A tale of two worlds and one island.
I'm gonna be real with you.
Bali has been weird.
Where do I begin? So I broke my trip into two parts: two weeks in Ubud and two in Canggu. I wanted to see what each was about, and my boyfriend's Balinese friend Kera* (named changed) really wanted to host me in Ubud.
Ubud is first up.
Kera's homestay is out in the countryside, and every morning I wake up and walk out onto my terrace to see nothing but rice paddies with palm tree forests in the background, the breeze in my hair, the sun shining, feeling like I've actually found paradise. Unreal.
Every morning, no matter which ungodly hour I wake up at, Kera's husband makes me a hot breakfast. He's a perfect little house-husband, cutting tropical fruits into complex designs that my clumsy ass would never be able to pull off. After breakfast, I go out to lunch and the locals ask to take photos with me. I end up taking more pictures with strangers in my two weeks in Ubud than in my entire first year of travel.
I go for daily runs along the rice fields at sunset and everyone turns and smiles and talks to me. Every time I come home, everyone in the family stops what they're doing to acknowledge my presence. If I want tea? Kera's sister, who has a leg deformity and uses a crutch, climbs the stairs and makes it for me, not allowing me to do it myself. People on the streets introduce themselves, including a mystical old man who invites me to his jungle temple (it is ridiculously cool), introduces me to his wife (pictured below) and says I’m welcome to visit them any time.
After a few days of this, of waking up whenever I want, having hot meals made on demand by the house-husband, and watching farmers out slashing rice in the fields, I begin to feel uncomfortable. It dawns on me that because I come from a rich country, I can stay in the nice room with the view and the marble floors while the rest of the family shares one bed with no door on their room. Because I'm white, everyone wants pictures with me. Because I grew up with enough money, I don't have to know how to count it like I was born holding it. My last day in Ubud, Kera asks for 378,000 IDR and I slowly, painstakingly count it out before she takes it and counts it in 2 seconds, her hands moving like the money is a mere extension of her arm.
Speaking of Kera. My boyfriend sets me up with her homestay, saying that she's a ton of fun and full of intriguing conversation and crazy stories. Saying that's she's a real hustler who charges rich people $100 each for rice paddy tours. Saying that she's trapped in an arranged marriage where her husband's entire family has to live with her, that he dampened her dreams, doesn't support her ambition, and is keeping her from living her fullest life.
Kera is a woman who longs for more, but since she's Balinese, she is stuck with the life that's been given her.
And in walks me. I don't even know how to count money right. I am languid, and I wake up late, and I have no idea how lucky I am. And the tall, funny, blue eyed European man she has a crush on had the gall to send me to her homestay, telling her that I was something special and to take good care of me.
I am a lazy new-age colonialist who has Kera's man, Kera's money, Kera's freedom... basically Kera's life, had she not been born in Bali.
It's night, and they're burning the rice fields in front of me and the air is thick with smoke and flame. In the nearby jungle the locals are playing super eery traditional Balinese music which sounds like it was created in Mordor and was created to summon Sauron. Kera lights a mosquito coil, sits across from me, and tells me all sorts of lies about how my boyfriend is returning in September to open a co-working space, and he's going to stay in the area for a long time, and didn't he tell me? And I look into her eyes, full of spice and ambition and fire and anger, and I both respect and pity her at the same time.
The next day I go on my evening solo-jog. I run past a bunch of the kids playing- they’re always in a group laughing and making up adventures together. Kera is never alone either, she’s always chatting with her friends, family, or other neighbors. In fact, I never see Balinese people by themselves, as it seems like everyone in this village sticks together. On my run, I see her husband running errands. As usual, he's smiling. As usual, he's with their 3 year old son- he’s always with at least one of the kids.
I look at his face and realize that he's quite handsome, and I think about the fact that Kera lives in the country, is surrounded by nature all the time, and has family to help her with the household chores. How her kids are growing up outdoors with a community that loves and cares for them. And how her husband always does everything with love (I always knew when Kera made breakfast because it looked like a mess compared to his meals), and how he was the perfect stay-at-home dad to her career-woman ways.
And I notice that he has her in his phone as "lover."
I mention this a zoom call with my boyfriend. "Wow," he says. "I had no idea he loved her. She definitely doesn't love him."
I wonder if it's because they're poorly matched, or simply because she didn't have a choice in the matter. I wonder if she had the ability to choose him, him being a handsome, caring, good person, would she love him then? If it hadn't been forced upon her, would she be happy with the life she has?
So with all that jumbled in my brain, two weeks after arriving I get in a cab and come to Berawa.
