Travel

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

Deluxe in Lux

It’s a pleasing moment when a journalist receives an invitation to eat something delicious, sleep somewhere beautiful or participate in something fun (often we are chained to writing articles of our editor’s choosing) because it provides us with a blank page on which to run with any narrative theme.  For me, on this occasion, the theme is LUXURY; pure, indulgent, gratifying luxury.

As a shoe-string-backpacker at heart, the prospect of some occasional luxury remains a delightful treat.  When travelling, I’m more likely to be heard asking “Would it be possible to get some sheets on this bed?” than “Are these sheets 100-count Egyptian cotton?” but make no mistake: I know 5 Star.  I have stayed in some of the best hotels around the world, received some of the best service and gorged myself on the best pillow mints in existence, so when I give somewhere the thumbs up, I do not do so lightly.

The fairytale town of Clervaux, Luxembourg

I was pondering the concept of luxury as the chauffeur-driven car (a shiny black Jaguar, to be accurate) wound its way through dense forest, circling the basin in which lies the picturesque town of Clervaux, Luxembourg, where I was about to spend two nights reviewing the boutique and design hotel, Le Clervaux. Through small gaps in the trees I caught frequent glimpses of steeples and spires, of turrets and 12th Century architectural detail; the town appeared to be the setting of a medieval fairytale.  It also appeared to be a well-kept secret, quietly nestled into a beautiful valley, typical of the Ardennes region, and I wondered how long it would remain so undiscovered.

A hidden gem

Arriving at the hotel stirred a mixture of awe and childlike excitement within me.  The design was instantly striking; both sensitive to the building’s history and in keeping with modern aesthetics.  Architecturally, the façades of the conjoined buildings demonstrated perfect union between old and new, and woven into the strong interior design was a dynamic fusion of masculine and feminine.

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Moody greys and sultry blacks were accented by blocks of bold, fiery red.  Here, a touch of elegance in the wallpaper print; there, robust angles and clean lines.  The design spoke of glamour, of European chic and of smoldering beauty, with a distinct fashionista edge.  It was the most remarkable hotel interior I’d seen.

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Best described as deluxe, my suite was no less impressive, with picture-perfect views of the castle.  The attention to detail within the design and layout was notable, and the amenities were superb.  It seems the thrill of the miniature kettle is a thing of travel past; Le Clervaux has raised the bar with individual Nespresso coffee machines.  Inside the undeniably sexy en-suite, an assortment of divine-smelling Fairtrade toiletries prompted me to let out an involuntary squeal, which echoed against the high ceiling and sounded at odds with the peaceful silence of my surroundings.

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Interiors by JOI-Design

Despite the enormous bed luring me into the embrace of an afternoon nap, the wellness centre was calling me louder.  With a comprehensive spa menu and therapists of the highest quality, it was clear these facilities were one of Le Clervaux’s key assets.  I experienced head-to-toe treatments: a whole-body sea salt scrub (which left me with cashmere-soft skin), a deep cleansing facial and all manner of massage techniques. Forget Hot Stone Massage; at Le Clervaux it’s all about the Hot Ball – a heated balloon which is rolled at just the right pressure over your body, accessing every inch to loosen the muscles and lull you into a helpless state of relaxation.  As someone with sensitive skin and a strong environmental conscience, it is also crucial that I mention the wellness centre’s important choice of beauty products: Thalgo.  Created from naturally occurring minerals and nutrients found in the sea, these marine-based beauty products left neither a blemish on my skin, nor unnecessary impact on the environment, thanks to the brand’s core commitment to minimising its ecological footprint.

New levels of luxurious relaxation

Outside of the treatment rooms, there was an abundance of facilities to profit from – mood-enhancing, colour-changing lights in the pool, a decent sized jacuzzi and a relaxation room of ample comfort – but it was the hot zone I found the most enthralling, with its dark, enigmatic design and unusual variations on the classic sauna and steam experience.  Acutely aware of European spa protocol (namely the insistence of complete nudity) I let go of my inhibitions and de-robed into my own unashamed nakedness.  Admittedly, it did enhance the experience somewhat, allowing the skin to fully benefit from the steam, salt vapour and other glow-inducing atmospheric conditions.  But a friendly warning: if you’re averse to witnessing the unclothed form of the opposite sex in close proximity, some prior mental preparation is in order.

Post-pampering, it felt a shame to spoil my newly cleansed skin with unnecessary cosmetics, so I was relieved to note at dinner that whilst the hotel itself oozed glamour, there was no pressure on its guests to follow suit.  As a pescetarian, the hotel’s most prestigious restaurant Rhino’s Steakhouse was sadly wasted on me, however I can highly commend them on their extraordinarily generous crayfish salad and wood-fired pizzas, and with regards to the meat, let me say this: as someone who once was a carnivore, the steak menu was something to behold.  Meat lovers, eat your heart out because the choice of quality cuts, sauces and sides is extensive.  The hotel’s other restaurant Da Lonati served me the most tender, flavour-rich melanzane parmagiana of my life – which is saying something given how many times I’ve eaten this dish in Italy.  If you can resist the temptation of sinking into the world’s most comfortable bed for just a little longer, it’s worth pausing in the Cabana Lounge for a nightcap.

