Saturday, September 3, 2011

Surf Goddesses

"This is the true story. Of 12 strangers. Who chose to live in a villa..."

Ok, so it wasn't exactly MTV's The Real World. But same concept. You take 12 women from around the world. You place them in a relatively confined space for one week. You give them physical challenges. And you watch what happens. In the actual real world, you would be hard-pressed to find 12 women who could spend a few hours together without having drama - let alone one week.

Yet somehow the 12 of us who attended Surf Goddess Retreats in Seminyak, Bali worked. The owner of Surf Goddess Retreats, Chelsea, an Australian/Canadian, told us that she believes that the women who attend her retreats gravitate towards a certain week for a reason, and I believe it. We all agreed. The 12 of us were meant to spend that week together.

When I arrived at the retreat on Monday afternoon from my five hour flight from Bangkok, the first two women I met were Jemma and Tania, co-workers in Sydney. My initial thought upon meeting them was fear that everyone would be in pairs or groups and that I would be the solo odd (wo)man out. But they were so immediately welcoming, asking me to join them for lunch while waiting on the others, that I realized it didn’t matter if I was the only one traveling alone. After lunch, many other women had arrived, and other than Sue and Helen, friends from Sydney, the rest were all solo.

For the stats: Of the 12, seven were Australian and five were American. We ranged in age from 30 to 43. Two were married, and only four had ever been married. One had children. Almost all had traveled alone to different parts of the world before. To say that I felt like I was among my kind-of people was putting it mildly.

I shared a two bedroom, two bathroom villa with Linda, a woman from Melbourne, Australia. Our villa was located within the compound of the Surf Goddess property but set back a few doors from the main building. As beautiful as our villa was - we even had a private pool - I preferred to be at the main villa in order to hang out with the whole group so that is where I spent most of my time during the week unless I was sleeping.

The main villa consisted of the general sitting area, kitchen and dining room, pool, yoga area and spa treatment rooms. There were shared rooms for two as well as private rooms, and guests had an option of choosing ahead of time what they preferred. Since there were two groups of two women who knew each other, naturally they roomed together.

After our yoga session that first afternoon, we had an orientation in which we introduced ourselves to each other and met the entire staff of the retreat - Chelsea; her sister, Jade, the retreat coordinator; Susan, the yoga instructor; and Melinda, who is in charge of the surf program. We learned what a typical day would look like - yoga (7-9 am); breakfast (9:30-10:30 am); surfing (11 am - 1 pm); free time for lunch, spa treatments, shopping, hanging out by the pool, more surfing, exploring Bali, napping, whatever we wanted (1:30 - 6:30 pm); and dinner (7 pm). The schedule would change here and there, but that was the gist of it. No activities were required, so anytime we wanted to sleep in or felt like we needed a break, we were free to take it. We also learned that the villa was equipped with 24-hour concierge and room service, so even when the cooking and housekeeping staff left for the night we could have food brought in or could make restaurant, activity or spa reservations. After orientation, we sat down to what was the first of our incredible Indonesian meals each night - amazing food, beautifully presented.

The next morning after yoga and breakfast, we were off for our first surf lesson. Each day we went to the Rip Curl Surf School at nearby Legian Beach. We used nine foot longboards - the longer and wider the board, the easier to learn to surf. Legian Beach is typically an ideal place to learn how to surf - not only is the water warm so that wetsuits are not necessary, but the surf is supposed to be gentle. Supposed to be. (See below paragraph discussing the decidedly not gentle surf on Thursday.) Made (pronounced Ma-day) was our main instructor, and we had several other instructors who helped out as well. The first 30 minutes of our first lesson was on our boards on solid ground - going from laying down to a yoga cobra-like pose to standing up, over and over and over. Once Made was satisfied, we were told to go do the same thing except in the water. Ha! Surprisingly, it took some time, but I was able to stand up the first day out in the water. Considering I was only one of two of the 12 of us who had never even touched a surf board before (we were all beginners, but I was just really a beginner), I was happy.

