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.
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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.
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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.