Memories in the time of corona
I tried but I just couldn’t… Between those long hours of working from home and the few minutes of sneaking outside when the dark covers well enough the deserted city, so that my secret strolls feels less as a guilt, I was tip toeing through my mind, through my memories. I didn’t wanna wake up the monster…. But as every glass of red wine sipped on my couch brings back the scents of Tuscany, the sweet potatoes I just baked in the kitchen bear the feel of wandering the streets of old Cairo, the black sticky rice pudding I made this morning brings a sweet air of mornings in Ubud…. the wanderlust monster is so awake. The sound of a plane earlier before made me run to the window, open it wide, only to check the night sky and see nothing… Still, I knew it was there….
At one point, weeks ago now, we’ve put living on hold, without knowing. Yes, there’s life behind walls, there’s work, dear ones, passions…. but the trees, the grass, the puffy white clouds on a blue sky, the waves, the so many things we love, these are all outside the walls.
1 hour and 45 minutes. This is how long the sun visits my balcony every day, if the sky is clear. And if the wind blows, I might feel some perfume from the blossom tree far beneath. I love every minute of it because I know I will have again more of what I love. From all the beautiful places I have so far seen, I now miss the most those I haven’t yet. But for right now, I’ll feed the monster with some memories… and I’ll adapt & wait.
Last hours in Bali
Wayan, my driver and guide and now friend, came earlier that morning, looking handsome, with a white turban and a blue sarong.
– Here, that’s for you, he said as we got in the car, and gave me a black plastic bag. Sticky rice cooked in small packs of banana leaves, algae pudding and a little plastic bag with orchids.
– This one, from my mom, if you wanna go to the healer, it’s good to offer him flowers as a gift.
We talked the other day about my intention to see a healer in Ubud, an experience I wanted to have but in the same time I felt unsure and intimidated: What if it’s true what it’s said: that person can look into your soul and read it like in an opened book…
I thanked him for his kindness practicing my 3 words so far Balinese and I started devouring all he had brought. I only stopped when I was too full. Yet, never too full to taste a new fruit. Was jackfruit’s turn. People were selling it by the road, entirely or already cut in small pieces and put in plastic bags. The woman we bought it from assured me it was freshly cut. Ignoring all the Western rules about food hygiene and eating peeled fruits in Asia, I had that jackfruit and it was delicious and with no regrets later.
Tanah Lot Temple
Probably the most spectacular places in the world where temples were build are in Bali. Tanah Lot is one of them. The rock that houses the temple, a pilgrimage Hindu site, faces the strong waves since the 16th century, in perfect solitude, on a rocky beach who’s shores are turned green by the algae. A ceremony was undergoing and tens of worshipers were moving around. I entered inside the cave, I drank from the holy tirta (spring) and when I came out I received the Bija, grains of rice washed with holy water or sandal wood placed on my forehead as a symbol of praying and wisdom by a pujari, the temple’s priest.
We took a few steps on the rocks covered by algae, with the majestic silhouette of Tanah Lot in the back and we asked a passer by to take Wayan and I a few photos. I was so happy to have participated in the ceremony and wear the Bija.
Back in the car wanted to know more about the healers in Bali and I kept asking Wayan about this. He said he never actually saw one in person but he heard about one frequented by many locals in his village, including his mom. She, on the other side, believes in “these things”…
– She goes sometimes to see this old man, and then she comes back and….aaa look, the Butterfly Park is here.
– What? Where? Here? I turned my head and yelled: STOOOOP!
A sudden break shook my head and the sharp noise of wheels broke our conversation about the healer.
– What happened, why you said stop? he asked calmly.
– Sooorry, I didn’t expect you’ll stop like this….
Probably any of my friends back home would have killed me for this. But not Wayan, he is the ZEN-est person in the world. I was half out of my car window already, looking at the back, for the big and colourful sign in front of the Butterfly Park.
– I have to get it, I won’t stay long, pleeease, I have to see them….
I have heard about the place but I had no idea was in our way that day. So I left Wayan in the parking, to take a nap and I went inside the garden…. I got the entrance ticket and opened the door to what seemed to be a huge greenhouse. A black shadow instantly crossed in front of my eyes, almost touching the tip of my nose. I made a step back. It was huge: a black butterfly just like the one I was chasing in vain the other day. I followed it for a sec and when I finally looked around, all was moving. Not the plants but the hundreds of butterflies. The plants and many flowers around were packed with them. There were about 10 different species, the biggest butterflies I ever saw, black, white, yellow, one almost transparent, blue, orange and black…. I watched each specie closer, observing every little detail. It was heaven, and an empty one since just me 5 other people were inside. Time has then stopped as I let myself carried out by this butterfly magic.
