Silver Linings in the Storm
Where do I begin? The last time I published anything here was two months ago, before the WHO had given Covid-19 an official name, before the virus really took root outside Asia, before countries began closing their borders en masse to prevent its spread.
I have been on an eight-week hiatus from writing here and reading and commenting on other blogs, mostly because of tiredness. I don’t usually bring up my current work as an editor (not numero uno, mind you) of a glossy travel magazine. In some ways, it is a dream job. In other ways, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Such is the risk of turning your hobby into a full-time profession – hobbies don’t usually revolve around deadlines. Jobs so often do. At times, my low-level work-related anxiety manifests in dreams, sometimes unpleasant and mostly ludicrous, involving my boss. (In the most recent one, which transpired just a few nights ago, I showed up to a meeting with him wearing only my underwear.) These tend to surface at particularly stressful periods but also while I’m on holiday, as though my subconscious is wracked with an underlying guilt that tells me travel is work. These days, the very last thing I want to do when I come home from the office is to write. Especially about travel.
And yet, I have to remind myself to count my blessings. I will most likely get to keep my job even though the company has been hit very hard by the coronavirus crisis. Regular advertisers have been dropping out one by one; in the matter of a few short weeks, the page count of our magazine’s upcoming edition has contracted by almost a quarter – something my boss has never seen in his nearly two decades at the helm. A story that is all primed and ready to go has been postponed because we simply can’t afford to run it in our next issue. Another account, this time from northern Italy – an article that was beautifully written and shot back in January – hung in the balance until just a few days ago. My boss wasn’t sure a full-length feature from one of the countries worst-hit by coronavirus would strike the right note. But there is not a single destination in our upcoming edition that has not seen any Covid-19 infections. That begs the broader question: why publish a travel magazine at all when the prevailing advice from medical experts and governments is to stay at home? Why bother when cities and entire countries around the world have gone into lockdown?
The answer is that as trivial as it may sound, the magazine will present something positive to look forward to in these unprecedented times. Italy might be off the cards for now, but hopefully, perhaps later this year, when the disease is brought under control and travel restrictions are lifted, visitors will start trickling back in to admire its art and architecture, to eat the country’s glorious food and connect with local people. At the office on Friday night, as I was putting the final touches on the very last missing article in our next issue, the authorities here in Jakarta announced a state of emergency. It wasn’t a formal lockdown per se. All entertainment venues in the city – cinemas, bars, nightclubs, karaoke parlors, and the like – would soon be shut. The governor also appealed for all offices to be closed and for residents to remain in town, though that announcement carries no legal weight.
I then took the mock-up of our magazine home for one final round of proofreading this weekend. When I sat down to read it yesterday, I thought about how wonderful and hopeful it is to see stories on places like northern Italy. And I couldn’t ignore the immense pride that welled up inside on seeing my own report from Indonesia’s Island of the Gods, where I went on a last-minute assignment the first week of March. What lucky scoundrel gets to fly to Bali for work, with flights and meals covered by their company?
Of course, I wasn’t there for fun: there was no time to stroll along the beach or lounge on a daybed by the pool as regular resort guests were doing. I spent those four days in Bali juggling meetings and site visits and outdoor photo shoots planned around the vagaries of wet season (my boss prefers blue skies in my pictures wherever possible). I worried about the status of a will-it-or-won’t-it-happen interview that was crucial to the story, plus there was the unexpected burden of having to cover for our online editor who was on holiday (ironically, in Bali) that whole week. I set my alarm for 6:30 one morning so I could hammer out an online news story before breakfast. Throughout those four days, I swung between bouts of joy and stress and pangs of loneliness, the latter most evident as I sat alone one night at a bakery-café just down the road from the hotel, where the service was surprisingly surly and the quiches were too salty and not worth the price. I was lured there by the telltale aroma of melted chocolate that drifted into the street. But where were the freshly baked chocolate pastries? The next time I went to Bali, I promised myself, it would be for a holiday.
Even now, Bama jokes that it took him a long time to convince me to visit the island. I’d grown up with the misconception that Bali was just a beach destination filled with drunken Australians. That might be true of one specific area near the airport (Kuta, I’m looking at you), but my belief would have been like judging all of New York City just by the touristy, superficial nature of Times Square. When I finally went in December 2013, I immediately understood Bali’s appeal. There is something magical about the place. The landscape there is bewitchingly beautiful, the island possesses a unique culture found nowhere else, and its rich artistic traditions have drawn travelers for decades. Komang, the local driver who took Bama and I all over Bali on two separate trips, told us that he’d grown up in a village of stonemasons, and he knew how to carve intricate reliefs without the aid of drawings. The Balinese have a concept called taksu – a divine fire, a divine inspiration, that infuses the work of artists, craftsmen, and dancers so they can achieve something beyond mere technical brilliance. Then there is the foundational philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, which promotes harmony with God, harmony among people, and just as importantly, harmony with the natural world.
On Wednesday, Bali will celebrate Nyepi, the annual “Day of Silence”. For 24 hours, the Balinese will stay indoors to fast and meditate, partaking in self-reflection as they abstain from work, from any kind of entertainment or pleasure, and even from the use of electricity. It is the one day each year when the traffic-clogged roads of southern Bali are quiet and the busy international airport is shut down. Those who have the privilege of being on the island will, weather permitting, see incredible star-filled skies because of the sudden lack of light pollution. As Alison of Adventures in Wonderland wrote in her latest post, there is a silver lining to this public health emergency now sweeping our world. It is a golden opportunity to press the “reset” button, to evaluate our previous habits and do away with the ones that were toxic and harmful. This crisis reminds us that something must change; we cannot simply go back to the way things were before. The economy cannot be driven purely by growth and consumerism and oil prices and stock market indices; there must be a more sustainable way of living that takes care of our individual wellbeing and also the wellbeing of the planet. Perhaps this is everyone’s Nyepi. ◊