by Ashley Dane
When we get sober, we often hear the phrase “a life beyond your wildest dreams.” That phrase is so abstract. It sounds amazing, but it speaks of something beyond our limited capacity to perceive. It sounds hopeful, but it feels unlikely.
In my active addiction, I painted myself into a corner. I remember the sheer terror of waking up to my reality. It felt as if I had been dreaming my life away, sleepwalking through most of it, disconnected and out of touch. Over the years, I struggled to get “right size,” where I was neither too big for my britches, nor too small or insignificant to matter. I fought for my independence from my chronic escapism and came to discover that life is a mixed bag, but escape is the worst option. The gift of being present IS the gift of life beyond one's wildest dreams because at that level, life starts to respond to you in a different way. Principled living and avoiding the pitfalls of the ego through living with deliberate purpose begins to yield a different result. And that is how I got to Bali.
When the plane left LAX, I could hardly believe I was leaving the country on a flight bound for Indonesia. It was as if—dare I say it—I had come to the place beyond my wildest dreams and it wasn't abstract anymore, but happening. The experience was both surreal and delightful. The flight was long—18 hours to Taiwan, a four-hour layover and another four-hour flight to Bali. When approaching Indonesia they passed out the customs paperwork and on the back it read, “THE PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKING IN INDONESIA IS DEATH.” ‘Toto, I don't think we are in Kansas anymore,’ I thought to myself. And I then realized that didn't refer to geography, but to a state of mind. I was out of my element and it was wonderful.
I traveled to Bali with three friends: a married couple, Sarah and John, who are truly gentle, loving, kind and spiritual people, and my friend Jacqueline, who is intellectual, feisty, gorgeous and caring. Traveling with a group of sober people is something I would highly recommend, although not everyone makes a great travel companion and you probably won't know until you hit the road.
We disembarked and got a cab to our first hotel, in Seminyak, Bali Agung Village. I drank in everything on the drive—the humid air, the smell of incense everywhere, the smiling people, the skinny cows walking along the side of the road, the small motorbikes with an entire family perched on one seat and 20 cartons of eggs strapped on the back, and what looked like temples sandwiched in between convenience stores with chickens walking around in front.
I found that from the first morning, I woke before the roosters. Always at 4:30. The first day I went to sit outside and watch and listen to Bali waking up. Seminyak is a beach town and full of tourists. There are a lot of Australians and Europeans and they like to drink.
All up and down the path by the beach there are little bars and cantinas with lounge chairs in the sand and twinkle lights that illuminate the night in a magical way while singers strum on guitars and sing American classics in broken English.
I could see how it might be tempting to have a cocktail while watching the sun set, but I didn't feel tempted at all. I wanted to soak in everything. When I was little, I liked to get snow cones, but I always sucked the juice out first and was left with a cone of crushed ice with no flavor. That is what I was doing here, sucking the marrow of the experience until I was about to burst with it.
I felt a little bad for those people who were getting drunk on the beach. They drank as if it was an activity—surf all day, drink all night. By not drinking, my friends and I were getting the better end of the deal. We were not missing anything—on the contrary; it was the other way around.
After we left Seminyak, we headed into the interior of the island, and that is when the trip started to get really good for me. We stayed in Ubud, at a little hotel overlooking the river that flowed down into the jungle. Across from our balcony above the river there was a huge rice paddy field glowing fluorescent green. To the left of it, the border of the jungle loomed, dense and dark green, filled with screaming monkeys. I awoke every morning and sat on the balcony and watched the night turn into day. The roosters started crowing, the river burbled and splashed over rocks, the bats with their little ‘nit-nit’ sounds went to bed and the morning birds started singing. The monkeys started crawling over the rooftops, the workers in their straw paddy hats came out to work the field, the night bugs quieted down and day bugs took over.
The sky was a riot of color as the sun rose. And the smells—the incense constantly burning as a sign of gratitude by the mostly Hindu population, the flowers, the earthy jungle—not to mention the air, thick with oxygen from the abundant vegetation, so oxygenated it made me dizzy.
