At sunrise, after five non-stop days of being on an overly heated train, we found ourselves in Ullan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The cold slapped us in the face as we stood half-asleep on the icy platform. People were talking to us, trying to sell us stuff, but I couldn’t really respond, as I couldn’t quite process just how cold it was. It was about -12 degrees, with about another -10 degrees in wind chill.
We arrived at the only decent hotel in the country, looking like a pair of complete hobos. We hadn’t slept for a couple of nights and we were starving, (there are only so many omelets one can eat, trust me). Apparently, there was a veggie restaurant open at that time in the morning so we decided to walk to it. Big mistake. It was so cold that it made us cough uncontrollably. The “restaurant” was hideous and we almost puked when attempting to eat our food. We agreed that there was a serious risk of catching some awful kind of wanky-Westerner-disease, so we decided that hotel therapy was the only solution and that leaving the hotel premises for the next 24 hours would be too high risk.
The next day, having successfully met up with our exquisite friend Johnny, we decided to actually leave the hotel for an hour or so, and the destination of choice was the highly rated “intellectual museum”. The museum consisted of three floors of puzzles, as this is allegedly the intellectual pride and joy of Mongolia. What followed was an extremely surreal experience. A local girl made us wrap our feet in colourful plastic and proceeded to show us each individual puzzle as if it was the world’s greatest masterpiece. Many of the “puzzles” constituted a kid’s toy, where you put a ball or something in a slot and watched it fall to the bottom. She would demand that we all stand in the right place in front of her, dramatically insert the ball, watch it with glory as it fell to the bottom, and then grandly announce the revelation: “GRAVITY!” She showed us the lego-esk space-ship puzzle, and proclaimed that no one had ever been able to complete it with its 6400 moves. We asked whether anyone had ever tried, given it was on display completed. “No” she said, without the slightest irony. Johnny asked if he could try one of the rubix cube puzzles. She spun round, looked at him sharply, and said “NO, THE RUBIX CUBE IS NOT A PUZZLE.” (…?)
She glided through the museum lifting her hand spectacularly to bring our attention to the walls, which were covered in certificates, explaining that these were certificates for participating in puzzle competitions. Out of nowhere, a Lord of the Rings midget appeared and joined our group. She made mysterious noises and wobbled enthusiastically at the sight of each puzzle. It all got a bit too much when we escaped the museum only to be confronted by a girl running directly into a bench that we were standing next to, (even though the pavement wasn’t particularly narrow).
The next day we decided to dip our toes in a traditional “shaman” experience as it constitutes an important part of Mongolian culture. We arrived at a humble Mongolian yurt with a bottle of vodka and a carton of milk, (apparently you need to give this as a gift to the spirits before they can talk to you). The shaman’s costume was captivating. His face covered with black threads, and his hat included no less than some eerie stuck-on eyes, extravagant feathers and genuine eagle claws hanging from his ears. He drummed and made loud noises, smoked and got totally trashed on vodka while he conjured up the spirits. He jumped out of his seat when the spirit entered his body. The spirit was a very old man that only spoke an ancient Mongolian dialogue, (so we needed two translators, one to translate the ancient language into Mongolian and one to translate Mongolian to English). He tells me, amongst other things, that I need to grow a tree before I can have babies, Jared that he is a non-believer but that he will live until he is 86, and Johnny that he needs to repair his relationships with his father. He also said some things that we knew to be quite wrong, like he was convinced that Jared had had a relationship with a horse at some point in his life, and ended up asking whether he had ever owned even a tiny souvenir or picture of a horse, to which the answer was, errrr no. Both Johnny and Jared thought the whole thing was a fraud – I wasn’t so sure.
Next, we were off dog sledding across a frozen lake for six days. It took 17 hours to drive from Ullan Bator to Lake Kuvsgul, passing through a town that was actually called Moron. The beautiful baron Mongolia landscape slid past as we sat in anticipation. We were flying along the only road that exists in this part of remote Mongolia; plains upon plains of untouched landscapes scattered with wild animals, framed with dramatic mountain ranges in the distance.
When we arrived at the first campsite and I went to brush my teeth outside, I could hear the dogs howling, even though they were staying about 5 kms away. All 40 odd of them. I stopped in my tracks. So that is what 40 husky dogs howling sounds like. I tried to capture that moment in my mind. I looked up and realised that I had never seen so many stars.
