When In Kyoto ≧◡≦

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With the most adorable Sae-chan ❤

Kyoto is one-hour strolls along train tracks, washed-out pink carpets hanging on strings, bottles of sake behind second-storey windows, two scrawny girls trying to catch a pale yellow butterfly with a net, watery rice paddies beside a parking lot full of Toyotas & Hondas. Kyoto is that moment my hair almost rustles as my bones quiver with the ground, with the rumble of the passing train across a few thin walls. The train tracks are embedded in a sea of rocks, streaming to where the horizon meets the sky—so clean yet intense that, despite all differences, it’s almost reminiscent of the sixth station scene in Spirited Away.

sixth station vsixth station

Kyoto is light grey sheets of rain on wooden houses, bright red gates before tiled rooftops, the simultaneous terror and wonder of Yayoi Kusama’s black dots in an endless space of yellow, the swish of the obi in a maiko’s (apprentice geisha) kimono in spotlight, the cool softness and stickiness of mochi against a parched tongue, and the heavenly pleasure of matcha ice-cream in all possible weathers and places. It’s touching a love rock in aged temples and above waterfalls, and trying but failing to touch a deer grazing freely in the precincts of Nara.

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Kyoto is spending buckets of coins at a game arcade with a six-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, in a ruthless game of air hockey, in deceptively promising claw machines that cheated my feelings (I swear, it’s rigged), in the pew-pew sounds of Jackpot, in the vortex of Coin Pusher which sucked all our money away, in the tiny space of Purikura photo booths (the photos help you discover new levels of cuteness that you never know existed within your features), in the din, the clamor, the furrowed brows and upturned mouths.

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Kyoto is waking up earlier than I ever did since college, at 7.30am every morning, being greeted in a cascade of murmurs of ohayo gozaimasu, being ushered out of the house with itterashai and welcomed back with okaeri. It’s the simple warmth of daily dinners, eating at a table of more than three, of strangers who now seem to be almost like another family.

Kyoto is the daily routine of three-hour classes—one on East Asian religions, one on inequality in contemporary Japan—in a cool, white classroom. It’s venturing in underground malls, running down alleyways in the rain and tasting food samples with newfound friends. It’s everyone in the photo below. 😊

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It’s also my first experience of an earthquake. Fingers crossed for the days to come.

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Little Princess, Sae-chan~ 💓

Praying, with love,

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From 20-year-old Me, With Love

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Today I turn 20! I wonder how past birthdays feel like because this one feels very homely despite the fact that I’m in a country I’ve never been before. Last night, I was sitting cross-legged in a hotel room on the 46th floor of Japan’s tallest building, wearing a dripping sheet mask, clad in Mickey Mouse PJs, typing out this blog post while my parents enthusiastically exchanged scintillating tidbits of gossip and news glimpsed from their phone screens, engrossed faces enclosed in bluish halos.

We’ve got to close the windows, my mum comments, curled up on the bed.

However pretty the view is, my dad concurs, you can’t eat it.

As always, when I occasionally tune in to my parents’ conversations, my brain thinks: hmm…?? It’s so weird, but so them.

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The last few times I’ve been on a family trip were Bali and Macau at the beginning of 2017 (read about a countryside episode in Bali here and a heart-pounding first encounter in a Macau casino here). This time, our vacation to Japan was entirely planned by me. To celebrate my 20th, my parents submitted themselves to my whims and bucket list items for a full ten days. The day after tomorrow, we will be on the last leg of our trip, Kyoto, where my parents will drop me off for a two-month Harvard Summer School program from June 3 to July 28.

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Today, I spent my birthday at Universal Studios Japan (featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!!). What a dream. How amazing it is that people of all languages from across the world—there’s a smattering of Cantonese, Chinese, English, and some European tongues mixed in the staccato lilt of Japanese surrounding my ears—are enchanted and invested in the world that J. K. Rowling created. Her words have taken on a life of their own, to be re-woven by each person. We take a slice of this fictional world and make it ours—even the tiny granny sipping Butterbeer while tottering in Hogsmeade on wooden clogs and the excited forty-year-old lady in a pink dress waving her wooden wand in front of Ollivanders. How powerful stories are when they seep into our concrete architecture to become tangible, tangible things. They compel into existence a new physical reality. It’s every writer and reader’s ultimate fantasy.

