I’m Sorry, Ubud

I really didn’t want to like you.

I mean, I know how much you’ve changed in recent years, and it would be so much easier to simply think that you’re a crowded, annoying city that’s overrun with tourists and completely lacking in any “authentic Balinese charm”. I wouldn’t have to question my own values and preferences if I wanted to run from your streets lined with foreigner-owned businesses, and get back to the “real Bali” as quickly as possible. If that were the case, I could sit comfortably in my righteousness, safe in the notion that I am indeed much better than the “stupid tourists” who come here and just interact with other westerners (your words, and mine).

I wanted to think the Yoga Barn was a gross commercialization of something vaguely connected to your religious traditions. I wanted to resent all the vegan health food restaurants that are priced way above almost any local Balinese budget. I wanted to think the villas built by foreigners on land leased from you were monstrous abominations of conspicuous consumption. I could much more easily attempt to deny my inherent white privilege, if I shunned all the other white people walking through your streets in yoga pants and sports bras, and went back to covering up with my sarong, along the village roads where I was the only blondy for miles.

But it didn’t work out that way. Continue reading “I’m Sorry, Ubud”

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How to Travel on the Cheap

Feel like you can’t afford to travel?  It might be more accessible than you think.  

I’m currently on pace to spend about $30 a day for my several-month trip in Bali — allowing me to live on a total of about $1400/month, including financial obligations in the states (student loans, websites, car insurance, etc.).  My extended-travel example is particularly dramatic, but even for quick getaways, you might be surprised by how far you can go with a few basic practices:

Stay for free.  In some countries, www.couchsurfing.org has a robust and active culture-sharing community.  In others, doing a work-trade 4-5 hours a day in exchange for room and board is your best (and most deeply integrated with locals) way to money-less accomodation.  Check www.workaway.info, or www.wwoof.org. There is sometimes a small membership fee to join, and contact hosts, but well worth the meaningful experiences available and hotel money saved.

-Preview Budget accommodation.  If you don’t want to work for your bed, or you’re going to a place without a big couchsurfing culture, use the beauty of the sharing economy to find your homestay, guesthouse, or hostel online.  www.Airbnb.com is one of my standbys, and I’ve just been introduced to my new best friend in Bali: www.booking.com

-Hack your flights.  If you’ve managed to get to a point where you’re not carrying credit card debt, and are comfortable opening and responsibly managing some new cards, you can be rewarded handsomely for your discipline.  My first year of travel hacking, I flew to Australia, New York, Puerto Rico, and took a first-class overnight train ride up the west coast, all for less than $300.  I’m currently in Bali on a free ticket from LA (acutally about $100 after taxes and fees).  There are a ton of great travel hacking blogs and experts out there, but I started learning from Chris Guillibeau.

Protect yourself from thieving banks back home. Open a Charles Schwab Investor Checking account.  ATMs are the “travellers checks” of the modern day, and your Schwab debit card is an international traveller’s best friend.  Most banks absolutely gouge you on international ATM withdrawals, with foreign transaction fees and currency conversion fees, in addition to any fees charged by the local ATM itself.  Schwab charges neither of those, and actually reimburses any ATM fees occurred anywhere in the world.
(Note that you’ll need to also open a Schwab brokerage account to link it to, but it’s a simple process and you don’t actually need to do anything with the brokerage account. )

HT to Nomadic Matt for this travel game-changer.

-Get Travelers insurance.  You never know what will happen.  Nothing will drain your future travel budget faster than having to pay out of pocket for an extended hospital stay or medical evacuation service.  Don’t do it.  This trip, I’m insured with www.InsureandGo.com.  Nomadic Matt also has some great insurance guidelines, including a link to a site where you can compare available options.

Learn How to Say “No Thank You” in your host country’s language.  And maybe a few other polite refusals (eg: Not now, maybe later, It’s not my style, etc.)… You’ll be better equipped to cope with pushy street merchants (who will almost always be asking exorbitant prices) if you see it as a chance to practice your language skills, rather than an overwhelming ordeal that confuses you into spending money you didn’t intend to.

-Eat like a local.  I’d bet for most travellers, dining in western style restaurants, and filling their nights with fancy cocktails eat away at their travel funds the fastest.  Watch where the locals eat, and go there.  In Bali, I’m currently eating delicious fried rice and veggie dishes for about $1-$2 per meal.  If I’m in a tropical fruit mood (and when are you not?)  I can eat my fill for less than $1.

