Embraced By Bali | Robin Sparks

Embraced By Bali

Women in brilliant sarongs stand at the edge of a river bathing.

Women in brilliant sarongs stand at the edge of a river bathing.

“Prepare your seatbacks and trays for landing.” I hear, and suddenly I am no longer standing inside a Gauguin painting, but seated in an Asiana plane, which is preparing to land in Bangkok. The dream, so vivid! Was it a promise of what was in store for me in Asia?

It didn’t take more than a couple of days in Bangkok to figure out that if a lush paradise had once existed here, it had long since been covered over by skyscrapers, highways, and malls.

My next Asian destination, Kathmandu, proved to be a paradise of a different kind. It was a medieval silver and jewel-toned village overrun by men with guns, and no, it no more resembled the soft, pastel paradise of my dream than Bangkok had.

Apparently, I was too late. And so I let it go.

I am peering out of a Garuda jetliner at an emerald island surrounded by a velvet sea as we prepare to land in Bali, Indonesia. My forehead pressed against the window, I am suddenly very tired of the life of a Global Orphan. I want to be home. “Please,” I pray. “Let this be it.”

I move into a house in the midst of the rice paddies above the old artist village.

I move into a house in the midst of the rice paddies above the old artist village.

I step off the plane and into the dream. It smells of incense, sandalwood, cloves, and jasmine.

In “Traveling not Leaving”, Andrea Bocconi writes, “The sense of smell bypasses rationality…the nose is animal, instinctive, ancient. An encounter with another culture is an intensely olfactory experience, even if we are not aware of it.”

I do not know why or how I know it, but I am home.

In the taxi, we wind along narrow country roads headed to the culture and art center of Bali called Ubud. We pass verdant sculptured rice paddies, distant volcanoes poking through clouds, soft in the mist, and women wrapped in sarongs sauntering gracefully along the side of the road with pyramids of fruit balanced on their heads,. Men wear the soft sarongs too, only in earth tones, and sport batik headbands over dark hair. Children run through the fields, their faces turned to the sky, watching kites soaring on currents high above. Lush foliage sways in the breeze and at the base of the mountains are rows of fringed palm trees.

I wake before sunrise the next morning to birdsong so loud, I’m sure I must be in a bird sanctuary. In the morning light, I look more closely at the interior of my $9 per night bungalow. Its every niche is crafted with aesthetic taste. The door is handcarved with ornate precision. The Indonesian four-poster bed is draped in a lacy mosquito net, the hand-woven batik textiles gracing the walls and draped across the bed are works of art, and the ceiling is peaked and thatched in bamboo.

I hear the breeze in the musical clanging of bamboo wind chimes and step outside. Red hibiscus blossoms have been placed in the corners of my door and windows, and on the plate of fresh papaya set outside my room.

I go for a short walk and discover more art imbued in everything from the sidewalks (inlaid with leafs and little pebble designs) to the sublime – strikingly beautiful temples, and simple but tasteful, open-air, multi-tiered homes with thatched roofs.

Miniscule wovenpalm containers of flowers, rice, money, and burning incense are set out on the ground and atop shrines everywhere I look. This is the source of Bali’s aroma; that and the profusion of frangipani, jasmine, and clove cigarettes.

Bali is one of thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago, and a small one at that – only 2,147 square miles. Located only 8 degrees from the equator, Bali’s climate averages a comfortable 80 degrees year round.

Even with its population of three million, one can still get lost on the island. There are hundreds of villages that have not changed in 50 years. Bali’s volcanic mountains, some of which reach over 10,000 feet, provide fertile volcanic soil and abundant rainfall resulting in a land where crops almost grow themselves. Because so little physical labor is required to sustain life, the Balinese have plenty of time left over to pursue art, music, and religion.

The Balinese believe that the island was a gift granted them in sacred trust and so they devote a great deal of time to offerings, processions, the making of art, and temple ceremonies.

They have their own unique blend of Hinduism, a complex fusion of India cosmology, tantric Buddhism, home-grown mythology, animism, and magical beliefs and practices. At least eleven thousand temples- grace the island.

When Islam swept through the islands during the 15th century, there was a mass exodus of aristocracy, priests, courtiers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen to Bali. The artistic renaissance that ensued, continues today. Virtually every Balinese practices one creative art or another, be it painting, wood carving, dancing, or music, – for art is considered an integral part of being alive.

There is a sense of harmony in Bali that is hard to miss. Each village is a closely unified organism in which the communal policy is harmony and co-operation – a system that works to the advantage of every body. The community decides the organization of villages, farming and even the creative arts.

The local government is responsible only for schools, hospitals, and roads. Two traditional committees whose roots go back centuries decide all other aspects of life. The first is the Subak, which organizes the complex irrigation system. The other is the Banjar, which arranges all village ceremonies.

His neighbors assist a man in every task he cannot perform alone without any expectation of reward, except perhaps the knowledge that when he needs help, his neighbors will be there for him. For this reason, there are few “bosses” and “laborers” amongst the Balinese.

