Before I traveled, I read Eat, Pray, Love three times. Yes, it’s true. Except I actually listened to the audiobook instead of reading because it was an entertaining and constructive way to spend my hour-long commute to and from work.
Why did I read this book and why on earth did I read it so many times? Truth be told, I actually had no intention of reading Eat, Pray, Love until it came as a strong suggestion from a dear friend whom I highly respect.
I was living in California, working long hours at a demanding Graphic Design position for a reputable architecture firm. Sometimes I think one of the main “reasons” for me even working there in the first place was so that I could meet this friend of mine, Melinda.
Melinda is an interior designer who loves her job and excels in her field. I am an artist and writer who was pretty down and out at the time, feeling confused about my purpose and direction in life.
Anyways, Melinda is one of those people who smiles from the inside. She has a lot of love to give, and at the time that we met (circa June 2014), I really needed all of the love that I could get.
One weekend not long after we met, I stayed the night at Melinda’s home and really let her into my life. She listened kindly and patiently as I spoke for hours. I was so confused about everything, or I felt like I was. My job, my family, my friends back in New York, my relationship, my ability (or lack thereof) to manage my own emotions, habits, and behaviors.
Melinda gently processed the information I gushed at her, thoughtfully commenting and asking questions along the way. The next morning as we were sitting at the kitchen table for breakfast, I found myself wanting to hear her tell me that I would be Okay. In theory I knew that I was largely in charge of my life’s direction, but I was having great difficulty putting this knowledge into action.
Melinda is happy, effervescent, strong. I value her opinions and trust her advice. Even after only knowing her for barely a few months, I knew that any thoughts she had to offer would come from a genuine, well-considered place.
“Melinda?” I managed, annoyed that I needed to hear someone else’s affirmation and unsure of my own frightened words as they awkwardly squeaked into the small, sleepy kitchen, “I’m going to be okay, right?”
I really, realllllly wanted to hear, “yes, Alex , I think you will be Okay.”
Instead, as I both dreaded and expected, she took a moment to compose her thoughts before she spoke.
“You will be Okay, but you have a lot of wounds. You need to heal.”
I felt like a moron, but I was so lost! I wanted further guidance. I also knew she wouldn’t judge, so I probed.
“Wounds? Heal them? How?”
“Yes,” she continued. “Wounds with your family, with your friends, with your relationships – your relationship with yourself.”
I kind of knew what she was talking about, but it all seemed so nebulous and intangible to me at the time. I was frustrated and wanted someone to spell out an answer. Melinda saw the confusion reading loud and clear on my tired face, so she got more specific.
“Journaling can be really helpful,” she started. “I recommend trying it. It can be very therapeutic.” I knew she was right on this one – I’d journaled before and was always happy when I did. But journaling meant taking time out of my day, and I already felt like I had no time! Each morning I dragged myself out of bed, drove an hour to and from work through rush hour traffic, barely squeezed lunch into a 12 hour day, and considered myself lucky if I made it to evening kickboxing at L.A. Fitness on Mondays. How was I supposed to make extra time for something as indulgent as journaling?
“Read Eat, Pray, Love. I think you’d like it. I read it and got a lot out of it.” Reading on top of journaling? This was getting to be a tall order. But since I had sought her advice, I listened and kept quiet.
“Ok, journal more and read Eat, Pray, Love. That sounds like a good place to start, I can do that.” I said the words as if I were trying them on like a pair of running shoes, attempting to gauge just how big the blisters would be.
“And travel,” Melinda added. “Travel is the best.”
This is where I cut in. Was this chick crazy?!
When would I possibly travel? How would I find the time? Even if I did find the time, who would I go with? Where would I go? What would I do? Just drop everything? Ridiculous.
In true fashion, Melinda didn’t really entertain my protests. She simply said that she didn’t know all of the answers and that traveling was one of the best things she’d ever done for herself. In the years before meeting me, she too had seen difficult days. She was glad she had made a point to travel and grateful for the lessons and experiences travel brought into her life. (Several years prior, Melinda had spent 6 weeks in Australia and New Zealand, backpacking with her cousin).
I left Melinda’s house feeling partly more at ease and partly more hopeless than before. According to Melinda, my prescription for happiness involved activities that seemed impossible. At the very least improbable. But I felt desperate, so 10 days later I downloaded Eat, Pray, Love on audible.com and began listening.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book, given that I hadn’t liked the movie much the first time I saw it (I think I actually turned it off, though now that I’ve completed the book, I’d like to go back and try to watch it again).
For those of you that haven’t read the book, it’s essentially the story of a self-aware woman who is unhappy with some major aspects of her life and decides to take time for herself to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia in a quest for happiness, self-discovery, and love.