-Research what’s hard to find there, before you go.  Apparently good sunscreens and mosquito repellent that don’t feel like they’re eating away the top few layers of your skin are quite expensive to import to Bali.  I made sure to pack a couple big bottles of those at home where they’d be cheaper, but held off on shampoo, clothes, etc. knowing all that would be cheaper abroad.  Google will easily help you find other travelers recommendations and packing lists.

-Always have a pocket full of snacks. Sharing food is the language of human connection, and enthusiastically feeding people wherever you go creates an unexpected and magic sense of community and opens a ton of doors to opportunities you couldn’t possibly plan or buy through a travel agent.  “Us” and “them” thinking is expensive to maintain.  Give to the world, and she’ll open up for you.

The Challenge of Kintimani

(Bangli, Bali)

I love the mountains… the same way a great warrior loves a formidable adversary.  I find them forever humbling and terribly difficult, and for those reasons, spending time with them is always painfully, blissfully, transformative.

Sitting in a damp bed under a leaky roof of cold, monsoon rain, in the Indian Himalayas, 13 years ago, was where I had my first big travel-induced, mind-crippling breakdown… which gave way to one of my most profoundly indescribable transcendent experiences to date.   Continue reading “The Challenge of Kintimani”

Finding Home

(Kintamani, Bali)

Sometimes on the road you get asked: “Where is home?”

The thing is, I’m not sure. Over the last couple months, I’ve left behind an apartment lease, a cohabitating relationship, and the need to sit in the steel and concrete traffic of LA to run my business.  If Southern California is “home”, its only because of history, and because of the people I love there.  There’s no one place that I want to feel permanent in.

Last week in Sanur, once the initial thrill of having arrived in Bali wore off, I found myself filled with growing internal unsettledness.  Dropped in a new place and new culture, I didn’t know how to make myself at home, where to belong.

I wanted the luxurious fruit smoothies of the tourist world, but hated the inflated prices, insulated environments, and “walking ATM” experience. I had a lot of judgment of western tourists who stuck to the corals of curated exploration, and the consumers who said they “did Bali” in 5 days or so.  

I also longed for the village simplicity of an inexpensive banana-leaf wrapped Gado-gado (veggie and egg stir fry with peanut sauce), ordered with intimate conversation of village goings-on,  where they don’t speak English.  I stood out like a bright white sore thumb, in that part of town though, and struggled with my limited command of the Indonesian language.  “Fitting in” wasn’t really an option, there.

Of course, what I wanted was the third path: to somehow be a traveler between those worlds, able to belong in both, and at home moving between them.

I met fellow house-guests who were on that traveler’s path.  As they explained how they navigated that open way, my heart sank. The magic opportunities of the traveler seemed to all come from reflexively giving to those around you, regardless of how much you had.  The traveler’s access arose from prolifically sharing things, of food, and human attention.  A wedge of discouragement thus widdled itself into my ribs.

As someone who recently chose to shift her career and downsize her income (have you tried to live in LA on $1500/month?) and an introvert who was exhausted from years of work in a service business, this all seemed beyond me.  I’d had to watch my budget like a hawk, and learned to scale back on all possible splurges. Food was a precious commodity, to be carefully rationed over time.  And I’d taken this whole sabbatical, in part, to get away from interacting with people at all.  I didn’t see myself as having extra money, food, or attention to give.

The portal to belonging felt sealed shut by a big door of fatigue and isolation.

Exhausted, I headed for the tourist part of town that I’d so adamantly resisted.  I politely refused the throngs of ware-sellers, the endless street massage hawkers, the overpriced, though lovely, beachfront restaurants.  I didn’t know why I was there, except somehow it seemed the path of least resistance.  The tourist side of town felt like failure, but I had myself convinced I didn’t have it in me to find belonging on any other road. I continued walking, unsure what exactly I was even looking for.

As I walked on, I soon began to hear the thump of bass music coming from down the strip.  

Memories of dancing with friends on one of my last nights in Los Angeles filled my mind’s eye.  Swirling and jumping and hugging that night, I had been surprised by a freedom and ease that that I’d long been missing.  There, sweating like crazy to great music with dear friends, I’d felt a version of myself who I’d met on dancefloors before.  She was the one who was quick to laughter and silliness, after charging across the desert from music stage to music stage, at Burningman.  She was the one who had stomped the stress away at endless afternoon psytrance cafes in Vagator Beach, Goa.  She was the one who was comfortable, and free, and at home, wherever she was.

