From a boat? From a train? Nope, this time, I’m writing from a plane. 10,000 feet above the azure hues of the Indian Ocean, flying from Singapore to Bali. But here’s the kicker — I am returning to Bali as I write this. Almost a month earlier to the day, I had first landed in Bali after travelling through Malaysia by train and then to Singapore by bus. But now, I needed to extend (ahem, reset) my tourist visa and so I planned a quick 24-hour round trip, athletically known as a “visa run”, between the neighbouring islands. 1, 2, 3 – go! Visa runs are common practice among expats living in Bali (and many parts of South-East Asia) where obtaining a long-term visa is apparently a daunting endeavour, involving hordes of middlepeople and bureaucracy — especially pointless if you’re a digital nomad working from your laptop and thus not needing any kind of work permit. Plus, you can help a local friend get much-needed hardware and stock up essentials, like 85% Lindt chocolate, from the air-conditioned malls of Singapore. Writing this, I realise a visa run is a privilege. I’m French, so I have a pretty good passport, one of the best in the world, if only measured by the number of countries I can enter visa-free — according to the Henley Index, it ranks 4th, with only 29 countries requiring a formal visa demand. Citizens of most nations of the world can’t say so. Experiencing borders so fully now makes me nostalgic for the grand vision of the European project (i.e. freedom of movement and freedom of establishment), at a time when its past momentum has all but reversed. And makes me long for the day when we finally erase down these dank lines from our maps.
When we last left off, I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur, or KL as the locals affectionately call it. I like the former name better — if you pay attention, you can hear the murmur of the jungle and smell the sweet scent of spices when it rolls on your tongue. I only spent an evening there but strolling down the night markets and looking up the Petronas Towers, I got a sense of the city. Most capitals I had visited in South-East Asia have all such different personalities. Chaotic Phnom Penh. Sleepy Vientiane. Glitzy Kuala Lumpur. Slick Singapore.
Which is where I was headed the next day. Arriving by bus from Malaysia, it became clear I was in a different country. A different world even. Architectural symphonies, trees and gardens everywhere you look, streets so clean you could eat on them. Peacefulness. Quietude. Like the city in the sky, where the chosen ones escaped to preserve human civilisation after some cataclysmic event happened, far away from any harm of the radioactive badlands and their mutant inhabitants below. Ironically, while I initially found this sci-fi trope helpful to describe my first impression of Singapore, it only got more real after I visited the forest and flower greenhouses at the Marina Sands Bay gardens: the largest ones of their kind in the world, they are host to a stupendous amount of species and so could well become tomorrow’s biodiversity havens, our very own Noah’s Ark if/when the Sixth Extinction happens. Who’s sci-fi now?
Singapore does feel in many ways like the city of the future. More than any I’ve ever visited or lived in, Tokyo included. For one, nature, city and technology live symbiotically, with the city’s many vertical gardens hugging their lovers of steel and glass. Or the Super Trees glistening at dusk. A garden city, Singapore is an urban designer’s wet dream and I sometimes felt like I was walking in one of those miniature maquettes you sometimes see in museum exhibitions, spelling out ambitious dreams of urban future.
It also is city of the future, in other, darker ways: CCTVs are everywhere, denunciation is commonplace and nudging constant. The perfect 21st-century surveillance state. But it seems like it works for them.
More than visions of the future though, I also enjoyed many recollections of the past in Singapore. On my first evening, I visited Margot, an ex-lover of mine now living there with her daughter and boyfriend. After not having seen each other for over 7 years, I was touched by how warmly she welcomed me into her home, offering friendship, wine, food and cigarettes, when I was worn out and unkempt from a week of journeying down from Thailand. We even got to strum a few Bob Marley chords and sing like in the good ol’ days.
I also went for lunch with my long-time friend and SciencesPo classmate Zhiheng. Z, as we call him, had kindly offered to receive my surfboard which I sent from the UK so I could avoid carrying it on my adventurous trail from Cambodia to Singapore – which would have been impossible to say the least. I met him at his Morgan Stanley office, where my surfboard had been learning all about investment banking and M&A for the previous 2 months, and we then went for a traditional Padang-style meal and Singaporean coffee. Even after all these years, we reconnected instantly and got deep into startup talk.
So grateful for these decade-old friendships. They are the true stuff of life.
New friendships are great too. I shared the traditional Singaporean breakfast (Butter toast, kaya, boiled eggs) with Esther, a fellow Sandboxer, who then took me on a tour of the old Katong neighbourhood with its colonial houses. Singapore’s history is fascinating and I was surprised how much multiculturalism was its DNA . I was staying in Little India myself, stuffing myself with naan and biryani, and it was always heartwarming to see Singaporeans of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Caucasian descent hang out.
