Travels

The Fire Child meets the Ocean

I’d burned myself out. Again. The trouble with being single-speed, is that when you come across a brick wall you run smack into it at that single speed, with all of the inevitable repercussions. I’d worked too intensely for too long, been struggling with some connections, and felt like a pale imitation of a human. So I took myself to Bali.

I went in entirely the opposite of my usual direction. I stayed in a single location, one far more luxurious than I would normally choose, and planned the entire itinerary in advance. I wanted to take my mind off the hook. I figured if the world wanted me badly enough, it would call back.

I’d found a resort by the ocean, and booked myself in for ten days of scuba diving, freediving, and yoga, complemented with some meditation, spa treatments and ayurveda. I’d also avoided the most well-known towns in favour of a quieter location on the north coast. At not-quite-high season, I was practically the only guest in the resort for my entire stay.

The first half of the trip had half of each day dedicated to scuba diving lessons. It was my first foray into this kind of thing; the closest I’d ever come before was retrieving a lifesaving aid from the bottom of a diving pool. I found it incredibly alien. As may be obvious to anyone, but wasn’t immediately to me, breathing underwater is something that the mind needs a little time to get to grips with. For me, it was if the first time had been a fluke, and my mind said “so it worked the first time, what of it?” To someone better at accepting information at face value and less accustomed to figuring things out from patterns this is probably straightforward. I needed the pattern. I didn’t have any actual problems with the exercises, but rather with finding the confidence in my recollection of all the steps to actually start on the first one. It seemed pretty clear to me that if you screw up the sequencing, or take too long over it, you get a lungful of water. I’ve heard that can be terminal. The trouble is that I was wrong to some extent. My mind hadn’t gotten the hang of being able to breathe underwater and so it assumed it couldn’t. It forgot that actually you can take quite a long time over getting the breath out of your lungs even if it’s the last breath you expect to take. It reminded me of learning somersaults on a trampoline; the first one is over so fast you have no change of seeing anything and the instructor’s directions to look for this marking or that wall are contextless. After a few repetitions, when the world slows down, you can see blurs of colour. A few more, and shapes start to appear. And then you can’t ever go back to that first somersault where nothing made sense outside your body.

I was nervous about transitioning from the pool to the ocean. I’ve never felt the connection with the ocean that some people talk about. I’m a mountain and space kind of person. Give me a high spot, big skies and wide open country, and I’m at home. It probably started around the time, as a very small child, I first walked on a sandy beach and started screaming for my wellies. As it happened, the beach at Puri Jati is calm first thing in the morning and we were able to get out beyond the slope of the beach without getting dunked, which helped with composure. My instructor, Imma, took a noteboard to point out various things to me, and I was soon forgetting about breathing underwater in favour of learning about the creatures we could see. Puri Jati is a muck diving site, with nutrient-rich freshwater from the rice paddies mixing with the sea water to create a unique environment and a hot-spot for unusual animals. Imma pointed out lionfish (Danger!), clownfish, batfish, moray eels (Danger – bite!), barrel sponges, feather worms, stonefish (Danger – poison!), mantis shrimp, filefish, baby lobsters and scorpionfish (Danger!). I learned the hand signals for danger pretty early on.

The dive at Menjangan Island was very different. A coral wall, with highlights including a barracuda and a crocodilefish. I also sat what has to be the most relaxed exam I’ve ever experienced; the PADI certification exam, over a Balinese packed lunch, on a dive boat, in the tropical sunshine.

I fell into a magical kind of pattern. Days began with an hour of meditation, and an hour of yoga before breakfast. I’d gotten out of the habit of meditation at home, and was grateful for the opportunity to re-immerse myself in this practice, especially in such a calm and beautiful place. Few people, but flowers, flowers everywhere. The staff even put flowers on my anthropomorphised towels whilst I was out of my room.