I smiled at those memories, encouraged to followed the beat along the Balinese shore.

 I didn’t know where the music came from, but wherever it was, that’s where I wanted to be.

I arrived at the source to find a sort of “food court” of bamboo shacks serving all sorts of different treats.  I found the shack with the speakers, and quickly found myself drawn to the stall just next door.  I smiled at the couple manning the counter, ready for whatever this experience that called to me was.  It wasn’t sure why I’d been drawn to their counter, until I looked at their menu board and realized what they sold: my personal symbols of both roads – fruit smoothies and Gado-gado.

I was okay.  Following my own internal guidance system led me to my own best of both worlds. I forgave myself for thinking anything was wrong with me.    With each bite of that food, with each measure of that music, something in me healed, and something in me remembered…

 I didn’t need to find someone else’s route onto the traveler’s road… it was already wired in me.  I just had to listen to my own pull from within.  

In this moment,  I found belonging in the bass.

And you know where that inner guidance system led next?  To buy another helping of Gado-gado to bring home to the other traveler who’ I knew had been longing for it too.  The next day, I found myself in a local village market, bumbling through Indonesian price inquiries, to load my bag with snacks to share with others on the next leg of my trip.  The music the night before had told me I was okay just I was, and somehow that acceptance broke open the fear-sealed door to the generous wanderer I wanted to be.  

Now, just a week later, somehow my bag is never empty of snacks to share, and I have a head full of my own magical traveler’s open-door stories to share. The Gods sometimes work fast.

This quiet afternoon in the mountains, I decided to plug my headphones in my ears, and listen to a DJ set that a friend posted from a music festival “back home”.  

I’m surprised when my body starts sobbing as the bass drops.  This… aural reminder of who I am –  this is home.

I empty my pack of the colorful foil remnants of treats I’ve been able to share, along my wanderings this week.  I look over this gorgeous fruit basket just given to me by a hostel worker, as a gift for I don’t know what.  I drink tea from herbs picked for me by new friends who already feel like family.  I welcome the texts from local friends asking if we can get together once more before I go. I am myself, and it’s more than enough. I see my feet firmly planted on the traveler’s road.

I’ll leave soon for Ubud…  I’ve heard there’s an “annoying, ‘untz untz’ place” that’s opened recently there. You can bet my smoothies, Gado-gado, and I, will find our way to its speakers, and dance our butts off – along this traveler’s way we’re coming to call “home”.


Songs for the ride: Count to Ten

You know that feeling of overwhelm where life is all just a little too confusing?  Where you want it to stop for a minute – to back up, and let it come into focus?  If you’re here, you must; I know that’s the pull to the road for many of us.  

Tina Dico’s Count to Ten is a song for those moments.

I heard it for the first time around the joyful west coast summer yoga/arts/music festival scene, with a dear man whom I would go on to share 5 years of my life in partnership with.  His encouragement is largely responsible for my personal freedom and location-independent lifestyle now.  

At that first listen, I burst into tears at the sweeping violin climax (4:25), and I still do, nearly every time I hear it now.

The soft, steady beat that remix producer Pumpkin layed under Tina’s transparent vocals feel like the rythmic pulse of railroad ties on a cross country train trip. The reasons for the road, the feeling of the road, and the sounds of the road are all layered into the mix.  Pumpkin’s recent death lends a haunting air to the already compelling track.  It’s an emotional must-have for a long-trip playlist.

Happy travels my friends.  Be safe out there.


(I can’t vouch for this video, it’s just the easiest way to get you the song… Maybe close your eyes and listen :-))


There are faces, there are smiles. So many teeth
Too many arms, legs, eyes, and flashing buttons
All around me

I’m a watching, I’m a breathing, I”m a pushing
I’m a wishing that these walls
Would not be talking quite so loudly

I’ve been burned down once before
I’ve pulled myself up off the floor
And I am looking for a reason to stay standing

But sometimes its just too much,
Its not enough, its something else
Its so much bigger than my head
Its too demanding

Sometimes the fastest way to get there is to go slow
And sometimes if you want to hold on, you got to let go
I’m gonna close my eyes, and count to ten
I’m gonna close my eyes
And when I open them again,

Everything will make sense to me then

I have met so many people, we’ve exchanged so many words
We’ve said it all and we’ve said nothing
But its changed us

I have known a lot of men
Some were lovers, some were friends
But altogether, were they merely passing strangers?

