I am sitting in the stunning, airy bar of my gorgeous Balinese hotel and I am sweating… a lot. I’ve just had a ten-minute walk, the slow, meandering kind, but it has still taken its toll in the sticky, humid weather. There is a delicate balance here between freshly showered and breaking out in a full, glorious dancer’s sweat and I am hoping to find it. Like the heroine of “Eat, Pray, Love”, I have come to Bali searching for balance.
It’s a challenge, because I am not exactly here on vacation. My partner Greg and I lead spiritual tours to sacred sites around the world, and Bali is high on many people’s lists. So we are working. Managing a group of 35 American travelers, to be exact. This is not as hard as it sounds, if you take into consideration the group dynamic of “one mind.” I never thought I would want to travel with a group until I first took a spiritual tour myself. But when I did I understood the tremendous power of shared intention.
We are traveling in Bali for two weeks, visiting temples almost every day. The emphasis is on pilgrimage, yes, but also on poolgrimage, its sister, spagrimage, and their close cousin, shopgrimage. At least the group is balanced. Our little band of Americans is made up of some real sports. They have bought their temple clothes – the sarong, sash, white shirt, and (for the men) headdress – indicating the devout intentions of a Balinese worshipper. They go to the temples and learn how to pray like the Balinese Hindus. They clasp their hands in Namaste (not unlike our good old-fashioned American “prayer hands”) and hold them up – first to their foreheads, for the gods, then to their hearts, for our human selves. They wash their faces in incense smoke, toss flower petals in the air and tuck them behind their ears. They eat uncooked grains of rice (to suppress base desires) and are doused with holy water by “Pamungku,” the Balinese priests who accept our offerings and lead us in prayer. For two weeks, they give their lives over to the search for something greater.
Of course it’s not all the earnest work of devotion. We are staying at the Maya Ubud, and a more integrated balance between luxurious four star service and raw nature I cannot imagine. The whole property is a lush tropical garden, set among the rice paddies of Ubud, itself the artistic heart of Bali. The lawns are well-manicured, but even the team of gardeners working seven days a week can barely hold back the jungle of local plants, huge trees, and bright colorful splashes of flowers. The Maya has a deeply organic feel from the moment you approach the front entrance, a huge thatched roof covering the open space and pavilion, which is inspired by the design of traditional Balinese “bale” and family compounds. A wooden walkway slices through flowing water to the lobby, where the soaring thatch ceiling is grounded by a circular glass floor at the center, lit from below and filled with objets d’antique from Bali’s ancient past.
The staff welcomes you, with more than passable English; their enthusiasm for your comfort makes their meaning even clearer. When my group arrives, our cooling welcome drink and room keys are accompanied by the spa brochures I requested. The energy in the room is palpable as everyone chatters excitedly about the treatments, the design. By the next morning, the spa is booked for three days solid by our happy assembly.
Greg and I are staying in a pool villa, one of 34 that stretch out in neat rows ringed by the ever-abundant plant life. Walking to our room for the first time, I see five different types of butterfly. When we slide open the teak doors to our room, we are transported into another level of beauty. Here, too, the roof is thatched in the traditional Balinese fashion, the neat rows of dried grass clearly visible high overhead. We have a 4-poster bed with filmy cotton mosquito netting draped charmingly on the bedposts. Our bath is an oversized hammered aluminum affair with a view of the private garden.
Outside, facing the bathroom, is a small plunge pool, filled to overflowing with cool clear water. The sticky humidity has already taken its toll; as soon as the bags are delivered to our room, I strip off my clothes and take a bracing plunge into the pool. There isn’t much room to swim, but it is enough. During our stay, I use the pool three or four times a day, looking up into the blue sky, enjoying the view of the Ti plants and verdant jungle that envelops me. Once, I see a huge snail, bigger than my index finger, gliding up a three-foot leaf, his antennae waving cautiously as he explores what comes next. I want to be that snail while I am here, concerned only with what is just in front of me, but tour leaders don’t get much vacation time.
Ensuring that all the guests are happy, well taken care of, and that their myriad questions are answered, leaves little time for personal pursuits. But every morning, I do manage to find some time to myself. One day, I make my way over to the 7:30am yoga class, taught thoughtfully by a smiling Balinese man named Gina. Despite being both fit and flexible, Gina is patient with those who have never done this before, or who cannot touch their toes. He encourages balance, forward bends counteracted by backwards ones, the left side worked on exactly as much as the right. It is just what I need to hear. Another morning I follow the signs that say “nature walk”, down the steep mossy steps to a stone Balinese bathing fountain, past a splashing waterfall, along the river which marks the edge of the Maya property. I walk past plants whose leaves unfurl so large over my head that I could take shelter in a rainstorm. I see geckos and lizards, blue birds with orange throats, red-winged dragonflies. I feel so far away from my life back home, so blissfully surrounded by ways of life I usually don’t take time to see.
On the last day of our trip, we have given the group the whole day off. We will gather in the evening for our spectacular farewell dinner (150 dancers and a four course Balinese meal) but today, Greg and I are going to the spa. Having toured the place my first morning, visiting both the individual and couples suites, I have booked the newest couples suite, which faces the river, two stories down. In addition to the two massage tables, it has a resting pavilion, a round aluminum bathtub big enough for both of us, private lockers, and outdoor side-by-side showers, all under the high thatched roof that I have come to think of as the Maya’s signature design. This is where we will spend the next two hours.
While Greg gets foot reflexology, I begin with a Balinese massage. It is similar to what I am used to in any massage, but the strokes are longer and the tiny girl never exerts too much or too little pressure, using only her hands. Draping is observed, and I never feel like I am showing too much skin at any one time. The sound of the river stands in for the usual spa music, and I am transported to a place of tranquil rest, the soft breeze occasionally wafting the smell of the jasmine oil the masseuse uses. As Greg moves into a Balinese massage, I receive a ginger and tangerine body scrub (my other options included something that smelled decidedly like curry). This is unlike any other scrub I have had – a powder is rubbed into each body part and then brushed off, taking the dead skin, but causing no discomfort. Afterwards, the therapist slathers my whole body in fresh yoghurt and directs me to the outdoor shower.
As she leaves, she puts her hands into Namaste, and I respond in the same manner. This means, “May the God in me greet the God in thee.” Talk about balance! Balinese pray many times a day and their prayers are deeply joyous and beautifully integrated into their lives. The taxicab driver wants to talk to you about Spirit; so does the hotel manager and the woodcarver. They all have stories about their lives that involve their spirituality. They all want to know what you believe and share what they believe — not to argue with you, but because their belief system embraces God as everything, in everything, in all facets of their lives, beyond death, beyond rebirth. This is reflected in their architecture, in their love of color, in their ubiquitous offerings of flowers and fruit, even in their spa design.
By now it’s mid-morning and I stand under the warm water, enjoying the sun on my face and body, the sounds of the river, the rich scents of the forest. Greg joins me, hinting that the backyard at home might need remodeling into a Balinese garden, complete with outdoor showers. I wash my hair with jasmine shampoo, then we both step into the bergamot scented lime bath that has been drawn for us, the tub filling over the past hour and now topped with dozens of local flowers – hibiscus and frangipani. As we relax for twenty minutes I reflect on the trip, on balance. At least these few hours, taking some “personal-me time” has given me peace. For our group, they are happy with the trip, delighted with the hotel and spa. For me… well, we get to return at least twice more this year, bringing other groups. It’s all a balancing act; the trick is to take the time where you can, and to enjoy every minute. Bali has reminded me of this and I will take the feeling home with me until I return.