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.

Reclaiming the c-word

buddhacwordIt was the early 2ooos. I was a young, earnest student reading Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. I took Gender 101. Sometimes I wore a beret and sat in cafes alone drinking black coffee or cheap red wine that tasted like vinegar and scrawled in my diary. I worked part-time in a rather cool bar. I was making connections between the personal and political and my feminist conscience was taking root.

It’s fair to say that I was quite naive and innocent (still am! gah!) and involved in a one-way street on-again-off-again relationship in which I was the very cute doormat. So I started to see that guys weren’t always nice and were actually sometimes kind of ruthless. Manipulative, pathetic, ridiculous lying dogs. But I’ll hold off telling you how I really feel.

So I was working as a waitress at this cocktail bar and this new girl started. We got along well and divulged all our deepest, darkest boy-related horror stories – the ritualistic bonding of females. Then somewhat coincidentally, we both started dating two guys who worked with us. They basically screwed us over at the same time and we were upset and heartbroken in only ways that silly 20 year old girls can be. The details are hazy now but we joined forces and created SPC which stood for ‘Strong Powerful Cunt’ in an effort to reclaim the c-word. It meant that we were stronger than this petty bullshit and could override our relationship dramas. I even held a potluck dinner at my house for women only in the spirit of SPC. See, we don’t need no man. SPC eventually died out after being reprized for an event on a ship in the name of peace and empowerment, but that is another story.

Cut to a decade later and I’m chatting with my male friend who is well-educated in such things as philosophy and ethics. The conversation turns to language and we agree that the c-word is the worst word in the English language and should never be used under any circumstances. I did not tell him about SPC. And so, I buried the word in the back of my lexicon closet and may have only fetched it out once or twice in the context of stubbing my toe or checking my bank balance.

Cut to a few years after that conversation. I’m sitting in a beautiful Balinese restaurant with opulent marble floors where there is a live band and salsa dancing. I’m waiting for some guy to ask me to dance, but alas, that is never going to happen because we’re in Ubud where the ratio of women to men is 45:1. But, I spy to my right another white woman, perhaps around the same age with ridiculous cheekbones circa Hollywood 1940. I almost see a smoky haze emanating from her. I overhear that she’s an anthropologist. I’m giddy and inch my way over. We start to chat and were still talking when the band has long gone and the waiters are practically kicking us out.

Over the next week, we become inseparable, like long-lost BFFs. We engage in the ritualistic bonding of females and vomit out our worst heartbreaks, show each other our life scars. Hailing from Norway, the peculiar thing about my new BFF and perhaps the thing I like most about her is her perfect cut-glass Oxbridge accent which was acquired, funnily enough, while she was living in Bali doing fieldwork. The second best thing about her is the way she spits out bad British words like a sailor. Before I know it, I too am saying ‘shag’ and ‘wanker’ in every sentence. And then we start to say the c-word with abandon in all different contexts. It feels very cathartic to say this taboo word in relation to all manner of things that really get my goat. There is power in this word and joy at transgressing by using it.

Then there comes the reality check – back in Seoul I drop it in the middle of a conversation with a group of female friends that I don’t know that well. It goes down like cold sick. Oops. So, context is everything. Next time I trawl it out, it will be in the presence of my new BFF. She gets it. And god, it just feels so good and deliciously politically incorrect to throw the c-word at someone that has wronged you. May the c-word prosper (in the correct context of course).

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.