They’ll contol you with their silence, they’ll control you with their words
And you’ll control them with your body’s coded signals
In the wild and tangled gardens of our insecurities
We loose our heads to each others silly pitfalls

Sometimes the fastest way to get there is to go slow
And sometimes if you want to hold on, you got to let go
I’m gonna close my eyes, and count to ten
I’m gonna close my eyes
And when I open them again,

Everything will make sense to me then

Box of Tears

Sanur Stories Pt 2
(While this story works as a stand-alone, it’s actually a continuation. You may want to read Part 1)

“So, are you going to tell me about your father?”

The question hung heavy in the air, like the stormclouds that had rolled through the night before.

I’d mentioned my dad the day before, when we talked about the tribal tradition of using tattoos to honor one’s ancestors.

I had told her then: “There’s an image that’s been floating around in my head since I left, and it’s of one of my dad’s tattoos.  It’s a real cool looking old dude, happily walking with a long white beard flowing behind him, and the words ‘just passing through’.  My dad and I have talked about the fact that there’s a possibility he may not be around anymore when I get back from this trip, and I think that image just captures something about a philosophy we share”.

“Ah you already have that tattoo” she said then,“Its your family story. You just wear it under your skin.”

A tear emerged at her response, but the conversation soon shifted in another direction.

Now, the next day, we sat sheltered from the fiery sun; overlooking the midday deep blue ocean, as it peered over yellow-green fields between our patio and the beach.  I’d been strangely tense all morning, maybe from a sense of guilt for being so far removed from the responsibilities I was used to at home.  Or maybe the tension was just lack of sleep, since the two dueling nightclubs down the road had continued blaring, even past the jolting rooster calls started around 3 o’clock.  This moment, though was quiet pleasant.  The view enchanted our eyes, and the sea’s come-hither breezes cooled our sweat-covered bodies.

And here again, the question of my dad hung like fog.

Again, as they did with she and I, hearts opened wide for sharing – joys, pains, fears, everything it was to be alive.  My dad’s had several serious health scares throughout my adult life, and there are a lot of question marks for him following a couple recent strokes.  

He’d shared with me that he’d had a strange mix of intense emotions about my going on this trip, which was new, despite my past travels.  He suspected it had something to do with how unknown this trip was – I had no plans beyond accommodation booked for the first week, but he was experiencing a new strange sort of worry he hadn’t felt before.

I’m sure the uncertainties in his own health and future had to have made up some part of the mix.

“It’s hard… causing discomfort for someone I love so much, who’s going through so much of his own struggle right now… but needing to go anyway.  Needing to take this trip even though it hurts, for so many people.”

My travelling companion just sat with me, holding, and understanding.

“It’s that way with some of my company’s clients, too” I said, finding a road to a quieter, subtler pain within myself.  “I have very tender relationships with them, and some of them I know are quite personally attached to me.  I know it hurts them to see me go.  It aches in my heart that I can’t make that better, by staying put anymore.  I’ve tried really hard to avoid causing pain for anyone else.  I’ve tried really hard for the last 7 years, and slowly boxed up some part of me that needs to live, in the process.”

“Yes, you’ve been working very hard, for a long time.” She said.  “I could see that in you when we first met.  I thought ‘This woman needs to be here.’”

I started to quietly cry – some of my most intimate, most insistent pain being seen, reflected, supported.  She scooted herself closer to me, and wrapped her arm around my back, pulling me into the comfort of her side.

Moments later, my sadness was replaced with a twisting yank of guilt.

“I’m so so sorry”, I blurted out “It’s terribly rude, and I feel so connected to you, and have had the most lovely couple days getting to know you, but I was so tired when we first met that now I don’t know your name.”

“Don’t apologize for that.” She said… “My name doesn’t matter; people call me a hundred different things”, and she shared stories of her name, and its origins, and the labels her family had used, others friends had used.  She told me of when a renowned tribal tatoo artist (really a spiritual storyteller), whom she’d spent days side-by-side with, exploring the depths of the soul, was asked what her name was he’d said ‘I don’t know… I call her girl, or nothing at all.” The name was immaterial to their spiritual understanding of one another.

“Man, its so different from America, where everyone is so so deeply attached to their names.” I said.

“I know; I’m from western culture too. I know how it matters to people.  But it doesn’t matter to me. I know your name, because names just stick with me, but it doesn’t tell me who a person is.  I know you – the person.  The good person.”

