Little known fact: Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. It is curious then to note that the most popular tourist destination in the country is an island where nearly 85% of the citizens are Hindu.
This is Bali, one of the 17,000-odd islands that make up Indonesia and one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Southeast Asia. Its strong tourist reputation did not fully arise until the latter half of the 20th Century, but its economy and local culture are now heavily bolstered each year by more than four million vacationing visitors hoping to “find themselves” – a number that now includes me.
With a year-round school calendar, Malaysia offers many short breaks throughout the course of the year. The three major breaks are one week in March, two in May/June and one in August/September. ETAs here typically use these breaks to travel outside of the country (on their own dime), a luxury which Fulbright recipients in other countries are not typically granted.
For this break, I bid a fond farewell to my Perak peeps and met up with six of my close friends from orientation to travel down to the “Island of the Gods”. Five of them – Brendan, Martin, Janna, Claire and Betsy – are placed in Sabah, the easternmost part of Malaysia on the northern tip of Borneo. The other, Anna, is in Pahang, about five hours east of me on the peninsula. It’s funny how pumped I was for this reunion given that I have been apart from these people for five times as long as we were ever together. Still, while most people planned their first break around the place they most wanted to visit, I based mine around the people with whom I most wanted to travel. For Anna and I especially, we have been suffering from the Fear Of Missing Out (or, as Millennials like to say, FOMO) given that our closest friends have all been able to hang out in the same state. However, the five Sabahans reminded us that every ETA placement has its pros and cons.
The trip to Kuala Lumpur International Airport was a tedious one. Mr. Ibrahim graciously offered to drive me to the bus station in Teluk Intan, so we left at 6:30 AM and I treated him to teh tarik and roti canai as a token of my gratitude. My shuttle left at 8:00 AM and arrived at KLIA2 around 11:00. I then meandered through the airport for three hours while I waited to convene with my travel buddies. I stopped in a bookshop and purchased a copy of Eat Pray Love for some light vacation reading, which seemed appropriate since it is the most famous book about Bali. After passing through security, I met up with my peeps in the airport food court. We spent two hours catching up on our Malaysian adventures.
In comparing our placements, Brendan inquired whether any of us had started to view our kampungs as “home”. I said “no” instinctively, but the question still intrigued me. Given all the obstacles and differences I had faced since arriving in Kampung Gajah, the idea that it was my “home” had never crossed my mind. Ultimately, I justified my uncertainty to myself with logic: it can never really be my “home” since I am perpetually aware of the temporary nature of my residence there. Either way, it provided some solid food for thought as we boarded our plane to Bali.
We landed at the Denpasar airport around 8:00 PM, simultaneously exhausted from a long day of travel and eager to immediately start exploring. We were picked up by two drivers from our hostel in Canggu, a gorgeous little hideaway called the Farm Hostel. On the way there from the airport, I sat in the front seat and discussed Balinese culture with the driver. He explained to me that Balinese Hinduism is unique because the culture influences the religion, whereas the reverse is true in most other Hindu regions of the world.
The Farm Hostel was tucked away down a dark and bumpy alley next to a rice paddy. Given the relatively affordable price (~$24 USD per night), the accommodations were exceptional. There was a garden area with picnic tables and motorbikes for rent, an upstairs with ping pong and a TV, and downstairs a pool and two large bedroom areas with air-con, curtained pod beds and beautiful open-air bathrooms. The three boys all stayed in one room while the girls snagged the second.
After dropping our stuff off and locking up our passports, we answered our immense hunger by heading to a burger joint called the Pit Stop. We instantly realized how much we have missed western food. I’m sure the place is good by any standards, but in that moment I swear it was the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. I was even able to wash it down with a cold beer, a luxury which is readily available on the Borneo half of Malaysia
but is unthinkable on the peninsula given the conservative religious culture. While there, we ran into a group of Australian jocks who recommended a beachfront bar called Old Man’s for some introductory Balinese nightlife. After a celebratory round of tequila shots, we perched ourselves at a picnic table and giggled with awe over the relief we felt upon noticing ourselves lost in a crowd of white people for the first time since leaving the US. This, of course, did not stop us from making fun of the drunk Aussies who started a conga line when “Fireball” came on.
