It’s afternoon in Bali. My fingers are resting on my laptop as I try to sum up the last month of travel through Indonesia. How Elizabeth Gilbert managed to eloquently (and concisely, I might add) put her year of self-discovery into writing is beyond me. The effects of Gilbert’s runaway success, Eat Pray Love, is seen everywhere in Bali. From the Eat Pray Love hotel packages to the yoga-pants wearing women clutching copies of her memoir. Bali has become more than a destination; it’s become a haven for the lost and hopeful to find themselves amongst the rice paddies. While in Bali, I ate more fish and rice than I’d care to admit. I attempted prayer through meditation. I met my quota on Balinese massages. My (attempted) Eat Pray Love adventure strayed far from Gilbert’s and here’s how.
Famed food writer, M.F.K Fisher, once wrote, “first we eat, then we do everything else.” In travel, this has become my mantra; my first order of business upon arriving at a new destination. I’ve eaten my way through a fair amount of countries. Grilled choripan at a nameless eatery in Buenos Aires. Spiced tagines on the desert sands of the Sahara. Dubious intestines served on a stick in the Philippines. It is through food that cultures unveil themselves to me.
It’s how I find myself at the Rumah Desa Balinese home & cooking school one afternoon. Rumah Desa feels like a secret garden. Tropical flowers mix with moss covered statues of Hindu deities. Doors are painted in bold hues of blue, gold and red. The outdoor kitchen is steps away from the open air pavilions and a family temple. Clay bowls of fresh spices—coriander, anise, chiles, ginger—waft over the courtyard.
My culinary introduction to Bali starts in the rice paddies. The wind ripples the paddies like waves on the sea. Farmers in conical, straw hats stand knee deep in mud, meticulously planting rice plant after rice plant in perfect rows. The Balinese rely on the centuries old tradition of Subak irrigation, which is closely tied to Balinese Hinduism and the Tri Hita Karana philosophy of human’s relationship to the natural world. In short, everything in Bali comes down to harmony, balance and spirituality–even the food.
From preparation to serving, food in Bali is more than a meal; it’s a tradition. As a New Yorker, my meals are quick, social affairs sandwiched in between meetings and to-do lists. Forgettable salads, inhaled sandwiches, hastily consumed coffees. In contrast, Indonesian food feels alive to me (discounting the time there actually was a living caterpillar in my salad). The colors, the textures, the flavors are rich. It’s the culinary equivalent of stepping out of Kansas and into Oz. By the end of my trip, I realize I may not have mastered the “Pray”and “Love” portion of my adventure; but I’ve got the “Eat” part down pat.
My henna is starting to fade from my hand. A mix of sweat and sun are starting to steal away the intricate design that starts at my right pinky finger and winds its way up my wrist. I can’t help but admire the symbolism of it. As my time in Bali comes to a close, the henna starts to fade. Sheila would call it “woo-woo,” her very own Sheila-branded term for the inexplicable magic that unfolds here in Ubud.
I met Sheila for the first time last night during an evening meditation class. Sheila is an ex-pat from Seattle who built herself an enviable home and founded the Ubud Yoga House. I decide to end my time in Bali with a sunset meditation class overlooking the rice paddies. The idea of meditation appeals to me. What a thrill to think that—with practice—I could learn to not only control my emotions but my thoughts as well. I want that inner peace, need that sense of calm. I don’t want to be rattled by crowded subways, mental New Yorkers or trivial scuffles with friends. I don’t want to rip my hair out (figuratively not literally) every time a train is running late. As my grandmother once said, “be careful how you live today because one day your body will hand you the bill and you better be able to pay the check.” Well, at 28 I am starting to take notice of what I’m ordering so that I won’t have a heart attack (literally not figuratively) when that metaphorical check arrives.
Sheila’s yoga house is open air and welcoming. Candles flicker from the banisters, a ginger tabby cat lurks in the shadows, a warmth emanates from the wood floors of the gazebo-like studio. It’s quiet here—albeit the sounds of running water, birds, frogs and the distant rev of a passing motorbike. I’m sitting in a circle with about six other people from around the world. A pair of Austrian brothers, a couple of German girls and then me—the outspoken, New Yorker who can’t stop fidgeting to save her life.
