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.

Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stellar journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

“Home”

After four years of being away, of making some of my travel and life dreams a reality, I finally stepped foot back on the fertile soil of home. I have been back in the land of the long white cloud (and the long black) for two weeks. It has been intense, confusing and a bit of a roller coaster – which is to be expected.

A few months ago, as I tried to sort my life out and plan what I would do over the vacation (or if I would move back permanently or take another job in another country), I had a romanticized idea of what my time back here would be like, based on an amalgamation of my favorite memories from the past: drinking wine in a cozy bar with leather couches and a roaring fire with my friends, hanging out at the public library and writing everyday (which I’m doing right now, but it’s the second time in a few weeks), going to yoga and capoeira classes everyday, shopping at farmers’ markets and eating like a rabbit, being cultured and going to concerts and arthouse films, lounging around in my mother’s bathtub under a heaping of bubbles bought from Lush, walking the family dog along the beach, hanging at the esplanade sipping decaf flat whites, shopping for classy and original clothes by local designers so I don’t need to dress like a 14 year old anymore (thanks Seoul!).

Alas, I was thumped on the head by Reality. While I’ve been able to live out bits and pieces of my being home fantasy,  expectations and reality have been often clashed. It would be appropriate to insert a Buddhist quote about impermanence here, but we all know intellectually that everything is impermanent and nothing stays the same. It’s just jarring to be confronted with it on a daily basis, in both big and small ways. An obvious example is that old shops and restaurants have closed down or moved. It’s disorienting. On a more personal level, friends and family have changed jobs and careers, gotten married or divorced, had more kids, gotten sick or even passed away and your old friends from back in the day, a clique brought together by being big fish in a small pond have dispersed and are only held together by the fraying thread of Facebook. After a bit too much wine, the family stories come out and you find out that people are much more complex than you thought. There’s a bottomless pit of family secrets to fall into and coming to terms with the fact that those you put on a pedestal do not belong there.

There’s coming to terms with the fact that everything is so damn expensive. I knew I would spend a lot of money, but not THIS much money. Holy crap. $3 for a bottle of water? $3 for a one way bus ride? Talk about reality slap. But there are so many things that I have been ‘deprived’ of that I go nuts: chai lattes, marinated mussels, merino wool sweaters, organic NZ yogurt, authentic Japanese food, real carrot cake, sexy underwear, op-shopping, leather boots, lamb everything, licorice, and of course all those movies and concerts cost money too.

Also jarring is the fact that I have had to step out of my Peter Pan bubble of denial. Yes, my friends are buying multiple houses, stepping up their career game and breeding. Family, family friends, and friends all take me aside at one time or another and ask that most Kiwi of questions, ‘So, when are you going to buy a house?’ It’s a national obsession (after rugby) – on the six o’clock news, on the front page of the paper and the talk of the chattering and working classes. I start feeling very inadequate and very poor. To add insult to injury, I sometimes get the ‘why don’t you have a husband and kids?’ question too. I retort that when I die, my face will be eaten off by my thirty cats, but I’m OK with it.

Then there’s trying not to fuse with the reality of those you are bound to by blood. I have had many moments of biting my tongue, of trying to be generous and compassionate. Instead of flipping out with a snarky ‘Well, all you do is go to work, come home, cook dinner then watch TV and go to bed’ statement, I breathe and remind myself that this kind of boring, predictable, stable life has advantages too. It’s just not for me, and that’s OK. I do not need to keep reverting to my sixteen year old self and slam doors every time I disagree with someone else’s life choices.

And we can’t forget the lifestyle piece: in this small city on the coast, sandwiched by pristine mountains and beaches, people talk about the lifestyle. While some smart, ambitious and enterprising people have been able to forge incredible careers and still get to enjoy the lifestyle this part of the world affords, most people I meet and know work to live. They don’t care about climbing up the greasy monkey pole. Instead, they want their freedom and free time to enjoy the outdoors and slow pace of life. To stay home and raise kids, to be able to head out camping for weeks at a time when the mood strikes them, to survive on a part-time wage so they can do other things. It’s seductive, this idea. Leaving behind the rat race and all its pressures and pitfalls. But again, it’s not for me.

