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.

 

On travelling and returning home

On travelling and returning home

 When I travel I feel that I don’t belong, that I’m foreign, something other. I’m unknown and unseen. It is only when I break the unspoken but mutually understood codes that I find myself in the glare of the locals. It can be something as innocent as walking on the wrong side of the footpath. It took me travelling to a land where the traffic drives on the right not the left side of the road that I discovered pedestrians too are expected to follow the same directional flow. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone seemed intent on walking at me. Observations undertaken across a variety of countries have reinforced this notion that pedestrian traffic flow more or less is dictated by the motorised traffic direction.

 Crossing a street takes multiple swivels of the head left and right before I’m sure that it is safe to cross. Walking in New York City, and many other American cities in fact, takes things to the next level. I’ve had people walk right into me as I stopped at the edge of the footpath – sorry, pavement – in observance of the red don’t walk signal facing me. Only fools and foreigners wait for the white walk signal apparently.

As a visitor to a new city, I’ve also crossed boundaries into no-go zones, or the wrong side of the tracks. Sometimes I’ve sensed a subtle change in atmosphere or appearance of buildings. Other times it’s more overt like the frequency of daylight drug sales. When conversing with locals later on, I’ve heard more than once ‘oh you didn’t go there, did you?’ The names of these areas can sound so nice as well – Tenderloin, Mission District, Kings Cross, Sunshine.

As a traveller, I knowingly and actively cultivate my role an outsider. I eavesdrop on conversations in cafes or on public transport. I like to pick up the nuances in the way language is used differently to what I am familiar with.  Instead of the phrase ‘take-way’ when it comes to meals, I now know ‘take-out’ or ‘box it up’ if taking home the leftovers of a meal in the States. The words are the known but appear in new constructions. In Australia, an entrée is the first course but in America an entrée is the main meal. All the more confusing as I seem to recall that entrée in French means entrance which makes sense in referring to the start or entrance to a meal.

I vacillate between mimicking the local accent and phrases, and swinging right back into a strong Aussie vernacular. I find it incredulous that some people don’t pick me immediately as being from somewhere else. Others jump in and say ‘of course, you’re from Australia. I meant where in Australia exactly?’ before telling me about the time they spent three months in Byron Bay twenty years ago.

I like to ask waiters and bartenders where they like to eat or drink and what dishes should I try before I leave their fair city – it’s always ‘their fair city’. My travels are mostly defined by the food I eat and what and where I drink. I couldn’t imagine a trip to New York City without a slice of thin crust pepperoni pizza eaten off a too small paper plate. New Orleans now will always require a plate of fried crab claws, shrimp and oysters then a beer drunk from a plastic cup as I walk the French Quarter enjoying the street music.

So what happens when I return home? Exactly.

This time round I’m choosing to walk new streets and drink coffee from new cafes. I’m thinking of pretending that I’m from somewhere else and ask waiters and bartenders what I should do, try, eat, and drink in my home town of Melbourne. One the joys of travelling is returning home and finding yourself and your town the novelty.

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.

Night swimming Bali style

The gin was only partly to blame really.  We’d brought a litre of Bombay Sapphire with us from Australia from the airport duty free. Imported alcohol is heavily taxed here so although cocktails made with their locally produced spirits are reasonably priced and the local Bintang beer is very cheap, wine and imported spirits are in the out of reach category mostly. The juicy fragrant limes purchased from Denpasar market for ten percent of their Australian cost, cold tonic water with generous amounts of ice and the smiling kitchen staff have mastered the art of a perfect gin and tonic.

A round of drinks before dinner for all the goddesses gathered on the lounges is a perfect conversational lubricant. I suggest that the wines that were brought in by Sarah and Fiona should be opened and placed on the table to share. Holding back and being polite isn’t really my natural style so I walk around the raised bench to the fridge, grab the bottles and do it myself.  Indonesian sate sticks with noodles and snake beans will be perfect with the Koonunga Hill Sav blanc and Cape Mentelle Cab Sav. Both chilled from the fridge, a bucket with iced water is organised to stop them heating up too quickly. The menus here at the retreat are not well described by the word gourmet. Fresh, local and mostly organic produce is combined into a changing selection of meals. The poached eggs I have each morning for breakfast as the most flavoursome I’ve ever tasted.

