Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Good Grief! Boat-ride to Gili Air

After the most lucky day, I decided to push my luck and go island hopping. 

Well, just one island  because I only had three more nights before I had to hopefully catch a plane to Australia. We would see about that! Volcano Agung was still puffing away but the ash was blowing away from the airport. Strange to tie your fate to the direction of the wind…

So I left a perfect place, Alam Nusa, on Nusa Lembongan Island. Lovely helpful staff. This offering music always playing at the outdoor dining room. These offerings always being placed.

But it was time to go to another island, one with even more of less to do! Gili Air. No vehicles there, just pony carts and bicycles. Sit around, write, get bored… before the stress of figuring out what to do in Australia. It sounded good, BUT! Be very careful when you choose to leave paradise because getting to the next paradise can be treacherous!

I thought I had fooled fate by at the last minute booking a boat trip and accommodations.

Did I research the various boat companies? No. Kind of hard to do, actually. The boat agent at the kiosk at the restuarant said it was too late to book for the next morning.  But I pleaded, saying he had to be nice to a “nenek” (grandmother) and that the agent before him said I could book! So, he called a friend who called a friend and I bought a ticket. Could he tell me the route or show me a map or weather conditions? Translation issues here ...

So at 8:30 AM.I was picked up. Loaded onto a small boat that took us to the larger boat. Here we are, expecting a pleasant ride.

The big luggage was piled on top (not tied down that I could see and certainly not water-proofed.) And off we went, not to Gili Air, it turned out, but back over to Bali — Padangbai. Pretty choppy but doable.

There we took on more customers, could see that pesky Volcano Agung close-up and could buy mango and chips from vendors. Considering what happened next, I can’t believe they had to gall to sell Pringles! 

Fortunately I used the facilities at the stop because I would have lost it on the wild roller-coaster ride that ensued!

Aren’t there rules about when a fast boat should maybe not cross the waters?

 Or maybe just slow down? I couldn’t believe the bucking and swaying. The sloshing and spraying. The slap as we rode over a wave and hit down hard. The lurch as one caught us broadside! Jolting, jerking, swerving, slamming. White caps and troughs. 

Didn’t they make a movie about the perfect storm? At least we had no rain but I couldn’t believe the ferocity of the ocean.

How did others react? Children fell asleep. A Muslim woman behind me closed her eyes for two hours, praying, thank God! People literally turned green. (That is not just a figure of expression.) The crew-man kept watching the crowd and ran forward with sea-sick bags as needed. The lovely Australian surfer next to me just kept a fatalistic “isn’t this fun” grin on his face, which helped.

How did I react?

 With absolute disbelief! They run a boat in weather like this! Then with fear, abject fear! I wasn’t this afraid when the roof flew off and the rain poured in during the hurricane! It didn’t help that I hate rollercoasters. And this was an up and down, side to side, unpredictable bouncing and lurching.

 I made sure I knew where the life-jackets were and the exit door, but if we flipped over all bets were off. Don’t we frequently read of ferries in this part of the world sinking? The crew-man told me not to panic, that we were safe, but I think he’s paid to say that.

And I had some concern about the luggage piled on top. I could just imagine it flying off. Surely they know how to balance this thing! But TV scenes from a Nepalese bus catastrophe ran a similar movie through my mind about this boat. Surely no captain wants to die, and the bus driver didn’t either. But that didn’t keep him from going off the side of the road, into the river, killing  most of the passengers— supposedly because the luggage made it top heavy.

Did I pray? Did I relax?

 Did I cultivate compassion or do self-hypnosis? Heck no! I was just holding on!

One thing that did help was to think of service men on boats. Men in World War II headed to possible death. My father in the South Pacific War. Navy Seals taking the plunge. And because I know a dear man who has faced these odds and can be really tough, I called on his warrior spirit. Please be with me. Give me strength. Help this Captain, for heaven’s sake!

Finally it was over. No one was laughing, probably thinking about the return trip in a few days. There is no way to check on the conditions before booking a ticket!

