The old woman with her fingers in my hair is wearing an orange shirt, matching the garish walls and gold spandex leggings, looking like something from a figure skater's wardrobe. Her fashion sense is almost as questionable as the green sloppy goop she slaps into my hair and scrapes across my scalp, making it oily and shine. It could be anything from guacamole to bat guano and I wouldn't know the difference, apart from actually tasting it and though I do love me a good batch of guacamole, I'm not confident in the odds it isn't excrement. I'm put under a dryer to presumably heat the goop, though either I'm too short or the drier no longer lowers because I think only my cowlick can feel the heat. As I'm cooking, she massages my neck and shoulders and for this alone potential dermatitis is worth it. Her fingers knead and smooth, tracing pathways to and through the knots that never seem to go away and I nearly let out a groan but stop myself, fearing she'll misinterpret the sentiment. As the tension slowly releases and my shoulders relax for seemingly the first time, my little inner voice sighs and says, "Welcome
I've been here less than a week and already my life pre-Bali has faded so that my existence once again centers around the backpack I carry and the unknown destination ahead of me. It's been ages since I was a true "backpacker" and I can feel rust flaking off old joints as the muscles in my back slowly get used to their daily burden. Old insecurities flourish, the fear of talking to total strangers making my hands clammy and silence settles over me like my grandmother's knitted quilt on a hot day: unwelcome but hard to chuck.
Despite such obstacles, the beauty of Bali cannot be ignored. Colors are the most impressive factor, blended and arranged in the form of offerings at each house or shop, the sweet scent of incense pungent in the heat. Somehow, despite rusted signs or cluttered shops, the multitude of color still stands out and everything feels like it has a purpose and place. I think that’s what I like most so far, that despite the chaotic nature and seemingly clustered lifestyle of the Balinese, everything and everyone knows where they belong. It’s second nature, as easy as breathing and I
am both fascinated and envious of their surety.
Kuta in the south, the big city, was fast and claustrophobic, it’s streets little more than alleyways. Traffic, a constant throughout the country, congested streets like fat in an artery, with the occasional motorbike slipping through. The main strip consisted of restaurants pumping out cheap cocktails and pop music and vendors selling anything from a penis bottle opener (any shape, size, or color you desire) to small banjos or women’s dresses. The beach was endless, stretching on for miles and dotted with colorful umbrellas offering the only protection from the intense sun, where you could sip on a cold Bintang or fresh coconut and watch the tourists in their surfing lessons, wobbly standing up on boards and riding the baby waves into shore.
South of Kuta, you go watch the sunset from the walls of the temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu, perched high on the cliffs with an unobstructed view of the far horizon. This temple is one of six which protect Bali from evil and with the basic and unadorned walls, it feels more like a fortress in a battle protecting the country for centuries against any attack, seen or
unseen. It is of course flooded with tourists at sunset, but there is a shared sense of comradery as we share in the beautiful ending to the day, all feeling blessed that we have the opportunity to experience such a moment in such a place.
Moving north this time and come to Ubud, the cultural and artistic center of the island in the form of wood carving and traditional Balinese dancing, along with cooking classes and painting classes, yoga and meditation courses, and basically anything you’ve ever imagined Bali to hold. The markets are hive of color once again, dresses and sarongs with their intricate designs hanging from every available space and everything offered at a “very cheap price for you, lady”. The streets hold the same shops as in Kuta, but here they are more subdued, their owners relaxing in the shade and calling out to you almost lazily, happy for you to say yes but not overly bothered by a no. Taxi drivers are everywhere, always smiling, smoking in the shade and ignoring the heat. It isn’t what I expected, my opinions predetermined by Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey in Eat Pray Love
; tourists are everywhere and the influence
of Western culture is highly prevalent (there is even a Starbucks). But even so, the spirituality of Ubud is still present, with women making offerings three times a day to the alters to the gods and at the front step of any dwelling. If you take a walk through the rice fields around town, the pace of life slows and the evidence of clashing cultures disappears.
I’ve seen more, but I feel like stopping here and talking a minute about my personal journey. When I was waiting for the plane in Sydney I read an article a friend had tagged me in on Facebook, about searching for the self. In a nutshell, the author says that there is no single self but rather “multiple possibilities expressed simultaneously” and as in quantum physics, the active observation or search for the self, alters it.
“Searching for the self is as pointless as the sun going on a hunt for shadows.”
This struck me as depressing, but I couldn’t deny the clarity of truth I felt. I left home in search of myself like many travelers and between that moment and now, my tangible discoveries are few and I lack any sense of accomplishment. Indeed, as I feel the end of my travels approaching leisurely closer
and closer, I develop a sudden trepidation that all of this has been for nothing.
In my heart I know that last statement is not true and I’ve had some amazing discoveries over the past few years. After reading that article, given to me at a rather opportunistic moment, I wonder if I’ve had the wrong goal in sight the entire time. I know myself and yet I don’t, a periodic disconnect that frustrates me but ultimately works itself out. I struggle with the questions of who I am and what I want to be, questions put to me by my ego rather than my need for spirituality. I was raised believing these mattered, which they do, but not to the level I’ve put them. I’ve been searching for what
and who I
am, not fully understanding that the more important question is how am I?
How am I impacting the world around me? How am I connecting to people or them with me? How am I experiencing Love? How am I giving Love to others? How am I making this world a better place?
“Before death takes away what you are given, give away what there is to give.” ~Rumi, “A Poem in a Letter”
So maybe I set out on an impossible, slightly misguided task of
“finding my true self”. Perhaps the ever changing waves of understanding, epiphanies, and frustrations are who I really am and nailing my supposed “self” down would be like diving into an ocean only to discover I’ve limited myself to a small pond. I don’t feel discouraged. Silly perhaps, my pride wounded just a little, but mostly expectant with a dash of hopeful (I am a natural pessimist after all). What’s to happen next, I couldn’t tell you, but now maybe it’s time to give the ego a much deserved break and move in any direction that calls to me, following that inner voice, the one that sounds like me and which I know is Love.
“Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.” ~Rumi, “Quietness”
~ Referenced Article: “Knowing the Self” by Aubrey Marcus, found at www.aubreymarcus.com
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