10/10/15 – I looked at the photo again, more carefully—it couldn’t be—but it was. The image was attached to an email we’d sent to Bali bellyaching about the smoky haze obscuring the skyline in Singapore. “Nothing but blue skies here,” the ever-cheerful Gonzalo had replied, sending a snapshot of a sundrenched table under an arcing palm tree on a golden-sand beach. Completely unknowingly, we would eat our last meal on Bali at this very table, drinking in the sun, the sand, the sea and the magnetic pull of this island that had somehow, unexpectedly gotten under my skin.
There was something about it here that made those moments of serendipity seem not wholly unexpected—the “Eat, Pray, Love shit” James and I began to call it. And sometime during a sacred fire ritual, right out of said book, but undeniably real owing to the sweat trickling down my back and the bits of ember burning holes in my borrowed sarong, I let go of the “shit” part and just let Bali in.
And then reality returned—
“Vegan designer gelato,” James read the sign with a mixture of incredulity and deep disgust. We were in the middle of the Balinese jungle, but the heat and the bamboo buildings were the only thing that gave it away. Tan, blond ex-pat parents and their barefoot, dreadlocked children swarmed around us in a mad rush of air-kisses and ingenuously intoned “it’s been too long!”s. Our guide, a former student, one of the few local kids on scholarship, tried to talk over them via grainy radio-microphone: “Some of the parents started the raw food stall so their kids could eat at school.” She lead us over to another bamboo building away from the fray of parents with a big sign over the door—“palm oil free.” “This is the kitchen where we prepare other foods…because some people still can eat gluten,” she continued, without a trace of irony. We were at the Green School, a supremely progressive K-12 prep school started by the renowned jeweler John Hardy and attending by the offspring of those who had apparently caught a fatal case of the Eat, Pray, Love bug.
The thing is, there was nothing here to dislike. The reverse-osmosis water filter not only served students and their steel Siggs but was an open tap for the local community. After school snacks of sliced, fuchsia dragonfruit were served in biodegradable banana-leaf boats. Kids learned vermiculture, aquaponics and debated the philosophies of Temple Grandin. The computer lab was nestled in the second story of a beautiful, spiraling, oversized bamboo hut. The Wi-Fi was free and fast and the gluten-free cookies were surprisingly good. So why did I feel so uncomfortable?
A few days before we’d passed another school, this one set on the edge of a man-made ravine at the foot of Mt. Batur. The area was a sand quarry, relentlessly being excavating to fuel the construction needs of new resorts, homes and roads across the island. “It’s very dangerous for the school to be there,” remarked our guide, giving voice to what each of us was thinking. “The ground is unstable here because of the volcano…” he trailed off leaving us to ponder the repercussions of that statement internally.
A few minutes later we reached the beautiful lake at the foot of the volcano and held on tight as our jeep ascended the frighteningly steep road leading to the trailhead where we would begin our hike. “The women in this area used to have to climb down this slope everyday to fetch water from the lake,” he told us, twisted backward in his seat, used to the climb. “That was the beginning of our project here—to give these communities access to fresh water.” The time saved, virtually all day for one member of each family, had freed up families to learn trades and the project had since expanded, schooling these impoverished villagers in basket-weaving, hammock-making and the cultivation of cashews and mangos to turn into high-end snacks.
Sweaty from our hike that hadn’t even winded our jeans and flip-flop clad local navigator, we drank cool coconut water among a group of women deftly weaving palm fronds into neat little baskets on a cement floor underneath the village water tanks. They did indeed seem content, idly chatting and casually watching the toddlers playing at their feet. Every day was less of a struggle now. They had water, their children’s bellies were full (though not of vegan designer gelato), they still had time to attend their traditional festivals and enough to afford a few luxuries. Around a corner, two shy, older children hid behind their homemade kite, an airplane made from scrap wire and colored plastic. I wondered what these boys would make of the 11-year-old Green School students who had started a popular initiative to ban plastic bags on Bali. As they jetted off to give TED talks in London, these boys surely looked up to the sky, tracing the outline of their kite in their mind, wondering if they too might someday fly away on an airplane.
It was this disparity that felt uncomfortable. That this small island was bursting with extraordinary wealth but also quiet pockets of poverty, that it pulsed with profound spirituality and also served as a mecca for the profane (namely Australian kids out for a good time at prices cheaper than Sydney), that it was at once cosmopolitan, having drawn travelers the world over for centuries, but also deeply traditional. Like the black and white checkered cloths draped around the island’s countless temples, statues and sacred trees, it was a manifestation of coexisting extremes.
Tellingly, the Balinese only use these cloths to decorate the outermost enclosure of their temples. It is an acknowledgment that only on the basest spiritual level are black and white, good and evil, visibly separate. Step over the threshold and that certainty dissolves into the unity masquerading as chaos that Hinduism does so well. It was with this in my mind that we completed our time on Bali, unwittingly joining our first impressions and our last at that table on the beach. It was here that I allowed the crush of ceaseless gamelan chords, volcanic vistas, towering temple gates, sequined drag queens, infinity-edge plunge pools, greasy noodles, dewdrops on rice fields and countless other flashes of color, scent and sound to wash over me with a genuine equanimity—that Eat, Pray, Love stuff again
… but I still rolled my eyes at the shop called Yin Yang hawking cement Buddha statues on the way to the airport.
The more I reflect on my time in Bali, the less able I feel to condense my experiences and reactions into words. Then, in that funny way that always seems to happen, I stumbled upon an old favorite poem. Despite being written in response to a very different time and place, it was perfect—it was Bali:
“Give me silence, water, hope
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes”