[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

photo-3

She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

tatte

BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The baked goods behind the open-air counter is a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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/.

***

 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. 🙂

The Modern Child

modern child

Disclaimer: this is a piece of satire (not autobiographical!), but then again definitely all art imitates life. The structure is a parody of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid, which depicts a very different world of expectations — simmering beneath the mother’s long string of admonishments and words of advice to a daughter are the layered themes of domesticity, feminity, poverty, and sexuality. But what would the modern mother say to the modern child? I got so inspired once I considered this question that I typed the paragraph below out in 10 minutes in a burst of heavenly creativity 🙂

Here comes Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother meets Girl. 

Learn your phonetics on Mondays with Teacher Tan but don’t speak English to us; practice your Chinese characters before going to the playground; be back on time or else — five sheets of calligraphy; we are helping you to find your passion, so be sure to go for piano on Tuesdays; don’t forget ballet on Saturdays; be a good friendly Catholic girl on Sundays and make three new friends, darling, on each trip to the church; it’s a neighborhood school, so we won’t give you any stress; is it true Amanda did better than you in class?; it’s important to be happy, darling; at least 90 marks on every test is all we ask for, of course; doing well in English and Mathematics is a must!; but doing poorly in Chinese would be a shame to us; no Kit Kats until you memorize your táng shī; this is how you’ll have a good moral character; this is how you make no careless mistakes on quizzes; this is what doing your best means; this is exactly how you make us proud; this is how we know if you’re smarter than the rest; but I don’t ask Amanda for her grades; this is how to ensure that you remember to never, ever get 89.5 again; this is how you make friends with people you like in school; this is how you make friends with people you don’t like; this is how you become a prefect; this is how you get into the GEP [1]; let us fill this out for you; this is how you get into the best primary school in the nation; this is why we know best; Mrs Loh says you are very weak in Science compared to other students; this is what true diligence means; this is what is called full effort; this is how you pull up your grades; why, are you not sleeping enough?; do three mock papers a day, it’s the December holidays; this is how you top the class; time to wake up for school, darling, it’s 5.30am; this is how you earn real self-esteem; you should absolutely aim for 290, dear, it’s not impossible; this is how to become the PSLE [2] top-scorer—why?—because you can (and then you’ll be on the papers); we believe in you; this is how you disappoint us; but still this is how you keep pushing yourself; this is how you set more goals; this is how you achieve them; this is how you hone your leadership; this is how you excel in CCAs [3]; this is how you excel in your CIP hours [4]; this is how you have real passions; oh, darling, because it’s necessary not to be a nerd who can only study; this is how you have straight As; this is how to be filial to your parents; this is what we sacrificed so much for; this is how to be the best; why are your grades dipping?; darling, I know you want to relax, but your A-levels are coming; this is what JC [5] life is like; this is how the world works; what do you want to do in the future?; you can be a lawyer; this is why we always trained you to work hard; this is why you’ll thank us one day; this is how to make us proud, once more; this is how to attain the life we always wanted for you; this is what ‘success’ means; this is when it’s time to apply for Harvard; but um what if I can’t get in?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of child who can’t get into Harvard?

*** THE END ***

Sometimes, I do wish that I could have had a parent who had all the answers in life, but I’m so grateful I don’t. For me, the caricature of the tiger mother resonates not because my mother is one (not exactly), but because, more than anything else, I have to deal with it as an excruciating voice within myself — one that keeps doubting, relentlessly pushes, and never settles. I’ve learned to turn that voice down when it gets too overwhelming and does more harm than good. You do that too 🙂

Footnotes, for those who weren’t in the Singaporean education system, here are the explanations behind some terms (loads of acronyms across the board):

  • 1. GEP: the Gifted Education Programme (about 1% of the national cohort is admitted into the Programme after selection tests in Primary 3; they will undergo an enriched curriculum in 9 GEP schools)
  • 2. PSLE: the Primary School Leaving Examination (a national examination which pupils sit at the end of their final year of primary school education; secondary school admissions are based on your aggregated T-score, with selective high schools having higher cut-off points over the years)
  • 3. CCA: Co-Curricular Activities (non-academic activities that all students participate in)
  • 4. CIP: Community Involvement Programme (most Singaporean schools have specified a mandatory number community service hours under this; it’s now called Values In Action)
  • 5. JC: Junior College (the final two years of high school before university)

Bali: opening to you, the heart of life

img_0316

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.

batur-view

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.

img_0315

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).