I’d already spent a lot of time thinking about these dogs and what they might be like. So I was a bit nervous when we were taken to meet the crew and the dogs the next day, especially as I heard that husky dogs do not generally accept instructions from women. We pulled into the driveway of a wooden hut with more than 40 husky dogs hanging out in the snowy garden. They are impossibly beautiful. Some of the husky dogs were just how I visualised them; huge, strong dogs, with thick black shiny coats and ice blue eyes. Some of them completely white. Some of them with one blue eye and one brown eye. All were somehow majestic. And in numbers that large, the beauty of all these magnificent creatures interacting with one another was nothing but mesmorising. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
A few hours later, we find ourselves just nonchalantly standing on a lake, which is 160 kms long and completely frozen all over. The “musher” (the guy who owns and controls the pack of dogs), is hooking the dogs to the sleds. They all start howling, jumping up and down, and running around in circles, like little children screaming, “pick me, pick me!”. The noise is deafening.
I asked the musher what would happen if the ice cracked and we fell in, now, or at any time over the next six days. He said that the water was so cold that your body won’t be able to do anything at all. Right… but at least it would be a rather poetic way to die… remarks Jared.
The dogs are almost ready and I suddenly snap out of my trance. Oh noooo, I realise that I desperately need a wee. So I walk all the way to the edge of the lake where there are trees only to hear them calling after me. We have to go NOW, because the dogs say so. The dogs are all growling at each other, some properly fighting. I run back like a fat snowman (I have about 15 layers on) only to realise that I left my gloves there. What an idiot. I ran back to retrieve them, totally embarrassed, in front of the crew and 42 screaming dogs. Time ran in slow-mo in my head as I moved like a clumsy astronaut and jumped on the back of my sled. The sleds were released, all six sleds at the same time. My heart was pounding so loud I could practically hear it. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins as I experienced how unbelievably powerful a pack of forty husky dogs that have spent the last hour working themselves into a frenzy are. Through the powder snow we sailed…
These dogs love to run. It is what they do – all they do – they were born and bred to it. As soon as they are running, they find their rhythm and they are calm. It is a state of instinctive fulfillment and they are in their “flow”. Hours and hours pass and they don’t get jaded, they don’t moan, they don’t get sloppy in their work. I have never seen creatures want something so bad. They work and work and work, until they get to the stated destination. The phrase “I worked like a dog” kept going round and round in my head. They work because they love working, without knowing how, or why, or from where. It is quite simply beautiful.
When we stop on the sleds, for a cup of tea, or to cook the fish from the lake on a fire, the doggies howl and howl like they are having an existential crisis. It’s like they don’t know who they are when they are not running. It is pretty motivational stuff. If you ever feel jaded, or lazy, like you can’t be bothered to live your life to its fullest anymore, I recommend going husky dog sledding. They can prove to you that living the good life is about companionship, hard work, focus and unfettered determination.
The female dogs are the smart ones and the male dogs are the strong ones. So the females are at the front of the pack, leading, and the males are at the back, powering. The fact that the females were on heat may have had something to do with why the male dogs ran as if their life depended on it! They all have individual names, like “Osama”, the aggressive male dog that is just a bit preachy.
The musher knows the dogs like he know his wife, or better perhaps. He knows each personality, what type of food they like, their strengths and weaknesses, their hierarchy within the pack. He knows who has the most stamina, who is the fastest, the smartest, strongest, and weakest. He pairs them up with the same partner for a while so they get quite close, then he moves them to work with someone else so they don’t form unhealthy attachments. He wants them all to be close, but not too close that they won’t run unless they are running with their partners. He wants them to learn from each other, so that they all become the best husky dogs they can possibly be, as a pack, but also independently. This is pack mentality at its purest.
Apparently, when husky dogs get old, they just fall over and die. They don’t get slow, or ill, or “old”; they just push themselves to their absolute maximum and then just die when they can’t experience life as they know it.
The landscape was impossibly beautiful and totally surreal. Sometimes I would wonder whether the whole thing was even real. There were horizontal snow storms (where I was sure I had hypothermia at one point), and ice sculptures and snow capped mountain ranges. We slept in traditional Mongolian yurts or tents every night, completely isolated from humanity, where the lovely female Mongolian helper would cook for us over a fire. Sleep was disturbed by either being boiling hot (because of the roaring fire), or being freezing cold (because the fire had died down). Johnny entertained us with his ability to compose brilliant poems on the spot on any subject matter at all, and we attempted but failed to interact with the fourth client on the trip, an odd-ball Swiss guy who kept talking to himself and laughing too loudly at mundane crap that wasn’t remotely funny. I’m sure that we shocked everyone else as we spent hours talking about topics such as sexuality, altruism, drugs and veganism, and asked each other intimate questions about our feelings and our childhoods. Jared and Johnny told ghost stories late at night and I/we become totally paranoid about being attacked by the dogs/bears/wolves, (or a combination of them), or more likely, being axed in our sleep by one of the Mongolian helpers that we shared a tent with and who we were convinced was evil, (we called him “Hunger Games”).