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Spending time so intimately and completely with my parents on this trip has grounded me. They pronounced at the beginning of our trip, as I was happily munching on dim sum in the airport lounge, that their main present to me was to help me to slim down. My saddest takeaway from freshman year had been fifteen pounds of flesh (mostly fats. biological inaccuracies not considered)—when people laugh about Freshman 15, BEWARE. It is real. After a winter of snacking, hibernation, and a final month of belated awakening, I returned to my parents’ arms a much chubbier version of myself. This trip, surrounded by matcha everything, gyoza, unagi, cheese tarts, okonomiyaki, takoyaki and all sorts of infinitely tempting foods presented exquisitely (even the fake food put on display looks absolutely delicious), I’ve been compelled by my parents’ withering glances and snarky remarks to exercise self-control. For someone who loves food as much as I do (e.g. our Japan itinerary is basically a food-centric sightseeing, extensively researched based on food blogs, gourmet guides, GURUNAVI, Tabelog, TripAdvisor ratings etc.), this has been tremendously painful. My parents had the weirdest conversation about how I would have thrived in medieval times when chubbiness was desired since the state of plumpness represented sufficient resources at one’s disposal. Time spent apart from my parents abroad has heightened my awareness of how precious such face-to-face contact is. Talking to them almost constantly in every waking minute about everything and anything is a real blessing. They love generously, unconditionally and wisely, with an empathy that is almost intuitive and most singular. On this day, I am most grateful for them. 爸爸妈妈,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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Tonight, after a day of Harry Potter, roller coasters that go backwards, 360 degrees and parallel to the ground, yellow minions and pink Hello Kitty, virtual reality headsets, and 3D and 4D rides; of eating fudge and exploding bonbons, drinking Butterbeer (heavenly calories in a mug); and of puking after a ride, squelching across park zones in the rain and waiting in some queues, it’s a good day. When I left the park, I was cold, shivering from wet toes, hungry but ineffably happy. 😊

It has been slightly more than a year since I started this blog. Thank you, always, for interacting with this corner of my world and pieces from my life—for reading (as you are right now in your inbox!), commenting and sending messages, and for your support, criticism, and attention. Thank you for coming along for this ride and becoming part of this experimental space that I started on a whim in 2017. To be utterly honest, I had no idea how long this blog was going to last. Many short-lived blogs have preceded it. But, somehow, in my 19th year, documenting my life became a habit. It’s disarmingly easy writing here, to you, you and you. Among you are many wonderful, precious friends, old and new. I’m thankful for your friendship ^_^

I told my parents that I had no idea what to wish for this year, but as I clasped my hands and closed my eyes before blowing the candles, I ended up taking more than three minutes to run through in my head all the wishes I had.

My wish for this blog is for it to keep growing with stories, with footsteps of those who come and go, with a trace of my words in your thoughts and feelings, with an honest account of my personal growth—mistakes and jubilations, stumbles and detours, ascents and conquests, explorations and experimentations alike—as I step into my twenties.

I hope we’ll all grow alongside each other.

Here’s to my new decade on Earth! 🌏

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Lots of love,

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Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

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(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.) 

My Vipassana Meditation Retreat: 10 days of absolute silence, veggies & no technology

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The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.

The Code

From 5 to 16 July 2017, I completed a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Johor, Malaysia (with Xin Min! ❤ – but we couldn’t communicate with each other). The course is taught by S. N. Goenka (1924-2013) through evening discourse video tutorials and by one of his assistant teachers in person, in the tradition of Burmese meditation master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Courses (of various lengths, going up to 60 days) are run solely on a donation basis, with over 177 centers worldwide. The meditation technique is open to practice by all religions. More information on course dates, locations, timetable and the code of conduct (Noble Silence, no meal after midday, no writing/reading materials etc.) can be found here: https://www.dhamma.org/.

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 FOUR Small Stories

  1. My Complicated Relationship with the 4.30am Gong
  2. The Art of Doing Nothing
  3. I Find Some Modicum of Equanimity
  4. Everyone Has A Story

 

meditation 2

I don’t give up easily, most of the time.

But, by the end of Day 2, I was tired, lost, and incredibly lonely with my agitated mind as the sole company for the impending eight days.

