The Dark Side of Paradise

Tonight, I walked in the rain and passed two small boys sleeping on the ground under the awning of a convenience store. They were wrapped around each other’s tiny bodies, and covered in cardboard boxes. Oh, my heart.

I had nothing to offer them except painful heartstabs of compassion, and a knot in my throat.

The cracks in the glorious sheen of my honeymoon love affair with Bali have begun to fracture outwards to create a more dynamic full-spectrum lens of realism.

And isn’t this just the way of life? I always treasure the sparkly rose colored glasses of newness when I arrive somewhere, because i know it won’t last forever. First, we get to simmer in the twinkly idealized mists of magic. And then, comes the shadow.

Just like with human beings. No pedestal lasts forever. Every facet of being exists within every person.

I have been listening to audiobook translations of the Tao Te Ching as I walk around, as well as Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao, (called “Change your Thoughts, Change your Life”).

One of the things he talks about that feels relevant here, is accepting the light and dark of life without judgement. Accepting them as natural and necessary polarities – part of an integrated whole.

That doesn’t make it easier to see suffering.

Yesterday I watched a one-legged, weathered old man, with a leathery lined face, hopping down the street on his singular leg, clasping a tall stick between his hands, heaving himself forward, one hobbling hop at a time.

So many heart stabs, like shockwaves. So many women, sitting on the street clutching small children to their bare breasts. Holding their hands out, begging.

When I pass the begging mamas, I usually make eye contact and put my hands to my heart and let them know I see them. It is a pittance. It is nothing. I don’t have anything to share. The best i can do right now is to share a moment of presence.

Then you hear tales of the “beggar mafia.” Locals implore you not to give money to these women, because supposedly every day they drug and use interchangeable orphan babies to spark generosity from tourists with bleeding hearts. They have a pimp who organizes them and takes the money. 

I repeatedly tested this by offering the mamas fruit and food, but got dirty looks in return. It’s so hard to know how to engage.

When I was a child and I went on field trips up to Boston, I gave away all my food money to the homeless people I saw. And then I had nothing left for my lunch or dinner. My teachers chided me. I still struggle with how to navigate these circumstances. Put on your oxygen mask first … but then …?

Everywhere you go there is disparity and deep dichotomy between the tourism, the expats, and the locals. The Balinese seem to genuinely welcome and love the tourists, as we are their bread and butter…, but you can’t help but feel like tourists are just a herd of elephants, unconsciously stomping through sacred ground, crushing all the delicate flowers.


When i arrived i dipped my toes into the tribal/ traveler scene here. There are social activities nightly with people my age, from around the world …. I love making individual connections with amazing beings, but It isn’t why I am here, ultimately. I am here to work, to write, to observe, to create, to contribute, to grow.

The ecstatic dances are often the same here as they are everywhere – mostly loud abrasive electronic music whose vibrations hurt my body and make me run off to meditate alone under a tree, while sweaty bodies rub all over each other in joyous dance nearby.

I miss the days when I was inspired to dance 4 nights a week to eclectic world music that stirred my soul. The music of this era is just not my music.

When I am in these environments, with lots of beautiful, sweaty beings, I admittedly usually offer people “energy hugs” or “air hugs” or “auric hugs”, where we embrace without touching. (And I get to refrain from being covered in the sweat of dozens of people).

It’s actually kind of wonderful, as much as it seems like a corny new age thing to do. What can I say? I love my boundaries! I love not being covered in random sweat! And I actually really love feeling the sizzle of someone’s heart electricity from a foot away instead of being distracted by the density of flesh.

I have touched into that scene, but mostly i have just been keeping to myself and working on my writing projects, or walking around talking to locals and trying to peek between the layers of veneer to catch glimpses of Bali itself.

Tourist culture permeates the streets here.

There is an incessant call of “Taxi? Taxi?” on the air as you walk down the road. You hear it maybe 100 times a day. Most people ignore the drivers, but I usually take these opportunities to be friendly and say hi.

I usually make eye contact with the taxi drivers and say “No thank you but thanks! Have a great day!” It’s amazing to watch their surprise when i am nice to them. They sometimes look startled, and then quickly melt out of their hustle energy of trying to rustle up business. They smile deeply at me when they feel seen…, such warmth it just radiates from their eyeballs.

Today as I was walking down the street, one of the motorscooter taxi drivers who I wave to every day on the corner actually pulled up next to me while he was carrying another passenger…, just to wave and say “Hi nice lady! You have good day!”

Then he drove off with his passenger. Aw! We don’t speak the same language. But we smile at each other every day and say hi. I have a friend! It made my heart feel a tiny bit less like a tourist, and a bit more accepted or connected to the local Balinese.

You see the richness of Balinese culture everywhere, woven into the tapestry of daily life. You’ll see 90 year old grandmas carry baskets full of heavy goods on their heads as they walk down the street. (Meanwhile – In the US these women would probably be in nursing homes, watching soap operas. I feel amazement and awe, mixed with the desire to go lift their burdens).

It’s interesting how consumerism and materialism are never far away. I meandered down a walking street today that was crowded with a maze of vendors … selling a colorful array of statues, bowls, sarongs, jewelry, dream catchers, keychains with huge engraved penises on them (yep – it’s a thing), and all manner of knick knacks.

Street markets are a venue for a chaotic sales hustle unlike any i’ve ever seen. It swallows you, and is overwhelming in its intensity. Street markets are like the Walmart of Indonesia. Materialism overwhelm. Sensory overwhelm.

Your senses are assaulted… your eyes are saturated with beauty and color and thousands of things you don’t need… your ears ring with the sound of Gamelon mixed with the shouting of haggling salesmen trying to get your attention. Your nose burns with incense and street food.

