Villa Vajra, Ubud, Bali

Pool reflections Villa Vajra

Bali seems like a long-ago dream but fragments of our trip still pop into my head almost every day and I am still contemplating the effect the trip had on me.

Jungle baby

In some ways, with hindsight, I can barely believe I did it. Old neural pathways, as plastic as they apparently have the capacity to be, can be deeply entrenched grooves and some days I wonder at how I had the courage not only to go back but to take the kids and my parents.

Dragon fly

I think in some ways I had to kind of shut down a bit in the lead up to the trip in order to be able to do it. And in the aftermath, even now almost 6 months later, I’m still examining how I felt and how I feel now.

Just outside Villa Vajra's gate

As blissful as it was, I have to confess, that not all of the trip was smooth sailing for me. After the high of arriving and reaching our beautiful villa, I kind of slumped a bit around the third day. Long-time readers here will know the harrowing back story to the this trip you’d be forgiven for wondering why I didn’t anticipate that. I’ve been asking myself the same question.  But after such a euphoric arrival and a strong sense of “I made it”,  I don’t think I wanted to concede there might be more hard work to do. But there was. And the ferocity of the way in which it manifested was, frankly, a pain in the arse.

Javanese tea pot, batik placemats

I spent large swathes of my time attempting to control the negative thought loops that played on a never-ending reel in my head. The noise was not always Bali bombing-related but equally horrifying; terrifying fears of loss and pain writ large in the silent pre-dawn. This usually started around 3am when I would be jolted awake by an amorphous but powerful anxiety. It didn’t really abate until 8am when we all met for breakfast and the distractions of the day gave me an opportunity to divert myself from the internal cacophony.

Meditation view (full size)

I tried to summon peace. To coax calm. To meditate through it, around it, despite it. To reason it away. To surf it. To accept it and allow it to take its course. None of which really worked. And yes, I know effort and meditation are diametrically opposed but I just could not let go. I felt deeply upset that despite the beauty and serenity of my surroundings I could not make my inner landscape reflect the outer one during those blue hours.

Meditation bale

I read a quote recently that resonated with me. In a nutshell it said  “the only zen you find on the tops of mountains is the zen you bring up there.” My zen, as it turns out, did not really come along for the ride.

Girls in rice field

But that’s okay. I’m not surprised or conceding failure or  judging myself. I just felt a bit disappointed that there was such a mighty daily struggle.

Dancing girl before performance

One day, Olive developed a pretty severe and sudden infection the pain of which made her hysterical and not an hour after we had calmed her with pain relief medication and started a swift course of antibiotics, Sophia stepped on a wasp the size of a small bird. These big black Balinese wasps do not muck around my friends. They fly semi-vertically, dragged down by their weighty, poisonous behinds.

Tropical breakfast

Thankfully, she did not have a severe reaction, but she had some pretty serious localised swelling and if her screams were anything to go by, quite a lot of pain.

The utterly heavenly staff at the villa were amazing. They quickly retrieved necessary medicine, calmed anxious parents and, most importantly, soothed upset children with some kind of magical, relaxing massage to the afflicted areas.


I found though, I guess unsurprisingly, that my capacity to cope with these relatively minor stressors was severely diminished. Even though I knew in my rational mind that they were okay and their lives were not endangered, I had felt, even if briefly, that they might have been. Just as I felt all those years ago in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. That made me freak out. Later. In the privacy of our bedroom. Not in front of the kids. So, yeah, that bit was not relaxing.

Offering with mini biscuit

But if I’ve made it sound as though it was 10 days of pure mental anguish then I’ve misled you. When I wasn’t trying to deal, I was absorbing with wonder our very beautiful surroundings at Villa Vajra and, paradoxically, loving every minute of being back in Bali. I was relaxing and laughing with my family.

In spite of the pretty robust processing going on in my mind, I couldn’t fail to be soothed at certain times by the breathtaking beauty of our immediate surroundings.

Javanese tea house

The staff, as I’ve alluded to, were beyond perfect. They became a part of our family.

Girls and Balinese dancers

Joel and Nirgrantha, who own the villa and live nearby, were beautiful hosts. Recently Joel  sent me pictures of the stunning  new ironwood boardwalk they have just put in through the rice paddies. They are also in the process of bedding down an extensive organic garden.

The fact I am still in touch with all of them should give you a sense of how amazing they all are.

If you want a little more detail about the villa, you can read my review on trip advisor here. I review there as ‘trovamiqui’. Which means “find me here” in Italian.

