Thanks for visiting here at Watching the Rice Grow, a writer’s account of a journey that started twenty years ago. It’s also the working title of the novel I’m writing. More on that later…
1992…I was on the brink of turning thirty, embarking on my first solo backpacking trip through South East Asia. I had caught the travel bug from my friend Tom, who convinced me to travel with him in Guatemala earlier that year, and that was it for me. I wanted more. So I asked for a 3-month leave-of-absence from my job and sketched out a plan that included traveling through Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. What happened in those three months proved to be not only life changing but also forever remains the time that all other great moments in my life have had to measure up to.
2012…on the brink of fifty. I’m returning to Bali to chase those memories. I had been back once with Megan in 1997 with expectations that turned into new memories. Now we return with kid and I am certain that Kai will be drawn into the trance of the Bali Spirit as well. Life has changed immensely for me in these past twenty years. But Bali, through its transformation from an underground backpacker destination to a tourist seeking eat-pray-love experience (arg), has, at first glance managed to keep its allure, innocence, and downright awesomeness. I hope to capture some of our experiences in this blog of our thirty days in the rice fields. Some days it might go like, “Today, we watched the rice grow.” Other days it might be like, “Today we played Marco Polo in the pool all day.” Or maybe, “Today, we were transformed.” I invite you to come for the ride.
In the mid 80’s to early 90’s there was a surge of young travelers who were hungry for off-the-beaten track experiences. They turned to third-world countries where they could get a bungalow on the beach for less than $2.00 a night, or ride elephants through the jungle, or attend High Moon all-night parties on a remote islands. Not unlike how news spread for the Appalachian Trail sub-culture of hikers, word of these inexpensive exotic travel experiences spread like wild fire, evoking demand for local residents to provide more backpacker accommodations, services, etc. Hostels and bungalows started popping up, targeting this group of low-cost high-experience international travelers. Guide books like Lonely Planet and friends like Tom helped to spread the word.
I was working the ultimate corporate job since straight out of college. For years I did the suits, nylons, high heels, briefcase, the whole bit. After spending my two-week vacation to join Tom in Guatemala, where we rode local buses with a few goats and chickens, climbed volcanoes and pyramids, and stayed in pensions with rooms painted all black, I stopped wearing suits. I stopped wearing a watch. I yearned for a deeper meaning to life beyond programming applications for an insurance company. I started reading about this backpacker sub-culture. I was drawn to the southern islands in Thailand. I was drawn to Bali. I wanted to return to my roots in the Philippines. It was almost too easy the way the trip came to be. After months of planning, suddenly…I was on my way. First stop was Bangkok where I found myself in a hotel room saying, “Uh-oh, what have I done?” But I did one bold thing (I stepped outside my hotel room), and again, the experience unfolded before me, presenting me with other backpackers who would guide the way, awestruck moments that would inspire me to keep going, and enough ignorance to be unaware of potential danger. It was phenomenal.
At the end of my Thailand trip I got very sick on something I ate, and after reading my Lonely Planet book, I believed full-heartedly that I was going to die (alone, in desperation, you can match any of your symptoms to the deadly diseases listed in the guide book). I was fortunate to hook up with a friend in Bangkok who was house-sitting for an American Embassy official. I revived myself on Pizza Hut, Diet Coke, and reruns of Brady Bunch in this swanky apartment equipped with American comforts. But I was apprehensive to continue my travel on to Bali, my next stop. But I took a step forward, and fortunately for me, a young guy from California called Michael at the Bangkok airport gave me just the nudge I needed. He convinced me that Bali was not to be missed and shoved a map in my hands. It involved going through jungle and rice fields, over foot-bridges and muddy ledges to get to this cluster of bungalows completely off the beaten track. At the time I scoffed at the idea of trekking through a jungle to get to a remote bungalow. But one thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself exactly…there. Happy II. Heaven on earth. A set of bungalows, perched in the middle of sprawling rice fields as far as the eye could see. I stayed three weeks in that one spot, meeting people who would become my family in between breakfast and dinner. I did things I can’t believe I was brave enough to do. I saw beauty I never knew existed, in both the land and the people of Bali. Michael arrived at Happy II one week after I plunked myself down on the spot on his map, grinning to find me there. We went around the island on his motorbike and formed a life-long friendship. I formed a life-long love affair with Bali. And there you have it. The premise of my novel ( ¾ fiction, ¼ life).
Years after this 3-month jaunt through South East Asia, my mind kept returning to my porch that overlooked the rice fields at Happy II. In 1997 I brought Megan to Bali and Happy II on our way to Kenya (where we spent a year volunteering at an orphanage). It had changed. There was a dirt road leading to Happy II from the main road with an internet hut perched at the top of the hill. There were more guesthouses where there once were rice fields. There were more people like me. We met Michael there again (he owned an export shop in CA and spent many months a year in Bali), recalling our time in 1992 with great fondness. Yes, Bali had changed, we kept exclaiming. But we didn’t dare leave.
