“How,” I wonder to myself, looking out through a hole in the ceiling to the purple bruise of sky beyond, “did I end up in a squat in the middle of a paddy field in inland Bali?” The mattress I gaze up from is slightly damp, as is pretty much everything in the room. It’s that time of year when rain sheets down from the sky for hours on end, only to steam up through clothing, fixtures and fittings within minutes of the sun appearing again. Gutters run like rivers, carrying away the strung marigolds, pagoda flowers and intricate hand-woven offerings left roadside for the gods in the same slipstreams as perforated plastic bags, ring pulls and cigarette butts. Monsoon season: the great leveller.
It’s not a great time to be a tourist in Bali, according to the guide books. But that was OK, I’d thought. I had no intention of staying. After months waitressing my way around Australia’s bars and restaurants, Southeast Asia was my reward: a place to spend that hard-earned cash, exploring beaches, temples and, if I felt like it, doing bugger all. Of course, as there often is with youthful backpacking, that ‘bugger all’ was well set out — certain islands to be visited; key sights to be checked off The List.
Bali had figured nowhere in my long-held plan for Indonesia. Tainted with the faint praise of beer-fuelled Australian co-workers who’d visited on cheap package holidays, I’d dismissed it as nothing better than a gateway to more ‘interesting’ islands; a place to touch down, check out and swiftly move on from.
But that’s the thing about youthful certainty, it’s begging to be blown to smithereens by the first breath of exotica. Back then, how was I to know that the first sniff of Bali’s richly perfumed air — all clove cigarettes and pungent frangipani — would be the ruin of me? How was I to know that each violent electrical storm would rewire my resolve to leave, rooting me to the ground, eyes to the sky like one newly aware of our planet’s eternal rumbling? Decades later, faced with that same heady air on arrival at Denpasar, I’m as wrong-footed as I was then. And I still don’t really know why.
If this had been a better story, an Eat, Pray, Love narrative that jogged along with boys and dinners and spiritual awakenings, I could find cause for this craziness. But it’s not. Decades before the Balinese town of Ubud had become the subject of Hollywood’s spiritual awakening, it had ensnared generations of European artists, misfits and drifters with its gentle welcome, vivid colours and handsomely represented panoply of gods; and so, too, me. The indefinable juju of the place: its air, its light, its tropical whiffs and winds swamped any sensible Cartesian spirit, turning me into a gibbering hippie.
So I didn’t leave. Four days quickly turned into four months. A homestay took me in, and fed me each morning on eggs haloed with yokes the colour of temple gold. They did my laundry; I walked their dogs. It was no more complicated than that. I’d somehow come home.
Friends of the homestay came and went and, as was the way of the place, I came and went with them, eventually to leave the fresh laundry, dogs and eggs in favour of free digs in a patchy patchwork of paddy fields outside Denpasar, colonised by a collective of elaborately tattooed artists. For want of enough willing flesh, the gang had carved, painted and etched every available table, door frame and leaky ceiling in their ramshackle house with acid-hued colours and spectacular, fantastical creatures, creating a mesmeric decorative landscape only challenged by sunsets that came crashing down outside with a Technicolor equatorial regularity, at 6pm on the dot. Safe to say, I was stupefied.
I did leave Bail eventually. Months later, it simply became time to move on. I’d somehow managed to avoid being tattooed by the clan, but I took with me something much more indelible — the strongest, embarrassingly evangelical sense that Bali is a place I’m always meant to return to. Even after going back with grown-up, worldly experience to bolster me, I still find myself blubbering anew at each departure, as if being ripped from the place I’m really destined to be.
Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)