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.

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.

Day 4 Tsukiji fish market

Thursday April 3rd

It’s just after 6.30am and we are sitting at Tsukiji station after our tour of the wholesale/retail Tsukiji Fish Market. Breakfast was at Daiwa Zushi which was 12 piece sushi set menu breakfast. Naturally we accompanied that with hot sake – our chefs highly approved of that. They line you up like cattle at the doors on one side (a restaurant wrangler does thew work herding you in the correct manner) only to be efficiently guided out afterwards on the opposite side.

We were to meet our guide at 3am outside a Lawson store {convenience 24 hr store selling everything from hot fried chicken, pantyhose, frozen portioned vegetables to sake}. We had 2 young girls from Singapore on our tour also – Iris and Jasmine. Naoto-san was very efficient, affable with great English language skills. He previously had worked at the market for one of the five auction houses so he knew his way around. The government does not sanction tours of any kind and employ security guards who apparently done like Naoto-san. I promised him a private tour of Melbourne’s Queen Vic Market if he ever visits our fair city of Melbourne

So we’ve now been up for 4 hours and I reckon we are doing really well considering we probably only had 4 hours sleep on a tatami mat. It’s fortunate that it’s prior to peak hour so the train ride home is simple and sans train passenger wrangler.
Our taxi driver at 2.30am was old school. No English (which matches our fluency in Japanese) and lots of bowing. Taxis here are delightfully so clean and well presented. Clearly the taxi drivers take great pride in their vehicle In fact, Tokyo as a whole we are finding very clean, though there  is a dearth of rubbish bins…

Our plan is to have a few hours rest/nap before attempting the remainder of the day. Clearly some sake won’t hurt in this aim.

I found the market workers pretty much the same as most genuine market people around the world – concerned with their own business. By that i mean, they aren’t exactly rude but do like to get on with what they should be doing so please don’t get in their way. Fast and furious mototrised transporters zoom in and out the tiny alleyways.

It was dark and rainy and a bit chilly – in other words perfect weather to visit a fish market. Water cascaded everywhere, in and out of buckets, along gutters in the stone work upon which clever merchants had lain wooden squares to raise their wares up out of the constant water flow. Yes, everyone wears gumboots. I’m so glad that I wore my leather boots over woolen socks with jeans tucked in, leather jacket, scarf and new knitted peaked hat = kept me mostly dry and warm.

12 noon

Just woke up from a 5 hour nap and I’m feeling good. Mostly rested and we can attack the day again. I think we are going to try and track down a tea or coffee first (it’s a massive assumption that you’ll be able to get both in the same establishment) then find a soba restaurant. Soba is a buckwheat noodle often served cooled but also served hot in a broth.

We are staying very near a shrine that has a lot of cherry blossom (sakura) trees surrounding it. Most locals we come into contact with tell us how lucky we are to be here in the very short sakura season. The blossom only lasts a week or so apparently and that’s exactly how long we are here for.
Today it seems to be drizzling almost constantly. Not that it made a difference at the market this morning as although we were essentially always undercover, there was water everywhere anyway. Ain’t no water restrictions due to drought here. 

We got quite wet on our first day in Tokyo and kept juggling with the idea of buying an umbrella (a clear one so we could see what/who was weaving their way through the throng) but also as a defense against other umbrella wielding pedestrians. We didn’t and we survived and I’m guessing we won’t today either.

The plan is to caffinate first, then soba, then hang out in a  sake bar to learn more about sake for the afternoon – purely for educational reasons you understand. Of course honesty dictates that I admit that we had our first sake at 5.50am with our sushi breakfast – purely to warm our bones, you understand.