On Day 3, in the concealing darkness of the morning, when I heard the gong sound again and again at 4AM and then at 4.30AM, some chord within me broke with a forlorn twang and I stayed still. Corpse-like on the mattress, I stared at a stained part of the ceiling and numbly listened to the shuffling noises of everyone around me as they ambled off for morning meditation until… The returning shroud of silence washed away the guilt at my escapist tendencies and lulled me back into uneasy sleep (I still woke up at 6.30AM for breakfast).

Not waking up was essentially admitting defeat.

I made slight headway on Day 4 when we finally switched from Anapana (observing the breath) to Vipassana (scanning the body from head to feet for sensations). I was so bored and distracted with keeping my attention confined to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip that I had a new surge of optimism when the area for surveying expanded. Yet, a plateau inevitably followed every short burst of progress — invariably around evening time when hunger pangs hit (because no eating after midday!).

Battling with the 4.30AM gong became a daily affair.

On Day 6, I became mindful of how my complicated relationship with the early morning gong was strangely akin to the suffering that the Buddhist doctrine outlined; my anxiety was a fear of disappointment, all rooted in my desire for some sort of shining nirvana moment and my appetite for comfort.

During a noon interview slot with the teacher, I haplessly confessed that I simply couldn’t feel anything. My legs were numb and the pain obliterated all other sensations.

The teacher smiled and slowly said, “Do you not realize that pain and numbness are sensations too? There is nothing you ought to experience. All you have to do is observe the numbness as it is, in the moment.”

Once upon a time, I could never identify with certain parts of Seneca’s writings. The Stoic philosopher argued, by quoting Hecato of Rhodes, that limiting one’s desires helps to cure one of fear —  ‘Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.’ However, on Day 6, I suddenly grasped some truth in those abstract words.

Maybe everything was less about what I should do, but simply about what I can. Maybe the point was to be compassionate to myself — to disengage from expectation and observe the reality of what I experience without judgment.

I will never be a morning person. But, on Day 7, at last, I rose at 4.30AM.

 

meditation 3

When you clear the clutter from your life, there is room. It’s unfamiliarly empty, but by some law of physics, something new has got to enter eventually.

When I surrendered myself to the monastic way of living for ten days, I started experiencing pockets of time when I literally had NOTHING to do for the first time in my life. No books, no wi-fi, no conversation, no contact with the outside world. Since I was sick and tired of meditating outside of the 11 hours, it also meant no meditation. So break times were just a huge blank. It got really weird.

I set a record for a bunch of things:

  • Stretching for the gazillionth time
  • Brushing my teeth four times a day
  • Savoring a slice of pineapple for over 30 minutes (I was so hungry and completely reluctant to part with the last edible thing I had for the day)

I also did mildly crazy things because I was just bored out of my mind:

  • Counting my steps to 1500 as I strolled around the walking area (no jogging allowed)
  • Lovingly washing my clothes in a different colored pail (o what a sparkly burst of variety)
  • Experimenting with various combinations of milo powder, Lipton tea bag, milk powder, condensed milk and water during meal times (THANK GOD FOR MILO! THANK GOD FOR CONDENSED MILK!)
  • Memorizing the Chinese words on my herbal medicine pack and scrutinizing the English instructions on Xin Min’s skincare products for intellectual stimulation
  • Rearranging my pillows in the meditation hall in new creative configurations at the end of each session

In the end? I came slightly closer to doing nothing than ever before, but obviously, I was not very good at it.

In a place where doing nothing was the norm instead of the anomaly, I learned to embrace it. In the past, minutes of idleness would totally disturb my peace of mind — I was obsessed with the external reality; my productivity barometer; and what I ought to be doing. Yet, in a secluded environment devoid of worldly responsibilities and contact, I began shifting my attention toward my inner reality. I stopped wondering about what the heck was going on outside, stopped thinking about the social media action that I was missing out on, and stopped worrying about the future. I started living in the moment and unpacking the present: What sensations am I experiencing right now? What troubles me? What makes me happy? What thoughts keep emerging? What am I attracted to? It was no longer unnerving to be alone with my mind that used to constantly stray ahead toward some fear or another. I was beginning to be my own friend.

 

meditation 4

16 July 2017, 8.31AM, On the Johor-Singapore Causeway. 

I stared intently at the bar on my phone screen. It flickered and then…

Yes! My 4G was back, and I was back in the arms of modern civilization.

