Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.

Tune in, Tokyo

14712861_10153714705356853_3737233960148924578_oI found a cheap ticket to Tokyo so faster than you can say ‘konnichiwa’ I was on my way to spend a few days with my dear friend Ai. We survived living in a small cabin together as we sailed around the world some years ago, and a year and a half ago, Ai, recently heartbroken, came to my rescue in Seoul as I found myself in the same predicament. Her calm, strong presence was healing and comforting to say the least.

I have lived in Tokyo and spent a lot of time there over the past ten years. It’s a megacity, that’s for sure. I’m always amazed by how it stretches into infinity, as if it was its own galaxy. Lucky for me, Ai lives in a upscale residential ‘hood in central Tokyo. Despite its central location, her place was incredibly quiet and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Tokyo – despite being home to millions of people and gazillions of stores, restaurants, cafes, clubs etc, it’s so eerily quiet.

When we weren’t eating ourselves silly, I spent some time visiting my old haunts – the glitz and glamour of Roppongi Hills, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, the craziness of Shibuya, the peace and quiet of Yoyogi Park. After some hours of this, I remembered the reasons I chose not to live there longterm: it’s a giant concrete jungle with an incredibly confusing subway system with little English available. Navigating it can be exhausting. One also expels so much psychic energy on deciding where to go, what to do, what to eat, what to buy. It’s the paradox of choice: there’s just so much choice, it’s hard to decide. Even buying something as simple as a toothbrush, one is confronted with fifty different shapes, sizes, functions and colours. When I remarked about this to my friend, who had spent two years living in the undeveloped Solomon Islands, she said, “I know what you mean. Life was in a way easier in the Solomons because I had no choice about so many things.”

Another thing that struck me was the rampant consumerism and materialism. There are just so many shops! For everything! And shopping is a kind of national sport. I think the Japanese economy would collapse if people stopped shopping for even a day. Of course, no one, apart from perhaps the Italians, does aesthetics so well. The sheer array of beautiful (expensive) things for sale is mind-boggling. My favourite store, Muji, with its Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, is what heaven looks like and I spent an hour just walking around and touching all the things that I may one day own (if I win the lottery).

But my absolute favourite thing to do in Tokyo is to just walk around the narrow, winding streets of its diverse neighbourhoods and observe people go about their daily business. The sushi chef hard at work, a little old lady petting a stray cat, a boy riding his old-school bike home from school, a gaggle of salary men on their lunch break playing Pokemon Go in the park next to a patch of lotuses, a family taking their child all dressed up in kimono to visit a shrine. People are also unfailingly polite and always greet you with a smile, even if you’re shoving a camera in their face.

A friend once described Tokyo, the Big Daikon, as Fantasy Island. There’s truth to that. Anything you want, you can get it. From north to south, east to west, there’s so much to do and see. Even if you spent a year just walking around and exploring, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the city’s terrain. There are too many secrets that the city won’t reveal. And that’s good news for someone like me who can’t get enough of this beautiful, maddening, confusing city that doesn’t sleep, and despite the constant flickering of neon lights, is oddly quiet.

Awkward Encounters on Gili Meno

img_4881Now that I have a new computer, I have been able to download and actually edit some of the thousands of photos I have been hoarding on various memory cards  for the past year. So today I will release some of my photos from Indonesia’s beautiful but tiny Gili Meno island, not too far off the coast of Bali. Warning: travel essay equivalent of ten year old suburban white girl lyrics comes first.

Some context: Gili Meno is known as ‘Elizabeth Gilbert Island’. It was featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love as the place Liz goes alone for ten days at a low point before the shit hits the fan. Here she tries to confront her demons and make sense of the chaos and pain. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but recently she has said that it was a mistake to do that while in such a state of depression and despair. What she in fact needed was an entourage of therapists – so don’t try this at home folks.

