Ubud, Bali

Bali Essay Personal Blog

My mother’s acquaintance, a lovely, ethereal looking woman by the name of Holly had been giving me sporadic psychic readings over the phone for a number of years at this point. She’d often call or text out of the blue, sometimes with coded advice such as, “wear a green necklace to protect yourself from evil,” or more personal classics we know and love from our trusted soothsayers such as, “you’ll meet a man in two months. He’s bearded and troubled but a whole lot of fun.” 

I had been quietly contemplating an impromptu trip abroad when I got a call from her. “You’re going on a trip,” she said, “but it’ll be more of the same, more of what you’re used to.” But in any case, she added, having known about the goings-ons with my wild-eyed sister who was also living at home added, “it’s a great idea to get away for a while.” 

The last-minute flight to Bali was a little less than the one to Bangkok though both prices were astoundingly low in January. While still depressingly unemployed, or really, by my own doing seeing as I had offers in Philadelphia and Boston but was stubbornly set on New York, I thought that, in the dead of winter with a wild sister causing scenes at home each evening, it might as well be a good time to fly away. 

As the ticket price remained unchanged, I bought it with 12 hours notice. I took the metro north to Grand Central, the A over to Penn, and caught the train to Newark for my red-eye that allowed me to miss my 24th birthday and arrive the day after. I’d read Seminyak was more an Aussie party scene so I headed for Ubud, finding two-week accommodation from an outdoor cafe that overlooked a vast expanse of rice fields.

Seeing as a shaman from Ubud was featured in Eat Pray love, a book I’d never read but a movie I’d seen on repeat during a Semester at Sea 8 day crossing from Brazil to Ghana, I figured I’d look some soothsayers up and hear what they’d have to say. 

I was on a constant search for such figures in my travels, both because it presented a glimpse into a country’s traditions (though a touristy glimpse but who could help it) and because I was at the hapless, listless, phase in my life where I needed someone, anyone to tell me it would get better than unemployed and living at home with a sister whose heartbreaking journey into madness was unstoppable.

“Forgive each day. Start, morning and evening by naming and forgiving each person in your life. Then end each prayer by forgiving yourself.” He was smiling brightly, the incense smoke lazily twirling skywards as we sat cross legged on a floor covered with freshly picked flowers. He gave me prayer beads, incense, and tea to drink under intense contemplation. We’d spent two hours in an ornate ceremony together, one that included submerging in a pool filled with flowers and perfume, silent prayer and prayers said allowed, until finally I was ushered, with smiles and bows, along my way.

The trip to Bali was meant to be a solitary one, something I hadn’t ever fully experienced before. I was well versed in solo travel but, upon arriving to a new hostel, I was always greeted by a new friend group, new, amazing people to explore with. In Ubud, I stayed in my own room and was able to listen to and appreciate the silence it offered. 

Since moving home the 4 months previous, my life had gone from joyful independence living a full and happy life in Portland to something bizarre that, even now, is difficult to think back on as my daily survival mode thought processes are so impossible to fathom.

These days, long after my sister left home, my parents tell me I didn’t take the jobs I had been offered in Boston or the one in Philadelphia because I wanted to stay at home, to protect them. That they’d been living like that with my eldest sister as their verbal and emotional dictator, living like that for the whole year and a half since she’d moved home. 

I have to roll my eyes at this because, with all the anger I held… I hold towards my eldest sister makes this statement seem as if I am somehow a chivalrous, dutiful daughter when, in fact, I am selfish, simple, and stubborn and just wanted to fulfill my dream of living in New York for a while. There is a part of me that wants to believe what they say because no 24 year old with a healthy savings, a resume, and a solid credit score would willingly choose to live in her childhood home under draconian measures in a sleepy suburb of New York City. Especially when, on those most demeaning of nights when my sister would have one of her especially bad fits, how the line between especially bad and bad was drawn I’ll never know, my mother would text me, “don’t come home.” She’d ask a favor from a family friend or I would call one in from one of my childhood friends and hop from home to home, even going so far as to sleep in my car at one point and a nearby hotel at another. 

