2020 is the worst year for a travelling sabbatical. 2020 is the best year for a travelling sabbatical. Which of the above propositions is true?

Both.

My plans to travel far and wide across the Pacific have been thwarted. My journey surely won’t make it “round-the-world”. Uncertainty is my constant companion – let’s not even mention visas.

Yet, while my friends and relatives around the world are confined in tiny flats trying not to go insane, I’m blessed in Bali. Where even now I can roam freely. Confined on my island, barred from globetrotting due to coronavirus, I can still travel locally. Overstaying my initial plans by several months, I have been trading breadth of experience for depth instead.

Grey areas

It’s been interesting observing the local response to the virus. Indonesia, a spread-out archipelago comprising a myriad cultures, is a deeply decentralised polity. While the central Indonesian government has been issuing policies and edicts to contain the spread of COVID-19, many rules and most of their enforcement in Bali come from the banjar, the smallest form of local government, a largely independent village council system. So rules vary widely from a village to the next – as do their logical consistency. Many times, the local pecalang (the banjar’s police) at the entrance of a village would spray my scooter wheels using a karcher full of some dubious disinfectant. As if it would somehow prevent me from spreading the virus.

And grey areas are plenty… the beachbreak I was previously surfing in Sumbul got reopened for its residents. While neighbouring Medewi Point wasn’t. At least, not for bules (foreigners) — Indonesians could still surf. Go figure. Apparently, just now, the banjar of Medewi, against the advice of the government, has decided to reopen its surf spot, applying social distancing rules (no hanging out on the beach, surf in, surf out) and taking full responsibility for any incidents. Making the most of these local loopholes, while still staying in Medewi, I was able to sneak in Sumbul for some more surf.

Everywhere in Bali, I never got tired of seeing locals put on their masks whenever they’d see a foreigner. Or asking me “Where are you from?” and their scared look whenever I’d answer “France”. All that said, there have been surprisingly few cases reported in Bali (407 at the time of writing) and so the general attitude is pretty lax, compared to other countries, or even other islands in Indonesia (>10,000 cases in neighbouring Java).

No, where Bali is being hit hard is economically. Tourism accounts for 60%-80% of GDP and so many families have lost their entire means of subsistence. Which is why a friend has set up a fundraiser to help Medewi’s community and buy basic supplies (rice, soap, oil, etc). Every little helps and even $10 feeds a family for a month, so any donation you make would go a long way! Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/pls-help-medewi-community-during-covid19-crisis

About a month ago, Ramadan kicked off. A month of fasting for Muslims around the world, to purify and feel closer to God. A dry fast, from sunrise to sunset, most locals weren’t surfing anymore (no water in the ears, nose or mouths), which meant plenty of waves for us tourists. A fortunate consequence. A less fortunate consequence, for my sleep at least, was the amping up of mosque prayers, blasting chants anytime in the night. I begged for earplugs. I also took on reading the Quran, because when else in my life would I?

Hungry for some better surf, I sneaked into a neighbouring break another morning. Pulukan, a scenic beach lined up with palm trees and nested near a typical fishermen village, replete with outrigger canoes.

Paddling out, I could see locals eyeing me out, wondering who I was and what I was doing here. “Shit, they’ll kick me out of the water when they figure out my brown skin isn’t from here” I thought. Luckily, one of the boys, Krishna, had been my surf guide back in Canggu! As soon as we talked, the others relaxed, and the only other foreigner, an older Australian expat literally asked me: “How much did you pay him?”. I hadn’t thought of bribing locals to surf, but thanks for the suggestion. In this typical, entitled manner of Bali foreigners who act even more protectively than actual locals towards their surfing spot, he even made me promise not to bring my friends over. “Fine” I said “I don’t really have friends here anyway.”. Which was true, as I was very much a loner back then.

I had a free pass to surf in Pulukan – or so I thought. When I came back the next morning, I got politely called out of the water by guys patrolling the beach. With Ramadan in full swing, the local boys wouldn’t be surfing here for a while and so I wouldn’t either.

Paradise bored

I wasn’t complaining. I could still surf Sumbul, learn massage from Papa Ugis (or Haji Ugis for the faithful, since he’s done the pilgrimage to the Mecca), forage coconuts in my backyard and engross myself in books.

