Stuck in paradise

Hi again, friend. I’m back. This time though, I’m stationary. Sat as the only guest at a small local warung in Medewi, Rasta Cafe, overlooking rainwater-filled terraces of rice paddies, like giant stairs of sprouting mirrors, back-bent farmers plucking their green hairs. I hear the prayers from neighbouring mosques, haphazardly yet harmoniously blending into a choir of devout chants. Medewi, unlike most of Bali (but like most of Indonesia), is majority Muslim. Unbeknownst to Fox News, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Yet, in Indonesia, major religions (Islam, Hinduism. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism) seem to co-exist relatively peacefully. A small, rural community sandwiched between mountain and sea, subsisting mainly from agriculture and fishing, Medewi is still relatively untouched. No town square, hipster cafes or convenience stores, only a few small roads leading into the overgrown, exuberant jungle.

It seems most travelling is off the table for weeks, or maybe even months, to come. No one knows. Coronavirus. Extraordinary times, aren’t they? 2020 definitely ain’t the best year for a round-the-world trip.

“Going back” is not an option – I don’t know what that would even mean, now that I’ve left everything for this nomadic life. But going ahead is no option either, as borders are closed. So for now, I’m stuck here. Stuck in paradise.

In some way, the Coronavirus has been my invisible travel companion. Like a scheming villain hiding in the background, it has been building momentum and closing in on me, wherever I would try to escape. My first encounter with the virus was end of January, when most of the world was still oblivious to it. Back then, I was in Chiang Mai, not too far from the Chinese border, and there had been a couple reported cases in the city. People were starting to worry, masks were handed out and hand-sanitizer was out of stock in every pharmacy. Classic.

But far was I to suspect it would blow out into a full-scale pandemic. I was pretty optimistic and relaxed about the whole thing, as my ex-colleague and travel buddy Rob was keen to point out in his own account.

Then, as I travelled through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and finally Bali, the virus travelled westward – to Europe and the Americas. When shit hit the fan in Italy, it felt like the tables were turned – I was now the one worrying for my friends and family back in Europe!

Somehow, South-East Asia felt like a safe haven, given the virus had failed to take a strong hold here. But as you’ll see later, it did catch up in more ways than one.

Last we talked, I was in Ubud, staying with my friend Laurent, recovering from a surfing injury, revelling in all the culture and healing this special town has to offer. From juice cleanses to body work to sound healing, it was a truly nurturing time. A reset. I also got to reunite with my travel buddy, Rob, who’d arrived from Japan after a snowboarding injury, hoping to heal in Ubud too. Together with him and Joel, a gifted musician and sound healer, we adventured on scooter to Lake Batur and the surrounding mountains. What a trip.

Also, I finally got to learn more about the rich, yet impregnable, Balinese culture. Things like temple etiquette, prayers, how to make offerings (at least, canang sari) and properly wear a sarong.

If you ever go to Bali (in the Hindu parts), instead of the usual “Selamat pagi/siang/sore/malam”, greet people with “Om Swastyastu“. Thus wishing safety, happiness and prosperity. They’ll be surprised and appreciative. You might correctly feel the Indian influence (Om, Svasti), Sanskrit remaining the holy language here.

Back to Canggu

Now, with my foot healing, I’d been contemplating my next move. I was on a mission to have the surf of my life, after all. So, in the end, I decided to join a 2-month surf instructor Academy at Mojosurf. Not only would it give me the credentials to teach, most vitally I would learn about the key ocean survival skills I felt I was lacking to tackle bigger, gnarlier waves. The Academy was supposed to start in Red Island, near Java, on very much a deserted beach and break all to ourselves before hitting other islands like Lembongan or Lombok.

But the day before I left, I got a message from one of the surf camp’s employees that now, because of Coronavirus, they were closing all camps across Indonesia and bringing everyone to Canggu until further notice. Fuck. As you might have read in my previous post, I am not the biggest fan of Canggu. Somehow fate would have me go back. Was this a test? To transcend my aversion? Anyway, I’d paid them already and despite the unfortunate change of plans, I was here to surf, Canggu or not.

But it was a very different Canggu I found. A quieter, more peaceful one. COVID-19 had really started ramping up globally and so most tourists left, afraid of being stuck in Bali were the virus to break out here. Ironically, it made the city more liveable. Also, the surf camp had some good family vibe and their manager, Craig, a true legend in his Aussie vernacular, went to great lengths to take care of everyone in these uncertain times. Beaches were still open by then, so we went surfing.

