In Bali, Indonesia, the first thing that hits you when you wake up is the temperature of the air. Not, as you might imagine, the heat of the humidity already brewing outdoors, but the cool, chemical chill of the air-conditioned hotel room. The first thought that enters my mind is “not again”. It’s time to wake up. I’m on one of the most beautiful islands in the world and I would rather be unconscious. Why? Well, at this point I don’t know it, but I’m suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Even though it may be undefined, it is real enough that I quit my job in London and travelled for fifteen hours on a plane to a place I had never been to before; a place my parents now call home.
I cower between the pristine, starched sheets, wishing I could fall into slumber again. I hear my parents stir in the bed next to me, and know that my time in bed is coming to an end. After much prompting and some desperately coaxing pleading, I am up and dressed, sitting at a breakfast table by the poolside in the shade, with my hair defiantly tied up in a top-knot my parents deem unbecoming. It is already too hot to be out in the full sun, despite it being just shy of ten o’clock. The next battle arises: I am now going to be begged by my mother to eat something. Anything. I am spoilt for choice, from the juice bar to the noodle bar to the garish pasta palace. My stomach churns. I feel sick at the thought of putting anything in my mouth, let alone swallowing it. I am enticed to nibble on some exotic fruit, and sip on a smoothie. My mum makes me a sandwich and tucks it in her purse for later. She knows that in a couple of hours I will need to eat again, by which time the breakfast buffet will be closed until lunch.
We settle down on a couple of cushioned sunbeds by the beach, under leafy trees where squirrels are squabbling over fruit. This is the closest I am allowed to being in a reclined position, and I gratefully shut my eyes after pretending to read for a bit. The truth is I can’t focus on anything. My mind feels like it is wrapped in a cloud of cotton wool. A cloud made damp by the heavy tropical air.
I wake to a grumbling stomach. I can’t ignore the hunger pangs this time, and greedily order a burger from the bar menu. I desperately want a beer but I know I won’t be allowed. So I settle for a mocktail and hungrily devour it all when it arrives. I suddenly feel full of energy and convince my mum to go for a bike ride. The hotel bicycles are shoddy at best. I can see that the chains have been damaged by rust from the warm, salty air. Nevertheless we take on a pair and start off along the promenade between the resorts and the sea. I wobble in my saddle and realise that this is the first time I am cycling since my accident four months earlier. I feel slightly giddy while a sense of dread lines my diaphragm.
We narrowly swerve past meandering pedestrians and hobble over steps and other obstacles on the pavement. We soon realise it is too hot to be cycling, and we reach a dead end in the brush where mosquitoes are rampant. We turn back. At the end of multiple concrete arms reaching out into the turquoise water are platforms with stepped roofs in the style of the Balinese temples. Men lounge, tourists unwind under the skilled hands of local masseuses and some lie empty as shrines to the sea. We venture out towards one of the latter, stopping to take a selfie for my grandparents. The forced smile feels foreign on my face. I look equally as unnatural – strained, almost. My mother looks worried beneath her tired grin. She is nevertheless hopeful, and is happy that she is doing something active with me.
Back at the hotel we wake my dad from his post-seminar nap. The reason we are here in the first place is for a conference: the Palm Oil Summit. He represents the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) of the United Nations and is here fighting the side of the small-scale farmer amongst the kings of the multinational organisations, who own a significant portion of Indonesia’s rainforests, which have largely been turned into monoculture plantations. I feel like the sheets we sleep between are stained with their oily moneymaking schemes.
We return to the poolside. It is almost time for dinner but we dip in the pool to try and cool off. The sun is setting as it always does, close to six thirty on the dot. We sip a sundowner blissfully uninterrupted by the call to prayer so ubiquitous in Jakarta. Twelve hours later it will rise again. My parents have collected newspapers from the Jakarta Post and we all have a go at the novice crossword. It is quite satisfying to be able to complete one, even if I do conduct a sneaky Google search (or two). Once darkness falls we move to a thatched patio facing the sea. Lanterns have been lit in the palm trees. We order fish, rice, nasi goreng. Soon it is time for bed again. The last thought that crosses my mind as I close my eyes is the fear of waking up.
