“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”-Lawrence Block
I set the timer on my phone for six hours just as I plant one foot firmly on Tanjung Benoa’s floating dock. Four rows of Balinese dancers and drummers are in the midst of the Panyembrahma, which is a traditional welcome performance. The women are wrapped in stunning pink and gold patterned sarongs and carrying silver dishes that are filled with flowers and incense. They’re moving in unison to traditional gamelan music that the men seated behind them are creating from just two instruments – hand-played drums and metallophones.
There’s a pushy Australian couple next to me who are wearing matching fanny packs and, with our Princess cruise ship, bobbing in the background. I must admit that it all feels a bit touristy, but for the moment I’m just as much of a tourist as everyone else so I lighten up a little and allow myself to soak it in.
Everyone that hasn’t prearranged an island tour with Princess is funneled through a weathered welcome center and into a big gravel parking lot.
I push through a pack of friendly, but hungry Balinese taxi drivers that are ready to swarm anyone that looks in their general direction. They’re all dying to know where everyone’s going, but I decide that it’s best to keep my mouth shut and walk as far away from them as possible. I figure I’ll get a better price if I let all the other tourists get swallowed first.
Once I get about 50 yards away I turn back and wave one of the drivers over to me.
“I need to get to Ubud to meet a friend. How much?”
“It’s very, very, very far.”
“I’ve been to Ubud before and it’s not that far.” I skip my spiel about how I’m trying to go around the world and just say, “I’m not your normal tourist like everyone else on the cruise ship. So how much?”
“It’s very, very, very far.”
I can’t help but laugh; this is beautiful Bali after all and palm trees are literally swaying in the breeze behind his head, “Okay how much?”
I look down at my phone; time is furiously slipping through the timer like grains of sand through a broken hourglass. For some reason the cruise ship didn’t give us much time to explore the island before we need to be back onboard and head towards Australia, so I decide not to haggle, but instead ask him to hurry.
We quickly head north in his 1998 Pontiac Sunfire. We head straight through Denpasar, which is the capital of Bali, and then the driver cuts through a dense tropical maze of roads. Each one is perfectly overgrown. When I see a pet store that offers holistic healing for animals it hits me that I am, in fact, back in Bali, my favorite place on earth.
The streets on the way to Ubud are about as confusing as they come. If you didn’t grow up here then each one looks nearly identical to the next and most are lined with fresh fruit stands, herbal medicine shops and open-air stalls that sell statues. I’m not joking when I say that Bali offers an endless supply of statues. With tourism being one of the main forms of income for Balinese families, you’re never more than a few feet away from souvenir carvings and sculptures. Buddha, Ganesh, Shiva and all the other Hindu Gods are carved into granite, tropical teak wood or anything people can get their hands on, and each showroom extends right to the lip of the road.
Within the hour my driver drops me off against the entrance of the Monkey Forrest in Ubud. I get out and pay him in US dollars while monkeys bark and screech at one another in the background.
The Ubud Monkey Forest follows the traditional philosophy for life that most of the island of Bali subscribes to. The Hindu principal Tri Hita Karana translates to “three causes of well-being”, which seeks to make people live in harmony with each other, nature and The Supreme God. Accordingly, the Monkey Forest has a philosophical goal of creating peace and harmony for all its visitors. The monkeys are free to come and go as they please and are not kept in cages or in assigned viewing areas. The last time I was here I had one climb onto my shoulder and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared to death.
When I think of Ubud though I don’t think of monkeys, I think of expats. More specifically I think of Western women with nose rings and dreadlocks. I’ve only been here for five minutes and I must have already seen ten girls that fit that description, and that’s no knock on Western women with nose rings and dreadlocks because they’re alright in my book. I swear this is the place where every free-spirited, yoga loving, clean eating, inner peace seeking single woman comes at least once in her life. Let’s be honest, this place is a bit of a hippie haven and I can’t ever tell if people are running away from their problems or running towards life’s deepest answers here.
Ubud is the cultural hub of Bali and it’s as far away from the beach and chaos of Kuta as one could get. Ubud is located in the mountains, and defined by the waterlogged terraced rice paddies and rainforests that surround it. This is the part of the island where Balinese traditions like dancing, painting and Hindu ceremonies still thrive. There are cute restaurants at every corner and galleries filled to the brim with bright local art. Last time I was here I took a vinyasa yoga class at The Yoga Barn, which is an open-air studio with panoramic views of a rice field.
If anyone were to attain eternal peace, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where they found it.
I look down at my watch, my buddy Dek should already be here, but there’s no sign of him. I can’t call him because I don’t have cell service in Indonesia, so I duck into a café and order a coffee that comes with a piece of dark Balinese chocolate so I can use the Wi-Fi.
Bali’s climate is perfect for growing coffee and chocolate. Small local farmers are organized in a system called Subak Abian and they grow most of Bali’s coffee. Subak Abian subscribes to the same Hindu philosophy as the Monkey Forrest, the Tri Hita Karana. In terms of coffee production, this means that the coffee is grown organically, specifically with the “happiness with the environment” in mind. There is also an interesting and unexpected twist to coffee in Bali.
