Sitting in the airport, composing excited Facebook posts, as befitting someone on their way to a fabulous beach resort, I knew it was not a good time to go to Bali. It was grey and rainy, both outside and in. I did not know if I was going towards something or just away, but whatever it was, I was dragging too much baggage for comfort.
My first day there was spent on the lovely Nusa Dua beach, willing the sea to take away the crawling restlessness, the unreasonable expectations doomed to disappointment. It worked a bit, and in the evening, I drifted to Seminyak, uncertain of what was there. What I found was the happiest place on earth. A beach stretching endlessly in both directions, a row of busy restaurants with brightly coloured paper lanterns and bean bags, and beyond them the sea untouched by the artificial light, surf white in the moonlight.
I picked a place and settled down for the night, and soon noticed among the chattering groups and limpid couples, a lot of people on their own, reading. You can tell things by looking at them. The Singaporean woman with the LV bag reading Paulo Coelho is waiting for friends to join her. The Australian girl curled up in a bean bag reading Neil Gaiman is travelling alone, but won't be alone for long. The self-contained older Indian man with the Kindle is also travelling alone. He's curious about me but is going to say hello to the Australian (10 minutes later I was proved right). The South African lady on her iPad is not reading at all, but browsing or checking Facebook. She's hoping she won't be alone long either, and she won't, but it's going to take till later in the evening. The man reading a Dutch book is recently heartbroken. I don't know what conclusions can be drawn about me, alternately observing, writing, reading and texting, like the Recording Angel’s PA afflicted with severe ADD.
Much later, in a surprising development, the Indian guy stopped to say in passing: “You’re a Bruce Springsteen song, but I’m in a Katy Perry sort of place.” I wished him well in his endeavours. As he walked away, a voice behind me said “Wanker.” I turned to see an old man covered in tattoos, a much-used surfboard leaning next to him. I told him I agreed with his reading. And he said he hoped I wouldn’t now feel the need to ask inane questions about whether he surfed or where he was from. I said I knew he was from Adelaide or thereabouts. He looked so startled, I explained I use to live in Vietnam. He agreed there were a lot of Australian accents there, and moved to my table saying “You’re going to need help finishing that bottle anyway”. And so I had a relaxed hour with an 80-year-old surfer, listening to war stories, what Seekers concerts were like in the seventies, the rigours of removing landmines in Cambodia, how to run a winery in Barossa Valley, and the life and times of his grandchildren. I told him my dad used to grow grapes for a winery, and discussed the differences between hybrids and genetic modification. He was waiting for his wife to return from a spa. When she (unsurprisingly young and Asian) returned, she showed me her shopping, recommended the spa she went to, ordered another bottle and told me what it was like to grow up in a rich family in Myanmar. I told her the stories my grandaunt used to tell us about being an expat there long ago, when it was still Burma.
By the time they left, the beach was full of music, some people were dancing, others were still surfing. And I saw with relief that the Recording Angel had got the memo, and the South African lady had found someone.
At midnight, I stood for a moment at the entrance to the road and looked back with deep satisfaction. The sea rolled massively in and out, the notes of guitars rode the sound of surf breaking, the perfect place and time. I watched a lone lantern rise lightly, happy to glow within itself. Not all those who wander are lost.
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