I move into a house in the midst of the rice paddies above the old artist village of Bali called Penestanan. It is like moving into a zoo, so full of creatures that I must wear earplugs at night to sleep. The house is a large traditional Balinese home open to the outdoors complete with a lush garden and lotus pond stocked with fat goldfish. Like most homes in Bali, it comes with a “helper” or pembante. The cost of my magnificent home in paradise? One million five hundred rupiahs, which at this writing equals about $175 a month.

Saturday night I go to the Jazz Cafe to listen to the local band. I meet Anne from Switzerland and we become fast friends . She invites me to a healing ceremony for her brother who is dying of Hepatitis C. It is his 40th birthday, and although she doesn’t expect the ceremony to heal him, she hopes it will bring him comfort. The tall priest dressed in white looks at the photo of Anne’s brother and says that he sees that the man is sick in his liver. The medicine man sits on a high perch surrounded by powders and liquids, containers of holy water and lotus petals. He chants and sprinkles water over Dominique’s photo and affects. He then directs us to pray and sprinkles holy water over our heads.

After six weeks in Bali, I write a friend in Nepal, “This place is amazingly gorgeous. Still. I can say this even after losing my wallet yesterday with all the hassle that goes with that. I have no money and no ATM card and I’m still happy. That should tell you something. Bali is magic – black AND white. I went to an Indonesian healer who read from his medical books inscribed on palm leaves by his great grandfather with a bamboo point.

There’s really no way that words can do life here justice. It amazes me that the whole world has not moved to Bali. I’ve made lots of friends: artists, people in the export trade, and a new best friend from Switzerland…

I ride a motorcycle. Yeehaw! Hard to keep my eyes on the road with all the blindingly green rice fields, people up to their thighs in water wearing conical straw hats, women carrying huge loads balanced on their heads, ducks crossing the road, girls in school uniforms jumping out of the way when they see me coming…

You know that huge duffel bag I have that was packed full, the one with the wheels? Well, a young lady, maybe 23, hefted it onto her head, balanced it there (no hands), carried it up 93 steps to the rice fields, through the paddies to my house, where she gracefully set it down next to my bed. Humbling.

I’m getting back in touch with my spirit here…between the peaceful, lovely environment, a new love interest who challenges me constantly with soul-searching questions, with regular meditation, yoga, warm weather, surrounded always by art…. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I am resting, slowing down and looking inside, learning to savor life and remembering who I am and why I am here. All my senses are fed in this place and I sense that in the quiet, I will find my spirit once again. I feel love coming back into a space which recently has been filled with fear, insecurity, and loneliness. I am breathing more slowly and deeply, and living in the moment so that I can hear what I know but have forgotten.”

I write another friend about my first massage in Bali:

I go to a little spa run by locals for a 2-hour massage special. I am kneaded, pounded, cupped, stroked, and then scrubbed with a ground up mixture of local herbs and fruits (called lulur) and after that slathered with fresh yogurt and then put into a tub of warm water filled with flower petals. My shampoo and conditioner are brought to me in half a coconut shell. They also serve me ginger tea while I am soaking in the tub. When I leave, the setting sun is reflecting off the water in the rice paddies, a big colorful rooster struts by and a man is pushing his bike up the hill with a batik headband tied just so. I’m thinking, Oh my God; this is so beautiful I can’t believe it’s real. I turn back for a final glance, and yes, it is real – and prettier than any postcard I’ve ever seen.

But lest I make Bali sound like it’s 100 percent paradise, I should probably mention that instead of them piping in New Age music during my massage, I was treated to the sounds of a neighborhood cockfight just outside the window. Cockfights are a regular occurrence here – no shame in it – the locals see it as fun and games AND a handy little blood sacrifice to the Gods. All part of the dichotomy that I’m discovering is Bali, and besides what did I expect for $9?

Later that week, my neighbor Made drops by for a visit. She’s trying to talk me into leasing the plot in front of the house I’m renting. Amazing what you can own and live in for under $40,000. “But what about that cow out there?” I ask her.” She says to me, “You make building, cow gone. No problem.”

She stands up to leave and runs a hand through my hair. “Robin, maybe you marry nice Balinese boy. I have older brother,” she whispers. “He not married yet.” She jiggles her eyebrows a couple of times and giggles conspiratorially. “My brother very gentle,” she says. ” I tell him come meet you, and you make pretty, ok?”

It occurred to me yesterday that I haven’t worn “proper” clothes for over a month now. My toes haven’t seen the inside of shoes and my skin has been left largely bare to the sun and warm breezes. I love living in harmony with nature. Leaving the windows open. Wearing few clothes. – and never being cold. What will I wear when I return to San Francisco? Black? Closed toe shoes? A coat, Lord forbid?

