This will be funny. Hang in there.
After the film Eat, Pray, Love opened across the country, what’s already a worldwide club of solo women seeking fulfillment in Italy, India and Bali increased even more, until you’d have to seek a settlement in the heart of the Amazon rainforest not to find a book group talking about pigging out on pasta and falling hard for older Portuguese lovers.
My book Solo Traveler came out in 2005, not long before Elizabeth Gilbert’s cult-inducing phenomenon. Like her, I wrote about the freedom and joys of traveling on your own, but emphasized I was not looking for love.
Besides selling reasonably well, my book spawned a website and a brand, and besides how-tos on eating alone and packing and such, included a couple dozen personal essays, including ones set in Italy, India and Bali. I can’t complain.
But my experience in Bali could not have been more different from Liz Gilbert’s. We both arrived alone and found the place enchanting. But she left with love.
And I left scratching.
I was working on a video shoot for the military in 1989. My boss (and live-in lover) in DC had assigned me to oversee the huge project, and I was in charge of a cast and crew, on location in the Philippines and Thailand. I was in way over my head.
On a much-needed break, I flew solo into Bali on a moonless night without a reservation. To avoid the crowded coast the cab driver suggested I settle in the center of the island. I agreed, and the room I chose was in a tiny converted temple overlooking a misty lotus pond.
Awakening early I found at my door a tiny offering of carved fruit on a leaf. The Hindu custom of appeasing the gods meant that these offerings would be placed throughout the day. I was immediately enchanted with the gentle beauty of the people and their ways, and I hired a driver who sped me around the sinuous roads, past hills of green rice paddies and plunging gorges.
Among the stops, we visited a temple where women prepared the offerings: fragile, temporal works of art. And nearby we spied a line of people heading toward a clearing, carrying offerings in silver vessels atop their heads.
A cremation ceremony was in progress, one of many each day on the island, some of them with food hawked and biers built high above the crowds. Strangers were welcomed, and the long ceremonies ended with ashes thrown into the sea.
But the cremation before me now seemed as natural as the wind: an old woman had been placed on a bed of branches under a grove of trees, and the mourners were tossing petals, until her body was covered in pink like the ground under a dogwood in late spring.
I stood back on the grass, already wearing a traditional black-and-white sarong tied around my waist – the custom for tourists enter Balinese temples or attending ceremonies. The mourners acknowledged my respectful presence and garb, and beckoned me forward.
And then a couple of moments I will never forget.
The wood under the body was lighted, and as the flames crackled, I felt sharp, painful sensations, and realized I was standing on a nest of fire ants! I hopped away too late, as the insects had already crawled up my legs, biting and stinging as they climbed.
I jumped around, scratching and rubbing myself in a contained frenzy, all the while trying not to disrupt the solemn cremation.
The mourners, confused by my sudden activity, couldn’t help turning from the pyre and staring at the sight of a Caucasian woman shaking and wiggling up and down and side to side in some strange ceremonial dance. They seemed to regard my movements as my way of showing respect to the lady going up in smoke. So they continued to watch me intently and with appreciation, as I writhed around, slapping at the ants, hopping on one foot, then the other.
I didn’t want to embarrass them by screaming obscenities, so I just kept moving and scratching, hopping and jumping, finally trying to ease the itch by rubbing my legs together, as if I were trying to start a fire, an irony not lost on me, even in my intense pain.
Grimacing, hopping and rubbing, and looking back at the mourners as if I were ending a dance, I finally stumbled back to the van, led by my convulsed driver, his hand covering his grin, while my ill-fitting sarong unraveled around my splotched legs. At last I could remove the damned sarong, scream “Fuck!” and scratch away.
Still unaware I had ants in my pants, the mourners turned back to their smoldering beloved. They must have thought I was one of the weirdest strangers they had ever seen, and that I certainly had an unusual way of paying respects.