Breathing In, Breathing Out: A Tale of Bali in Two Parts


Awakening in Ubud

As we continued our journey through Bali, we departed rural Sidemen for bustling Ubud, located in the near center of the island. People often dream of the golden beaches, craggy cliffs and big ocean waves of Bali's coast, but in recent years, the overgrown jungles, timeworn temples and verdant rice paddies of Ubud have made it one of the island's most visited destinations (thank you, Liz Gilbert). For the next seven days, we would make our home in the artisan village of Penestanan, a 20-minute walk west of central Ubud, and a special week to come as we’d soon be joined by friends - David from New York City (via Tennessee) and Nik from Beijing.

Our private villa (the beauty of Airbnb) was a modern take on the traditional Balinese walled compound, included a refreshing pool and charming shala as well as an open-air kitchen and living area wedged between two full bedrooms. The indoor/outdoor style was perfect for Ubud’s steamy days and crisp nights, and as we readied for our friends’ arrivals, we took a walk to the nearby grocery to stock up on our favorite snacks and incense scents. After a quick dinner at Alchemy, the famed raw, vegan café that happened to be around the corner from our new home (and would soon become our kitchen over the next seven days - thanks for the recommendation, Jasmine!), we returned to our new abode to await David’s late-night arrival, and that’s when the rain tracked us down. Like some of our days in Sidemen, the skies above Ubud opened up monsoon-style, spilling off the villa’s roof and metal overhang in a waterfall and flooding the patio and lawn around the pool, which was also overflowing. Around 1:30 AM, David suddenly appeared at the oversized wood door of our walled escape, cloaked in a red plastic poncho yet still soaked to the bone. Like us, he’d arrived to the compound from the main road on the back of a motorbike (his luggage arrived on a separate moto, also drenched.) In good spirits, despite his 36-hours of travel and waterlogged arrival, we had a quick catch-up over ginger teas and then settled in for the night, excited to be in presence of a friend.

Nik would arrive a few days later, delayed in Beijing on a work assignment, so in the meantime, we three newly reunited comrades quickly slipped into the quintessential Ubud lifestyle, filling our days with morning yoga and meditation at nearby Intuitive Flow, followed by a stop at Alchemy for a tropical smoothie bowl or fresh juice. The skies miraculously cleared, so we also lounged by the pool, catching rays while catching up on all the buzz and goings-on back in New York and of our journey so far, continuing to talk well into the night about everything under the stars. It was a cathartic and reflective time, and after our long weekend together, Nik was, at last, able to join us for the conversation and activity.

Now a band of four, we continued our daily routine while also exploring the area, full of sacred sites, shopping and spas. One morning, for example, we hired a car to take us on a vacationist pilgrimage of sorts to the roaring Tegenungan Waterfall, the holy Tirta Empul water temple, and the striking Tegallalang rice terraces. We also spent some afternoons shopping central Ubud’s long narrow streets, jammed with cafés and boutiques offering everything from local handiworks and crafts to modern fashion and jewelry. And this being Bali, we seemed to find our way (or sometimes, they found us back at our villa) to most any massage emporium for a traditional Balinese rub-down or a little foot love. The time with our friends was spiritual and productive, reflective and regenerative, and simply a lot of fun after so many days of just the two of us on the trail.

Moving on to the Mountains of Munduk

Nik stayed behind at his hotel in Ubud to finish another work assignment (the busy life of a journalist and social media star), while David continued on with us for a couple of days in the mountains of Munduk. From Ubud, we went up, up, up to elevations well above the clouds, when suddenly the land seemed to flatten out, offering brilliant panoramic views of Tamblingan Lake, nearby our destination. We spent our first sunny afternoon hiking to the impressive Red Coral and Gobleg waterfalls, then circled back around to the renowned Munduk Falls, taking the hundreds of steps down (and eventually, back up) to stare up into the powerful, plunging water. The beauty of all the steps, however, was that we essentially had the spectacular scene to ourselves, taking advantage of the emptiness for an impromptu photo shoot, complete with rainbow shining through the magnificent aqueous backdrop.