Women pull on my arms left and right, shoving their wares in my face, pleading with me to buy, and then scoffing when i walk away. I try to engage politely, smile and be friendly as I say “no thank you”, but that just makes them chase me more.

I feel lightheaded and aching with the desire to feed the voracious sense of neediness and desperation that is gushing from them.

I pause for a moment to touch a lovely little dream catcher, thinking of it as a gift for a friend back home. As i turn to walk away, the woman in the stall starts chattering and pulling me back, trying to haggle, bargain and pressure me with her sales pitch even as I say no thank you.

I pause and look her deep in the eyes for a moment, and time freezes. I just say “You are so beautiful!” and am totally present with her, outside of the little bubble of consumerism. “You are so beautiful”. And there she was.

I watch her eyes go from the vacant eyeballs of a hustler saleswoman, to the sparkling eyes of a beauty queen. She smiles ear to ear, grins, glows like a schoolgirl, and she goes silent. I put my hands over my heart, and we bow to each other, twinkle our smiling eyes, and then i walk away.

She lets me go without another word.

I arrived back to my homestay to find the entire extended family out in full force. They were preparing for a full moon eclipse ceremony, each performing some task to prepare for the coming ritual.

The grandmothers sat together, dressed in bright blue lace shirts and bold pink sashes, weaving tiny offering baskets out of strips of palm frond. The grandfather was pounding nuts into a powder, then blending it with liquid and putting globs of the paste onto skewers. The children were pulling leaves off of branches, and running around chasing dogs.

There were piles of flowers scattered all over the porches, piles of food, piles of ginger, piles of turmeric…

It was amazing to watch a family come together and engage in this way. It almost broke my heart to think of American families, so isolated and sequestered in our separate houses, in separate states, getting together to sit around dinner tables once a year. Go to the movies. Go out to eat. Everyone in their own little bubble. Western culture is so sterile compared to this mayhem of interactive cultural ritual.


As much as my homestay has its magic, it also has its challenges. The septic system often is unhappy, and i sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to a sense of nausea, a foul smell pervading the air. I can’t leave the doors open lest creatures come in, but the air conditioner spits water onto me while I sleep.

I came home yesterday to find that the housekeeper had left my door wide open with the key in it. My passport and violin were right on the counter. Yep. The sense of family here is amazing, but there are some benefits to boundaries.

The space is lovely but there are large gaps under the doors, and nature comes in whenever it wants. I have been being stalked by a persistent flying cockroach who seems to return every night to creep under my door and sneak around my room just as I am falling asleep.

I can normally handle insects without getting too squeamish, but i had a traumatic incident in Maui 6 years ago, where a cockroach crawled into my ear while i was sleeping, so i am still creeped out by cockroaches in general now.

Back in Maui, on the night in question, I actually lucid dreamed a premonition of the cockroach crawling into my ear right before it happened. I woke up mid-dream, thinking “that was so creepy!” … and 2 seconds later, the cockroach scrambled right into my ear canal.

In my half-asleep terrorized attempt to get it out, I ended up squishing it even further down into my ear. It made these tiny high pitched screaming noises, (its tiny face was practically pressed up against my ear drum) and it kept trying to flap its wings, inside of my freaking ear.

Needless to say, that was the worst 15 minutes of my life while I waited for my partner to find tweezers and stop laughing long enough to pry it out of my ear.

And needless to say, I cannot go to sleep now, if i know there is a cockroach lurking in the corner of my room. I now have a cockroach spidey sense… an extra sensory awareness of the presence of these scuttling little buggers.

This brings us back to last night. It was the 5th night in a row that he showed up with his creepy little scuttle just as I was dozing off.

At this point it almost feels like this little guy is messing with me and playing hide and seek on purpose, because he knows i won’t kill him. He always comes out of hiding just as i turn my lights off, exhausted and ready for sleep. Always just as i am fading into dreamtime, I hear him skittering across the floor. I feel his presence. I get the heebie jeebies. And I bolt upright out of bed, in full warrior self protection mode

My sonar is on point. I can pinpoint exactly where in the room he is creeping. I jump up and turn the lights back on, and there he is. Every. Freaking. Night. I chase him around like a warrior, slamming my wooden bowl against the wall and the floor, trying to trap him. (My downstairs neighbors probably hate me). This usually occurs at 4 AM.

He flies like a freaking butterfly, so this is often an ordeal. But I get him every time, and I always release him outside. Sometimes he just scuttles right back in under the door, and we do this dance for a half hour more until i stuff my sarongs and towels under the door, and collapse into bed, hoping that will keep him out.

Needless to say I sleep with ear plugs in. Needless to say, I haven’t been sleeping so well.

In the grand scheme of things, these little incidents are just amusing blips on an ocean of epicness. And if the worst thing i have to worry about is a cockroach in my room, i am lucky, because at least i have a room to keep me out of the rain.

If this were ten years ago I might have brought those little boys tonight back to my hotel and let them sleep here out of the rain. Back when I lived in Venice Beach 10 years ago, I used to let homeless people come shower in my shower, and i would even occasionally let them sleep on my floor. My nurturing instinct used to be impulsive, hyperactive and without boundaries.

I realize this is not a reasonable solution currently. I can’t bring all the homeless Balinese children home to sleep in my hotel. But I am making peace with disparity day by day, and asking life how i may grow into a woman who can somehow make a difference in this world.

We each have our unique calling and mission. May we seek that which is seeking us, learn how we can best contribute with the gifts and skills we have, and watch as the journey unfolds, eyes wide, heart open.

So it is. Next time I’m going to go find those kids a freaking poncho. In fact I wish I’d thought of that tonight. So it is. Step by step.