Forgiven for the ultimate social transgression of the west, our conversation continued winding through the afternoon.  Exploring intricate nooks and crannies of identity and meaning, as it always did.  Eventually my heart started to swell with gratitude for this striking new friendship.

“I’m glad you’re here.”  I admitted with the timid affection of people who haven’t yet expressed their caring for each other.

“I was just about to say the same” she said. “I’m glad you’re here”.

An surprising burst of emotion kicked my throat from within, and tears welled in my eyes.

“I don’t know why hearing you say that makes me cry” I said.

She sat quietly for a moment, with her hand simply cradling me, on the small of my back.

“Might not be from what we’re talking about now. Tears emptying from another box, maybe.  This place has a way of opening boxes; you’ll do a lot of that here.”

“Ah… we come to Bali to spring clean our insides, then?” I asked.

She threw her head back as she laughed, and then nodded.  Her own many summers of cleaning, emptying, being emptied by this land, shimmered behind the rich brown of her eyes.

As suddenly as it had started, the crying stopped, ushered out by a windy breath of relief from somewhere deep in my belly.  

“That’s a good breath” she said, her hand still on my back, her gaze still far out over the sea.  The box just opened, it seemed, was now emptied. Bali’s medicine for this moment was complete.

We sat silently for a few moments, again transfixed by the immutable beauty in front of us.  Me, the breeze, and the woman with a hundred names, and no name.


Why Bali?

Sanur Stories, Pt. 1

“Why did you choose Bali?” That night’s new arrival at the guest house asked me, as we shared travel plans.  

Her Dutch accent was light and soft, and draped her words with silky European elegance.  She was from a long line of Indonesian descent, and had blood that ran all the way back to one of the origin stories of  many local Island beliefs.  She spoke of Bali with experience deeper than her years of travel here – with a connection to the land inextricable from her bones.  Here on this lush island of art and flowers, she was among the most beautiful creatures I’d seen yet.

Every time I’ve been asked “why Bali?”, I’ve given a different answer… and I was a bit surprised by the California cool that came out of my mouth this time.

“Well, I’m pretty into the hippie-dippie stuff: yoga, healing, art… and I hear Ubud really has a lot of that going on, so I imagined I’d feel pretty comfortable there”.

My response shot a spear of inauthenticity into my ribs.  Though the conversation continued as normal with travellers getting to know each other, I was off.  I continued to be bothered by the way I’d refused to admit my inner pull to this place, my deep interest in exploration, the way my soul longed to engage on this trip.  As we talked, I began to sense that she wasn’t a skeptical stranger at all, and we’d connect better if I dropped my socially conditioned cloak.

Why had I presented this detached apathy?  Who was that person who had answered her question?  Why is this sharp end still in my ribs?

I slept restlessly that night as the conversation replayed itself in my head.  The past has a strange way of rehearsing itself in a divided mind.

The next morning over breakfast, I had to make myself whole again.  I opted for a side of vulnerability with my fruit and yogurt.

“I wanted to share with you – when you asked me last night why I’d come to Bali, I gave some answer, but the truth is, I don’t know.  I just know I was pulled here, and I’m actually fascinated to listen to the land, and let her tell me why she called.”

She simply nodded with a smile.  “Yeah, it’s like that.

For the next two days, we became travelling companions of the village around us, and the rich worlds within us.  She was, first and foremost, a storyteller.  Over beachside strolls and winding bike rides, her tales opened a window into the meaning of her world, her self, her people. As we explored, we formed a common feast for an entire mosquito family, and shared our love for our ailing fathers. She introduced me to the soul-storytelling tattoos called Ta’moko, and the Maori belief that our stories are already inked on us, many of us just wear them in our veins.   I introduced her to the zombie-movie sets of the abandoned amusement park,  and showed her the dark corners that seemed sure to hide their own primal histories.

We talked of skin and blood.  We talked of life.
To travel is bond quickly with new people.  And to bond is to share stories.  And to share stories is to be deeply, reflectively alive.  I still don’t know why Bali, but now I know, this is why I travel.

(This story continues)

Afraid of Being Ripped Off? You Should Be.

Sanur, Bali

Soundtrack for an afternoon stroll:

“Yes, madame, where you going?”

“Hallo… yes? Come looking my shop? Special price, only you.”

