Most likely as a distraction technique, he asks me about my family – children, husband and so on. I answer without going into too much confusing detail. He tells me about an Australian group he was dealing with last week and I interject with “It’s my first time in Bali actually.”

“Why?!” he exclaims.  I quickly apologise and explain that I was never interested in the beach and Bintang style of holiday and I didn’t understand what else this island had to offer. I make sure he understands that I recognise my folly and will endeavour in the future to dispel this belief amongst anyone I meet. I wax lyrical about Ubud and its stunning natural beauty, the artisans we’ve seen, the friendly generosity of the people we’ve encountered and the incredible food we’ve eaten. I hope I’ve convinced him that this will not be my last visit to Bali.

Like a rotisserie chicken, I’m oiled and turned, seasoned with spices and turned again. Meanwhile he expounds on his unique skills set “Astrology, astronomy, massage, healer, ceremony “. He pauses for no doubt dramatic effect “magic..”. I leave this last one in the air.

When my time has elapsed, I slowly sit up and find my sarong. Straightening my dishevelled underwear he adds a few last minute prescriptions. “Massage. You need massage in Melbourne. Who can do that?” I reassure him that there are plenty of places I can get massages. He also does his best to explain that I need to work on my gut bacteria. This actually isn’t news to me as I’ve been suffering the last few years every now and then especially with fermented products. Digestively speaking, I’m definitely still very much a work in progress.
I thank him, palms pressed firmly together in front of my chest fingers skyward as is the custom. I slink off back to my room before I have to encounter anyone.

The art and romance of Balinese cooking

A seemingly young boy, though he legally has to be 17 at least in order to hold a driving licence, picks Simone and I up from our villas a couple of hours after breakfast. Our Balinese cooking class scheduled for today is to be held at Hotel Tugu Bali in Canggu Beach. Sleepier than Seminyak it draws a less of the Aussie bogan and more of the surfer type though it is still a month off from the start of surfing season (the busiest time in Bali which stretches til mid September) as Joyce informed me yesterday.  I start to wonder what a season means in regards to surfing. Is it when the particular style of wave begins to appear or is it in regards competitions? I don’t actually care enough to seek the answer out though.
Greeted on arrival by our chef de jour, a short woman introduces herself as Sri. Iboe Soelastri, I later discover is the cooking guru who won’t allow Sri to finish a dish until the perfect taste profile has been reached. Following a recipe is all nice and well for us simple folk but being guided by over forty years of experience, our guru advises of more salt or sugar or lime to balance. This much older woman of indeterminate age would chop the beef and chicken with a cleaver to a fine mince, whilst overseeing our ministrations from the corner of her eyes. She had mastered the subtle skill of wielding the large sharp knife through the meat with one hand whilst her second hand massaged and rotated the meat but also watching our preparation so the pace of the dishes was on time and in order.

Our first dish was to be a minced spiced beef parcel wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Banana leaves are ubiquitous here. Folded and made into boxes to hold offerings of flowers and incense , lining the steamer basket and placed underneath dishes for presentation, they literally do grow on trees. In the segregated boxes next to our chopping boards lay a rainbow of ingredients. Garlic, smallish shallots, long thin red chillies, green chillies, small orange hot chillies, fresh tomato, kaffir lime leaves and their small fragrant fruit, large wedges of fresh coconut, Indonesian bay leaves, lemongrass stalks, shrimp paste, palm sugar, candlenuts, ginger, galangal, lesser galangal, turmeric, coriander seeds, and two types of peppercorns.

Sri shows us to how to rub the long red mild chillies between our hands back and forth. This loosens the seeds so when you slice it open they fall out easily. Lemongrass will get the root ends bashed firmly with the handle of the knife to break up the fibres. Some of the bulbs get peeled and some don’t and I can’t see a pattern but I duly do as I’m instructed. Large shards of coconut were grilled over the open flame, slightly catching alight adding a lovely charred edge.

Under the low roof of our open air kitchen, the heat is getting to us. The sweat doesn’t take long to drip down my back between my shoulder blades and run down my thighs. My linen skirt and loose top cling to me now damp skin. I’m thankful when they produce refrigerated wet towels to cool ourselves with. I keep reminding myself that one of retreat co-ordinators referred to this season as winter this morning as she wrapped her scarf around her neck. I see local people in jeans and jumpers and shake my head.