The bar closed at midnight, but we still had some juice in our engines, so we strolled down to the beach where I dipped my feet unknowingly into a third ocean (the Indian) for the first time. In the velvet darkness, the waves were harsher than they appeared, so our innocent attempt to wet our toes ended with us getting soaked by the splashing tides. At some point, I ended up having a brief Hamilton karaoke session with Betsy while Anna and Claire looked on dumbfounded. When we were finished on the beach, we decided to head back to the hostel to get some rest so we could be ready to rock-and-roll for our first full day on the island.
We slept in a tad the next day and woke up famished. After a slow start, we (with a new friend from the hostel, Sydney) ventured out to a nearby organic restaurant Betsy had stalked down on Instagram called the Avocado Café. There, I had an amazing chai latte
and some divine maple-apple pancakes. After brunch, we walked over to the Canggu beach. In the light of day, we were slightly disappointed to find that the beach’s sand was black because of the volcanic activity on the island. While it twinkled beautifully in the sunlight, it also made our feet look like they were made of graphite. Nevertheless, we spent the day lounging by the sea, drinking water from coconuts and laughing as other beachgoers – making the same mistake we made the night before – walked nonchalantly into the water and got barreled over by the stealthily strong waves.
As evening fell, we moseyed over to a dinner spot with mediocre food but a stupendous bathroom. On the way there, Betsy bought “chicken lollipops” (satay) and “became her best self”. We were all very sluggish post-meal, so we took some time to regroup at the
hostel. We got cleaned up and pre-gamed our nighttime activities with an X-rated version of Bananagrams (making the dirtiest words we could with our tiles). Our cackling got the attention of one of the Balinese workers who hijacked Anna’s tiles and made the most vulgar, profane set of words in board game history.
Shortly thereafter, we were joined by some other hostel-goers: some Swedes named Heidi and Dan and a kickass Texan-turned-globetrotting-Australian called Sam Jackson. We had such fantastic conversations with them that we almost – almost – forgot to leave for the bar. This moment helped me realize that meeting other people is by far the greatest gift of travelling. It helped me break down some of my walls and made me incredibly eager to make friends in the other hostels I visit this year. Claire caught a case of the giggles while repeating the phrase “puan-puan dan tuan-tuan”, the catchy Malay way of saying “ladies and gentlemen”. After taking some hilarious Snapchats, we rolled back out through the dark alley toward “Ex Machina”, a bar we had passed several times but not yet visited.
The bar seemed odd at first as some funky international jazz group was performing and most of the patrons were sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the dirty bar floor. After their set was finished, however, the place really livened up. Janna accidentally broke Anna’s beer, I had a nice chat with some random Eastern European girl, and a chubby Chinese guy challenged Betsy and I to a dance-off (which, to be clear, we slaughtered – though I ruined my jeans in the process). The night flew by and before I knew it, we were back at the Pit Stop eating late night burgers in a torrential downpour. We closed out the joint and then Janna and I ran home while having a serious heart-to-heart, which I treasured in spite of my sopping clothes. In Canggu, ending the night with wet clothes seems to be a trend.
I was startled awake by my phone’s buzzing, only to find that the girls had gotten “hangry” and ran off to brunch without the boys. We were only a little miffed, but we pretended to be downright pissed so the girls would have to be apologetic. In fact, we didn’t let them live it down for the whole rest of the trip! We went to the Betelnut Café where I got some mediocre scrambled eggs. We then sauntered back to the hostel and checked out (after some last-minute conversations with Sam and the hostel owner, Aryo). We caught a taxi from a nearby stand to head to our AirBNB in Ubud, the cultural heart of the island.
