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Foregoing the fly-and-flop holiday, Alexandra Pereira embarks on a quest for happiness that takes her Berlin to Bali, Svalbard to Japan. This is spiritual tourism at its most raw, a series of pilgrimages and retreats that form a journey of self discovery. In the final instalment of a three-part series, she renews faith in Bali and meditates on the past and present of spiritual tourism.
PART III: BANISHING DEMONS
I’m in Bali and the Ogoh Ogoh parade is underway, a celebration that comes the day before Nyepi – an annual day of silence that seeks to vanquish evil spirits and marks New Year in the Balinese calendar. On this Hindu holiday everyone – tourists included – is instructed to stay home and use no electricity or power. The airports and ports are closed, WiFi is restricted and meditation mode is on.
The preceding parade, by contrast, is electric. As the air is infused with the smile-inducing scent of frangipani and lemongrass, and 12ft-tall models of monsters and demons snake between floats, villagers chant and dance to the rhythmic beats of steel drums and cymbals. It’s incredibly moving.
There is, however, a different side to Bali. The island has a reputation as being a hub for the newly-self discovered. It’s crawling with perplexingly happy humans cashing in on enlightenment. Influencers are “finding themselves” while receiving lucrative sponsorship from brands flogging swimwear, coconut water, spirulina and the like.
It makes you question: can visiting the island be more than a matcha-slinging, chakra-cleansing, Eat Pray Love cliché? I’m comforted merely by the fact that David Bowie requested for his ashes to be scattered on Bali.
I’m staying at the Four Seasons Bali at Sayan set among the lush canopies of Ubud jungle. In response to the rising demand for retreats rooted in local culture and spirituality, the resort has launched a year-round calendar of gratitude programmes. Led by a former nun named Fera, I undergo a 90-minute chakra blessing followed by a sacred nap, during which my quaking body is strung up like a baby bat in a hammock. I feel as if near death.
Years ago in Arizona’s Painted Desert my body had a similar violent reaction to a sound bath. As analogue waves rippled through the room, I felt as though my biorhythms were being scrambled, as if my stomach and heart were being wrung out. All thoughts and worries flooded my mind simultaneously. I felt panicked and sick and stuck in a half-sleep paralysis. Stumbling out into Arizona’s close, humid heat, I felt at once nauseous, drained and – I suppose – reborn.
My mind wanders back to Bali. While the island’s population is a patchwork of international citizens – and not to mention hugely touristy – Balinese life remains dictated by Hindu and Buddhist scripture, with a committed belief to karma and retribution. One local tells me that crime “just doesn’t happen” here. People leave their doors open and keys in their moped engines. Flower offerings to the gods are left on every doorstep and, though it might feel smothering for first-timers to Bali, the islanders are rigorously attentive, polite and kind. Evil spirits are kept at bay here.
For me, getting to the spiritual heartland of a place is to wander haplessly, to listen to stories, to engage in local culture. It might mean living in a place permanently for a time, though you can pretend you live somewhere even if you’re there only briefly.
Without us knowing, spiritual tourism has been filtered into our consciousness since we were young. It is nothing new; people have been trekking to holy lands and places of worship since the dawn of travel. It’s likely that your school trips, family holidays and mini-breaks guided by worn paperbacks will have chanced upon churches, cathedrals and temples – perhaps even upon a haunted place.
The main difference now is technology. Investing time and money and air miles is no longer regarded so much as indulgence; we see our travel as a wellness activity that could make us happier and hopefully boost our overall success. In this context, boutique agencies such as Scott Dunn are the life coaches of the travel industry; their seasoned guidance leads us on potentially life-changing forays around the globe.
Yet there are some aspects of spiritual tourism that technology has not quite mastered. While it’s magical that I can share an eye-popping image of a seaside shrine in real time online, for instance, a swarm of selfie sticks and screen-consumed humans at some sacred spots just makes you sad. In Bali, my photographer wrestled with capturing the staggering spectacle of a gorge. “You know what, a camera will never see this,” he meditated. I nodded and returned to my heady gazing and mental note-taking. I needed a sacred nap.
Scott Dunn offers a seven-night stay at Four Seasons Sayan, Bali from £2980 per person. This is based on two people sharing a Duplex Suite on a B&B basis and includes international flights and private transfers. For more information please visit scottdunn.com
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