We grind our spice pastes on a lava stone mortar and pestle unlike anything I’d ever seen. About the size of a dinner plate, it is mostly flat with small pits. The technique involves a rocking back and forth of the pestle and long dragging strokes. The chillies and shallots release their juices to help bind the pastes. Some pastes were fried off in coconut oil, others boiled in water to achieve a more mellow flavour.  We take many photos of different stages to illuminate the recipes we are provided with at the end. We amateurs are relegated to chopping the chillies, garlic, galangal and so on then many sweat inducing minutes of mortar and pestle work. Absent-mindedly I wipe the sweat off my upper lip with my hand and soon the familiar warmth of chilli burn is felt on my skin. Next time, I’ll use the edge of my cheesecloth apron.

Nasi goreng Jawa or fried rice and lawar kacang panjang or snake bean and toasted coconut salad are our second and third dishes that flesh out our Tugu cooking class. Mrs Mandy and Mrs Simon (sic) are then served their creations in the cool dark restaurant of the hotel. We only manage to make small in roads into the consumption of our delightful meal as it’s only 11am and we’ve not managed to work up enough of an appetite. Kindly they prepare the remainders for us to take back to the other goddess at the retreat. Before we are delivered back, I can’t resist a stroll down to their private beach for a stickybeak. I know I said that I’d be content not to step one foot on the beach this trip and technically that is still valid. Across a back lane there is a large lawn area with sun beds, raised open daybeds and the obligatory hotel staff to indulge your every whim. Under the oppressive sun, I looked out towards the grey sand and gently breaking water and decided that nothing was to be gained walking another 200m to feel sand under my toes. I was more than happy to leave the skin cancer seekers to their own devices.

Food packed up and driver summoned we’re very happy to be ferried in air conditioned comfort back to the retreat where the quiet and mostly empty grounds are now a familiar sight.

Day two of being a goddess

Glowing like a goddess from my facial I realise that I mistimed the whole lunch nap thing and emerge from the spa room bleary eyed from the bliss state of being pampered and find my way to the lunch table. Hair askew with moisturising cream in the roots around the edge of my face, I’m instantly glad of the women only casual in house atmosphere. Joining me at the long table are goddesses still in their bathers and sarongs and those in the robes also direct from some spa treatment.

Changing my seat location at every meal I’m trying to not get caught talking to the same lovely ladies, with but engage with some quieter types or those who came with another. As I am attending this retreat with my sister, some expect us to do everything together but we can talk to each other anytime in Melbourne so we are both more likely to seek out new friends in the making. Today’s food is to be Indonesian and Nadine is excited to learn it will be Gado gado for lunch. Hailing from South-east Asia originally herself, it is a dish she was hoping to seek out. The resort brought it to her. Essentially a salad with bean shoots, tomato, green beans, tofu and hardboiled egg with a spicy peanut dressing. It is both cleansing and filling at once. Local tea with lemon is a refreshing accompaniment.

Satiated from lunch I retire to those inviting big white couches to contemplate a post-lunch nap seeing as my pre-lunch one didn’t eventuate. My phone alarm sounds as I realise that my time for the antioxidant green tea and honey scrub and massage is now. When fitting in a nap is the trickiest thing for the day, I decide that things are pretty damn good. Leaving my things where they are, I walk a dozen paces barefoot to the air-conditioned spa rooms upstairs above the yoga room.

My spa treatment this afternoon is courtesy of Yeni. I’ve had her before when I had the facial this morning.  Her thin, supple fingers are surprisingly strong and she manipulates my limbs and muscles easily. My body is engaged and so my mind wanders. I wonder if her loved ones ever get to experience these magic fingers. Often the builder’s house is never finished just as the chef never cooks meals at home. She leans in close and whispers into my ears. “Excuse me, Miss”. It is enough for me to know how this progresses and I roll over onto my back whilst she raises the thin batik printed sarong of brilliant blues to preserve my modesty.

On the bed in the next curtained massage zone are the sounds of the heated lava stones being moved firmly in long strokes along the body of another goddess. At first, my mind guessed that someone was playing billiards. The solid clicks as they meet along acupressure points, took my mind unwillingly to a billiard table. Heavy solid coloured balls rolling along the felt meeting in all the wrong spots. Improved circulation and not a gambling debt was the intended of outcome of the Sacred Stone Masssage.