We booked the AirBNB pretty last-minute and it was only a few US dollars more than the hostel, so we were not expecting much. Upon exiting the taxi, we saw a sign for the place – “BliBli House”, a name that will live eternally in our hearts. We followed it through a quaint little abstract art studio, with foliage and bright canvases around every corner. At the back of the studio was a small set of wooden doors, through which our palace awaited. The place was magnificent: a private pool, small kitchen area, tropical plants, beds crafted by angels. To enter the house, we had to cross over stone steps floating in a koi pond. We had access to the roof, which gave us a perfect view of the neighborhoods around us. The maids who were fixing up the house even brought us cold washcloths and fresh-squeezed orange juice to celebrate our arrival. Our jaws were agape from the moment we stepped into the house until we checked out three days later. We decided “BliBli” will forever enter our vocabulary as a word to describe something so shockingly magnificent you cannot believe your eyes.
After settling in, we went to lunch at a cute little nearby restaurant called Kopi Desa. Janna and I split grilled cheese and tomato soup and I got an Oreo milkshake, all of which were heavenly. We then went back and swam at the house, joined by Janna’s friend Kate, a down-to-earth young woman who recently finished a teaching program in Thailand. That evening, we decided to walk into town, taking in all the exquisite sites along the way. Anna stopped for her requisite Magnum ice cream bar, and we dawdled in some local souvenir shops where I discovered a traditional Balinese fertility sculpture (or, to be blunt, a penis-shaped bottle opener). I picked one up to show the group and at that exact moment, in an instance of perfect comic timing, a group of five Balinese schoolboys passed by and began pointing and laughing at me.
I’ll pause here to give a few cultural tidbits: firstly, Indonesian currency is super confusing. The base amount is 10,000 rupiah. While it felt really baller to go to an ATM and withdraw 1,000,000 rupiah, that was basically $77 USD, and given the relatively high prices in Bali, that lasted each of us about two days before we had to do it again.
Secondly, the Balinese believe heavily in the existence of spirits in all parts of the natural world. They leave little offering boxes woven from palm leaves and filled with gifts of fruit, flowers, crackers and incense everywhere to appease the spirits and win their favor – and I mean EVERYWHERE. In doorways, on car hoods, next to the pool… we could not walk five feet in Ubud without passing one. On the plus side, things seemed to work out for us all week, so maybe these boxes did their job. Perhaps the Balinese really do know something that the rest of the world doesn’t.
During our walk, we were enticed to go see a local kecak fire dance later that night. We sat on the perimeter of a temple courtyard, while around one hundred Hindu men sat in
the middle in concentric circles surrounding a large torch. The men used their voices (different patterns of “kuh” and “chak” sounds, hence the name of the dance) to build complex rhythms while actors in elaborate costumes performed a story from the Ramayana epic. The dance lasted about 90 minutes. It was tremendously powerful, if at times a tad confusing, to watch.At the end, one man entered a trance and danced across a pile of burning coconut husks, an amazing moment nearly ruined by some disgustingly insensitive audience members who decided to use flash photography with no concern at all for the well-being of the man in the middle. On a more lighthearted note, one of the men in the circle spent the whole time making high-pitched “ooh” noises to keep the tempo for the others; we laughed as we imagined how bummed he was when that cast list came out. After the dance, we got dinner at perhaps the only eating establishment in Ubud open at 9:30 PM. Enticed by a glowing testimonial in the menu, I tried kombucha for the first time despite being blissfully unaware of how it was made. It was pretty good, but I am glad I did not learn the ugly truth before I ordered it because otherwise my inner germaphobe may have come out.
We got to bed early that night so we could wake up in time to watch the sunrise at 6:00 AM from our roof deck. It ended up being a little disappointing because of a barricade of clouds along the horizon, but even a disappointing sunrise in Southeast Asia is a pastel masterpiece in its own right. It also helped us get moving early. Our landlord, Mr. Nyoman, made breakfast for us (overpriced, underwhelming scrambled eggs – another Bali trend!) and I took advantage of the solid BliBli WiFi to FaceTime family (say that five times fast). I called Mom and John first, then Amy, Gram and Grandpa. I was particularly delighted to talk to the latter group because I have not spoken to them since arriving here; I tried a few times but the teachers’ lounge / rehab hospital WiFi link has not been kind to us. Grandpa told me this year has taught him two things – enjoy life because it can change on a dime, and patience is key – both of which are relevant to me in this moment as well.
