Things I Learned in Bali, Indonesia

"Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all took a moment, each day, to reconnect with what was important to us?" 
-My Dad, upon hearing that Balinese radio stations pause several times per day in order to broadcast traditional Hindu prayers.

Bali was a long time coming, for me. And not just because I spent hours planning out the perfect places to stay and which foods I would (attempt to) eat. It wasn’t because it was the first trip I’d taken where I would be alone for days on end. It wasn’t because it was my first time in Asia, or because it was the longest I’ve ever been away from home. It was a long time coming because it was my first trip where I not only saw a new place, but was also supremely changed by it.

Of course each trip I take influences me. I expand myself and experience things with widened eyes. Each picture on my photo wall has something remarkable that I’ve had the humbling good fortune to see, and they’ve all been pretty easy to capture on film because the world is a beautiful place. But those are just photographs… flashes in time of what anyone standing behind the lens would see. I have plenty of pictures like that from my trip to Bali, but none of them can express the complete embrace that Bali takes of you.

The air is hot, and damp. Your hair sticks to the back of your neck, and it mats to your forehead and temples. It’s hot, but you don’t mind because each layer of clothing you strip off makes you feel even more free. You take off the jacket that you wore on the airplane, and pull your hair back from your face. The air smells like incense and, at dusk, the ash from dozens of fires burning in yards throughout the city. The entire island is perfumed with smoke and Jasmine.

Bali isn’t clean, and it isn’t quiet. There is trash along the sidewalks (where there are sidewalks), and away from the rush of cars, there is always a rooster crowing or frogs croaking. The city streets are a river of flatbed trucks and motorbikes with bursts of intermittent horns. None of these are disruptive or hostile sounds. Unlike Americans, the Balinese honk their horns simply as if to say, “on your left.” No one takes it personally, and no one gets angry for being honked at. I tried to explain this to several taxi drivers while I was there, but they couldn’t understand why anyone would ever get Road Rage. It just didn’t occur to them why it would make any sense… and honestly, it doesn’t really make sense to me now that I think about it.

Bali is a place of peace, even in the midst of chaos.  It’s a place for kindness, empathy, and patience amidst challenge. The Balinese are primarily Hindu, and therefore believe in Karma. According to my new friend Suka, this is one reason that they are such happy, helpful people. They believe that goodness begets goodness.

In the two weeks that I was there, Bali stripped me bare, or as near to bare as a person like me is capable of being. In the heat and the activity, I slowly left both tangible and emotional nonsense behind, realizing how over-packed I was. And it was this very symbolical thing, to lighten that load. My initial plan was to bring a few items that I knew I would use up- like soap and sunscreen. I even brought this beast of a Citronella candle in my bag to keep the mosquitos away. I knew that as I emptied each thing, I would throw it out to make room for souvenirs from my trip. But what I didn’t realize was that I would be throwing away so many more things that no longer served a purpose for me, in order to make space for things that would mean infinitely more to me when I returned to California.

If there was one word I’d use to describe myself prior to this trip, it would have been Scared. I’ve been terrified of change just as much as I’ve been terrified of monotony, and most of all I was scared of “What if this is really IT? The life I’ve been dreaming about as far back as I can remember??” I used to be this person who contemplated life, and who saw it with endless possibilities and wonder. I wrote about my views on the world, unafraid of who read them or what they would think of me when they did. But somewhere along the line, I started to fear the open-endedness of each interaction I had with the world. I stopped being brave enough to trust the world I saw, and my vision of it became cloudy and filled with doubt. After all of the things that have happened to me in my crazy life, I always took pride in the fact that I’d never acquired any baggage from it. But it turns out that it had been stacking up in a closet of my mind that I had disguised as a guest room.

Without realizing it, I’d turned all of my trials and fears into anger. I was angry with the people who’d let me down, and angry with myself for not being a stronger person than I’d been. I was angry at circumstances that were out of my control, and at difficult situations that I knew better than to stick out. And it wasn’t until I had unpacked and repacked my bags a few times that I started to realize that I desperately needed to throw some things away for good.

