monday memories / RTW trip: harmony & balance

while i have my around-the-world photos out from their usual home in the garage, i think i’ll continue telling some more stories from that adventure ...

we started our around-the-world tour in october 1990, leaving from our home in portland and flying waaaaaay across the pacific to taiwan, our first stop. i had a friend living there at the time who was waiting for us at the airport. and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. we had decided only a month before to take this grand tour, talk about impulsive (me, not curt)! and in our frantic preparations to start our journey, we (probably my idea, again) had neglected to get visas for taiwan. oops! and in that ancient time before cell phones, there was nary a thing we could do, quarantined in the holding area, to alert my friend. so onward we ventured on the next leg of our flight to singapore. 

singapore is a great place to start an asian adventure, easing in to the east. except that in those days, i didn’t know the slightest thing about “easing.” after our god-knows-how-many-hours-long flights, jet lag, gooey humidity, foreign beds ... i brilliantly decided to go for a run our first morning there while curt, sensible guy that he is, slept in and then waited for me at breakfast.

i ran out the front door of the ywca hostel along a road through a tropical forest, with ENORMOUS green leaves and jungle bird sounds, marveling at the exotic all around me. returned dripping in sweat, stopping at the payphone outside the entrance to call home and tell mom we had arrived safely. mom was a big talker (understatement of the century) and wanted to know all about everything. but midway through our conversation, i started feeling dizzy, and then nauseous. not wanting to worry my mom, i abruptly said i had to go, but she had no intention of ending the conversation just yet. mom, i really have to go, i don’t feel well. mom. i. have. to ...

the first thing i saw was the phone receiver dangling from its cord three feet above my face. i took in the sky, the leaves, the birds ... from the ground where i lay. i roused myself, dirt and dust sticking to my sweaty legs, arms, shirt and shorts. found curt in the dining room. curt, i fainted! he made me drink litres of water, fed me some toast. i guess all the air travel, dehydration, running, and sweating had gotten the best of me. mind you, i am not a fainter. have the constitution of a bull. but i fainted on the first morning of our big adventure. was it an omen of things to come? 

singapore was eye-opening and fun, a strange shoppers paradise, full of multi-story shopping malls. we bought a little shortwave radio and stocked up on the items we had forgotten at home. enjoyed the best indian food of our whole trip (including the time we spent in india) in the “little india” section of the city. yum! and we booked our boat trip to jakarta. no more planes for us. the budget-travel had begun.

excruciating pretty much sums up our three-day boat trip. the sleeping berths were packed with people and the stench of sea-sick vomit. we opted to stay outside on deck, along with the other budget travellers. we slept in our brand new sleeping bags on a dirty wooden deck for two nights and sat, stood, and walked on the deck for three nightmarish, long days. our time was punctuated by vendors who’d come out to sell food, but the only thing that seemed palatable to us was crackers. and the other  budget travellers? many of them were the uber-long-term-traveller-types and had gone to singapore to get medical attention for their various ailments. one guy had a bandaged ear from some weird infection. one a bandaged foot from a wound that wouldn’t heal in the moist tropical air. and more bandaged body parts paraded on deck. many of them didn’t seem like they’d washed their clothes or hair any time recently. curt and i stayed to ourselves and ate our crackers, quiet and sobered from this scene. what had we (me, again, the whole dang trip was my idea) gotten ourselves into? 

finally debarked in jakarta, off that godforsaken boat, and straight into dante’s inferno mixed in with the biggest slum and garbage dump imaginable (we hadn’t yet been to india). resilience is key on this kind of trip. we found a decent little place to stay for one night, and tickets for yet another (one day, not so bad) boat and bus to bali. 

needless to say, our trip didn’t start out as well as we’d imagined.

but bali? bali. oh bali. sweet, sweet bali.

bali was exactly what i’d imagined, only better.  we’d planned on staying three weeks in the artists village of ubud, in the mountains in the middle of the island. surrounded by terraced rice paddies, jungles, walking paths, bicycles for rent, delicious food, friendly bars, gentle people. we found a lovely and super cheap place to stay where our breakfast of tea and papaya and banana was delivered to our doorstep each morning, along with a little leaf tray holding a few grains of rice, flowers, and incense to keep the bad spirits away. we were grateful for this offering, after the journey we had taken to get there. we were in some serious need of peace and safety and serenity. 

apparently there had been a large local gathering right before our arrivel, kicking off a month-long ceremony at ubud's temple. sitting in a pretty ravine along the river at end of the main road, the open-air temple made of bamboo and flags hosted a slew of activity. every day we saw the balinese carrying trays of fruit piled high as they made their way to the temple to make offerings to the gods. and every evening, the temple gamelan rang through the jungle. at first the gamelan sounded like a lot of clanging iron; but over the weeks, it grew on me. i eventually found deep appreciation for this heavenly music.

we rented bikes and rode through the fields. we took in a shadow puppet play. made some friends. saw art. bought sarongs. went swimming. curt learned the art of balancing a papaya on his head, making the local women giggle (later in our travels we learned that only balinese women balance things on their heads). walking. eating. drinking. so peaceful. now this is how travelling is supposed to be! 

and we found better and better places to stay, closer and closer to the temple. our last place was the best, in the middle of the jungle just above the temple, complete with outdoor bathroom (walls but no ceiling!) and one daily lizard poop (the first few days we thought it was an olive pit ... weird, how did that get there?) delivered smack dab in the middle of our bed (no doubt a protest for invading his space). we spent each night falling asleep to the sacred gamelan and balinese prayers.

just before leaving ubud, we heard the month-long ceremony would close the following weekend with a procession through the village. and the reason behind the ceremonies? the balinese from ubud and neighboring villages intended to restore balance and harmony in the world (at least that was the gist as we understood it). we decided to stay another week. could use a good dose of harmony and balance before heading on to god-knows-what, god-knows-where.

perched in an open-air bar alongside the road, cold beer in hand (it was probably too early for beer, but what the heck, it was like a parade, bali-style!) we gazed at the orderly procession of color and costume and platters and platters of tropical fruit and flower offerings. first came the giant puppet, then the little boys, then the little girls, then the older boys, then the older girls, then the men, then the women ... each group wearing matching outfits. elegant. serene. festive. pious. simply gorgeous. all culminating in a grand ceremony at the temple.

did they restore harmony and balance to the world? they certainly did to my world. we spent our last night, after cleaning the “olive pit” off the bed, slumbering to the magical gamelan sounds.

 and we left the very next day.


lessons learned: research visas! don’t go running after flying! gamelan is beautiful, once you get the hang of it. always seek harmony and balance.


ever since the eat pray love phenomenon, bali has become THE destination for 30- and 40-something single women looking for love. i read an article about the new ubud, where the author saw a sign on a cash register which read: “eat pray leave.” i think they might need to hold another "harmony and balance" ceremony!