16 July 2017, 2.45PM, On the LRT.

In the morning, I had rushed home to shower and then headed straight to Korean class. After a lunch catch-up with a friend and a long-awaited bubble tea fix, I finally had all the time in the world to delve back into my social media accounts.

Enter: some unpleasant comment about me on a stranger’s Facebook post.

Even fresh out of all the equanimity training (we should neither desire pleasant sensations nor grow averse to unpleasant sensations), I was hit by an overpowering wave of anger and icky feeling.

In just one moment, I lost the equanimous mind that I had strived so hard to cultivate over ten grueling days. One comment was enough to make me almost physically recoil.

I’m not sure how long I sat on the LRT upset — maybe for a few minutes — but anyway I missed my stop.

It was only when I glanced at the date of the comment, 6 July 2017, that I saw the humor in this entire episode. Here I was, nine days late to the party, fuming by myself when the rest of the world had moved on with its short attention span. Can there be a better demonstration of what the course had sought to repeatedly drum into our minds, the lesson of anicca (impermanence)?

Had I been present to witness how the social media reactions unfolded toward my previous post, unpleasant comments like the one I came across would have ruined my day or even my week. In the whirlwind of action, I have often easily been caught up in extremities of feelings and in a self-pitying game of wallowing. It’s hard to snap out of it.

But this episode was powerfully incisive and illustrative of the wisdom of impermanence. Because by the time I had processed the responses on social media to my previous post and was instinctively propelled to react, life had gone on for everyone else. What was the point? In fact, even if others had not moved on, why should I stew in negativity when I had so many other things to enjoy?

I stood there on the LRT platform and did the strangest thing — I observed my breathing and then scanned my body from head to feet for sensations.

A throbbing at my jaw. Obviously heavy breathing. An itch on my hip…

The anger subsided. My urge to respond and to disprove petered out. And I was suddenly okay. I went to buy a froyo and trotted back home to watch a Chinese reality TV show.

I am unbelievably grateful for the incredible timing of this whole chapter. The world works in magical ways to show us the laws that it is governed by — everything is impermanent, life always goes on, and so we might as well learn to how to quietly and nimbly let go.

 

meditation 5

Throw a bunch of strangers together, prohibit them from ‘any form of communication, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc.’and you get a lot of judging, wandering and overreacting minds.

It’s 2oz of natural curiosity, coupled with 1 jug of the human propensity to distort and magnify the reality around us.

In ten days, I subconsciously gave everyone a label in my mind (boho European backpacker! housewife seeking peace! person who shifts 167543 times in 30 minutes!), spun stories about their background, and sometimes, even unnecessarily imagined their perception of me (e.g. oops I just cracked my knuckles for the third time in an hour; the person beside me just coughed; she must hate me). My mind was out of control with making assumptions based on my subjective perceptions.

On Day 10, when Noble Silence was lifted and we could finally find out just what exactly we thought of each other, the version of reality I had built in my mind crumbled into dust.

The downfall of one reality that I had constructed brick by brick with hypercritical eyes stands out in particular.

Introducing: P.

She was allocated to the mattress next to me in the living quarters, the seat beside me in the canteen, and the cushion diagonally in front of me in the meditation hall. In fact, we seem to like doing our laps in the walking area at the same time. I started observing her. She liked smiling into space, occasionally hummed, and excitedly fiddled with her smuggled goods (a journal and a pen) when she thought no one was looking.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of her, but she was 10000x more optimistic than I was. I was having quite a hard time throughout.

On Day 10, we finally spoke to each other. About three sentences into the conversation, she said, You know, I had depression when I was 17.

My jaw dropped.

She shared her story. Parts of it were raw and painful (her family’s overreaction, how her medication led to the ballooning of her weight, and her spiral into anxiety), but her candidness with a near-stranger was an incredible display of strength. She was only three years older than me, but a thousand times wiser. Her parting words to me were to dwell on the happiness in life — not to crave and grow needlessly attached to some version of it, but to find it from whatever reality throws at us.

Thank you, P. 🙂

Bali: opening to you, the heart of life

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At Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave)

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.

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The view of Mount Batur from the restaurant. I’m a lousy photographer, so you’ve got to use a bit of your imagination here!

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.

Canang sari. 

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.”

Really?

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.

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The old man and his owl

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).