A wonderful welcome at bedtime…

In my humble opinion, the mark of excellence at any hotel is the standard of the breakfast – I’m looking for quality, creativity, variation and abundance – so I was delighted to discover Le Clervaux excelled on every point.  Each morning I was greeted with “Voulez-vous du Champagne?” (note: never in life is the answer to that question anything but “Oui, merci”) and a mouth-watering buffet so broad I deemed it necessary to wear stretchy pants to allow for my inevitable over-indulgence.  It was a breakfast-lover’s paradise; farm-fresh, locally-sourced, hot from the oven, freshly-squeezed, decadent, vitamin-rich and always beautifully presented.

How could I resist?

It intrigued me as to who would visit this wonderful little gem, so discreetly tucked away in the Luxembourgish forest, but as the Marketing & Communications Manager, Nicole, explained during a tour of the facilities, the town of Clervaux is situated amongst some of Europe’s best rural hiking routes, and is especially blessed in historical buildings and landmarks.  It is also a town of unique character (exhibit A: the mayor recently “handed over the keys” to the town and red carpets were laid along the small streets surrounding the hotel, upon which were held a delightful little festival for all to enjoy).  Add to that the superb business and conference facilities of the hotel itself and the aforementioned spa heaven and you’ll start to understand, as I did, why this well-kept secret is quickly gaining recognition as a travel destination.

The Family of Man photographic exhibition at Clervaux Castle

Go for business, go for golf, go for the cuisine and the fine wines, go for history, go for hiking, go for your physical wellbeing, or simply go for your sanity – because at Le Clervaux the stresses of your daily life will simply melt away, and in my experience that’s the greatest luxury of all.

The best views in town

I departed the charming streets of Clervaux the same way I had arrived – in that shiny black Jaguar – sad to leave behind the romanticism of the Rapunzel-esque town, but sure of one thing: if you are somebody well accustomed to luxury of the highest order, Le Clervaux will more than meet your expectations, and if you are somebody for whom luxury is a rare treat, it will simply blow your mind.

Visit www.le-clervaux.com to book your own blissful break

 

The Big Green Apple

First published by Responsible Travel

If nature in New York sounds like an oxymoron, it’s time to take a broader look at what The Empire State offers beyond Manhattan’s urban jungle.  The excitement of NYC is not to be missed, but when you’ve had your fill of skyscrapers and shopping sprees, head to the iconic Grand Central Terminal and board a train away from the city’s buzz and bright lights.  You might just discover that the Big Apple is bigger and greener than you thought.

If you’re tight for time, a one hour train journey from Downtown will take you to the seaside shores of Long Island, where South Oyster Bay and the Amityville River offer tranquil waters for kayaking, and the many small, car-free islands reward hikers with spectacular city and ocean views. Native marine life is abundant, and aboard the numerous boats departing Riverhead and Montauk you can discover the thrill of spotting whales, seals and porpoises in the wild.  You can easily spend a day on Long Island connecting with nature, enjoying fresh seafood and still make it back to Manhattan by cocktail hour!

It may not seem conceivable amidst the hustle and bustle of Times Square, but drive 90 minutes away from the traffic-filled city and you’ll find a winter wonderland of snowy mountain peaks, frozen ponds and waterfalls.  Their close proximity to Manhattan makes The Catskills a popular winter sports destination; snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing and ice fishing are just a few ways to enjoy all that beautiful white fluffy stuff. Cosy lodges dot the land, beckoning you in with log fires, locally brewed ales and eclectic menus featuring local farm produce.

Further Upstate lie the vast Adirondack Mountains, where hiking and trekking opportunities are inexhaustible.  Local guides offer insider knowledge of the landscape and with over one hundred summits, it’s a paradise for hiking enthusiasts.  Advanced climbers skilled in self-navigation can try bushwhacking but you don’t have to tackle “The 46” to appreciate nature’s splendour – Adirondack Park is home to many easier walking trails.  Cascade Mountain’s easy-to-reach peak is a favourite amongst locals, and Lake Placid (two-time Winter Olympic venue) welcomes walkers of all levels.  For an alternative endorphin-kick, try white water rafting in this stunning wilderness.  The region is also blessed with the fiery colours of Fall, as the deciduous forest bursts into colour each September and October.  The Lake Placid community marks this annual natural phenomenon with the Flaming Leaves Festival, and the area comes alive with hot air balloon rides, live music, craft stalls and ski-jumping competitions.

While Manhattanites speed through life in a “New York minute”, a few hours from the throng of yellow taxis and pretzel stalls is a community of people for whom time passes more gently.  As a non-commercialised society, the Amish are known for living without modern conveniences, believing them unnecessary distractions from their simpler way of life.  The Amish Trail, leading through Cattaraugus County’s Enchanted Mountains, is a rewarding way to learn about their fascinating culture and history, and glimpse the world through Amish eyes.  Follow the trail and you’ll see communities going about their daily lives, practicing traditional farming methods, travelling by buggy and dressing in characteristic plain clothes.  Business is done from people’s homes, advertised by hand-painted signs inviting you to venture inside and sample diverse goods ranging from individually stitched quilts to homegrown vegetables.  Their shops are worlds away from Bloomingdales and Macy’s; you’ll receive a personal, friendly welcome and come away with locally produced goods that you won’t find elsewhere, as well as a better understanding of their approach to life.  From here, culture vultures can take a scenic drive north west to Victor, Ontario County, where the culture of the Native American Seneca people is preserved and celebrated at the Ganondagan Historic Center.  Visiting the reconstructed bark longhouse is akin to stepping into a time machine, where Seneca life and heritage dating back to the 17th century is depicted through historical artefacts, educational videos, dance, food and nature walking trails.