Conversation flows as easily as the wine. We retire to the comfy couches and I curl my legs up and underneath me, partly to protect them from the hunting mosquitoes. Laughing abounds and some women peel off to retire for an early night, whilst others hunker down with another drink. Nadine insists she’s driving even though her bungalow is only a few metres stroll along the private lane. Sarah has already stated that she doesn’t drink so I’ve only a few of the goddesses left open to my corruption. Slowly they disappear one by one until I’m sitting here in the evening’s heat with an empty glass.

I look around the now deserted retreat and soak in the beautiful natural setting. My eye catches the light reflected in the pool. Set down between our room and the communal area, its cooling waters tempt me. I realise that I’m still wearing my bathers underneath this 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 pool floor and rising again with my head breaking gently through the surface. I picture my moves as sleek and graceful as any sea mammal.

The quiet is peppered with the sounds of insects and the water rippling out from my fingers as they push through the water. I float on my back looking upwards. There’s so much ambient light in the area that only a few stars are visible in the sky. 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.  A few laps around the pool and no one has appeared from their villas. Rows of pendant lights hang outside the villas illuminating the path beside the pool. I wonder where the switches to these lights are.

Climbing out at one corner, I go the stairs and 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. Bather bottoms whipped off and I dive back into the pool. So refreshing the feeling of water on my skin is a luxury. High vine covered walls and lush canopy of trees add to the secluded atmosphere of my private night swim. I know logically that I’m in a busy Indonesian holiday area but right now I’m only aware of myself and the light cool water on my skin.

Ubud

It’s beyond lush. It’s fecund. When my back is turned, I’m sure the plants are growing taller and winding their tendrils around whatever outcrop they can find in their fervent search to conquer all. I feel that if I sit still enough for long enough I might be able to even hear them grow. I didn’t know there were this many greens in the world. Each leaf is slick with the fine rain. If I didn’t know better I’d think the plants were artificial. They’ve been allowed to grow just wild enough to complete the illusion that I’ve just walked onto a movie set.

Veritable rainbows of cheap plastic ponchos are what the locals use to cover up during now, the wet season. We visitors let the rain cool and dampen us knowing it’ll dry quickly. There’s a sense of smug satisfaction in not caring about getting wet. We’re on holiday – who cares? There are deep and wide gutters to catch the downpours of the wet season  and large storm water grates which no doubt catch a drunken reveller or three on their way home from the numerous bars on the main strip advertising 2 for 1 cocktails at happy hour. The bars are squeezed between the market stalls all selling the same items and the touts attempting to convince you that you need a taxi. Occasionally there is a gate left ajar and I side-step out of the stream of tourists to peer into someone’s life for a few moments. Scrawny chickens dart out of the corners and there’s always a panting dog laying on the ground somewhere. It’s dark back there and the relative quiet is inviting but I don’t dare step across the threshold. Better to discretely peek into the world than to step inside and break the spell. I’ve read enough stories to know which side to stay on.

Inside our resort compound I sit on the wide tiled veranda of our bungalow. A chilled wine in my glass of the one bottle that I bought from Melbourne airport duty free. I couldn’t resist pink wine from the Yarra Valley where we have family connections. Our bungalows are built on the grounds of the old Lotus palace. The Lotus temple next door is thankfully free of rabid monkeys that exist elsewhere. Those grey freaky fuckers climbing all over stuff can stay away from me thank you very much. The resort staff calmly wanders the paths meandering around the pavilions and many statues that sit amongst the foliage. Their bare feet barely make a noise on the stone paths. Folded, gilt-embroidered fabric headscarves, white linen shirts and sarongs, they carry themselves with a grace foreign to me.

Today’s soundtrack features the melodic beats of small drums in the distance, mixed in with calls of birds I do not know. Driving up from Denpasar to Ubud, we witnessed processions of young boys decked out in their Sunday best walking along the streets. Smiles from ear to ear as children and mothers alike squat on their front steps to watch these boys perform. Yesterday was the start of a holy festival lasting two weeks and the street poles are festooned with elaborate bamboo structures that rise three meters and more into the air. I can imagine them dancing in the breeze should there be any.
Dinner and the obligatory Bintang beer has been ordered, so it’s adieu from me for now – or whatever the appropriate Indonesian phrase should be.
Overnight the dying leaves have fallen and white delicate flowers, which once I discovered are called plumeria in Hawaii, but here and in Australia are known as frangipani. The paths are littered most prettily. I’m sure it’s not just my artistic eye that sees the beauty in the everyday things here. Each corner of life here is adorned. Every few meters along the street, statues are enrobed in patterned sarongs and offerings placed at their feet. Structural posts on the each of the pavilions are carved just so. The doors to our bungalow have not a single square inch plain. Gold and red and black with borders and leaves with smiling or laughing or threatening gods stare at me when I go to close or open the doors. Two narrow doors, both must be opened to enter or exit.