We surfed Kedungu, an easy, mellow reef break ideal for longboards and beginners, but also catering more advanced surfers, with long, peeling rides.

We surfed Balian, a very exposed beach break that receives a lot of swells, a wave machine churning out shifty, sucky peaks driving into long steep walls ripe for ripping. And some surprise monster sets – getting caught in the inside is a given there. It’s facing a rivermouth, whose waters descend from a picturesque, jade-green mountain facing the spot. Also, it’s the only beach in Bali where there’ve been attacks from whale sharks (apparently scouring for garbage from the river and mistaking humans for some…not unfair). Scored some great rides and my shoulders burned.

And of course, we surfed Old Man’s/Batu Bolong, with its hordes of loggers and party waves.

And then it was Nyepi. Amongst the smorgasbord of Hindu celebrations in Bali, Nyepi (also known as “Silent Day”) is the most important one. It’s the equivalent of their New Year, Balinese Hindu having their own calendar. What makes Nyepi special is that for one full day, no one — I repeat, no one — is allowed out of their homes. Pecalang (traditional Balinese security forces) patrol the streets to enforce this, as you can see in the case of this “fucking idiot” as Craig would call him, who went jogging on that day and got properly chained up after arguing with them. During Nyepi, people are abstaining from all kind of entertainment, and for some, speech and food. It’s an island-wide collective physical, mental and spiritual fast, an opportunity to reflect, introspect through prayer, meditation and silence. So yeah, Balinese had already been practicing “lockdown” for hundreds of years – what foresight!

Joke apart, this year’s Nyepi, under the auspices of Coronavirus, was different because all the traditional pre- and post-Nyepi celebrations (which involve many parties such as processions of ogoh-ogoh statues representing evil spirits the day before or a kissing ceremony the day after) were cancelled as they would have resulted in mass gatherings potentially leading into an outbreak. Now, Nyepi is supposed to last for a single day, so what a surprise when I woke up the day after and Craig told me: “They’re extending Nyepi for another day”. Apparently, it had never happened before but this time things were different. Officials figured since people were locked down already, locking them for an extra day could help flatten whatever curve was in Bali.

Escape to Medewi

Whatever I’d do, Coronavirus would keep closing in on me. The next day, they closed down the beaches in Canggu. And Craig told me they were closing down the whole camp, so the Academy was off. Shit. I’d spent north of four grands on this! I couldn’t get a refund as I had already started it, but they gave me an equivalent credit I could use anytime in the next 24 months on any of their product (and for instance, do the whole instructor Academy again). Fair game, especially since the whole travel industry is taking a big hit at the moment, and ought to be careful with their cash reserves. I’ll be back.

However, all that put me in a bit of a funk. I really hit rock bottom over the next two days, not clear what to do next. Questioning my past decisions. Had I been over-optimistic, reckless even, in booking a surfcamp when the pandemic was exploding worldwide? Should I have gone to Lombok instead? Or maybe on a small Mentawai island? What to do next? Escape somewhere else? What if it’s worse? Doubt, confusion and second-guessing reigned supreme and I numbed the pain by binge-reading manga and chain-smoking. A mourning of sorts.

The impact of Coronavirus on my plans and dreams finally hit home. Until then, I had hoped I’d somehow be spared in what I believed to be a refuge island. But then I learned the whole world is shifting ground right now. I learned to avoid committing to plans until the very last minute, especially in this climate of extreme uncertainty. To live by the day, every day. To take time to mourn and feel my pain. And to release attachment to any outcomes.

And then I made a plan. A month earlier, I’d gone to Medewi, on the west coast of Bali, for a surf session. The longest waves I’d ever surfed, Medewi was also way more remote and rural than Canggu. Could it be my next haven? Would Corona find me there? I located a homestay online, texted them and found out surf breaks were still open. Time to get out of my haze and make a move.

I arrived at Pink Barrel, a charming homestay on a side road in Medewi. It’s run by a Balinese couple, Tika and Reza, and a Swedish guy, Mikael. They built the whole place themselves. Overlooking both the mountain and the ocean, broken surfboards hung up the walls, paintings of barrels, a chalkboard tide and swell report, family dinners, impromptu guitar concerts from Reza, you can tell the place’s got soul.

I checked in my room, and then suffered increasing migraines. I touched my forehead and it was hot. A thermometer check later, I had low-grade fever at 37.8. I let the hosts know, and told that I’d be staying in my room until further notice. I’m really grateful for them not kicking me out from fear, but on the opposite, checking in on me regularly to make sure I was fine. It says a lot about the kind of caring, loving people they are. In the night, I woke up with cold sweats and chills. Next day, I went to the hospital for a check. There was some viral infection, but they didn’t have any COVID-19 tests, so they couldn’t say. They thought it could be dengue (incidentally, I had been bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes the night before) but it was too early to tell.