The first week of my trip was challenging. I was in a totally new place, and since we moved every few days I was constantly disoriented. I got lost a LOT, and it was a struggle to adjust to being in a polar opposite time zone. But on the third day in Bali, we went to Tirta Empul- the holy water temple. It was actually pretty funny because my traveling buddy had decided to jump in the water first, posing with thumbs up and peace signs (as I had planned to follow en suite) with me snapping pictures of the whole spectacle. As he climbed out of the water, a staff member approached us and explained that you were absolutely not supposed to jump in the water wearing the sarong that they gave you when you entered the temple. There was a whole ceremonial procession wherein you would need to first rent a second sarong for the water, then meditate and thank the Gods for their blessing. After this you would make a request to the Gods and place an offering on the first spout of water, following that by approaching each spout in order (except for the two that were representative of the Gods of Funeral Rites), in order to be purified from all evil spirits and discontent. My poor friend had missed out on his chance to partake in this ceremony, but I was lucky enough to be a part of it (sorry, bud).

I’d felt some frustration during the first few days in Bali, and so my request to the Gods was to give me peace and patience. I needed to feel a sense of calm whenever I felt challenged by my world around me, and I asked that I would remember to maintain an inner sense of peace when things became complicated.

Sure, this whole concept of making a wish to a foreign God sounds sort of crazy. But I think that, sometimes, we need something crazy to make us believe that something is possible again. Sometimes, the only answer to Nothing is quite simply: Anything.

After the ceremony at Tirta Empul, any time I felt frustrated or irritable about something I reminded myself that I could calm down and create space for peace. That didn’t mean that I needed to control the things around me, but that I could accept the things that didn’t feel “ideal” to me, and allow them to simply exist as they were. I was removing my ego from the equation and allowing myself to observe my world rather than react to it. If I got lost, it stopped being frustrating and turned into an opportunity to see where this new path took me.

When I tell people that I traveled alone, they think I’m out of my mind. “Didn’t you get bored?” or “Weren’t you scared?” are hot topics. But it was the mind set that I had from Tirta Empul that allowed me to embrace solo travel that much more. The first few days alone, I was bored. But I also discovered that I have a great time by myself, and that getting lost allowed me to discover that I could find my way even within disorienting circumstances. I did yoga for the first time on my trip. I listened to music and sang along with songs that my voice is nowhere near suited for. I went skinny-dipping in my private pool and ran away from more than one giant bumblebee. I wandered and got lost in the dark and caught tiny little frogs in the yard. And after days of being alone on the opposite side of the world, I discovered that I was miraculously still okay.

Bali changed me, and I can’t quite nail down exactly how or when. It could be the locals that I met; mostly taxi drivers or shop workers who were filled with optimism and a peaceful pride in their beautiful country. It may have been the silent permanence and spirituality of the countless temples, which are scattered throughout the island on a grand scale in addition to being a seemingly critical addition to each Balinese home. It could have been the friendly nature of the expats I met, who inspired me to see more of the world and taught me to speak up and make friends with the random girl sitting alone at the cafe. Even the monkeys, who were on occasion slightly aggressive and tended to be very protective of me for some reason, endeared me with their playfulness and curiosity- reminding me to explore my own surroundings and see what simple joys can be found. The sun and the sand, and the ability to sit on my own and really just Be were considerable factors in who I was when I returned home. Reading again, and writing again, on a daily basis. Getting back in touch with who I am, and more importantly, who I desperately needed to remember that I could become. I needed to believe in something, and to remember that my own inner voice is capable and strong.

I don’t want to sound dramatic, because I know that I was never in any real danger- but in so many ways, Bali saved me and brought me back to life. And I know that probably sounds kind of crazy. But sometimes, we need something that sounds kind of crazy to make us believe that something- anything- is possible again.