Villa Vajra - light and palms and bliss

Meals were extraordinary. The brilliant chefs  prepared whatever we felt like ranging from Balinese dishes to fish and chips for the kids when they craved something familiar. After the first 5 days or so we just gave free reign to the chefs to prepare whatever Balinese specialities they thought we would enjoy. Each meal was a veritable feast. An abundance of fresh, locally-sourced, authentically Balinese food. We were in heaven.

Nasi campur

Other highlights included getting some young, beautifully-costumed Balinese dancers into the villa one night, some traditional rindik musicians the next and of course the wonderful Galungan parade I talked about in this post.

We also had classic family times, the best of which was Pool Olympics. We spent a whole morning competing individually in such little-known events as “swimming with pearl earrings” (an event inspired by my elegant mother who swims with her neck thrust high out of the water using delicate strokes to keep both her hair and pearl earrings from getting wet) , “canon bombing”, “water pistol target shooting ” (no fun unless the target is a human face)  “creative diving”  and “underwater smooching”.

Kids and Andrew in pool

Andrew and I even performed an opening ceremony in the pool. Seeing the combination of amusement and embarrassed horror on my kids’ faces as their father and I did (badly) synchronised swimming, generally thrashed around like dead weights and concluded with a spectacular finale complete with high lift was hilarious.  For us. There is a video of it. That I will never show you!

I have so many hilarious photos  and videos from that morning but given our antics and the fact we were all in our swimming costumes, the rest of my family would kill me if I posted them here.  I choose life. So here’s one of Olive’s medal-winning canon bombs instead.

Olive pool bomb gif

Frangipani medals were awarded at the end (I won swimming with pearls, btw, like mother, like daughter) and Sophia cites pool olympics as the highlight of the trip. It’s the biggest little things, yes?

Mum and I outside Villa Vajra

So an amazing trip overall. Not as relaxing mentally as I would have liked but, as with everything I’ve ever done, I wouldn’t change the experience one iota. I suppose because I trust, with the benefit of hindsight at least, that that is how my experience at that time and in that place was supposed to unfold. Now if I could just learn to do that in the present…

Villa Vajra's vajra

A glimpse into village life during a Balinese festival

The Balinese year (of 210 days) is rich with celebrations and ceremonies. Galungan is one of the most important of these and celebrates the victory of good over evil.

Gusti at temple gates

On the first day of Galungan, our friend, Gusti, took us to two local village temples to observe the ceremonies and rituals taking place.

Boys at the temple

It was utterly fascinating. I was worried we would be intruding but Gusti assured us we were not only not intruding but welcome. Such a beautiful, Balinese response.

Blessings at Sebali temple

We felt so very privileged to be able to see some of the blessings and rituals being performed and I was particularly thrilled to see this dukun at work.

Dukun (holy man) at Sebali temple

Dukun are holy men: spiritual healers, custodians of custom, tradition and ancestral knowledge, diviners, mediums and even sorcerers.

This is one of my favourite photos from our entire trip. My dad and Gusti : two fathers, two cultures, two friends.

Gusti and dad at the temple

Even the youngest members of the community participate in these rituals.

Kids getting blessings at the temple

That lifelong participation is, in part, what makes Bali such a cohesive society but also what feeds the almost tangible sense of spirituality on this island; a richness that seems to ripple in the atmosphere around you – unseen but palpable.

Leaving temple

Village streets are lined with penjor  – tapering bamboo poles adorned with elaborate palm leaf decorations –  and specially constructed bamboo altars.

Whole penjor

Just like the ubiquitous palm-leaf trays of offerings, each penjor is a work of art. And a much faster thing to put together since the arrival on Bali of the stapler! Before staples, each elaborate twist and turn of decoration was secured with little bamboo tooth picks. We were told that there is good-natured competition to prepare the most beautiful penjor although it turns out you can go too far. One penjor on the road to our villa was lit up with electric Christmas lights. According to Gusti that one “didn’t count”.

Penjors and offerings Sebali bud

This is Gusti’s gorgeous wife Narie, his two beautiful boys and his dad holding an offering they were taking to their family rice field.

Narie, Gusti's dad and the boys on motorbike_edited-1

That evening we sat on the edge of the street in our village (yes, I adopted it wholesale) and waited for the Barong (a lion-like creature from Balinese mythology) to come past.

There were no cars on the road and only the odd scooter every 15 minutes or so. So in between those  rare modern intrusions it was easy to pretend we had been transported back in time to a Bali of 100 years ago. All along the little street, in front of their houses, women and kids were dressed in their beautiful holiday finest awaiting the arrival of the Barong with the men of the village. As they waited they prepared offerings, lit incense, chatted.