Because of its elevation, Munduk became quite cool in the evenings, so we donned hoodies and flannel as we walked from our guesthouse, which boasted sun-drenched views of the rolling hills and valley below, to the village center for a local bite at popular and simply-named, Warung Classic (In Indonesian, Warung means restaurant or small shop). We made our way back to our accommodation using the light of the night’s bright moon as guide, and because the three of us were the only guests, we climbed the stairs to the guesthouse rooftop where we rolled out blankets and sleeping bags and stayed up late recounting our day and gazing at the multitude of twinkling stars.

The next morning, we were awakened with the early rising sun as the village began to come to life. By this point in Bali, we were accustomed to rolling over and ignoring crowing roosters or barking dogs, but here in Munduk, it seemed that mufflers did not exist on the locals’ motorbikes, which were suddenly (and way too early) buzzing up and down the small streets and echoing across town. And so, the three of us reluctantly rose with the cacophonous crescendo of villagers heading to and fro in the golden dawn light, using our early start to take advantage of the cool morning and hike to the nearby rice terraces that are beautifully and symmetrically laid out across the hills. The walk took us up and down and back up again through small local communities and finally to a well-marked path along the paddies, which seemed to gracefully plunge down the hill. By the end of the trek, we were in need of a cool-off and some nourishment, so we once again found ourselves at Warung Classic for their beloved corn fritters, chicken fried rice and mango shakes.

Our last stop in Munduk took us back to Tamblingan Lake where we inadvertently joined in a field party set against the backdrop of a majestic temple that was seemingly floating in the middle of the lake. Drawn to the site for its spirituality and beauty, we were delightfully surprised to see the raucous fun of locals playing music and dancing, BBQing and fishing, a reminder that the Balinese truly know how to celebrate and enjoy life.

Nearing a Close in Canggu

As our time in Bali drew to a close, and with David’s return to the US looming, we descended from the mountains to the wide beaches and surf-perfect ocean waves of Bali’s southern coast where Nik met us once again. Canggu is a trendy little village just north of Seminyak’s heaving resort crowds, where the vibe is more laid back than party scene. Small guesthouses and hip hotels, along with health-conscious cafes and fashionable boutiques, dot the main road that leads straight to the beach. We checked in to the Aston Canggu, a new hotel with a stunning rooftop pool deck that offered postcard-worthy views of the long, gently curving beach and towering waves that were dotted with daring surfers.

We spent our days walking the beach and braving the breaks, soaking up the intensity of an equatorial sun, spending the good part of a late morning playing with a friendly dog who wanted to impress us by jumping waves and digging holes in the sand. In the evenings, we strolled the lively streets, passing surfers headed home with boards in tow as the sun turned everything golden, while we browsed beach-chic shops and café menus in pursuit of dinner or perhaps, a frozen treat. This was the Bali that everyone imagines.  

Sun Setting in Uluwatu

As Nik wistfully returned home to Beijing and the day of David’s departure now upon us, Martin and I were headed to Uluwatu for a romantic end to our month-long adventure. David joined us for the traffic-clogged car ride, which took twice as long as our online map predicted, but once we arrived, the three of us spent our last afternoon together climbing the cliffs of Pantai Uluwatu beach, dodging the fat long-tailed macaques along the way, and watching the many skilled surfers ride the waves from our lofty perch at Single Fin café. Back at our guesthouse, we said farewell as David reluctantly hopped into the waiting taxi and headed to the airport for his nighttime departure. As evening sat in, the two of us were overflowing with love and gratitude for pure friendship, moved by the experiences both David and Nik had had and also brought to us with their company, and yet, even though we were bursting, we both acknowledged the subtle pangs of heartache we suddenly felt with two less on our journey. 

Located on Bali’s Bukit peninsula, Uluwatu is much more arid and dry than the rest of the island, its limestone earth unable to hold water, which makes for a unique, rugged landscape. We spent our final days lying in the sand underneath the shade of steep rock overhangs, walking the paths along the soaring cliffs at Bingin and Dreamland beaches, settling into a cliff-side pool on the latter, and eating poké bowls and frozen fruit popsicles as we walked the streets at sunset.

Our final evening on Bali—and after five months, our last in Southeast Asia—we made our way to Pura Luhu Uluwatu, the iconic temple for which the area is named, to take in one last serene sunset. As we both reflected not only on our time there but also on our nearly six-month journey so far and watched the sun slowly dip below the expansive Indian Ocean, we held each other as we breathed out, thanking God for the incredible experiences we’d had so far and for those which were yet to come.