Archive for February, 2009

I’ve been on a news sabbatical ( presidential inauguration excepted) for three months. No newspapers, no television, no internet news.

It’s amazing how little I don’t miss when I go without a media fix. The world goes on and the sad fact that people get murdered and bombs go off, is not affected in the least by whether or not I know about it. So the purpose in filling my head with group hysteria and negativity is… what?

Obama takes the oath of office

Obama takes the oath of office

In fact, for the past two years I haven’t had a television and very rarely read newspapers and online news. “Important” news gets filtered to me via email from my American friends. Sometimes even the “good” news comes late. Last year, for instance, I’d heard about this young black dude in the running for the Democratic party nomination, but as far as I could tell, he was inexperienced and an upstart and I figured Hilary was a shoe-in. Imagine my surprise when excited emails began arriving from friends who said they were going to vote for this guy who not only had a Middle Eastern name but who had lived part of his life in the Muslim country of Indonesia . My how the quickly the world is flattening. I am an American based in the Middle East and I currently live in Indonesia. Bring it on. I love this. OneWorld at last!

To get current with the presidential nomination and upcoming election, I delved into the “news” around the election and sure enough, I learned that this man named Obama was indeed a contender. And I began to follow the momentum as he won over the hearts of Americans and created hope throughout the rest of the world.

All right then, so I learn about the most “important” world events later than most. The 99% which isn’t important but creates fear, paranoia and fingernail biting? Gone. Poof. No longer part of my consciousness. Not knowing frees up not only my emotional space but tons of time.

The latest hand wringing news which has begun to filter through is about the crashing economy in America. My sister and at least two friends have lost their jobs. That is not good, but they have savings and they will make it through this. Companies are tightening their belts, individuals are hunkering down and stopping the flow of their money. Like a set of falling dominoes, mass consumerism has come to a grinding halt as massive contraction sets in. The amount of real wealth in the world has not changed one iota. Just the perception of it and its distribution. It’s a natural correction. I am also hearing that the government is trying to save us from ourselves by infusing errant companies with borrowed money. Mistake. But does my knowing about it change it? No.

In Bali, the economic crisis if brought up at all, is discussed as an abstract event that is occurring far away.

Foreigners in Bali
The foreigners living here are happy they got themselves and their money out of Dodge. Each day more people arrive to wait out the storm. (Usually women hoping to find love like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, but that’s another subject.). A Wallstreet “head hunter” arrived two weeks ago after losing her job and lots of her savings. Shaken and wondering if she could make it here, I assured her that her income from her Central Park apartment alone, not to mention her Hampshires home would more than support her here. She can hardly believe it. But it is true. As long as the rupiah stays low relative to the dollar, foreigners are living like millionaires on less than $15,000 a year in Bali.

Earth nourished, Bali is as of now unaffected by the economic crisis

Earth nourished, Bali is as of now unaffected by the economic crisis

And the Balinese?
I doubt Bali will fall prey to this latest crisis. The Balinese certainly don’t seem worried about it so I’ll take my cue from them. Sure tourism will drop off, but they’re used to that, what with a 70% drop in tourism after the bomb in 2002 followed by another bomb in 2004 and the subsequent drop off in tourism after that. Neither of which the island has fully recovered from. Can’t get too much worse here on the tourist front.

But the main reason Bali won’t feel the recession is that the Balinese are a communal society and with the exception of tourism, they are self sufficient. They grow their own food, a lot of which doesn’t even require growing, because it sprouts of its own volition all over the island. Trees droop under the weight of bananas, coconuts, mangos, and papayas. Rice proliferates in the volcanic rich soil. Each Balinese plays a role in planting, maintaining, harvesting – all to assure a smooth cycle of life. There is more than enough water routed through the centuries old irrigation system, from family to family, rice paddy to rice paddy before completing its trip back to the sea. The Balinese make and repair the things they need like housing, clothing and tools. They take care of their own. There are no complicated financial instruments like mortgages and credit. People pay cash. If they don’t have enough cash, family and friends pitch in. And so in Bali, the basic survival needs are provided by Mother Earth and the need for friends, family and loved ones? It’s an integral part of their society. What more do they need?

Oh yeah, fuel. I’m not sure why, but gasoline is dirt cheap here. It costs 50 cents to fill up my Yamaha scooter. Cheap or not, luckily for them, the Balinese don’t need much of it. 95% of Balinese are not dependent on cars for transport. Homes and buildings are open to nature, designed to take advantage of sea breezes and temperatures that vary little year round, so there is no need for heat or air conditioning. Bali should weather the current economic storm just fine.

