“You have absolutely no control. But in that absence of control is total freedom.”
Such were the last words our instructor Jose had for us at this morning’s yoga class. Walking out of today’s class I had a sense of overwhelming peace that I haven’t experienced in a long time. It was something beyond relaxation, a sensation that probably the most spiritual people bathe in for multiple moments of the day. But for a crazed-brain, inner-peace kindergartener like me, one glimpse was a gift enough.
Long-term travel will either unravel you or unwrap you. One or the other, and you get to choose. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, because when you are traveling for a long time, with a small backpack, the question is present every day. Will you come undone – by the hassles, the frustrations, the misunderstandings that sometimes feel chronic – or will you relax into the experience, accepting your lack of control and allowing adventure, beauty and often flat-out strangeness to loosen you into a better version of yourself? For me, the answer is different each day, but already three weeks of travel have started to hint to me the answer that I want to give.
I realize it’s not unusual that I am pondering these things in Bali. What a magical, spiritual, beautiful place. Full of caterpillars, and gods, and flowers, and music, and offerings. And foot-flesh-eating fish.
Yesterday Jimmy and I dipped our toes into a “fish pedicure.” For a fish pedicure, you stick your feet into a tank of flesh-eating fish. Then they nibble on your dead skin for 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile, you try not to freak out or run away. Some of you may be aware that fish pedicures have been banned in many of the states in the US. This is apparently because flesh-eating fish do not meet the standards of US cosmetology, which require that all “implements” be discarded or sterilized once they are used. The only way they could figure out to sterilize these fish was to heat them to 350 degrees for 20 minutes in an oven, and that hardly seemed plausible. Discarding the fish didn’t quite seem right either.
Some of the fish in Indonesia don’t eat people, and those are pretty good too. We spent a blissful week (if you don’t count the two days I was vomiting from some sort of stomach bug) watching them on Gili Air, a small island with no roads off the northwestern coast of the island of Lombok, which is itself the island just east of Bali. “Air” means “water” in Bahasa Indonesian, which for some reason I think is awesome. The sea life was the most amazing part of this island – manta rays, turtles, barracudas, and every color of fish and coral was on view on the reef just off the island’s southern and eastern coasts. You roll out of bed in the morning, and literally within 20 steps and about the same number of strokes, you are snorkeling with schools of fish. Incredible.
We’re now cooling our heels for a week or two – exfoliated as they are – in the city of Ubud, which is on the mountain slopes of central Bali. Jimmy describes Ubud as “the Santa Fe of Bali” which I think seems pretty apt. Art galleries, restaurants, yoga studios and chakras abound. And the natural beauty surrounding is stunning. So far I only know this from several strolls we have taken through acres and acres of bright green rice fields that surround the city, but we hope to ride bikes to a volcano crater lake later this week. Even around town, though, deep canyons drop dramatically from the fields into river basins, which are used to irrigate the rice paddies through canal systems. If I knew the first thing about foliage I could tell you about all the fantastic greenery that makes this place feel like The Jungle Book – but I don’t, so you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s the end of the dry season now, but soon the rains will come and fill up those river canyons, which I am sure is a powerful thing to see.
Another powerful thing to see, I’m sure, were the terror-stricken faces of two American tourists a few days ago on our rice-field walk when we strayed out of the rice fields and wandered into a small village lane. Within 50 meters, a dog bounded out of a nearby house, barking as if he had seen a ghost (two of them, I guess). This signal propelled his canine friends from every house on the street, and within 30 seconds we were absolutely and completely surrounded by barking dogs – baring their teeth and howling. During that two-minute period, all I could think about was my naivete in foregoing the $1,000 price tag to get rabies shots before we left. That, and how the intricate protective gods carved into the outside of every one of those houses were not doing squat to help me. Jimmy and I looked at each other and shrugged. Lacking any useful course of action, we picked up rocks, while at the same time doubting the effectiveness of brandishing our pebbles against this mangy pack of canines.
The end was luckily anti-climactic. We managed to move slowly (and I like to think serenely) enough, our backs practically against the stone walls that surround the houses, to assure the dogs that we were so, so sorry and would never, ever, ever, ever come back there again. And I don’t think we will.