On our way to a wedding in London a few years back, my much-younger-than-me love interest turned travel companion and I departed from New Zealand for a quick stopover tour of Southeast Asia via Singapore.

We zoomed through seven cities, five countries, and crossed four time zones in three weeks (if that’s not enough, I made an additional solo pit-stop in Frankfurt, Germany to catch up with a friend, adding an additional city, country, and time zone to my itinerary), before returning to Wellington and settling into our front corner room of a big yellow house. The plan was to spend the fall together, him starting his third semester of university, me enrolling in a private photography program or exploring my new city. But we abruptly broke up, and that never happened. I had to move on. So, a week later, when I found myself unexpectedly in Melbourne, Australia — heartbroken, jetlagged and homeless, sleeping on a stiff mattress in the guestroom of someone I barely knew — to say I was utterly exhausted would have been a wild understatement. Not wanting to stay puffy-eyed and marooned on my new friend’s spare mattress, I weighed my options. But I was too depleted, mentally and physically, to orchestrate one of my usual type-A life plans (besides, the last one didn’t work out too swimmingly, did it?), and therefore, I opened myself up to recommendations. “Why don’t you go to Bali?” my mother suggested through the phone. “It’s so beautiful, and probably just what you need right now.”

At this time, I knew only three things about Bali. One: My mother held fond memories from the “island of one-thousand temples” after visiting in 1997 with my grandfather. She believed it was “magical” and that I would “absolutely love it,” in addition to having been urging me toward the experience for months. Two: I had a vague recollection of the Bali section from Elizabeth Gilbert’s infamous 2006 novel, Eat, Pray, Love, which I had read two-and-a-half years beforehand. Three: Bali had been the stage for terrorist attacks aimed at Americans in 2002, and again in 2005, causing my friend Kyle’s parents to become severely injured. A bomb had exploded inside the Kuta-area restaurant where they were eating dinner. They were lucky to escape with their lives which, sadly, would never be the same.

So, despite what my mother and Gilbert testified, Bali did not seem magical. It seemed terrifying. “You’ll be fine,” my mother persuaded. “Besides, this may be your only chance to experience such an amazing place.”

I had never knowingly traveled to a place where terrorism had recently occurred, and although the threat of violence weighed heavily on me, in the end my mother’s truth tipped the scales. I booked a one-way ticket to the (hopefully peaceful) island of Bali and landed at Ngurah Rai Airport — much like Gilbert had in Eat, Pray, Love: alone and with no real preparation or plan. My first week would be spent at an Ubud health spa detoxifying and cleansing, working toward a physical and mental tabula rasa to start my journey, but beyond that? I had no clue.

Shifting around in seat 22D of my Air Asia flight, I struggled to find comfort. After the unpredictability of the last 10 months, and recent meticulously researched and planned weeks in both Asia and Europe, my current situation left me floating with no real direction. I could go anywhere or do anything — not just within this trip, but with my life. I was not sure what to make of this newfound freedom and uncertainty. All the paths had bled together, circling around me, no longer dictating a definitive route. I panicked. My first act of personal change would require me to ease up on the reins and just go with the flow. For the first time ever, I would do no research, rely on no guidebook, and fly by the seat of my little black sundress! In celebration, I stretched out across all three seats in my row and fell asleep.

I awoke on Bali, refreshed and ready, with a sharpened eye toward my periphery. Passport stamped, I headed toward the exit. Behind a handheld white sign, a man with darkened olive skin, in a white polo shirt branded with the health spa’s name, flashed an expectant smile at all arriving foreigners.

“That’s me!” I said, pointing my right index finger at my chest, then toward the name written on the front of his sign, and back to myself. “I’m Katherine.” I learned much later that the Balinese consider pointing with fingers or feet impolite. Nonetheless, his smile widened and his right hand extended initiating the Western-based gesture of shaking hands (the right hand is used in all Balinese social interactions as the left hand is always used to clean oneself after using the toilet). “Hello,” he greeted me with a handshake as limp as wet noodles. “Welcome.” I softened my grip and made a mental note for the future: Always learn the local greeting prior to arrival in a foreign country.

“I am Wayan, your driver,” he said, “very pleased to meet you.” He offered to carry my oversized backpack. I cringed at his awkward struggle to throw the big blue bulk, almost equal his size, over his shoulder, and again at the fight to lift it into the back of the health spa’s white shuttle van. I joked about packing bricks. He laughed and the bag finally submitted. I took my place behind the driver in a soft beige seat against the window. The luxury of air-conditioning cooled my skin prompting my cardigan to make an appearance. The first few minutes of our 58-minute drive to Ubud were spent with me staring out of the window, chewing my nails, eyes darting about trying to locate whatever I thought a terrorist might look like, and mentally preparing escape routes. My eyes traced black motorbikes weaving through the colorful cacophony of traffic while carts on the sidewalks peddled the native fruits: mangosteen, snakefruit, and durian. The warungs (cafes) tempted passersby with sodas and snacks like the traditional vegetable and noodle dish, mie goreng. Coconut palms with fruit boasting bright orange husks sprouted tall, sharing space with the locals. Strips of white and orange cloth hugged the trunks of sacred banyan trees. Ancient temples guarded by stone gargoyle-like figures stood firmly in position.

As we drove farther out from the city, motorbikes delivering McDonalds were replaced with skinny people riding thin-treaded bicycles. I relaxed, staring at big fluffy clouds stretched across a blue sky. Above, signs selling hand-carved wood furniture and directing tourists to wholesale silver jewelry stores (two of three major Balinese exports — kopi (coffee) being the third) began to obstruct my view. Below, locals lined the sides of the road selling their hand-carved crafts and paintings; the island, like so many other third-world destinations, was cursed with a tourism dependency.

We drove by deep orange and gray ancient stone villa-homes and I watched barefoot children run up and down the paths, behind houses and huts. Lone women would appear, walking on the road’s edge, carrying cumbersome loads from where I could not tell and to where I did not know. Everyone was smiling and everybody waved. It made the devastation from the bombings, both physical and economic, that much more outraging and unjust. Bali’s high-level of Western tourism had made it a target, and its own people suffered most from the resulting fall in tourism. We passed a lush green rice paddy sprawling across the mountain, and I realized Wayan and I had been silent for a few minutes.

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