Gusti: the Guide of Tirta Gangaa

Our guide Gusti

Our guide Gusti

Tirtaa Gangaa

Tirtaa Gangaa

“G’day mate. Bloooody awwwwesoome”. Gusti, our local guide during our tour of Tirta Gangaa bursts out in perfect Australia drawl. This would be a little gimmicky, cringe-worthy even on anyone else, but for some reason it’s just plain endearing on this guy. Maybe because it’s the way he looks – his appearance is comic, in a good way. His body and head are tiny, with over-sized ears and a toothy grin that almost never leaves his face – he’s like a real-life caricature. The cheesy faux accents seem to fit naturally into his entire persona.

We met him as soon as we got to the Temple entrance: “Do you need a guide?” I’m not sure. In our experience, it is very hit and miss with local guides. When they’re knowledgeable and can tell you things about the site you would never have discovered yourself, I find they’re worth every penny / rupee / rupiah. But more often than not, especially in India, they regurgitate some obvious facts from wikipedia, rush through the tour and you finish in one of their mates souvenir stores.

I don’t know why, but something about Gusti made me take a chance on him. To be fair, he wasn’t the best guide in terms of knowledge, but he made up for it in terms of comedy. Every sentence starts with “Well Brad and Mesi…” The first time it’s normal. By the fifth time it’s annoying. But by the twentieth time it’s so ridiculous it’s funny again, and more so as ‘Brad and Mesi’ slowly becomes ‘Brad and Menshi’.

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Tuesday morning at Seniman’s Cafe

Best Coffee in Ubud at Senimans

Best Coffee in Ubud at Senimans

Seniman's Cafe

Seniman’s Cafe

“Look I can do it, I can do it!”

A girl, no older than seven, spins a glass top on the communal table. She’s trying to outdo her dad, John a middle aged Englishman – sporting relaxed grey singlet, and relaxed grey goatee. They’re competing for the important title of being the best spinner of the glass tops. The girl, Mabel, is adorably competitive. The way John interacts with her is inspiring. They laugh and flip through magazines, talk, play at the communal coffee table. A father-daughter excursion to the best coffee in Ubud. Mabel moves back and forth in the specially designed rocking chairs that dot the cafe.

One of John’s friend, Tegan, comes into the cafe. She’s in her early 40s, by herself, Australian, friendly. They exchange greetings. It’s soon clear they are both part of the expat scene here in Ubud.

“I was speaking to Diego last night and he’s joined some transcendental club”.

I’m not sure what a transcendental club is, but it seems exclusive.

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The things you own end up owning you

Some of the great fin possessions during our cleaning spree

Some of the great finds during our cleaning spree

After two years away, I returned to Sydney to clean my room.

Of course it wasn’t planned that way. No one returns back to their home town after a long absence thinking, y’know what sounds like fun? Cleaning! Forget catching up with friends, enjoying the warm weather, let’s get tidy! But looking back, I can definitively say thats what I devoted most of my energy towards during our month in Sydney. I banned myself to my room and cleaned out.

This post needs a backstory: When I was a teenager, my mum purchased a house and we – mum, my brother and I – upgraded from our small apartment, and I got my own room. Over the years, I accumulated a teenager’s worth of things and then a university student’s worth of things, and finally left home at 22.

I moved four times during my 20s. While the biggest purchases occurred on my first move out of home, I didn’t just transfer my possessions from one share house to the next. I kept accumulating more things, sometimes leaving the pieces unwanted in the next move, back in the room I grew up in.

I left the country at the end of 2012 and because there was no new house to put it in, I had to cram everything I owned – four homes, and a lifetime’s worth of stuff – into my childhood room. Ironically, despite being full of my life, the room became totally devoid of life: It was dark, dusty, cluttered and heavy with the past.

And it was this heaviness that I returned to, with Mesi, when we arrived in Sydney a month ago. Three months on the road in such uplifting places as India and Bali, and we found ourselves living in a space that was the antithesis of everything we had experienced.