Once breakfast was finished, we headed over to the Monkey Forest, a temple where hundreds of monkeys roam freely and interact with the guests with no regard for personal space. Betsy bought a bunch of bananas to give to the petit primates. She then turned her head for a split second and one conniving little critter came and snatched the whole bundle right out of her hand. Later, Brendan disobeyed the rules of the temple and tried to touch one of the monkeys, almost getting his finger bitten off in the process. I did not have any monkeys jump on me, which was at once a regret and a relief. From the forest, we went to lunch where I split an amazing bowl of parmesan pesto pasta with Janna.
Afterwards, we headed to the Ubud Market, an extensive and densely-packed area of souvenir stalls manned by desperate salespeople who stop at nothing short of shouting in your ear to get you to buy from them. When I purchased from a shopkeeper, they would take my bill and rub it all over their wares in hopes that it would bring them good luck in the rest of the day’s sales. The tough part was that all the stalls had essentially the same exact products, so we pretty much had to pick a place we wanted to buy from and stick with it. I ended up getting quite a few souvenirs for the teachers at my school, my Mask and Wig classmates, family members and of course myself. Some were perhaps a tad overpriced, but for a couple I haggled good deals, so it all balanced out. Plus, the exchange rate worked in my favor, although it did feel pretty awesome to spend hundreds of thousands in cash on one shopping spree. Now I know what Kim Kardashian must feel like walking down Sunset Boulevard (that is, if the stores were only two feet apart and the employees actively threatened her).
At this point, Brendan, Martin and I were exhausted from our early morning, so we walked home for an afternoon nap while the ladies soldiered on to do the Campuhan Ridge Walk even though it was raining. We ended up chilling for the rest of the day, getting dinner at Kopi Desa and then drinking by the pool while counting down the minutes to Brendan’s 23rd birthday. We played an intense round of “Never Have I Ever”, the Sabahans demonstrated a local dance they learned during state orientation and at midnight we “iced” Brendan before all passing out.
The following day, “Chegoobie” Brendan’s birthday, was probably my favorite of the whole trip. We planned to sleep in a little, but instead were startled awake shortly after 7 AM by BliBli rattling and rumbling like it had been hit by a truck. We ran outside, only to realize we had just experienced a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Even though it lasted less than a minute, it was enough to really get our blood pumping, so we headed out early to the Yoga Barn in town for a “yin yoga” class. We first stopped in the studio’s café where I had overpriced banana bread and a smoothie with spirulina (which I joked would be the name of Janna’s firstborn daughter). The class itself was pretty expensive, but Betsy managed to befriend some nice older ladies who gave us a few gift cards for free classes so we ended up paying half-price.
The studio was built into a treehouse-type structure, with spiral staircases leading to a large platform on which more than a hundred yogis were sprawled out on mats with blankets and blocks beside them. We arrived just in the knick of time so we were at the back of the room, but it ended up working out well. The type of yoga we did involved taking extremely uncomfortable poses and holding them for ten minutes at a time. It seemed silly and a tad frustrating at first, but after a few minutes of pain and discomfort on each pose, I was able to forget the awkward sensations in my limbs and meditate on my thoughts. The hour and a half session flew by and we all left in a dreamlike state, floating like fluffy Balinese clouds.
After yoga, we eagerly satisfied our cravings for Mexican food at a place called Taco Casa. I am not a particular fan of Mexican food in the States, but given that it is nonexistent in Malaysia, even I had a Pavlovian response to the smell of guacamole and salsa. We got two pitchers of sangria and a plate of nachos for the table, and I ordered some mouthwatering quesadillas for myself. It was a bittersweet reminder of how much our diets have changed since arriving in the region.
