72 hours on the little blue planet

You may only think of Earth as being a planet with a convenient climate devoid of too many terraforming activities. Well, it’s much more than that. With improved inter-galactic transportation, now is the time to see what this pretty little blue planet has to offer. We’ve done the hard work for you, organising an indulgent, first-class long weekend. So sit back and let Earth seduce you.

Saturday

Paris

Grab a strong café au lait and a pain au chocolat or almond croissant and let’s hit the streets. This is not the Galleries Lafayette or the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. This is back to basics shopping. Paris is undoubtedly a city rich in history and you deserve the chance to take a piece away with you. After all, the word souvenir is from the french ‘to remember’. Spring and Summer are the best seasons to spend hours trawling through the plethora of sidewalk stalls. Diversity is the name of the game here. Items range from high to low end and all points in between. Flea market finds are just as likely to unearth vintage postcards and antique buttons or a unique set of alabaster cufflinks.

Smiling translates the same in every language and it is a great ice-breaker as you rummage through dusty, crammed boxes shoved under tables, searching for that one perfect item. Talking of which, don’t get hung up on one particular thing as curious wonders and oddities abound at every stall. Most likely an early 19th century armoire will not fit into the carry-on.

A couple of important points to remember: wear comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Leave any valuables at home and dress like a local to avoid being singled out by pickpockets. Above all, arrive early to secure the best bargains and haggling is perfectly acceptable.

Why not grab an Auto-Uber and travel a little further afield to get the better bargains but bear in mind it’s buyer beware and it’s not always easy to tell a genuine piece from a replica. Finally, just like the rest of the planet, it goes without saying, bring your own bag because you won’t find any plastic bags here.

Audrey Hepburn was right when she said, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’

Austria

With all that bargain hunting, you’ve no doubt worked up a thirst. Now’s the time to pop over to Austria and check out wineries as they should be – all rolling hills and glowing fires – and the reason you’re here is to sample some of the country’s finest Gruner Veltliner wine. Dry, savoury and very food friendly, it gives Romulan ale a run for its money.

Of course, that is if you can drag yourself away from Vienna and its cobblestone streets, original trams and delicious traditional foods. Austrians have an understandable pride in their heritage – so proud of St. Stephens cathedral, in fact, that Haas Haus was built opposite with a mirrored façade to increase visibility of the cathedral within the tightly built up city. Do as the locals do and grab a restorative coffee and cake to see you through the afternoon. Visit Café Sacher Wien, all dark wood and worn leather chairs and sample Sacher Torte which they’ve been serving consistently for the last 150 years.

Self-drive vehicles mean no one has to be the designated driver, so let the vine-covered hills unwind in front of you. Lower Austria is one of the most under-rated wine regions on the planet. Small, progressive, organic producers sit beside large scale wineries, both of which welcome the wine professional as well as the enthusiastic amateur.

Grape growing in the region dates back to at least 2nd century BC and the vineyards have survived both Roman occupation and phylloxera, a disease which devastated grapes across Europe in the late 19th century. Connection to place, or terroir, is expressed most elegantly in Gruner Veltliner, the variety of which accounts for the country’s greatest production. Gruner means green-picked and it is this under-ripe picked grape that produces an audacious but balanced profile wine. The region’s cool climate lends the wine excellent acid retention, adding structure and ageing capability. Grab a Reidel wine glass, still the leading wine glass producer on the planet Earth, and let your tasting journey begin.

TASTING NOTES – GRUNER VELTLINER

• Think savoury pear plus hints of talcum powder – it can have the texture and body of a Pinot gris but other examples have the spine of an off-dry Riesling

• Works as an aperitif but can also be matched with poached weisswurst, or cold pork terrine on a picnic rug in a stemless Riedel on a mild spring afternoon but that’s another story…..

• Ideally served at 7 degrees it has a moderate alcohol content of around 12-13%

Say ‘auf wiedersehen, Austria’ and ‘ciao, Italia!’

Italy

You could start at the toe of Italy’s boot, board the train at the reputationally-suspect Reggio Calabria station and head northwards. Hugging the rugged west coast, weaving through numerous mountains and even hitching a ride on a ferry, the Italian rail network provides many options. This time, however, you should head straight to Modena. Situated on the south side of the Po Valley, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Modena is the home of Italian sports cars.

Tonight though, you’re not here for sports cars. You are here to sample some of the most unmissable food on planet Earth. Once you’ve had your fill of palaces, cathedrals, museums and other historic buildings, it’s time for a little aperitif. You can go past the ever-popular Aperol Spritz. Featuring Aperol, the bitter orange aperitif traditionally made in nearby Padua, a spritz is low in alcohol and refreshes your palate for the onslaught that lies ahead.