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Navigating the Bali Rental Market

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

We arrived in Bali not as tourists, but as potential future residents. It meant travelling the island with a different eye. We spent our days scooting around soaking in the vibe of neighbourhoods rather than sight seeing. The important questions: Can we see ourselves being part of this community? What are our neighbours and landlords like? Does it feel safe here? How long will it take to get to yoga? Is there decent coffee in ‘roll-out-bed’ distance? Finding a house in Bali is one for the explorers. We used two methods with limited success: real estate agents and Facebook groups. However, the most effective was simply getting on a scooter and jetting around neighbourhoods, looking out for “FOR RENT” signs that landlords placed outside their empty houses. Whenever we saw one and the house looked good from the outside, it was usually a matter of calling the accompanying number and waiting 5 to 10 min to be shown the house. No appointments, no missed connections, simple and efficient.

I get the feeling that Bali, at least now is slightly tipped in favour of the renters. There’s so much construction going on and enough vacant houses that we felt we could hold out to find the house that was perfect for us. We saw a lot of houses in Bali over four weeks. I lost count but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around 30. The thing about looking for a home of course, is that basically every single inspection is on some level, disappointment, until you find the right one. Every time we jumped on the scooter we felt the excitement of hope – that maybe this time, this house, would be the home we’d been searching for. And every time, except the last, we left empty handed.

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Papa Nyoman, the reflexologist

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic on Mesi

When you first see Papa Nyoman, he doesn’t strike you as an extraordinary healer. In fact, he looks very ‘ordinary’ – he’s diminutive, thin and sports a pair of unremarkable glasses. Cigarette poking under his 80s-era moustache, with loose blue singlet and long fisherman pants, he could be an accountant on vacation.

The only thing that gives him away is the line of people waiting to have his treatment. People from all around Bali, indeed the world, come to Papa Nyoman for his reflexology, a craft he has practiced for 20 years. In the two days Mesi visits him, he treats a Russian couple, a young Chilean, a woman from Botswana, a slightly unadjusted Singaporean and me, while she is there.

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Sehbatu: A visit to the waterfall temple

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

Robert, a Californian who leads tours around Bali, took us to Sehbatu – a small but enchanting waterfall temple situated just a few kilometres outside of Ubud.

The waterfall is fed by cool groundwater rushing up from deep within the Earth, where it has waited decades, perhaps centuries, to see the light of day. The Balinese, who believe that the water at this site has powerful purifying properties, have set up a modest temple next to the falls, and the entire complex – temple, waterfall and pool – is surrounded by jungle. It is a beautiful mix of the natural and the sacred.

It is not surprising to me that much of Balinese spirituality revolves around water. In many ways it is simply a reflection of how important the element is to life on Bali. The island’s hilly interior and rainy season mean that rivers abound – providing a drinking supply and irrigating the water-intensive rice fields. Water, literally and spiritually, nourishes the island.

To receive the purification powers of the waterfall, one enters the waist-deep pool at the base of the falls. An offering is made before thrusting one’s head straight under the falling stream. The waterfall is small, less than a few metres, but its power is unmistakeable. Straight away you feel the chilly bite of the ground water. On several levels, it shocks you awake. You can’t hear anything except the white noise of the crashing water and the rest of the world disappears. Breathing is possible but not easy and you have to concentrate not to panic as your lungs and senses are stressed.

The Sehbatu temple

The Sehbatu temple

But once you settle in the process can be strangely calming. It’s not unlike meditation. To keep your head under the falls you have to quieten the nerves, concentrate on the breath, and remain in the moment (you actually have no choice on that last one). Robert suggested we consciously think of something we wanted to let ago of, something that didn’t serve us anymore. On an adjacent waterfall, you can do the opposite, lie your back up against the rock, chest to the sky, water flowing right over you and open up to something new. Our small group took in turns to do this and all found it a moving experience.

While we were there Balinese locals came to the waterfall, and performed similar purifications. One of these women came to us while we were seated at the temple to provide a traditional cleansing with the altar water, guiding us through the steps of ritual, before smiling and going on her way. She wasn’t a priestess, just an ordinary Balinese woman.

We’re moving to Bali!

We're moving to Bali!

We’re moving to Bali!

Ubud's famous rice paddies

Ubud’s famous rice paddies

Mesi and I had the crazy idea from a long time ago that we’d move to Bali. Back then it was clearly a dream – an ideal for some unspecified time in the future when circumstances – work, relationship, finances – would magically coalesce and we’d end up in some paradise of our imagination. This ideal was even more fuzzy given that neither of us, up until four weeks ago, had ever been to Bali. It was a half-plan based on a romantic daydream. Elizabeth Gilbert would be proud.