Back in NYC the action continues 24/7, but peace and quiet can be enjoyed by escaping the city within the city.  An early morning meander through Central Park reveals the urban hub at its least chaotic, with only pre-breakfast meeting joggers to keep you company.  Well marked routes lead you through the most photographed spots, including the “Imagine” mosaic; a tribute to the late John Lennon.  Outside the park, bikes are a great mode of exploration, with free route maps and dedicated Greenways separating cyclists from traffic.  When you reach the Hudson River Greenway, park your bike and switch to a stand-up paddle board – you’ll experience unexpected tranquility and views of the metropolis you’ll never forget.  It might even prompt you to shout “I heart New York” at the top of your lungs!

The Sliding Doors of a Storm

The wind was as strong as Indonesia’s equatorial sun, the day Mother Nature blew in that tempestuous storm. The darkness threatened overhead, then broke around me.  I had no obligation to sail, but in those bitter-sweet final days, time was of the essence.  I feared that wild, untamed ocean like a criminal fears a judge.  It was a “Sliding Doors” moment: instinct said stay, pride said go.  The ocean taunted me, rising angrily against anything in its path.  Tears blinded me as I stepped onto the inadequate boat.  The sea drew me into its violent clutches, and swept me away.

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A Balancing Act

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Sunday 16th February 2014, 9.59am, Koh Phangan, Thailand:

My backpack is locked in my beach bungalow. What a ridiculous problem to have on departure day. My own attempts to open the little wooden door have, obviously, failed miserably and now a small army of local boys (loosely imitating staff) have turned up with a box of a hundred unmarked keys which one of them is unsystematically trying the jammed lock with, whilst another is breaking in through the window, taking entire panes of glass out as he goes. He looks at me as if to say, “This shit happens all the time around here” and I smile, because it’s unequivocally true. He then tries to charge me 200 Baht for fixing a problem that was quite clearly there before my arrival, which is something else that happens all the time around here. Because this is Thailand, and this chaotic, corrupt, disorganised and wildly beautiful land is the place I chose to be during this one-month escape of a cruel annual joke in England we call winter.

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Last year, as my 30th birthday drew closer it intrigued me that I had never properly ventured solo into the world. All my life I’ve been seeking, discovering and exploring the planet within the safety of great and trusted company. Why had I never gone alone? Was it through fear? Complacency? Habit? It was time to find out. One passenger, one ticket, one bag. Destination: Koh Phangan.

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My other reason for this trip was the simple need to pause and process the mayhem of life. As a friend so perfectly put it, I just needed to go somewhere beautiful for a while and clear my head. What followed was a month of auspicious encounters, surprise adventures and a healthy dose of introspection. The clearest way for me to describe the past month is by dividing it into lunar phases, representing not only some key moments during my journey, but also the moon that is so hedonistically celebrated on this island.

Part 1: Solitude (aka Waning Gibbous Moon)

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Bangkok was its usual polluted self: a blend of intense heat, pandemonium-inducing traffic, neon lights, cheap clothes, persistent hawkers, street food, rats, throbbing club beats and political protests. My room was a typical windowless box above an Indian restaurant which doubled as a noisy all-night karaoke bar. The bed crawled with insects, the walls were adorned with unidentifiable stains and, outside in the soul-less concrete corridor, strands of electrical cables hung from the ceiling, dripping with water and sparking frequently. The end of the corridor was blocked by prison bars (to prevent travellers making a desperate escape by leaping off the roof?) and I would not have been surprised to see Robert Carlisle’s paranoid head emerge from within darkened corners. It was your typical Bangkok dive, costing a total of £3.50. Most people fit neatly into either the Love or Loathe category where Thailand’s capital is concerned, and I’m never quite sure to which I belong. On past experience I have to reluctantly conclude it’s the latter, but I’m prepared to believe that could yet change. In any case, 24 hours after arrival I beat a hasty retreat south.

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My first few days of island life were spent in relative solitude. Beyond ordering food and haggling songthaew taxi fares I barely engaged in conversation. During those days I mostly worked, albeit from the beach with a beer in hand, chipping away at the word count for an approaching deadline. Convincing myself that each hour of work should be rewarded with equal time at the hands of a Thai masseuse, I would break frequently because, really, what’s the point of being a freelance writer if you can’t choose your “office hours”? The more days that passed, the fewer words I spoke, which generally felt soothing, until a need for meaningful human interaction kicked in. I submitted my article, bid my masseuse farewell and switched locations on a whim.

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Part 2: Liberation (aka Half Moon)

A whim, it turns out, can be quite the gem if you act upon it… Enter Camille, the wise and funny Zimbabwe-born Australian resident who I affectionately call Blondie. Two travellers, one available beachside bungalow and an unexpected invitation to share. We became friends instantly, bonding over our shared interests and curiosities about the world. Island life with Blondie on Koh Phangan was a series of spontaneous and fun events, like the enticing trailer of a summer movie: neon-painted bodies dancing carefree at the Half Moon Party; sun-kissed skin and salty hair; the wind-whipped exhilaration of motorbike rides over tropical terrain; beach-hopping island exploration; new friends, cold beers and old songs; sunsets and uncontrollable laughter.