I write this as I sit on the train again, this time leaving Mongolia and entering Beijing for our last night before we fly home. We somehow ended up on this 36-hour train journey with no cash, so we are a management consultant, a hedge fund manager and a lawyer, all of whom are too broke to buy an omelet. The good news is that we had the foresight to buy a bottle of vodka…
Overall, an “amazzzing” experience with two exquisite people.
And two final and random thoughts: 1. people should be more like dogs, 2. the continuous perception of bordering at the edge of death, (due to the obsessive imagination of drowning in a freezing lake), really makes you want to live and, somewhat contrarily, is also strangely comforting at the same time.
We land in Minsk, Belarus, in transit to Russia. Apparently, we need to be escorted by several severe looking women in tiny spandex mini-skirts to our next flight, as a routine transfer procedure doesn’t exist. A menacing blonde woman in a makeshift passport booth (that was created just for us) shakes her head disappointingly at Jared. It appears that the worse thing imaginable has happened: Jared has lost the stub of his boarding card for the previous flight that we were on. Can you believe it!?! She looks at Jared with her narrowing ice blue eyes and spits out, several times, “you are very very bad,” whilst waging her finger at him in her ridiculously sexy skin-tight airport security uniform.
I see a little smirk start to emerge on Jared’s face and have to look away to hold myself together. She then proceeds to pretend to make phone calls on several different Soviet style phones for what seems like a very long time, and then just as our next flight is about to close, she decides to let us through, telling Jared that he better not do that again! If this is a sign of things to come, then we are rubbing our hands together with glee.
We land in St Petersburg – “Russia’s window to Europe” – and check into a luxurious hotel, (which is now affordable as the ruble has halved in value in the last year). There is a lady in a ball gown playing the harp for us as we wonder into the marble reception and there are copious members of staff fussing over us. Tapestries woven into all the walls, exotic fruit bowls at our fingertips, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t actually a Russian tsar. After some fine dining, we fell asleep in our (oh-so-temporary) cotton wool haven of luxury.
St Petersburg is staggeringly beautiful. We spend hours at the heavy weight Hermitage museum viewing Picassos and such, and getting told off for acting like children, (I don’t know why old-school museums engineer such a strong desire to misbehave, but perhaps it is the overly stifled formality and the unspoken understanding between all fellows humans that we are all only pretending, to some degree, to be interested).
Whilst chatting to the concierge back at the hotel, we dropped in that we really wanted to go see the famous Russian ballet Don Quixote at the Marinsky theatre but that there were, of course, no tickets left (being the day of the performance). He made a few phone calls and told us that if we hand over quite a lot of cash, we could get the chauffeur to take us to a woman who would be standing on the street with our name on a board, who would then hand over said ballet tickets. We ask how this is possible if all the tickets have sold out and he says he knows some people that can miraculously add two seats to the stalls for the right price. Ah-ha, so that is how you do things in Russia! Well, when in Rome… A few hours later we are sitting on pathetic classroom style chairs that have blatantly been squashed into the stalls for some corrupt idiot tourists that are staring wide-eyed at the extraordinary three-hour long ballet extravaganza. Totally worth it.
Post-ballet, we decide to have “one drink” somewhere. The taxi driver tells us on the low-down that there are some “gay bars” nearby. Gay bars are usually the best bars anywhere in the world, so why not have a taste in Russia, we thought, especially given the recent publicity about the disregard for gay rights in Russia. We turn up at a tiny seedy karaoke bar, where they are singing DEATH METAL at full blast in broken English. We are the only tourists. I have just come from the best ballet the world has to offer, so I am wearing a black cocktail dress and designer stilettos. It is an understatement to say I don’t fit in. All a bit awkward. Quick, order some beers.
We end up in a club next door, where there is a live death metal band and, believe it or not, a mosh pit!! Jared throws me his coat and jumps into the frenzy of testosterone-laden punks pushing, shoving and punching each other furiously to the thrashing ‘music’. All I could think about was that I needed to save him from getting bashed to pieces by massive Russian dudes, but my outfit simply prevented me from doing so – my dignity clearly comes before Jared’s safety.