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My Grandmother’s life in photos: From Canton to Borneo to the Fragrant Harbour

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My Por Por is now 87, and she’s lived quite the life. A successful woman who didn’t even complete high school, she fled the Japanese and then the communists, raised a family in Sandakan in Borneo, then gave it up to restart in Hong Kong in the 1970s as an amateur stock trader.

I knew bits and pieces of her story, but never from her directly. In Hong Kong I got the chance to interview her to put the full picture together.

She was born in 1927 in Seklong – a city in Guandong, China. It was a difficult time to be born Chinese. The Japanese invaded when she was eight years old, and her family had to flee into the countryside to avoid the conflict. They stayed there for a while, but returned only to find the Japanese sill in control. Her half-sister was raped by the invaders. Like many of their generation, both of my grandmas maintain a distrust of Japanese people – an opinion borne from a difficult period in Chinese history.

The Japanese stayed around for almost a decade and throughout WWII. No sooner had the Japanese left however, the Communists arrived. Her father had some business interests through Asia, and managed to buy a lot of property. Back in those days, deeds were bought Monopoly style – one purchased the whole street! My great grandfather had more than 100 houses, and was well educated. Not exactly a great profile to have during the Communist uprising.

The family fled to Hong Kong in 1949 and up until that time my Por Por had spent half of her life under threat. She told me that it was a very scary experience. That said, elements of her time in China were not all bad. She loved going to school. She started quite late, around the age of 10, because one of her mothers (her father practised polygamy as was the custom at the time, and had two wives) did not think school was for girls.

But when she was finally allowed in she excelled. She skipped grades. Her favourite subject was history. Most kids (including myself when I was younger) take school for granted. For my Por Por, school was a luxury – something she had to fight for – and you could tell in her voice, even after all these years, that she loved being in class.

“If you liked school so much, why didn’t you go to university?” I asked.

“Because I got married!”. She met my grandfather in China, and they were married when she was 21. That was the end of all possibility of further education.

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My Por Por and her mother-in-law / aunt

My Por Por on her wedding day and her mother-in-law / aunt

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Sisters reunited

There is a fascinating story about their meeting. My grandparents’ mums (my great grandmothers) were sisters but they were born into a poor family and were given up for adoption after birth. They didn’t see each again, indeed didn’t even know they were sisters, until they became adults. When they were finally reunited, this was a obviously a really joyous occasion for both of them. In the end this was how my grandparents met – so technically they were cousins.

I asked my Por Por whether she liked Seklong and she told me simply: “Yes, it was where I grew up. It’s my home”.

When they got to Hong Kong, a year after they married, my grandparents had nothing to do. She told me that they spent all their days going to movies to pass the time – sometimes watching three movies a day! It’s a sweet, romantic picture I have in my mind of my grandparents – two newlyweds idling away the days in a post-war Hong Kong, before kids, before responsibility and before their marriage stopped working.

My family bought a farm up in Yuenlong, in the new territories of Hong Kong. They started farming on it. The thought of my rather bourgeoise grandparents working the land is amusing, bordering on hilarious. No one in my family even closely resembles a farmer – and the lack of practical skills is a trait that has been passed down to me. My Por Por told me her favourite part of the farm was playing with the chicks, holding them in her hand and weighing them.

My great grandfather, my Por Por’s father-in-law, was one of the first Chinese to settle in Malaysia in the 19th century. With his brothers, they started a massive business conglomerate – originally a series of timber plantations, it sprung up to include palm oil, shipping, hotels and banking. My grandfather was called to continue the family business in 1953. He didn’t really want to do it, but my Por Por enjoyed it – and didn’t mind because the Hong Kong farm was struggling.

My great grandfather rocking the old Chinese threads

My great grandfather rocking the old Chinese threads

My great grandfather with his huge family (three wives and children)

My great grandfather with his huge family (three wives and children)

They lived in Sandakan on the east cost of Sabah. The photos from this era evoke such a special, frontier-like wildness. It must have been such a fascinating time to be in Borneo. Soon after, Malaysia and the rest of the tiger economies began their rapid industrialisation – for better or worse, they were never the same again.