I decided to thank the Captain who skillfully kept us alive. He sat in the control seat, grinning broadly, like no big deal. In fact, he looked like a happy cowboy, enjoying the wild bronco ride!

So, here I sit on a pony-cart ride to Biba Beach Village. I had survived!

A cup of hot tea to settle my nerves.

And a friendly Asian cat, proving that this too would be a welcoming place.

A delicious bowl of seafood chowder by the beach and the gratitude to be able to do nothing— alive!

I do know, though, that I had failed a test. 

There wasn’t a spiritual thought in my body as I tried to keep the horizon horizontal! I thought I had dealt with letting go of control with Volcano Agung. But someone just upped the ante on me as I faced the fear of imminent death in a  watery grave.

Maybe Paradise isn’t just the Bali version of having everything beautiful, comfortable and cheap?

Maybe this is the real homework I need to do, the last big step in Bali magic transformation  Overcoming fear of death as the key to Paradise on earth? Stay tuned...


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Our Lucky Day!

 The first three days in Nusa Lembongan were not exactly exciting.

I had escaped here from the island of Bali in order to do more of nothing, so what did I expect? The tour on the back of the motorcycle with 21 year old Bodhi was fun but after two hours we had seen it all! Other than that there was rain. What did I expect— the rainy season! (In case you think I’m whining, I actually thought this would be the dry season since the wet season in Nepal was in the summer. Yep, less than perfect research.)

The Lonely Planet guidebook suggested Mushroom Bay as the place to snorkel off the beach. Not! Since the book was written the boats have destroyed all the coral. What to do? What everyone else does, of course,  go on a snorkeling tour!

The first day my clerk couldn’t reach her friend who had a boat. The next day we had it arranged but it rained. This morning it rained too and I put him off until noon. It cleared! A hut neighbor walked by with his go-pro camera and I invited him in order to split the cost and make me feel just a little safer. After all, the waves were high, the native catamaran fishing boat seemed to be held together by rope, and the fisherman didn’t speak English!

All I really cared about was seeing manta rays.

I’ve seen coral and tropical fish galore in other places, but manta? They seem other worldly. Give me one manta and I’d go home happy! “Maybe you will be lucky,” hoped the clerk.

Yep, the waves were high, the water looked murky, but overboard I went, avoiding a bop on the head with the catamaran. Nothing. Cloudy view. Then the fisherman started yelling in Indonesian. When he couldn’t get Alain’s attention he angrily jumped up and down! Then pointed. We swam in the direction of his shaking fingers and there… gliding… was manta. He had been the look out for us. Then another manta. Then another…

What were they like? Other worldly. Flying under water. Graceful. Dangerous looking projection off the back. Unconcerned with us. A little scary when coming right at me with that bizarre looking mouth.

The fisherman was pleased with his guiding skills and led us to two amazing snorkeling sights. And throwing bread crusts into the water he created a swirl of technicolored fish, circling around me. 

Here is my favorite blue coral.

And after aimlessly wandering the sights of coral, waving tentacles and darting fish, I realized that down there, in that other world that really could care less about plane flights, politics, money, accomplishments or relationships, I could forget them too. So nice to forget about my stuff. My plans. My, me, myself and I. Nothing down there related to this thing I call I. No thoughts really. A meditation of sorts in which there is no suffering because there is no fear, no grasping, no planning.  Just being, underwater..

And on the way home, me trying to pose, undignified, before sliding down to the bottom of the slippery boat.

Yes, we were lucky! Thank you Alain!

Our lucky day!

Then, as he and an Australian sat with me over dinner (quick and very temporary friendships while traveling), we three agreed we were so lucky. It was the only night out of four when it hadn’t rained or the ash obscured the view. 

Local children playing below, using a coconut as a ball.

Swallows darting. Agung puffing away at a safe distance, its output turned to flame by the sunset.

We had to wait over 50 years to see that!

And overhead, ahhh… an airplane! The airport was opened! And might just stay that way if the winds pushed the ash clouds away from Denpasar.

Interesting how one lucky day can erase the other disappointments. Yes!! We toasted. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Cruising Nusa Lembongan

It’s time to get out of Dodge! How often have I said that on this journey! 