Recipe

3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda. Ideally served in a large wine glass or tumbler with citrus slices of your choice.

Your perfect dining spot this evening is Osteria Francescana, where chef Massimo Bottura showcases the best that the Emilia-Romagna region has to offer. Balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano each play their role in the 9 course tasting menu. Self described as both contemporary and traditional, Bottura’s menu travels from house-cured culatello aged 42 months with mustard fruits to oyster water and cider sorbet. If you’re fortunate you may even be served cotechino, a fat, juicy sausage made from the less popular cuts of pork, including the head. Traditionally served with lentils layered over a rich reduction of pan juices, the legumes represent coins and it is said to bring good luck. Whatever the intended fortune, no description does it justice. It can only be understood through by taste. It’s just damn delicious.

All those cliché catch phrases apply here – seasonal, locally-sourced, farm to table – as lawyer turned chef, the obsessive Bottura explores food as memory, his own and his customers’. Inarguably, food is the collective memory of a people. It is the result of hundreds of years of habit and farming tradition and yet it is the personal dishes that tell the greatest stories. Deeply embedded in the Italian lifestyle, there is no such thing as a rushed meal. Hours pass over antipasti, pasta for primo then secondi, or protein portion (usually something lighter such as fish in the South through to heavier meat in the North) alongside contorni, or side dishes, and always finishing with sweet dolci. Robust conversation is part of the deal with politics and sex causing less uproar than ‘who has the best ragu recipe?’

Perhaps this degustation asks too much of the diner, you should probably give it a go anyway.

Buon appetito!

Sunday

Africa

A culture filled day yesterday in Europe is the perfect way to start your whirlwind long weekend here on Earth, and today you hop on over to Africa. After your degustation dinner last night, you’ll need to step out and grab some fresh air to blow away the cobwebs. Spending the morning on an African safari is the ideal solution. Join a kayaking group and let the gentle flowing waters of the lower Zambezi river whisk you away. As you float past sheer rock faces, you’ll need to manoeuvre around sunbathing crocodiles or herd of hippos feeding on grasses in the shallows. Wildlife vastly outnumbering humans, now’s the time to get up close and personal, though not too close, these animals aren’t holograms and hippos can be extremely aggressive when threatened.

From one kind of wild animal to another, it’s time to jet over and visit New York City.

New York City

There is no such thing as an American cuisine. The American dining table groans under a diversity of dishes, influenced by hundreds of years of immigration and its plentiful natural resources. Fear not, fast food nation is not what you’ve signed up for here.

The ideal solution to such over-whelming choice of options is, of course, found at a cocktail and pie bar. Located in Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan, Little Branch combines unmissable cocktails and home-style pie – what could be more American? America embraces pie of all varieties from pumpkin pie, coconut cream pie, pecan pie to apple pie and everything in between. Cocktails established their foundation ironically both during and after Prohibition.

Like all the best parts of New York City, there’s a touch of the theatrical to this bar. The first act being discovering the unmarked door, making your way past the burly bouncer and down candle lit steps. Dark and moody with low ceilings, this speakeasy is the perfect spot to catch some live Jazz on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Let the sartorially splendid bartenders tailor their mixology just for you. Quintessential American apple pie is the perfect partner to a Manhattan – a sublime balance of vermouth, whiskey and bitters in a low ball. These killer cocktails are worth waiting for.

In a city that never sleeps, Dorothy Parker once said “As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.” Good to know.

Monday

Australia

You’ll be double dipping in this sprawling country this morning but it’s worth it, trust me. Australians have a well earned reputation as laid-back and carefree and the White Elephant Café in Margaret River, Western Australia epitomises this attitude. Sprawling vistas over pristine shoreline are the perfect accompaniment to your breakfast fare. Ordering from the eclectic menu, you’re just as likely to get a deconstructed soba noodle salad as eggs Benedict or smashed avo on toast. It doesn’t get any more authentically Australian than this.

Possibly a symbol for the region itself, endless fields of golden wheat sway in the coastal breeze. Biodynamic farming methods foster strong connection to the land as much as literal deep crop roots. Bread has been much vaulted and philosophised over and again. Bread is wheat transformed into flour, flour transformed into dough and ultimately dough transformed into bread. It is often called the staff of life and rightly so. Grain from the field nurtured just so becomes bread.

After all that philosophy, you deserve a coffee. Melbourne, Victoria has to be the next stop. Still the home of hipster coffee, track down a converted shipping container cafe in an un-named laneway. Hour-long lines are not the only barometer of quality. Single origin, cold drip or straight forward espresso, your barista is the gate-keeper of coffee knowledge. Coffee, like wine, has its terroir and equally strong advocates. Your three-quarter flat white never looked or tasted so good.

Caffeinate up and let’s hit our next destination – Bali, Indonesia.

