Saturday, December 10, 2016

Chasing sunsets across Bali, solo

Awaiting the departure of my flight to Bali from Kuala Lumpur, I was filled with apprehension for the first time since the second I had decided to undertake my first solo trip. 'What had I gotten myself into? Would I be able to manage by myself in a city where I know nobody? What if something happens?'...

That's the thing with negative thoughts; one breeds another rather quickly and without realising it it soon escalates to the magnitude of doomsday. A somnolent Spanish (as I found out eventually) girl, with a very bohemian vibe to her, then came and took the vacant seat beside me and asked about the departure time of the Bali flight. Perfect ice-breaker for conversation! It was her first time to Bali as well, but she was a solo traveller. She had been to a number of countries and had traversed a number of shores, yet she said she had crossed paths with very few Indian women travellers who were by themselves.

That got me thinking about the whole idea of 'being alone'. Most of us can't. Heck, I couldn't a few years ago. Then Bangalore happened. And that facilitated my living alone. That solitude is unparalleled, even liberating to a very large extent. That's the idea I bred of solo travel. But seldom things are how they seem. I needed to do this for myself to see what it was like. To make my own plans. To do nothing on days I wanted to do nothing. To push myself to do crazy things on days that I wanted to. To explore the unknown.

The idea had been swimming in my thoughts for years. Maybe I wasn't ready then. But I was now.

***

The descent had begun. We were about to finally land in Bali! I could see surfers, speed boats, surf boards, swimmers, but no land. Then a gorgeous white-sand beach came into view and we landed with a thud. I only realised then that the runway of the Ngurah Rai International Airport is just off the Bali sea.

The AirBnb space I had booked was in Seminyak, which Google Maps suggested was about a 30-minute drive. My hosts, Lola and Ziga (which were the names of their cats), were kind enough to arrange for a pick up although they were out of country. Yudha, the driver, was in fact, a tour operator. The rest of my stay in Bali was a breeze, thanks to him.

I didn't really have a plan of what I was going to do in the six nights and seven days I was going to be there. I made note of a few places I wanted to visit, but for most parts I had decided to play it by ear. The whole idea of the holiday was to take some time off the everyday humdrum. That is the point of a holiday, right? (The birthday was a only a valid excuse since we anyway make such a big deal of them.) So, with no plan in place, with a fair idea of places I wanted to visit, I was looking forward to the next seven days which were going to be an absolute revelation.

***


When I reached my 'home' for the next one week, it was pretty much as I imagined it to be. Small, but very picturesque! Picturesque, as I found out, was going to be a word I used more than just a few times in the course of my stay. That was also the first time I met Claudia. She was taking care of the house in the absence of my hosts Ana and Aljosa, but was a traveller herself. She was fit as a fiddle - that's the first thing I noticed about her. I would've thought she was about 35 or so, but given my general awry estimation of ages, I chose to ignore the voice in my head.

Every experience, for me, is about people. I'd like to think I'm quite a people's person. There's so much to learn from someone else's journey, and it has intrigued me beyond comprehension. Which is also why Claudia was such an important element in the larger scheme of things.

Over the course of that week, I found out Claudia was from Austria and taught psychology at a university back home. During her semester breaks, she travelled the world - to surf! That trip was her fifth time in Bali and she was as good as a local there. She ran, surfed, skied, hiked, and did all sorts of crazy outdoorsy things depending on the season and the time of the year. She lived by herself, loved her job, travelled whenever she could... yep, we had much in common. The only difference: she was enviously fit, and she was almost 12 years older than I was. That, got me thinking.

The last couple of years, I paid little attention to my health or body, for that matter. I did things on and off, but there was little commitment. Of course, the influx of alcohol did not help. Fat - something that eluded me for most of my life, was visible now. I wasn't the bundle of energy I used to be. My stamina had depleted. In a nutshell, I was feeling like crap. I wasn't in my ideal state of health.

When I thought of a solo trip and the time it would give me to reflect on various aspects of my life, this is what I had imagined. I wanted to have the time and space to be true to myself and address what needed change. In that aspect, Claudia's lifestyle at her age was the inspiration I was looking for. That was just  the start.

