This…unsettles you, from your ordinary, rooted world.
I was in the land of photogenic temples — places of worship perching atop seaside cliffs, nestled in misty mountains, carved within caves, and residing around every bend in rural villages. There was more to Bali than temples, of course — soaked green carpets of rice terraces, beer-bottle thronging beaches, and museums with thatched rooftops. But, in the undertones of its name, one thing overrode all else. A beckoning promise of discovering the truth to the universe and gaining divine transcendence — yes, you hippie, this is where you might find your own Eat Pray Love 2.0. In short: Throw away your worries! Bali tells you shyly but mysteriously. You can get lost and find yourself everywhere, in salt-specked water sports, in hangovers, in villages, in luxury resorts, and in nature’s depths. You want to believe her.
On the last day of the 2016 calendar, I found myself in Ubud, seeking for some truth to Bali that must lie beneath the obvious and the expected, beyond the blonde beaches on postcards and decadent sunset bars at Seminyak. Ubud seemed, at once, to be both the most likely and unlikely place to find it. Essentially, it was a place of contradictions — a sprawling misty village with a bohemian town at its center, where a modern art gallery lazed next to a locked moss-covered traditional architecture, where an open-space palace settled imperiously opposite a dingy ice-cream shop, and where her majesty Starbucks flung its doors wide towards a royal lotus flower pond.
As we rolled into Ubud, white van clad in wet sunlight and bouncing on mist-shrouded rocky roads, my friendly driver-slash-tour guide Uncle Ketut was a man on a mission: to bring me to the strangest restaurant he could find.
“You mean best?” he tentatively proffered again, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror.
“No, I want strange, really. Somewhere different,” I assured him.
We ended up at a hole in the wall — one with a limp menu, merrily buzzing flies, and easily, the most breath-taking view I had seen in my life.
This was how I first found myself on a browning balcony, inhaling repellent oil and facing Mount Batur. The sight of an active volcano and a caldera melting into a lake was soft like honey to the mind, but it still wasn’t quite I was looking for — something that should cut Bali open like a fruit swiftly and bluntly to show me at once what it was at its core.
Tourism billboards always say “the REAL country Z”, but what was real? The photo-shopped portrait of scenic bliss hanging in airports? If the real existed beyond that, how could I find it? These questions stemmed from pure curiosity, and then took shape in the form of a drumming sense of purpose — one which strained against the pull of simple answers, unexamined pictures, and complacent receptivity, and dictated that I should be finding some meaning in my island-hopping and some truth behind Bali at first glance.
In the middle of my contemplative wallowing, someone grabbed my wandering mind at its head.
“Your lunch price includes a three-hour cycling tour of the Ubud countryside,” declared a loud booming voice.
I looked up and was greeted by Ketut and his friend’s beaming faces.
“For good friends, miss,” announced Ketut’s friend, a scrawny lithe man in untucked shirt and sooty slippers, radiating one megawatt smile after another, “a 30-kilometer adventure!”
This was how I later found myself out on the dirt road — muscles stretching, eyes blurring. A realization dawned upon me: philosophy was for idlers on full stomachs. With the wind howling into my ears, and me brushing past roaring motorcycles by a hair’s width once every 30 seconds, I decisively dumped all existential interrogations onto the receding road under the whirring wheels of my bicycle.
As the tarmac lane merged with dusty routes, winding and turning, I soon found myself pedaling furiously with no person ahead in sight.
Near a forked path, my bicycle screeched to a halt.
There and then, I was located under a holy tree (holy trees in Bali have yellow or checkered cloth wrapped around their belly). Next to me: an old man with an unidentifiable ball of fluff on his shoulder and a dangerous-looking brown dog. Both stared at me with inscrutable gazes.
I flashed the man a sheepish smile.
In the next few moments, the planet tilted on its axis and the universe waded through water because the old man uttered not a word but cuddled the fluff in his hands and presented it to me in a move that could only be described as — I grasp for words — inviolable.
I received the ball of fluff, head bowed and eyes blinking, and realized belatedly that it was no normal fluff; it was a sleeping baby owl.
As I followed behind the old man into his house, the story was no longer one of traveling artfully, nor was it about pushing one’s limits in a cycling endeavor that came out of the blue. I remember the rest of the story in a slipstream of feelings.
A scent of frangipani, a rasp of leaves and a click of the stapler.
Two women’s fingers danced as they plaited palm leaves together and secured them in various contortions. Their leaf baskets smelled like the simple magic of relentless faith — to do a religious offering daily by hand, heaping nature into the span of a palm, and placing on earth, a prayer with the timbre of gratitude.
Each time one of the women say these two words, they smile. Eyes crinkling, warmth emanating.
The older woman handed me a leaf, and my fingers began to grope and clumsily stumble. I stopped thinking and started feeling — the coarseness of the leaf, the wetness of the stapler, the fragility of the flower petals, the furry coat of the baby owl, and my finally peaceful mind that told me in the resounding quiet: “This is it.”
The rest of the story isn’t as important — the bicycle congregation eventually retraced their steps to retrieve me. The canang sari I finished was placed with affection at the door of the old man’s house. Imprinted in my memory, however, is this strangely moving sight: a company of two women, a brown dog, the old man, and a baby owl fluttering on his shoulder, waving to a foreign girl who came and went like a sudden soft breeze. A farewell at a forked path, against the backdrop of a light drizzle and clouded skies.
But this is what I think. Maybe there is no real Bali.
The green TripAdvisor app on my iPhone and the motley of guidebooks lining Kinokuniya shelves give forceful, authoritative guidelines on where to go to find Bali in its full glorious authenticity — Tanah Lot temple gets 4.5 stars for its value, Luwak Civet Coffee Farm has a paltry 3.5, and Sadha temple gets none. They rank experiences that ought to be subjective and unquantifiable in precise arithmetic — Kuta’s Waterbom places #1, Ubud’s cooking class lands on #5, and the hierarchy goes on. True, it makes traveling more straightforward and purposeful, by telling us where to go so that we can pat ourselves on the back in obedient relief: “We’ve seen the real country Z, as defined by travel experts and majority’s wisdom.”
This short episode off the beaten track, in its mind-boggling chain of coincidences and random chance, felt the most real — for me. Because maybe the whole point of travel is to see a place as though no one has seen it before. To be uninhibited by ratings of what should interest you and how you should think, and to be driven only by your own imagination and curiosity. If so, even when you see what millions have seen before you, you can grasp intuitively how it can matter to you alone — inimitable in significance, and irreproducible in the individual revelation that occurs.
My most meaningful relationship with Bali happened not on its famed beaches, not in its museum galleries, not at its ticketed gamelan performances, or even in its Michelin-starred restaurants. It occurred in a brief moment when the feeling of belonging washed over me with one innocuous act, and suddenly, my eyes noticed what I did not see before — the pulsing of life that transcended many things and laid bare the common shred of humanity that bound two strangers together when one opened the heart of their ordinary life to another — and the ordinary became extraordinary in its power to, simply, connect.
Bali is full of Ketuts, but the dear Uncle Ketut who was a pocketful of sunshine throughout my trip is truly in a league of his own. He can be contacted at Mekar Tour & Driver (+62 813 3831 3166).