I ended up at the bar, to escape the death pit. No one could speak English, not even a little bit, and the only word that we could all understand was… Wodka! House rules were that you could only buy six shots at a time (!!) so the bar kept filling up with shots and it was, quite frankly, rude not to drink when you were told to drink. I really don’t know how this happened but about eight shots later, at about 3am in the morning, I was dancing in my ballet gear like a maniac with my new Russian friends at a death metal club in St Petersburg. Jared, about ten shots later, was doing the same thing. Enough said.
The next day, or what was left of it, was spent meandering through beautiful streets in St Petersburg. I can’t say I really remember what we saw that day. We hopped on a train to Moscow to be greeted at the station by Maria, (a Russian friend of ours), who then drove us to some arty Air BnB place in Moscow, which had mosaics all over the walls.
We spent a couple of days walking around in Moscow, marveling at the Kremlin, the Red Square, and the quintessential St Basils cathedral, (where the only word for how many photos we took is, quite frankly, disgusting). Everything was just very very big in Moscow – symbolic of Stalin’s attempt to show off his Soviet strength. The people don’t smile at you but underneath the stern surface, they were actually all really lovely and friendly. We knobbed around some art galleries and wanked off to some Russian politics and history, which is all totally fascinating. It was only zero degrees but there was a snowstorm and the winds were powerful and ice cold. It actually hurt to be outside for longer than 15 minutes and we had proper ski-gear on. Our lovely host Maria took us to some gorgeous Russian restaurants where we gobbled up Russian cabbage and pies and dumplings while we listened to her take on modern day Russian politics…
The big moment arrived. We were standing at the train station, looking around for our new home for the next five and half days on the legendary Trans-Siberian railway. Jared, with immeasurable confidence, said the train left from platform 4, so we accordingly stood waiting on platform 4. Lots of Russian military officers arrived and jumped on the train. The train attendant wouldn’t let us on. We. Were. Confused. And then suddenly it dawned on us that this was the wrong platform. We (tried to) run with our ridiculously huge bags (WE STILL JUST CANNOT SEEM TO PACK) to another platform and jumped on. It was the Trans-Siberian railway this time, and phew, because it only leaves once a week.
We giggled at how (sort of) lovely our new little home was. We actually had sheets for the (rock solid) bunk-bed and a shared “ensuite”. The ensuite was a very dirty room with a sink in it and a hole in the floor that went straight out the bottom of the train. But the sink had a plug, so we devised an ingenious method of showering by filling up the sink with boiling water that we stole from the train attendant, and used an old mug to throw the water over ourselves. Brilliant. Totally had a shower every other day. The toilet, at the other end of the carriage, was a trap door to the ground, so you just had to press a pedal, and voila.
The train is old and rickety, and there are coal fires in every carriage, and therefore totally romantic. The best part is the view and the Russian matriarch of the train who commands how and what we eat everyday. Let’s just say, for a vegetarian who is kinda obsessed with food, there is a lot of time spent daydreaming about fresh fruit and salads. The first day I brought strawberries and artichokes and vegan cookies, and the matriarch shouted at me in Russian for smugly eating them in the corner. Since then, I have eaten omelets and potatoes swimming in oil every single day. Apparently, the meat soup is delicious, although I think even Jared is starting to go off it after eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. We can’t sleep very well either, because the train rocks like mad, and we are thoroughly tormented by the constantly changing time zones, so we never know whether we are supposed to be asleep or awake.
We have watched the remote and baron Russian countryside slide past us while we contemplate our navels. We brought 15 books, (I told you we can’t pack), but have so far been a bit too distracted by the view. At the moment, I sit writing this looking out the window at the beautiful Lake Baikal. It is the deepest lake in the world, and holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It is completely frozen, so is totally white, as is the sky, so you can’t see where the lake ends and where the sky starts. Never seen anything like it…
Next stop is Mongolia for dog sledding on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere.
We jump off a boat on Gili Air (an island off Lombok, Indonesia) in the torrential rain and drag our seven (previously dry) bags-of-shame onto the shore. Yes, seven, I know; two big bags each, one little bag each and our paintings. I’m so glad I brought over 30kg of stuff with me, including 15 or so long sleeved tops and jumpers (in a part of the world so hot that you can’t walk bare foot anywhere without burning your feet) and other miscellaneous life saving equipment such as a hair dryer – NOT. Don’t even get me started on the evil glares we get from the cool teenage backpackers that have one 10kg backpack with everything they need. Oh no, hang on, there is only six bags here… Wait, stop, wait, I yelled out to the boat from the beach, you have got one of my many bags!