Bali

Monday afternoon is as good as any time to visit Bali’s 24 hour market In the heart of Denpasar. Buildings stacked high with every possible variety of food, fabrics, souvenirs and spices, the number of stalls multiply yearly. Weave your way through the labyrinth to find that perfect Indonesian memento.

Bali is one of Indonesia’s more than 18,000 islands that make up the archipelago. One of the most densely populated islands, its towns vary from sleepy to bustling. The people are a mix of mostly Hindu and Muslim, temples sit check by jowl with mosques with a catholic statue or two squeezed in. Visitors to this island range from scuba enthusiasts, sun-seekers or surfers, culture junkies to shopaholics.

After all that shopping you deserve to ease the tension with a serene spa visit. The Legian Luxury Retreat is just the spot. Recently refurbished using local materials crossed with sleek interior design, wooden balconies lean out over the shimmering blue waters below. The in-house spa mixes classic treatments such as facials and hot stone massage with more new age therapies like chakra realignments and holistic reiki healing rituals. Your most difficult decision will be between the plunge pool or your own private beach.

Let’s finish off your long weekend here on Earth and catapult yourself to Tokyo. The only way to experience Tokyo is at 120 percent.

Tokyo

It’s too easy to get lost in this megalopolis but it’s worth exploring Tokyo’s many prefectures, whether you want to go shopping in Shibuya, get your fill of shrines in Asakusa or visit Harajuku’s many cosplay cafes. However, for your last night here on Earth, head to Shinjuku and visit one of Kabukicho’s robot bars. Notorious but not dangerous, this red light district allows you to slide up next to salarymen unwinding after a long day at work before they retire to a ‘capsule hotel’ to steal a few hours sleep.

List of a few Dos and Don’ts

• Don’t engage with the street touts if you want to hold onto your wallet.

• Don’t loiter out front of the adult stores regardless of how tempting these multi-floor shops are with their videos, dolls, all sorts of dress ups and toys. Either go in and shop or leave.

• Do get off the main strip and visit a maid café which vary from maids as school girls to old school air stewardesses. For a moderate amount, you buy a beer and a minute of the maid’s time. They’re not hitting on you; flirting is all part of the transaction.

• Do grab a Suica card and hop on public transport. It’s a cheap and efficient way to get around.

• Do ask the price and what you get for it. Hostess clubs vary widely, but you can be treated like a king for the price of a cigar or a glass of whiskey

Finally, you have to hit the barely shoulder-width bars of the Golden Gai. Each with their own personality, bars in the Golden Gai are not cheap but the cover charge at least gets you a simple bowl of soup or a few hot dumplings.

As the locals say ‘It’s not over til the rooster crows.’

Don’t leave Tokyo before you try these –

Donburi

Essentially a scaled-down version of an entire meal, it is the quality of the rice that is the most important. Perfectly cooked, separated grains but still sticky enough to pick up with chopsticks, topped with unagi (eel) or yakitori skewer, toasted nori and a condiment. Each dish comes in a unique bowl, as Japanese culture values the aesthetic as much as the food itself.

Yakitori

A range of skewers from chicken ribs or heart to shiitake mushrooms, each yakitori master applies their own glaze with a recipe containing soy and mirin. All parts of the animal are used in this dish and yakitori varies from a simple snack to an extravagant feast. Basted frequently and grilled over fanned charcoal, the skewers obtain a smokey edge to balance the sweet glaze.

Dumplings

Dumplings are basically mini flavour sensations made concrete. Often pork based, the filling should be firm but moist. Dumplings are a welcome addition to any Japanese meal.

Don’t forget to complement these tastes of Tokyo by sampling a locally brewed sweet potato beer from Coedo or Hitachino’s red rice ale.

Whether it’s the romance of Paris, the sybaritic indulgence of Italy or the raw visual spectacular that is Africa, Earth is bound to get its hooks into you. Don’t fight it, just surrender.

What you need to know before you go

• Leave your filter mask at home, Earth has a naturally breathable atmosphere. Take the opportunity to breathe fresh air thanks to the 21st Century moratorium on destructive air-polluting activities.

• That 24 hour-in-a-day construction actually makes sense here, thanks to ancient Egyptians. Appreciate your work guys!

• Don’t forget to pack your charge card for all those unmissable purchases. However, you’ll still need to pack some cash (yes, cash) as that virtually extinct custom of tipping still exists in the United States of America – 20 % no less. Maybe one day soon, the minimum wage bill will be passed (along with the Equal Rights Amendment) eliminating the custom.

• Remember to pack your babel fish, there are over 4,000 languages spoken on Earth.

• Virgin Earth offers a range transportation options for every budget. To make your reservation, visit http://www.virginearth.ea

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.