Something about me is never content to sit pool-side and read a book. I can’t stand confinement, even in Paradise and have to see what is around the next corner. Dissatisfaction? A Buddhist source of suffering? Or just Kathy…

There isn’t much to do on the island Nusa Lombongan, an hour’s boat ride from Bali. (It is actually a part of the province called Bali. The country is Indonesia and the capital is Jakarta, Java — geography lesson.) But it was around the next corner.

No gangplank here! The luggage was tossed to the top (hopefully tied down) and we had to wade on.

See the interesting sign on the boat. It was a safe and easy boat ride.

And that’s why I came. Few distractions, do some writing, wait out the volcano in Bali.… 

But after one day I’m bored and need to get out of these Alam Nusa Huts. They are lovely — see the “welcome drink”, welcoming bed with the ubiquitous mosquito netting, semi-outside bathroom, and daily offerings.


But, I needed to see the island …

Obviously I could rent a scooter and figure out the unmarked roads and rocky lanes around the island. 

But I promised my children I would not come home in a wheelchair! So, I hire Budi for $15 for the day and off we go. Too late I think of a helmet, but no one rides with them on this island. They are mandatory in Bali but here four schoolchildren will buzz along happily on one scooter without any protection.

Holding on to his waist very tightly, I do keep reminding the 21 year old invincible Budi that I am “Nenek”, grandmother. And it is really bad karma if he gets a grandmother injured or dead! “I will come back to haunt you, like the witch Ragada,” I promise. We are safe. He is a careful driver and one can’t go too fast anyway around the twists and turns.

Cruising the island is just what I wanted. 

Very rural, jungle even. Simple houses, a little farming, and beaches. A temple where we get yelled at because I’m not wearing a sarong.

He points out a small cemetery where the dead are buried under concrete, an umbrella and frequent offerings. Once a year the bones of the dead are unburied and cremated. These Balinese cremations are such big events, with relatives taking off work, that its best to consolidate them to certain dates if possible. (At least that’s what I think he said over the motorscooter’s roar.)

From the largest beach at Jungutbatu we see Volcano Agung spew ash and steam. 

I would like to stay for awhile and honor it’s massive power, for I’m sure it has something to teach me.  No doubt about it, I can see why the airports are in trouble! And in case you are wondering, the ash is why we are wearing face masks.

Then a manpowered mangrove ride.

Looks a lot like Florida, minus the alligators and manatees. 

A very strange underground house called Gala-Gala.

It was carved by an ambitious priest in honor of a story from the Mahabharata and the character Pandawas who had to protect his family in an underground cave. Interesting to crawl through the tunnels and wonder why?

Over the yellow bridge onto the island Nusa Ceningan. 

And the only transportation to those living on this tiny island is scooter or foot, even for a grandmother— “nenek.”

And other sights. 

See the mighty cliffs dubbed “swallow house”. 

And the flats where at low tide seaweed is gathered, to be made into the emulsifying agent for ice-cream — carrageenan. Tourism is more profitable and less back-breaking now. There are even fewer tourists here.

And then a stop at Dream Beach before buzzing back home, safe and sound.

The next morning my hopes for snorkeling with the manta rays are dashed by a rainstorm.

So I will have to be content in Paradise, writing, reading and swimming, and working with that insatiable urge to be somewhere else!

Gili Air — Last Chance at Paradise

When I told a friend in Bulgaria that I was planning on going to Bali, she said simply: “Go to Gili Air.”
“What’s there to do there?” I probed. “Nothing.” And that was the point. It was to be a dip back into an earlier, simpler time. Less hub bub. Fewer tourists. Certainly fewer distractions.

Ubud was very busy. Sanur was peaceful but still lively. And always anywhere I went in Bali there were scooters, tourists, and traffic. I was still looking for the elusive “Paradise” that did not include the chaos and the annoying edge of money-making from tourists.

Well, Catherine was right. I found it in Gili Air. Here petrol motorized vehicles are banned. The loudest sound you hear is a clop clop of a pony behind you.