The boat came back to deliver my bag, thankfully, and we squeeze into a tiny decorated carriage attached to a tiny horse. The next thing I know, we are galloping down a dusty beach road. I was absolutely convinced that we would topple over as the carriage clearly wasn’t designed for two people who can’t pack, and the enormous potholes didn’t help. So I proceeded to take a sharp intake of breath at every wobble, which apparently pissed off the horse, the driver and Jared. We rocked up at some beach hut with a veranda and a hammock, negotiated a price, and settled down.
Gili Air doesn’t have anything with an engine, except boats. It is peaceful and small and the people are ever so friendly. Imagine white sand beaches, some of the best snorkeling in the world just a few meters from the beach, turquoise waters, gorgeous beach huts and fresh seafood beach restaurants. We did something called “reading a book for fun” – something that we have been too busy or tired to do for a long time. We swam with turtles, 12 of them in fact, and wondered at how majestic a creature they are. I will remember that experience for the rest of my life I think. A local said to us as we went out diving one day “if you’re lucky, you might see a shark” and I thought “…or unlucky” as the case may be. We didn’t see any sharks, sadly, but we were utterly mesmerised by the schools of multicolored fish shimmering in the water as they moved together in perfect synchrony.
Life was getting a bit too easy so off we went on our next adventure: Mount Rijani on mainland Lombok, Indonesia’s second largest live volcano. The tour agency (a random dude in flip flops sitting in front of a faded poster) said it was a “family-friendly” and “easy” trek and that they would provide a “homestay” the first night and then a “Romeo and Juliet” tent at the top of the volcano for the second night. And this operator was so much cheaper than the others – what a find, we thought! So they carted us off to a “home stay”. I really don’t know why I still haven’t learnt my lesson but “home stay” appears to be international code for “shit hole”. I almost vommed when I saw how dirty the kitchen was. Our “room” was filthy, lined with fluorescent lights so you could really examine just how dirty it was. The walls were falling down and the “ensuite” was a room that stunk so bad of urine that I couldn’t breath and boasted a combo “sink” and “shower” which was basically a mangy tap on the crumbling wall. I paced up and down muttering to myself and then conceded by falling asleep.
The next day, we started walking at 4:30am. Jared was carrying all our stuff. The (apparently hilarious) joke of the day for the locals was that I had two porters, one actually was a porter that climbed with about 30kgs hanging from a bamboo stick balanced precariously on his shoulders, and one was Jared. We stopped for lunch in a cloud forest and the porters prepared us a rather extravagant meal (in the circumstances). It was very impressive – they were so little but so strong, industrious and smiley. We had to eat really quickly though because we were surrounded by monkeys and scarred wild dogs that were edging closer and closer towards us as we ate. When we left the lunch spot, all the animals fought for the scraps and we heard the screams of the smallest dog as he got beaten up by the other bigger animals.
I really struggled to get to the top, (to say the least), and we lost litres of water in sweat in the process. Jared had to encourage me to put one foot in front of the other when my legs were shaking by agreeing to my demands to go to a spa afterwards. When we got to the top, we couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of us because we were in a cloud. And then the sky opened. I sat on the floor in a ball, forehead on knees, in a giant plastic bag and waited for our porters to catch up so they could set up the tents for us. By the time they arrived, everything was wet through, and for the first time since arriving in this continent, it was really really cold. We went to bed at about 7pm because there wasn’t anything else to do. When I say “bed”, I mean a dirty and tiny tent with holes and a “mattress” that was a piece of wet rubber about 2mm thick. We had sleeping bags but we still freezing cold, and both spent the whole night shivering, (and on the odd occasion giggling at how romantic our “Romeo and Juliet” tent was). The wild dogs attacked each other very loudly all night, and were right outside our tent.
I pretended for hours that I wasn’t dying to go to the loo but I couldn’t wait any longer and had to go. It was 2am. I fell out of the tent and looked up. The stars were epic. I looked down. All I could see was the glint of the eyes of the wild dogs as I caught them with my torch looking at me. Definitely on my top three of most surreal weeing experiences, given that it was off the side of a live volcano in the middle of the night and I was surrounded by wild dogs. I ran back to the tent shaking, not with the cold this time, but with fear that I could have turned into dog dinner.