After the initial massage Yeni applies a rough scrub of crushed dried green tea leaves and local jungle bee honey, she lets this rest on my skin then slowly rubs it in and off with long firm strokes. A grand mess is no doubt made all over the shiny white tiled floor than she will sweep clean later. Floors are swept and mopped every day and sometimes multiple times a day. This whole environment is neat and clean but it never feels overly pristine and alienating. I have trouble relaxing in a place where I feel that I am the messiest part. The retreat facilitators generally walk around barefoot and that immediately sets a relaxed vibe to the place.

Invigorated and revitalised, I am sent on my way with instructions to shower the remainder of the scrub off. Instinctively I go to smell my arm and it is sweet and almost fruity. I’ll skip the tasting bit. Our shower is a large flat rain head of a shower set over pale tiles surrounded by a bed of smooth river stones. A large potted palm in the corner adds to the understated luxury. The heat and humidity of Bali in February mean that I find myself here multiple times a day. Straight into my still wet bathers and into the pool I dive, two steps from our door so no sarong is required.

The intoxicating smell of frying and pounding of spices and herbs which emanates from the open sided kitchen has stimulated my stomach and I figure out that dinner is two and a half hours away. I ask the very accommodating kitchen staff for a plate of freshly prepared fruit. So colourful and tasty, I am brought lychee, mangosteen, papaya, mango, banana and watermelon with a couple of wedges of the small juicy limes that seem to accompany everything here. Squeezed over the flesh just before consuming, it lifts the tone to a slightly higher level. These tropical fruits cannot even be purchased in Melbourne in this good and ripe a condition. 

Bali Goddess Retreats

Bali Goddess Retreats

Fans circling lazily overhead and a large gin and tonic with lime slowly warming at my side, we four women are on the communal rattan lounges resting on large soft white cushions.  Mostly from Australia but also from further flung fields, this women only retreat draws goddesses from all around the world. And that is what the staff refers to us as although it would seem an affectation back home, it rolls off the tongue here in situ. Being lead around the crowded, dimly lit market stalls Adriana was skilful at twisting her hips left to right, ducking underneath the baskets improbably loaded on the heads of goods carriers.  Turning around every now and then, she kept a steady eye on her market goddesses. Our translator and chief haggler, she knew which way to steer us in order to locate the best value product.

Our lunch banquet was as colourful to the eye as it was on the palate. Water spinach with peanuts and chilli sambal. Coconut, bean shoot and seaweed salad with a lime and lemongrass dressing. Whole fried fish with tomatoes, shallots and chillies. Grilled chicken with traditional aromatic Balinese spices (turmeric and garlic was all I could determine). More fish, this time pounded and wrapped in banana leaves. Andini , our second resort companion, starts to talk about her family and food and her whole face lights up. She has a real spark in her eye and her smile gets even broader. With so many aunties, her chaotic family seems like it’s never dull.  She was a treasured birth as her mother had trouble conceiving. Nadine, Katherine and I are touched by the sharing of such an intimate detail. I look at her round face so sweet and child-like and I imagine her mother cupping her cheeks with affection.

Katherine has recently started working at a veterinary surgery and was surprised to discover how much she enjoys it. Puppy cuddling is a mandatory part of the job description. Tough gig! Recently moving back from the big city to her country hometown, she is a simple girl who has visited here before and wants to get more out of her trip this time.

Apparently it’s Saturday night and I only know that as other goddesses enquired of our gracious hosts when the microphone MC of a party next door started up earlier. Norwegian students are celebrating the end of their month long Bali study tour. All the required permits were sought from the local government so any complaints we might have would fall on deaf ears. The individual areas operate very much along self-determined lines with garbage collection, security and even the postal service having their own distinct way of doing things. Village life still very much being very much still village life even though the villages have blurred at the edges and become one larger busier town or city. 

An outsider could never tell where one community stopped and another began.
Sarah is a registered nurse who has recently completed further nursing study. Burnt out and fatigued, this Bali getaway is a gift to herself aimed at recharging her batteries. She comes up with the catch phrase “Art has no borders – unless it’s framed!” Mindfulness colouring book and stacks of coloured pencils are positioned around the communal area. More than a time-filler, these books seem to grace everyone’s laps at some point in time. As the hours lengthen and the women one by one have headed off to their bungalows, there remains only three hard core goddesses colouring in to their heart’s content lost in the process.

