Dec 16, 2014

The Worst Part of Traveling

from The Princess Bride
This week I don't have a lot of adventures to share because I spent most of my time either at a clinic or in bed recovering. What put me out of commission was a GEA infection, also known as gastroenteritis, food poisoning, or, locally, "Bali Belly."

This is the third time in my life I've suffered from this (and my last, please!). The foreign bacteria in the local food is usually manageable, but it multiplied due to dehydration and exhaustion (my fault), and caused increasing abdominal pain. The solution? An overnight stay at a medical clinic with an IV hooked under the skin of my right hand.

The whole episode has made me very... thankful. I'm thankful for my good health, when I have it, and the ability to recover when I'm sick... Someday I'll be old and I won't be able to so easily. I'm thankful for the wonderful, good-hearted family of the Suastika Guesthouse who drove me to the clinic at night, made me rice porridge for every meal until I regained my strength, and generally kept my spirits up. I'm so lucky I was under their good care when I became sick.

I missed out on the last few days of yoga classes, but in a way I think that's fitting, too. Focusing on my body these last two weeks, I was now reminded of its limitations, and how easily your health can just be wiped away! No one knows how much time they have before sickness, old age, and death overcome them. What are we doing with our health while it's still glowing strong from within us?

I'm going to keep going.

~ ~ ~

Dec 10, 2014

The Faces of Ubud

I expected to make a lot of friends from my yoga classes — each is filled with young people from all over the Western World. I imagined we’d chat after our morning vinyasa practice, go out for a healthy lunch together, discuss which difficult poses we were trying to reach… The reality is, most people in yoga class don't talk to each other. After class is finished, the room empties with a flash of color-coordinated lululemon outfits.

Once back on the streets of Ubud though, I can’t help making new friends wherever I turn. Take for example the day I found myself riding on the back of a retired policeman’s motorbike after meeting him for all of five minutes. Or ended up at a tiny, cramped restaurant with the vegan ice cream guy ordering me a mystery lunch. Here are a few of the familiar faces around Ubud:


The 25 year old daughter of Suastika Lodge (my B&B) stops laughing long enough to tell me I can move into her room and stay in Bali forever. I tell her I’m extending to the 23rd; that there’s no place in Bali I’d rather be than right here. She’s happy to hear it.

“What does ‘suastika’ mean?” I ask. No doubt she’s been asked this question by every Westerner who visits the lodge.

She points her finger up and down, saying, “Good question! People think it means a bad thing, but it’s not. Suastika in Hindu means peace… in social, in environment… it was my grandfather’s name."

As we’re talking her dad comes by with a banana pancake topped with shredded coconut. He places it in front of me. “For me?” I ask. “Really?”

“Just special for you,” he says. “You always like second breakfast.”

Ayu holds her belly as she laughs and smiles with her whole wide face. “You are professor of food! You are always eating! That's why you have a big body!”

"Nooooo!" I bury my face in my hands and pretend to be devastated, causing Ayu to crack up again.

She regains her composure and sighs, "Ahhh, I want to sleep."

Ayu is getting over her appendicitis operation from two weeks ago, and can’t walk very far before needing to rest. She tells me even before her appendix was removed, her stomach has always been a weak one. She has all the sweetness and weak constitution of Tiny Tim.

She says, “I want to he-burr-nate like beer.”

"Hibernate like beer? Maybe if you drink too much beer, you can hibernate. Ohhh, you mean hibernate like a bear!"

She covers her face. “My bad pronun-shi-ation!”

"No, no, it's good," I tell her. “If it’s a girl, it’s she-burr-nate. If they do it together, it's we-burr-nate.”

No! You’re joking me!” We both laugh. I coach her English pronunciation, and in exchange she teaches me the Bali caste system, Ubud’s latest Royal Family scandal, and the meanings behind upcoming festivals.

She looks at my plate, but the banana pancake is gone. She points, "Where did it go? Did you eat?"

"Yeah, I ate it while we were talking."

"I didn't even see! How did you do this? You are professor of food!" As she laughs she holds the very real stitch in her side, where the scar of her surgery is still bright red. I realize even eating a big breakfast of whatever I like is a kind of freedom.


