I am sitting on the veranda of my bungalow in a garden of blossoming flowers with Buddha and Ganesha statues shaded by the canopy of palm leaves. A mother’s foreign lullaby is punctuated by the crows of roosters, bird calls, and scooter engines. I slept for 12 hours last night, 10 hours the few nights before. I am not sure why I am so tired, whether it is the past couple years of busting my ass behind me, the emotional days of goodbyes from folks on my yoga retreat — the end of their vacation and the beginning of my adventure — or if hanging out underwater could possibly be that exhausting.
Scuba diving is the only “activity” I’ve been doing for the past week. And by that I mean watching a turtle levitating to the surface for air, a reef shark swimming amidst a school of barracuda, a sting ray flapping along the sandy bottom, a scorpion fish camouflaging itself into the wreck of a WWII U.S. cargo ship, the flatworms and starfish and clams gripping on to coral as I begin to let go of the grip on my mouthpiece. With each dive, the tiny bits of life become infinitely more interesting, the details of this underwater ecosystem more vivid.
I am in Amed (Jemeluk Beach to be more specific), a strip of villages situated on black sand beaches on the east coast of Bali. There is seemingly not much to do here. And so I wonder, “Why am I here?” This is a question I have been asking myself for weeks, with differing tones of fear and wonder.
It started with a retreat, something that felt like a mix between the Real World: Yoga Edition and yoga camp in a college dorm. Slightly outside the main part of Ubud, our compound was planted in the center of rice fields, a pool its only attraction. On that very first afternoon, a new friend and I, resting on the pool’s ledge, looked out into the jungle and eyed each other with the same trepidation: What the heck would we do all day after the yoga session?
The question was quickly answered by the two kids on the retreat, young girls who jumped into the water and proceeded to engage us both for the next one, two, or was it three hours with games — searching for my lost hairbands under water, catching rocks off the diving platform, racing to touch the bottom.
Time and space — the greatest burden and the greatest luxury.
I didn’t expect my yoga retreat to be full of Hide-and-Seek, Go Fish, I Spy, or that literally the only words I’d read during those ten days would be the book “Should I Share My Ice Cream?” I didn’t expect that my biggest adventure would be a rain-soaked, mud-drenched journey with the kids across the rice field to a temple instead of the day I climbed Mount Batur before the sun rose imperceptibly through dense clouds. That morning I fell asleep on volcanic rock heated by the earth’s core, but it was the heat of two girls sandbagging me on the dorm floor later that afternoon that warmed me the most. It’s been a long time since I’ve had friends under the age of ten. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much time.
A white flag floats in the middle of the rice field. During yoga practice my gaze, my drishti, settles upon this flag, this symbol of surrender.
There is actually nothing that needs to be done after yoga. This is an event, the main event. Each morning, we dance, laugh, sweat, and chant. During these first few days, Michael Franti plays his acoustic guitar in savasana. There is a richness to these early mornings, as if I’m touching the depths of why I am in Bali, on this trip, on this earth, and it comes not in words but tears.
There’s a reason I’ve been following my yoga teacher around for the past couple of years. When every fiber in my being is resisting joy, the simple sight of her, all that she embodies, makes me smile. And when I’m ready to take on a challenge, but unwilling to step forward, she creates an opening, asks if I want to assist in a yoga class one morning.
This is something I’ve been putting off and would’ve gladly put off until returning home. It would’ve been safer to try it in the candlelit dark of my home studio, where I could clutch the wall, bathing in a stew of my uncertainty, discomfort, and futility. But I offer what I can, what little I can, relishing the moments when I can, and pocketing the “thank you’s” of my new friends as a reminder that a little goes farther than I think, that trying is enough.
After the retreat, I sloth around Gili Trawangan for a week with friends. A dirt road skirts the perimeter of this island, and the only transport beside bicycles are tiny horse-drawn carriages. It’s amazing to see the sun rise on one side of the island and see it set from the other. In between, we eat pizza, drink Bin Tang beers, listen only to Bob Marley, and gazebo-hop from one white-sand beach to the next. Occasionally, I take a break from maximizing lethargy for a yoga class or a dive with the batfish, sweetlips, and angelfish in turquoise water so clear it seems unreal.
It isn’t all perfect. The stomach ailments, bizarre rashes, earaches, sunburns, and flip-flop chaffing wounds remind me constantly of the fragility of the body. I have been outside almost all day every day, the elements (and bacteria) are taking their toll. The brown on my feet is either tan or dirt; my hands are peeling from the salt. I need to restock my medical kit.
The goodbyes have been the most challenging — leaving the kids, my teacher, my friends from the retreat. Each one felt like my heart was being extricated via my throat, like a clown pulling endless links of a paper chain from his mouth. Some mornings I wake up with an air bubble of longing behind my solar plexus. In these times, I breathe deeper, smile wider, wrap my loneliness up with all that I can find inside. I take out my yoga mat, my inflatable meditation cushion, and my mala beads — these, and band-aids, are my most prized possessions. They anchor me when I feel lost and afraid, when I spin on where I should go, what I should do?
In the morning, I watch women leave out their offerings of incense in front of the bungalows and upon the altar in the cafe that doubles as a bird feeder. I read and write and say hello to all the Made’s, Wayan’s, and Ketut’s on the strip, making a note for each in my journal so I can remember the names that many of the men share based on their birth order. In the afternoon, I watch boys of all ages play beach soccer, sliding and falling on the sea glass and plastic bottles and scraps of coral. Men unfurl their fishing nets or cast a line from the shore or take out their boats with peeling paint.
I walk this black sand cove in the early evening to cries of Barack Obama as the locals call Americans, and from the sounds of the languages spoken around me, I’m seemingly the only one here right now. At the end of the cove there are a bunch of large rocks, one that is particularly flat. I sit here, next to a dead crab, and chant loudly as the sun falls behind Mt Agung. I think of the kids from the retreat, and how a laundry bin became a hiding spot, the spiders became personalities with names, the little hut behind the kitchen became a clubhouse — that compound became a wonderland.
On the drive from Amed back to Ubud, I track the white flags in the rice fields. In between our marathon singalong to American stoner classics, reggae hits, and Dido, I ask my driver about these flags, and he tells me they flap in the wind, scaring the birds and keeping them away from the crop. I nod. His answer suffices. But curving around the narrow windy roads, the vista opening to vast flatbeds of water-saturated fields, I find the white flags, my own meaning, why I am here.