“Taxi, ma’am, taxi? TAXI? Where you going? Want taxi? TAXI? TAAXI!!??… You clearly can’t focus on anything else with me doing this, so it must be working and I will not stop hollering at you until you drop whatever you’d planned and get in my car just to make me stop yelling!” (Okay, I added that last part.  Consider it subtext.) 

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How they think they’ll get a taxi through many of these roads at all is beyond me

Welcome to any tourist town in the “developing world”.  Welcome also, to the wildly inflated bargaining dance.

It’s interesting to me how unaccustomed to the street haggle I’ve become, with just a few years of not leaving the west.  It’s a strange feeling, being seen as a rich foreigner, or, to borrow my Swiss travelling companion’s term, a “walking ATM”.

It’s also incredibly humbling to pause for a moment and realize that the perception is rightly so, when in many of these places, locals are providing for families on just a few dollars a day.  The scrambles for attention and exorbitant price quotes aren’t intended to be rude or abusive.  You’ve simply entered a different culture, where you’re responsible for your own boundaries, and where even locals go into each transaction expecting a good nature’d price jostle.

I didn’t make it into town until about 4pm today.  And when I did, I noticed I was feeling a little reserved.  I was working on my computer all day, and feeling rather stuck in my head.  I am also keenly aware of my budget on this trip, and found myself shying away from any potentially costly social wrestling matches.

Sundays in Sanur are a bit  mad.
Sundays in Sanur are a bit mad.

I didn’t come to Bali just to torture myself with the world within my skull, though. Little by little, I tip- toed into engagement.

Selamat Sore, Ibu!” (Good afternoon ma’am), I’d call to the beautifully leathery skinned grandmas, who manned their stalls with visible years of laughter and tears etched into their faces.

Tidak sekarang, terima kasih!” (Not now, thank you), I’d smile and reply to the endless offers for clothes, food, massages, taxi rides, trinkets.

And finally, when a beaming 5 foot woman who soon introduced herself as Lulu asked me to follow her into her shop, I agreed.

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Lulu was a firecracker.  An endless stream of rapid fire questions, comments, and laughter, in a mix of Indonesian and English that somehow aligned quite well with my toddler-level local language proficiency.

Saya menulis. Saya tidak mau lupa.”  (I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget) I said, taking out my notebook to add the word lucu (funny). Lulu’s face was all smiles, as she became both shopkeeper, and guru bahasa Indonesia.

We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing, teaching, learning, and I filled pages of my notebook with useful words for colors, textures, common phrases.  I didn’t really love any of Lulu’s clothes, but I did want to buy just a little something in thanks for her time and teaching, and we’d become so cordial by this point, that I simply told her so.

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Clothes and clothes and clothes and clothes

Lulu dove deeper into the stacks of merchandise, and together we hunted, determined to find something I’d love (and not regret having to carry aroud in my backpack for the next 3 months).  Next thing I know, Lulu’s magical selective hearing had kicked in, and “just one small thing” became “okay, so you want these four dresses and this cardigan?”.  

In the past, I’d’ve probably become frustrated and panicked that I’d never get out of this shop without being tricked into a whole new wardrobe.  Today I just laughed, and Lulu laughed too.

Eventually, the magic of Bali surfaced a dress that I did absolutely love. And since you don’t ask for price until you actually want to buy something in bargaining economies, now that climactic dance would begin.


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Isn’t she lovely?

We haggled. I scoffed. She told fibs that were quickly revealed. We each pleaded.  We put on our theater masks and performed with great style.  For the first time in my years of travel, the tourist-trap haggle took on a deep sweetness of shared humanity.  I realized I wasn’t just buying a dress.  I was buying language lessons, cultural immersion, the contagious effervescence of this little Balinese woman.  I was buying the connection with what matters, that I embarked on this whole journey to find.  For $6, it was the deal of the century.

As I waved goodbye to Lulu and her husband and they sent me off with the warmth of new family, I realized I was right to be afraid of being ripped off.  Not by the shopkeepers, but by my own fears.  My resistance to dive in had almost robbed me of a profound life experience.  My hesitation had tried to steal from me the magic of Bali.

A touch of Bali
A touch of Bali

“Madame, come! Look! You want!” As long as I choose to travel, those calls will be there.  Often enough, my own isolating worry will likely show up as well.  Now, thanks to Lulu yang lucu (Lulu the funny one), I know which one is actually a threat.

