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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.  

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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The Soul of a Nation

Like many parts of the world, Indonesia is a melting pot of opposing faiths.  Occasionally, and very sadly, there exists conflict generated by extremist groups, and the world’s media has – perhaps understandably – largely focused its attention on the tragic bombings of this nation’s recent history.  But in doing so I believe it has overlooked something remarkable: that in pockets of this vast country there are communities breaking down the religious barriers, climbing inside each other’s contrasting ideologies and meditating together, as one, in the hope that by better understanding each other’s differing spiritual approaches they can live side by side in harmony, and without discord.  Borobudur is one such place.

Sitting serenely on a plane of rice paddies amidst soaring volcanic peaks, Borobudur is a town in search of Nirvana – via a multitude of spiritual routes. Buddhist monasteries, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples share the surrounding land amicably; whatever your religion or belief system, here you are accepted.

Arriving late afternoon on a laughably over-crowded public bus, we were at once smitten.  Transferring onto rickshaws and meandering through the town’s bumpy back roads we found the air to be clean and undisturbed by traffic; a welcome change from the mayhem of noisy, suffocating cities.  The countryside was instantly breath taking, and the pace of life pleasingly slow.  We settled into a palatial guest house – the perfect antidote to the stuffy, windowless, back alley rooms we had become accustomed to – with a four-poster bed, a stone bathroom fit for a sultan and majestic views from our private balcony overhanging some spectacular flooded rice paddies.

What draws most visitors to this part of Java is Borobudur’s colossal Buddhist temple, a 1200 year old monument which has survived the wrath of Mother Nature in several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the wrath of man in a 1985 terrorist attack.  Having risen at 4am and journeyed up into the hills for sunrise overlooking this famous stone structure, we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed when the wet season’s finest rain clouds engulfed us, preventing even the briefest glimpse of the temple, or of the sun’s ascent.  What we should have seen from our mountainous look-out was a sweeping vista of sun-tinted beauty, and what we in fact saw were half a dozen trees shrouded in mist.   We descended for breakfast, muddy and disappointed.

Our next attempt to connect with the famous monument saw us traipsing around the site itself in punishing midday heat, clad in ridiculous sarongs which I’m positive are only compulsory attire for foreigners in order to satisfy the local people’s amusement.  Up close, the large stone Buddha heads and narrative carvings embedded in the walls of the structure were certainly impressive, and the views across the region from the temple’s hill top position were definitely worth the steep climb, but it was hard to appreciate the enigma of this World Heritage Site when every Asian tourist present was queuing up for a photo with us white folk.  Posing awkwardly before their lenses was becoming something of a daily occurrence for us and whilst it was amusing, I’m pleased to report this little town had something more authentic up its spiritual sleeve for us.

Nestled in the centre of town is Mendut temple; small and insignificant in comparison to its mighty neighbour, but hiding within its walls lives a truly striking statue of the Buddha, towering overhead and sitting unconventionally in a Western-style posture, with both feet on the ground.  Visiting after dusk, we were grateful to be the temple’s only visitors.  As we climbed up the steps towards the narrow door, gold light flooded out from within the internal chamber, projecting an enchanting glow into the night’s encroaching darkness, and drawing our eyes immediately to three immense statues within.  The interior was exquisite, its high walls and ceiling adorned with Hindu-Javanese carvings, mesmerising to the eye.  Amidst the beauty there was also a tranquillity I haven’t experienced in other temples, mostly due to crowds.  It would be an easy place to lose oneself in prayer or quiet reflection.

But for our own inward-focus that evening we were especially privileged: for a small back-hander the guards allowed us into the neighbouring monastery where we sat in a vast, empty room behind a single chanting monk, and meditated to the sound of his voice and the insects outside.  Once the monk’s incantations had finished, we walked the grounds.  A number of simple buildings were dotted around a lovingly designed garden of lotus flowers, trickling water features, Buddha statues and benches for quiet contemplation.  The monastery was gently lit, and beautifully still, but I took no photos.  A feeling of complete serenity will be my only souvenir.

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