Sunrise made everything a whole lot better. It was out-of-this-world stunning to see the great expanse of the volcanoes and to watch how the colours and the environment changed so dramatically as the weather shifted so quickly from one extreme to another. I had been so trigger-happy with the monkeys the day before (and Jared with close-up shots of insects and mosses) that our camera batteries were dead. It was a blessing in disguise really as we were forced to be present in the rather glorious moment.
We bounced back down to the base of the mountain and got a taxi to the best spa hotel on the island. The design and location of the spa was just breathtaking. We drank cocktails and ate tapas on the beach.
The next day, I discovered that I was in rather a lot of pain and couldn’t walk. It got worse the day after and then even worse the day after. Even Jared couldn’t walk.
We landed in Phnom Penh and began our (crippled) search for our new home…
Rice paddies, soft smiling faces, art galleries and organic shops galore… we arrive in Ubud, Bali. We buy some large canvases and paints and set up our studio in our beautiful apartment looking out to rice paddies and palm trees. There are hundreds of little birds and lots of sounds, (of varying degrees of weirdness).
Jared is painting some complicated scientific masterpiece, of course, and is studying very hard and triangulating multiple sources to ensure that it is technically accurate. I am painting some wild colourful psychedelic woman, of course, that involves no planning or accuracy. Our typical approaches to art persist.
We dive enthusiastically (well, some more enthusiastic than others) into the world-renowned mecca for yogis called the Yoga Barn, which hosts a multitude of classes ranging from run-of-the-mill yoga, to the most wacked-out pseudo-spiritual indulgences the town’s magic mushrooms can inspire.
First was “sound medicine”. Imagine a space full of musicians, singing and playing their tribal instruments as they bathe us in their “healing” vibrations. We chanted for our ancestors, our future generations, our communities and for peace and love. My initial cynicism quickly melted into happiness, as it spread contagiously around the room. The smile I was left with stubbornly remained for days.
Next we tried to have a fleeting 90 minute affair with Thai chi, but fell in love instead. The Thai chi master introduced us to the principles of energy flow through our body, and showed us how to harness the energy of an opponent against them. It was eye opening to see how strong and unassailable you can become through the simple act of centering yourself to the earth. He demonstrated this using Jared as his aide de camp, and flung him around the room with the most subtle and seemingly effortless of motions. I tried really hard not to giggle at dear Jared’s emasculation.
Next on the taster menu was “acro yoga”, where we indulged in a series of yogic menage-de-trois. The class opened with us going around the circle responding to the question “what inspires you”. Mostly lovely answers, with the notable exception of one slightly disoriented Korean woman, who responded verbatim with: “what, me? I’ve just had lunch so I’ve got the runs” (big toothy smile, wildly confused audience). Then we formed groups of three, and worked intimately with our partners to create beautiful stretches and triangular shapes. We helped (groped) each other into hitherto impossible contortions, such as “flying” one of the trio above our legs so that they felt light as a feather, and then drumming on their bum(?!?), as well as a three-legged symmetric stretch in a tripod shape. Jared and I partnered with a doctor, who was also a model, (I know, I know, the whole thing seems made-up), who was writing her thesis while she travelled all around the world.
We also tried a Tibetian bowl meditation – large copper bowls that make a sound so mellow it would probably tranquilise a horse, and floods your mind with calm in a strangely forceful stasis. I watched the birds play in the green and pink jungle plants as the sun went down. Jared cracked a (mimed) joke near the end which sent us into fits of giggles – no doubt ruining everyone else’s deep state of relaxation. To turn giggles into hysteria, someone else then broke the silence with a massive and long, drawn out fart, followed by the awkward silence of a room of people trying to hold in laugher and one person’s mortified embarrassment. We had to leave pronto.
All the community here really like to touch each other. They hug for long periods of time and they hold each other’s gaze lovingly. We originally thought it was some kind of creepy occult or orgiastic connection, but shortly realised that it is just that these people are so emotionally open and comfortable with themselves that rather than seeing the socially constructed physical boundaries the rest of us do, they unashamedly hug everyone, with a sincerely heartfelt love for their shared humanity that some of us would struggle to find for our nearest and dearest. Crazzzzzy… or perhaps genius.
The food. Oh wow. Loads of mad healthy green veggie stuff which I rabbited on and on about endlessly. I made Jared shoot some wheatgrass – it’s an amazing super food – but he got a tummy ache, claiming that the food was “too healthy”.