In the space of six years she had five children – my mum and my aunts and uncles. They lived a very comfortable and privileged life on account of the success of my great-grandfather’s business. Besides taking care of the children, my Por Por spent her time playing Mahjong and swimming. Our family owned the only swimming pool in Sandakan. It was on a rubber plantation.

My grandparents did not enjoy a happy marriage. By all accounts they argued a lot – mostly about money, which is a shame considering how well-off they were. However, the only time I saw my Por Por cry was at my grandfather’s funeral more than thirty years after they separated.

My Por Por on the timber plantation in Sandakan

My Por Por on the timber plantation in Sandakan

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My Por Por's children - my aunts, uncles and mum (the middle child)

My Por Por’s children – my aunts, uncles and mum (the middle child)

Straight from Wong Kar Wai's 'In the Mood for Love'

Straight from Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’

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My Por Por with my aunt (left) and mum (centre) at the pool

In 1975, at the age of 48, my Por Por moved to Hong Kong to start a new life. It was the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the world was deregulating one industry at a time. Everyday she would go to the stock market (back then one could not buy and sell from the comfort of an internet cafe) and trade. I asked her how she learned and she said she just spoke to people around her, gleaning bits of trading advice and stock tips.

Within one month she had quadrupled her small piece of capital. I think this is pretty remarkable for a woman who did not complete the full complement of high school, and spent almost all of her adult life as a housewife. She got so successful that soon people came to her for advice. I don’t know whether she was truly good at trading, or was just caught up in the rising tide of rapidly expanding global economy, but the fact remains she did it.

She has stayed in Hong Kong ever since. Now retired, she spends her time playing mahjong with her friends. Family visits often and that gives her a lot of joy. When I asked her what makes her happy she said that she likes watching TV, playing mahjong and buying diamonds: a weird mix of the quotidian and the hedonistic. She is extremely generous with her family and I suspect that’s the cause of her deepest fulfilment.

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My mum, Por Por and I enjoying a glass of Hungarian Tokaj wine

The Natural Beauty of Hong Kong

View of Stanley on the descent from the 1000 Steps

View of Stanley on the descent from the 1000 Steps

We decided to go for a hike in Hong Kong.

When I was younger, I spent quite a lot of time in the island city visiting my Por Por (grandma). During these previous visits, the closest thing we came to a strenuous hike was carrying full shopping bags up mall escalators when the lifts were full. So it was nice this time round to see the ‘other side’ of this Asian metropolis.

We met up with Stephen – a travelling yogi, Mesi met in Hungary (by the way, he writes a great blog on www.myfiveacres.com) – and his friend Theresa, who suggested we accompany them on the ‘1000 steps walk’. The trail starts in the middle of the island and goes all the way to the south near Repulse Bay in Stanley. It was beautiful, and utterly surprising. Only 20 min away from the hustle and bustle of the harbour – the malls, the traffic, the concrete jungle – you find yourself in the middle of a REAL jungle. Green for miles around, I couldn’t believe this was the same Hong Kong I grew up with.

Halfway through the walk, we met a French man who had lived in HK for 14 years. He summed it up well – you can’t find this anywhere in the world: an international, world class city with stunning, natural scenery separated from each other by less than half-an-hour.

Concrete jungle and actual jungle

Concrete jungle vs actual jungle

A small, small portion of the 1000 steps - are we there yet?

A small, small portion of the 1000 steps

Later in the week, on the suggestion of my Budapest buddy Jeremy, we headed up to Sai Kung – an area dotted with limestone islands that you can traverse by boat. We hired a junk captained by a quaint, ageing Chinese lady and over a few hours, visited a islands, villages and a beach. Wouldn’t say it was as spectacular as other island chains in Asia, but again, it was fascinating to see a side of the country that I didn’t even know existed before this trip.

It was good reminder for me that you can always explore, even in places you think you know well.

O Captain, My Captain.

O Captain, My Captain.