Yet, even paradise gets boring. Tim Ferris puts it well:

Let’s suppose you decide to dip your toe in dreams like relocating to the Caribbean for island-hopping or taking a safari in the Serengeti. It will be wonderful and unforgettable, and you should do it. There will come a time, however—be it three weeks or three months later—when you won’t be able to drink another piña colada or photograph another red-assed baboon. That day will come. Self-criticism and existential panic attacks usually start around this time. But this is what I always wanted! How can I be bored? Oh my god, what am I gonna do with myself? Don’t freak out and fuel the fire. This is normal among all high-performers who downshift after working hard for a long time. The smarter and more goal-oriented you are, the tougher these growing pains will be. Don’t be afraid of the existential or social challenges.

Freedom is like a new sport. In the beginning, the sheer newness of it is exciting enough to keep things interesting at all times. Once you have learned the basics, though, it becomes clear that having less work is easy. It’s filling the void with more life that is hard. Finding excitement, as it turns out, takes more thought than simple workaholism. But don’t fret. That’s where all the rewards are.

Tim Ferris

Though I’d been loving my time in Medewi, after a month of relative isolation, I felt like exploring again. I was also missing deep connection and friendship. I was grounded, centred, happy – just in a happy rut.

[…] he had been in a state of heightened awareness, but there is a sense in which awareness can be as stagnating as sloth. His stay at the lamasery had become a rut, a tranquil, nourishing, educational rut that had done him little harm and much good, but a rut, nonetheless.

Jitterbug Perfume

Time to mix it up!

So I decided to drive back to Ubud and stay with my friend Laurent for some quality time. On my scooter, with my rucksack between my legs, my surfboard on the rack and my daypack on my back, here I was, free again, self-sufficient, carrying my home wherever I went.

Driving through half of Bali, I painted a vivid picture of the island, its various landscapes from sprouting rice field terraces, to towering mountains, dense jungles and dusty towns. I knew it more and more, this island. It was becoming home.

Ubud was a ghost town, far from the bustling touristic hub it usually is. Most shops and cafés were closed, traffic was non-existent and the silence, eerie. Signs everywhere requiring people to wear masks. Pecalang spraying my scooter.

Arriving at Laurent’s, I immediately felt home again. Still buzzing from my roadside coffee, we dived straight into discussing his new venture and the business plan he was putting together. As I mentioned in a previous post, Laurent has created one of most popular sound-healing experiences in Ubud, Beyond Sound at the Pyramids of Chi, where tens of thousands visitors getting their mind (and spirit) blown every year. He’s currently productizing it to bring this legal, safe and accessible psychedelic experience to people all over the world. I loved getting my startup juices flowing again, especially to help a friend.

Coincidentally, in the past couple of months, consulting gigs or advisory roles have been coming to me. I initially believed I’d be better off without thinking about product or startups at all during this sabbatical of mine. But I’ve come to realise I’m actually enjoying flexing those muscles a little and helping solve people’s problems. And so I’ve taken on a few projects, from advising product teams at Polymath Ventures to coaching 29K’s product leader to helping a stealth startup hire their Chief Product Officer. It’s fun and I’m going to do more of this. And who knows, maybe rock the “digital nomad” life for a little while.

Although I had my Balinese family back in Medewi, we couldn’t relate in the same way I would a decade-old friend. Discussing business, love, God, I felt closer to him than I ever had and we both learned a ton from each other. Deep friendship – no, brotherhood- really is nourishing.

Although most of Ubud’s touristic activities were closed, its expat community was going strong. People hung out at each other’s exquisite villas and a few landmark spots of the town’s iconic café culture were open, with restrictions. So we got to brunch and hang out at all the usual spots (Zest, Sayuri, Bella), conversing with friends over the best plant-based food in the world. One topic that kept coming up, unsurprisingly, was coronavirus. What was surprising however, was the stance that even smart, educated people took on it . Conspiracy, Bill Gates, vaccines, 5G, lalala-dida. Should have seen it coming — Ubud is known for being a New-Agey town, spiritual hub of the world where everyone is a coach, a healer, a yoga teacher or all those things at once. And it so happens that spirituality and conspiracy theory make fantastic bedfellows (see this fantastic JP Sears’ treatment of the topic).

I personally do feel the existence of a spirit that transcends our materialistic reductionist worldview, yet believing in conspiracy theories just because they are plausible (what isn’t?) is beyond me. Those conversations were frustrating – it is impossible to debate a conspiracy theory because by definition the very facts you debate will be labeled as “fabricated“. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Even so conspiracists often become as entrenched in their belief in a single truth as the authoritative institutions they denounce. ”Ignoramus” is my motto – “We do not know”.

