Last week, I traveled with friends to visit sea temples in the south of Bali. We hired a driver for the day and planned to “temple hop” (my term) before catching the sunset at the beach.
The arrival at the first temple, Pura Tanah Lot, felt a bit like an amusement park: our driver idled in a queue of cars, we paid entrance fees, and then walked through alleyways of vendors selling overpriced bottles of water.
The commercial alleys eventually faded into a wide, sweeping road that led to the ocean. As a first-time visitor, this was a powerful moment—when the narrow alley expanded into a wide vista, and suddenly I beheld an ancient temple sitting atop a rock formation.
We lifted our skirts above our knees and excitedly forged through the water. Into a small cave we went, where holy men blessed us with holy water, handed us flowers, and placed rice on our third eye centers. “Donation,” one said to me, gesturing towards a clam shell filled with Rupiah. The whole process took about 30 seconds but I have to say that afterwards, I felt renewed.
Uluwatu Temple was much the same (can any historic, sacred place ever disappoint?!) It’s situated on a huge cliff overlooking the ocean, and its size matches the grandiosity and enlightenment that it witnessed (it’s said that the holy priest Dhang Hyang Dwijendra reached oneness with deities by a strike of lightning and completely disappeared. We didn’t disappear that day but we did try to avoid hostile monkeys and tourists with selfie sticks).
Dinner added the final touch to this magical day. We ate at a beachfront restaurant that offered cheap plastic chairs, where we could dig our soles into the sand. Despite the piles of trash that accumulated on the beach, we still marveled at the sun’s beautiful performance.
My friends and I ordered four servings of mahi-mahi, one bottle of rosé, and one big bottle of Bintang. I shared a pack of cigarettes with my driver that night, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since France. My friends said they’ve never heard me orgasm so many times (well, really they haven’t ever heard me orgasm, but this was a special kind of vocal expression). I just beamed with delight, bathing in pure pleasure.
This was everything good all at once: wine, sunset, friends and cigarettes.
Was this really my life?
The following morning, I clogged my toilet (oops) and had to request a plunger from the hotel staff. A young man appeared at the door holding a plunger and toilet brush. He offered to help me out (and even took a few steps into my room) but I forcefully pushed him away: “NO! Really, no thanks. Suksama,” I said. No one should have to deal with this mess except for me.
After I sorted out the bathroom situation (and carefully removed all cleaning appliances far, far away from the scene of the crime), I converted my bathtub into a laundromat. I washed all my underwear, socks, bras and sweaty clothes with peppermint soap, then hung them outside to dry.
On the scooter ride to work, I realized that I had launched right into rush hour traffic. The road congestion required that I sit patiently on my scooter, using my legs as ballasts. Noxious fumes blew right into my face and the sun suddenly awoke, powerfully penetrating its rays into my skin. By the time I arrived at work, I was fifty shades darker and smelled of B.O. and gasoline.
Here in Bali, the sacred is never far away from the profane: an incensed offering gets trampled on by dogs, a holy man smokes a cigarette and, in the same way, my “glamorous” life is never far away from reality.
This isn’t some vacation where I’m gallivanting on a remote island; Jay-Z isn’t rapping while I dance in a sparkling bikini; I’m not writing a memoir that ends in ‘love’ and I’m definitely not swimming in cash.
All the things that were there before—the looming student debt, the root canal I’m avoiding, my yoga practice, eating, defecating, confronting my doubts and fears—they’re all still here because I’m still alive! It never goes away because this is the human condition.
It’s not hell but it’s not paradise either.
There’s this funny word that people keep using when they talk to me about my life: vicarious. “I’m living vicariously through you, Julia!” Your blog lets me do that.
What is it about our species that wants to live in a reality other than our own? A different time period, a different location, a different set of friends or family, a different culture, a different age? Somehow we think that if one or many of these variables changed, it would be different; we’d somehow be impervious to the circumstances that affect the human condition.
I’m thinking about this tonight as I sip on my wine and listen to Jardin d’hiver (God, I miss France). I pull back my hair, tightly twirl it around, then shape it into a bun on top of my head. I gently pin it back in preparation for reading my new book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (okay, new book for me!)
I’m only four chapters into the story, but it’s so captivating! There’s something delightful about diving into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; it’s like experiencing a life that I’ve never lived in a world I’ve never known.
Then I laugh.
Heh. I’m living vicariously through Harry Potter.