There is a new hotel under construction around the northern block of Suastika Lodge. This is where the guys like Anton usually call out “hello” and laugh to themselves when I pass. Today there’s an older man among them, and he shakes my hand firmly as an introduction.

“My name Tiwi,” he says in confident English, “like the television. I’m retired police officer. I’m a head of security here on Sunday.” He has the walkie-talkie poking out of his shoulder bag to prove it. “Where are you stay?” I told him, and it turns out he lives just a few houses down from my B&B.

“Why you not ride bike here in Ubud?”

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know where to rent one.” He nods and considers this.

“Come to my house tomorrow, and I will borrow you my bicycle. I will ask my wife first.”

“Thank you, that’s so kind!”

“Where you going now?”

“There this seafood place that I was recommended for lunch, but I can’t remember the na—”

Warung Mina?”

I'm amazed. “Yes, that’s it!”

“I take you there.” He gets atop his motorbike and motions for me to take the seat behind him. With thoughts of wiping out with bloody road rash or crashing into the backend of another motorbike, I get on, trying to hold my fear down. He’s a police officer, so he’d be the safest driver in town, right?

Vroom - he takes off! I hold onto the backend of the seat with both hands and close my eyes, but I focus on my breathing and don’t let myself feel scared. I even open my eyes a few times to see us speeding towards red lights. In two minutes flat he deposits me safely at the restaurant. I thank him profusely for his kindness.

“I am retired policeman,” he smiles. “I help everybody.” Tiwi turns his motorbike around, and rides away.

I think how easy it is to fall into an adventure... but it hadn't ended yet. Fifteen minutes later he shows up at the restaurant again with Anton, and they take a seat at my table as I am (very unlady-like) trying to pick out the bones of a grilled fish with my fingers. "Don't worry," Tiwi says. "It's the Indonesian way to eat with our hands."

We talk for awhile, and I try to imagine this entire scenario playing out back in the US (hey I just met you, and this crA-zy, but there's some seafood, so ride with me maybe), but it seems impossible. When the two guys finish their meals they return to the construction site, and on my bill I find Tiwi paid for my fruit smoothie. I make a mental note to come by his house later to thank him.


Whatever crack is in normal ice cream that leaves me addicted and craving more isn’t present in Kokolato’s vegan version. I stop by the shop to try their cold pressed coffee flavor, and feel content after a single scoop. Budi, the 26 year old behind the counter, speaks in fluent, slang English. As we’re talking he keeps rubbing his eyes.

“Man, I’m so tired,” he says.

“Do you have to work a lot of hours?” I ask.

“2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eight hours. I think that’s normal?”

“Yeah. Did you stay up late after work then?”

“Yes, I was playing football on PlayStation 2.”

I laugh in surprise. With his gelled hair, tales of playing PS2, and Western music playing from the ice cream shop speakers, I tell him he seems like an American. He takes this as a great compliment. “I like Americans!” he smiles.

Besides scooping ice cream, Bodi does short cruise ship contracts, so he’s seen the coastal cities of Western Europe, the Caribbean, and America’s East Coast. I’m amazed to meet a Balinese person who has traveled so extensively when most can’t afford a single plane ticket.

Kadek, a 19 year old girl who also works the shop, comes in and Bodi messes around with her, asking where her muscular boyfriend is today. Then Bodi turns to me and asks, “Have you eaten lunch yet? No? Come with me.”

I follow Bodi out of the ice cream shop, passed the expensive super-health-food Bali Buda Restaurant, and into a tiny, overlooked space just across from the Radiantly Alive Yoga Studio. I’ve walked by it so many times, but it’s so cramped with dried goods I thought it was a convenience store. I sit down on the bench next to Bodi and he calls our order in Indonesia to the back of the shop.

“This is where locals go,” he whispers. “It’s more cheaper.” I’ll say! The fantastic chicken soup with sweet soya sauce Bodi orders for me comes out to a whopping $1.50 USD — and even that, he paid for. (Do you notice this trend of people buying me food? I like it.)