Our junk in Sai Kung

Our junk in Sai Kung

Sai Kung islands

Sai Kung islands

Junk life

Junk life

Sai Kung dreaming

Sai Kung dreaming

Leaving the Nest: Teaching Yoga in KL

Warming up to take flight

Warming up to take flight

While we were in Hungary, Brad had an ‘out-of-the-blue’ idea that I should teach yoga on our travels. I thought it was great, because it would keep me in touch with teaching, and soothe the somewhat difficult process of giving up classes in Budapest. We looked up studios in cities we were going to hit, and wrote to the ones that felt sort of intimate and less commercialised as most of the yoga spaces in big Asian cities can be. We had a response straight away from this place called Aravind Yoga in KL, and after a bit of back and forth, we agreed on me teaching a class.

I choose the theme LEAVING THE NEST, which was to be a two hrs class full of challenging bird poses. The aim of the class was to inspire confidence – enough to be able to “fly” so to speak, and leave confined comfort zones, expand and explore outside of what we know and what we feel at home with. Basically, the concept touched on the very essence of my life right now, and I must have chosen it sub-consciously as the correlation between the theme and my current experience didn’t occur to me at the time.

We left our home in Hungary roughly a month ago. We had an established life, and more importantly, a very comfortable and rewarding one. We both were doing what we are passionate about, we both had a nice circle of friends and also common friends for the first time in our relationship. Leaving all that behind felt wrong at times. So the subject of the class seemed like a pretty good analogy for what I was going through: leaving our Hungarian nest, our home, and flying into the big wide world.

As you may have read in a previous post, it didn’t take long for India to teach us a a very hardcore lesson in dealing with discomfort. Then I headed into Asia proper: the far East, a culture I was (and still am) completely new to. I’ve never been in this part of the world before and, I’m going to be honest here, I found it quite intimidating. Almost everything about it, starting with the food, the size of the cities, the consumerist attitude to life and the obvious lack of open communication, was challenging. In Hungarian they have a saying “Ez nekem kínai!”, which Hungarians use when they don’t understand something. It translates into “it’s Chinese to me”.

Chinese culture is basically Chinese to me. Insight of the year.

So then I went on to teach. And it was fun. 20 people showed up, the owners of the studio were super sweet and we had a smashing class. I’m really happy that Chris and Phillipe, took a chance on me, and it all turned out really well. If you ever end up in KL I couldn’t recommend their yoga studio enough.

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Fun fact: a Hungarian guy, Akos, and his Malaysian girlfriend, Cheryl, showed up to the studio (but accidentally an hour late, so they didn’t participate in the class), and we went out to have coffee afterwards with them and their friend Su Mei. So the five of us, in a surprising, but totally awesome, Malaysian-Hungarian cultural exchange, ended up in a Hungarian Bistro (in a KL food court) run by this older Hungarian woman called Piroska (shown on picture). We ate kurtos kalacs, a typical Hungarian sweet, and drank some bad Hungarian coffee. Akos and Cheryl invited us to a Hungo ex-pat party to celebrate one of the girls’ birthdays. We went and had a blast. More Hungarians than Malaysians showed up and we thought it so strange that we could find ourselves in a bar in Kuala Lumpur in this situation, when only hours before we didn’t expect this at all.

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The next day Brad and I went out for sight seeing and for some reason I was in a foul mood. I was whinging about the heat outside and then the antarctic AC settings inside, the culture, the contrast of our value systems, blah blah blah…then Brad stopped me. He reminded me what I talked about in my class to others just the day before: about how to broaden our minds, how to become comfortable with the unexpected and how now I wasn’t applying any of it.  That’s not exactly what we call walking the talk…

It was not nice to hear as you can imagine. He doesn’t confront me a lot, or question my integrity but when he does I do listen because I know he is coming from a true place and I need to go straight away and get some real perspective.

So I went.

This is where we are right now. I’m working on finding that constant calm, that space inside where I can always retreat to regardless of the circumstances. A place which is always there for me to tap into, and guides my behaviour. I do believe that we all are the same in the end, we all just want to be happy…

Right now, we are on the plane to Singapore after a week spent in bustling Hong Kong with his mum and granny. A post on that is coming soon, but for now we are spending the day with our good friend from Sydney, Chris in an another Asian mega-city. Then tomorrow we are off to BALI!!! Finally! Back to my own Zen Paradise! Or not… Will see soon enough…

Another chance to practise being at ease with the unease.

For updates on where I’ll be teaching in the future like my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/yogamesh

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Fact of the Day

  • 9,735 animals were saved in the making of this blog