There are few places in the world where you can still go visit and feel like you have stepped back in time. Bali to me despite it’s popularity and rapidly growing tourism, is one of those places. What I love about Bali is that it always feels like home every time I land here. There is something nostalgic and romantic about being here and I think it has to do with how all of your senses go into sensory overload from the mixture of frangipanis and incense that fills your nostrils, to the gamelan music in your ears, and the visions of colorful flowers and traditional sarongs that people wear. It’s like how a certain smell or song can bring you right back in the moment you were as a child and make you smile. Bali has that effect on you. Despite the creature comforts that we all are used to like cars and the internet, people still live simply here and spirituality is just part of their everyday life. As you walk around every morning, you see women weaving prayer offerings out of palm fronds and men placing them with incense and rice and flowers at the feet of intricately carved statues. People still come to Bali to experience a lost world of temples and rice paddies and although many of the famous rice terraces have been replaced by luxury hotels, a few of them have still maintained that old world charm within their walls.
My mother many years ago when I was 3 years old took me here. I always promised her a trip back one day when she was retired, so it took 33 years, but that trip finally happened. My mother always told me about the Balinesian countryside of days of old. She would reminisce about the flowers, stone pathways, landscaped gardens, carved statues, and traditional thatched roof villas. I couldn’t wait to come back to this magical place and remember it as an adult and have the mother-daughter trip I had always wanted. We happened upon Bali during one of their Hindu religious holidays, Galungan. The local people embraced our curiosity of their holiday and gave us ceremonial sarongs for us to wear so we could have access to a nearby temple to appreciate one of their ceremonies. They even taught us how to make an offering, what to say to greet people, and how each different colored flower offering represented a different God.
Ultimately, what drives most people to travel is either vacation, cultural curiosity, adventure or treating yourself to luxury. Those rare moments when you can combine all of those things in one is when you know you have arrived in paradise and this is the perfect blend that Bali has. Luxury to me doesn’t always mean ostentatiousness. It can be simple and understated, like being able to order whatever food I want by the pool, but having it still comes wrapped in a banana leaf. There is something quaint, savvy, yet efficient about the small details. It is what makes an experience memorable and what makes Bali stand out above the rest. It is like they are purposefully filling up your senses while you are here, planting the seeds for that nostalgic moment later on in life that will hit you unexpectedly and bring you right back to the time you were luxuriating in Bali.
I love how a simple conversation can change your life or lead to something magical. It is my favorite part of traveling and I find that if you talk to more people and pay attention more, these amazing occurences find you more often. It is not a coincidence. It is about embracing the world around you and moving along with it’s current. While my mom and I were in Bali, I reached out to my girlfriend Kelli that lives there. She came out and met us for drinks one night at our hotel and we got into a long conversation about what Bali used to be like 30 years ago. In that conversation, Kelli convinced us to abandon all of my plans that I had spent months planning for my next week in Bali, and told us to buy a ticket to LabuanBajo airport on the remote island of Flores. She said it was like how Bali was years ago with pristine beaches and no traffic and just underdeveloped. She went on about the beaches with komodo dragons and the abundant scuba diving and about her adventures of living on a boat. I didn’t even question her and I cancelled my hotel reservations for the next week and bought a ticket for two days later.
Kelly reached out to another fellow gypsy friend, Maria Elena, who lives on Flores Island and had just opened up a resort called Seraya and owns a Phinisi Boat called Aqualuna that you can charter with a crew. So far their only business is by word of mouth which then led to my next favorite part about traveling, bartering. She arranged for me to stay there and sail on the Aqualuna in exchange for taking photos for them. With only a whats app conversation to go on, my mom and I flew to this remote island just trusting that someone was going to pick us up from the airport. My mother kept on asking me questions like where are we staying, and what is the phone number, and who are we meeting…and I was like, I have no idea. Normally, Those are all very valid questions, but sometimes you just have to let go and go along for the ride.
As we were descending into Flores, the terrain was tropical yet the mountains were a lot more dramatic and almost yellow colored. We flew over hundreds of islands, some of them completely uninhabited, and the shores were dotted with ancient fishing boats from a long gone era. We landed, walked down the steps of the plane and a tan, blonde woman in a sundress yelled out our names, and that was the beginning of our adventure with Maria Elena. The “Greek Madame”.
Instantly, I knew why Kelly had met this woman. We learned in the car that she is Greek and has spent 25 years in Indonesia. She speaks 7 languages, has three children, her husband is part of the Balinese Royal Family and she had a royal wedding to him 25 years ago with over 2,000 guests. I looked at her wrists and both were adorned with dozens of bracelets and bangles that she has collected from her many travels, just like Kelly, and I realized that there was sort of an underground thread of modern-day gypsies that really do exist and that in a strange way I am a part of it. It is a life that feels comfortable to me and it is almost reassuring when I meet people who live like this, because I know that I am not unusual or alone. I made a mental note to start collecting bracelets from my travels.