Life happens. Wife gets a brain injury from a horseback-riding trip. Mom dies of a brain tumor. Best friend dies of an infection. And in 2009, I awoke to find that everything below my belly had become very numb. So numb, I had lost much of my balance and ability to walk without falling. An MRI showed that calcifications on the ligaments between my vertebrae and spinal cord had grown into my spinal cord and almost severed part of my cervical cord. It’s a very rare condition called OPLL, where calcifications grow slowly from birth, and the person isn’t aware of it until it actually grows into the spinal cord and causes symptoms like numbness. An emergency surgery was performed to prevent more damage to my spinal cord, but they could not revert the injury that had already taken place. I was left with titanium rods in my neck, a broken back from an intense laminectomy throughout my thoracic and cervical spine, and continued numbness in my legs that made it difficult to walk. In a day, my life had changed. Just like that.
Wife. We’ve both been through it all, and still hold hands at night. At the end of the day, we remain each other’s soft place to land.
Kid. In between all that mess, Megan and I decided to have a child in our forties. And what a kid we have. Kai is a spunky, independent, imaginative four-year-old now and simply put, she’s the reason I’ve pushed myself through these 2 ½ years of physical therapy.
Physical Therapy. Surgeons…whatever. Physical Therapists? Gods. Miracle workers. All of my physical therapists have been amazing. One let me continue going for treatment for a whole year after my stupid health insurance stopped covering it. They essentially helped me get walking again. They, along with my awesome PCP, have been there to pick up the pieces after the surgeons wiped their hands clean of me. I am forever grateful. I might not ever be able to walk like I used to, without effort. But I’m so grateful that I am walking.
Novel. I had tried to leave my corporate job many times, taking leave after leave to travel and volunteer, but somehow always managed to return to the grind and the comfortable lifestyle that working a corporate job affords. The idea of writing a novel based on my Bali experience hatched almost immediately after my trip and kept creeping into the foreground, nagging at me louder every year. I tried the writing in the nooks and crannies in between job and life. After my mom died, however, I was hit with a massive jolt of the notion that life is terribly fleeting. I told Megan that I wanted to write my novel full time. We took our pens and paper out and scribbled out a five-year financial plan that would allow me to quit my job and write. It meant a drastic lifestyle change but Megan was willing to support me to follow my dream. I’m a lucky girl.
That was 2003. Almost nine years of writing, re-writing, taking on short-term consulting gigs to keep us afloat, taking breaks for baby and familial duties…and I have never once wavered on the story I want to tell. I have questioned my writing ability. I have been frustrated at my pathetic vocabulary skills. I have gone from first-person to third-person, changed the names of my characters numerous times, and struggled struggled struggled as a writer. But I have remained steadfast in my belief of my story. I have remained steadfast in my love of Bali.
After having a kid, and especially after my spinal cord injury, I believed my days of traveling the way I was used to were over. I couldn’t wrap my head around how to bring our daughter on one of our travel adventures. Disney World? Sure. But Indonesia? I also couldn’t see how I’d manage in places where walking was necessary to get around. Where hiking was the only way to see the countryside. I grieved a lot. Of the freedom I once had to pick up and go. Of the physical person I once was. My fears were overpowering, but my desire to finish my book once and for all was greater. And in order to do that, I HAD to get back to Bali. Once again, pen and paper out, Megan and I put our heads together. We both wanted to go back. We wanted to bring our daughter. It would be different. We would not carry backpacks and hop from place to place. We would not hang out and drink Bitang beer until late at night in downtown Ubud.
We would rent a bungalow in the rice fields for a month. We would learn to cook Balinese food and immerse ourselves in village life. We would expose our child to life beyond Disney princesses and fenced-in playgrounds.
And here we are, at Villa Tatiapi, Google Earth coordinates 8 30 25.67S, 115 17 11.21E, watching the rice grow.
Life is Fleeting.
Once again, a reminder of the fragility of life splashed in my face. Once Megan and I set our plan to spend a month in Bali, I called Michael to tell him we were coming, and asked if he would be there. He said that he would be returning to the States just before we got to Bali, unfortunately. However, one month before we were to leave for Bali, I got a message from him on FB saying that he was extending his visa so we could see each other for a few days. We planned to meet – I was excited for him to meet our daughter.
Two weeks before we left, I just happen to see a post on FB from a friend of Michael’s: Rest in Peace, dear Michael.
He had been in a shop in Bali and suffered a heart attack.
I never got to tell him that he was in my book.
Life is fleeting. I can’t waste a moment.