After lunch, we went home for a pre-scheduled afternoon session of Balinese massages (and pedicures instead for Betsy and Janna). Five very nice older women came over to BliBli and gave us massages in our beds. I had never gotten a massage before, but wow. What an experience. I am not even sure how much I enjoyed it to be honest because my thoughts wandered the whole time. First of all, Martin and I were lying right next to each other, so there was this uncomfortable air of realizing we were both having our torsos rubbed down silently and simultaneously. Then, there was my inner desire to befriend the lady massaging me; I couldn’t help but wonder her name, where she was from, if she had children, etc. This interpersonal curiosity of mine has largely been a blessing during my travels this year, but it made for a strange mental barrier when this woman’s thumbs were pressed into my shoulder blades. And lastly, there were the moments in which my body decided to surprise me with a tickle or twitch that I had never experienced before and my body reacted accordingly, as though a doctor was tapping my knee with a hammer. In hindsight, I think all of this means I am too tense and could – in theory – really use a massage!
Post-massages, we all chilled by the pool and were surprised by a visit from another ETA, Noah, who we had not seen since KL. We spent a few hours catching up and hanging out before getting dinner at a pizza place nearby. Noah was – in a word – rambunctious and after a few large Bintangs took it upon himself to try to DJ at the pizzeria, much to the chagrin of its three employees. From dinner, we headed back to BliBli where we were joined by a bunch of other ETAs visiting Bali for break! I will probably forget a name or two, but here’s who I remember showing up: Joey K., Josephine, Sophia B., Shaina, Naja, Christa, Julia, Alex, Jacob, Anthony, and Jay (my long-lost roomie, who I was particularly pumped to see).
After two months apart, it was fantastic to see some familiar but forgotten faces, easily my favorite night of the trip. It ended up turning into a collegiate-type party, though Mr. Nyoman was incredibly forgiving. (His only rule: “No pool water in the koi pond.”) From my perspective, this semi-rager was actually rejuvenating; it’s easy to forget in our conservative communities that we are still young adults with wild sides. We also spent hours having heart-to-hearts on the roof until, sadly, we had to say goodbye again until mid-year in May. Alas, such is the struggle of ETA life, making friends in far places.
The next day was a rough one. We had a very slow morning, both due to the festivities of
the prior night and our own hesitation to leave our beautiful abode in Ubud. After a lazy final brunch at Kopi Desa and some half-hearted packing, we bid a fond farewell to Mr. Nyoman and his family (selfie included, of course). We then took a sweltering hour-and-a-half taxi ride to the Karma Backpackers Hostel in Uluwatu, which we had only booked the day before during lunch at Taco Casa. The hostel was – in every conceivable way – a step backward, but we made the most of it. After dropping our stuff off and Googling the nearby beach options, we decided to check out Suluban Beach, noted for its beautiful cliffs and white sand. As promised, the beach was at the bottom of a high cliff with restaurants and souvenir shops built up the side. We stopped for a small late lunch and then trekked down the cliffs to the sea below.
At the bottom of the cliffs, we found ourselves in a claustrophobic cave with limestone rocks jutting out at the level of our heads. We followed the other tourists ahead of us and went single-file through the cave. At one point, we turned a corner and were shocked to find the ocean literally crashing on top of us. We had to hold our breaths and brace ourselves against the impact of the waves, lest our heads be split open like durians against the rocks. After a nice drenching, we all made it to the sand area, just as dazzling as promised. We went out to ride some waves, but the sand was full of sharp, spiky rocks and shells that quickly turned my feet into the face of Chucky. Eventually, we found a smooth sheet of rock to rest on about twenty feet out from shore.
We stayed there for an hour or so until some clouds rolled in and a nice surfer frantically alerted us that it was time to get out. We braved the currents, heading back out through the small cave area, and then went to the top of the hill to watch the sunset over a well-earned beer. For dinner, we headed to a cute little outdoor restaurant called the Cashew Tree. It was packed when we arrived, so we chose to sit on pillows on the ground – the star treatment. I enjoyed a phenomenal chicken teriyaki bowl and got to bond a little more with Martin, who shared some thoughts on his experiences last year with AmeriCorps. From dinner, we headed home where the girls called it a night while the boys stayed up for a few rounds of Uno (which I dominated. Boo yah.)