 You can walk around the island in 1 ½ hours. You can rent a bicycle and try to cycle the perimeter instead but get bogged down by sand. So, you take the slow way. Always slow on Gili Air.

Gili Air is mellow

So mellow in fact that this is a sign advertising magic mushrooms, bicycle for hire and accomodations. 

Really? And how does one order magic mushrooms? Well, first you get them from the cow patty. (Lots of those lying around.) Then the restaurant owner informed me, either put them in a smoothie or an omelet and let the magic lights begin. Honestly!? For a country where dealing drugs can be a death sentence this is mind boggling. But hey- its Gili Air.

Want some up-scale mellow? Easy. The H2O Yoga Studio is a few minutes walk down a pot-holed alley, strewn with cow patties.

You could choose pool yoga (great for my knees that can’t kneel), advanced classes, vegetarian cuisine and meditation. In the evening the calling out of a yoga pose was matched by the distant call to Muslim prayer.

Because this is a Muslim island. 

Except for Bali, all of Indonesia is Muslim, and the three Gili islands are actually part of nearby Lombok, not Bali. I was wondering what difference this might make, apart from the calls to prayer and the head coverings.There were no offerings, gods or rituals. Well, almost none.

While I was relishing this full breakfast and watermelon juice,

 I noticed four people gathering on the beach.  A woman with white scarf sat and a man with incense put something on her forehead.

Then he took a large platter of bananas and placed them in the ocean. An offering? But for what?

After he left, another woman rescued the bananas. And then the honored woman took off her scarf and sat in the shallow water. Fully clothed and cleansing herself. No soap. Just the ocean water. Over and over. Another woman took pictures. And then they went home. 

What was that!  My hotel clerk gave me his opinion — that it was the ceremony done 7 days after birth, “buang awu.” Thanks are given to the ocean. The Mother cleans herself. But is that Muslim? Well, Gili Muslim. People here had religions before Islam took over Indonesia, before the Hindus escaped to Bali. This sure looked pre-Muslim to me! He explained that the Muslims got rid of the bad aspects but kept the good. 

Why the ocean? “Because the ocean is everything to us. We fish in it. It surrounds us. It is life.”  

And eating at a restaurant that had tempted me with a handmade sign, I understood their relationship to the ocean a little more. 

No one else was eating there. But when I asked what fish they had, the young man replied, “Whatever my brother brings in.” And I realized that the man poling the small outrigger to a larger outrigger that morning had been his brother. And look at the fish he brought in! 

Red and white snapper. Little tuna they call bonita. Look at the curious little boy.

 I asked for white snapper (they can also catch black snapper) as this was the only time I’ve ever seen it. Grilled with garlic. Delicious! 

The waiter/clerk asked to sit with me and chatted, jumping up to attend to other clients, coming back to his plate. He asked something about my views on Osama bin Laden and thank goodness the power and lights went out before I had to beg off the question!  I would have been curious about his point of view, though. 

I’m impressed by the industry and enterprise of these people.

The next morning his mother pedaled up with loads of kang kong she just bought and two little boys and I’m impressed by the enterprise of these people.

The father can’t work because of illness. You can’t grow vegetables in this horrible soil and even water has to be shipped in. But they seem quite happy. In fact, the pony cart driver told me with great pride that he owns the pony and cart — inherited from his father. He makes more profit from one trip to the boat landing than my taxi driver in Sanur, who has to lease the taxi, did for a two hour trip!

What else did Gili Air teach me?

I was still reeling from the ride from “the boat-ride from hell” to get there, wanting to solve my fear for the return trip. So I asked people how they deal with fear of death. When I got bogged in the sand bicycling, this man resting from hard labor called out to me in Indonesian. “Plan, plan.”

 What? He translated — “Slowly, slowly.” Good advice for inner peace. And I took a chance with this helpful stranger, asking him how to overcome fear of death. “You have to work with your mind a lot so that your thoughts are always with God.” OK… I had a lot of work to do.

