Women's rites go awry in Bali
I should have seen it coming. First I lost my credit card in the departure lounge. Then I was pulled out of the queue going through security. "Just a random check", the nice lady said as she swabbed my tattered daybag.
The detection machine beeped and she looked puzzled. 'Don't panic', I thought, as I craned my neck to spy the machine's alert message: "Explosives detected".
She called in the sniffer alsatian, but the only thing its probing snout lingered over was my egg sandwich. Phew.
I was gripped by a disturbing thought. "I'm not sure that Bali customs will be so friendly," I texted a colleague anxiously. "If I end up in jail, you're in charge of mobilising the world's media."
My fears were quickly allayed as I breezed through Denpasar airportand into the lush villa that was to be my home for the next six days.
Surf Haven Bali, run by Kiwi and former high-powered fashion marketer Janine Hall, is a women-only surf, spa and yoga retreat, based in an airy villa in the swanky suburb of Seminyak, complete with 17-metre swimming pool, air-conditioned yoga studio and a gorgeous slab of tree that serves as the communal dinner table.
Just a couple of blocks from the main street, it's a world away from the chaotic melee of designer boutiques, smelly traffic, cracked pavements disappearing into yawning man-traps, air heavy with the nauseating blend of frangipani and scooter smoke. Depending on your perspective, it's a restful haven or a sanitised isolation cell from the colour and character of the real Bali.
There's a strong emphasis on sharing – food, yoga and friendship, so we began by meeting the crew: a school psychologist working in Saudi Arabia; an Australian urban planner on her first separation from her 10-month-old son; a Canadian nurse and an Aussie finance worker.
Sitting on yoga mats on the lawn in the fading evening sun, we set our intentions for the week, Bali-style. Deeply spiritual, the Balinese are famed for their fresh flower offerings, which they place at the family shrine up to five times a day.
Our yoga teacher – former dancer and designer Amanda Jane Williams – called in help from a high priest and priestess. We raised flowers to the sky, tucking them behind ears or laying them on tired heads as the priestess chanted quietly, a bell tinkled and incense hung in the humid air.
There's no knowing what everyone named as their intentions, but maybe the gods got us mixed up. Because mine definitely wasn't to lose 2kg.
FEAST (AND FAMINE)
It might sound like a colon-cleansing potion, but the carrot, apple, celery and ginger juice at breakfast was truly amazing, its zing packing the same punch as my usual caffeine hit.
It set the tone for the week, with menu highlights including coconut, lentil and pumpkin curry, ricotta hotcakes with cinnamon apples and papaya and roasted nut salad.
Food is big at Surf Haven – the menu is designed by Aussie therapeutic chef Samantha Gowing. Though the emphasis is on healthy, and most of the food is vegetarian, there's plenty of it, and taste is king.
We were testing out the retreat's new rejuvenation week, so while the girls were taming the waves, we set off on a foodie tour, starting with the fruit and vegetable market.
A tropical downpour had frightened off customers and sellers, but there was still an array of produce, familiar and unfamiliar – spiky lychees, delicious mangosteen and the native snake fruit, named for its scaly skin.
A woman and her young daughter pared fronds for offering baskets while a sunken-featured elderly woman opposite assembled the shredded pink and white petals that go in them.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of narrow alleys, we found Warung Sulawesi, a cute, traditional Balinese eatery. Having had underwhelming Indonesian meals at Seminyak's upmarket restaurants, I had low expectations.
So the tastebud-wowing feast of quail's eggs, honeyed tofu, rich, spicy eggplant, tempeh and chicken, all accompanied by hot citrusy sambal, was a good reminder that food is always best in unpretentious restaurants crammed with locals.
The plates might be stained and the decor basic, but the food is made with lashings of love.
And that was the end of my culinary odyssey and the beginning of my extreme weight-loss diet. That night my stomach rebelled and I barely touched a morsel for four days.
So much for my rejuvenation retreat. I initially blamed the warung, but when six out of seven of us became sick throughout the week, that seemed less likely. Post-storm, rubbish-strewn sea was another possible culprit, but not all the victims swam.
Tests back home ruled out the usual suspects – campylobacter, rotavirus, giardia, cryptosporidium. So I'm none the wiser. Just 2kg lighter. Which in my case isn't a good thing.
What was really criminal was that I couldn't do justice to American consultant chef-turned yoga teacher Lisa Esposito's cooking workshop: pineapple cucumber gazpacho; creamy cashew dip and raw chocolate torte which uses avocado to provide a creamy texture. Sounds weird, but surprisingly delicious.
"Learn to linger in your discomfort," lithe Lisa counselled while muscles burned as we held our yoga poses. "The mind is the hardest muscle to control."
Ain't that the truth. They talk about trying to still the monkey mind – I think I've got a whole jungle's worth whooping around in mine.
A relative yoga newcomer, I was nervous about the prospect of two daily sessions, especially when some started at 7am. But it was incredibly invigorating – the perfect blend of physical exertion and thinking time.
At the week's end, when asked to name our retreat highlights, yoga featured on almost everyone's lists. Janine (known as Jen) says most women come to Surf Haven for "me time".
To take a break from being mum, wife, or boss and just be themselves. That can be emotional and often that emotion comes out in yoga, when you're forced to take time to reflect. Several mats were tear-stained at the end of tough sessions.
With two teachers using very different styles, and a range of yoga practices, from the breath-focused kundalini yoga to the exhausting cardio workout of power yoga, every class offered a different challenge and reward. Used to a more sedate stretching, I loved the physicality, and the fact my yoga wardrobe was soaked in sweat after every session.
"I give myself permission to relax," read the note under the massage table headrest. It's one of countless little touches – the inspirational quote and chocolate on the turn-down every evening, the elaborate table settings at every meal.
The massage kneaded out my shoulder tightness, but it was only a warmup for the two-hour Balinese massage, called mandi lulur.
Don't be fooled by the sweet-looking Balinese women in their elegant turquoise lace dresses, black hair swept back with flowers. They have mean knuckles.
I was oiled and kneaded for an hour before the sandpaper scrub came out: a scary brown concoction containing turmeric, sandalwood, cinnamon, ground nuts and rice, which scours off any dead cells (and tan). My masseuse then used a coconut shell ladle to rinse off the paste.
Standing in a shower cap and paper undies, slathered in yoghurt, I began to wonder if I wasn't an extra in some bad porno movie. But that feeling went when I was left in a bath with rose petals and frangipani.
- The writer travelled courtesy of Surf Haven Bali.
The Dominion Post