I was no longer the me that left the United States. Experiences shape and change us, and this one was opening me up to a whole new world and self. It was almost too much; at times I almost felt like I could barely take another second of all that beauty. I treasured those four hours every morning that I sat, still as a statue, and allowed myself to be part of the fabric of Bali. And I loved it when my friends woke up and we all went to get breakfast together, drinking the strong, thick, muddy Balinese coffee and planning our day.
The first day we went into Monkey Forest in Ubud, which is a sacred jungle where the monkeys live by the hundreds. In the forest are ancient temples, the Pura Dalem of the village, which is the temple of the dead. There is a graveyard there where the Balinese temporarily bury their family until they can afford to give them the proper ceremony, which is an elaborate, colorful cremation where the dead are placed in big papier-mâché boats shaped like animals and danced through the streets, the pallbearers twisting and turning to outrun any evil spirits that might try to follow the deceased.
Being in Monkey Forest was like being in Indiana Jones. There were great dragon-shaped stone bridges covered with ivy and vines and roots extending high above a river below and monkeys everywhere. By our third day we had them crawling all over us, and I learned that if I sat very still, they would climb up on my shoulder and start to groom me as one of their own. We spent a part of every day exploring the sacred jungle and its temples and rivers and secret nooks, always looking for something we hadn't seen before.
Aside from the Balinese people themselves, who are graceful and warm with generous smiles, another lovely aspect of Bali is the cost of living. For someone like me, traveling on barely half a shoestring, this is the place to go. At $25 a night, the hotels are reasonable and authentic, but still quite comfortable. Rarely does a Balinese bathroom have a roof, the furniture is carved locally, the beds have lovely, almost romantic mosquito netting.
Beyond accommodations, you can find an amazing dinner in Bali for about $8, hour-long massages are $7-11, you can get a guide to drive you around the island all day for $30, and there are all sorts of markets to find exotic treasures where haggling is expected and even prior to haggling prices are cheap. Our guide took us to the temples at Tampaksiring, where we were taught to pray with the Hindus and splashed ourselves with the holy water from Mount Agung. He took us to a place where we all drank luwak coffee, which is made from coffee beans after they’ve, shall we say, ‘passed through the system’ of a mongoose.
After several days we left Ubud and went to another beach town called Lovina, up north. The further north we went, the fewer tourists we found. Even in Ubud, the people were different—gone were the Australians or Europeans who had come to Bali for surf and nightlife. Instead, as the cultural center of Bali, Ubud attracts artists and craftspeople and Lovina, with its black sand beaches, is surrounded by a coral reef, so there is no crashing surf for beachgoers. Lovina has a large Muslim population, and several times a day we would hear the call to prayer played over a loudspeaker—a gorgeous, chanting, lilt of prayer that could be heard everywhere.
In Lovina, I found tears would come to my eyes several times a day as I became overcome by little things, like when the call to prayer wafted through the air and there was a slight breeze, carrying the scent of frangipani flowers and Hindu incense; little chimes tinkling, roosters off in the distance, the beautiful, smiling people. One night I broke away from my group and went and watched the sun set with a few Balinese people on the beach. They noticed I had tears, and they said, “You feel Bali with your heart.”
It was true. I was coming together. I call it my At-‘One’-Ment. All the fragments of myself were coming back together. Like a glass bottle shattering in reverse, all of my pieces were unifying. I felt at one, thoroughly connected to Bali and its people, and to myself. It was as if I had gone blank and all that remained was Bali. My experiences were who and what I was. I was the crickets singing, I was the sun setting, the frangipani, the warm Indian Ocean, the call to prayer.
I was not centered in my thinking self, my survival self, my get-things-done self or my busy single-mom self, but sitting purely in the heart of my most universal self, wide open to the experience without the usual distractions that prevent me from being engaged in the moment. This was my amends to myself. After all, of everyone on my list to whom I owed amends, the person I abused more than anyone was me.
I did not go to any AA meetings in Bali, but they are definitely there. I know of several sober people who fell in love with Bali and moved there, or live there six months out of the year. I hope to be one of those lucky people one of these days. Bali seems to have a lot to offer sober people, a level of experience that is enhanced by the clarity of sobriety.