Monday, January 3, 2011

In the footsteps of Julia Roberts

In the footsteps of Julia Roberts

"SO you come to Bali for the loving and the eating and the praying, OK?" asks my driver, a savvy young Balinese called Ikomang, as we prepare to set off for our daytrip into the mountains.

So, here it is, the conversation I've been dreading. I try to head it off with a who-me-absolutely-no-idea-what-you're-talking-about-mister-you-must-be-on-crack eyebrow-raise. I fail. Well, that is a lot to ask from an eyebrow.

"The praying and the loving and the eating!" he persists. "You not see the movie?!"

Grudgingly, I concede I have seen the movie Eat Pray Love. Oh, all right, and I've read the book. But, I assure him, I'm not here because of that. It didn't even cross my mind.

"So many people come to Bali now to be having the eating and the praying and the loving," persists Ikomang. "Having the meditating, having the yoga, having the seck . . ."

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Err, the seck?

"You know the seck. The boom-boom." Ah.

"So, you want to go where Julia Roberts go?"

I swear it, I wasn't thinking about Eat Pray Love when my friend Katie suggested we go to Bali in October and do a retreat together. It didn't even enter my mind.

Which, in retrospect, is baffling. After all, along with pretty much every other Western female 30-something with an even vague interest in her sacral chakra, I've read the (seven million copy-selling) book and seen the (Julia Roberts-starring, more than $50 million-grossing) movie version. Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of how she fled her marriage and roamed for a year - to eat pasta in Italy, pray in India and, as it turned out, find new love in Indonesia - long ago blossomed (some may say metastasised) into a bona fide pop-cultural phenomenon.

If you haven't read it, someone you know almost certainly has. Probably the one sitting cross-legged in the corner right now saying "Om".

If Italy is the stomach of EPL and India its soul, its heart is Bali, the beautiful Indonesian island where Gilbert concludes her pilgrimage and regains the emotional equilibrium upset by her ugly divorce.

Specifically, she winds up in Ubud, the fantastically lush, absurdly scenic hill town an hour or two's drive from Denpasar's international airport. As a result, Ubud has become metaphysical central for the hordes of EPL fans flocking to Bali.

And flock they have. In the first three months of 2006, the year the book came out, 237,260 foreign tourists visited the island, according to In the first three months of last year there were 551,186 - mostly women aged between 35 and 65 - and visitor numbers are on track to hit a record 2.5 million for the year, with EPL given credit for the boom.

There are indications even the hospitable Balinese are wearying of their popularity, with reports of restaurant signs exhorting patrons to "eat pay leave".

For the most part, though, enterprising locals have embraced the opportunity, with EPL travel packages allowing soul-searchers to tick off a checklist of spiritual experiences (massages, meditation sessions, palm readings) as assiduously as they do the tourist spots (monkey forest, hot springs, gamelan orchestra).

However, as it happened, when Katie sent me the details of the (let's call it) Spirit of Saraswati Retreat, five days and six nights of yoga, meditation and inner-self work with a group of about a dozen women, EPL didn't, really did not, even cross my mind. Which is just as well or else I might not have gone.

There can be a certain snobbishness among retreaters, you see, and the more original and rigorous the experience the greater the bragging rights. Given that the essence of any kind of retreat is to seek truth, deeper consciousness and enlightenment, and generally become a better being, you may not imagine anyone being able to turn it into a competition.

But you would be wrong because human beings can make anything, anything at all, into a competition. Even hotdog eating. Even growing their hair long. Even childbirth.

So as much as mention you're about to go on a retreat and someone is bound to start telling you all about this amaaazing meditation wall cavity they were once immured in where no one was allowed to speak, make eye contact or register a measurable pulse for 10 days, after which half the group achieved nirvana and the rest probably got carted off to a mental hospital.