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It was a liberating time. The cobwebs of winter were blown away and I felt vibrant again. We shared a mutual understanding of each other that belied our short friendship and gave us confidence in its longevity. Seven days later, with farewell tears at the jetty (pathetic or what?) we went our separate ways. Some people’s paths are destined to cross, and meeting Blondie brought me back to myself again. As she departed, the next chapter beckoned: The Sanctuary, a holistic retreat where I would spend a week cleansing my system and clearing my mind.

Part 3: Rehabilitation (aka New Moon)

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Arriving via a rough but mercifully short longtail boat ride, I was plunged straight into The Sanctuary’s hub and it felt a little overwhelming. The place was packed with hardcore hippies; dread-locked, tattooed and deep in stoned conversations about progressive ideas for rejecting the modern world. Even as someone who is perfectly at home with New Age living, I had to admit it was an intense environment. There was so much colour, texture and eye-catching detail coming from the artwork in the wood-carved space and from its inhabitants that I found myself in a bewildered trance. Very soon, of course, what had seemed intimidating felt perfectly normal, and I relaxed into a nourishing routine.

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Opting out of a strict detox programme, I took the middle road which permitted a few beers at night and didn’t involve voluntary starvation – the thought of fasting made me practically weep when I saw the veggie menu. I spent the week engrossed in yoga, meditation and a host of holistic healings from which I drew deep benefits and learned some potentially life-changing things about myself. I slept in a 10-bed dorm overlooking the sea, devoured daily spirulina juices and treated myself to herbal steam and cold plunge sessions at dusk. I rose with the sun, read in hammocks and floated on my back letting the sea carry my weight. As each day passed, my mind felt less cluttered.

IMG_1405A close ally at The Sanctuary made an astute observation one day, commenting that it felt a little like rehab in the sense that you checked in with your own issues and by the time you checked out you’d take on everyone else’s too, which was both amusing and true. The hub of the restaurant was like an obstacle course of social encounters – it was imperative you chose your seat carefully or you might end up with a side order of Group Therapy to go with your curry. It became commonplace to tell intimate secrets to someone you met moments ago. Strange as it may sound, it felt completely normal, perhaps even cathartic, in that environment.

Within that social bubble I met a fascinating cast of characters: The sexy photographer/yogi from Sydney whose humour and easy company instilled in me a sense of peace; the esoteric Canadian with the intense stare who spoke freely about his depression and had no concept of personal space; the bubbly Camden girl with the beautiful eyes who was learning the art of letting go; the kind-hearted but wild pensioner trying to kick the habit of a lifetime; the unfulfilled surf instructor moving from one meaningless fling to another; the Italian farmer who hiked miles through the jungle each day in preparation for a Nepal trek; the quiet girl who engaged with nobody and slept around the clock; the tattooed German heavyweight fighter with the surprisingly gentle character; and last but never least, my good friend and close confidant, the kind-hearted nurse with the enviable zeal for life who needed time out from caring for others to nurture herself. Then there was me: how would others have defined me in one sentence, I wonder?

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The retreat’s setting was lovely, tumbling down a thick jungle mountainside to a small bay, but it was also isolated and after 7 days a feeling of claustrophobia was growing within me. I had gained so much from my experiences – The Sanctuary possesses a mysterious and special kind of magic – but I needed to escape the bubble and get back to the “real world”. Plus, all the soul-searching in the world won’t quench a woman’s thirst for shopping…

IMG_1561Part 4: Contemplation (aka Full Moon)

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During the final phase of my trip I wanted to marinade in all that I had experienced, somewhere with sunsets and broad horizons. I intended to be alone but remain open to company should I meet the right people, thus striking the balance I’m so conscious of maintaining in life. I found a small wooden beach bungalow on the opposite side of the island, a few metres from the water, with a hammock on the verandah and plenty of palm trees for shade. It was basic, but I made this hut my home, unpacking my few belongings and burning incense and candles for atmosphere.

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Nearby were daily yoga and meditation classes, fantastic home-cooked food courtesy of a smiley woman called Pim, and a charming community of long-stay travellers who invited me in without hesitation, sharing esoteric conversation, joints and astronomy lessons around the bonfire. It was exactly where I needed to be, and as I surrounded myself with people who were so firmly on my wavelength, something was unlocked within me. I noticed that life was starting to flow more fluidly, more creatively. I’m certain it’s the same whatever your walk of life; medical students feed their appreciation and understanding of the workings of the human body when in the company of an award-winning surgeon, just as fashion students might buzz with excitement during an encounter with an accomplished catwalk designer. When you accept that every encounter or experience we have in life can teach us something, all sorts of windows and doors start appearing where previously you only saw walls.