She insisted that we try her Greek Food at her restaurant before jumping on the boat to the hotel, so we stopped and chilled for a while. She explained that she had a whole itinerary for the next 3 days for us while in Flores. It involves scuba diving, taking a boat to Komodo Island to see the Komodo Dragons in the wild, and then staying overnight on a boat at the Island of a Million Bats, so we could experience that phenomenon. Just then she stops three motorcycle taxis on the street and hands them my camera bag and our suitcase and was like, “Ok jump on, we have to make it to the dock!” And just like that, we were on our way.
We rode along the twisty, hilly road through Labuan Bajo town. The streets are fairly empty because of the Eid holiday and echoing through the village is the sound of prayer time at one of their mosques. It is the soundtrack to our sunset ride to the dock and all around us people are preparing food for dinner, cleaning their store fronts from the dusty streets, and life is just simple and rural. There is no cell service, hardly any lights, and we found out that no night flights arrive at the island, because they don’t have the instruments to guide in planes at night.
We walk out with our bags on an antiquated wooden boat and take off into the sunset towards the other side of the island. We got to watch the sky turn from pink to blue to a deep purple behind the many silhouetted islands and one by one the thousands of stars started to shine through. We realized just how dark it gets when you don’t have lights. Not one single boat was out driving past us, other than a couple of parked fishing boats with their lights on. Even the shoreline was completely pitch black and I realized that THIS was what we had come here for. With all of our modern day obsessions with cell phones and the internet, that what all of us were trying to do was go even farther into the abyss to where life was still simple. It was the reason why Maria Elena left Bali to come open Seraya Resort here, a place that reminded her of Bali 20 years ago.
Flores Island is a place that everyone knows each other and the coral reefs are pristine and not over fished and trash and sewage are not polluting the rivers and oceans and light pollution has not tainted the starry night. Humanity in a way is craving simplicity in an ultra technological world. Although I realized it was ironic that technology allowed me to change my plans and communicate to find this woman who ended up being our guide here to this “off the grid sanctuary”, that we were ultimately choosing the simpler existence on this remote island.
The second half of our trip we were invited to spend a few days aboard the Aqua Luna Selini, the private boat belonging Seraya Hotel.. I had never even heard of a Phinisi boat until this trip and I was so excited to check out the boating culture and see how the locals live. When Marilena brought us aboard our new floating home, we were greeted by our crew and took a quick tour. You can sleep 12 people comfortably. The downstairs deck has 4 comfortable private cabins with beds and air conditioning, but most people love to sleep under the stars on the deck which was like lounging in a Moroccan tent with pillows and lanterns.
There is something magical about life on the water. The second we stepped foot on the boat it was if time slowed way down. Maybe it was the subliminal rocking of the waves, or the sense of adventure or freedom to go anywhere, but it is as if your internal clock becomes synched with nature and you find yourself rising and setting with the sun. We luxuriated on the deck of the boat lounging on overstuffed cushions as we watched the islands drift by. We would stop every once in a while to check out a private cove and snorkel or visit a quaint fishing village while the crew prepared meals or coffee for us. Our needs and wants became very simple and primal. Instead of being obsessed with our electronic devices and constantly devouring the world around us….life just slowed down. Two days on the boat felt like a week. We napped when we felt tired, ate when we were hungry, stopped to explore when we wanted to, and I found myself to be reconnected to the world around me, even though I was on a boat sailing through and archipelago of remote uninhabited islands, where if I really wanted, no one could ever find me.
Mother nature was like the fairy godmother of our trip. Everything seemed magical and surreal, but it was a very real. We saw real life dragons, Komodo dragons, at Komodo Island and then like clock work, since we were traveling along the Equator, every night at exactly 6pm a migration of over a million giant flying fox bats fly from one island to another. We parked our boat and laid on the deck as a million bats flew over us into the sunset. It was an indescribable feeling to bear witness to something like this that many people will never get a chance to see in their lifetime. When the sun finally set and we sailed through the islands in pitch darkness, the sky and the ocean became alive with thousands of glittering stars. At first you thought the water was reflecting the sky, but then we realized that it was the bioluminescent plankton in the water glittering like diamonds in the wake. I quickly grabbed my camera to try to capture this rare phenomenon, but it was like a phantom that could not be captured on film. In that moment I realized that there are some things in life that are just meant for your eyes and your memory. Even mother nature was forcing us to live in the present.
As we sailed back to Flores on our Phinisi boat, I realized that to really experience life in Flores or on any of the 200 islands in the area, that you must do it on a boat. The water culture there is how everyone lives. You have the freedom to dip in and out of the islands yet always have a calm place to return back to. The best way to gain respect for the land really comes from the perspective of seeing it from the water. Marilena did it right. She created an island sanctuary at Seraya away from the hustle and bustle of the main port, and then she created a floating sanctuary with Aqualuna. It is reassuring to know that places like this still exist on Earth. That there are still lands untouched by humans and ruled by nature. Places where the days and nights stretch out into infinity and where you can still go back and find a simpler place in time.