Balinese traditions still integral to life on the island

Balinese traditions still integral to life on the island

Last night my curiosity got the best of me and I broke my sorta news fast to read the local Bali Advertiser. So what is making the headlines in Bali?

Indonesia Bans Yoga for Muslims, Triggers Row
Indonesian yoga teachers disputed on Monday that the practice of yoga was damaging for Muslims after the country’s top Islamic body issued a fatwa banning followers from yoga that includes chanting, mantras or mediation (I’m sure they meant “meditation”)…because of a view it uses Hindu prayers that could erode Muslims faith. The meeting of Indonesia’s Ulema Council stopped short of a full ban and said Muslims could practice it as long as it was only for physical exercise…

Egads. I finally find my religion and someone’s threatening to outlaw it.

Bali Government Issues Guidelines for “Nyepi” – the Official Day of Silence
Nyepi, the absolute day of silence that will mark the dawn of a new year on the Bali Hindu calendar bgins at 6am on March 26….
No lights may be lit.
No work may be performed.
No amusements enjoyed.
Silence must be maintained.
People must not venture outside the sealed and silent quarters.
Hotel service staff must stay at work during the 24 hour period as travel between home and job will not be permitted.
All roads will be closed and emptied except for emergency vehicles.
Hotel guests must stay on their hotel grounds thourhgout the 24 hours…
Guest rooms will have their curtains drawn and outside lighting at hotels will be dimmed or extinguished.
Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport will be closed with no flight operations allowed. Technical and emergency landings only permitted. Any crew landing at the airport between 6am aon March 26 until 6am the following morning will not be allowed to leave the airport terminal.
All Bali sea ports will be closed.
The once monthly tsunami alarm testing that occurs on the 26th of each month, will not take place in March.

I’ll write more later about this holiday. But here’s the deal. It’s the day that the Balinese hide out from evil spirits who come looking for trouble on that day. The Balinese figure if they hide and the island is quiet and dark, the bad guys will think no one is home and they’ll skip over the island in search of someone else to pick on.

Human Head in a Box Mystifies Authorities
A human skull found in a parcel by authorities when they xrayed the packet at the Ngurah Rai Post Office on January 28th continues to mystify authorities. A spokesman from the Sanglah forensic department said that it appeared that the skull was not a fossil, or intended for medical science or study, but appeared to be part of some sort of ritual as the skull had some kind of markings etched into the bones…

Danpasar Police Crack Down on Shirtless Motorcyclists
…Denpasar’s traffic police will soon be taking action against drivers, presumably male, cruising Bali’s roads bare-chested. Declared “Operation Sympathetic”…a police official confirmed that special attention would be given to foreign male tourists…the police spokesman also said a failure to wear a shirt can result in greater injuries when cyclists fall and make contact with asphalt road surfaces.

The Balinese Haunting Hour
Midday in Balinese is called tengai tepet and is one time of the day to be aware of. Even today many Balinese will not sleep at midday or embark on a a journey for fear of misfortune or being possessed by a demon that may be ‘lurking in the mist’…The ‘haunting hour’… occurs at dusk..Demons are thought to be present in great numbers at this time and it is the best time to put out offerings to them…made up of flowers, and incense stick, rice parcels and liberal splashes of rice wine called arak brem (demons have a penchant for hard liquor, of course.) It is recommended that you not sleep during this time for fear of possession…some Balinese maintain that whistling can attract demons, particularly witches which have transformed themselves into leyak (menacing fireballs or other manifestations of evil.

That’s it! All the news that’s fit to print in Ubud, Bali. Now back to my bubble.

Robin Sparks reporting from Bali

Robin Sparks reporting from Bali

Robin Sparks
just after bathing in the holy springs of the Hindu temple, Tirta Empul in Bali.

Escape the World and Find Yourself

Posted by Robin Sparks on February 10th, 2009 | Email this to friend

p1050582 Escape the World – three words that like a siren song tugged at my weary soul. Nine years of life on the road and a recent move to a foreign country had taken their toll. In spite of a multitude of reasons Not To Go, I went anyway, escaping the winter of Istanbul. I’d been in Bali for one month, a virtual paradise in and of itself, when I graduated to heaven by attending an “Escape the World” retreat held at the Kumara Sakti Resort in Ubud, Bali.

