Feature by Brianna Wiest
“You need very little to live a happy life,” read signs across the Balinese town of Ubud.
There are a lot of professional artisans in Indonesia. Lining the streets are galleries, fine art stores and outdoor stands with intricately carved wooden animals, or finely laced Mala beads, or signs – in this case, painted – that read in English. These things are meant for us, the visitors who come in search of themselves. When you live amongst the Balinese for a while, you notice that they are happy people– very happy people. Their contentment is not constructed, they don’t try to impress you with anything. They only want to connect with you, to make you feel like you belong. You see this in their motions. Everything is slow: the afternoons, meals, greetings. The Balinese are masters of being present.
But I did not know any of this when I decided to take a trip there. I had seen photos, heard stories, and a friend who lived there for a bit once said to me: “You and Bali are soulmates.” That’s all I needed. My original plan was to stay for a few months at the end of 2016 to finish a book in the villa I rented. That changed when I met someone – the someone – and though the timing couldn’t have been worse, it couldn’t have mattered less. I stayed, despite Stephen’s protests, and we ended up taking an abbreviated trip there, together. I thought that I had replaced my solo-Elizabeth-Gilbert-find-yourself journey with a romantic vacation, and I was okay with that. To my surprise, I got both. I fell in love in Indonesia, but I learned a lot about myself, too. (I learned that finding yourself and finding someone else are not mutually exclusive.)
The villa we stayed in was a few miles out from the center of Ubud. This made traveling to and from the town more difficult, but given that the the U.S. dollar is so strong when converted to Indonesian Rupiahs, you can afford things that would seem outlandishly luxurious back home – in this case, a private driver for a few weeks. Ours was a man named Dharma, who gave us a cell phone to contact him directly, and hours worth of knowledge as we drove and exchanged questions and answers about what his life is like in Bali, and what our life was like back at home. We stayed on top of a hill in the famous rice fields. The perimeter of our villa was so heavily forested that it appeared as though we were in the middle of a jungle. The monsoons would come through each afternoon, some while the sun was still shining. We’d wake up each day to a new offering at the foot of our doorstep, something that you see littering every street and in front of every home in Indonesia. Inside the small palm trays are cookies, rice, flowers, money, and burning incense sticks. It’s not uncommon to see decent sums of Rupiahs laying on the streets – and nobody will touch them, as they are for the gods.
The town of Ubud itself is an eclectic mix of Western-inspired restaurants, traditional Balinese food stands, tourist shops, and ancient temples. Over time, we began to settle into a routine, frequenting our favorite spots like Seniman Coffee Studio, and a brunch spot called Watercress. At every restaurant, meals begin with juices, wheatgrass shots, or smoothies because of the abundance of fruits. Our Balinese favorites were Mie Goreng, a fried noodle dish, and of course, smoothie bowls. My go-to was one that was made with a bright pink dragonfruit base, and other exotic nuts and spices. You got the bowl alongside a shotglass of warm oil, and drizzled it across the plate.
Our afternoons included trips to the Monkey Forest, where the animals roam free and will jump up on your shoulders while you feed them, as well as the Taro Elephant Safari, where we got to ride an elephant through the forest (a lifelong dream of mine). We spent two days at the beach, and rented another villa with our own pool and outdoor kitchen while there. We shopped for incense and wooden elephants and mala beads (Hindu prayer beads) to bring home as gifts, and visited famous temples like Tanah Lot.
One night, our host Wayan invited us to a religious ceremony in town. Everybody lined up in their best clothes and sat in an organized formation on the street, holding burning incense. Before it began, we were handed a series of flowers, each at different stages of development. One that’s a bud, one that’s blooming, and one that’s blossomed. Throughout the ceremony, we prayed with each, beginning with the closed flower and ending with the fully open one. I did not understand what they were saying, but I understood these motions, and could infer at least a bit of their meaning. We had holy water tossed on us, and pressed rice to our foreheads. Afterwards, our host showed us her home, which is really more like a collection of little homes within one gated area, with a “family temple” in the center. She said that’s where all the big events happen: funerals, marriages, and so on. That is how so many things are in Indonesia: everything is about everyone.
For the sake of transparency, I will also say that Bali was hard. It was a 22 hour plane ride to get there, and a 26 hour one home. That alone is enough to test your psyche. The 12 hour time difference left us disoriented and off schedule for days, and the sheer inconvenience of so many basic things – like finding or boiling drinkable water – was tiring by the end.
A lot of people travel to find themselves, but when you go with someone you love, you find one another, for better and for worse. These memories are seared to my mind as the blossoming of our relationship, just like the flowers we prayed with. I left with a boyfriend, and came back with a partner.
“We are family now,” Wayan said as she hugged us goodbye before we got in the car to go to the airport – and we are. Stephen and I, us and Dharma, us and everyone in the town we prayed and ate with. Every one of these people were strangers just months prior. How beautiful to think that all of this love was waiting for me – as close as a few blocks from my American apartment, and as far as on the other side of the world.