Alone in Bali

by The Hairpin

Emailing with author Maggie Shipstead.

Edith Zimmerman: Maggie! Okay. You travel a lot, but I know you recently (?) went to Bali. How and why was that?

Maggie Shipstead: So, I was in Bali from mid-November to mid-December of 2011. It was a time when I otherwise didn’t really know what to do with myself. A friend of mine had just been to Bali and posted the most amazing pictures, and I was like, “Me too!” I found a little guesthouse online in a town called Ubud that I rented from an American woman who’s lived there for 15 years — it was really pretty and nice. I spent a month in India once, and since then I’ve felt okay about making comfort a priority when I travel. I know I can sleep on a Himalayan bus if I have to, but hopefully I won’t have to ever again. Anyway, after Bali I went to Paris for three months on an artist residency, and after that I spent a month in Edinburgh, so when I described my schedule to people, they’d be like, “Um . . . are you Eat, Pray, Love-ing?”

So it basically WAS some kind of Eat, Pray, Love?

Well, I certainly ate. No praying, though, and I’m not outgoing when I travel, which dramatically reduces the odds of any love. Elizabeth Gilbert says in that book that her superpower is an ability to make friends wherever she goes — that is so not me. I spent eight months alone on Nantucket when I was writing my first book, and my takeaway from that whole time was that a) left to my own devices, I won’t make any friends because b) I’m kind of a furtive skulker, and c) I don’t really get lonely and so am not motivated. Plus, you can’t really Eat, Pray, Love (it’s a verb) unless you’re on a personal quest of some kind. I just wanted to go to Bali. It turns out, though, that I work most efficiently when I’m alone in an unfamiliar place. I wrote my second book in the five months between when I got to Bali and when I left Edinburgh, so now I’ve set myself up to be dependent on this weird, solitary, nomadic lifestyle. My landlady’s housekeeper in Ubud worried about me a little and would be like, “Maybe you come back next year and bring friends.” I’d be like, “Mmmm, probably not.”

Eat, Pray, Love has come up a couple times in this series, which … I guess is neither here nor there. To be lightly mocked, or not, or just noted. Thoughts on what that’s about?

You know, I’m an Eat, Pray, Love defender. Most of my female friends are firmly in the other camp — they especially had issues with her tone — but I think there should be more examples out there of women deciding their lives aren’t working and attempting radical change. Not everyone has Elizabeth Gilbert’s freedom, financially or logistically, but I also don’t think she was morally obliged to stay home that year because going on a three-country visionquest isn’t a universally available option. Plus, when she left, she didn’t know the year would end up having such an appealing narrative arc, what with the love and all. It’s funny — that book has left a BIG footprint on Bali, especially Ubud, where she lived. You see a lot of solo female travelers there. People skip the whole four-months-in-an-ashram thing and go straight for the tropical paradise part. The movie version was in a stack of pirated Indonesian DVDs in my house, and I’ll admit I watched it a few times. Mostly I felt like Julia Roberts should have been sweatier. Also, the movie makes it look like Ubud’s near the beach, but it’s smack in the middle of the island.

Did you ever Drink, Curse, [or] Seethe?

Beer is sooooo cheap in Bali. A giant bottle of Bintang, Balinese pilsner, is something like three dollars. I drank a lot of that. On Thanksgiving, I ate dinner at a restaurant out in the middle of the rice paddies, had some Bintangs, and wandered back through the fields in the dark. It was lovely. I curse a lot generally, but most of my cursing in Bali had to do with the torn ligament I had in my foot at the time, which sucked because walking was my main source of entertainment. Sometimes I seethed because I was hot and uncomfortable. There was a little pool that I shared with two other houses, and I spent a chunk of most days standing in its one shaded corner reading a book.

I want to hear about that restaurant you mentioned.

After three weeks in Ubud, I went up to a little town on the north coast called Pemuteran that has good snorkeling and diving. It’s a great spot, but I made the solo-travel rookie error of staying in a hotel where I was really conspicuous by virtue of being alone. At dinner, it’d be a few tables of families and then me all alone at a candlelit table for two on the beach. I felt really obvious. So, after Pemuteran, I went to Seminyak, which is a flashy beach town in the south, and I spent a kajillion dollars to stay at the Oberoi Hotel for two nights. Total heaven. My house in Ubud, like most Balinese houses, was pretty much open to the outside, so there were always people coming in and out and watching me type on my laptop or stand in the pool. It felt great to close the door to my hotel room and enjoy the A/C and have total privacy. Right next door to the Oberoi is a restaurant/club called Ku De Ta that’s all ridiculous shiny excess and pulsing house beats, so I went there one night and chattered at random Europeans and drank too many cocktails and felt decadent and delighted. Since the nightclub bombings in 2002, all the fancy places in Bali have pretty intense security, and Ku De Ta basically has a militia. Both there and at the Oberoi, cars get stopped on their way in and checked for bombs.