On our final morning, in spite of my deep-seeded fear of bicycles, we rented motorbikes from the hostel. Aware of my concerns, Anna graciously allowed me to ride on her back, Lizzie McGuire Movie-style. A nice employee gave us some brief driving lessons and then – still desperately unprepared – we took to the open roads of Uluwatu. We were quickly stopped by some policemen who tried to force us to bribe them for not having motorbike licenses, but they backed off upon realizing we were U.S. Embassy employees. We laughed in hindsight at how each of us reacted in the situation, from Martin pretending to speak Spanish to Janna wagging her finger and kvetching.
Anna led the charge to a brunch spot, and we chuckled as we honked our bike horns turning each corner. Brunch was a transcendent experience. I ate a good ol’-fashioned BBQ pulled pork sandwich, cole slaw and all, washed down with an ice-cold Coca Cola. Having this little taste of home did wonders for my spirit. From there, we rode out to a beach our hostel recommended to us called Dreamland. Yes, the name sounds corny, but I cannot overstate how stunning the beach was. We parked our motorbikes and walked over a little grassy knoll to find ourselves smack-dab in a “Wish You Were Here” postcard: turquoise waters, beautiful cliffs, white sand, relatively few tourists and clear skies. We intended at first to beach-hop over the course of the afternoon, but we ended up spending the whole day there because the idea that anywhere else could be better was unfathomable. To put it simply – Dreamland was BliBli.
We headed out in the late afternoon. Anna and I had a rough start with some scary hills and a brief moment of panic following a wrong turn, but Claire and Martin came to our rescue. We followed them to Uluwatu Temple, an astonishing sanctuary built on top of a cliff facing westward over the Indian Ocean. It is the most-Instagrammed place on the island, and for good reason. The view of the sunset over the waves was breathtaking. I purchased a set of Hindu prayer beads here, the pinnacle of my Eat Pray Love journey. We also briefly got to see Jay, Anthony and Alex again, an added bonus. It was a peaceful end to an action-packed week.
After the temple, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy last meal in celebration of a wonderful trip together. We found an Italian place near the hostel, called Pizzaria Italia II (yes, including the spelling error). We decided to ball out and spend as much of our remaining rupiah as possible. We bought garlic bread, salad and wine for the table. Five people got their own full-size pizzas, while Brendan and I split a margherita pizza and spaghetti carbonara. The restaurant owner was so pleased with our business that he even gave us free shots of limoncello. We handily broke the million-rupiah mark, which we then calculated to be $12 USD per person. We were flabbergasted. For the price of a Big Mac, we had one of the most amazing meals we had eaten this year – certainly the most comprehensive one.
Sitting around that table as we laughed and shared our appreciation for one another, I could not help but reflect on the nature of these friendships I had built. These are very unusual relationships. Even with all the stories we have exchanged, we know curiously little about each other. Personally, I have spent a cumulative total of three weeks with this set of people. It amazes me to realize how deep the roots of our friendships have reached in such a short time. Being trapped together in a foreign land, we have found comfort and familiarity within one another. Without our families to rely on, we made one of our own.
As we landed back in KLIA and parted ways, my earlier “FOMO” was usurped by gratitude – for these goofy, intelligent, inspiring people I now call my friends; for these incomparable experiences that are sculpting me into someone new; for black sand and white sand, rambunctious monkeys and awkward massages, puan-puan dan tuan-tuan, disappointing sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. We did not “find ourselves” in Bali. Instead, we found each other.
On the drive home, the exhaustion of traveling finally hit me. As Mr. Ibrahim’s car turned past the Kampung Gajah Town Center, I smiled contently. Logic be damned; in the back of my head, a little voice whispered, “you’re home.”
Eating, praying and loving,