Located on the property of a Balinese prince, Kumara Sakti Resort is tucked in and around the jungle on the side of a ravine. From my room with its windowed walls, I can neither hear nor see another human soul except for a tiny dot on the horizon, which upon further inspection, is a farmer leading his ducks through a rice paddy. Just outside my room a tree bends over from the weight of several bunches of bananas. Larger than life waxy leaves dance in the breeze, so brightly hued they appear to be fake. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for the batik textile on my bed came from – the patterns for Bali’s famous ikat sprout all over the island. I stretch out on the hand-carved Balinese bed enveloped by a white mosquito net on the balcony to try something I don’t do very often. Nap.

Hand carved stone paths and steps meander, climb and fall next to streams and tiny waterfalls and statues to the Gods and lead to the dining hall, the yoga pavilion, and further down to the second pool. The only sounds aside from rain pattering on leaves, a rooster crowing, birds tweeting, frogs croaking, and geckos geckoing, is the deep resonant gong, calling us to yoga twice daily, and the tinkling of a bell to wake us at 6:30AM each morning. That’s right — just me and eight others in the jungle hailing from Holland, Jakarta, Australia, France, Sweden, Singapore, and America. The staff quietly attends to our every need and then some. When we return to our rooms each evening after dinner, there is a fresh frangipani blossom on our turned down beds, the candles on our balconies have been lit, and fresh incense placed on our tables. Although it’s a five minute drive to the center of Ubud, we may as well be a million miles away.

On our first evening we meet for tea and desert on the opulent terrace of the residence of the prince. Partners of One World Retreats, Claude Chouinard and Iyan Yaspriyana, introduce themselves and give us a preview of the week ahead. Claude tells us about Balinese rituals and traditions so that we can incorporate them into the upcoming week.

Among a handful of upcoming activities that include not only yoga and spa treatments, but forays into “real” Bali, we learn that we will attend a purification ceremony at a Balinese temple tomorrow night and are shown how to wrap our sarongs and secure them with temple sashes. One sarong for the outside, and one to be worn inside for bathing in the purifying spring waters. Claude encourages each of us to come up with an intention for the week to think about at the ceremony.

The next evening we go together to the temple and kneel behind a Balinese priest. Waving his hands in the smoke of the incense and holding up flower after flower in prayer clasped hands, he chants in Balinese. Whatever he is asking for and whoever he is asking it from, thank you very much. I am sure that I can use it and I accept it gratefully. We then bathe in the holy waters of the temple pausing under each of eleven fountains to make a wish before letting the healing waters rush over us. There is a longer line than most behind the relationship fountain.

Walking through waist-deep water sheathed in white linen and dipping under its surface reminds me of my Christian upbringing – the significance that water plays in cleansing and renewal. I’d been thinking that 2009 would go down as the year that I began a new life. In the year 2000 I began living abroad for months at a time in various countries in order to write about those who leave home to find a new one, as well as the stories of my own inner journey in search of a new tribe. I’ve been telling friends that my book has gestated for nine years and that it is time for it to be born. Two weeks ago, I laid in the middle of a kundalini healing circle and saw an amphibious-like shell falling away, and something raw, tender, and innocent, emerging. Might the book be a metaphor for me?

The morning call to yoga

The morning call to yoga

The next morning at 6:45 am I am stepping gingerly on the beautiful inlaid stones beneath my feet, shimmering wet after all night rain. The smell of jasmine in the air, deep gong signaling the beginning of another day. In the open air yoga pavilion overlooking the jungle, Iyan guides us through meditation and yoga with his deeply resonant voice, both soothing and eerily reminiscent of the chanting of the priest last night. Ommmmmmmmm. Iiifff youuuuur miiiind (up and note or two on the word mind) has gone awayyyyyy (up again on last word) bring it baaaaaack (stretch out the word back and bring it down a half note). One of the attendees has never before done yoga. Two are regular yoginis and the others, like me, are on and off practitioners. Our different levels are seemingly irrelevant. Iyan’s intuitive guidance offers precisely what each one of us needs when we need it.

After yoga, we eat breakfast in the open-air (of course) dining room. Black rice pudding with warm coconut cream. Fresh papaya, mango, pineapple, banana, yogurt, home made crunchy muesli, and a delightful bread that can best be described as crunchy, nutty, wholesome, slightly salty, and yummy. These are but a few of the selections on the menu. Master chef and raw organic cooking specialist, Ceciia Chaimberlan of Sweden, owner of Curly Foods (insert website url here) is training the kitchen staff this month. From the “Happy Salad” with its center of finely chopped green olives, lemon zest, olive oil, black pepper, naked cashews, and a side of tamari sauce, to the chocolate mousse which is so delicious that we raid the refrigerator to scrape the remains from the mixing bowl (imagine our surprise when Cecelia reveals the mousse is actually mashed avocado!), each meal throughout the week is a mouth watering concoction of raw organic ingredients. Cecilia says that for food to be truly nutritious, it is essential that it not only be healthy, but that it be prepared with loving hands. Fete acompli!