Also please tell me more about the offering you mentioned in an earlier email.

So, Bali is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia, and their brand of Hinduism is unique because it cross-pollinated with older, animistic traditions. Part of the daily Balinese routine revolves around making little trays out of palm leaves and filling them with flowers and rice and placing them in shrines around the home (most Balinese live in a compound with extended family) and outside the front gate and at workplaces and temples. Dogs and chickens eat the rice, but nobody minds. By the end of the day, the sidewalks are carpeted with trampled offerings, and women come out in the evening and sweep them up. Every morning a neighbor woman would come to my house and make offerings on my behalf — my landlady hired her because if you don’t make offerings it’s upsetting for everyone. There’s a day called Tumpek Landep, when traditionally iron weapons, specifically knives, would be blessed. But the Balinese have branched out, and so now it’s not just knives but all helpful metal things. All the motorbikes get washed that day and get offerings. I came home to find the woman who usually made my offerings in my kitchen with a priest, and they were wafting incense onto my computer. They left three offerings for my computer and one for my stove and one for my refrigerator. I was bemused and also felt honored to be included and taken care of.

And the cremation?

This woman who’s a friend of a friend came to Ubud for a day to hang out, and when she got off the bus, she was like, “Some guy told me there’s going to be a cremation. Do you want to go?” Which is not a question I’d ever asked myself, but I said sure, and it ended up being something I’m so glad I saw. The ceremony is called Ngaben, and first there was a massive procession through the streets. Hundreds of men carried huge floats on bamboo poles from an outlying village to a place in Ubud called the Monkey Forest. (Surprise! It’s full of monkeys.) One float was a bull, which would be the sarcophagus for the cremation, and another was a tower that sort of looked like a pagoda and held the body. They shook the floats and tipped them from side to side and turned them in circles to get rid of any bad spirits and to make sure the spirit of the deceased wouldn’t be able to find its way back home and cause trouble. There were also marching bands playing gamelan music, which is very loud and clangy, and women in beautiful batik sarongs carrying elaborate offerings on their heads.

Everyone seemed pretty happy, which surprised me at first, but the whole point of the ceremony is to allow the dead person’s spirit to re-enter the cycle of reincarnation or, ideally, be released from it. Once it’s done, the family feels relieved because they’ve done right by the deceased. Anyway, we got to the Monkey Forest, and they took the body out of the tower and moved it into the bull sarcophagus, which was one of the more utilitarian moments since it involved snapping on latex gloves and schlepping a vinyl bodybag. Then there were lots of little ceremonies. Like women wiped the inside of the sarcophagus with their hair, and money and little offerings were placed inside with the body, and a priest sprinkled holy water over it. Then they set the whole thing on fire with incense sticks. After it had been burning for a while, some men brought out tanks of petrol attached to motors — so, basically, flame throwers — to increase the heat. It’s tough to burn bone, I guess. The area around the pyre was incredibly hot, and everyone got covered with ash. Fortunately, gawking seemed to be encouraged. Family members took lots of smiling pictures of themselves next to the pyre. Eventually the sarcophagus burned away, and you could see the skeleton inside the flames.

It sounds really morbid, but seeing someone be cremated was fascinating and strangely comforting in a way I didn’t anticipate. Little kids were hanging around watching, and I had the thought that spending your whole life knowing and seeing exactly what will happen to your body when you die must make the whole idea a little less frightening and foreign.

How many shoes did you bring?

Let’s see . . . I brought running shoes, which I almost never wore (it was hot!), loafers to look presentable in Tokyo and Singapore, hideous walking sandals, and a pair of pink and gold gladiator sandals that I almost didn’t bring because I thought they would be impractical. Of course, the only shoes that were tolerable with my torn ligament ended up being the gladiator sandals. It was about a mile from my house to central Ubud, so at least once a day I would limp down my street to find food. In Bali, it’s polite to say hello to people you pass, so my neighbors would be out making offerings or sweeping or sitting around stroking the roosters that they’d use in fights later, and I’d be like, “Hello. Hello.” You could tell they were like, “Hello again, weird red sweaty gimpy white girl.” At one point, my landlady sent a Balinese healer to work on my foot. He pushed my toes all the way back and leaned on them, which probably was not helpful for that ligament. As for the hideous walking sandals, I eventually put them in a shopping bag and left them in an ATM booth.