We bonded over various things over dinner most nights. She was fascinated with the growing western culture in India, our quirky ways, food and a lot more. I loved listening to the endless stories of her various adventures. My last night in Bali, we were lounging about a couple of couches at a beach-side restaurant for dinner and she said something that I'll hold very close to me for a long, long time. "You're a very brave girl, Kritika. I am so proud of you for having taken this trip alone. I haven't seen many Indian women travelling alone. It's a major step in your life and it will change this point on. You should be very proud of yourself and the courage you put together to come here all by yourself. By undertaking this trip, you have touched someone's life in a way you'd never know."

***


I was told Potato Head in Seminyak was a must-visit. I got dropped off to the fancy beach bar by Claudia, who was off to the beach for some meditation. I walked into a burst of blaring music. There was no place to even stand, let alone sit. People were making merry to no end. I walked to the rear of the bar that opened out to the beach and decided to stroll the beach instead. I walked aimlessly watching youngsters throng the string of beach bars, families building sand castles with their little ones, surfers making most of the waves and dogs going about their usual shenanigans. I decided then not to step into another one of the fancy beach bars for the rest of my stay. And I didn't.

Staying in Seminyak, which is a quieter area when compared to the jamboree that is Kuta, helped. I didn't bother visiting Kuta at all, and I don't think I missed much. Bali is all about the beaches and that's where I spent my time apart from their gorgeous temples and quaint streets. I watched six sunsets in as many evenings. If it counts for anything at all, the best sunset I was presented with was on my birthday at the Jimbaran beach. I had heard SO much about the sunsets the beach offers, that I had to pay it a visit, even if it was a bit out of my way. Claudia made that outing better by suggesting I visit Bingin beach, which is one of the lesser-known beaches with gorgeous views. The combination of Uluwatu, Bingin and Jimbaran was the best amalgam of the lot.

I visited a lot of temples, shopped quite a bit, walked miles on end, didn't find the need to use my iPod at all, made little conversation with others but had a constant dialogue on in my head between me and my alter-ego.

I had just two beers in seven days, and only because I wanted to try their local beer, Bintang. Of course, I took a lot of pictures and flooded my Instagram after I returned home every night latest by 10:30.

I loved the two-hour hike up Mount Batur, although the overcast morning was a bit of a killjoy that made sunrise a tough viewing. It also made me feel real shit about my fitness because there were moments I thought my heart would break through all the shackles holding it in place.

Given my fear of water, I decided to give scuba-diving a shot with the only idea of wanting to face my fear. And with nobody for support. I lasted a whole 10 minutes of the 30 before I had had enough. The dive instructor said we had gone 8 feet deep which was supposedly good, but said I should have stayed longer. Should have... but maybe another time, in another country and in another water body.

At other times, I got massages, wandered the streets of Seminyak aimlessly, was in awe in the arts of Ubud, read, ate to my heart's content, and couldn't help but notice how happy people in Bali seemed.

***


Eat, Pray, Love has sort of set the blueprint for someone visiting Bali, and skewed it for most others. Bali is not necessarily the place you will find love, or somewhere you have to visit fancy yoga retreats, meditate, see healers or anything such.

I asked Ketut, who drove me to the temples on my second day, about the movie and the healer with which he shared a name. He said the healer 'Ketut' got lucky to be featured in the film and was flooded with customers since the release of the film. He said Balinese healers are available aplenty and can tell you your future rather accurately. He even suggested taking me to one. But what he did mention was that the movie had done much to spur tourism in the country.

Something though, that was similar between the movie and my experience of Bali, was the depiction of the Balinese locals. They always wore a smile, irrespective of the time of the day. You're greeted with a smile when you walk into a store. When leaving, and of them say 'thank you' together, with a smile as wide as the distance between their ears. It was incredible, and not, at the same time! Not because it evoked a sense of guilt for not having bought anything at the store! But, you couldn't help but smile yourself and feel grateful at the same time. From my interaction with the locals, I gathered that they don't really have fancy, comfortable lives. They work hard, very hard in some cases, to earn their livings, but the feeling of gratitude seemed ubiquitous.

There's little point listing out places to see or what to do in Bali; Google has enough and more information on that. Travelling alone to Bali was not only about the island ornated with gorgeous beaches and skies. It was really about challenging closely-held notions, breaking some habits, finding inspiration, exploring my mind and fraternising with the unknown - a reward for once again trusting my instinct and acting on impulse.



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