My favourite war story involved a highly charged weekend group retreat during which we felt our auras, identified our inner animal (I would like to report mine was a lioness but, no, it was a monkey) and spent a few traumatic and cathartic hours in a sweat lodge from which we eventually crawled on our hands and knees and staggered naked, exhilarated and most likely dangerously dehydrated in the moonlight down a frost-covered hill somewhere near, I think, Murwillumbah in NSW.

Obviously, I knew nothing was going to top that for fun, but I was perfectly willing to spend a week in a tropical paradise to try. I just didn't want anyone thinking I was only doing it because of Eat bloody Pray Love.

IT is my third full day in Bali and Ikomang is driving Katie and me to the hot springs, the volcanoes and the Kintamani temples. Later in the week we have booked him to take us to Tampak Siring, the holy spring water temple.

Yep, all of the EPL locales. As much as I try to avoid it, it's impossible not to wind up following in Gilbert's footsteps, or at least those of Roberts, who shot the movie's Ubud scenes on location last year.

If you want to go the whole hog, it's apparently even possible to visit the real people in the book and eat a "vitamin lunch" made by healer Wayan and have a palm reading from ancient medicine man Ketut.

A woman in my group tries to get a consultation with Ketut but he's busy every day.

However, my friend Lisa, who happens to be doing a retreat just up the road from my retreat, does get in to see another, equally revered medicine man, known colloquially as the Stick Man, who feels her skull, pokes the pads of her toes with a Y-shaped twig and diagnoses stress in her solar plexus.

"Follow your bliss," he tells her.

As Lisa tells me this story over dinner I realise I am feeling what is arguably one of the most ignoble and unenlightened emotions possible: retreat envy.

Whereas her retreat is pretty strict, with hours of yoga and lectures in Ayurvedic philosophy and Vedic astrology, mine is turning out to be undeniably soft, with yoga for inflexible people, meditation for people with short attention spans and inner-self work for people who think a clear spirit is Tanqueray No 10.

Plus lots of time off for massages and visits to tourist spots. On hers, you get in trouble if you're late. On mine, you get to cut out early to go to your 2 1/2-hour chakra dhara massage. This time, it is obvious, I will have no retreat war stories to tell.

Yet, despite my considerable ego and resistance, Bali and the retreat are working their magic. Ubud is a sensory feast. It sounds like roosters, feels like a warm sponge bath, tastes like smoke, looks like the Garden of Eden and smells like Nag Champa.

At the water temple, Ikomang shows us how to rinse our hands in incense before we swim in the holy spring and drink from the row of gushing spigots, carefully avoiding those reserved for cremation water.

The retreat leaders are cherry-picking religious rituals and cultural practices from all over the shop: a bit of goddess worship here, a dash of Bali's Hindu Buddhism there, a sprinkle of Mayan flavour on top.

I adore this, being in complete agreement with Gilbert when she writes: "Take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and keep moving toward the light."

We use cards to try to find different ways into our unconscious and mine say, in order, one a day: "Spend some time in silence." "Be still." "Find your centre." "Heal." "Connect." "Go outside."

I hear what the universe is trying to tell me: calm down and get over yourself, girlfriend.

Every day we meditate on one of the seven chakras and their associated colours and characteristics: basal (red; rootedness), sacral (orange; sensuality), solar plexus (yellow; strength), heart (green or pink; the emotions), throat (blue; expressiveness), third eye (indigo; inner wisdom), crown (violet; spirituality).

Once, semi-hypnotised during an evening meditation by tiredness and a wavering candle, I have a fantastical optical illusion that the tiled floor is billowing up and down on my breath. My cynicism sloughs off me like dead, unwanted skin.

Early each morning we do yoga in a sun-spilled, marble-floored space above a cooking school, and aromas blend with asanas as we breathe our way through the gentle Swara Cycle, led by an exotic Gypsy yogini called Cara.

"Every breath is a fresh start," she says. "Every breath is a new beginning."

Each day also, held in the safe, secret space of the women's circle, there are confessions, admissions, revelations and transformations. Some of them mine. But I can't talk about any of that here. What happens on retreat, stays on retreat. At least until I write my own book.

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