Going Om: Shrines, Shamans and The Lack of Sarcasm in Bali
I finally caved and started reading “Eat Pray Love.” I had just been to the best yoga class of my life in a jungle-themed studio with rice fields views. We chanted incantations to Ganesh for 20 minutes before bending into pretzel-like poses while breathing in self-acceptance. Before class four girls to my right hugged each other hello with such intensity, for a second, I thought they might be on Molly. Each had practiced with a string of japamala (Indian prayer beads) laid on the floor in front of her mat. After class I chugged an entire coconut, had a gluten-free cookie and bought a book entitled “I Am Amazing.” Normally coconut water makes me want to puke, so I’m taking this as a sign that my transformation is now complete.
We had initially scratched Bali off the list because of all the hype. I was convinced we were too late. The island has been ruined by the yoga retreats and the rowdy Australians who flock to the all-inclusive resorts in Kuta beach. Infinity pools may be Instagram bait, but they do not equal infinite happiness.
After almost a month here, I am no longer so sure.
We are in Ubud, a town smack in the middle of Bali, where you can’t walk down the street without tripping over deities, devotees and…divorced women. Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert is to blame for the latter. After “Eat Pray Love” Bali must now be something therapists prescribe along with Prozac to anyone going through a difficult break up. And I can totally see why. Heart-lifting slogans are everywhere. Stitched into tote bags, printed on t-shirts, even spelled out in marigolds on temple steps. “The Universe Is On Your Side,” “Trust Me You Are Lovely,” “Feel Good Everyday.” It’s like everyone on the island conspired to get me into a sarcasm detox. Only one shop tucked away on a quiet street pedals yoga wear embellished with a mean-spirited phrase that makes the New Yorker in me chuckle — “Namaste Bitches.” But I can’t bring myself to buy anything there. Here in Bali you take your search for happiness and self-improvement very seriously. This is made clear when we attempt to order a beer at Seeds of Life, a restaurant across the street from the Ubud Palace. The waitress gives us a scornful look and declares that here they only serve vegan fare, implying we go elsewhere for our vices.
Initially my impulse to mock the scene is strong. But two gong meditation sessions later I’m waltzing into Witches, a candle/book store and am walking out with a book titled “The Path of a Warrior Goddess.” Fuck yeah, I want to be her.
I meet Lena at Fly High yoga where we’ve been swinging upside down, cocooned in strips of fabric hung from the ceiling for an hour. Turns out she is from Ukraine like me and we spend an afternoon chatting about our lives over smoothie bowls. She’s recently divorced (surprise!), has lived in Goa and in the Himalayas and when I try to one up her with tales of New York and Burning Man, she doesn’t flinch but takes it up a notch with how she once spent 21 days in a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar learning to meditate. I listen in total awe, overcome by envy. Now that’s what I’d call a once-in-a-lifetime experience worthy of writing home about. Why am I in Ubud again? She offers to give me a ride to my cottage on the back of her scooter. I hop on with no hesitations, and we glide through traffic without helmets, hair flapping in the wind. My jealousy sky rockets. I’m terrified of getting on a bicycle on these bumpy roads with no traffic lights. In this town with no sidewalks and uber-humid daytime temps, I’d kill for scooter-riding skills. At home I drool over Lena’s Facebook pics. She’s likely a model. Her photos have great lighting and she’s wearing cool fringed leather outfits and has a far-away look in her emerald-colored eyes. She’s stunning and mysterious, posed against the backdrop of Indian deserts and temples and things I’ve only ever dreamed of seeing. I quickly scroll through my own pics to see how I measure up. Okay, I’ve got those skydiving ones from eight years ago and some Burning Man costumes and a few polaroids from Greece. I instantly regret my decision not to post any pictures of me and my boyfriend on our current round-the-world excursion.
And then it dawns on me and I laugh.
A year ago, I couldn’t have even imagined being here in Bali. I barely knew where Bali was on the map. I was 35 and single and I spent my time commiserating with my single girlfriends about how unfair life was. At my lowest point I’d hate read articles on Refinery29 by an ex-colleague who was posting about her year-long round-the-world honeymoon. She and her husband had gone to all the countries, done all the things, and had beautiful photos to prove it. Sure, she had written irritating paragraphs about “winning at life,” but more practical stories about how to pack a carryon for a year of travel were memorable. But she never got through the whole year. Refinery pulled the content after five posts. There were too many hateful comments on the blog to continue. The readers were appalled by the entitled couple with seemingly copious amounts of money who had gone and done that thing we all dream about but know we’ll never get to do. How dare they flaunt it? What right do they have to stick their happiness in our faces? I remember being gleefully satisfied when the blog was pulled and immediately going right back to Instagram to craft the public story of my own ‘amazing’ life.
It’s incredible how vicious the cycle is. Surely there’s some woman right now sitting at her desk in a still-freezing New York or any other corporate city in the world and hate-reading my streams of consciousness. Hi there. Trust me, I know how you feel. I was you. Hell, I’m still you. I may be in beautiful Bali, but I’m actively regretting my life choices to not be embarking on a silent meditation retreat in Myanmar.
To punish my insatiable mind, I tell it that I will not be going to any must-see tourist sites here for the rest of our stay. I tell it to be grateful for what it got–daily yoga, sunshine, an outdoor shower, THE FREAKING INFINITY POOL. But it’s not listening. It’s already planning a trip to Bhutan.
On the calendar it’s April 10th. My three months of travel are up. I should be packing up bags now, flying back home and seamlessly reinserting myself into my real life. But that original plan has long ago been left in the dust. If I go back now, I’m afraid I’ll feel like I never even left.
It’s our last day here and to celebrate we join a big group meditation. At the start, 35 people sit in a circle and share their names and how they are feeling. Everyone’s either nervous or thankful, depending on how long they’ve been in Bali. We hold hands and close our eyes and the Indian guru guide walks us through a series of breathing exercises that make me dizzy and slightly nauseous. And then, maybe 30 minutes in, as we are exhaling together chakra by chakra it happens. Energy surges through the circle with vicious speed. We grip hands. A woman screams, another starts to cry. The guru warned this could happen. He’s instructed us to just keep going, to stay with it. My hands are numb and feel like chicken feet, fingers all crooked and twisted. There’s turmoil and uncertainty in the monkey mind. But there’s also a new feeling that occasionally floats to the surface. It’s warm and cozy and it makes me feel cradled. I may not have a motorcycle license, but I have a US passport that lets me spend the next three months in Europe if I want to. There are no rules. The guru begins to chant. Like a lullaby, his Sanskrit slowly lulls the room back to a sense of serenity. We place our hands over our hearts and send love to ourselves and each other. When I open my eyes, for a fleating second I believe with my whole heart that the universe really does have my back. Okay Bali, you win.
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