Back at the ice cream shop, a parade of interesting personalities come in: a German architect living in Bali with long, dangling eyebrow hairs, who tells me, “Ubud is the navel of the world. People come to Bali to find themselves, and that is crazy! You come all the way to Bali to look for something already inside you.” He’s followed soon after by an older Californian woman with dyed hair like Spanish moss, also living in Bali, who sniffs, “I won’t talk about this place with you; I won’t disillusion you to the real Bali.” She complains about the drivers, and how the guy up the street is “too busy to open my coconut,” then leaves. Bodi watches her go from the door and tells me, “She comes in everyday, just to sit; she never buys any ice cream.”

It’s time for me to go to yoga class. I say goodbye and Bodi holds the door open for me, saying, “Come here whenever you have free time. You can have ice cream samples — as much as you want!” Ah! Someone who speaks my language.


“I forget your name. Lee?”

“Lee!” I throw my hands up mockingly. This is the third time my new friend has forgotten my name within ten minutes. “Now I’m Lee!”

“No, no! Your name, tell me?”

“How could you forget my name, Kuti?”

“I’m not Kuti!” I’ve called him this name before by accident, and it’s stuck. Roki laughs and gives in. “Okay, for you, I am Kuti. Only for you.”

“And I’m Tricia.”

“Twisher. Twisher,” says Roki. “Okay, I won’t forget.”

Roki is 22 and works as hospitality/housekeeper for the guesthouse connected to Nani Spa. The complex is down a long, narrow alley, like a tiny artery off the main vein of Ubud’s congested tourist district. Roki is originally from a village on the east coast, but now lives in the guesthouse full-time because Ubud pays better than most of Bali. Roki tells me he makes 700,000 IDR ($70 USD) in a month.

“Wow!” I say. “Wa…wow.”

“Why you say wow? Is it cheap?”

I nod. “Yes, cheap.”

“I think it’s expensive, you say ‘wow’.”

Roki is all jokester. He tells me how he had to learn traditional Balinese dancing in school, but he had to play the girl’s part. He wore makeup and a dress, and when he saw himself in the mirror, thought, “I am beautiful!” I tell him he should dance for the people here as entertainment, and he pretends to move his arms around like the dancers in the Ubud Palace nightly shows. Even one of the girls working the spa laughs at him.

Roki asks me, “Have you been to Monkey Forest? Or the big temple?” He points to the west.

“No, not yet,” I admit.

“Come back to Nani Spa and I’ll take you there. Very close, very close. It’s good Balinese culture. Come back to see me. You… what’s your name again?”


The reason I’m at Nani Spa is for a pedicure (I cringe at how indulgent it sounds). My pedicurist (we’ll call her Surya) is diligently scraping my heels. This is only the second pedicure of my life, and just like the first time, I feel guilty to have someone attending my feet. I have this urge to sit Surya up and say, “Oh dear, you don’t have to do that,” and have her take my chair to relax instead. But I need some help removing the dead skin from endless hours walking the world, and leave her be.

I try to make conversation, but she can’t communicate very well, e.g. “Me study. Me university [in] two years. Sorry, me English not good.”

Surya is only 17.  I think of my kids in Japan, how they’re just short of her age, but they will never have to hunch over a foreigner’s feet to wash and anoint them. Our futures are guided, restricted or made accessible, by the cultures we are born to.

Like most Balinese people, Surya will probably never see the world outside Indonesia. Her future lies with the spa, with finding a good marriage, with following the rituals for festival preparation that take up a lot of a grown woman’s day. I think how precious it is, how insanely lucky we are not only to be born, but into what circumstances.

I meet Roki as he’s walking by, and soon we’re laughing and joking around. Without realizing Surya is finished, the pedicure is over. I give her a tip, and tell her, “For your future.” She looks at me, confused, and I have Roki help me translate. She goes, “Ahhh!” when she understands, then smiles at me. “Thank you!” It’s not very much, what I’ve given her, but it’s the prayer and hope for her that I attached to it that I wish serves her more.

In two weeks she will still be at the spa, while I will be on another plane, with the money and freedom to go where I wish. It feels like an inestimable wealth to have.

It begins pouring rain for the first time that day (the longest run of sun all week). I slip down the empty, narrow alley back to the main tourist street, and make my way through the rainfall dodging broken drain blocks and wandering dogs, thinking, What a life! What a life!