For the next few days, I felt extreme fatigue, migraines and some vertigo. No sore throat, no short breath, no runny nose though. Given I’m not a “person at risk”, I wasn’t as scared for myself as I was for others — I felt guilty for checking in this homestay and potentially infecting others…so I self-quarantined. 3 weeks later, I’m relieved that no one there contracted any symptoms.

After a few sluggish days, I started feeling better. They say the ocean is the best remedy, so I took my surfboard and went to get some of the longest rides of my life again at Medewi’s Point. I really felt my surfing improve, as I did some radical top-turns and threw out some good spray. I also tasted the mistakenly yet poetically named Right Ender (right handers are rare enough in Bali that they can be christened so) and being natural footed, I got to weave on a few incredible overhead breakers, sometimes for over 100 meters, dancing with waves and scoring some of my best manoeuvers. My surfing had never been in a better shape!

Apart from surfing though, I was mostly in my bedroom, respecting my self-imposed quarantine. Being time-rich, I decided to invest some of that time in the effort against COVID-19 and joined in Helpful Engineering. Helpful Engineering is a grassroots, volunteering organization that grew out of the current crisis, gathering engineers, designers and scientists to innovate and fight the virus . Some projects focus on manufacturing 3D-printed masks, others build contact-tracing apps… I joined a project matching hospitals’ needs for equipment supply or repair with providers and supported them with my product expertise. It’s still being built at the moment, but I hope it will contribute a little.

Locally, Coronavirus kept closing in. As surfbreaks from Canggu, Kuta and Bukit closed, local authorities feared expats and tourists there would storm and so they closed Medewi’s Point and the Right Hander. Under such pressure, my hosts decided to close their homestay, so I was now homeless — and waveless — again.

Days lost in time

Fortunately, the parents of my hosts had their own homestay — Medewi Surf Homestay — and were willing to take me in. A special place, that homestay. The first surf homestay in Medewi, opened decades ago, its history blends with the vines of the luxuriant flora. Old surfboards, some with the most unorthodox shapes I’d ever seen, are hung up on trees or houses, inviting guests to dream up their stories. The ground is made up of thousands of little white stones, gently massaging the feet while occasionally gathering into pentagrams and taijitu symbols. Random sculptures and small statues adorn the facades of a place which, not unlike some Berlin nightclubs, seems to have grown organically, fortuitously carved by time with various people and visitors adding their own touch over the years.

The family man, whom I affectionately call Papa Ugis is one of a kind. A bodyworker and healer, he gave me hands-down the best massage I’ve ever received (no pun intended). It was strong, intense, psychedelic even. He wasn’t working my body, he was working my soul. When he was done, I was fluctuating between sobbing and delirious laughter. So much release. As we became closer in following days and warmed up to each other, he told me: “Antoooooiiine! When you arrived, looking so mysterious and worried! Now, all smiling! Europeans always tense, too much worry and thinking in the head. They need good massage!”

Papa Ugis’ story is gripping. Born in Medewi, he was one of the first local surfers. He learned from some Aussies who’d come here in the 70’s, going to the beach after school to sell them soda He became a surfing hotshot while still in high school, but then had a scooter accident, which put him into a coma and nearly took away his leg. His father, refusing amputation, sold much of his land so that surgeons would keep working on his son. He spent over a year at the hospital and countless surgeries, until he could walk again. Slowly but surely, he rebuilt his life and finished high-school. After a couple more years, he went back surfing. But a few years later, after he nearly drowned in big surf, he committed to stop risking his life — and the support he was providing his family and community.

The man himself

Being the bodyworker he is, I figured I could learn a thing or two from him. So I asked him to take me as his student. The impulse also came from realising how much I was missing touch. When in Ubud, I went to visit the famed Monkey Forest, home to hundreds of close cousins aping around old temples and picking on (if not pickpocketing) tourists.

There I became absorbed in watching gangs of simians, time and time again, rub and scrub each other. It was endearing to see the connection they were nurturing through touch – non-sexual, just friendly, affectionate touch. An elemental wisdom we seem to have forgotten in most industrialised societies, where we like to keep some distance. Maybe we could learn from them too?

