countin' the days

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bali Highs and Lows

I've spent the last three weeks on the island of Bali, and it's been a pretty intense series of highs and lows. Bali has once again been named Best Island in the World (as the local paper was proud to announce -- don't ask me what surely eminent band of folks presided in bestowing it that fine honor), but I have to say I just might agree. Bali is the kind of place I thought might exist only in fairy tales -- a tropical paradise exploding with all of a traveler's greatest fantasies: white and black sand beaches, skylines of volcanoes both active and dormant, magical hot springs, deliciously lush green rice paddies stacked in brilliant terraces among the palm trees, mysterious temples furnished with spectacularly lavish architecture and artwork, and echoes of gamelan orchestras providing the soundtrack all the while.

My time in Bali began in the dreadfully tacky, Las-Vegas-esque town of Kuta. Home to designer shops, a mess of concrete, and way too many scantily-clad drunken Aussies, it was not exactly the best introduction to an otherwise fabulous island. Fortunately, we decided to rent a motorbike for a few days, and got away from the aggressive touts and shameless tourists in favor of cliffside temples and perfect waves. Thanks to the internet, I happened to discover a rock climbing site right on the beach, where we spent a couple days climbing, camping out, and befriending two of the nicest, most generous Indonesians in the world (who also happen to be professional rock climbers). After about a week though, I'd had enough and was ready to head out.

Next stop was Ubud, where I have pleasantly spent the last two weeks of my time. Ubud is definitely a stop on the tourist map of Bali, and certainly has its fair share of obnoxious boutiques and pestering touts (if I hear "transport?" shouted at me one more time...). But it's a gorgeous place, surrounded on all sides by endless rice paddies and striking natural beauty, and on a clear day I can see five different volcanoes towering in the horizon from the balcony of my room. Ubud is also the place where the spectacular Balinese culture is at its most vivid and accessible, a sort of "must-stop" place for someone as interested in traditional culture as me.

The Balinese Hindu culture is one of such intense color and celebration, practiced by the unfailingly devoted locals, that every day is made to seem like a spectacular holiday. Life itself, it seems, even in its most benign form, is cause for celebration. Traditional wear, worn several times a week for various temple activities, is a pure explosion of color and fabric. No two people dress the same, and get a few dozen of them together and you can see just about every color in the spectrum. Gamelan ensembles collaborate all over town throughout the day, and I frequently find myself drifting in and out of dense, trance-like melodies as I go about my jalan-jalan (walk). Every day, offerings are made to the Gods, placed in strategic locations all over the ground. They are made of palm fronds neatly woven into tiny boxes, inside of which a carefully arranged, delightfully colorful array of rice, plants, flowers and incense are placed. In front of rooms and temple gateways, at the feet of statues, in front of sacred trees and fountains, at storefronts and alters, these things are everywhere. It has become one of my daily activities to hop mindfully around them as I walk down the street. (They also appear to be quite the delicious free lunch for local dogs, cats, and geese)

In addition to being thoroughly awed by the decadent, fascinating culture that surrounds me (and doing my best to avoid literally and figuratively trampling it), I have also dedicated myself wholeheartedly back to practicing yoga and attending to my somewhat damaged spirit. I've found myself at an interesting juncture of life, seven months into the trip, with thousands of miles logged journeying around the globe and thousands more waiting to be tread. I'm tired, in a deep-seated kind of way, and feeling a general sense of confusion about my life and what I'm doing with it. I'm told by the people closest to me that this is a normal phase to be going through in life; but, how normal can it be to be going through it oceans away from everyone I know and love, in unfamiliar lands? Thankfully, I found myself confronted with these difficult issues while here in Ubud, a deeply spiritual place with plenty of outlets for opening up my heart and healing myself. There is not only a fantastic yoga studio here, but there also happens to be an Ashtanga Vinyasa workshop going on. I jumped headfirst back into my practice, and am ever grateful for the opportunity to reunite with one of my favorite pastimes in life. And I'm doing a lot better, reminding myself to take things one day at a time, count my blessings, and never forget to stop and look at the beauty that surrounds me. Inside and out.

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