The first time I meet Rai is at the morning market in Sampalan, the largest town on the Indonesian island of Nusa Penida.
She says hello to me from behind mounds of mangos and bright green chilies at the stall she runs with her mother. Despite the heat, she wears a purple hoodie zipped to the neck. We chat for a while, her brown eyes glowing, her dark hair pulled back from her face.
I see her again the next night, at a dance lesson in her village. After the lesson finishes, she asks, “You come to my home?”
And because I have no other plans on this Saturday night, I say, “Why not?”
Rai sits behind me on my motorbike and directs me down an unlit gravel lane. The farther we go, the more the road disintegrates beneath my wheels. I apologize each time we hit a bump.
“Candace,” she chides, “every day I am taking these roads.”
When we reach her house, her family is seated on their concrete front porch. I’m told to call her fisherman father Bapa, and her mother Meme. Her brother Putu and sister-in-law Kadek are also there. Putu is 21, his wife 20; already, Rai tells me, they have lost two children. One died “in belly,” another at 13 days old.
When I try to find the words to say I’m sorry, Kadek smiles an impossible smile and says, “No problem. It’s okay.”
“Tomorrow you can help me selling in the market?” Rai asks.
Again I say, “Why not?”
“And tonight, you sleep at my home?”
For a moment, I mumble something about my homestay at a modified hostel in Sampalan. And then it hits me – I’ve just been offered an actual homestay.
Rai goes to take a shower, and afterwards asks if I’d like to take one, too. Bapa warns me — it’s only a “manual shower,” and the bathroom is outdoors, open for all to see, its walls barely reaching up to my chest.
Still, it’s far enough from the house – and lit only by the glow of Rai’s flashlight – that I soon let go of modesty and strip down, dipping a plastic tumbler into a bucket and feeling the water cool my sticky skin. I tilt my head back, take in the incandescent sky above me, and thank the universe for this moment.
Because that’s the first gift travel gives me – the gift of discovery, and the thrill of encountering a world so completely different from my own.
We set our alarms for 4 a.m., and I lie beside Rai on a foam mat on the floor. Her parents will sleep in the living room. After they turn off the TV, the only sounds are the occasional calls of a gecko and the ticking of a heart-shaped clock on the cinderblock wall – and Rai’s quiet breathing next to me.
I glance to my side and see that the frangipani blossom she’d picked earlier is still tucked behind her ear. I am slow to fall asleep, kept awake by gratitude and wonder at finding myself so at home here.
Because that’s the second gift that travel gives me – the gift of belonging, and the thrill of journeying so far from home only to find a home in such a new place.
The following morning, we arrive at the market when the chickens are still asleep in the trees. Yet we’re far from the first ones here. Women are setting up their stalls with flashlights held between their ears and shoulders like telephones. They roll back the sheets of blue plastic that covered their tables overnight. Rai complains of moths eating her tomatoes.
Like a pot coming to boil, the market slowly heats up. Sandals begin to slap against the dusty paths, plastic bags rustling as they’re filled with corn and cassava and grapes the size of golf balls. While Rai sells produce – carrots and chilies, garlic and red pearl onions – I stand next to her, helping where and when I can.
For the next three days, I return each morning, until the day comes for me to say goodbye and depart from Nusa Penida.
I’m still in touch with Rai – through Facebook, of course – and every now and then I’ll get a message from her, asking how I am. I smile each time, remembering the market and the manual shower and how it felt to fall asleep in the damp darkness of her home.
Because that’s the third gift that travel gives me, and it’s the reason I’ll never stop traveling – the gift of connection, and the thrill of weaving an invisible web around us as we move through the world, and the world moves through us.
The connections that keep each journey alive forever.