I had never considered reading a book nor watching a movie twice, let alone travelling 22 hours to the same holiday destination, twice in four years. Yet in early 2019 I took that second trip to Bali, despite the many other tempting places on my bucket list.
Sure, the beaches are great, lazily sipping cocktails at pool bars are part of the island’s appeal, and a great exchange rate is almost irresistible. But that’s not what lured me back a second time.
I felt compelled to return to Bali to find out if what I experienced during my first trip was, in fact, real or imagined.
My first trip to Bali was the best holiday I had ever had. My husband and I and our children stayed in palm-treed villas, we lunched with locals and dined like royalty, creating many, many happy memories. But my joy at holidaying in Bali wasn’t confined to the experiences, it extended to how I felt. It was a feeling that I was unable to articulate at the time, other than knowing I had never before experienced that feeling, and I did not want to let go of it.
When I returned home I described it to my coach as a feeling of safety, freedom, belonging, exhilaration, and calm. I admitted that the feeling might have been because I was on a much needed holiday with my family. However, I felt that the true magic of that feeling, its very essence, lay in the warmth and kindness evident in the actions and the eyes of the Balinese people.
This gentleness seems somewhat incongruous with the craziness of Bali’s busy towns and cities.
I had never encountered traffic like I did in Bali. The amount of scooters whizzing along the roads is mind-blowing, and I constantly marvelled at how accidents and fatalities were avoided.
There are neither traffic lights nor stop streets in Bali. Moms and two or three kids hop on the back of their dad’s scooter, and negotiating these scooters through the five-way intersections is an art that requires patience and care, because everyone in that chaotic melee appears to have the right of way! At the intersection, there are no raised middle fingers, no impatient hooting. Hooters are only used to warn a commuter in front of you that you intend to pass them.
On a typically hot and humid afternoon after our visit to Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most famous temples, my son threw me the scooter’s keys and said, “Time to test your driving skills, mom”. I had not handled a scooter since I was 19 (a long time ago), but I turned the key and before I knew it I was approaching the dreaded five-way intersection teeming with hundreds of motorcycles, cars, and trucks making their way towards their respective exits calmly. I felt no such tranquillity. I panicked. Froze. And in the middle of that frenzy of movement, I stalled.
It was a movie moment. If Stanley Kubrick himself had directed it, he couldn’t have captured that moment to improve on what I experienced. The traffic that had eased to slow motion came to a dead halt.
Hundreds of pairs of eyes peered at me from behind helmets or inside stuttering little delivery vehicles. Somewhere far behind my ear my 21 year old son Jamie’s voice drawled “Moooooom! Mooooom! Juuuuuuust goooooo!”
I lifted my foot from the ground, it caught on the peddle, and my flip-flop somersaulted off my foot and flapped like a fish on hot tar. Jamie was still shouting, his words as indistinct as Dory teaching Nemo whale-talk.
Sweat dripped down my forehead, the salt of it burned my eyes, and panic flooded my veins. I raised my eyes to look at the cars and scooters passing by, but there was no shouting, no hooting, just the most bizarre silence accompanied by humming car engines and idling motorbikes. Even Jamie’s whale sounds had subsided.
Although everyone was looking at me, there was no judgment in their eyes, no impatient tic on their lips, nor nostrils flared in anger. Expat youngsters smiling knowingly. Hundreds of smiles urged me on.
Their serenity and acceptance flowed through me. I took a deep breath, retrieved my flip-flop, started the scooter, waved a thank you to my audience, and smiled as I rode off. Surreal, I know, but simultaneously, incredibly real. I was intensely grateful that Jamie witnessed and shared this extraordinary moment.
This was just one of the many (less dramatic) acts of the Balinese kindness I experienced. When I returned three years later it was there to welcome me back. I found the same gentle, humble, kind, openhearted people.
In exploring this concept of ‘kindness’ and how it made me feel, I learned that my experience wasn’t unique. The Balinese are renowned for their beautiful, ever-present smiles, and their tender patience. They are deeply spiritual people and subscribe to a religion that is a hybrid of Hinduism and Buddhism.,known as Agama Hindu Dharma. The pretext upon which this religion is built is that the world lies between two opposing poles–order and disorder. The challenge is to ensure a constant balance between the two, and is considered our life’s work; balance cannot be left to natural forces to achieve. In rising to this challenge, the gracious and graceful Balinese participate in daily–and often twice daily–rituals, paying homage to the deities to achieve a constant state of balance between good and evil. As I reflected on this practice, I wondered if the middle point between good and evil might possibly be kindness?
If you are an early riser in Bali, you will encounter women magnificently robed in traditional Balinese dress, carrying basket trays of offerings. At sunrise and sunset they place delicately crafted palm baskets laden with flowers, food, and incense on street corners, entrances to temples and homes, and even in the national airport’s public toilets.
Even the most humble Balinese have elaborate temples. At our host’s home I noted that the temples provide opportunities for male family members to showcase their artistic talents and pay homage to their deities through their innate woodwork and and paintings. Art and craft form an essential part of Balinese culture and their school curriculum. They are practiced because they teach patience and kindness, this time to nature and its gifts.
They honour their gods by seeking out and maintaining balance, not only as a core value system, but in practice and in nature too. The Dalai Lama says “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible”.
A state of sheer exhaustion and depletion first led me to Bali. I returned home feeling as refreshed and content as the travel agent had assured me I would, but Bali shifted something inside me. Simply by consciously noticing the Balinese way of being, my life was forever changed. I now extend kindness wherever I can, not only to others, but to myself too