Anyway, Gili Meno was forever etched in my mind after reading that book and I decided I would visit when I made last minute travel plans to Bali last year. I would take a side trip there (alone) and bask in the beauty and solitude (and also spend large chunks of time trying not to brood and ruminate over my recent heartbreak). A friend also told me about some kind of turtle sanctuary on the island. This was another pull factor – turtles!!! As usual, I didn’t make any plans and just plodded along with only a Lonely Planet guide. It took a couple of boat rides to get there and on one of them I started talking to a young Canadian woman on a gap year (is everybody who travels in that region on a gap year?) Accommodation options were limited so she suggested I follow her to an eco-hostel. This means everything is made out of bamboo and there is no hot water. OK, I thought, I’ll rough it for a few nights. Upon arrival my friend (whom I suspect is living off a trust fund) promptly disappears into a copy of The Power of Now and into the arms of a rugged Eaton-educated ‘gappy’ and so I have a virgin cocktail at the outdoor bar and chat to the American couple who own the place. I’m a little surprised at the age gap between them – the woman seems at least ten years older, but this is the age of Madonna and Demi Moore. I’m even more surprised, however, when the guy starts flirting with me. Wow, this is awkward. Not just because his wife is standing right there, but also because he’s not my type. I slither off my stool and head to the beach to watch the sunset. I later learn that his partner is in fact his mother. Note to self: live on a tropical island in order to preserve youthful appearance.

The next day I’m determined to see an elusive sea turtle while snorkelling (and after a few attempts, I do!). I also check out the ‘turtle sanctuary’ which was perhaps the most disappointing experience of my adult life – there’s just a bunch of smelly little turtles flapping around in what appear to be baths. There’s a woman there to take care of them but you can’t really touch them or, as in my imagination, ride on the back of them. And there’s still 9 more hours until it gets dark. I fill the few days I’m there with snorkelling, exploring, taking pictures and reading. I have a few conversations with the gaggle of strapping young British men who are probably related to Prince William and Hugh Grant. They’re here for volunteer work which involves building more bamboo things. They sleep outside in hammocks (with their shirts off) and enjoy the company of the ubiquitous drunk, loud-mouthed Irish girl.

While I’ve been assured that the island is safe, I do feel slightly scared when I walk around in the evening. The muslim call to prayer occurs at sunset and the island being undeveloped and populated by only a few small fishing villages, does feel eerie. Nevertheless, I don’t let that stop me. I head to one of other beaches around the coast to watch the sunset. There are a few local kids running around and only a few white people lounging on chairs, beer in hand.

I spot a young-ish looking white guy sitting on the stony sand, playing around with his camera. We start talking and compare lenses. Turns out that he’s Canadian and bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders (he later tells me that his nickname is ‘Ned’ because he’s so nice. I don’t have the heart to tell him otherwise). We order some juice and he tells me his life story – of how he recently got concussion and was unable to do anything except lie in a dark room for three months with no movement or stimulation and how he was wracked with anxiety. I feel compassion towards him and don’t begrudge him the fact that he’s traveling for an entire year or more by living off his savings after quitting his corporate job. He became heavily involved with all kinds of energy healing modalities, and after we’ve eaten an 80 cent dinner of rice and vegetable curry made by a woman in her house, I find him sitting opposite me cross-legged doing some kind of non-invasive reiki on me. What does one say in that situation? I just tried to stifle a laugh. Millions of stars pop out in the now ink black sky and it would be very romantic if I actually saw Ned as more than a friendly fellow traveler. I don’t. He offers to walk me home which I gratefully accept, not sure that I could find my way back in the dark. We see the faint glow of light and hear the happy, drunk slurring of whippersnappers. It’s time to say good night. “Do you know what would make this night even more perfect?,” asks Ned. I start to feel uncomfortable. “What?” I ask. “If I could kiss you,” he replies. Talk about awkward. “Um, I don’t think so,” I quip as gently as possible. “I had fun hanging out, but let’s leave it at that.” It pains me to see the hurt expression on his face, but I don’t look back as I dodge toads and stones on my way back to my creaky bamboo bunk.

And your reward for reading (or more likely scrolling) through that are these photos of gorgeous Gili Meno.

Jakarta-ing

Although I have been to Indonesia twice before (to Bali specifically), I had never been to Java, the most populated island in the world (145 million humans and counting). So I jumped at the chance to visit a friend living in Jakarta (the biggest city in Indonesia) to get a new perspective of this Muslim nation outside of the Bali/Hindu bubble I had previously experienced.

Jakarta is home to some ten million inhabitants and even more motorcycles. The public transportation system is undeveloped, which is both surprising and unsurprising for a large, developing Asian city. This means that there’s crazy traffic congestion and ‘slow chaos’ as my friend described it. Luckily taxis and Ubers are plentiful and cheap (but beware the dudes who zoom by stealing phones and handbags from unsuspecting tourists).

Jakarta is also a city of contrasts – extreme wealth juxtaposed with extreme poverty; slums next to high rises. The kind of place where white, expat privilege gets you far. Where there is still a colonial legacy (Dutch) and where someone with a middle-class income can have a cook, maid, driver and live in a beautiful, safe environment complete with swimming pool.