Inside the greenhouse, hidden in the back, was another greenhouse, smaller and much darker, with little windows and no plants inside. Hmm… I went there. Wow! Cages filled with cocoons were covering whole the place. A worker was sitting on the ground, picking the cocoons from a big pile of leaves, putting them all together in a basket. We exchanged smiles and he points silently to one of the cages. I got closer and witnessed life and beauty in the making: a few butterflies were just hatching, trembling and slowly stretching their crumpled young wings to a new life, that of a few days only. In a far corner, separated from the others, I noticed something moving. I got closer, determined not to scream and embarrass myself if I will get attacked by that beast. Cause that’s what it looked like. I was so introduced to the majestic Atlas Moth, the largest in the world, with its wingspan reaching up to 25cm. An absolute wonder with large velvet wings. It surely looked intimidating for someone like me, who’s afraid of anything larger then a fly, but hearing that it has no mouth, I felt encouraged. It lives up to 2 weeks, relying only on its body fat, and it’s a nature’s wonder. Holding it in my palm, completely covered by its gorgeous wings, feeling its trembling fading slowly as it fell asleep in my hand, feeling its weight was simply magical! I truly had the butterfly effect, right there, in my palm.
This corner of paradise stands as a conservation centre for many species of butterflies of Bali, housing many of those also protected by law. I left the Butterfly Park happier.
On the way to Besakih Temple
I was still thinking weather to go or not see a healer, the balance being rather closer to no then yes, when we stopped at a gas station. The road was a straight black line splitting in half the rice fields. On one side a row of high palm trees was mirroring into the water as the rice had just started to grow, on the other the crops were ready to be harvested and people were working on the fields. I got closer to a fence to take a better look. Four women were there, with their feet and hands black in the thick mud, carrying large baskets with green rice. One of them saw me. She suddenly stopped and for an instant I felt like a spy. Then she reached her lips with her palm wide opened and released it widely towards the sky with a large kiss sent to me from the green fields, together with a great smile. I answered her back the same way and wave my both hands to them.
– What did you saw there? Wayan asked me in the car.
– I just got a kiss from a few nice ladies.
Wayan didn’t quite understood but also didn’t insist. I was still smiling, looking outside as we drove by villages and rice fields and people. I was collecting visual memories.
Mother Temple in Bali
The most important, the largest and holiest temple of Hindu religion in Bali, sitting still on the slopes of Mount Agung for more then 2000 years. The complex of 23 temples is known as Mother Temple or Besakih. This was the temple I wanted to see most of all!
Wayan had this idea to let me go visit the temples with a local, apparently a friend of his. They know the entrances, are allowed inside anytime, can bring people with them and I can see more with him then with a regular tour, Wayan promised. I suspected it was just a way to help a friend earn some money but I played the game. Still, I didn’t agree to pay what he asked first: 25$. I said 5. Wayan didn’t intervene. We continue and finally I greed to support the locals and be a good visitor and offer 10$. I then read that some people were asked at the official entrance some donations that can go up to 100$. I guess it depends on luck and negotiation skills.
My “guide” was in his 50s, short, slim and suuuper fast. I did my jogging following him through the village, to the secret entrance he knew. He told me about the temple, its history, the big religious festivities it holds throughout the year and about the last time Mount Agung, the volcano, woke up from its sleep covering all in thick volcano ash and damaging parts of the ancient temple. That was 2 weeks prior my visit. Unfortunately then it was a cloudy day and the author of all those damages was hidden in the clouds.
– It can erupt anytime, you know.
I looked towards the place where I knew the imposing volcano was, hoping that day it won’s woke up. Nor many more after for the sake of people there.
We had a 4 legged companion, a dog, my guide’s dog, who kept starting fights with all the dogs we met in our way. We was trespassing following his master. So constantly it was the two of us and 4-5 different dogs fighting and chasing one another around. Quite a noisy apparition in the little village, that made people look outside their yards and windows to see what was happening. Finally the dog gave up when the number of its opponents got to big for him. He looked at us disappointed and finally listened to his master and went back.
The temple was breathtaking. Or should I say the temples… around 80 of them. We passed from one to another, admiring huge shrines, high pagodas with up to 10 layers of roofs each, some smaller but all with their perfect black shapes made of what seemed to be some sort of straws perfectly build together. The Balinese gates, the high and large steps build in black stone and the multitude of statues of gods were giving the place a mystic air. We met almost no other tourists.
– You see their faces, it’s both the good and bad. Just like in every one of us: the good and the bad are part of us in the same time.
From the top of the main structure, Pura Penataran Agung, the Great Temple of State, build in stone, the view was incredible. Temples as far as I could see. A faded line of grey smoke was rising up to the sky in the horizon. Probably a ceremony in one of the temples. A cold breeze from the hights of Mt Agung reminded us that in Bali, the first days of September, the sun sets soon after 6PM se we should hurry to get back.