If you ever get into this kind of argument and aren’t touchy about reaching the Godwin point, ask the other person to consider whether the conspiracy itself might be a conspiracy to manipulate them. If anything, history is a good teacher…anyone remember The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used by the National Socialist Party to promote hatred of Jews? This shit can be dangerous.

Here I was an outsider again, questioning the beliefs of the group. Whether in ultra-materialistic Canggu or ultra-spiritual Ubud. In some sense, this is the story of my life, being the one who doesn’t really fit in. It started with my skin colour, not really white, not really black, and it’s followed me all along. I used to see this as a curse, now I see this as a blessing. Not belonging anywhere means I can belong everywhere.

We bonded over this with Jeya, a kind, beautiful soul met on Tinder, of all places. I had a deep need for romance and intimacy, so I hit the App Store and got a match. Dating these days. The flirt turned into friendship and we shared some hilarious times together. Once we drove to Komune, the beach resort just in front to Keramas, a much vaunted surf spot on the east coast.

While Keramas was closed for surfing, I remembered Cucukan was just around the corner. Cucukan was a powerful, snappy wave in sky blue water… where I had cut my foot open over a month ago on the sharp reef bottom (4 stitches). It is secluded in a small fishing village, far from traffic and governmental oversight. “Maybe it’s still open” I thought. We rode there and it was! I jumped out of excitement, especially because I had taken my board with me to Ubud. As I had dreamed a couple months ago, I could get the best of both worlds: live in Ubud and go surf on the east coast.

I surfed there for a few days, this time with reef booties, which definitely saved my feet from further injuries. The surfing level there was insane though, so it was hard to compete for the waves, and the easterly trade winds of the dry season meant it was all blown out after 10am.

Beach bum

Life in Ubud was good, yet I longed for the wet kiss of the ocean. I realised I’d be better back on my beach break at Sumbul if I wanted to surf all day and improve. Also, before I left Medewi, I’d gone to scout a few properties in Sumbul to see if I could stay closer to the break. Yudah, a local, had shown me this stunning wooden cabin in the rice fields, on a small hill overlooking the ocean. I was dreaming about it.

So I did what I do and packed my bags, my surfboard and hopped on my scooter back to Sumbul. Great decision. As soon as I returned to Sumbul and went for a sunset surf, while waiting for waves at the peak, I was greeted by the most magnificent rainbow ever, I could see both its ends, one starting in the mountain, the other ending in the ocean. The sky was burning with orange flames while I was riding on some heavy, hollow waves and coming back to shore with the last lights, I knew I was home.

My cabin is the stuff of dreams. A wooden house inspired by the traditional Balinese rice barns and their hull-shaped roof. It is accessible by a narrow path that winds through dense rice paddies, which have recently turned from a humid green to a toasty yellow. Time for harvest.

Some still do it by hand, others bring a massive machine which they feed the rice stalks to. These fields, besides rice plants, host some local fauna too: lizards, cows, cats… and snakes. I’ve seen a couple on the paths. Walking back at night I always shine my flashlight and pound my feet on the ground while walking (to scare them away with vibrations). But the most terrifying one I’d seen was in my kitchen, while writing in my journal. Raising my head for a second, I saw something slide underneath the table: a meter long black-and-white banded krait, a venomous and potentially deadly snake. I froze for a minute, while it slithered languidly under the house.

I stay in the upper room, where I can see the waves breaking from my bed. No need to check the forecast anymore! High Tide is the name of the place and the owner, Eddie, has built it as a hostel. The lower floor is a dorm with 4 beds, but the private upper floor which I occupy is where he usually stays, with his German girlfriend that he’d built it for. With coronavirus, she’s gone back to Germany and so he’s also renting their place. My space is clean, minimalist, even a little hip with its herbal tea jars, white-painted wood and open air bathroom. I added a hammock on the porch, to chill when I’m done surfing, read and watch the waves.

On the way back from Ubud, I also bought a guitar in a small village I was driving by. It’s written “Yamaha” on it, but given the sound and the price I paid for it (40 bucks), I have my doubts. Still good enough to learn new songs to play and sing. Thereby completing the holy trinity of any aspiring beach bum: surf, hammock and guitar. I’m such a cliché.