You Don’t Defy Ghosts

It’s my first full day in Bali.  I’m staying in a guesthouse about 1km outside the sleepy resort town of Sanur, and there’s a supposedly haunted, abandoned amusement park just a short walk away. By visiting, it’s impossible to tell how long ago this place was open, only that now the jungle is reclaiming her land.

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Another young woman from the guest house and I strolled over together, and round the park nearly empty of humans.  We saw only a couple groups of young Balinese men lounging on old crumbling picnic tables and benches around the entrance.  

There’s a lot of just lounging that happens in this heat.  

An apparent leader figure of the pack lazily hollered “hallo, where you going?” To which we feigned ignorance, smiled, and strode with purpose past.  I assumed would have tried to charge us an “entry fee” if we’d stop to let them. (I went back another day and can now confirm that attempt.  It failed.)

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Along with the jungle, an array of street artists seem to have made this place their own as well.   Bright splashes of color, and lovingly planned spray paint relics layer on top of the once-ornate facades of falling structures.  The result is an awe-inspiring half zombie apocalypse movie set, half burningman-esque art-gasm.

An especially Walking Dead-ish multi-level building beckoned to our left, with shattered glass and falling ceiling beamings shrouded in dangling, hungry vines.

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“Do you think it’s safe?  My travelling companion asked, and then answered “Ah, what the hell” and lead the charge up the steps inside, before awaiting any response from me.  Inside, it was incredible.

It’s easy to get introspective in a place like this, once the novelty of the macabre softens into the questions of “What on earth is this place’s story?” And for a brain like mine, soon melts into the recurring “what on earth is my story?”

It happens.

I learned from a PBS special once that our identities are neurologically shaped, and constantly re-shaped by our environments.  I find it totally fascinating that our brains are only partially formed at birth, and their structure is, in significant part, determined by our early childhood experiences.  While the physical changes are less drastic in an adult, our brains do continue to be carved and changed by our surroundings, our entire lives.

It’s part of why I travel, to stay open, to stay moldable – to let a bigger world inform the person I want to be.  I don’t always know what my travels will make of me, but sometimes I get a clear sign.

Like today.

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Oh, good to know.

Ah.  So that’s what today will make of me.   Okay, I’ll say yes to that.  What might that mean I need to do?  Fortunately, the spirits of the park had an answer to that for me as well:

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Ah.  Okay.  So I’m here in a new country… the way to majesty in my experience is being willing to take some risks.  Of course, one could argue simply closing up life at home, and coming halfway across the planet for an uncertain amount of time, is a bit of a risk.  But the voices of this haunted place seem to ask me for more.  Who am I to argue?

Lunchtime had crept up upon us, and the mosquitos had already made feasts of our flesh within the park.  We walked out, and braced ourselves for one of the great risks that separates travellers from tourists, the hardy from the squeamish… the universally novel and fascinating challenge of….. Street food.

I was excited, but intimidated.  I’m not going to lie.  We found a road side warung (local food stall), that fortunately had a few pictures on a sign board, to help us through that first otherworldy attempt to order food.  Lunch was served with half-English, half bahasa (Indonesian) stumbling communication, and embarrassed chuckles all around.

Once an order was placed and we waited to see what on earth we had asked for, I worked up the courage to return to the counter and ask for help with a few new vocabulary words for my notebook.  With good humor and patience, the two Balinese women manning the tiny stoves helped me find a first few steps of confidence and warmth in the community around me.  That little step had blossomed into a glow of accomplishment, by the time the food arrived.

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The food was almost as good as my growing social optimism.  What came out was a beautiful tofu and tempeh dish, flanked with roasted eggplant and fresh green veggies, with a sweet and spicy Javanese sauce, and a hearty scoop of white rice.  Exquisite.  They even brought of little bowls of lemon water, which I’m still not sure, but their gestures seemed to suggest, were to rinse our hands before eating. We were happy, relaxed, and feeling great about our journeys ahead by the time payment was due.  The cost for all this joy?  A mere 75 cents each.

You know what?  That felt pretty darn majestic. And like proper royalty, we wandered the village road back home, to do the afternoon in the new Balinese way we’d learned: we headed straight for the pool, and proceeded to lounge.  I think the ghosts would’ve wanted it that way.

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Career Advice From Balinese Bugs

I sat down at my open-air desk, in Bali, with fields of green in front of me, and a gentle air blowing in off the ocean behind me, intending to write a very different blog post than this. Just as I began to write, I was interrupted by some rather friendly tropical bugs…   I didn’t know ants had a thing for keyboards, but I’m having to do a delicate dance of key selection to avoid crushing the poor little things as I type, so watch out folks.. Might want to seal those keyboards in plastic to avoid an infestation at home.