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After this month of travelling alone, what is my verdict? Decidedly positive. Once my initial nerves subsided I found that it felt completely natural, and discovered that it not only suits but excites me. The possibilities are endless and the choices are my own. Solo travel tests my fondness of time spent alone, gives me space to be myself and meet strangers with a clean slate, and the chance to ponder such mind-boggling questions as what makes me happy in life, and why tropical sea lice don’t sting your tongue when you open your mouth in the water (the latter question could be put down to an excess of sun and coconut water). Most crucially, my experiences have given me a deeper understanding of living through my heart rather than my head, they’ve taught me to trust my instincts and shown me how to focus on my passions. In short, this has been a blessing.

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And so, as the whole island prepares to celebrate the Full Moon, I prepare for departure. It’s not exactly a celebration for me – because who in their right mind would want to leave such an idyllic haven? – but I can feel proud of what I have accomplished on a personal level, and rather than returning home with a heavy heart and a cluttered mind, I feel relaxed, inspired, creative and centred. Now if only I could retrieve my backpack from that locked bungalow…

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From One Traveller to Another

This was recently shared with me by a wonderful new friend and kindred spirit I met on the road.  From one girl who travels to another…

“Don’t date a girl who travels.  She’s the one with the messy unkempt hair coloured by the sun. Her skin is now far from fair like it once was. Not even sun kissed. It’s burnt with multiple tan lines, wounds and bites here and there.  But for every flaw on her skin, she has an interesting story to tell.

Don’t date a girl who travels. She is hard to please. The usual dinner-movie date at the mall will suck the life out of her. Her soul craves for new experiences and adventures. She will be unimpressed with your new car and your expensive watch. She would rather climb a rock or jump out of an aeroplane than hear you brag about it.

Don’t date a girl who travels because she will bug you to book a flight every time there’s an airline seat sale. She wont party at Republiq. And she will never pay over $100 for Avicii because she knows that one weekend of clubbing is equivalent to one week somewhere far more exciting.

Chances are, she can’t hold a steady job. Or she’s probably daydreaming about quitting. She doesn’t want to keep working her ass off for someone else’s dream. She has her own and is working towards it. She is a freelancer. She makes money from designing, writing, photography or something that requires creativity and imagination. Don’t waste her time complaining about your boring job.

Don’t date a girl who travels. She might have wasted her college degree and switched careers entirely. She is now a dive instructor or a yoga teacher. She’s not sure when the next paycheck is coming. But she doesn’t work like a robot all day, she goes out and takes what life has to offer and challenges you to do the same.

Don’t date a girl who travels for she has chosen a life of uncertainty.  She doesn’t have a plan or a permanent address. She goes with the flow and follows her heart. She dances to the beat of her own drum. She doesn’t wear a watch. Her days are ruled by the sun and the moon. When the waves are calling, life stops and she will be oblivious to everything else for a moment. But she has learned that the most important thing in life isn’t surfing.

Don’t date a girl who travels as she tends to speak her mind. She will never try to impress your parents or friends. She knows respect, but isn’t afraid to hold a debate about global issues or social responsibility.

She will never need you. She knows how to pitch a tent and screw her own fins without your help. She cooks well and doesn’t need you to pay for her meals. She is too independent and won’t care whether you travel with her or not. She will forget to check in with you when she arrives at her destination. She’s busy living in the present. She talks to strangers. She will meet many interesting, like-minded people from around the world who share her passion and dreams. She will be bored with you.

So never date a girl who travels unless you can keep up with her. And if you unintentionally fall in love with one, don’t you dare keep her. Let her go.” (Courtesy of lovethesearch.com)

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The Journey Within

A year ago today I landed on foreign ground to begin an adventure that would not only take me across continents, but into unknown territory in my life in general.  It was the start of an inner journey, a personal tour through unexpected experiences and unforeseen realities. On the road, as within, there was triumph and tragedy.  I crossed the world, and then part of my world collapsed.

365 days have now passed since the glittering lights of Jakarta embraced me into the city’s chaos.  I have returned, reclaimed, rediscovered, rebuilt, restrengthened and redefined who I am.  Perhaps I have met myself properly for the first time.

Tonight, a year on, I see only the twinkling lights of my Christmas tree and a wealth of possibility for the year ahead.  Whatever 2014 may bring, it’s my inner journey that I’m most excited to explore – and who knows which exciting corners of the world that will steer me towards along the way…

The Root of All Evil

When I travel in developing countries I’m reminded of the pitiful state of the global economy, and of our sad attitudes surrounding money.  We live in a world of financial abundance – there is enough for all humanity if only we learned to resist greed – yet somehow man has created dramatic inequality.  The monetary system is such that whilst the elite minority thrive on their riches, millions of others languish in life-threatening poverty.  We have all the tools to fix the problems of the world’s poorest countries but we, the rich countries, choose to keep them in debt, eternally dependant on us.

On the global wealth scale, Indonesia does not rank high.  Within minutes of your plane landing or your boat docking you will see financial scarcity in evidence all around.  I’m not talking about “poverty” we see in the West which somehow still allows for the purchase of expensive electronics, designer trainers and cigarettes.  I’m referring to an extreme level of destitution, where malnutrition is commonplace and starvation is a threat.  Millions of Indonesians, of all ages, work long hours in physically demanding, dirty or undesirable jobs for little remuneration, simply to survive.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recoil at the sobering statistics of third world hunger and disease, yet it’s often wrongly assumed that one person alone cannot help the gravity of the situation.  One of the many reasons I travel in Asia is to spread my relative wealth amongst poorer communities; perhaps on a subconscious level it eases my guilt over being born to more fortunate circumstances, but primarily it is because I believe with great conviction that whilst governments continue doing little to help the world’s poorest nations, we should each do what we can.