Sate lilit offering

Occasionally the women sitting across the road from us would nod to us and smile gently.

Entering the Sebali temple

Then from the dim dark came the distant sound of drums and bells and laughter and slowly the village Barong snaked its way along the street in front of us.  it was gone almost in the blink of an eye but that half hour will stay with me forever.

I couldn’t get a decent shot in the darkness but I do want to show you how fearsome the Barong are. I found this beautiful photo on Flickr. Attribution below it.

Barong by Hoks on Flickr

(Above photo only: Balinese Barong Dancer by Hoks. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I took the next photo blind, i.e. literally just snapped it into the dark to see if I could capture any of the magic of the moment not only without the harsh effect from the burst of a flash but also so as not to intrude into the simple acts of devotion these women were making.

The resulting shot kind of made me draw breath. I know darkness and a long exposure makes for blur and distortion but  this has an especially other-wordly feel. Maybe blur accounts of much of it but there certainly seem to be more figures here than there were women. And so I keep coming back to the fact that Galungan is also when ancestral spirits return to earth.

For me, that evening was one of those moments that sinks deeply into your soul and reminds you, no matter what your fears, to keep travelling…keep striving for the moments.

Galungan women Sebali 1

6.15am, Ubud local market

I love local markets. Always such an insight into a culture and on Friday we spent a wonderful early morning at the Ubud traditional markets. The smells, sights and sounds were heady.

The meat section can be confronting for those not used to staring their next meal in the face  – literally. To my surprise, Sophia (my eldest daughter) was not only interested but unfazed – even by the claustrophobic interiors and gory bits. Bodes well, I think. Not sure for what exactly, but ummmm, I’m pretty sure keeping your cool  in the face of a mountain of chicken feet, bags of blood and pig carcasses can only be a positive life skill. It possibly helps that when your mother sees them she thinks only of their potential deliciousness.

Apologies to any vegetarian readers whose stomachs I may have inadvertently just turned!

If you want to see any of the photos at full size, click on it to enlarge and you can then also view each shot as part of a sliding gallery.

Island of the Gods: a trip to Bali

Silhouette temple Ubud golden light

Every morning I wake at 5.30am, just as the insects start their relentless stridulation and the roosters their crowing in earnest.

Rice fields Ubud with yellow flags

This early rising is unusual for me. Then again, the tropics have always agreed with my body clock.

Entry Balinese house_edited-1

I sit on a wooden platform, set within the lush jungle on a steep hill, perched high above the rushing river Os below. As the sun rises slowly behind the palm trees on the ridge opposite, it gently burns away the thick, morning mist drifting up through the lush valley.

Os River Valley

Through the trees are glimpses of emerald-green, terraced rice paddies and the still morning air, is broken only by the occasional whooping bird call or the sound of over-sized foliage falling from the canopy.

Rice fields Ubud and edge of Villa Vajra

As the sun finally rises above the treeline, its golden light illuminates the garden. Delicate spider webs appear as if out of nowhere, suspended between over-sized fronds, last night’s rain drops sparkle like jewels on deep green leaves and pale leaf tips glow with a bright translucency.

Offering at Villa Vajra

From the other side of the river bank the rhythmic tok, tok, tok of a temple drum starts slowly, increases in urgency then slows again until the last, lone, beat fades to silence.

Sunset over rice fields in Ubud

And the scent. Well, I wish I could tell you it is the heady fragrance of frangipani and tuberose but it is overwhelmingly eau de DEET-infused insect repellant. It’s cloying but essential at this time of day.

Ricefields near Chedi Ubud

I am in Bali. And I apologise for coming over all overly sentimental, but I feel like I’ve come home.

Palm silhouettes against sunset

I haven’t been here for 11 years. And that time was for one short terrifying night and day. Long-time readers might remember the story but if you are newer here, you can read the background to all of this in this post I wrote from Jakarta last year. I feel the need to warn you that it’s a bit of a harrowing story. But if you are interested in why being back here in Bali, in paradise, after so long is making me cry (in a good way!) each and every day, then that post gives you all the background you need.

Old Balinese lady, Sebali

However, if, like me just now, you don’t really want to contemplate anything that came before or the whys and wherefores, but just sit and be, then I hope my photos will simply convey a small sense of the deep beauty of this place.

Young rice with water droplets, Sebali, Ubud

It’s so good to be back.

Looking down to living bale, Sebali

PS: I have finally got around to starting an Instagram account. You can see some other Bali shots over there and I’ll be updating regularly over the next few days of our trip so follow along if you’re interested. Click here.