The day after the ANZAC Day public holiday the girl from HR told me that according to new policy, I had to use up at least 4 weeks of my leave before the end of the financial year. She must’ve seen the darkness in and under my eyes: “Hang on,” she said and dashed out only to come back with a glossy brochure detailing a Ten Day Luxury Health and Well Being Retreat in a Tropical Hideaway in Ubud, Bali. I nodded and before I knew it she had booked the flights and the retreat. “You can work out what to do for the rest of the month. Maybe go to Nusa Lembongan or Lombok. Stay away from Kuta though. It’s gone to the dogs and you’ll undo all the good of the retreat.” HR wants us in top nick to meet the ever increasing KPIs.
You can smell Asia as soon as you step out of the sanitised aircraft cabin. It’s that exotic mix of tropical foods, equatorial spices, religious incenses, rice paddies, burning plastic, open drains, and human excrement all lightly steamed at 30 degrees Celsius for 365 days of the year. Fortunately, after about six hours the brain switches off to this scent; it’s some sort of highly evolved and sophisticated olfactory survival mechanism that has allowed humans to remain in close proximity to each other and populate the world beyond carrying capacity. In a modern sense, without it there’d be no tourism trade in South East Asia or anywhere else in the third-world where they haven’t managed to master the art of hiding the outputs of human consumption either deep underground or way out to sea.
Colonial currencies are exchanged into millions of rupiah and the process of redistribution of first-world wealth begins. You can go nuts haggling over the best price for a Bintang singlet, a pair of fake Ray Bans or the cost for a car to get to Ubud from Denpasar. No matter how well you think you have bartered, deep down you know you have paid more than a local would pay. You justify being ripped off with a patronising arrogance that you’re helping the less well off. Which all falls apart when the driver tells his mate in Bahasa Indonesian how much he got you for and they laugh their heads off and smile with those big white all natural teeth.
It was about 2 am by the time I got into the room at the retreat. The concierge told me in broken English that orientation would be in the yoga shed at 6 am. I should’ve have run then. I should’ve realised that the girl from HR had sold me up a polluted creek. Sure, it was green and lush, and what they do architecturally with bamboo and stone is impressive. And yes, tropical fruit for breakfast while the hired help makes up your room and you book your massage time all sounds indulgent and rejuvenating. But here are some facts: the papaya and salad greens are washed in that same polluted creek, so in effect the detox everyone raves about hits on day two and is exactly the same as a solid dose of Epsom salts; the girl who cleans your well used toilet also massages your back and calves to a pulp no matter what you say after she asks, “Excuse me, how is my pressure?”; and the German yoga instructor, who has at least a fortnight’s worth of your holiday pay in his ikart bum bag and has tied you up in excruciating knots while screaming how weak and pathetic we all are, refuses to speak to any of us lowly unenlightened participants—but he does sleep with the best looking girl who is here from Portugal with her fiancée who consequently nearly committed suicide in the Monkey Forest on the one day we were allowed into town.
After ten days of holistic hell, I looked up an old mate, Tezza–Terry Mc Carthy to be precise. When Tezza came to Bali in 1974 his name caused so much delightful confusion that he ended up never leaving.
Tezza: “G’day. I’m Terry McCarthy.”
Balinese person: “Yes, thank you. Terima kasih.”
Tezza can surf like a demon and with his grateful name and the way he tore up the mountainous left-handers off Ulawatu he became a legend. In no time he was married to a girl called Mali and was running a Warung on the beach at Seminyak. He’s still there and still as humble and down to earth as ever. He took me into his home, put me onto the Bintang diet and organised me a proper massage.
Needless to say, my enforced month long holiday had a happy ending.