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And yes, from my perspective we are talking about very little money.  Think about thirty pence or the equivalent in your currency: what can that buy you in the western world?  In England it won’t even buy chewing gum, but in Asia it equals lunch from a street cart or half a tank of petrol for a moped.  Add an extra thirty pence to your accommodation budget and you get a swimming pool.  Leaving my pocket that amount is unnoticeable but, for the Indonesian whose pocket it lands in, thirty pence can mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one.

A recent encounter in Bali reaffirmed my belief that individuals can make a difference.  At the end of a hot day exploring rice paddies and villages we passed a roadside display of colourful hammocks.  Buying a double hammock had been high on our agenda, although we had not yet agreed our budget or considered whether we had space within our backpacks.  The hammocks were perfect – recycled from vibrant parachute silk, thus also ticking the eco box – but our tiredness, hunger and thirst felt more of a priority at that particular time and we began to walk away.  So what turned us on our heels?  Compassion and guilt; the shopkeeper begged us for the sale.  She clasped her hands together, and she simply pleaded.  She expressed her own tiredness, hunger and thirst, and it put ours to shame.  Her face conveyed years of struggle.  She did not need to labour the point about feeding her many children, because when we looked into her eyes we saw genuine fear.  How many family members relied on that sale for food, health, education?  In that moment, our deliberation ceased and the hammock was sold.  The relief that rushed through her was visible, and a lump formed in my throat as she hurriedly wrapped our purchase, including extra rope to show her gratitude.

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DSCF2445Lying in that parachute silk I always think of that woman and it comforts me that, if only for one day, we made a difference in her world.

Of course, not all of our monetary exchanges were as heart-warming.  We frequently got ripped off by Rupiah-hungry locals using underhand tactics to scrounge profit, and I admit some situations bothered me.  I have noticed that in Asian countries capitalist values are taken to extremes and, sadly, somewhere in the rat-race to wealth the original value and meaning of life, of honesty and connection to other human beings is getting lost.  Poverty is debilitating and stifles the progression of developing nations, but it’s a shame when lives become utterly consumed by the constant drive to increase material wealth.

Yet it’s worth remembering that it is the Western world that has bred this commercial ideology of aspiring to greater wealth.  If we ourselves demonstrate that “more” is never “enough”, how can we feign surprise when greed, dishonesty and ruthlessness become commonplace in poorer countries which are simply trying to better themselves financially, just as we have done?  If a Hollywood sit-com actor can demand six-figure-sums per episode, what example does that set to the rest of the world?  What if, instead of indulging our selfish appetites in a continual quest for more money than we could possibly know what to do with, we found a happy medium where nobody had too little, nobody had too much?

One afternoon in the Gili Islands, sitting on a cushioned bamboo beruga, we watched as a local man knelt down on a board and paddled out to sea with his fishing rod, where he remained for some time, patiently awaiting his catch.  Seeing this, we recalled a story which epitomises the message the West sends the rest of the world about money.  In the interests of my word-count I’ll condense this tale, but you’ll get the idea:

A wealthy American businessman meets a fisherman in a small Mexican fishing village.  The businessman learns that the fisherman leads a simple life, catching only enough tuna to feed his family, and spending his spare time laughing with his children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with friends.  The businessman scoffs: “Why don’t you spend longer fishing, sell your catch and with the revenue buy several boats.  As your business grows you could open a cannery, and eventually a global enterprise.  You could move to New York City and sell your company shares on the stock market.  In 15 years you could become a rich man!  Then you could retire and move to a small Mexican fishing village where you would spend your days fishing, laughing with your children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with your friends”.  The fisherman simply smiles and asks, “Isn’t that what I’m already doing?”

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I’m certain most financiers would recoil at my suggestion that we – the rich West – do more to help struggling nations free themselves from deprivation, and whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to the world’s economic problems, I do believe this: as inhabitants of this extraordinary planet we have a responsibility towards each other.  If we are to see any improvement to poverty, we must first see a change in attitudes.  What if the current emphasis on personal wealth gave way to the importance of sharing?  What if the message we teach our children became this: “It’s not about what you own; it’s about who you are”.  What could that wealthy businessman learn from the poor fisherman about life’s true riches?

As a wise man in my life recently said, “I would pay any amount of money to see the monetary system fall” but until then I’ll continue to turn my Sterling into Rupiah, Ringgit and Rufiyaa in the knowledge that individually I can make a difference, however small.

Searching for The Place with No Name

There’s a common perception that in paradise all is perfect.  DSCF2377Yet many fail to appreciate that to find utopia, and furthermore deserve it, you must often overcome great obstacles.  It can be a test of endurance, tolerance and desire.  Never was this more impeccably illustrated than during our exploration of the Gili Islands. These three tiny droplets of white sand are nestled amongst some of Indonesia’s finest living coral reef, and are so remote they barely register on the map.  Each famously promises a plethora of exotic experiences, but can be stubbornly unyielding with their treasures until you have earned them.