Following our first day of surf lessons, we were treated to two hours of spa treatments at Pranha Spa, a Moroccan-styled spa, large enough to accommodate all 12 of us. We had chosen which two-hour spa package we wanted ahead of time, and I couldn’t remember what I had chosen. Which is why it came as a surprise when, after I had been exfoliated with a coffee scrub, I was smothered from head to toe in seaweed paste, tightly wrapped in saran wrap and cooked for 15 minutes in a sauna. I was a human sushi roll. After the massage therapist opened the door to the sauna and asked me if I’d enough time (uh, yeah), she removed the saran wrap and instructed me to shower the seaweed off. She then gave me an hour-long massage and after reuniting with the rest of the ladies, we were transported back to the villa for dinner and early bed after our long day.

In addition to our two hours at the spa, we had five hours of in-villa spa treatments to use as we pleased throughout the week. I’m all about a spa treatment, especially when brought to me and all-inclusive, so to speak, but other than an hour and a half hair conditioning treatment/shoulder massage/foot massage, I let the rest of my time go. I just felt like my time was better spent with the other ladies - talking, laying by the pool, going to lunch, shopping. I was having so much fun that I didn't want to miss out on anything and besides, I can get a massage anytime at home.

By Wednesday and Thursday, in particular, Bali was experiencing the largest ocean swells in four years. What did this mean for us? Not much. We were still getting in the water even though no one else was. Melinda put an upbeat and encouraging spin on the conditions, and by the time we got there we were ready for the challenge, albeit a little intimidated by the sound of the pounding surf before we could even see it. The no swimming signs were posted, and once we were in, I could see why. I had never felt undertow to that degree, and with a surfboard attached to my ankle, it was even more intense. Imagine being tossed in a washing machine. That's the best way to describe the experience. I didn't stand up on the board on Thursday, but I didn't drown either, so all in all I would call it a successful day.

That night the schedule changed slightly to where breakfast and lunch were provided, but we were on our own for dinner. The 12 of us chose to dine at Metis, a nearby French restaurant that is considered one of the best restaurants on the island. Before entering the restaurant we asked the valet to take our picture. After several failed attempts, he finally successfully took the picture and seemed awfully proud of himself, though we had to laugh when we saw the picture - 75% night sky with the rest being our upper torsos. The restaurant offered an entire foie gras menu, so I was in heaven, and my meal consisted of three small plates - foie gras ravioli with black truffle sauce; grilled scallops with pan seared foie gras, braised lentils and shimeji mushrooms in a sherry sauce; and bone marrow (my favorite of the three). By this time I was stuffed and regretting that I had already placed an order for a chocolate souffle with a pistachio parfait, so once that appeared I took three bites and passed it on down the table. We didn’t exactly account for “island time” with splitting our bill 12 ways, but eventually we made it out of the restaurant and back to the villa following a slight taxi debacle.

The morning after Metis was "Bliss Day," a midway point during the week where we strayed from our normal yoga and surf activities to enjoy a day of either biking, whitewater rafting, Indonesian cooking classes, stand-up paddleboarding, an eco walking tour or additional spa treatments. Nine of the 12 of us chose biking. Our day began at 6 am when, after breakfast, we were driven to Mount Batur, Bali’s active volcano. Along the way, we made three stops - to view the terraced rice paddies, for brunch at a restaurant along a volcanic lake in the mountains and to drink Luwak coffee produced by the Asian Palm Civet. Make no mistake - the Asian Palm Civet is not Indonesia's version of Starbucks. No, the Asian Palm Civet is an animal. And by the term "produced" I mean that this animal eats the beans of coffee berries, which then pass through its digestive tract and the, uh, remains (which curiously keep their bean-like shape) become one of the most expensive coffees in the world. I was neither disgusted nor impressed. Tasted like coffee.