Meanwhile, my battle with the insect kingdom continues. I think the latest score is about 28-0 (insects-Sherin). I may have scored an own-goal by leaving a half-eaten bag of chocolate raisins in my beautiful new handbag. Lesson to self; if you don’t eat quick enough, your food will automatically turn into an ant’s nest. Last night I found a cockroach on my arm and instead of flicking it off, I accidentally splatted it into my own arm. Yup, need to skill-up, I know. I have also found tiny invisible bugs sucking my blood (you can spot them because the suddenly turn bright red with your own blood) and have had to pull them out of my leg (I then sulked about this for approximately half a day as a form of bittersweet revenge).
Last day in Ubud, so we decide to go to “Sunday dance” which we thought was a dance lesson. No. It was a free-for-all treetop dance floor in the jungle. It’s 11am. It’s extremely hot and exceptionally humid. A smiley plump and colourful Indian lady bobs around painting people’s faces and bodies. The music was loud and crisp – like dub-step but mixed with some spiritual-Indian beats. It is very bass-heavy, which vibrates through the floor. Everyone is bare foot. The centre point was the middle of the circle and everyone moved animalistically around it, like a whirlpool. The whole space is full of extremely good-looking Tarzan and Jane types. Not having long hair, being gorgeously tanned and having a tattoo of some sacred geometric thing basically made you a freak-show (poor Jared hahaha). It was an assault on all senses.
The rules are: 1. No talking, (you can share dances with people through eye contact and touch, but you cannot talk), 2. Move around the space, (do not stay in one place or with the person you may have come with, lest your energy become stale), 3. Just do whatever feels right to you in the moment and let your inhibitions free. Freaking brilliant rules if you ask me.
The dancing became more and more tribal. There were people with drums that were sending people into an untamed frenzy. Some stood totally still with their hands in prayer at their heart. Some threw their heads back and roared at the top of their lungs, literally. Some shook their bodies violently, in lieu of (or perhaps a form of) dancing. Some prowled around the floor on their hands and knees like hunting cats. Now, I have a very high level of tolerance for wacky hippie stuff, but this was testing, even for me.
My hair was bone dry when I arrived but within 15 minutes, it was wet right through and actually dripping. I don’t think I have ever sweated so much in my life. Everyone was dripping wet and the paint began to run, or stream, off people’s bodies. I lost Jared pretty quickly (I later found out that he went to have a shower half way through the dance because he felt bad that he couldn’t move without spraying everyone with sweat – but within two minutes of showering he was spraying everyone with sweat again).
I felt self-conscious to begin with, of course, but gradually I started to let go. I shared some beautiful moments with a few zealous strangers, dancing into each other’s space and moving invisible energy around each other’s bodies. I danced with my eyes closed, I danced slowly, quickly, low on the floor, high on my tip toes. I explored the edge of the circle and the middle of the circle – I moved clockwise and anticlockwise. I felt like a snake exploring, meandering and negotiating a new environment.
After a few hours of jungle dancing, the music slowed and everyone naturally moved closer to the ground. People started randomly free styling; singing, om-ing, stomping, you name it and there it was. Completely spontaneously harmonious.
I could hardly speak afterwards. It was beautiful how no one tried to hit on anyone else (Jared pretended to be relieved), no one slammed into anyone else (because no one was drunk or high – well, they may have ODed on the wheatgrass shots but that was as far as it went) and no one was self-conscious or showing off.
And just to put the icing on an already awesome cake, when we finished, we were confronted by an epic vegetarian buffet and were handed a woven banana leaf basket to fill up as we saw fit. Jared had not one, two, third or even four helpings, but five.
We left Ubud on a boat feeling liberated – next stop, the Gili Islands…
It is 8am, we have stepped outside our beach hut to paddle in the sea whilst awaiting our lift. Today, we are going diving and I am excited. A flimsy looking motorboat whizzes in, we are thrown onboard and, within seconds, an aged Aussie hippie starts enthusiastically talking at us. He tells story after story – all horror stories related to diving, of course. First story involves seven Japanese women that dived off this very island when the current was too strong; five of them were found clinging to the rocks three days later and two of them were found dead, (they also found another random eighth body who has still not been identified). Second story involves a massive triggerfish biting a chunk out of his side and thrasher sharks swimming right up to him. Third story, well, more of a foreboding warning than a story, involves a description of one of the dive sites we were going to later that day; he leans in and whispers in hushed tones (please read in really strong Aussie accent): “this side is really dangerous, there is a strong down-current so just make sure you do exactly what the guide says and you’ll be OK.” Meanwhile, the boat crashes clumsily through towering choppy waves.