I also had a spa treatment or excursion each day. I experienced Zentsu, hot oil massage, and a Mandi Lulur flower bath, with the most kind and gentle of therapists. I mused on the universe of ridiculous, spontaneous things I’ve done and wondered whether this wasn’t by far the most indulgent. My room had a terrace facing the sunset, an outdoor shower, and as much snakefruit as I could possibly eat. I didn’t have to think about anything, or muster any kind of strength or effort. It was exactly what I’d wanted, and probably needed, and I had to give myself at least a little credit for recognising that and not taking a holiday to trek across Scotland. I’ll do that one day, but on a day when I have more energy in reserve than the vapours I arrived in Bali with.

Dining alone and al-fresco on a magical evening.

In the middle of my stay, I had a day “off” to take an excursion to the market, rice fields, temples and hot springs. My guide for the day was Nyoman, who was talkative and cheerful, and took the time to explain the places we were visiting and point out some of the things we could see en-route. He commented on the price of the apples he was buying for his parakeets (“red apples from New Zealand, very expensive. Only for the birds, too expensive for me”) and the poor mango harvest that year due to the high winds. He explained that in a year when the clove yield is poor, you can dry the leaves and use them as a substitute. I learned a little about the Balinese Hindu Dharma, which evolved as a response to the Indonesian Ministry of Religion’s official definition of “religion” as one that is monotheistic and requirement that all citizens be members of an official religion. We happened to pass a cremation ghat and a procession towards a temple in quick succession, and Nyoman talked about cremation rituals; the fire that is carried before a procession to cleans the route for the spirits to pass along; the temporary burial of remains by families who cannot afford cremation immediately, to allow time for funds to be saved; the separation of ashes into a portion for the temple and a portion for the sea; the second ritual to call back the portion that is scattered in the sea to rejoin the portion in the temple so the spirit can reincarnate. We also took a walk through a forest and rice fields, a pleasant change of scenery.

Rice Fields in northern Bali
A burning offering outside a family shrine.

I also took some time to wander around the Buddhist temple, a comparative rarity in predominantly Hindu Bali.

We made a final stop at the Banjar Hot Springs which were somewhat commercialised and I did not stay long. I’m not sure why building a pool that gets all slimy is better than just bathing in the stream. It’s warm, like a bath, but if felt like a public paddling pool in a park. Perhaps it does have benefits, but as Nyoman said “sometimes it work, sometimes it not work”.

The second part of my stay was freediving. I was glad I’d had some time to relax and recuperate before starting this, as it gave me the headspace to truly explore it. As my instructor Arnaud said “people scuba dive to look outwards, they freedive to look inwards”. I was grateful for the preparation of the meditation and pranayama sessions, and for the scuba diving that had at least taken the edge off the anxiety of being in the open water.

Freediving to 22m

I hadn’t expected to be good at freediving; too anxious, too fidgety, too fast. But with the encouragement of Arnaud, I was able to dispel the notion that freediving is necessarily something to be good at. Of course it is possible to make it competitive, but it can also be a tool. Like yoga, it can be a practice that simply requires that you be present. Especially in the open water dives, where I was surrounded by nothing but blue in every direction, it became a source of strength. I found there was a definite progression of feelings throughout each dive. First there’s the easy part, where holding your breath isn’t the focus, and you can dive downwards with a feeling of security and speed. Then there’s an internal rush as the blood moves from the extremities to the core, the legs become heavy, the chest becomes hot and there’s a need to swallow. Then comes the battle, the fight to calm the spasming diaphragm, keep the muscles relaxed and the mind from rebelling. This is a period of empowerment, where the strength to stay below the surface comes from the knowledge that you can endure longer than you think. I came away from freediving training having dived deeper than I did with a scuba tank.

Freediving was complemented by a pre-dawn boat trip to see dolphins. Once again, I was alone, and grateful for the solitude. The dolphins made a breathtaking appearance, but I’d have been happy to be out on the water for the sunrise even if they hadn’t.

Not my usual travel style, but still an incredible journey. Relaxation, indulgence and meditation. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

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