 It was after 5 am when we woke and all was still and dark. Knowing that this was my chance, I got hastily dressed and ventured into world. Only a few cars and scooters on the road moving much quicker now the rest of the town is still in bed. Shops are shuttered, their advertising muted in the blanket of night. It’s still cool and the air smells fresh as I breathe it deeply in.

I’ve taken up the same position on my veranda at the small round marble table and I sit back and watch the day dawn. It’s only the three hour time difference that allows me to this. My body thinks it’s already 8.30am. I’m not sure that in the short time frame we have here in Bali my internal body clock will adjust but I’m not complaining as it will gift new experiences and perspectives of an otherwise hidden part to this Balinese world. There’s a rooster crowing in the distance and other faceless nameless birds in the trees closer commence their morning song. Through the thick foliage I can start to discern the sky growing lighter and lighter. I am the only person I can see. I know I’m not alone as I can hear gentle movements of sandals on stone.

 The morning chorus is slowly getting louder as more birds join in the song. Someone is turning off the lights which have illuminated the paths and pavilions during the night. In the bungalow next door, two men, who are possibly Scandinavian from overheard snippets of conversation, leave their bungalow to join the early morning walk to the rice paddies just outside town. The sky is pale in the early light and the low insect hum is being drowned out by howling dogs.
My sister went for a morning run before both the air and the streets heated up. Down almost empty streets she ran, passing a small food market, avoiding the barking dogs and circling back to our bungalows. Meanwhile I sit on the veranda and wait. We’ve tried to order tea from room service but it’s either slow in coming or the message got lost somewhere along the way. I’m not much bothered as I’ve nowhere pressing to be and no immediate plans for the day.

The tea arrives in a utilitarian stainless teapot; the cups are standard hotel issue which means multiple refills are needed before I feel that I’ve had my much anticipated morning tea. The milk is made up from powdered milk so it’s overly sweet and there’s no cooling effect on the hot brew. I’ve come to like tea in other countries. You never quite know what to expect. In Japan it was strong and almost fruity with lots of milk – most fortifying in the afternoon when I stepped out of the cold, driving rain into the tea shop haven. I couldn’t resist the dainty sandwiches of crust-less fluffy white bread with whipped cream alternating with thinly slices strawberries or kiwi fruit. Here in Bali, the tea appears strong by colour but not by taste, though it is quite tannic as afterwards my mouth feels tight and puckered. I’m grateful for the large pot to slack my thirst.

The sun is making an appearance this morning pushing its way through the trees. Shafts of golden light puncture the thick foliage. The flying insects stop bothering me as they retire for the day. A young girl in a bright blue and green saronged outfit carries a tray laden with flowers and food in banana leaf trays to deposit on the steps of each bungalow and pavilion as an offering to whatever gods oversee us here. My shocking lack of knowledge about local Balinese culture rears its head so many times during the day as questions spring into my head with no one to ask.

I think I will seek out the local art museum today and try to fill some of the gaps in my head. If this trip hadn’t been sprung upon me so suddenly then I may have looked in Bali and its people a bit before we left. As things turned out, my niece discovered at the check in counter that her passport didn’t have the necessary 6 month validity in order to travel to Indonesia. Tears flowed from both my niece and my sister at the shock of the mistake. A mother and daughter yoga retreat in Bali had just evaporated in front of them. Flights were delayed by the helpful customer service assistant, a phone call from my sister to me securing that my passport was valid for enough time and I discovered that I was travelling to Bali the following morning.