I’m in the midst of this ‘coming home’ story and I’m sure with more reflection, my experience and opinion will change. In the meantime, the beauty of this little paradise on the east coast of NZ’s South Island  still takes my breath away. Enjoy.

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Off to the healer we go

tjok-rai-bwI was happy to tag along with my friend here in Bali when she suggested that we hire a driver and go on a day trip, checking off all those clichéd Bali things that I didn’t get a chance to do last time (healer, Holy Water temple, rice fields, traditional dance performance).

And so we headed off on a rainy, humid day, our first stop to visit a traditional Balinese healer. You’ve heard all about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ketut Liyer which I suppose has caused something of a resurgence of interest amongst tourists for such figures. Our Balinese driver, Putu, planned out our whole day and took us to see a healer that he had personally seen when he was a child and who had apparently cured him of a black magic spell. “I was sick when I was a child. I had bad stomach pains. Went to the doctor four times. He couldn’t help. Then my father took me to see the healer and I was better,” he told us.

While I believe there are probably some gifted healers in the world, those of the shamanic variety who have healing powers us average joes don’t have access too, I had low expectations of visiting this man.

We pulled up to his compound, a beautiful, well-kept maze of rooms, statues and shrines in typical Balinese style. The man himself, whom I later would find out is named Cokorda Rai, was working humbly with a patient (client? customer? seeker?) in the porch area where the people come and wait their turn. My friend and I gleaned that the woman and her friend who was waiting were Russian. We waited our turn patiently as Mr. Rai told the girl in broken English how to help herself, although we could only hear the occasional snippet. After waiting about twenty minutes my brave, recently broken-hearted friend took her place on the ground at his feet as he sat behind her in a chair. He wore traditional Balinese dress, complete with white cotton shirt, patterned sarong and traditional hat.

I watched as he felt my friend’s head and face as if he were blind (he’s not) and then pushed his fingers into her ears and felt around her throat and neck. She then lay down on a bamboo mat and he proceeded to poke her toes and feet with a small stick. I guess what he told her resonated as she walked towards us wiping a tear or two from her eye.

Then it was my turn. I get the full head-feeling treatment – and indeed I can attest to the fact that it feels weird when a stranger pokes their long gnarly fingers into one’s ears. He felt around my head and told me that I was strong minded, ‘like a lawyer.’ Unsure if that was a compliment or insult, I kept calm and let him continue feeling around. He asked what my profession was and didn’t seem surprised when I told him. He shouted out across to my friend and Putu that they should ask me for advice because I think I always know what’s best for others.

Then came the painful part.

I lay down on the mat and he proceeded to prod my toes with his evil little stick. It was painful. Like really painful. Like being stabbed. After some minutes of this torturous exercise, the healer comes to the conclusion that I have low blood pressure, that I shouldn’t do anything strenuous at night (it’s true I’m a ‘morning person’), that I need to eat more meat and take Omega-3 supplements. I wouldn’t disagree with analysis. However, I didn’t put much faith in the whole thing to begin with and before I knew it, I’d made my ‘offering’ of $30 and we were on our way to our next attraction. We said a polite goodbye to Mr. Rai and the German expat who was waiting patiently after us. I didn’t give the experience a second thought.

Cut to a few days later and I am forced to fly to Singapore to renew my visa due to some monumental fuckup on an immigration official’s part. I’m in the airport bookstore in the departures lounge (like a moth to a flame!) and a book about Balinese healing catches my eye.

I look at the photo on the back, and to my surprise, it has a picture of the healer whose fingers were in my ears just a few days before. It turns out this Cokorda Rai is quite the famous, revered figure with a lot of mana, both among expats, seekers and local Balinese alike.

