#23: Bali Calling
Poetic morning walks, Luwak coffee tasting, and reflections on solitude.
Some trips are about saying yes to everything. New experiences, getting out of your comfort zone, embracing the unknown, and actively seeking out adventures. If you’re lucky, you walk away with new friends, fond memories, different perspectives, and at the very least, stories to tell.
Some trips are about saying no. No to all the ‘must-visit’ places, the extensive planning, ‘optimizing’ one’s time, and FOMO (fear of missing out).
My recent trip to Bali was about doing nothing, just being. I was there on work and decided to stay back another week for a workation. I don’t have a travel bucket list (I’d like to travel the whole world), but Indonesia has been on my ‘list of places to visit in the near future’ for a long time. A digital nomad’s paradise, the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ destination of dreams, scuba diving wonderland – Indonesia means different things to different people. I had been told by friends that Ubud is my kind of place, so I decided to go see for myself.
I found a cozy Airbnb located in a quieter part of town; away from the tourist hotspots but close enough to restaurants and cafes. I neither had the money nor the inclination to cover the Instagram-famous temples, Bali swings, waterfall tours, and yoga retreats — although I would’ve loved to go island-hopping if I had more time.
Instead, I decided to walk.
I walked through lush green forests and rice fields in the mornings. I walked the city streets in the evenings. I didn’t have a lot of hours since I was working a full-time job, but it was still lovely, with pleasant weather this time of the year.
I walked past neighborhood temples, art shops, residential areas, and warungs. Some mornings, I worked out of a cafe overlooking endless rice fields. I struggled to find Nasi Goreng and other Indonesian dishes at restaurants – most cafes sold Avocado on toast and healthy salad bowls to cater to the Western palette – and even when I did, it didn’t taste as good as I had hoped (and had eaten before in other parts of Indonesia).
The beauty of doing nothing in particular in a new place is that ordinary moments come alive. You experience it for what it is – nothing less and nothing more. The early morning breeze in my airy Airbnb. The sweet fragrance of the Rajnigandha flowers by my bedside. Morning walks with fallen Champa flowers and dried leaves of all shades and sizes strewn along my path. Cool raindrops landing softly on my feet. Neighborhood cats crawling into my lap as I worked on my laptop. A scoop of local gelato in the evening after work. People-watching (lots of it). Relaxing Balinese massages that didn’t burn a hole in my pocket. Frogs croaking in the wee hours (and keeping me awake). And on some magical nights, a glimpse of fireflies hovering over the rice fields, glittering in the dark.
Softest of mornings, hello.
And what will you do today, I wonder,
to my heart?
And how much honey can the heart stand, I wonder,
before it must break?
This is trivial, or nothing: a snail
climbing a trellis of leaves
and the blue trumpets of flowers.
No doubt clocks are ticking loudly
all over the world.
I don't hear them. The snail's pale horns
extend and wave this way and that
as her fingers-body shuffles forward, leaving behind
the silvery path of her slime.
Oh, softest of mornings, how shall I break this?
How shall I move away from the snail, and the flowers?
How shall I go on, with my introspective and ambitious life?
– Mary Oliver
If you were hoping for Bali travel tips in this newsletter, I’m sorry, I don’t have any. I spent all my time examining flowers, leaves, rice fields, and spiderwebs. I even saw a few geckoes and lots of monkeys (one of which climbed on top of me, hoping to get some food out of my backpack).
If there’s one thing Ubud accorded me, it’s the opportunity to pay attention. To walk the streets with abandon and take in every moment as best as I could. The greenery, the everyday moments, the poetry of nature.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
On my way to the airport to catch my flight back home, my lovely taxi driver enquired if I had tried Luwak coffee. She was horrified when I told her I hadn’t. She refused to drop me off without tasting Luwak coffee, so off we went to a coffee estate en route the airport!
Luwak coffee (or civet coffee) is made from partially digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by Asian palm civets. The cherries are fermented as they pass through a civet’s intestines, and after being defecated with other fecal matter, they are collected, cleaned, and roasted to make coffee.
The coffee had a unique taste, but would I drink it again? Nah.
Asian palm civets are increasingly caught in the wild and traded for Luwak coffee production, so I’m not sure how ethical all of this is. But the farm tour and tasting were interesting, as I got to see civets and taste a variety of flavored tea and coffee – my favorite being Avocado coffee (in true millennial style)!
Reflections on Solitude
Last week, I wrote about wintering and coping with loneliness. I received so many heartwarming messages — thank you! Most people expressed how much they resonated with the post, which made me feel less alone, but also made me wonder what each of us can do to make the world a little less lonely? I also received a few pitying messages about how lonely and sad I seemed to be, clearly missing the point of my post, while a few others asked how I was so happy and calm all the time! What struck me about these contrasting responses and perceptions are the binaries we tend to bucket ourselves and others in – that either we’re blissfully happy in our solitude or extremely lonely and sad!
The truth is, I (and most others), are somewhere in between. I feel alone at times and crave connection and intimacy (like anyone else in the world), while at other times, I’m happy being by myself and proud that I’m so independent. I love taking solo trips, going to movies and museums by myself, and eating out alone, among other things. I feel conscious at times when people give me awkward glances, especially when I’m in places filled with couples or large groups of friends, but I’ve gotten used to it. Being able to do things I want to do by myself, without depending on other people to accompany me, is empowering. I love the freedom I have to do whatever I fancy, change plans on a whim and just go with the flow. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy company, but I’m not dependent on it.
I think solitude, like wintering, is the acceptance of loneliness (to whatever extent it exists). There’s no need to shy away from it; rather, we’re better off befriending it. It is accepting who you are, where you are, and recognizing the unique qualities you bring to the world. Much like nurturing any relationship, it takes time and attention to understand yourself and listen to your inner voice and needs with patience and kindness (so hard to do!). And until you have this relationship with yourself, you cannot have a healthy relationship with anyone else.
“It should no longer be your concern that the world speaks of you; your sole concern should be with how you speak to yourself. Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.”
- Michel de Montaigne
Solo travel is one experience where the joy and power of solitude can be starkly felt. There are many ways to travel solo – it doesn’t mean going into a jungle by yourself with no other human being in sight – but it does mean committing to spending time with yourself and being open to whatever it brings up (within and without).