So that is how I come to find myself sitting in this movie set perfect location, in a country I know so little about watching the world go about its business . I’d be perfectly content to sit on this shady veranda, calling room service to bring me food and refreshments when I want them and occasionally launch myself into the pool to cool down. If I never left this spot, I’d already know more about Bali than if I was still at home in Melbourne. My version of this Bali is calming, ritual filled and eye-pleasingly colourful. The constantly changing noises, the warm moist air and the rich quality of light – I can feel them soaking into my skin as here in my chair.

 If I stayed here long enough, would I develop tough feet walking barefoot as the locals do? Would I adopt the brightly coloured sarong which allows air to flow whilst remaining modest?  I do know that the things that seem so insignificant and quaint whilst visiting might start to grate and annoy with time. The shower where only half the water seems to make it into the tub doesn’t bother one bit right now. Crumbling footpaths are easily stepped around for now would no doubt represent a greater significance later. The animated sounds of the Indonesian language are very entertaining to listen to but my complete ignorance of even the smallest and simplest of phrases would soon alienate me.

Lunch-time

No wifi so I can’t check in which is fine as the disconnection helps me anchor myself here in Ubud. I pour another cold frothy Bintang beer in the frosted glass. Set back from the main road this multi level restaurant clings to the sharp rills of one of Ubud’s side streets.  Many water courses flow along and under the roads. We landed in the middle of the wet season and I can’t imagine this place any other way. It’s fertile and damp with wildly scented air – spicy sate, meats grilling, incense burning on the offering plates and sweet, sticky fruit. There’s also an underlying smell that took me days to pin down. It’s the rich smell of decay. The heat and the humidity take its toll on everything from the fallen leaves and flowers, the street-side offerings of the previous day and the rubbish that accumulates in gutters and more.

Staff lounge in their chairs idle checking their mobile phones. There’s no reason I should expect Balinese connectivity to be any different to Australian. The constant rain pours off the thatched roof conveniently providing a curtain to the raised seating platform upon which we chose to eat our midday meal. The sound is at once comforting in its familiarity and isolating as it softens the noise from the road up the moss covered steps.

It was down those same steps we ventured taking them slowly with two paces, their rise being higher than what we are used to. Taking the chance we walked away from the main road drawn by the darker unknown gully beyond. Beneath the trees and their parasitic vines, the lay of the land cannot be known.
Tiny white ants scurry along the low squat table as I write. They don’t seem interested in my local beer or the simple yet tasty food we ate. Gado gado, a salad with tofu in  a smooth peanut and coconut milk dressing and Ikan Pepes, sliced fish in a strong spicy tomato sauce were stand out dishes from the locally influenced menu. No pizza or burgers for us whilst in Bali. In fact, we made a plan to avoid any restaurant that had these on the menu. The food was m much more tempting to us than the local insects thankfully.

We were attracted to the elevated pavilion which over hangs the river slightly with foliage covering enough for me not to have to thin k about and question its foundations. Construction is fascinating here in Bali. Bamboo is often used as scaffolding and the vast majority of the work is done by hand with men lugging baskets of rubble and supplies on their heads. Branches are fashioned into a low railing perfect for leaning against. Cushions are covered in the ubiquitous black and white check I see adorning statues at the gates of each temple or compound. Personally I wanted to push the sarongs aside to pay witness to what was underneath. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

At the fabric gallery we visited earlier in the day down a narrow side road, I learnt that white symbolises righteousness, truth and purity. Black is part of the Lord Vishnu, part of the holy trinity worshipped at every Hindu temple.
Whilst my sister takes advantage of the AUS $7 massages next door, I sit and soak in the early afternoon. One chilled Bintang beer at hand and the minutes into one another. I can see how days pass into weeks and then into months too easily here. I’ve already chosen my balcony and room further up the ravine where I want to while away a whole chunk of time. I just know that I’d lose track of days and even start to eye the incomers badly. Bloody noisy Australian waltzing in like they own the place showing no respect! I don’t like this future self too much.

Instead I’ll pack up my journal, pay my bill in multiple hundred thousand of rupiah and stroll back to our resort so we can meet our shuttle to Seminyak. The bill was summoned and I discovered only cash was acceptable here so I’ll wait for my sister to return from her massage before we stride into the un-named masses. For now, I’ll sit cross legged and watch the stumpy tailed feral cats scamper along the tilled roof tops in search of any forgotten food. Thin and small they are no patch on my two fat cats lazing about at home.