More interesting perhaps is what I read about his life between the covers of that book. Encased within the first chapter was a hurried account of a swashbuckling life – a teen runaway, life as a thug on the mean streets of Jakarta, a series of failed business, marriages and some nine children born along the way. But this  regal man (he comes from Balinese royalty) returns home and answers the call and fulfills his destiny…so today, here he is, this elegant man in his 80’s, sitting joyfully on his porch, waiting for those in need for what ails them.

Thinking about home

st. clair beachIt’s that time of year again when it’s bitterly cold and dark on the side of the world I happen to be on and warm, sunny and beachy on the other side – the side I think of as ‘home’. It’s summer holidays down under and everyone has Christmas fever – the shopping, the decorations, the parties, the boozing, the shirking of work. It intensifies my feelings of homesickness which usually simmer beneath the surface, but for these few weeks in December boil hot and almost force me to charge several thousand dollars to my credit card so I can be part of it, too. Almost.

This year seems to be a particularly poignant one for thinking about loved ones – friends, family, belonging. I feel the need to be part of a community stronger than I have in a long time. One that is so familiar to me, I feel it in my bones. A rough year abroad will do that to you.

Musing on this, I’m reminded of a situation I experienced some years ago back at the end of the world. It was cold, dark, in the midst of winter. My friend was graduating from university and we were celebrating with his family and their friends. It was a bohemian port town, full of hippies and working class wharf workers. The house we stayed in was an old wooden villa, cold and damp as only a house in New Zealand can be. The owners were artisans and we sat around their dimly lit living room swilling local beer and wine.

There was a man there, an older gentleman with beautiful toffee colored skin, the color that signifies he was of mixed Maori-Pakeha stock. He introduced himself and told our little group some of his story. It turns out he had only recently returned home after many years of living in Europe. Based in Milan, he was a clothes designer and dresser – he had, in fact, dressed Princess Diana. He relayed tales of his adventures in the high fashion world, all the while I struggled not to choke on my merlot.

Why, I wondered, would he leave such an interesting and glamorous life in the fashion capital of the world to return to the end of the world, a place that was so isolated, where there were more sheep than people, where you have to drive for five hours to get to the nearest international airport and where you have to fly for at least five hours to get to the nearest neighboring country? Ca-raay-zee, I concluded.

It transpired that as he aged, he felt a very instinctual and visceral pull back to his homeland to ‘discover his roots.’ It seemed bizarre to me – I, at that time, was extremely interested in doing exactly the opposite – running as far away as possible to leave behind my working class roots and the parochial, provincial, incestuous town I had grown up in. And indeed, months later I was on a plane headed for Japan.

Now I understand what he meant. To know where you come from, to feel that primal sense of belonging to a community. To be immersed in the banal and the familiar. To bump into old school friends while running errands on the main street. To walk for twenty minutes to reach a pristine, empty beach. To go to sleep at night in complete darkness and silence and to wake up to a chorus of birds singing outside of your window. To pull open the curtains and look out onto a large, green front yard with piles of flowers spilling over. To greet the neighbor as you walk to the mailbox to collect the newspaper. To have a petty argument with your sibling. To take the dog for a walk past kids on bikes and people toiling away in their vegetable garden. To have fresh seafood for dinner. To see your friend’s band play. To go to the public library and know how to borrow a book. To go rifling through second-hand bookstores and thrift stores. To walk through the art gallery and have a decaf latte at your favorite cafe next door, the one you got fired from because you were more interested in flirting with the customers than being a good waitress. To go to the independent cinema and watch old films. To drive out to your family’s cottage on the weekend and have a barbeque with the neighbors. To go to your cousin’s house for dinner and play with her kids. To go to a public lecture with a well-known local or international author. These are the things I associate with home. They linger in my memory and whisper to me that I should return.

Of course, it’s a common dilemma for any expatriate – the longing for ‘home’, for comfort and familiarity. It grabs my hand and tugs me towards it. As the years go by, the tugging becomes stronger and my resolve weaker. One day my feet will touch the sand of home again.