In the last section of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert returns to Bali on a quest for healing and spiritual growth. This is the finale of her post-divorce journey that took her to Italy and India prior to arriving in Bali. She settles in Ubud, in the central rain forest of the Indonesian island, which attracts artists and seekers of enlightenment more than the sun worshipers who flock to other parts of the island. On a visit a few years ago, we also stayed in Ubud. Our quest was more pedestrian — just some child-free relaxation and an exploration of Bali’s Hindu culture, made possible by a decade’s worth of hoarded frequent flier miles. But you can’t go to Bali without encountering some element of the mystical.
Our hotel was in a quiet part of Ubud surrounded by rice paddies. The facilities combined simple accommodations wrought of natural materials such as wood and stone with such modern luxuries as high-thread-count cotton sheets, spa-quality toiletries and a forceful shower outfitted in architecturally stark fittings. There was a spa whose services we didn’t use; the lemongrass and mint scented toiletries in our plein-air shower were uplifting enough.
The restaurant was a serene place where you could eat the curry-infused flavors of Balinese food, adapted to appeal to the palates of a spa-going, transcendence-seeking clientele. It was an open-air space beside a waterfall-fed pond, with thatched ceilings. Our server, Nyoman, was a gentle and tranquil man who shared his life stories with us as we took our time over a leisurely breakfast of tropical fruits and juices. He had grown up in a local village in a simple home — that is to say, materially impoverished, but culturally and spiritually rich. As witness to the wider world that the tourism industry brought to Bali, he was determined to experience it by preparing for work in the tourism industry. He was back home now, with a wife and small children, but before that, he spent several years working on cruise ships, where he cultivated his graceful service. The owner of the cruise ship recognized his skills and chose him to work at a resort he owned in Turks and Caicos, playground of the ultra-elite and famous. It was there that Nyoman made a huge leap from the frangipani and incense scented air of his lush, forested village to truly the big league. I’m talking Hollywood.
“Do you know Miss Demi?” Nyoman asked casually, as he poured my water.
We weren’t sure who Miss Demi was.
“I saw Miss Demi and Mr. Bruce in Turks and Caicos many times. They are nice people. They bring their children with them. Mr. Bruce — very funny!”
That must have been in Miss Demi (Moore) and Mr. Bruce (Willis)’s better days. Nyoman didn’t seem fazed or even particularly impressed by his brushes with fame. To him, all visitors must have appeared the same, more or less. He told us more stories about people he had met, people who, maybe we knew? The one he seemed fondest of was Miss Britney. He was sweet on her because she reminded him of the simple, down-to-earth people he had grown up with in Bali. Miss Britney, he said, always traveled with her Mama and was always smiling and kind. She always brought a lot of baggage. Nyoman thought it was too bad we didn’t know Miss Britney. “Maybe next time you go to Turks and Caicos.”
And why not? Bali is a place where anything– even sharing playgrounds with Hollywood elite — seems plausible. Suspended disbelief is required to consider Bali’s very existence as a Hindu island out of the nearly 18,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago, the rest of which are Muslim. A place where monkeys freely roam temple grounds and have a whole road, Monkey Forest Road, named in their honor. Where every day, everyone, including visiting tourists, can get swept up in ritual ceremony processions. Where crowds gather to watch epic shadow puppet performances depicting scenes from the Ramayana, stretching into the wee hours of the morning. (That would be like all of Manhattan or Los Angeles attending an all-night puppet show depicting scenes from the Bible.) A different reality.
Sitting down to breakfast in the idyllic surroundings, I could feel my body and soul almost instantly relaxing. I perused the menu. Breakfast dishes included nasi lemak, Indonesian coconut rice steamed in a banana leaf, and Balinese style toast with rambutan blossom honey. I found myself drawn instead to the freshly prepared juice blends, each promising some form of revitalization and rejuvenation. I chose a blend of green apple, celery and ginger, which promised cleansing, invigoration — and perhaps, enlightenment.
Rejuvenating Balinese Green Apple Salad
- 2/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 6 limes)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce (if unavailable, substitute salt)
- 2 tsp water
- 4 Thai bird chilies, thinly sliced
- half of a small red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 Granny Smith apples
- 2-4 tablespoons shelled, roasted peanuts, crushed
- Make the dressing first so flavors have time to blend. Combine first four ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Add sliced chilies. Set aside.
- Slice onions and set aside.
- Crush peanuts. I find it easiest to use a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, place peanuts in a Ziploc bag, seal and roll with a rolling pin until coarsely crushed.
- Core and julienne the green apples and immediately combine with the dressing to prevent apples from turning brown.
- Just before serving, sprinkle crushed peanuts on top.