It's like stepping into the world Kera dreams of at night. Everyone looks like the direct descendants of a God. Six pack abs aren't even impressive here. Every man has golden skin and hair that shines like justice, with a smile that puts the sun to shame. Every woman is half naked with a body that would make even a stripper cry, and she walks like she's never had an insecure thought in her entire life.
The sun shines bright over the crashing waves. Walking along the beach at sunset, once again, I think I've actually found paradise.
I go out to breakfast the next day and see they serve açaí bowls, so I order one and of course it's not genuine açaí (I've never had real açaí outside of Brazil; they always mix in other fruits). This one isn't even the right color (it's hot pink instead of a deep purple), but it's beautiful and covered in edible flowers and surely none of their European customers know the difference anyway.
But I know the difference. It's beautiful and it's delicious, but it's not real. I can't help but think about that over the next week. Every day I go to a new restaurant and get their açaí bowl. Every day I sit at a table overlooking some stunning view, decorated in the most "in" style imaginable (I don’t know who does the interior decor for all the restaurants here in Bali but it looks like Instagram on steroids). Every day, the bowl I receive is breathtakingly beautiful in a new, different way.
And every day, the açaí isn't açaí.
The next day I'm eating an "açaí" bowl (this one tastes exactly like the mixed berry blend from Costco) when a handsome silver-fox asks to borrow my charger.
I turn to gaze into a pair of ocean-blue eyes and a perfectly veneered, if slightly icy, smile.
Meet Asshole Steve.
Asshole Steve IS Kera in another life. He's a hustler who 10 years ago decided that he wanted to move to Bali, so he started a villa-leasing company which now (according to him) makes 30k/month and competes with Booking.com. He has completely designed every aspect of his life according to his wishes, he a bangs a new exotic woman every week, and he spends his days in coffee shops and surfing in the ocean. No wife or family or home-culture to weigh him down.
Asshole Steve is living the dream.
"Are you sipping on that tea because you're too cheap to buy another drink?" He asks. I laugh and admit that it's true.
"Order anything you'd like. Waiter, can we get her another drink?" He orders for me.
He offers to give me business advice and so we start talking about marketing strategies when everything starts to unravel. He tells me, get this, that the room-sharing business I'm building is doomed to fail, that my relationship is doomed to fail simply because he's European, and that no matter what I build, it will end up trapping me in the end.
He goes on to tell me that now that he's built a business here, he can't escape. Tells me that his girlfriend of 15 years left him 8 months ago and he’s still picking up the pieces. Next thing I know he’s on Tinder swiping through all the 20 year olds he could go home with that night and as he looks me in the face I realize that a) he wishes I was one of those swipes and b) he's just as lost and miserable as Kera is, even though he has the exact life she dreams of.
He gets up, offers me a copywriting job "for a real expert" but offering a total beginner's rate, and leaves without buying the drink he ordered for me.
As I said, a total asshole.
That night, I dream that I am asshole Steve. I'm older, and all of my dreams have come true. I sit on some exotic beach sipping Piña Coladas, wearing designer clothes, dishing with my friends about my latest plastic surgery while wearing designer clothes from head to toe. I am filthy rich, I travel full-time, and I get anything that I want.
And then I take a closer look at my friends and jump back in horror. They are merely cardboard cut-outs with laugh tracks. The beach around me is deserted. I am completely alone in the world, childless and old, with no family, no husband, and no one real in my life.
I awake with a start, and go to a spot called Ruko Cafe. I order their açaí bowl. It comes to my table and I dig my spoon in and by God... is this really happening?
It's the right color. I taste it. It's the real thing. I, Madison Taskett, have found verdadeiro açaí outside of Brazil! I turn to tell someone, when I realize there is no one to tell.
I have no clue who anyone in this cafe is. Hell, I barely have any idea who anyone in this country is.
I go out to dinner. "Table... for one?" The waitress asks with pity. I nod and sit next to a table of utterly perfect looking white girls and listen as they casually dish about their nose jobs while the local Indonesians serve them more vegan food and cocktails.
Afterward I walk to the beach to get some fresh air. It's a full moon and there's supposed to be a bunch of cool events going on by the ocean.
I arrive to find the beach empty. There are only nightclubs, and I look in and see people sitting at tables with their friends and lovers, laughing and enjoying each other's company. No place for a "table for one" like me.
I go home to my empty hotel room, defeated, and think back on the kind family that greeted me when I got home every day in Ubud. About the sweet house-husband who would cut my fruit into perfect stars and took care of the kids. About a tight knit community that is always there for each each other