EatPrayLoving around the Pacific Rim by Kara Melinda
By now, everybody knows Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s tale of self-discovery and healing. The book has sold millions of copies, made the New York Times best sellers list, and was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. After a harrowing divorce, Gilbert decides to travel for a year. She takes a culinary adventure through Italy, visits an ashram in India, and finds love in Bali.
The book may, at times, have been navel-gazing and fetishizing of Eastern culture, but it also had moments of humor and insight. I started reading it while going through a break-up of my own, and I found her descriptions of the pain of divorce to be oddly reassuring. Wallowing in another woman’s experience of pain and living vicariously through her recovery may have been self-indulgent, but who cares? It felt good.
The book planted a seed in my head. This past July I left my job, sold everything that wouldn’t fit into two suitcases, and hopped on a plane. The past nine months have taken me to seven countries around the Pacific Rim, and like Gilbert I have been doing my share of gluttonous eating, yoga, self-reflection and reading.
This past January I visited Gilbert’s remote Balinese mountain village, Ubud. I stayed at a traditional Balinese house that was turned into a guesthouse for Westerners. During my month there, I met Francoise, a 40-something divorced French writer, Nora, a 40-something yoga therapist, and Janice, a 35-year-old Canadian New Age psychotherapist. The whole town seemed to be full of women traveling alone and searching for something. They haunted the hundreds of organic vegan restaurants and artisan cafes lining Ubud’s streets. It’s this influx of Western tourists that has made possible the growth of massage parlors, abstract expressionist art galleries, and cooking schools run by local Balinese.
I spoke with Timothy Omi, an American who grew up in Bali and who now runs a Bali tourism agency based in Santa Rosa, CA. “Ubud has changed dramatically since the publication of Eat Pray Love,” he said disappointedly. “Before there were maybe four or five high end hotels, now it’s a lot more expensive. Ubud is attracting clientele that are going there for the yoga scene, and are under the pretense that it’s chic, the place to do yoga, be healed and then go to the cafe.”
Omi has noticed an increase in the number of calls from middle-aged women, wondering about Ubud and if he knows of any healers Omi knew Pak Ketut, the healer in Gilbert’s book. Omi said that tourist groups line up outside Pak Ketut’s house every day hoping to work with him, and are willing to pay much higher than the going rate. Pak Ketut is so busy with Western tourists that he hardly has time to work with the local community anymore. Omi cited Pak Ketut’s example as evidence of how Bali is becoming more westernized. “Westerners come to Ubud to get the Bali perspective,” Omi said. “They want to see the purity that Bali offers with its daily rituals, its daily spiritual practices. But they are changing the younger generation who is more interested in cashing in on the growing tourism industry than preserving local cultural traditions.”
I sat at a table for one on a bamboo veranda overlooking the rice paddies. As I savored my raw cacao coconut truffle and mentally prepared for my upcoming yoga class, I felt self-conscious about being a Western tourist blatantly taking advantage of a favorable USD exchange rate to fund my narcissistic voyage to “find myself”.
I’m back in the states now, and I’m stronger, happier, and feel more like myself.
But at what cost? Everywhere I went I saw examples of locals altering their cultural traditions and cuisines for the benefit for American tourists like me. Traditional foods, dances, spiritual rituals, homes and languages are disappearing every day and being replaced by our Western consumer culture.
Foreign cultures don’t exist purely for our benefit. It’s not until we form deeper connections with the local communities by talking and listening to others and reframing our travels as “living” rather than “vacationing” that we can begin to appreciate the world around us. Then maybe we ‘ll be ready to achieve a truer self-awareness and healing.
Kara Melinda is now Eat Pray Loving around California. Guilt trip her on Twitter @Karambutan.
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