It’s an interesting time to visit the city before the western capitalist behemoth takes over completely and the little guys – the small, family-run traditional shops, markets and restaurants are washed away in a tsunami of giant malls and McDonald’s. But for now, one can still buy a bowl of chicken curry from the street for less than a dollar. And it will be interesting to see how the culture evolves – currently a very corrupt Muslim country, sex, alcohol, and drugs are plentiful for a local or expat with money. Ridiculous rules come and go (a woman applying to the military must undergo a ‘virginity test’). For a country with thousands of islands and languages, without a tenuous national identify, Jakarta itself is probably like a foreign country to those living in the often impoverished countryside. While I can’t speak about the boonies from my own limited experience, perhaps one unifying factor is the warmth and friendliness of Indonesia’s people. Below are a few photos from my visit to Jakarta, if you’d like to see.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

A visit to Jakarta's mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

A visit to Jakarta’s mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta's port has played an important role in the city's development - from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta’s port has played an important role in the city’s development – from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city - just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city – just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.

 

Down the Ubud rabbit hole

10922787_10152835605896853_7435212503923004836_o (1)Having never been to Bali before, and having made a last minute decision to come here, I did not know what to expect. My lack of research landed me with some visa issues and therefore some restricted mobility, and that is how I came to spend almost all of my time so far in Ubud, the artistic and cultural center of this famed Indonesian island.

Surrounded by lush green rice fields and jungle, dotted with temples and quaint old-fashioned Balinese family compounds, there is immense beauty here. Deep ravines frame gushing rivers. Monkeys hide high up in the trees and huge coconut palms provide shade from the sun’s heat. Some four hundred cafes and restaurants cater to the transient population which is made up of local Balinese, Indonesians from other parts of the country, expats from all over the world (but particularly Europe, the US and Oceania) and the travelers and seekers just passin’ through.

Ubud is generally a quiet and peaceful place. There’s some traffic congestion on the main street and the markets get a bit crowded, but the pace of life is enjoyably slow and the people watching is phenomenal. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that the non-Indonesians who visit here fall into one of two categories: twenty year old supermodel couples or beautiful white, rich, married European couples with equally beautiful 2.5 children.

But then you spend some time at The Yoga Barn, a kind of yoga utopia, perhaps attending a yoga class or even the venerated Ecstatic Dance. Visit any of the dozens of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and cafes that dot the busy streets, rice fields and hillsides and you come into contact with a different beast altogether. I got talking to another New Zealander who has been living here for two years. He told me he calls this tribe the Trustafarians. And that’s exactly what they are: young, rich twenty-somethings living bohemian work-free lifestyles off their inherited money. They come to ‘find themselves’ but, my friend tells me, they end up staying and not really finding anything. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite – I’m all for a good old fashioned Eat, Pray, Love style mission – and indeed, I went on a short one in my twenties. I may even be on one now (replace ‘Pray, Love’ with ‘Read, Sleep’). But how much fucking yoga and eating kale are you going to do? It’s like the kids here have taken the fanatical new age, health obsessed culture of California to a whole new level.

So there we are, trapped far down in the interior, subjective rabbit hole. I hope these man-bunned, tramp-stamped, tie-dyed, colonically-irrigated, glittered beautiful people aren’t doomed to a life of navel gazing and spending their days doing Louise Hay-inspired affirmations (after their coffee enema and morning Vinyasa practice) at the expense of achieving something worthwhile with their lives, of having an impact. But hey, this kind of tourism is helping keep an island economically afloat (even if most of the places frequented by said Trustafarians are owned by expats and the local staff get paid shit and don’t reap any profits).

Perhaps I’m a little bitter. It’s hard not to feel a bit hard done by when you’re surrounded by such self-indulgent, self-absorbed people who don’t know what it’s like to flip burgers at McDonald’s. At the same time, I swing to the other extreme and feel an immense sense of gratitude. Most of the locals have never left the island. Many of them never had the opportunity to get an education. Many are illiterate. I’ve heard the same hard luck story from my various taxi drivers many times – born into a poor family, unable to attend school, limited prospects for employment and earning an income. And yet they managed to teach themselves another language and make a life for themselves. Just to be able to write that sentence (“my various taxi drivers”), just to be here and witnessing this kind of apartheid, the beauty, the poverty, the comedy and the tragedy is an incredible privilege and stroke of luck.