But now, the ocean was calling. It told me the waves were longing for me. “Feeling’s mutual” I whispered. So I boarded a plane to Bali, ready to commence THE surf trip.
And what a looker, this island, this verdant rock in the middle of the ocean, dotted with thousands of fine, intricate Hindu temples and honoured daily with offerings of saffron flowers, sweet fruit and balmy incense. Ritual in the Island of Gods is alive and well. More than simply a religious duty, it is the social glue that binds locals together – there always seems to be a big ceremony (whether it be Galungan, Kuningan, Nyepi in my time here) alongside weddings, local rites and gatherings. I was told Balinese people spend most of their income on ritual and I believe it.
I started in Canggu, on the south-western shore of the island. I had booked a surf camp a few days later, but first I wanted to reclaim my surf level, rusty from nearly a year away from waves. I sure got back to my dedicated surfer routine pretty quickly: wake up just before sunrise, surf for a couple of hours, drive through rice paddies to breakfast — elated from the session and blasting reggae, a big smile on my face — chill in the afternoon, surf at sunset for another couple of hours, dinner, sleep. Repeat. Following the sweet astral beat, synced with nature’s slow tempo, I got into myself into a rhythm.
And I started learning Bahasa Indonesia (i.e. Indonesian…in Indonesian), the simplest and most logical language I’ve ever come across. Latin script, dead-easy pronunciation, simple subject-verb-object syntax, no verb conjugation, no gender, no plural…so no excuse! Being who I am, I opted to learn with a language learning app, and Babbel had the best course, so also ended up doing competitive analysis for my old colleagues at Busuu.
Those were lonely days, too. Not that I don’t like it – an ambivert, I enjoy swinging into long spans of solitude from highly social environments and back. But in Canggu, I did everything except connect deeply with other humans. “How do you connect with an illusion?” I came to ask myself after a couple of days. Because Canggu was an illusion. A real-life Instagram, where tourists and expats alike are all cooler, hipper than the next. A town where breakfast felt less like a culinary experience and more like a fashion show, shutter clicks and envious looks included. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough and stayed stuck at the surface level – but man, I tried.
I stayed there longer than I wanted, mainly because I had already booked a surfcamp, Kima, which happened to be there. As an intermediate + surfer, I’m generally dubious of surfcamps, as many of them are geared towards total beginners, if not plain party hostels in disguise with little to no surfing value. On the other hand, as I have ahead of me a few solid months of surfing that will push my limits, I wanted coaching so I could fix my bad habits and level up quickly. I got lucky as the only intermediate + surfer (level 4 they call it) in the camp, so I had surf guiding sessions all by myself, with Balinese guides who took me to local spots.
We surfed Medewi, the longest left-hander in Bali (up to 500m!) where I cut through the mellow, buttery faces of endless waves, putting in turn after turn, incredulous.
We surfed Watu Klotok, a tight-faced, speedy right hander, where I generated flow like never before, dancing with the water below. I got it. And, hubris maybe, later got completely crushed by a heavy, surprise set of 3m+ waves, stuck in the inside, caught behind the ferocious blue curtain.
We surfed Tanah Lot, a “secret” spot with a stunning panorama, right next to a sea temple, tucked between two cliffs and accessible only by an impossibly vertical staircase that drops dramatically into the breaking waves. Swift left-handers, up to overhead, but not as heavy as it seemed.
We surfed Cucukan, a fast, hollow right hander that sections into a barrel, right in front of a laid back local fishing beach, with its warung and perahu. Made a few, wiped out loads (hollower waves being the wall I need to break through).
We surfed Black Stone, an A-frame off the shore of a massive concrete resort, catching unpredictable peaks wherever I could.
Last, we surfed Serangan, the most special of all, on my last day. It’s an outer reef break, which means you have to take a perahu (fishing boat) for a couple kilometres offshore before reaching the line up. Right there, a wave breaks, right below the school of anchored boats bringing surfers there on a daily basis. And that sky-blue water – nothing like the greenish waves back on the shore. Fast, clean lines with a relatively easy take-off that then turn into tight-faced racetracks and sometimes end up barrelling. I raced down their walls and even got shampooed as I was crouching in the chamber of the blue curl.
Overall, the camp delivered the goods. Still, I didn’t connect any further with Canggu nor its crowd, disillusioned with its cliches and archetypes of Instagram hipsters, vegan-yogi-models and Balinese surf gangstas getting fucked up on whisky-coke at the local Minimart. I’m aware my own judgements probably prevented me from going deeper and seeing the beauty in the dirt. They say judgements are a great tool to understand one’s needs – so I suppose mine are really about authenticity, diversity and depth.
What a relief when I arrived in Ubud, where I had planned to visit and spend time with another old friend, Laurent. We’d met 10 years ago in Paris, during early hours at a Concrete after-party and somehow built a deep friendship over the years and across countries, from France to Germany through the UK to Bali. I’ve always felt a deep connection and looked up to him as a senpai, the wise person he is being a bit further on this journey of life than I am.