~ ~ ~

Dec 3, 2014

A Day in the Life, Ubud-Style (An Honest Account)

7:30 WAKE

Wake up surrounded by a parachute of mosquito netting. I thank God I’m alive. (What word can I use to say this, without using “God,” that goes beyond the confines of religious attachments and connotations?) I vow to live the next 24 hours mindfully: to do good, not do evil, and see with the eyes of compassion. I dedicate the day to someone, that all my efforts are for them. Today: my Aunt Gloria, who inspired the idea for this post.


The father of the family-run bed & breakfast comes around to ask what we’d like for breakfast. I order my usual omelet full of spices with fresh fruit and tea, and take in on the patio overlooking the tree-palms and wafting butterflies.

I talk with a 75-year-old Vietnamese lady from the neighboring room, who has recently retired from her embroidery business in California to travel the world. The way her face crinkles up when she laughs makes me smile. We hug three times before I leave for yoga class, because she’s going back to Vietnam that afternoon. After three days, it feels like we are parting as old friends.


I bring a rain jacket and umbrella in my daypack; the morning clouds are always pregnant with an approaching downpour. It feels normal to be in public wearing a tank top and loose gym pants. The teenage boys eating breakfast around the last block corner call out “good morning!” to me and laugh as I pass, reminding me of my students in Japan.

I pass daily offerings: origami square or flower-shaped boxes made from leaves, with pink purple yellow white flower petals, incense, and oils, placed with a prayer outside the open doorways to homes, temples, shops, and even the seats of motorbikes.

Ubud is an Asian chaos of concrete buildings selling Western clothes, dogs and chickens sharing the road with vans and mopeds, dirt piled on garbage-strewn sidewalks and broken blocks covering the deep rain gutters — and there is spontaneous joy springing from it! The smiles on people’s faces in this atmosphere are like the colors of the offering flowers in the streets.

In ten minutes, I arrive at the Radiantly Alive Yoga studio.


OMMM— In Yin/Yang, Yang is the “hot” yoga where you’re pushing your limits, changing poses from one to the next, and really working on your muscles.

In today’s Beginner’s Yoga class, we learned the Sun Salutation Poses for the first time. In Child’s Pose, your face is down to the ground as you stretch your back. When I sit up again, Noga, the instructor, calls the class’s attention to my “third eye” — the bright pink spot on my forehead from pressing my face into the mat, lol. I think to myself how good I feel.


My body is active, un-tensed, and my posture straightening. I send a letter at the post office next door to Wayan’s Balinese Healing shop from Eat Pray Love. I wander around a few shops in search of a good book, but don’t buy anything. The number of propositions I get for “taksi! taksi!” has decreased today; a real miracle.

12:30 LUNCH

I’m becoming a familiar face at Mama Warung, where $3.50 USD gets you a coconut lassi (my probiotic choice to clear away the “Bali Belly”), and gado gado, an Indonesian dish of boiled vegetables and rice with peanut sauce. I take this time to write a letter or jot down notes, i.e. this blog post.

13:00 RETURN

The mother of the B&B brings me hot tea when I return, and asks after my yoga class. She offers to take me to her family’s temple for an upcoming festival, and will lend me an appropriate sarong and lacy shirt. I tell her with her yellow festival shirt matching the window shades, the scene looks like a painting; so I ask to take her picture (above).

I’m thankful I splurged on this $17 USD / night B&B for a host of reasons, one of which is the knowledge and recommendations the B&B family give me on local attractions and events. I don’t have my travels planned to the hour; my m.o. is more to show up and wander about. I’ll hear about what other travelers have done or seen, and follow after whatever sounds interesting to me. For example, two people I met climbed a nearby volcano to watch the sunrise, so now that’s on my to-do list.

Back in my room, I use the wifi to check messages, keep an eye on finances, and do travel research: I use TripAdvisor and Google Maps to look up reviews on points of interest and where they are; HostelWorld or Airbnb to book upcoming accommodation (no need right now, as I’m staying put for at least two weeks here); and SkyScanner to check flight prices (all booked through to Thailand for New Years).

The afternoon always slips by, and before I know it it’s time to go back to the yoga studio.


OMMM— Complementing Yang yoga, Yin yoga is about restoration, holding single poses for a longer period of time, and going deeper with your muscles. Usually I do this type of yoga in the evening, but today’s 5pm time slot is another yang-style yoga class, the most challenging I’ve tried yet: Ashtanga.