I pursued it further when I signed up for a yoga class at H2O Yoga and  asked one of the instructors what her advice would be about fear of imminent death. “Pray to the 100,000 angels!” she confidently advised. The other instructor practically and emphatically proclaimed, “Those boats are crazy! I won’t set foot in one during this season!” 

I braved the seas for a snorkeling tour. Lots of dead coral although no one would say why — fish bombing is now illegal. The highlight was sea turtle.

The guide found them, pointed them out resting on the bottom and nudged them up as we swam after them, enthralled. 

Lunch on Gili Meno (where there is even less to do) was surreal — pancake topped with banana and chocolate, Bob Marley playing and the mosque singing across the water.

The last night was magical with a full moon, music in the air. 

I asked the hotel clerks to sing me a song and show me some dance moves. Silly fun guys. Here they are.

And when they asked me what my “dance moves” were, I replied, “Well it depends on the song — salsa, swing, …” So folks, here it is— the only two moves I know of bachata. Ahhh… Gili Air.

So, if this last Indonesian blog seems a little hodge-podge, that is because my impressions are rich. 

Bali and Gili Air meant rest, rejuvenation and renewal. A dip into very different cultures. Affordable, interesting, beautiful, exotic and with amazingly kind people. If you have spiritual questions or fears, this is a safe place to explore and grow. (And the boat ride back was fine, by the way.)


And now onto Australia to catch a  permaculture design course that got canceled in Bali because of the darn volcano!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ash on the Bamboo Floor — Bali Stories

I love people’s stories but I will never really know the Balinese. 

Sure the drivers and tour guides do their best to let me glimpse their culture, their politics and their struggles. They answer my persistent questions the best they can. But it feels like I will always be more of an outsider here than with any other country I’ve visited.

I can enjoy watching them play on the beach on Sunday, their only day off. They arrive on motorbikes, swim in their clothes and ride home wet. Simple pleasures.

I know they need us tourists and a good day is when they catch a taxi fare or nab one of us for a massage. But I’ll never really  know their stories.

 So instead I listen to the stories from us foreigners and reflect on the attraction of Bali.  

The Dutch came to plunder the spices in Indonesia for over three centuries and the Japanese to conquer. But why do the rest of us come? Are we allured by the conclusion of the book, “ Eat, Pray, Love?”  Do we hope to find ourselves? Lose ourselves?

The climate is gentle. Flowers decorate the bathrooms and beds and float on the pool. Adornments are the norm.

Beaches surround us. 

Amazing food.

 The people smile, sometimes enigmatically. Temples and colorful offerings are everywhere.

 No other part of Indonesia has the tourist draw. Because it is an exotic blend of Hinduism, animism and demonism? Because of the plethora of exquisite arts?

“Why do you come to Bali?” I ask.  

And from the answers of total strangers I have concluded that Bali is a lovely container that holds and even changes our stories. Think about it! The cottages I have stayed in are more like spas, for $30 a day including breakfast and pool.

Massages are $7 and fresh grilled dinners of snapper served on the beach $7 also. Yoga classes are the most expensive outlay of the usual American rate of $10. It is affordable luxury. It is comfort and support as we experiment with new ways of being.

For many Australians it is an easy time-out. One cottage neighbor has been here 35 times! She sits in a rented bean bag chair, smokes and reads a book, gets two massages a day and soon will return refreshed to a job in a nursing home and life on a sheep farm.

Over seafood pizza, an American School Principal in Singapore and her husband who works at the internship camp for Syrians trying to escape to Australia, tell of their romantic meeting in extreme danger in East Timor. Obviously they come here to decompress. And having saved little for retirement will be able to afford retiring here.

For some it is love, and of that there are interesting variations.

I heard a really wild story today while resting under the shade at the Museum le Mayeur in Sanur from a Dutch woman. Her 25 year younger Sumatran live-in boyfriend  fell asleep while she described her lifestyle. It would make a unusual book although the husband might not appreciate the exposure! 