Did you ever get sick? Stung by anything?

I didn’t get sick! I drank boiled water and was pretty conscientious about keeping my mouth shut in the shower, and I think most restaurants in Ubud are mindful about not making the tourists sick. I got mosquito bites, but — yay! — none of them gave me dengue fever. My bed had a mosquito net, which is essential. There were shockingly huge spiders in my garden and occasionally in my bedroom, but I have no idea if they were poisonous or not.

What was the thing you spent most money on? (Barring the flight, I guess.)

I’ll leave lodging out of it because that’s boring. I did all my Christmas shopping in Bali, so, collectively, I spent a lot on textiles and carvings and stuff for my family. I also brought them Kopi Lewak — those coffee beans that have been digested by a civet — but no one seemed very excited about that. It’s good, though! I bought myself a handwoven ikat runner from the Indonesian island of Flores that has an elephant motif. Elephants are my favorite animal, so I needed it. I got it at a store in Ubud called Threads of Life that sells fair trade traditional textiles made by women. They have incredibly beautiful things.

Speaking of flights, what was it like?

Definitely long. From L.A., Bali is about 24 flying hours. There are other routes, but I went L.A. to Tokyo to Singapore to Bali on Singapore Airlines, which is, as the zeitgeist would have us believe, very nice. The long flights were on A380s — you know, those huge planes that are double-decker all the way through? It’s weird because you’re sitting in what looks like the spacious inside of a 747, and you have to remind yourself that there’s another, identical, people-filled airplane interior stacked on top of you. On the way over, I stopped in Tokyo for a couple days, and on the way back, I stopped in Singapore. Tokyo is probably the most alien place I’ve ever been. I felt completely illiterate even though I took three years of Japanese in high school. I went to the New York Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt where a lot of Lost in Translationwas set, and the view from there is really astonishing. Like even more amazing than you’d think from the movie, just this incredible cityscape. Lots of the buildings have red lights on top that blink on and off to a slow, mesmerizing rhythm. I don’t know. It blew my mind.

People say Singapore is bland, but I liked it. It’s super modern and shiny and kind of functions as a giant, interconnected hamster habitat/mall, which is pleasant and fun until you want to escape from it and go back to your hotel, and then it becomes an impossible maze and you think you’ll die there, curled up outside a Prada store. The food is really delicious. Lots of great street food. Their standard breakfast is coconut jam on toast with soft-boiled eggs — good stuff.

Should we go?

Sure, but don’t expect an untouched paradise populated by hot, single Brazilians. Go expecting a lush tropical island with friendly people, a unique culture, and a strong tourist infrastructure but that also has plenty of developing-country problems, like poverty, pollution, bad roads with heavy traffic, and stray dogs that will make you sad.

WERE there hot Brazilians?

Maybe they were all hanging out somewhere I didn’t know about, but I didn’t see any, at least not in Ubud. There are lots of hardcore yoga guys there, and they sort of wander around looking mellow and wearing linen pants obviously without underwear. One time I went with my landlady to an expat cocktail hour at a restaurant that was just opening, and clearly some people there had been like, “If Richard Nixon is elected president, I’m moving to Bali.” And then they actually did it. Which is cool, and people should live how they want . . . and I’m not remotely qualified to address the socioeconomic issues in play here, but I did think there was something odd about how some (not all) expats pretty much considered themselves too enlightened to put up with life in the U.S. and left on principle, but then they moved to a place where they’re highly privileged just by virtue of being American (or Australian or European), and they can have a staff of Balinese people to cook and clean and garden for very little money. That said, the Balinese economy is dependent on foreigners, and expats do a lot of good things for the island and the people. So, I don’t know. I have no real point.

What else?

Geckos! Two geckos lived in my house in Ubud. The first day I saw one run across the ceiling — it was about a foot long — and was like, “Um, there’s a giant lizard in here? How do I get it to go away?” But they’re actually shy and harmless and really helpful because they eat the bugs. They talk to each other with loud cracking sounds that spooked me sometimes in the middle of the night, though. And, weirdly, geckos poop in the same place and at the same time every day. So, at 6:30 every evening, one of my geckos would climb to the apex of my ceiling and drop a blob of digested insect wings down about twelve feet to the floor. I don’t know where the other one pooped. Apparently, there’s no discouraging them. Like if your gecko wants to poop on your bed, it’s best just to give up and move your bed.

Previously: Lithuania and Poland

Maggie Shipstead is the author of Seating Arrangements.