Kopi Luwak, which is the type of coffee I just ordered, is brewed from beans that have been passed through the digestive system of a civet – a raccoonish looking cat-like creature. It’s not as gross as it sounds, but here’s the gist of what happens. The civet eats the red ripe fleshy pulp of the coffee cherries, and then the beans, which are left intact, pass all the way through the civet’s digestive system. The enzymes inside the civet’s stomach remove the bitterness from the beans and create this wonderfully smooth and sweet coffee.
By the time I’m halfway through with mine I finally get through to Dek and he tells me that he’s at a wedding and that he will be there soon.
Ah that’s right, I’m quickly reminded that I’m in Bali, and that I need to relax. People don’t move at my antsy western pace here and almost every day has some sort of important religious ceremony tied to it. Every time I’ve ever talked to Dek or asked him what he’s doing since I met him his response has been the same. He’s either on his way to, or leaving a temple because of some kind of ceremony.
I met Dek five years ago through a friend of a friend. I was two months into a three-month leave of absence from my corporate job back then and I was trying to see all the places on my bucket list. I had four days in Bali and Dek, who was just starting his own tour company, agreed to show me the sights around Ubud at a discounted rate. I was one of his first clients back then, but its impossible for anyone to meet Dek and not immediately forget that he’s running a business. He’s tall, tan and the sweetest of souls.
My favorite memory of Dek is when he took me to the Goa Gajah, which is also called the Elephant Cave. The façade of the cave is rock wall carved with demons that are said to ward off evil spirits and it looks like a scene straight out of Tomb Raider. At the time I was a little stressed out because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do once my three-month leave of absence was up and I was burning through my life savings like it was going out of style.
I already knew that I couldn’t mentally return to my stale and stagnate corporate job as an educational consultant after seeing the world, but I also didn’t have the faintest clue about what else I could do with my life. After we left the cave, we were walking along side a small stream that ran up against a beautiful rice paddy and as Dek strolled a few steps ahead of me he subconsciously began singing to himself.
The island breeze carried his Balinese accent up and over the rice field and back to me, and what I heard was him singing the same lyrics over and over, which was one of Bob Marley’s most famous lines, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Those lyrics whittled their way into my soul at that very moment and haven’t budged since. There was just something undeniable about hearing them in a Balinese rice field and the calming effects they had on me. Ever since that moment, I’ve not just believed in those words, but felt their very essence in a way that I think even Bob Marley himself would be proud of.
Those lyrics were immediately put to the sword though. The second I returned home from my three-month leave of absence having spent my entire life savings, I got an email from Human Resources saying that I was no longer needed. Even though I had no money and no job, I was able to relax because I had this funny feeling that everything was in fact, gonna be all right.
So today I want to repay the favor to Dek, and also to myself, because I’ve never gone back on those words. I want to create a film of the tour Dek offers in hopes that it will lead to more business for him and his family, and I want to create a short film of beautiful Bali just for me. I want to get back to filming and photographing today in a way that nourishes my soul. I don’t want to do it for money or likes on social media or in exchange for a place to stay; I simply want to do it because it makes me feel good.
Just as I finish the last sip of my coffee, Dek pulls up along side me in a white mini van with a red and white Indonesian flag hanging from the rearview mirror and I hop in. I’ve made a bunch of new friends since I’ve been traveling, but there is something special to be said for seeing an old one.
I tell Dek that it looks like he has actually gotten younger since I saw him last, which is the god’s honest truth and after we stop laughing I ask him to take me to the fountain of youth he’s hiding instead of the agenda we’ve already mapped out via email.
We’ve decided to retrace our route from five years ago and Dek drives us through back roads that are overflowing with every shade of green the earth has to offer.
When I was here five years ago and walking alongside Dek in that rice field I didn’t know what my dream was. As a Balinese woman ties a blue sarong around my waist at the entrance of the Elephant Cave, I feel something shift inside me. I don’t know exactly what it is or where it’s coming from, but it feels good, really good.
I can’t deny that I’ve been out of balance for the past few months. Ever since I got stranded in Siberia and then angrily traipsed across China and had that whole creative setback with my editor, I just haven’t felt right. I’ve been able to move past setbacks, but when it’s one after another they certainly added up and took their toll on my soul. I seem to lose my patience quicker than ever before. When I was in China, I blamed it on the Chinese people and their lack of manners, but looking back, it wasn’t all their fault, the majority of it was mine. I’ve let my thoughts get away from me lately. I’m finding every cup half empty instead of half full and pointing the finger at everyone else for all my problems even though I know better.
The Balinese would be very disappointed in me. As far as the Tri Hita Karana goes, I haven’t been living in harmony with man, nature or The Supreme God lately. I’ve fallen back into the trap of rushing from hotel to hotel and just trying to get from one city to the next city as quickly as I can, often overlooking the moment or place I’m actually in.
Dek and I work our way down to the bathing pools that were built in the 9th century. Five Hindu statues holding vases act as waterspouts, which fill the courtyard that sits in front of the Elephant Cave with fresh spring water. I unfold my tripod next to a patch of the greenest moss anyone has ever seen as I dig deeper into what this shift is exactly. I can feel something start to open up inside me like a ray of light is trying to peak through the blinds at sunrise, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is or where its coming from…