Although just a couple kilometers away from my previous homestay, my experience in Sumbul couldn’t have been more different. While my time in Medewi was mostly solitary, spent reading or geeking out when not surfing, Sumbul is all about community. Many people from all over the world and walks of life are also stuck here, bonding over surfing and mischief. A Dutch systems analyst, a Swiss teacher, a Canadian lumberjack, an American marketer, a French engineer, travelling Germans are just some of the people who make the colourful Sumbul crowd.

The former, Ingmar, a great guy, grounded and inclusive, has been organising regular Friday dinners at the local beachside warung which have become a regular fixture, often ending in arak-fuelled beach parties, skinny-dipping included. I was even surprised with a birthday party and gift, when a few days earlier, all I had expected was a solitary evening. I felt loved, warm and fuzzy from that community feeling. When staying in Medewi, I’d been wondering why such community hadn’t formed already while we’re all stuck here. But it had been there all along, I just hadn’t seen it.

Although I hadn’t moved island or country, it felt like a new chapter. Travel can be found anywhere, I learned, if one can see, instead of looking.

People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all that you can handle.

Paul auster

Surf beach communities often feel like high school. You see the same people in class (surfing), during recess (at the beach bar) and parties (parties). Gossip is plenty and people are promiscuous (social distancing rules need not apply). There I met a girl, Rebekah, a wandering Canadian medium and Instagramer (that should have been a red flag). We had a fling, until I realised that while the body and spirit connection was there, the mind one wasn’t. She once told me that she’d also bought the Quran, asking whether it was that “Israelian book (sic)” and that she was looking for a partner to “pay for things and produce the show of which [she] will be the star”.

Living so close to the waves, I focused single-mindedly on surfing. Getting back to my dawn patrol rhythm, waking up at 5am, in the water at 6am, surfing, eating, surfing, sleeping. I surfed my brains out, all day, every day.

We even started the Corona Surf Camp, the first free surf camp in the world, the idea being to help each other progress by shooting videos and giving each other feedback, often the biggest value you get from a surf camp. It didn’t really take on (coordinating beach bums is an ordeal, surprisingly), but that was worth a try.

Starting to feel limited by my surfboard (a 6’2 step-up board), it was time to move on to a high-performance board. So I bought a second-hand 5’11 Pyzel from Ben, a drinker with a surfing problem.

Living in Medewi for a few years, Ben is your typically loud and unruly Kiwi, often drunk before noon, and swearing faster than you can count (cunt!). While I’d initially branded him as a harmless drunk, I realised he could be quite dangerous when he headbutted me at a party after I’d played a prank on him (and punched another guy earlier for the same reason). Apparently he gets violent when he drinks liquor. We haven’t seen him since. His board is great though and I’ve been making terrific progress on it. So, thanks Ben.

Once, at a party, a girl staying at a local surf camp told us she’d been sneaking in for sunrise surf at the Right Hander, next to Medewi. From 6am to 8am, just before the pecalang would come patrol. This beach was supposed to be closed (unlike Sumbul) but many surfers throughout Bali are also sneaking in at first light, as it seems the pecalang like to sleep in. Or you can also pay a fisherman to take you straight to a spot, like we did one morning, after driving 2 hours from Medewi to Seseh at 5am, sailing another hour to Uluwatu, to be dropped into the lineup.

The Right Hander being one of my favourite waves and local rules being as shady as they are, I decided to give it a try. I sneaked in at first light and surfed with locals until 8am, ripping one tight wave face after the next. Then, right on time, the pecalang came and whistled us out. I was expecting a scolding, maybe even my board confiscated, but no! They didn’t even talk to us. Weird, I thought. Maybe there’s some kind of tacit understanding that it’s OK to surf until 8am?

Wanting to test this theory, I came back the following days and the same thing happened. We paddled out at first light, surfed for a couple hours, were waived at, got out of the water. Fascinating. Yesterday, the pecalang didn’t even bother coming so we surfed until we couldn’t paddle anymore. A local later told me it was now open.

Still no one knows for sure — “ignoramus”. In the last couple of months, the rumour mill has been grinding heavily, opaque local decisions and rules making it harder to discern truth from hear-say. This feels like pre-internet days. But it seems beaches are slowly reopening across Bali and soon, maybe, I’ll be able to travel to other islands. Get back on the road, to the pristine (and now empty) breaks of Lombok and Sumbawa. Who knows?

Until then, I’ll keep my eyes wide open.

Deciding to skip the road and go for the beach instead on our way to surf. A new way to see.