Everyone I have ever known that has been to Bali has told me: “it changed my life.”
Each time I heard this, my cynicism about the place grew and to be honest I had very low to no expectations before I left.
Bali was never on the top of my list of places to see. It wasn’t really even on my list at all until my friend Rachael emailed me a few months ago saying that her dad was living there and she was going for her 30th birthday and did I want to go.
Now, just because it wasn’t a lifelong dream of mine to go to Bali doesn’t mean I wasn’t desperate to get there once the opportunity arose. The real impetus was to see my friends and celebrate Rachael’s birthday. And since I love traveling no matter where the destination is, my immediate answer was yes.
Then reality set in: I have not had a steady job in over a year now… and Bali is very, very far away. There was no way I could swing it.
But almost like magic, I got an email from BBC Travel, who I write for from time to time – which said they were planning a “Bali week” on the website and were looking for pitches.
I wasn’t going to wait around for a third nudge, so I sent off a few pitches and before I knew it I had two pieces commissioned and a roundtrip flight to Denpasar booked (on my credit card).
Rachael’s dad Jeremiah lives in Ubud in the center of Bali and he is a man with his finger on the pulse of the health and wellness scene there – which is precisely what I needed to research for my stories.
Before my feet touched the ground, he had plugged me into the weird and wonderful world of Balian healers, sacred purification rituals, meditation, colonic irrigation, crystal bowl healing, raw food, green juice, and a myriad of other health and wellness things that are exploding in Ubud right now.
Rachael and Julia joined me shortly after I got there and the three weeks that followed were incredible.
I will admit I was slow to warm up to the place. When I first arrived, I found myself feeling sort of disillusioned. Ubud is known as the cultural and spiritual center of Bali. It has long been a tourist destination, but with the help (wanted or not) of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, the small villages that make up Ubud have been inundated by visitors in search of spiritual enlightenment, purification of the mind, body and soul and of course, love.
At first I found it hard to see past the way the place seems to be changing. Rice paddies that have been farmed by the same families for generations are being made into luxury resorts, and it’s unclear to me whether the influx of tourism and money is actually enriching the right people.
But the longer I stayed, and the more Balinese people I met, the less black and white things looked.
The truth is, you can’t romanticize things too much. Bali is changing and modernizing just like the rest of the world, and nothing will stop that. Many in the younger generations don’t want to be rice farmers any more than I do. And really, it’s amazing that after decades as a top global tourism destination, Bali has retained so much of the culture and customs that makes it a sought after place to visit.
Culture and religion are as strong now as they have ever been and that is the thing that stood out the most for me.
Balinese people are deeply religious and have a pure and simple philosophy, which they manage to stick to in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. The basic idea of upholding and accepting balance as a guiding force in life seems to be at the center of it all. It is such a straightforward concept, one that we all know to be good and true, yet one that is elusive to most people.
Jeremiah made sure we absorbed as much of the island as was possible in the amount of time we had there. We explored the crowded, narrow streets and peaceful temples in Ubud, sampling the delectable fresh fruit juices and innovative raw food dishes that abound in the hundreds of restaurants lining the busy roads there.
We forced ourselves out of bed at 2 am to climb Mount Batur – an active volcano – in time to see the sunrise, and then climbed back down as the heat of the day began to burn off the mist and unveiled sweeping views of the island stretched out below.
Then we hopped on board the “Sea Horse Fast Boat” for the most outrageously rough and bumpy boat ride of my life, across the Badung Strait to the tiny Balinese island of Nusa Lembongan where seaweed fishing and cock fighting seem to be the main attractions.
We traversed the island by motor bike (with stories of Jeremiah’s recent face smashing incident fresh in my mind), finding white sand beaches, thick mangrove forests, and storied surfing spots before laying down with the ocean crashing below us for massages in an attempt to soothe our backs, aching with near compression fractures from the days activities.
And most spectacular of all, on the full moon, we marked Rachael’s 30th Birthday by going to Pura Tirtha Empul – a sacred water temple with 21 fountains each one possessing a different kind of purification and protection. We offered flowers and incense to the gods and goddesses and then let the healing waters wash over us alongside hundreds of Balinese families doing just the same.
We had the good fortune of being hooked up with Dewa, a young Balinese man of imposing stature with a wide smile and a fantastic sense of humor. He took such good care of us, answering all of our hundreds of questions on everything from how much it should cost to buy a sarong, to when Hinduism first came to Bali and what the real deal is with bone healers.
Dewa took us to his local hang out: the night market in Gianyar, where I swear he is the Mayor. He knew every person there and proudly introduced us to the wonders of Balinese street food. I have never seen so many configurations of noodles and meat. There were dozens of different food carts with makeshift tables and chairs selling everything from baskets of flowers for offerings, to brightly colored jelly drinks, to fried chicken and full roast pigs.
Did Bali change my life? I am not going to answer that. But the island and the people absolutely changed my perspective. I will say that three weeks is barely enough time to get your bearings in a place so mystical and beautiful as I now know Bali to be. And the place has a prominent and probably permanent spot on my ever-growing list of places to visit.