After the previous experience with the restaurant where Wayan took me the other day, where I actually payed for the view to the rice fields, (which I admit, it was great) rather than the food…. I should have ran from the first sign: large white plates…. this time he listen to my words: local food. We went to the night market in Gianyar, his town, a few minutes drive from Ubud. Chicken satay, for me, of course and it was great. Plus, the atmosphere of eating with locals at one of the long tables covered with red oilcloth that were placed in front of the stalls where roasted piglets and chickens were served as food among hot pans lifted in the air over the high flames or bowls with vegetables waiting for their turn. In front was the food, but the cooking show was in the back.
An unfortunate event has happened as I entered back my chalet: the entrance door became a deadly weapon for a curious lizard that has sneaked inside while I was away. I tried in vain to save the poor creature while Wayan was waiting for me outside, to drop me in the centre of Ubud. I came back really affected by this accident.
I ended the day with a late dinner at Dewa Warung, one of the open space warungs on the main street with bars and pubs in Ubud, listening to traveling stories shared by the people with whom I shared the table. The place was packed with travellers. Another favourite of mine is the nearby warung Biah Biah, where the food is delicious and served on banana leaves, but I like trying more places. The evening shower was just starting when I left so I found shelter under the roof of a store nearby. Huge drops were making people run and the street empty. Ubud is so peaceful on any weather, but rain, rain in particular has a special feel here. I have to say, I like it more then in other places.
It was late when the rain stopped and I could finally walk to my accommodation. I was walking concentrated, trying not to fall since my flip-flops were wet and slippery, when I heard “Hello, dear!”. It was the masseuse who helped me with a late massage the other night, though they were preparing to close. She was from Sumatra and she used to be a man. I wished her good night. I love this, when I travel in a place and get to know some people.
In front of my door was a black spot, an army of huge ants were devouring the poor dead lizard. Nature has turned a tragedy of one into the benefit of others.
Time to leave
I had a few hours left in Udud so I spent them wisely: wandering the streets, buying more silver rings with abalones shell in the market, getting lost among stalls with merchandise and paintings, gazing at the lotus flowers at Lotus Cafe. And finally visiting my relatives. I couldn’t leave without a visit to Monkey Forest. I found the monkeys smarter and more civilised then my human fellas. It was funny to watch the two species with so much in common interacting.
Wayan came an hour late. He had a wedding to attend in his village. After a warm and long good bye with my hosts, we left for Kuta, where I was planning to get my last amazing sunset on the beach and my last delicious chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. The traffic was terrible. When we finally reached Seminyak, it was almost sunset time. I wanted to stop but Wayan kept postpone the moment until we reached Kuta. The sun was gone. I was so disappointed and angry with him. I had one last wish: the chicken satay at Bamboo Corner. We split, he left to park the car and I went to get my last supper in Bali. I tried to contact Wayan again, I couldn’t. My connection was dead. I panicked after a few attempts that we lost each-other and we’ll be late for the airport. I decided not to go to the restaurant until I talk to Wayan to make sure we’re in time. I don’t know why I needed extra assurance. When I finally reached him, he was at Bamboo Corner and had no idea where I was. It took us many more minutes to find each other since he had no idea where McDonald’s in Kuta was. I was now desperate. The sunset was lost, the dinner too, now all I wanted was to catch was my flight. When I finally saw Wayan, all sweaty and desperate, I didn’t wanna kill him anymore. We literally ran to the place where he had parked the car, which was at the end of the world. If I only knew…
– I’m so sorry you lost the sunset. And dinner.
– Yeah, me too.
That was our last conversation until we reached the airport. The trip was a nightmare, we were blocked in the traffic, nothing was moving and the minutes were passing. I was so afraid I will lose my flight to Singapore. The next day I had my flight back home. Miraculously, the car started to move. I got in that plane. And so I left Bali, in a total chaos. Probably the only easier way. It’s always hard to leave a beautiful place. And Bali is special. As the plane took off, I promised myself I will be back.
Good Bye Asia!
My first taste of Asia was phenomenal. Back home, for 3 full weeks, every single night I dreamt I was back there, swimming with green turtles, gazing at skies set on fire at sunsets, defying luck on crazy rides on scooters, tasting new foods, praying at all gods and above all falling in love with the world, our world to explore.
8 months have passed and I was back for the second dose, this time in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But about this, soon. The third Asian adventure was about to end today. I should have visited by now the Great Wall of China, be enchanted by sakura season in Japan and finally fly to the Philippines where I had big plans. All these were postponed…
But no matter what, the thrill for the next beautiful place is here. In the heart.
P.S. Yesterday Wayan shared on Facebook photos with his family’s rice field in Gianyar, planted with his own hands. There’s lockdown in Bali too and no work at all now for people living out of tourism, as Wayan. But as always, he’s smiling.
A few days after I arrived back home, I wrote him. We both apologised for the chaos in that last evening. And we stayed in touch since then. I sent him photos with white winter in Europe and he sends back the forever green of Bali. I hope we’ll meet again soon. He still owns me a sunset in Kuta and a chicken satay 😉 The last, as usual, is on me.
Next: Croatia and Montenegro