The instructor, Sanna, seems a deeply calm and compassionate person. She has us begin our practice with a dedication, so that our efforts go out to someone and make any suffering in their lives a little better; I renew today’s dedication to my Aunt Gloria.

Using our body weight and synchronized movements together, the whole class worked up a pouring sweat. It was difficult for me to do multiple sun salutations, balancing during stretches and trying a headstand. It was intense, and sometimes I wanted to go into Child’s Pose for release, but I find you really do put more effort than usual when you have it in mind you’re doing this for the benefit of a loved one.

The instructors said that your body is tied to your mind, and practicing yoga can release your emotions. I was like, “Yeah, I’m sure, but not me, I’m under control.” Well, well — at the closing of Ashtanga, Sanna told us as we relaxed to be happy and let yourself feel joy, and it all came up — the gray foggy cloud I feel that keeps me from feeling deeper emotions, and which I’ve been trying so hard to break free of, was superseded by a bubbling up of joy and I wanted to SCREAM as loud and as long as I could, I wanted to release it, the scream of HORROR of what I’ve seen and felt in my life, all the things I told myself I didn’t feel when I experienced them, I wanted the toxins of my life OUT OUT OUT!!!

They say unexpected joy can feel a lot like grief, and the scream of horror and of exhilaration are the same extremes. Of course I don’t scream in class, but I feel it in my chest wanting to be released.

18:45 DINNER

I stop by a restaurant on the way back to the B&B, and it’s here while waiting for dinner that I put my hands over my mouth and let out two silent, full-power screams. The third is not as powerful; like water poured from a jug, I am trickling out the last of my energy before becoming empty.

I think about the end of the practice, when the class was instructed to put our hands over our hearts and bellies as we breathe, that this is what it’s all about! Sweat and heat and pain and ache and tears and heat and sweat and pain and ache and tears and the monk rips your heart, your breath out, and hands it back to you and says: “THIS!”

I eat dinner in silence and watch the geckos try to eat the flies through the glass window. In the dark, I walk back to the B&B.


While I take a refreshing cold shower, I soak my clothes in the sink with some soap. Once they’re hung up to dry, I brush my teeth with bottled water. I rub Indonesia-made cocoa butter on my skin and it feels like the most lavish thing in the world; here I am, with the time and patience to focus on my body. Now that I smell like warm chocolate, I sit on the bed and focus on my breathing for a few minutes of meditation. I say thank you in as many ways as I can think of. I feel totally calm.

When I lay down I experiment with different sleeping postures to prevent my neck muscles from tightening, but eventually give in and curl up with the pillow in my usual way, and finally fall into sleep.

This is my present life.

~ ~ ~

Nov 27, 2014

Week 8: Sydney, Melbourne, and... Paris?

When I've asked Australians about what makes their culture unique, they have a hard time coming up with an answer. Boomerangs? For tourists. Spiders and snakes? They have them, sure, but not in the cities. Crocodile-wrestling locals and beach-dude surfers? While they do exist, they don't exactly represent the majority of society.

What's distinctly Australian? The answer, I've found, is multiculturalism.

Chinese-Australian Pride; the University of Sydney

Australia as a country is even younger than America, and also a modern melting pot with British roots. When you're walking down the street amid Victoria Era architecture, you hear a multitude of European and Asian languages being spoken. Immigration policies are not nearly as restrictive as the US, so I met many young people, especially Chinese, who had just arrived in Oz on working holidays and temporary visas.

As Sheila explained to me, you're looked on a bit suspiciously in Australia if you're too religious or too political, or even excessively ambitious. Combine that with the fact that guns are illegal, everyone has healthcare, and the minimum wage is more than AUD $16/hour (compared to US $7.25), Australia seems like a more pleasant version of the States (minus the deadly wildlife).

Bronte Beach

Something else uniquely Australian: the walk from Bronte to Bondi Beach. Here is where you'll meet the surfers, strutting on the beach with surfboard bands around their tanned ankles. The walk itself is gorgeous, winding along the rocky coast with a constant view of the ocean and its powerful, crashing waves. Just watch you don't step on the stinging "blue bottles" (Portuguese man o' war) -- these cnidarians resemble tiny rolled-up plastic bags littered on the beach. Though there were hundreds of them, this didn't stop locals from hitting the sand on the near 40ºC (102ºF) day.