Although the captain (some Indonesian kid in swimmers) has now turned the boat’s engine off, it is rocking so much that I was sure I would fall overboard if I stood up. Everyone proceeded to rush to get their diving gear on while I watched the waves turn from blue to white as they crashed against the nearby rocks. Somehow, I ended up sitting on the edge of this boat in all my diving gear listening to someone say “OK roll backwards”. Roll backwards, I repeated in my head, as I shook with fear throughout my whole body, what, into this perilous ocean, weighting about 100kgs with all my dive gear on?!? I looked around somewhat wildly to see if anyone else was freaking out. Jared (my partner), of course, was not. He was already in the ocean floating around competently and gleefully. I rolled off backwards and as I popped back up to the surface in a crazed fluster, Jared said with a wry smile: “if it’s any consolation, you look like a bond girl”. I would have shown him my middle finger if I could have figured out how to lift my arm in amongst swallowing salt water and getting jumbled up in all the dials, tanks, tubes and other random life-saving equipment that was attached to my octopus-shaped body.
The guide made the pointing-down sign so we let the air out of our BCD (inflatable-life-jacket-type-thing) to allow ourselves to sink – as counterintuitive as the whole exercise might be. I was hyperventilating at this point. As we sink, I notice the mushroom shaped bubbles rising from my body; they were numerous and relentless. We sank about 20 metres, just above the coral, and I looked around. There are no words to describe the underwater world, as I am sure those of you that have seen it know well, but it suffices to say that it is profoundly moving. A giant manta ray swam over my head with its mouth wide open. It was two metres wide and it moved like an elegant dancer. I was so utterly transfixed that I actually forgot how to breath (I quickly remembered shortly afterwards, as this email may imply). Suddenly, I felt a deep sense of peacefulness; I started to breath long deep yogic breaths. As soon as my mind was calm, my body adapted to its environment and began to move a little like a fish. We were under the water for a whole hour (although it felt like five minutes) and meandered around the ocean bed secretly peering in to this private world.
Back on the boat and off to the next dive site – apparently we were doing a “drift dive”. Now I am thinking that the word “drift” means moving gently with the current, you know, how one might drift from one person to another at a party, but I think they confused the word “drift” from “swift”. We dropped down to the coral wall and we became subject to the whim of the ocean. We moved about 3kms over the course of about 45 minutes and the only “swimming” we did was full strength into the current in an attempt to slow down. At first, I was bewildered as I couldn’t understand the concept of being completely unable to control the shape, direction or location of my body, so I resisted by trying really really hard to gain control against the powerful ocean’s current. Then, the same as before, I just decided to relax and it was the most extraordinary sensation to just go with the flow, (excuse the pun). There were literally thousands of multi-coloured fish surrounding us, including puffer fish, rainbow fish, trigger fish, angel fish, finding-nemo fish, unicorn fish and barracudas (one that was about the same size as me), all just whizzing past us, like some David Attenborough show in fast-forward. It was like being in space (but a florescent kind of space) where gravity doesn’t exist. When we came up to the surface, our boat was miraculously there waiting for us. I am sure Jared would have shown me his middle finger as I gushed and gushed about how amazing the whole experience was, had he not been so blown away himself that he was vomming overboard (he said it was “the lunch”). Best. Dive. Ever.
Off Jaredy and I go on our motorbike to discover more of this tiny paradise island. We stumbled across “Dream Beach” (written in chalk on a piece of wood) and my goodness was it dreamy. A beautiful cove of perfect white sand, huge crashing turquoise waves and a beautiful little boutique hotel and restaurant. There are only two places in the whole world that I would go back to, given how many other amazing places there are to discover, but now there are three. We played on the beach, which was (obviously, at this point) deserted, and ate an outrageously delicious curry and plate of fresh pineapple and watermelon in the cafe overlooking two infinity pools. We cooed about how extraordinary our day had been so far and then philosophised about all the reasons that we were just so God damn lucky.
Next we stumbled across Devil’s Tear. A jagged peninsula of rock with the biggest waves I have ever seen. You could hear the roar of the crashing waves from a good distance away. We sat and watched the water dance in the sky and whip itself aggressively around the rocks.
Back on the motorbike, wind through ((disgustingly) matted) hair, and sand on salty skin, we set off to explore the connecting island. We rode over a rickety old bridge, just wide enough for one motorbike, I held my breath and hoped that Jared would keep control of the bike. We drove through lots of beautiful fishing villages where the locals smiled and waved at us. We watched the sun majestically set over another infinitely pool looking out to the sea. I had to pinch myself to just check that this was all real.