Arriving in Gili, some ground work was required to manifest our shared vision of simple island life.  Suffering from bad guts and hindered by heavy backpacks we traipsed along miles of rough sand tracks, scouring the coastline for the perfect beach hut.  We viewed dozens of theoretically viable bamboo shacks but each presented deal-breakers (the dead animal mounted on the wall was a particular low point).  Our bodies ached and our patience thinned in the heat.  Misguided by sweaty exhaustion, we stopped at a shabby collection of huts called Lucky’s, and quickly regretted it. IMG_6850 But it brought to light an important issue of life on the road: hygiene.

As a traveller you become at one with dirt.  Daily, you contend with unwashed hair, sea salt, chlorine, sweat, road dust and other unidentified grime.  You pass an acceptable level of filth and simply stop caring.  The question “Do I stink?” is met with the response “To what degree?” and you wear rancid smelling clothes which under normal circumstances you would throw away.  Contrary to my reputation amongst friends as a neat-freak, as a backpacker I’m reasonably resilient to muck, but Lucky’s certainly tested my tolerance.  Forget the thick coating of dust on every surface, the gritty layer of sand covering the rotting floorboards, the stained sheets or the musty mosquito net suspended from the cobwebbed ceiling – what I most objected to was the stench of sewage.  As I cowered in the bathroom doorway with a sarong covering my airways, Ben located the source: a huge, festering crap blocking the toilet.   Human faeces: in abundance.  It also transpired there was no functioning plumbing, no running water to abate the problem.  What use was there in alerting the owner?  He was stoned, had been napping on our bed when we arrived and I suspected was also the perpetrator of the crime.  My skin crawled.

To escape, we wandered to the sea.  But low tide exposed a bed of razor-sharp coral thwarting any ideas of a cleansing swim, and we learned that on this southern tip swimming was only possible during a short window each morning. IMG_7090 Was this really what we had travelled 8,000 miles for?  We felt disheartened that having planned to spend a significant portion of our trip there, paradise had shown us such hostility.  Crestfallen, we killed some time in a dicey café where the food was coated in warm, salmonella-inducing mayonnaise, and where I helped some locals revive a woman who appeared to have died at her table (incidentally, she had merely drunk herself into a shallow coma, no doubt to numb the disappointment of her surroundings).

When we could avoid our festering hut no longer, we surrendered to Lucky’s and endured one night in that disgusting room, lying fully clothed, trying not to inhale too often, both promising that at first light we would bolt. IMG_6822

A few hours later we rose to watch the sun bleaching the full moon from sight against a backdrop of a magnificent volcano.

IMG_6834The rays of this new day cast a different light on the island as it awoke and opened its arms to us.  We had survived Gili’s ugly side.  We had passed the test.  Later that day, our search for seventh-heaven ended at The Place with No Name: a beautiful, hand-carved wooden hut overlooking azure, swimmable waters.  A large veranda hugged the exterior, housing a hammock and a day bed.  Relieved, we relaxed and became absorbed by an uncomplicated lifestyle.  We showered outdoors in a stone-walled bathroom under stars, or rain, or shine.  In the mornings, shards of sunlight seeped in and filtered softly through the mosquito drapes onto our four-poster bed.

IMG_6896Time slowed down, and the surrounding paradise gently unveiled all its promised joys.  Life became a string of simple pleasures, of sensations shared and savoured.  From life at The Place with No Name, here is what my senses recall:

The sliding, silky coolness of the sea against my sun-parched skin.  The itch of a mosquito bite.  The constant roughness of sand between my toes and sheets.  The breeze on my face as I slept.  The brightness of the moon and stars.  The daily shock of colours before my eyes: blood-orange sunsets, sapphire waters. IMG_7410Snippets of conversation and laughter from women transporting concrete blocks on their heads.  The squeals of joy from a boy, jumping from his father’s fishing boat.  The sweet scent of frangipani flowers, fallen from a tree.  The faint waft of diesel around the jetty, or pungent manure from clip-clopping horses.  The silvery sheen of an overcast day.  The sound of geckos late at night, of thunder and hammering rain.  The fiery shock of chilli hitting the back of my throat.  IMG_6930 The jagged edge of a distant volcano silhouetted against the sun’s morning display of colour.  The sticky feeling of aloe vera smoothed over burnt skin at dusk.  The peacefulness of an island with no cars.  The shimmer of a school of fish flying clear out of the water.  My head submerged in crystal waters, the buzz of a motorboat all around me.  Glimpsing sunrise through my open bedroom doors.  Never wanting to leave.

A palm-fringed island may be exquisite to the eye, but I have found its true beauty lies in the slowing of the clock, the calming of the mind and the peace that comes with simplicity.  Give it time and a small island can teach you so much.  It teaches you to pause, to breathe, to appreciate and to reflect.  It offers you the chance to daydream, the space to discover.  It permits you to be still, silent.  It encourages you to explore – the land around you, yourself and each other. IMG_7027

And it teaches you this: Sometimes paradise is a rough diamond, a jewel whose sparkle is hidden until earned.  But polish it gently and exercise patience, then you will see it shine like a thousand stars.