Early one morning, we drive up the summit of Mr. Gunung Batur and as the sun’s first rays beam over the rim of the volcano, we do sun salutations. Amazing. We gradually descend on mountain bikes past gob-stoppingly gorgeous rice paddies and through villages where the Balinese are going about their ordinary (albeit extraordinary to us) daily lives.

When first informed about the day of silence, some of us are a bit dubious. What, no talking? No phone calls or instant messaging? For 24 hours? Claude suggests we spend some of the time writing affirmations. (but no reading allowed). As it turns out, it is the day of silence that sets a transformative tone for the rest of the week and we love it. I for one, resolve to make a day of silence a regular ritual in my life. One of the participants, Andra from Jakarta says later, “It was the day of silence that changed my outlook on life. On that day I found that I’ve been searching for happiness in all the wrong places. That I have all the answers within me. It was a real awakening.”

A bridge leads from the resort through the jungle into the rice fields and eventually to one of the most unique, awe-inspiring, delicious, healthy open air restaurants in Bali – Sari Organik – situated next to the farm where it grows its own produce. There surrounded by a palette of colors, smells and sounds that are pure bountiful Bali, we laugh and relax and eat together, and I slurp through a hollow tube of bamboo the best mango lassie I have ever tasted in my life.

The world is your mirror.

The world is your mirror.

The spa treatment rooms are open to views that simply have to be seen and experienced to be believed. It is in this setting where we are expertly and reverently kneaded and massaged. I have never and doubt I will ever again experience anything like the three-hour ayurvedic massage that is the specialty of the trained masseuses at Escape the World retreats. The pedicure and manicure, the hair cream bath, the head and shoulder massage, the crown chakra anointing of oil, oh yes, those too are divine. But the ayurvedic massage not only puts me in a deep state of relaxation, but brings up insights and melts away negativity. I have long dreamed of living in Bali, and now here I am sitting smack dab in the middle of my dream my feet being washed lovingly, my shoulders being massaged looking out at what must be the most beautiful place on the planet. The world is my mirror. What I see, both good and bad, I create. It’s an analogy I’ve heard before. But it is not until this day during this massage at this moment as I sat here looking out at these scalloped mirrored rice paddies that the words take root. The world is my mirror. If I created this, I am one drop dead gorgeous woman!

Instead of ruminating on all the things my boyfriend does that bug me, I begin picturing the perfect loving partner all the way down to his calf muscles. The person in our group who annoys me with her deluge of derogatory comments about Americans? She too is my mirror and all negative thoughts about her go the way of the knot in my back.

Wrapped in a sarong and holding a mug of hot ginger tea, I’m seated on the terrace in a full-on post-massage glow thinking I smell like a frangipani flower and look like an oil spill. I don’t ever want to shower again!Someone emerges from an adjoining treatment room and sits down next to me. Guess who? That’s right. Her face glowing like an angel, we smile at each other, Goddess to Goddess. Duchess to American.

On the last morning we meet in the yoga pavilion to create from palm leaves Balinese offerings like the ones we have seen piled up on altars and stone Gods all over the island. Seated in a circle, we watch in silence as Iyan burns the pieces of paper we have given him, containing lists of things we want to eliminate from our lives. He covers the ashes with flower petals and takes the basket to the river. We watch from above as he first prays and then releases the petals and ashes, allowing them to flutter on the currents down to the river below to be carried out to sea. They back up behind a branch that has fallen across the water, but I turn and walk away in peace, confident that it is but a temporary obstacle that will soon be washed away on the current.

The Escape the World retreat touches parts of your heart and soul that a boot camp-like yoga retreat simply can’t reach. It is more than a meditation workshop, where one spends 99% of their time in their heads. And it is far more than its delicious healthy inventive meals and mesmerizing massages. The Escape the World Retreat is a buffet for all the senses. And isn’t balance what the body and soul craves nearly as much as food and water? p10504131Find out all about how to escape your world at

Robin Sparks reporting from her cubicle in Bali

Robin Sparks reporting from her cubicle in Bali