Admittedly, part of me didn’t want to like the book. I’d heard the title Eay, Pray, Love used commonly as a conversational cliché, and liking it would mean I was just like everyone else. But it’s well-written and easy to relate to, so naturally it’s become a global hit. At least I was hooked. And for those of you looking for an audio book, Liz Gilbert (the author) does a great job of reading her story aloud.
Anyways, here I am writing from a café in Bali and you can see that I clearly took Melinda’s advice to heart. I joked with her recently about it on Skype. Journaling? Somehow I figured it out and found the time. Book? Check! Travel? Check, check!
To be clear, I didn’t travel because Melinda told me to. And I didn’t go to Bali because Liz Gilbert did. Though it is funny how that worked out. While Melinda’s guidance helped lead me to answers that felt natural and essential for me, it took more than a push and a colossal shift in perspective to get there.
Why Bali? When I decided to extend my travels beyond the original JFK return date scheduled for August, it made sense for Southeast Asia to follow due to proximity to Australia. Bali seemed like a good place to start and work myself north, through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I hear great things about Vietnam and Cambodia, too. I’m scheduled to be in Indonesia for at least two months, so I’ll keep you posted on how it all pans out.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert goes to Bali, Indonesia for four months. One of the main characters from this chapter of her travels is a Balinese healer named Wayan Nuriasih.
When I arrived in Bali, I didn’t really have much interest in doing the whole EPL tourist thing. I could tell immediately upon my arrival in Ubud (Ubud is phenomenal and deserves a separate blog post dedicated to it entirely) that the island has so much to offer and I wanted to carve out my own experience. Besides, most of my time would be spent in rural areas, as I had made plans to spend a large portion of my time in Indonesia as a volunteer, teaching English to Balinese children.
I flew into Bali on a Wednesday night, but my volunteer orientation in Ubud wasn’t until Sunday. For volunteers who arrive to Bali a few days early, the volunteer organization arranges a few nights of basic (but lovely and very welcoming – I would stay there again!) accommodation in central Ubud. This was perfect for me because not only was it my first time in Asia, but also I had a few days to acclimate and explore.
My “home stay” (a common word for accommodation in Bali and Southeast Asia) was centrally located, which means I was right in the middle of all the action. And I loved it. Ubud is such a colorful, vibrant and inspired place! At first I actually found myself a bit overwhelmed by it all – colors, shops, flowers, temples, people, fruits, clothing, jewelry, crafts, art. I suppose I couldn’t ask for a more amazing type of “stress.”
Because of all the activity and bustle around me, it took me three days to notice that I was staying right next to Wayan Nuriasih’s shop. Literally two doors down. While my initial plan hadn’t been to seek out her healing prowess, I figured I should take the opportunity now that it had smacked me square in the face. (Literally, I almost walked right into the sign outside her front entrance). So, I wandered in.
When I entered, Wayan was visibly stressed. She was just ending what seemed to be a long session with a German woman who was having a hard time understanding Wayan’s accented English. I ended up having to stop in again later that afternoon, but I’m glad it worked out that way. Because you never know what the day will bring.
All I will say about the session with Wayan is that it was interesting and rewarding. I entered feeling skeptical, and my attitude changed when she made some remarkably accurate and specific comments about my past relationships that she couldn’t possibly have known. But it was what followed that blew my mind.
I was getting ready to leave, reaching into my purse for the 400,000 rupiah I owed her (approx $30 USD), when Wayan looked at me and asked if I would like to join her at temple. A traditional Balinese temple experience at night with The Wayan Nuriasih!? Hell yea I did!
When I told her that I hadn’t yet purchased any appropriate temple clothing, Wayan and her children quickly found the proper attire for me to borrow. I had to bring two outfits because apparently we were going to get wet (?!). I asked if I could pay her anything, and her daughter Tutti kindly suggested that I might cover the cab ride. It was an hour each way, but it only cost $10 USD total. Again, the ever skeptical side of my conscious murmured to me in the background: “she’s only inviting you so she can get a free cab ride, Alex!” The other part of my conscious replied, “who gives a S***!? I’m going to a Hindu water temple at night!” So together with two of Wayan’s sons, we got in a cab and departed for Tempak Siring, The Holy Spring Water Temple.
I don’t think I could do justice to my experience at this place if I tried. Also, my photos are pretty crummy because my camera died early into the night (lesson, always be prepared with backup charging if you’ve used your camera all day on a volcano hike and are spontaneously invited to join a holy spring water temple ceremony…). Maybe it was a good thing because I was forced to soak up the experience without the barrier of my camera or any other gadgets (No technology – God forbid! I’d purposely left my phone behind to avoid possible theft or water damage).