Our short stay in Bali comes quickly to an end. I won’t go through everyday in as much detail as the above-described one in Nusa Dua, however, I will highlight the times, though perhaps fewer, that I felt content. The first is captured in a photograph – me, smiling, between two Balinese girls dressed up in their shimmering wrappers, shyly grinning behind dainty hands. In the background a temple and rice paddies glimmer in the evening light. I am wearing a traditional cone-shaped grass hat, and a loose-fitting ikat-print dress in a blue-lilac and white.
A few hours later, we are sat in between said rice paddies, eating one of the best meals I had in Bali. Everything is organic and fresh from the gardens around us, and homemade, right down to the coconut oil base of the sambal (traditional hot sauce) accompanying our food. The walk home is magical, with fireflies flickering in the moonlight. The tranquillity is only momentarily interrupted by mopeds speeding past in the dark, almost without warning, and with the accompanying surprised cry to find tourists fumbling on foot in the dark on the edge of the road, as there is no sidewalk.
Tanah Merah (red earth) is the name of our resort up in the hills of Bali near the popular tourist spot of Ubud. We sleep in a decadently decorated room with two intricately carved four-poster beds, complete with mosquito net curtains. The deep red walls are opulent with paintings and brass work, and in the bathroom sits a giant copper tub. When I can’t sleep I get into the tub with my book to read whilst my parents sleep in the other room.
The owner of Tanah Merah is a somewhat celebrity locally, originally from Denmark but now well and truly Indonesian. He boasts a basement gallery full of treasures from kings he has made acquaintances with – and probably replaced a cavity or two. He is also known as the travelling dentist, and has been to the most remote islands in the archipelago on his sailboat, pulling out rotten teeth and administering root canals. His impressive collection of artwork and artefacts lavishly decorate the suites of his resort, with each one boasting a theme to be contended with. Each room is more opulent than the previous, as we are given the grand tour from his own rooms to the “psychedelic ape” honeymoon suite.
Finally, thanks again to my father’s job, we are given a humbling tour of local villages and shrines as part of a project to declare the territory a UNESCO agricultural heritage site. We drive off in a dark-windowed four-by-four, climbing up the mountainous terrain escorted by the local police. The government-official cars boast red-numbered plates and churn through the off-beaten tracks with inflated importance. We visit a “snake fruit” plantation, and go through the ritual of meeting the town’s elders and being offered drinks and snacks.
We are given a walking tour guide through a rice paddy ecosystem, including the special management of water through manmade canals. We are driven up to a peak in the clouds where we are served sweet, milky coffee and sweets under a rudimentary shelter from the sudden downpour. Young brown faces quizzically peer at us in fascination from under large, colourful umbrellas. They giggle as we sit cross-legged and bare-footed, with an audience of fifteen or so heads of the nearby villages.
My favourite stop of the day, however, has to be the weaving village of Tenganan Pegeringsingan. This is a self-sufficient settlement where the community work together to grow food, govern and nourish their people. It is also a tourist attraction, where foreigners are led around the compound where cattle roam freely and artisans show off their wares. I am particularly interested in the woven fabric they produce. This is the first time I have seen geringsing cloth in the flesh – a double ikat in four colours. Everything is hand spun from local cotton and hand-woven after the threads have been painstakingly dyed thrice with natural indigo and macadamia root dyes. Both the warp and the weft boast complex geometric patterns of crosses and stars – all based around the axis on which the Balinese orient themselves. This community stems from an ancient branch of Hinduism, so there are further illustrations of this in symbolic pattern in the cloth. A short (one metre) sash takes nearly a year and a huge amount of skill and patience to complete.