Just now, a large bumblebee enters the open doors where I sit outside by my pond. OK, stay calm. This guy is the size of a hummingbird and as furry as a cat. He hovers over me and my computer, BZZZZZ. I am allergic to bees). I get up calmly (on the outside) and say to the bumblebee, “Excuse me, I think I’ll just go outside for a moment.” I set my laptop on the bottom step and move cautiously outside. A year ago, I would have shrieked, dropped the laptop on the tile floor and dove into the pond. Yes, I’m getting there. Me and nature in harmony.

Two nights ago, I walked home shortly after the sun dropped out of the sky (in the sudden way it does near the equator). I hadn’t brought a flashlight along, but I followed the sound of a clear high voice singing while she did dishes. I saw a flicker of light and a shadow next to my house. I focused my eyes and saw my neighbor placing 2 sticks of burning incense on the shrine between our homes. I entered my house happier, more peaceful than perhaps I have ever been. Each day in Bali outdoes the next. That night as I lay in bed I looked up at the peaked ceiling and a tiny green light flashed on and off. My guardian lightbug. All is well in Bali.

As I sat on my white tile terrace this morning and watched the gold, yellow and brown fish swim around in circles, and heard the reverberating clang of a vibraphone in the distance, the high clear ringing of the xylophone, felt the warm sun on my face, and while I felt myself falling in love, I knew that I was experiencing a moment of wonder. Bali is that. Wonder. Magic. Mystery. Beauty. A slow, swaying, circling dream. Maybe there was something to that Medicine Man yesterday afterall. He put his love magic on me and since then two hearts are moving towards each other, circling round, enjoying the mystery and the discovery of finding something so magical and unpeeling it, layer by layer. I am in a dream land and a dream state.

Bali is pretty. Bali is soft. Nepal is a silver toenail polish town – Bali is light pink. Bangkok is a man’s town – Bali is a woman’s island. One of Bali’s most revered gods is the goddess Dewi Danu, Goddess of the Lake and provider of irrigation water, the lifeblood of Bali. Even Bali’s elected president, Megawati, is a woman. I’ve asked men in Bali about the female spirit of the island and they concur. Without a doubt, Bali is female and they don’t seem to mind one bit. While all around, the world is yelling “Fight! Fight!”, Bali is going about its business of being beautiful, soft, and feminine. It is the yin to the Islamic yang of Indonesia. I think I’ll hide out here for awhile.

Bali nourishes and offers up little resistance. It coddles and pampers the body, soul and spirit with salons (where you can be pampered and massaged beyond your wildest imagination for just a few dollars), holistic healers and alternative medicine of varied forms, yoga classes, and meditation centers and retreats.

It is easy to Be in Bali. In almost every way the island supports life and supports it abundantly. It costs so little to live here, and food grows with minimum effort. Ease. Even the language, Bahasa Indonesian, is considered one of the world’s easiest to learn. The Balinese are an easy people to be with, kind and carefree, with a spirit that is communal – no division where yours and mine are concerned. And no sense that foreigners are impinging on “their” island. They seem to say, the earth is abundant; there is plenty to go around. Come and share it with us.

Bali is graceful. You can see it in the way the people move. In the design of their gardens, their homes, their clothing.

Flow. In Bali, life flows in a lazy hypnotic cycle. Water, prana, chi, the life force of the island is on the move everywhere, at all times. And always there is a breeze caressing your skin, music gracing your ears, art pleasing your eyes, and life all around unfolding, flowing, naturally, with grace. It’s been said that the Balinese envision heaven as a place very much like Bali. Naturally.

I receive a none-too-welcome jolt “back to reality” from the tenant renting my apartment in San Francisco:

“Hey Robin-

Just so you know, your upstairs neighbors are putting a roof deck in. The construction workers are busy daily from 8:00AM ripping up the tar roof and laying a wood deck. On the down side, we get an 8AM wake-up call daily because the work is loud. On the up side, I expect the work will be done before you or your next tenants come in.

Hope things in Bali are still great.”

In one month, I will have to return to the United States. After 8 months away, I am more comfortable than ever living outside its borders. However, the Unreal World beckons…

This paradise called Bali. It is within me. Was all along. It just took being here to remember it. And going into the void (like Harry Potter) to find it. I’ll be back. Because Bali is no longer just a dream; Bali is home.


Even as I sit this morning writing this story, two months after arriving in Bali, the beauty, the peace, and the magic of this island blow me away. I hear children singing Ole, Ole Ole Ole from a nearby soccer field. A rooster crows. The cow in my front yard moos. The smell of nasi goreng wafts through my window from Mades Warung. My neighbor is playing his guitar on his porch and singing folk songs. The birds are in concert as usual, a cool breeze rattles the papers on my desk, palm trees do their usual dance, and white fluffy clouds hang in the sky, barely moving….And this is Monday! Does it get any better than this?

“Come now Robin,” I can hear you saying. “There must be something wrong with Bali.” And yes, there is a shadow side which I will address in next months’ story along with what it takes to move to Bali and to live here, the cost of real estate and what business opportunities if any there are. And I’ll introduce you to some fascinating people, the expatriates who live in Bali.

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