Magic-infused Bali moments, in a time before COVID
I paddle out for a short surf mid-morning. You can sense the beginnings of the Southern Hemisphere winter and a real push to the waves. The shallow reefs and sandbars around Canggu don't handle the power very well, and rogue clean-up sets keep everyone on their toes. The learners and others unfamiliar with the ocean soon find themselves in difficulty. They pop up from lasting hold-downs looking shaken and immediately make for the shore. Some will cut their lesson short and swear off surfing for a lifetime. It matters little to the local instructors. Payment has already been made, and a fresh plane full of the eager and ignorant is just touching down in Denpasar.
I check the waves in the afternoon. The winds are blowing cross-shore, and it looks bumpy and uninviting. As I make my way to yoga, the streets are busy with visiting tourists. Sunburnt appears to be the look of the day. People whizz by on scooters, but more people hobble along the footpath suffering from scooter injuries.
The Shala seems far removed from the noise out in the street. It is housed in an impressive raised wooden structure with bamboo supporting beams that perfectly offset the stained chestnut floorboards. It is a space that resonates with quiet dedication, and it is soon filled with people sitting calmly on their yoga mats. The class is like a self-contained journey. Ninety minutes of mindful movement, intense breath holds and inward focus. I finish feeling a strange mix of achievement and mild exhaustion.
The streets are busier still when I go in search of dinner. The evening air has a pleasant humid warmth as couples and groups congregate in the tastefully decorated restaurants. Most of the menus will have all their favourite dishes from back home. I walk down a side street; sit alone in a small warung and have a Nasi Goreng.
It's still dark as I wander down to check the surf the following morning. The streets are quiet, but signs of last night’s party are everywhere. An old Balinese lady in a t-shirt stained dark with age is picking up empties. A young guy with ripped shorts and dirt in his hair dozes on a nearby bench. The beach is deserted when I arrive, and the ocean appears grey in the morning’s early light. I have only a few street dogs for company as I watch for sets. Nothing much comes through. The eastern sky is exploding into colour as I turn to go. Striking shades of red and orange blaze across the horizon, lighting the way for the rising sun.
I meet some friends down at the beach in the late morning. The breeze is up. Kites sail high in the sky amongst scuttling clouds, and sheets of spray fan off the back of breaking waves. As the wind gusts along the beach, it catches at the hair of a Russian model frolicking in the shore break. She turns into the stiff breeze and closes her eyes, then lets her blonde locks trail out behind her. For the briefest of moments, everything is perfect. Then a muddy wave rears up behind dumping her into the sand. Ponderous chest enhancements fall clear of her flimsy bikini and the blowing wind whistles over her exposed breasts. One of my friend’s grins at the spectacle then offers me a beer. I smile and decline. He voices his disappointment and mentions that there is a big party on later. I shrug my shoulders and make it clear that I have other plans.
The roads are busy on the way to the port, but I still manage to board the afternoon fast ferry to Gili Trawangan. When I arrive, I notice the main strip is lined with drinking establishments and loud signage. There are also touristy restaurants serving fare favoured by lazy westerners. Check-in doesn't make me feel any better. The hostel is full of hungover people in their early 20s, but I’m only planning on visiting for the night, so it is going to be a matter of embracing the situation.
I head for the pool and chat to some backpackers from the UK, and as tea time approaches, everyone meets up for the communal beach bonfire. I make small talk with Spanish travellers as we trek towards the southern end of the island. We find a nice quiet spot on the beach far removed from party island central. The bonfire fails to live up to expectations; mostly because the hostel staff seem more concerned with selling beers.
As sunset approaches, the traveller chat is getting a bit boring and I find I am feeling restless. My mind wanders to thoughts of a night spent in hallucinogenic contemplation. I leave the group and wander off in the direction of some nearby beach bars. It is all surprisingly easy to organise. The local contingent behind the very first bar I approach is soon preparing a full-strength mushroom shake. I begin to feel some real trepidation and hastily locate some quiet deck chairs away from other groups of people.
The sun falls behind some low hanging cloud, and I can soon notice the colours taking on thick pastel-like textures. Intricate geometric patterns are occasionally resolving themselves amongst the swirling pinks and lavenders. I peer over at a nearby tree. Its grey branches reach for the heavens like precision manufactured alloy claws. I gaze back at the sunset and shades of deep purple and mauve are billowing across the horizon.
There are a few moments where the beauty unfolding before me is completely overwhelming. The sky begins to glow and melt like burning phosphorus. It is stunning, but the horizon is so otherworldly and powerful that it begins to cause discomfort. I turn my eyes away and realise a group of uptight holidaymakers have taken seats nearby. Completely oblivious to nature's incredible final act, they are all attached to their smartphones. I shake my head in disbelief; every single moment is just so precious and yet so easily wasted.
I glance back out at the final moments of daylight. Galloping across the horizon, I see Gods seated on chariots of cloud. They are garbed in full suits of armour and appear to be riding for battle. A figure appears behind me like an apparition, and he bears a strange resemblance to the local lad who prepared the mushroom shake earlier. His previously scruffy thongs and polo shirt now seem refined with age. His eyes shine with ancient wisdom as he cocks his head and speaks with a voice from another dimension... “Hey Bro, How's your trip”? I respond with a slightly wild thumbs up then gaze back into the falling night.
I can feel I'm in the grips of it now. My childlike wonder at the coloured lights in the trees and the moon reflecting off the water is fringed with the beginnings of panic. In every moment I experience both joy and pain. I take some deep measured breaths and try to surrender then close my eyes and gaze inwards.
The writing above is an excerpt from a recently published book…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers