I have a heart to open and disappointments to mend after learning that the life plan I had mapped out for myself might not be right. I had always assumed I wanted to be a New York corporate girl, the girl in the crisply ironed suit you could see chattering about business outside the Lexington Avenue skyscrapers or toasting to freshly completed reports over pricey cosmos in the bars of upper Manhattan. This part of my identity, something I always assumed I wanted to be, started to crumble when I was wrapping up my first corporate contract and started to realize that something about the lifestyle didn’t feel quite right. With the unanticipated pangs of doubt over my life map, I pulled out my world map to plot course for Bali, the bucket list destination that had always seemed like a beacon of light and place of refuge for the downtrodden and distressed.
After a whirlwind of trans-Pacific flights and bumping around island roads in unmarked taxis, I’ve finally reached Ubud. Ubud was the Indonesia I had come to see, with main roads full of the endless buzzing of scooters, bantering merchants and cracked sidewalks with coconut shells rotting beneath. Turn onto a side street and you’ve hit the island suburbs. There are family estates with garden courtyards and gates lined with intricate black and gold carvings. Offerings of flowers and woven banana leaves and incense are strewn across the streets. I walk along the rice paddies, dodging the free range chickens and stray dogs on my way. The locals throw random English phrases at me as I walk by the farms and little shops, I smile in response. I can’t help but feel intrusive, like I’ve somehow tried to exploit the island’s history for my own selfish ends. Who am I, running here for purpose when life gets rough, when the rice farmers and lychee sellers and porch dwellers have far better things to do than to offer me meaning?
Struggling with my tourist guilt, I strike up a conversation with two unlikely travel buddies in a side street cafe. One is from the US and the other from England. They both recently went through bad breakups, one after dating her ex boyfriend for a whopping 17 years. After both women experienced ugly ends to relationships, they took off and saw the world with a vengeance, meeting each other along the way. Worlds away from our rocky pasts, we sit on cushions next to a wide window with a beaded curtain, laughing and drinking jasmine tea and sharing our favorite proverbs we’ve learned throughout our travels. I hug the two women goodbye as they board their motorbike, and for the first time since my arrival I can’t help but smile. The interaction makes me realize that I’ll be happy with whatever the trip brings me. Miles from the places that have been a source of pain or confusion to us, the night has brought me and my companions some welcome moments of peace. Even if everything I heard about the island is a myth – even if Bali has no power to bring a traveler serenity or self-awareness, it can bring me into the paths of some outstanding individuals. And when we intersect, somehow we help to heal each other.
One of the many challenges of being a traveler is that we depart looking for things that we don’t have at home, but the places we go to truly owe us nothing. If you ask a place to change you, it has the right to refuse, and there may not be enough healers, yogis or oracles in the world to hand you the answers you request. Sagely, I realize it’s best to stop asking. Stop asking for fulfillment from the famed spiritual places like Bali. Grab a fruit juice and a plate of Nasi Goreng, chat with locals, sit with the sunset, and watch the unknown unfold around you.