So there I ended, oiling and massaging a 60 year-old man’s intimate parts for hours. The learning process was everything but what I was used to: instead of delving into theory and scaffolding learning, we dived right in the deep end. Papa Ugis was all about practice. He made it clear when he told me about “those Europeans who study massage in a school for 3 years, come here and give me a massage, and I feel nothing!”. We’d focus every session on a particular body part, say shoulders or legs, and then he’d bombard knowledge, demonstrating dozens and dozens of gestures and pressure points which I’d then try my best to remember and practice on him. It was learning by overwhelm, my brain a small pool which he repeatedly flooded with information, hoping some would remain once it’d all dried up.

This was all the more thought-provoking, as I was then reading The Art of Learning from chess prodigy and Push Hands Tai Chi world champion Josh Waitzkin, in which the author lays an approach that revolves around incremental learning and depth over breadth. In my case, we were just doing all of it. Then, from repetitive practice, I started integrating patterns and principles. It was like learning in reverse.

In its own way, it made a lot of sense, bodywork being bodywork — not mindwork. You have to feel, more than you think — so an excess of theoretical knowledge can be an impediment to truly listening to the other, with the masseur going through mechanical routines (something not uncommon in Asia). I find this tension between thinking and feeling when massaging someone fascinating, especially as a learner: on the one hand, you do need to remember gestures and pressure points and can’t just improvise it all, on the other you have to feel and listen to what they need. Finding that balance, oscillating between the two, is a true meditation. Often, I’d come out of these sessions dazed and drained, so deep a presence I’d had to maintain for hours.

Over the course of my stay, I genuinely bonded with the whole family. This is something I’d really craved for, connecting deeply with locals — but it can be surprisingly hard. Especially in heavily touristic places such as Bali. Of course, being the only guest helped. From chatting with Mama, practicing with Papa Ugis in the afternoon, talking surf with their elder son Rama, or playing with baby Rasia, as Papa Ugis said himself: “You have Balinese family now!”.

And so my days became lost in time, a blissful routine of massage, reading and surfing. For the first time since the beginning of my journey, I was now actually slowing down.

Though the two breaks in Medewi were closed, Sumbul’s beach break, only a couple kilometers away was still open.

Locals rippin’

I religiously made my way there every day, riding everything from fat, easy waves to crushing, hollow barrelling ones. That’s the thing with beach breaks: they’re pleasantly inconsistent and change from one day to the next, sometimes from one hour to the next. Committed to make the most of the last open surf break in Bali, I surfed heavily (2 to 5 hours a day) and my surfing kept getting better, from snapping to regularly hitting the lip at the end of sections and even finishing with a floater or two. And duck-dives. Plenty of them. It’s a beach break after all.

Having no surf instructors to rely on, I took my upon my own coaching, dissecting my sessions and mistakes made so I could improve steadily. I started watching surfing tutorials on YouTube and can recommend to surfers reading to check the excellent How to Rip channel. There’s some real gold in there that will take your surfing to new heights. After a few days though, the intense physical exertion asked for payback. Excruciating muscular pain, especially in my shoulders and ribs. All that paddling. Lucky I stayed with such a talented masseur! I also began stretching more regularly, and again, for all the surfers reading, learned amazing stretches from another Youtube channel (Surf Strength Coach) to release rotator cuffs (shoulder) and lats (ribs) which tend to suffer from vigorous paddling.

But anyway, that cunning Coronavirus closed in and so did the beach at Sumbul a couple of days ago. Game over, no more surfing. I’m still in Medewi, taking it easy and waiting for it all to pass. Because this too, shall pass. Until then, I’m stuck in paradise.

5 Comments

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  1. je te propose l’Afrique de l’ouest en 2024 Igo en pays Dogon.

  2. Thank you for writing this baby. Send so much love

  3. Super pour ce très beau reportage ; tu es très beau en Balinais !
    Que de souvenirs pour nous..! oui, Bali reste un des paradis sur terre…mais il ne faut pas trop le dire pour la préserver…
    Bonne fin de “confinement” et surtout bon anniversaire !!!

    • Quelle bonne surprise de te lire Christine! Et merci pour les compliments. Au risque de te décevoir, comme tu verras la prochaine fois que vous venez, Bali n’est plus un secret malheureusement… En vous souhaitant un joyeux déconfinement!

  4. Sunne Justice

    May 11, 2020 — 1:01 pm

    Antoine, happy birthday my friend!! What an intriguing experience you are having! Thank you for sharing it. How awesome to learn massage at the hands of a master, like it was all planned to get you there! There are so many silver linings daily and I am so grateful for it all! Sending love from peaceful paradise in Panama!!!

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