In a brief retelling, imagine a scene, one possibly cut out from Psycho or any dark, twisted family noir: a 30 year old woman, my eldest sister, hysterically sobbing while sitting on her 60 year old mother’s lap because she had imagined and so demanded that everyone in her life thought she was fat and had concluded that the only way to make these imaginary souls happy would be to starve or kill herself. Then, suddenly displeased by the cradling, the rocking and consoling in my mother’s frail arms, she would hop up, her face contorting, her eyes darkening, scratching at her skin and tearing out strands of hair like a distraught caged animal. Then, abruptly, she’d rush out, either into the street or up into the attic (it differed depending on season and time of day) shouting that she would, indeed, kill herself this time. Perhaps it was the third time in that day she’d enacted these dramatics. Rarely was it the first in a week. Or she’d steal the keys to my mother’s car and speed off, returning with a crashed windshield with a force of impact that looked as though a boulder had been bashed into it. Her refusal to go to the psychiatrist my parent’s paid for with their limited funds made it impossible to get a diagnosis. “I’m not crazy! Everyone else is!” She’d shout. Naturally, those words rang as handbook crazy, workbook impossible.

So I was enjoying the silence of my well priced studio in Bali. 

A couple of birthday wish texts came through my phone after the Shaman visit, some from friends but the majority from the long stream of lovers I was keeping at that moment of time. I was 23 or… then 24 and had decided that dating older men was the only answer. I won’t ever dare say I regret my choice nor that I was in any way wrong in my decision but I had gotten myself into a number of hijinks and more… unique situations than I might have with a man my own age. There were the finance men (why are they all doomed to misery by their late 30s?) the successful creatives who enjoyed gazing up at me as they delicately kissed my feet, and the successful divorcees who, while jumping on a small trampoline in their Penthouse as they texted their assistant and ranted to me, cursed their gorgeous Russian ex-wives who had taken all of their money while I, listening with all of the right empathetic facial cues, silently applauded them. I said my thank-you’s across the board and scheduled out two weeks of dates for when I returned then ventured off to the monkey forest. 

After one of the agile primates had attempted to make off with my purse, I took a seat in a nearby cafe, escaping the afternoon heat. I instantly regretted my decision: it was one of those hippie cafes that seem to crop up in various expat towns across Asia. The sort where white folks as pale as myself talk in their native tongues, not bothering to learn the local one though they’ve lived there for years, and carve out their own oasis that bears striking resemblance to the countries that they have since renounced as evil in one form or another. It was here, in some crushed velvet seat, that I accidentally locked eyes with a Brody. 

A Brody is a traveling archetype. He’s an American, often bald or with a cleanly shaved head, who is overly friendly but, note, not charismatic – one who inches to overstep his bounds with every woman he comes across, pushing until the woman becomes exasperated and bursts forth with anger or tears of annoyance and he, finding wiggle room in her “I said NO why don’t you hear me?” Asks, “I’m so sorry… have you felt as though you haven’t been heard before?” Brodys always knows every other expat well enough to ask about their family members by name but has a past that he only hints at though the blurry half-statements of it never completely add up. I’ve run into Brody’s in just a handful of my travels though I often tend to steer clear of any American gathering as it seems that the worst stereotypes always fester there. 

Brody was once in finance (the atypical backstory) but, after making a certain undisclosed amount of money, decided to retire early and travel. Work-isn’t-everything is a Brody’s motto, wearing tattered clothes and, conversely, always donning pristine shoes. While often attempting to woo you, he’ll ask for you to pay for the brunt of the adventure due to his inability to carry cash. Though you hadn’t thought twice about your contribution, because never would you think of the travel day as a date, he will start in with his retellings of his modest… but substantial… but modest savings. 

Typical Brody. 

This Brody latched on to me in the cafe, asking me all of the questions about my identity as possible, reaching in and extracting what he needed to attempt to victimize me. Brodys love a victim. If a woman is in a relationship, he’ll work at convincing her that he’s abusive so as to position himself as the rebound, the shoulder to lean on. If she’s single but doesn’t want anything to do with him, he’ll work in family trauma, past relationship trauma… trauma trauma trauma all in the name of sex. While I find Brodys wildly unattractive, I have enjoyed the sounding board aspect that they offer. 

This Brody asked me to spend the next day exploring with him. He said he’d take me to all of the important sites. I reluctantly agreed, unsure if I actually wanted the company or was being too polite. 

We hired a car and ventured to both Tirta Empul Temple and Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, a full driving day, and experienced a deluge of rain in both. The rains and winds were fierce enough to have swept a great deal of flowers, given as offerings, away from the temples and into the angry waters. We stopped at a road side fruit stand in the late afternoon, when the weather had cleared, and ate a bundle of fruit.              