Festival Français De Melbourne

The very kind family I stayed with in Melbourne offered me a free ticket to go to Melbourne's French Festival. I spent the morning walking through small boutique tents, trying artisan cheeses, and applauding the antics of the Parisian stereotype performers.

I hesitantly bought a pain au chocolat (chocolate bread) -- I'd had them often while in Paris in 2011, and actually went through withdrawals from the lack of them, but my experience with Panera's lookalikes was dreadful. When I bit into the pastry: bliss! It was the real thing! That one piece of bread gave me a lot of simple, unexpected joy.

Also present at the festival was Andrew Prior, a former contestant on Australia's MasterChef (and the only one in the show's history to be retired for a medical emergency when he wrecked his knees). He currently hosts food tours around France, and had a half hour program where he talked about the sights and savories of Paris, Dijon, and Lyon. The way this man talks about food, whoa - it had everyone mesmerized. By the end, the audience was salivating and several were willing to forgo the tour's $10,000 price tag.

At the Melbourne Zoo: a koala, kangaroo,
Tasmanian devil, lemur, and blue-billed duck.

Thanks Laurén for suggesting I visit the Melbourne Zoo -- it was wondrous! There are no gates separating you from many of the animals, and you enter sections of their habitat like a visitor into their home. As you walk through the bamboo forest towards the Asian elephants, it's as if you were not in a zoo at all; each diverging path from the entrance plunges you into a new environment. There were so many animals, especially birds, I'd never seen or heard of before. There's so much more out there than we even know.

Get your knife and fork ready...
Besides in the zoo, I also came into contact with a kangaroo... at the grocery store. How does a 'roo steak differ from cow? I found kangaroo to be very tender and juicy, like slow-roasted beef at a very good restaurant. I liked it!

I've enjoyed this time in Australia, though I've often felt very lazy for want of a "cultural skill" to learn like the other countries I've visited so far. Tomorrow I'm off to Bali to try my hand (and arms and legs) at yoga. Tell you about it soon!

~ ~ ~

Nov 22, 2014

Week 7: Welcome to Oz

There are boomerangs in the gift shop and men are wearing Crocodile Dundee wide-brim hats. There’s a photo in the Manly Beach museum of Santa wearing a bathing suit with his toes in the surf. You know the line, Toto: We’re not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Oz!

Sydney Harbor from Circular Quay

I can’t get enough of the Sydney Opera House; it’s the most captivating building I have ever seen. Every program about Australia I’ve ever seen opens up with a view of the Opera House, and now I understand why — it’s mesmerizing. From Circular Quay, it looks like a beetle’s shell releasing its wings, like a ladybug just before flight.

Manly Beach

Sydney boasts about 300 sunny days a year, so it’s nearly always a beautiful day to go to the beach!

Queen Victoria Building

The Queen Victoria Building was constructed in 1898 and its decadent architecture of stained glass windows and arched doorways really puts you back in time. In the center of the mall is a Christmas tree that starts on the lower floor and goes through all four stories. Just imagine if that were a real tree, and not a glowing plastic prop.

The London-made clock was the most fascinating: it depicts a ship sailing through the different islands and coasts of Australia when it was first “discovered,” and has figurines displaying the horrors of colonization. After the sobering sight, you can go to the lowest floor and cheer yourself up with a cone of baklava ice cream.

Sheila - my generous host and friend of an unconventional lifestyle (WOO!) - suggested I take a day trip to the Blue Mountains. I’d never heard of them before, and they were just two hours out of Sydney, so why not?

As the train pulled away the skyline changed from skyscrapers, to suburban homes, to small towns surrounded by “the bush.” Then the view gave way to the Blue Mountains... Incredible! The mountains look blue because of the oil released into the air by the dense population of eucalyptus trees. It makes for a beautiful sight.

As I was reading the information board looking out at the 3 Sisters rock formation, I noticed a spider creeping its way up the post. GOOD GOD! NOT A SPIDER IN AUSTRALIA! RETREAT!! I gave it a wide berth, and it was content to settle on the post without bothering anyone - whew. Now I can say I survived the Australian “wilderness,” haha.

More from Sydney to come!

~ ~ ~