My intro to Ubud couldn’t have been more Ubud. Less than an hour after my taxi dropped me off, I was spinning at an ecstatic dance party that Laurent was organising, connecting non-verbally, yet more deeply than I had over the past 10 days in Canggu.
Right away, I felt home. In a sense, I was home. The community of expats living in the mountains of Ubud was much closer to my London community than it was to the Canggu beach crowd. Yoga, meditation, healings of all sorts, poly, breathwork, cacao ceremonies, vegan/raw/organic restaurants, holistic health and nutrition, conscious dance parties… my peoples. Don’t get me wrong though: I’ve lived long enough to know that everything has its shadow. There is still a scene here, although a more conscious one, and the void left by Canggu’s blunt materialism was sometimes replaced by a flavour of spiritual consumerism (I’m looking at you, spiritual pickup artist!).
Laurent himself is a healer, blending technology (amplified vibrational water beds, electronic soundscapes, stroboscopic light machines) with tradition (didgeridoos, gongs) to induce deep meditative and altered states of consciousness. A one-of-kind experience which I highly recommend you try LSV if you’re ever around.
The vibration had shifted, and in a few days, I got from smoking half a pack a day, downing Bintangs and swiping through shallow connections to caring for my body, my mind and my heart. I’m pretty much a sponge, hence I absorb and adapt to whatever my environment is — especially on this journey, I want to let the world mould me.
While I had initially planned on spending just a few days, I figured why leave so soon if I felt home, and my healthiest self? Laurent kindly offered a mattress in his home. But I craved the ocean and the surf! What to do? So I made a plan to get the best of both of Bali’s worlds: get a scooter with a surf rack to hit the south-eastern coast in the morning for a surf, come back and chill in Ubud in the afternoon. Surely, I could get my cake, and eat it too.
Or so I thought until I went surfing Cucukan’s snappy waves again. I increased my risk profile that time, going more in the inside, being less picky and paddling for more waves. After what seemed an ordinary wipeout, I felt a sting on the arch of my foot but couldn’t really see what was going on below the waterline. As I pulled my foot above the water and touched the painful spot with my finger…there was a hole a few centimetres deep. I had split my foot open on reef. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! To add to my woes, the sea water that day was the filthiest I’d seen, because of heavy wet season rainstorms of the previous day (and Bali’s lacking waste water management system).
“Shit, must not get this infected”.
I ended up at the hospital an hour later, with 4 stitches in my foot. And no more ocean until the wound is closed.
“How long until then?” — I asked
“Hmmm…seven to ten days” — they said.
“OK, then R&R in Ubud”
And so the following week ended up very chilled: lazing in bed in the mornings. Taking time for slow, deliberate practice. Healing. Reading — currently alternating between the exalted Bhagavad Gita and the irreverent Jitterbug Perfume…sprinkled with some guilty Boruto chapters. Watching the wet season skies pour down on the rice paddies (“wetflix and chill”). Dancing when Laurent was DJing (maybe I shouldn’t with this foot?). Watching Legong, a traditional Balinese dance, all about eyes and hand movements. Sampling the finest foods. Taking long, leisurely strolls through viridescent hill paths and neighbouring rice paddies, weeded and cleaned from pest by wild ducks, all the while sowed by farmers, rainwater to their knees.
In some sense, this is what I needed: slowing down. Grounding. And since I couldn’t seem to get myself to do so, speeding as I was on the travel highway, the universe gently pulled me over. And grounded me good.
My new-found physical invalidity equally became a door into the knots of my own psyche. I was undergoing painful, restricted movement and had to suffer maddening interactions with Indonesian bureaucracy at the hospital which I had to return to every couple days to make sure my wound wasn’t getting infected. Behind all the stoke from the sun, surf and sand, I realised how tense and impatient I could be, short, condescending even, when things weren’t efficient or turn out the way I wanted them to be. And as you might know, the “developing world” will teach you patience and acceptance. I’m still learning.
And still healing. More than ever, I have developed a healthy fear of the sharp reef below. I know I will take its proper measure from now on.
The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure. And yet you were expected, even as a kid, to take its measure every day. You were required—this was essential, a matter of survival —to know your limits, both physical and emotional. But how could you know your limits unless you tested them? And if you failed the test? You were also required to stay calm if things went wrong. Panic was the first step, everybody said, to drowning. As a kid, too, your abilities were assumed to be growing. What was unthinkable one year became thinkable, possibly, the next.
– William Finnegan in Barbarian Days
As my karate sensei liked to point out, it takes a full-blown hit in the head for someone to effectively face guard. Yes, trauma can be the best teacher.