My God, have I always fidgeted this much?
Sheila’s guided voice encourages us to focus on the moment at hand. I relax my face, concentrate on my breathing and let my inner dialogue takeover.
Me: Okay, mindful meditation here we go. Focus on the moment.
Thoughts: OH! I’m focusing on the moment alright. Do you FEEL these mosquitos?! They’re eating us ALIVE!
Me: I think one bit my foot just now. My God, I can’t stop wanting to itch it. Okay, let’s focus. What are we supposed to be doing now? Is it focusing on breathing, nature noises or the Tibetan bowl?
Thoughts: I think we’re on the mantra now? Okay, choose some positive words. Let’s give this a try. Breathe in and say LOVE, exhale and say PEACE.
Me: Brilliant. Here we go. LOVE…PEACE…
Thoughts: Maybe you should pitch an article about your failed attempts at Eat Pray Loving in Bali. Although you’ve definitely done your fair share of eating…
Me: LOVE…PEACE…Wait, what? Are you saying I ate too much? I feel like all I’ve has is rice and fish for a month! Okay, never mind…LOVE…PEACE…
Thoughts: Should we buy that blue Japamala by the entrance? It was pretty stunning. Did you see it was symbolic of Communication? That’s PERFECT for us! A writer in Bali, wearing a communication Japamala.
Me: What would I even do with a Japamala? Oh! Maybe I could wear it around New York as this zen-yogi type person who just got back from Bali. Maybe I’ll even wear it each time I write as this exotic talisman of inspiration.
Thoughts: Excellent idea. Why would you ever want to tune these thoughts out? They’re GOLDEN.
Me: How about the times I drown in stress back in New York? What about those thoughts?
Thoughts: Oh, right…those…
Me: Okay, let me at least TRY to get five good minutes of meditation in…LOVE…PEACE….LOVE….PEACE…LOVE…PEA—-ah! These mosquitos!
While I don’t leave meditation with a higher power of mental control, I do leave it with a few tricks to concentrate the mind and the $60 handcrafted Japamala I’m convinced is my jewelry soulmate.
I have come to Bali to find love though not in the traditional sense. My heart belongs to a handsome comedian/filmmaker miles away in New York City, so the promise of a heated affair with Javier Bardem is not on the agenda. No, instead I’m in search of a different kind of love–a love found from within.
It’s said New Yorkers are the shrewdest, rudest, cut-to-the-point type people around. We move fast, we work hard, we set expectations and we live and die by our success. All things considered, I love New York but can admittedly be impatient and judgmental with myself. This self-deprecating behavior has seeped into my life and begun to affect my writing. Words that once flowed freely are now stifled by imaginary pressures coming from within. I come to Bali in hopes of changing that; in hopes of finding harmony between my emotions and thoughts. Between my creativity and ambition. I buy a journal in Ubud, flip open the first page and write this simple reminder: “be patient, be loving and be kind.”
Being a New Yorker, self-love usually starts in the form of pampering and so I start with a visit to the Karsa Spa. An hour Balinese massage followed by a bathtub soak leaves me feeling light, beautiful and calm. Ubud’s Karsa Spa is what I imagine heaven must look like. Intricately carved statutes. Flower petal filled bathtubs. Sunlight-specked ponds that seem to dance in the light.
The next day I wake up and relish the simple question of “what do I want to do today?” My answer leads me to Cafe Pomegranate where the airy cafe enjoys uninterrupted views of the surrounding rice fields. I spend the entire day eating Mediterranean food, sipping Ginger Tea and letting my writing flow. I leave Cafe Pomegranate deliriously happy; having successfully removed my Texas-sized writer’s block that had grown over the past few months. In the end, my time in Bali is transformative in the most simple of ways. A good meal, a feeling of calm, a moment of happiness spent amongst the verdant rice paddies.