We began the 26 km bike ride after the coffee stop (was that really such a good idea?). We generally rode single file with one guide at the front (one of his jobs being to “shoo chickens, dogs and children out of the way”) and one guide at the back in case we had any problems. Other than a couple of broken chains, all went smoothly. Well, smoothly other than the road. To say there were some potholes would be putting it lightly. But it was all part of the experience of seeing the “real” Bali outside of the tourist areas. We saw workers out in the rice paddies and children walking home from school. (We were told to “high five” them at our own risk - they apparently make a game out of knocking tourists off their bikes with a particularly hard swipe, though it’s all in good fun. Mostly they just shouted “hello!” “where are you from?” “what is your name?”) We rode through small villages and occasionally stopped for water breaks. At one point, we were guided through a family’s compound to observe how the Balinese live. We watched women weaving mats, roosters roaming around and children playing. Everything you would expect. But then we somehow had to make sense of a few oddities as well - Iron Maiden posters, Marlboro Lights boxes used as pseudo wall art and a "gym" that looked like something out of the Flintstones era. After our bike ride, we were taken to a restaurant for an Indonesian lunch overlooking rice paddies.

After the bike ride we were on our own for dinner. Because the swells were so high, we decided to have the driver take us to Uluwatu, the southernmost point of Bali, to watch some big wave surfing. The drive took over two hours, but once we reached Uluwatu the view was worth it. We sat at a restaurant called Blue Point and watched the surfing until the sun set.

After sunset, we went to Rock Bar at the Ayana Hotel in Jimbaran Bay. Rock Bar is so named because it is perched above the bay on a rocky outcrop at the base of cliffs such that a cable car has to transport guests along the cliffs to the bar. One cocktail and a few appetizers later, we were exhausted from our long day traversing the island and headed back to the villa.

Saturday night was our last dinner at the villa. We wanted to watch the sunset at Potato Head, a nearby bar on the beach that is known for its wall of shutters that come from all over the island. Those that could go (i.e. weren’t trying to finish up their last few hours of spa treatments), went. We sat on towels on the grass, drinking Kookaburras (think mojitos with vanilla foam on top - yummy), talking and watching the sun go down. The Australian band, Empire of the Sun, had played there the night before (two of the ladies had tried to get tickets but no luck) and the stage was still set up. They let us go up on the stage to watch the sunset, which was the perfect view overlooking the beach.

When the sun set (and the bats came out), it was time to go back to the villa for dinner with all 12 of us, Chelsea, Jade, Melinda and Susan. Just as we began on our first night, we went around the table and told what we had gotten out of the retreat. Sometimes funny, sometimes emotional, it was clear from what each said that the week had changed us in some way.

We all stayed up late talking by the pool before the next morning’s last yoga and surf sessions. Afterward, we returned to the villa where we ate a quick lunch before everyone had to leave. This is where it really did feel like The Real World. If you were ever a fan, you remember the last episode of each season - taxis arriving one by one to pick up the next housemate to leave, hugs goodbye and reflections upon your time together. I was the last to leave. Well, Christy and I were - both coincidentally headed to Ubud, Bali.

As I read over what I have written in this blog post, I know that I have not done a proper job in capturing the week. I feel like it comes off sounding like copy in a travel brochure. It's one of the reasons I've put off writing this post for so long - because every time I try to write it, I can't get the right words out. I could tell you about all of the laughter or every inside joke (NQR) we had, but unless you are one of my fellow goddesses reading this, it would fall flat. I’m just going to stop trying and accept that this experience is one that can’t be captured in a blog.

So if you can’t read it in my words, maybe you will notice the change in me. Someone recently told me that travel is half the journey of the trip and half the journey of what you bring back from that trip and apply to your life. Which means I've taken half the journey so far. The rest remains to be seen, but I think I'm off to a pretty good start.

I feel like myself again.