Before the entrance to the main temple there was a large, intricate stone shrine where Wayan stopped to make an offering and pray. I joined Wayan and her two sons, impressed with the respect and ceremony that her youngest son showed at just four years of age. Out of the middle of the shrine rose an old tree with a trunk made of undulating roots as thick as my torso, twisting upwards in a strong knot towards a thick, green canopy of leaves above.
When we entered the temple, there were people all over. Eating, sitting, chatting, napping, praying, spending time with their friends, families and children. Some were wet, some were dry. I could tell who had already been in the water to say blessings because they looked refreshed and wore beautiful white clothes with colorful belts and head dress, ready for final prayers before heading home.
On the way to the lockers where we would store our change of dry clothes, several tables and one big ornate shrine were covered in an abundance of colorful offerings – small woven leaf baskets filled with pink, white, purple, orange and red flowers, snacks, coins, and incense tucked into the side.
Since I hadn’t yet done much research about temples in Bali, everything I saw was a wonderful surprise. I’d already thought that the shrine with the tree and the temple courtyard were pretty cool, but then we made our way to the holy fountain area. What I saw there made my jaw drop.
There were three rectangular waist-deep pools of different size. In the wake of the bathers, the water’s rippled surface glittered in the moonlight and the surrounding light of the temple. At least two hundred people were gathered in this space. Some sat quietly to the side, bowing in modest prayer. Some stood by a large shrine piled high with the evening’s offerings, saying blessings and adding even more colorful abundance to the growing heap atop the old stone.
Even though I felt somewhat like the village idiot, most of my fellow bathers smiled warmly and tried to speak with me if they knew any English. There was a line of fountains along each pool’s far side, and they poured water in a steady stream onto the heads of the eager bathers lined up in each pool. One by one, people passed through each fountain, letting the water splash freely onto their face, hair and neck.
I could tell there was a specific process that guided the bathers’ practice, and I was grateful for Wayan’s older son. He spoke no English, but led by example and patiently guided me through the steps of the bathing ritual. In each founain, I dunked my head a certain number of times and then splashed water on my face. At some fountains, I was meant to add a step where I swallowed some water, then put water in my mouth and spat it out several times.
When Wayan’s son indicated that I should drink, I first looked at him with concern. I wanted to make sure I understood correctly. “No Bali Belly?” I felt bad asking, but I really didn’t want to be bed-ridden with a high fever for a week from drinking some untreated island water. He looked at me with kind eyes, “This ok. No bacteria. No Bali Belly.” I drank the water and didn’t think about it again.
Since my camera crapped out early on, I took extra care to see and feel my surroundings. I was annoyed at first, but seeing things without looking through my camera lens was mostly relieving. I remember a lot of bright yellow and white. And stone. Most everything was old and strong, made of dark, heavy stone. Statues of ornamental animals and gods watched over us and the outdoor lighting cast deep shadows in every angle and corner, giving the waist-deep bathing pool a mirage of infinite depth.
The sound of prayer mixed with laughter and chatter filled the space, and the social buzz softened the solemnity of the statues and stone. I felt like I was in the presence of something great, but I also felt comfortable. My laughter came easily as I fumbled my way through the pilgrimage from fountain to fountain.
Since I hadn’t read up on Bali or the main tourist attractions yet, I held no expectation for this experience. It simply came to me and I happily accepted. Some might say that I’m an ignorant fool for entering another continent without doing major research, but beyond the bare essentials I’m grateful that I had no preconceived notions on this particular night.
I soon learned that Tempak Siring Temple is an important Hindu destination for many Balinese locals. People journey to the Holy Spring Water Temple from all over Bali to wash away bad influences and purify the soul, body and mind. Not surprisingly, it is also a major tourist destination, and the temple remains a symbol of renewal and healing for tourists and locals alike.
For me, an unassuming visitor, the evening at the temple was a gift. You know that corny saying, “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift and that’s why it’s called the present?” Well, it’s popular for a reason. Wading through that water in the moonlight, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more present, more alive, or more beautiful.
Looking back to reading Eat, Pray, Love one year ago in California and arriving to Bali this October, all I can say is, isn’t it funny how things play out? Some element of planning helps both in life and in travel, but ultimately we just do the best we can as we go along. No matter how much we try to control the events in our lives, life has a way of organically unfolding around us. Sometimes it is painful, sometimes it is hard, and sometimes it seems almost impossible to see the beauty through the grit. But sometimes, when the time is ripe and we look around, the beauty of our moments can be overwhelming.