No waves, no glory

Around the world, and around the clock, surfers are riding the waves.  For some it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to connect with nature and disconnect from technology.  For others it’s a drug so addictive they devote their lives to hunting the perfect wave, the perfect high.  Big waves, small waves, fat waves, messy waves, reef breaks, beach breaks, lefts, rights, barrels and tubes; the winds and tides work mysteriously together to create an aquatic playground for the world’s adrenalin junkies.

Until now, and despite the Australian component of my upbringing, learning to surf has remained an elusive dream, with timing and circumstance never quite working in my favour.  Consequently, I’m two years behind Ben who already has some impressive moves (he’ll deny this in typical modesty, but I’ve witnessed it).  In Indonesia the surf is world-class.  In other words: bloody terrifying.  The epic waves are for big-timers, and if you’re inexperienced you’ll be out of your depth, metaphorically and literally.  Broken boards and broken limbs are commonplace.  Given this, you might consider it an insane place to learn, but challenge and opportunity lured me in with their sweet vice grip.

Our search for a learner’s wave was frustrating, with lacerating coral and dangerous currents often standing in the way.  A West Lombok beach eventually delivered the mellow waves we sought and with tremendous patience Ben coaxed the surfer out of his English-Aussie girl.  Exhilaration shot through my veins, and being taught by someone so close made it all the more special.

I soon learnt that dedicated board riders spend hours, days – even weeks – patiently waiting for the right conditions.  When the water goes flat it comes down to this: watching the ocean, eating banana pancakes, checking swell forecasts, moaning about money wasted on board hire and, in my case, whimpering about the physically punishing effects of such a hobby.  I also learnt that surfers are generally only capable of conversing about one subject – you guessed it.  It’s a common joke that there’s nothing more boring than an accountant talking shop (no offence meant to any accountants reading; many of us mathematically challenged idiots would be lost without you) but I beg to differ, because talking about surfing to the exclusion of all other topics can be equally dull.

Our quest for surf perfection next lead us to South Lombok, a magical and empty land untouched by commercial development.  Impossibly green rolling hills stretch across a vast and remote landscape, densely covered in trees and thick grass, dotted with cattle.  The landscape is visually reminiscent of England or Scotland, except these hills and knolls tumble down into tropical bays of palm-fringed white sand, vivid turquoise waters and – crucially for us – flawless waves.  Whether you’re a pro or novice, happy days await you in those waters.  Learners are promised first-day-success from bored locals who offer lessons and it’s common to hear foreigners exclaiming in thick accents “Yesterday I had never seen a surf board in my life and today I can ride one!”

In a bid to join them in their elation, I signed up.  A gruff man with poor manners took me 45 minutes west on his bike to a dazzling cove where the beach was peppered with cows, children and the colourful buzz of daily life.  A few shacks lined the sand serving street food from make-shift kitchens while old men sat around spitting.  Whilst I could happily have indulged in a morning of cultural observation, I was there to surf – but evidently my teacher had missed that memo.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent the majority of my lesson eating, smoking and waving knives at screaming children.  When he wasn’t being a total disappointment he dutifully pushed me onto waves, but he taught me zilch; no praise, no criticism and no tips on technique    Time after time I emerged from the white foam, hastily re-arranged my bikini under the watchful eyes of school boys gawping from the shallows, and turned around expecting encouragement.  But he wasn’t watching; he simply didn’t care.  Feeling financially cheated, after three hours I pulled the plug.

Finding an alternative teacher was labour intensive.  Every contender seemed unlikeable or untrustworthy, and I’d all but given up when along came Yo-Yo, a skinny 19 year old with a charming grasp of the English language.  Physically he resembled a whippet, so slender and light, and in comparison I felt like the water buffalo that roamed the surrounding hills.  But through Yo-Yo I discovered the buzz that all surfers speak of.  The drill was this: negotiate a price to secure his time, hire a boat in the village to access the ocean breaks, surf for three hours then collapse into the wooden longboat, burnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but on top of the world.

Surfers are famously territorial, but out on the water with Yo-Yo at my side I was part of the club.  It goes without saying my paddling technique was appalling and I spent most of my time floundering in the fury of the white water, but I also improved.  Sometimes the waves towered overhead and I felt inadequate in comparison to the big boys, but Yo-Yo gave me guidance and I felt safe.  His friends would joke with me and whoop with delight at each wave I caught.  Ben and I developed a routine: mornings were for surfing, afternoons for recovering.  A week passed very quickly in this way.  We began to recognise faces and learn names.  It felt like a community.

At sunrise on Valentine’s Day we rose at 5am and joined this community for one last session.  The water was like a sheet of glass as our boat motored through the bay.  Wisps of cloud caught the rising sun, and the fins of our surfboards silhouetted against a backdrop of pink and orange.  The air was completely still and for a long time we surfed alone, in peace, until the sun climbed higher and others came for their share of the fun.  After my final ride I retreated to the boat.  My kidneys ached from the previous day when a rogue wave had driven the point of Ben’s board hard into my lower back, and I was physically broken from head-to-toe, but I felt so alive.

With the cruel clock of our 60 day visas ticking by, it was time to move on.  As the boat took us back to the village I surveyed the seascape around me and felt a huge sense of achievement.  Surfing is a testing sport, demanding and often brutal, and I had faced everything the Indonesian surf churned up, not only surviving the experience, but delighting in it too.

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