She is wife number two out of three of a wealthy man in Dubai. He supports her lifestyle which includes the boyfriend in Bali, and she helps him design custom yachts and diamond jewelry. My prying conversation: How do you get along with the other wives? We are a team. But what about sharing your husband, you know, sex? Well, there are the yard boys, the gardener… Really! And what happens if your husband dies? I get 1/3 of the wealth.”
It works for them! One type of love story.

As for Le Mayeur— he arrived in Bali in 1938 to paint the lovely topless ladies and tropical scenes. Falling in love with a much younger dancer, he painted and then married her. Apparently they lived together happily and productively for twenty years and upon his death their house and collection was donated as a museum. See these window shutters carved with a scene from the Ramayana, a Hindu classic love story.

And in this sweet place with fading art I could sense the genuine devotion of this Belgian and Balinese. Here are their memorials.

Do some of us come for prayer? 

I can’t see us praying to their gods or making three times a day offerings, and more on full and dark moon. Even if we were Hindu or connected to aspects of Nature (animism), can we really relate to the demons and fierce protectors?

But some do definitely come to shake out their demons!

An English woman I met at yoga suffers from psychosis and post- traumatic-stress syndrome. In Bali she is stable on meds, lives inexpensively, and takes good care of her health.

I talked at length to an American and Australian who were totally up front about their alcoholism and narcotic addiction. They’ve stayed in Bali for months, coming clean in the mellow tropical atmosphere, letting go of shame and facing the truth. They are supported by good therapists, 12 step programs, healthy fruit juice and genuine hospitality. And with the hard work of introspection, self-acceptance and service, they are totally positive about long-term success. And they start me thinking about my behaviors. “We all have addictions, Kathy.”

And my story? Because that’s what this adventure is really all about. 

Not just about adding months of experiences to an already rich life, but about real change. I will truly understand what has happened in retrospect, when I come home. But I’m getting a glimpse in this magical container called Bali.

After months of veiled threats, Volcano Agung is finally exploding.

As in — airports closed, ash in the air, and the not knowing weighing heavy for everyone. The worst affected are the refugees from the danger zone who have lived in camps for months. They had to sell their livestock for a fraction of their worth and have no income. But the affluent rest of us are also worried. How will I get home? Should I just get a ferry to Java, then fly to Dubai, then Australia? Have I lost the value of the plane ticket? What if I’m here for months? Has Paradise just turned to a Prison? 

(And we won’t even discuss my fears of tsunami! The Prama Hotel has promised me a space on their fourth floor if I can get there in time. And if not, I’ve placed a ladder next to the tallest coconut palm! I sleep with my passport and flashlight…)

Here is Trevor, an Australian flight attendant with a positive attitude the next morning, when we didn’t have to climb the coconut palm— “We’re alive!”

In the meantime, I do yoga.

 The only class I can actually accomplish is Restorative Yoga. 

Ade’s voice is loving, gentle, and refers to my two gimpy knees and torn shoulder as “injuries,”not failures. With enough props and bolsters I can relax totally into poses. Nothing to accomplish. No pain. No forcing. Just relaxing, releasing and moving from one comfortable pose to another.

Bali is starting to get to me. I’m starting to believe that I can let go of a life-time incessant drive of countless accomplishment. Is there a 12 step program for “accomplishment addiction?” It has gotten me far in life but at this age seems silly if not delusional.

Ade gives me a push I need towards enlightenment. 

“Reach out and touch the bamboo floor. Feel the grit? That’s ash from Agung. Think about the volcano. It is neither good or bad. It is just nature. We have to accept it. What can Agung teach you?  And let an intention come to your mind. A heart felt understanding or resolution.”

Then the room goes quiet. Some are sending compassion to those whose farms are being destroyed. And for me? This is what the power and fury of Agung says: “If you can’t control something, let it go.”

That simple. Can’t change people, places or things. Can’t stop a volcano. Can’t make the airplanes fly. No accomplishment on earth can bring lasting happiness. No lifetime of projects can delay death. It’s time to just, “Let go, girl.”

And just as the recovering alcoholic friend reflected that her addiction was the best thing that ever happened to her because of how she has changed, I have to be grateful for this prolonged and unintended stay in Paradise. 

Thank you Agung. Thank you Bali