I was beginning to lose faith, if I’m being honest. I’d started in the beach party town of Seminyak, then drove north to Ubud, famed for its laid back yoga vibe, its Sacred Monkey Forest, its destination rice terraces. I’d continued on to the mountains of Kintamani, with hopes of watching sunrise from atop Mount Batur. I hadn’t even planned on going to Amed, the reviews of which had been somewhat underwhelming. But there I found myself, searching for respite from the crowds, the cars, the locals starved for tourist dollars – searching for that still-elusive paradise in beautiful Bali.
Even Amed got off to a sideways start, my first room too close to the only road in this beachfront town, with locals racing by at all hours on scooters and motorbikes powered largely by loud, two-stroke engines. At my wit’s end, the next morning I would check into Lily’s Beach Bungalow, a little villa I’d noticed the night before when dodging a trio flying by on the unlit road. Lily’s, it turns out, was a little oasis between Ketut Natih Road and the Bali Sea, flowering gardens and mango trees inside its quaint walls. I would have a second floor, two-story bungalow with a private patio and sea views. At home, a place like this would cost me a grand per night. Here? Just nineteen dollars. But even without the price, Lily’s opened the door to the Indonesian paradise for which I’d been looking – and that was even before Katja walked in.
She was bone thin, loaded down with a pack that looked heavier than she, and she spoke with an Austrian accent – Vienna to be exact. We wouldn’t exchange hellos just then, but I already knew we’d be seeing more of one another. After so many months meeting travelers along the way, it almost becomes a sixth sense. Within twenty-four hours, and with surprisingly little fanfare, it was not only a forgone conclusion that we would be spending the next several days exploring Amed together, we would rarely be apart over the coming three weeks.
To be clear, this wasn’t a romance, despite the many people we met assuming we were a couple, husband and wife. As beautiful as she is, and as devastatingly handsome as I’m told I am by so many people who definitely aren’t also my Mom, this was about being kindred spirits. The same energy and taste for adventure, food, movies, and more. I would discover that Austrians and I have a similar temperament. But most wonderfully, she understood my humor – even when wrapped in my curmudgeonly sarcasm – and I hers. When she agreed with a laugh to see who could come up with the most absurd answer the oft-asked question of how we’d met, I knew it was kismet.
It wouldn’t be long before our twosome expanded. Adrian’s addition had an inauspicious beginning, we finding him somewhat lost and exhausted after navigating a treacherous “shortcut” on his scooter that both Katja and I had also just barely survived unscathed. A short time later I would lead both of them along a dark mountain road and inadvertently through the largest pothole in all of Bali at around 50 kilometers per hour. I would make it through, as would Katja. Adrian wouldn’t be so lucky, but his laugh-screaming through the pain as a doctor treated his injuries at a roadside medical clinic – while asking us if we thought Lily’s might have an available bungalow for him – pretty much sealed the deal on his addition to our duo.
The three of us would run into Fari and Keena atop Lahangan Sweet mountaintop a few days later as we watched gale-blown clouds repeatedly cover-and-reveal the sunset-silhouetted top of nearby Mount Agung. Katja and I had exchanged passing hellos with them while watching a local reggae band a few nights earlier, and she would happen upon them again in the coming days. Together, she and I would follow them to the island of Gili Air. Adrian was getting dive certified in Amed, delayed a few days to give his cuts and scrapes time to heal, but it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the always smiling young man who’d become our “adopted son” in the ever-more-absurd stories of how we’d met.
It was in Gili Air that we would meet the bubbly, charismatic Bianca, while she and I stood watching three islanders trying to coax a white horse off of a colorfully painted boat with the Bali Sea and Mount Rinjani in the background. Ten minutes later Bianca was joining us for morning coffee, and from then on, we too were inseparable.
After Gili Air, Keena’s time in Indonesia would come to an end, and she would return to Germany ahead of Fari, who would round out our family of five. Fari’s amazing story, incredible personal strength, and hunger for life’s adventures belie her humble spirit and sparkling smile.
We would watch stunning sunrises and sunsets, and sit under the stars and “Milky Street” at night, the skies so crisp and bright at times that that it felt as if we were witness to the secrets of the universe itself. We would drive treacherous mountain roads to palaces and temples and ancient villages. We would snorkel gorgeous coral reefs and wrecks teeming with fish the shapes and color of our imaginations. We would swim alongside Hawksbill and Green turtles for as long as we cared, coming ashore to sip Radlers and lunch on freshly caught tuna. In the early evenings we would watch skies ablaze in yellows and oranges and reds and purples while sipping drinks until fires took over for the resting sun. We would meet still more new friends for dinners and watch live bands and drink espresso martinis and dance to DJs until the early morning hours, and sometimes just sit in hammocks or beanbag beach chairs and let time drift slowly by. We would witness amazing, never-ending rainbows, and hike mountain forests to stunning waterfalls, and walk rice farms where we would come upon locals who would invite us to sit, eat, smoke, drink, and sing. We would surf the waves of Padang Padang and attend a Kecak Fire Dance, share million dollar villas (for a backpackers price), swim in our private pools, cook together, and every now and then treat ourselves to dinner out under a bright moon and stars.
Throughout it all we were treated like family by locals, greeted with smiles and waves and hellos as we passed, whether on foot or two wheels. And during this far too short time, we became a family, each of us forming a bond that we hope and expect will last forever.
I had an opportunity to skip my next destination and stay a little longer in Indonesia. But Adrian had left us. Then Katja. Bianca next. The night I left for the airport and said goodbye to Fari on Seminyak Beach, we’d met another traveler, a young man from the UK. That’s how it is sometimes. Friends overlap for a bit, then some move on, and we travel along with others still. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s even welcome. But the thought of staying longer and driving along winding mountain roads and pulling over to take in some new, stunning view, without my new friends to share it with, well suddenly it didn’t seem so inviting. That hadn’t happened since Paris, the opportunity to stay on after Margot and Brooksy had returned home to the States. I decided then, as I did now, that I’d rather leave wanting more, than stay, wanting more…
I’d only just recently discovered an answer to the question of what my favorite country was so far on this adventure, and Thailand had set the bar very high – stunning landscapes and sunsets, mountains and seas, forests and coral reefs. But just a few short weeks later and I had a very clear new favorite. Part of that answer is most certainly due to the unexplored Indonesian islands I left behind. So many more places to drive and hike and swim. So many volcanoes to climb. So much wildlife still to see. I never even saw the orangutans.
But time and time again the thing that has made the most incredible places even more indelible, has been the people with whom I’ve spent time while there, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we’ve shared together. When you find the right people along your journey, something magical happens. Julia in The Faroe Islands. Margot and Brooksy in Paris. Eric in Prague. Sophie and Peter in Kenya. Lisa and Elliott in Malawi. Poppy in Thailand. My own, truly amazing family in America, who have been present in every step I’ve taken, and for whom I am blessed so many times over. And in Indonesia, my new friends, dear friends I consider to be family.
I’ll return one day. We’ve all promised to return. Some of us are planning to get together this coming Christmas in New York, hopefully to talk about how we’ll all be back there, together again. I can only hope, because I finally found paradise, and I’m not ready to give them up just yet.