Being And Nothingness: Questing For Indolence In Ubud

OCTOBER 5, 10:30 a.m. — I’m sitting by my private villa’s footprint-shaped infinity pool at the Royal Pita Maha resort in northern Ubud, Bali. I’ve been on Bali for five days now as an invited guest at the gloriously cornucopic and chaotic Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, a five-day literary love-fest that brings together 130 writers from more than 20 countries with hundreds of literature enthusiasts to celebrate words and humanity. We’re in day three of the festival and I’m totally loving it. I’ve already had stimulating conversations with dozens of wonderful worldly people and I feel that my personal planet is broadening and broadening with each encounter.

And that’s in addition to the sublime joy of being in Ubud itself, which – once you get away from the main drag, which is clogged with motor scooters, taxis, touts, trucks and tourists – bestows still a little piece, and peace, of heaven.

I taught an all-day travel writing workshop (with students from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, England and the U.S. – we were a world-girdling odyssey without going anywhere!) two days ago and pontificated on a panel about travel writing yesterday. Tomorrow I have a full day of back-to-back panels on travel writing, the intersection of food and culture, and the future of publishing – but today, my schedule is enticingly, exhilaratingly, panel-free.

I have been thinking that I should spend the day exploring the less-touristed northern and western corners of Bali, or paying homage to some of the island’s renowned temples, or re-visiting the villages I wrote about on my first journey here 34 years before….

But sometimes as a travel writer you have to do things that just don’t come naturally, that take you way out of your comfort zone. And today, I’ve just impetuously decided, is one of those days. Sitting on my terrace under the batik blue sky, contemplating a day that stretches as infinite as the pool before me, I’ve resolved to try to do something that I haven’t done in a very, very long time: nothing.

That’s right, I’m immersing myself in indolence.This is a challenge. I haven’t been indolent in so long that I can’t even remember what it feels like. But I suspect it’s kind of like riding a bike. Or not riding a bike …

Indolence is the inspiration for innumerable vacations every year, but as a travel writer, I’ve always taken a gritty pride in never being indolent. Perhaps because most people assume that all travel writers ever do is lie under palm trees doing nothing, for most of my professional life I’ve sneered at the notion of lying under a palm tree doing nothing. I’ve pitied the poor salarymen and women who spend their holidays basting on beaches and call it travel.

But after two of the most hassled, harrowing, hectic, pushing-me-to-my-limits-and-beyond weeks of my life just before I galumphed onto a plane for the 24-hour passage to Hong Kong and Denpasar, I’m having a mini-epiphany about indolence: it’s time to embrace it.

11:30 a.m. — Indolence isn’t easy. I let my guard down for a moment and before I realized it, I’d swum a dozen laps in my private villa’s oh-so-private pool.

I swam naked, if you must know. I started to ease myself into the pool in my bathing suit, and then I realized that no one could see me and that normal patrons probably pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of jettisoning their swimsuits and surrendering themselves to the bath-warm, arak-clear liquid in all their newborn glory, and it seemed heresy for me not to do the same. And now I’m lying (naked, if you must know) on a very comfortably padded chaise longue, on a soft towel striped in shades of sand and brick under a wide green sun umbrella, worshipping the gods and writing in my weathered and oh-so-understanding journal …

I’ve got my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Bali by my side, and I just thought that I could write a brilliant meta-postmodern-deconstructionist-neo-existentialist story about a travel writer exploring Bali by lying poolside in Ubud for an entire day reading the Lonely Planet guide to Bali – and then that seemed so entirely not indolent that I dropped the idea like a hot corn fritter.

Vigilance is all …

1:00 — I just went for another quick swim – the water was calling me — and now I’m lying on my chaise longue and the thousand shades of green on the hillsides around are massaging my mind and the sun is a heated compress on my back and the palm fronds rustling in the wind and the intricately thatched roofs and the artistically arranged rocks are all gamelan-ing in hypnotic synesthesia, and I’m thinking the truest way to achieve indolence would simply be to be, to be here now, and I’m realizing there is really only one way to do this, and that is to simply put down my pen and do nothing at a

[Photo credit: Don George]