basking in balinese bliss

I started out not wanting to go.

It was the beginning of summer when I stepped off the plane that had departed from Manchester. All at once, the humidity greeted me like a long-lost friend and it couldn’t be clearer that my feet were back on home soil. The first year of university, though said to be a boat on a calm sea by many, had taken quite the toll on me and I yearned for nothing more than a summer of peace and quiet—particularly for the mind.

As it turned out, my family had planned to leave for Bali, Indonesia within the week of my coming home. The fact that jet lag and a change in climate crept up on my body only dampened my excitement for the trip. It was an internal struggle; I should have been grateful for the opportunity to go on vacation with family, but there I was, a box of tissues stuffed up my nose, dreading the flight.

In the end, I went. With all expenses already paid for, it was only Malaysian to not waste the flight ticket. And my, my, did Bali show me exactly what I had been lacking in the past year. If you are clinging to this article in hopes of travel recommendations, you are gravely mistaken and I wouldn’t take it personally if you exited this tab right now. This is not about what Bali had to show me; it is about what Bali had to teach me.

Life in the Indonesian province is slow—in a good way. You have to take a car for hours to get to a particular destination, scale an absurd amount of steps to reach the top (or bottom) of a mountain before you get a glimpse of the scenery, or queue in line to board a boat to a neighboring island.

In all 5 ft 6 of me, patience is a scarce resource. It is common practice for me to rush from one task to another, to always think and plan ahead of time and overwhelm myself. Bali did not welcome my impatience; it sought to teach me the opposite. One instance was this: the road to our resort was usually one car-wide; that is, one lane for both flows of traffic. This doesn’t prove to be a challenge to the locals, but if it were me in the driver’s seat, I probably would’ve lost it. If you are so unfortunate as to bump into a vehicle driving from the opposite direction, you have to stop and work your way through it in a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race manner. If you rush with impatience, you risk damaging both parties. The province was fully aware of its languorous stillness; any attempts to cloak it with your own hastened pace is a guaranteed failure.

All my life, I had envisioned myself in a bustling place. I adored the notion of working and living in New York, California, or London so I could move with the clockwork of the city. I like feeling the blood in my veins pump to the hums and thrums of the subway and keeping myself on the move, occupied by every second. Naturally, Bali was the complete opposite of where I would want to be. But when you turn the question on its heel, the best kind of vacation is the kind you need, not the kind you want. And it seems the infallible creator of the universe had decided that I needed Bali this summer.

Eventually, I grew accustomed to the long drives down winding roads and unceasing traffic. In fact, this is where I learned to be more present—the act of living in the moment as so many of us often preach but fail to manifest—for if you do not pay attention to what is going on around you, you might miss something fleetingly miraculous. During the long-winded drives, I stared out the window and observed the locals going about their day. Here are a few things I noted:

  • A little girl, no older than ten, stands on the side of the one-lane street in her rosy nightgown. Her tiny fingers clutch around a new camera as if it was the only token of reality she owns. The camera could have come from a new box or old, but to this girl, it is the newest and coolest model on the block.
  • Saddled against the chest of their mother, a newborn sleeps soundlessly. The mother, whose face is worn out by the day’s sun and work, treads her way carefully back to her home, her feet sheltered by a thin layer of sandals against the puddles of rain and mud.
  • On the outer-most table of an open-air restaurant, furnished with woven timber all around, sits a young lady. Manager of the establishment, it seems, she is doing her balance and checks at the end of a long night. The tables are cleared and the chairs are neatly tucked; one can only hope she is satisfied with the earnings of the day.
  • The pavement is made slippery thanks to the rain. There is an accident in the middle of the junction; an elderly on a motorbike lost control and toppled over. Those in the vicinity rush to the rescue, moving with a swiftness that reflects that of the raindrops. The elderly gets back on the bike and scoots on forth like nothing ever happened.

Perhaps these are observations that appear mundane and boring to you, but I was glad that I caught them as I was whizzing by in a minivan. These glimpses that I might have been the only one to capture make the trip all the more worth it for me. After all, traveling does not only entail seeing places but also faces.

The true and literal disconnect from my usual habit of not living in the present came from limited internet access. Only in the early mornings and late nights when I was at the hotel could I go online. In the beginning, this had a tingling effect on me. I am used to waking up not to an alarm but a flood of work messages. Throughout my day, I carry an obnoxious habit of checking my social media and emails, afraid that I won’t be there when someone needs me. This trip mimicked the effect of a digital detox, something that I have been wanting to do for a while. Now, I try to go on my phone intentionally; if it doesn’t buzz, I avoid picking it up. Who knows if I would’ve changed my dooming phone addiction if it weren’t for this trip?

The third lesson Bali had reaffirmed for me (I say ‘reaffirmed’ instead of ‘taught’ because this is a practice I already have in motion) is the quality of staying true to oneself. Bali does not change itself to fit around tourists like so many big cities do. Popular destinations often advance their tourism by making transportation links accessible, by having their landmarks immediately stand out to you. One rationale for this is so you could maximize the time you spend in these destinations; the easier and faster you can get around, the more places you will visit, the more you will consume and spend. Bali does not adapt this culture even though it would do well to capitalize on its many flocks of visitors; it shows you exactly how it feels to be Balinese instead of handing you a fast-track guide to visiting as an outsider.

I used to live and perform for other people, the worth of myself coming from external validation. Soon enough, I discovered that there is no greater pride than working toward being someone I am proud of, despite the expectation of others. And, as I was lucky to realize, there are always going to be people who accept me for who I am, just as people visit Bali for how it naturally is.

Permit me to round off this piece with a fun little information my tour guide told me: Perched on the slopes of Mount Agung is the Besakih Temple, defending its title as the tallest temple in all of Bali. In fact, it is widely regarded as the holiest temple of Balinese Hinduism. Out of respect, no other building in Bali can exceed the Temple’s height.

Bali is intentional, patient, and present. It is a manifestation of what I should strive toward as an individual, a place whose beauty and worth are made possible by its own nature and the support of the people around it.