I’m in Bali because I’ve spent the last 7 years building a business that is now providing just enough small monthly income, without too much involvement from me, to travel in Southeast Asia, and figure out what’s next.  I couldn’t live in the west off its current proceeds, but my heart won’t let me pursue growth in that current business as a full-time gig.  There’s a clear demand from within for something else vocationally, and I’m exploring, among other things, what that “something else” might be.

The view just next to my desk - certainly not a bad place for exploration.
The view just next to my desk – certainly not a bad place for exploration.

I’ve had quite a few conversations lately about how the notion that we’re supposed to have a singular career just doesn’t seem to fit for many of us.  It feels somehow off that there’s supposed to be one central  thing we do our whole lives that provides the vast majority of our income, fulfillment, and self-expression.  

I don’t buy it.

Just like I don’t buy that I’m supposed to go out and find that one perfect person for that one perfect relationship, who’ll meet all my different needs, and we’ll live happily ever after.  Not only is that the classic trap of “I”ll be happy when” thinking, but there’s a heck of a lot of different kinds of support, play, affection, adventure, and companionship that this mind and body seem to need.  To expect one person to meet all of those would be at best demanding, and at worst, cruel.  I keep close relationships with quite a few different people, dear friends who each meet me at a slightly different part of my personality, and who all together create a fulfilled life of human interaction.  I don’t think it makes sense, for most of us humans, to reserve our vast expanses of humanity, tenderness, and shared exploration, for just one person we’ve chosen as a romantic partner.  Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense for many of us now to reserve all our brilliance, expression, learning, and time, to just one career path.

Lots of friends. Lots of Jobs.
Lots of friends. Lots of Jobs.

Lots of friends. Lots of jobs.

It’s not an easy mindset change.  I catch myself frequently returning to “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Sort of thinking.. Or, more uncomfortably, “What do I want to do with the REST OF MY LIFE?”.  That question’s just not helpful. It acts like it is, popping to mind multiple times a day, but it’s actually way too overwhelming. I can’t possibly presume to imagine what the next 50+ years will bring.

Plus, I change my mind.  It happens.  A lot.  And I’m learning to be okay with that. After having been busting ass  in my current field for the last 10 years, even with having the freedoms of being my own boss the last 7 of those 10, thinking of committing to a multi-decade career, or even another 10-year project right now, fills me with all sorts of feelings, none of which are joy.

So, as I have to remind myself every 12 hours or so, I’m interested in what’s now, and what’s just next, not the million things after that.

What’s now is using caution to avoid becoming an insect steamroller, while wondering if ants crawling under the keys of a laptop computer will be the death of its circuitry, or if the sweat dripping from my hands attempting to type in this giant outdoor sauna will have that honor.

The center of the action
The center of the action

Next, after this trip, will be something that feels “seasonal”.  Short-term, without the need for years of ground-laying, and fun.  I’m thinking “project” instead of “job”.  I’m thinking expression and fulfillment and joy, that happens to also provide income, and is expressly temporary.  I’m letting a bunch of ideas tickle that fancy, while keeping most of my focus on being on this trip, while on this trip.  

These ants just won’t let me stay present though.  They seem to want to crawl right under whatever finger has reached to click on my laptop trackpad.  They come in close enough to just brush under my skin, but not so directly under that they wind up squished… and then run away under the keys again. It’s like they want to come over, and just be touched before going on their way. I watched this with confounded chuckles for a few moments, following their movement with my thoughts, until they lead back to one of those next project ideas.

I’d earlier had this idea, you see, to use the massage skill I learned working as a personal fitness trainer for the previously mentioned decade, in combination with my delight in energy work and intuitive practices, to offer spiritual bodywork sessions. Since one of my next big interest points when I return to the states is paying back the loans I still carry from Spiritual Psychology grad school, this seems like a fitting and energetically-aligned way to move forward on that goal:  Make a project of paying back my spiritual education, with offerings of spiritually-focused touch.

And here I am, trying to “do some work” writing in Bali, and these little ants just won’t stop coming over to get their mini massages.  I suppose that’s what’s now.  For the last decade I’ve been a personal trainer. In a few months, I’ll likely be something else.  For now, I’m a massage therapist for ants.  And somehow, that seems exactly right.