I wonder how our Yoga instructor Laura is getting along figuring things out in Bali. Transplanted from Melbourne only two months ago from a busy corporate life in medical sales, she made the leap into a foreign land. The infectious grin that is plastered across her face even during complicated yoga poses and her cool relaxed demeanour in the high humidity don’t betray any concerns. Either a complete lack of prior investigation or a hell of a lot of research would have to have been in play for me to make such a huge move.

Over breakfast the next morning, I ask her more about the move. Doubts were raised continuously by others in her life and she hop-scotched between home and here six times before she managed to shut out those other voices and relocate with true intention. The newly built house in outer Melbourne was leased and a mostly Indonesian residential area of Kerobokan was chosen as her new home base. She references a partner when talking about the move but never mentions him or her by name or feelings or reaction on the move.

For now I sit in the corner of the property on a raised bale bengong or daydream gazebo to pay witness to the morning’s goings-on. Housekeeping staff in cool white cotton pants and cyan blue batik print shirts start their morning cleaning routines. Some of the other goddesses are on a shopping crusade, navigating their way via unnamed roads, seeking out a good/known version of coffee to hopefully return with souvenirs. Later upon travel home, they will no doubt regale their loved ones with grand stories of their trek brandishing their trophies as proof of prowess. Other goddesses are already at work pampering their body with some of the selection of unlimited spa treatments. Anti oxidant scrub with green tea and jungle bee honey or ocean scrub with salt and coconut oil promise to slough away your old world, so you can be truly present in this other world. The Jet-setter hour long massage has been designed to ease any neck or head tension that may have accumulated from the commute to this island on indulgence.

Two young men arrive to complete their grounds-keeping duties. Bundles of stiff reeds make short work of the fallen leaves and flowers. The neat lawns are once again spotless. Bamboo blinds are raised on the yoga room to allow fresh air in after the morning’s Yin session. Yin yoga is calm, quiet stretching with some guided visual prompts to help focus and centre your poses. Somehow I can cope with this small demand on my body before my regular morning cup of tea. Nothing is compulsory at this retreat and seems not too much to stretch myself to try something new that fairly much all the other women here seem to value and prioritise.

A low flying helicopter flies overhead interrupting the gentle drip of the morning’s rain from the overhead foliage onto my gazebo roof. So out of place a noise here, we all stop and look up to watch it pass. It’s now gone and we are back to our activities already.  Joyce steps out of her office and talks briefly to one of the two young men about what I don’t really know. Gestures are made by both of them indicating mid-calf level but whether it’s about the length of his pants of some shoes, I cannot make out.

Our guest relation and co-ordinator, Joyce greeted us all on arrival and before she mentions it I can already tell by her friendly inclusive hug and way she speaks that it was she who communicated with us by email beforehand. “Oh, you’re Amanda” she says and immediately I implore her to call me Mandy. A note is made and she never uses anything else. I give my full name when filling in forms or to people I don’t or won’t really know. Straight away, I feel that I want to hear her call me Mandy and not Amanda. During the orientation before our first dinner together, she explains how the week will flow then starts off the getting to know session by telling us a bit about herself. She is Indonesian but not from Bali originally. She moved from Sumatra to Bali 13 years ago and by chance met the retreat’s founder, Chelsea on the beach one day.

 Theoretically I know Bali has beaches because of my mind’s singular image of a Bali holiday is bogan Aussies drinking Bintang on the beach. I will be perfectly content if I don’t step foot on a Bali beach. I like beaches generally speaking but my version of beach joy doesn’t generally involve sun or Bintang or other people. Beaches are best windswept, empty and cool. Walking slowly along the sand just at that edge where it’s not too wet and the waves get you or not too soft that it begins to feel like exercise. The reward for your wander is to just sit and watch the timeless waves roll in ceaselessly. There’s nothing more simple and direct to make me believe that I am just one small part of a very large world that exists before me and is content to go on without me. Joyce talks about Chelsea as being one of the most inspiring women she’s ever met. Perhaps she is part founder and part guru.

The sun fortunately stays behind the light grey clouded sky for most of the days so far and I’m grateful not to have to remember my hat and sunglasses every time I step out. The gentle rain adds a soft soundtrack to our days and its presence almost demands we take things slowly and adjust to island time. Shoes are optional and now only the third day in, many goddesses are traipsing around happily barefoot. Folded towels are placed on the tiled floors at the entrance of each pavilion to keep things clean. It’s a custom I’m easily converting to.

I sneak away from my bale bengong to get ready for my goddess glow facial from which I shall emerge hydrated and toned just in time to sneak in a pre-lunch nap.