“See that?” He said, nodding down to a caged rooster that was clawing at the ground and angrily furrowing itself before letting out a crow. “Cock fighting is huge here.” I said nothing. No righteous, Western speech about animal cruelty, no pledge to fight this practice. There was nothing to be said. The man and woman behind the fruit stand gave us a beaming smile. We thanked them and went on our way. 

The driver dropped us off downtown next to Brody’s motorbike. We went for a ride and he showed me where his daughter attended school, a progressive institution known as “The Green School.” We talked all about its revolutionary education over dinner and, hesitantly, I agreed to go back to his place for a night cap. 

“I’ll walk home from there. I can only stay a moment,” I said a good half dozen times. “Is your daughter home?” I added as we opened the screen door to his home. No no, he told me, she was in France, with her mother for winter break. He spat the word mother out as if it were toxic. I said nothing, gazing at the crescent moon as he turned the key and stepped into his living room. He had added something or another about this ex-wife, about her current fiancé, about their impending marriage. I nodded and clicked my tongue. A wedding? Would it be in France? Was he to attend? How did he feel about… on and on. “She cheated on me,” he said shortly. Men usually lead with that, hoping to garner sympathy without going into detail. I clicked my tongue again and offered an apology. “It’s alright, I’ve grown from it.” Brodys are always growing due to the women in their life. “I’m grateful for her having been in my life but, I have to admit, it has taken me a long time to forgive her.”

I nodded slowly. He looked expectant, waiting for me to divulge more about myself. He’d said I was guarded three times that day. I was a fortress but so incredibly kind. That I was clearly hard on myself and shouldn’t ever be. I was tense, he said. 

Guarded. Fortress. Tense. Three words I’d never been called by anyone else. I’d paused and given thought to each one then quickly remembered that I was guarded and tense because this was a strange man being strange to me, trying to make things sensual and touchy that weren’t meant to be. 

He was in the middle of one of these lectures about releasing anger, about opening up to what can be when my eyes left his and slowly made their way up the wall to the far corner near his bed post. He continued talking in his silky, baritone voice, asking for sex by using grassroots lingo (free, flexible, like a current, undulating, knocking down walls and so on) as my eyes remained fixed on what was undoubtably a sex swing that hung from suspension chains drilled into the ceiling. 

My eyes met him as he continued to speak. Something about being open, about forgiving those who have harmed us. “Hey,” I said, “I really have to get going,” and acquiescing to no more of this Brody’s antics, I swiveled out of the front door and let him drive me home. 

The rest of the trip consisted of balcony cigarettes, pool swings, fantastic meals, and a trip to Seminyak. Then, having my fill of silence and warm weather, I made my way back to Connecticut, back to cohabiting with severe and heart breaking displays of mental illness and senior abuse, coaching and consoling my parents until, one day in spring, my mother had decided that she had had enough. I was staying at a family friend’s house, my broken foot casted and propped when I’d heard that my eldest sister had been, as always, hysterically screaming in broad daylight for one reason or another, and had attempted to take my mother’s car for another careless drive. My mother grabbed for the keys, wrenching them out of my sister’s hand. My sister had immediately collapsed to the sidewalk, in front of god and everyone, scratching that my mother was hitting her, abusing her, and was trying to murder her. 

The police were called. My sisters arms were inspected. And my father filed a report ensuring she would never be allowed inside the family house again. She packed her bags and moved in with my grandfather and has been living off of him ever since. 

I kept the shaman’s prayer beads, the teas and incense. Instead of using the holy man’s sound advice or taking Brody words as anything more than an added detail to a strange story, I closed off to the world for a while after moving in to New York City and nursed my anger and contempt. It felt safe and familiar, a cocoon of contempt that kept me safe and rationalized anything that was to happen to me. I stayed that way, bitter, for one too many years until I woke up one morning and decided that I didn’t want to be angry anymore. 

The other day, far from Bali, New York, and my childhood home, I lit one of the incense sticks the shaman had given me back when I was 24 and placed it on my terrace in Rome. I sat, watching it ash, breathing in that musty, familiar scent, and began listing all of the people that I was determined to forgive, finding that same, all too familiar hurt well up when it came to forgiving myself.