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. ◊
Now long retired, I have occasionally looked back and wondered “maybe I should have been a travel writer.” Your post definitely puts this idea in perspective.
There are definitely perks, and I do get moments where I could just pinch myself because I can’t believe how lucky I am. But at the end of the day it’s still a job. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!
Reset? We should, but will we? There is so much wrong with the way we live, James. Part of me doesn’t mind this enforced time to reflect, but the other part wants to go on the rampage…. well, at least for a long walk, without feeling guilty! Take care, hon 🙂 🙂
You too, Jo! 🙂 I’m assuming the Algarve is not a bad place to wait this out… though the authorities must be skittish with a major outbreak in Spain right on their doorstep.
I can still walk on lovely beaches and in country lanes but I don’t know for how much longer. Sense of unease everywhere, and how the small businesses will survive I don’t know 😕💕
I share the same worry about small businesses – they are so often the ones that give each destination their color. Here’s to hoping we all pull through!
I’m an eternal optimist, James, and I fervently wish for a worldwide “nyepi” and reset when we all emerge from our current isolation. The immediate improvement that can apparently be seen in the air and waters should be a sign that we can turn this Earth around, but will it? I fear not. Even now, I am sad to see the baser instincts of our species come out; at a time when we could all be working together to make a difference in the progression of COVID-19, some are thumbing their noses at the idea of social distancing, others are hoarding food and TP (good grief), and many are still talking about money over lives. Thanks for emerging from your writing hiatus to check in with us!
It is so hard not to look at developments in the U.S. – or just about anywhere else, really – and feel a sense of despair. What’s clear is that this crisis is bringing out both the best and the worst of humanity. Some Indonesians have been willfully ignoring the recommendations on social distancing: last week there were religious gatherings of 6,000 and 8,000 people held in two areas where public health facilities just won’t be able to cope should an outbreak occur. At the same time, ordinary people have been setting up multiple crowdfunding drives to raise money for medical supplies and protective equipment so hospitals on the front line can get what they need. Thanks too for the comment, Lex! I hope your parents are safe and sound and you’ve been able to rest up after that 2000-mile cross-country drive!
When I was younger, I traveled, but I haven’t gone anywhere for years. That’s why I enjoy reading your detailed posts showing us the places you visit.
Why not a travel magazine/blog for people that can’t or are not traveling so “we” can visit those remote locations through your writing?
That’s an excellent point, Lloyd – thank you for bringing it up. I have a substantial backlog of stories from my recent trips that still need to be written and published… with all of us now being asked to stay at home, I’d love to get back to posting here on a more regular basis.
We love Bali but really only go to Nusa Dual. A pristine region where the beaches are kept clean and you can just relax around the pool bar! It’s only a 3 hour journey from Perth, making it the ideal short break
I knew Perth was fairly close to Bali, but three hours is practically nothing! How lucky you are to live just a short flight away.
Yes we are ..but it’s not like Europe with so many places to go for a weekend but you can’t have everything 😎
What a thoughtful heart-felt post James. I did so enjoy reading a little about your work life, and yes totally understand the stress. I’ve had numerous opportunities over the years to pursue my travel writing and photography as a career and haven’t exactly because of the things you mention. There are no deadlines in hobbies. Also of course I’m at a different stage of life than you. I’ll be seventy this year so I guess I get to rest up a bit and set my own pace now.
I so admire your work, and think that it’s important to keep publishing about travel – we can all be armchair travellers for a while and enjoy all the variety and richness the world has to offer from home.
We knew about Kuta before we went to Bali and never went near it. It kinda makes me angry. Australia has miles and miles and miles of stunning beaches. Why don’t they stay home and get drunk on their own beaches? Well I guess they’re forced to now and I’m so glad Bali, and other over-touristed places like Venice are getting a break.
We spent a month in Ubud and did day trips all over the island. Bali remains one of the highlights of all our travels. Such a special place. And I hope you’re right – that this is the world’s Nyepi. The world needs it.
Thanks so much for the shoutout. I’m honoured.
You’re more than welcome, Alison. The shoutout was a must – I was so inspired after reading your post and I just knew I had to write something that reflected that same message of hope and optimism. This one actually started out as more of a full-on work-related rant, until I realized it was wholly self-centered and didn’t serve any real purpose. It was missing the sense of gratitude and openness that was so evident in the piece you wrote from that hotel room in KL. So in the end I completely gutted the text and did something different. You’re the one I should thank!
You are so wise to have kept travel writing and photography as a hobby. Bama has a similar stance and tells me he’ll never monetize his blog because he sees it as a creative outlet and he’s happy keeping it just the way it is.
I enjoy what I do and it pays the bills, but I’ll be honest, there are times when that pressure to keep producing stories takes the joy out of writing. Travel journalism as a career is not something I would recommend to anyone I care about, unless they go in knowing what to expect and are perfectly okay with blurring the boundaries between work and pleasure. That said, there have been some incredible moments from my work trips that I’ll remember for a very long time!
It must be challenging finding time to separate your work from your hobbies as there is an overlap. But I’m glad you are able to find time to blog. I have to admit that my impressions of Bali isn’t that positive. But a friend of mine goes there for a writing workshop and she avoids the beach area. She swears there’s a magical quality to that place. The Day of Silence sounds interesting. I’ve never heard of it and I think it’s great.
I don’t know about the reset. People here will have short memories and I fear once this virus is over, life will go back to the way it was.
I didn’t think much of Bali until I actually went – that was a very big lesson for me and it made me realize my arrogance, if you will. I think we all have a tendency to turn our noses up at certain destinations because they attract so many tourists. But if you think about it, they often bring in the crowds for a very good reason. I’m not much of a beach person (I tend to get bored after two hours on the sand) so I go to Bali more for its traditional culture and the lush volcanic landscape. Mass tourism is certainly an issue in the south, but there’s so much to explore beyond the resorts and bars and souvenir shops.
I also share the same analogy even when people cannot travel, the blogs and travel stories are an inspiration for people to plan for travel at a later date. Unfortunately, most travel bloggers including myself have witnessed a sharp drop in readers in the last two weeks. And I thought people will consume more online material because they have a lot more free time at their disposal.
It’s likely that people are glued to the headlines while trying to get to grips with this new normal – anecdotally I’ve heard from multiple friends that working from home is proving far more difficult than it sounds on paper, plus you also have the broader fear and uncertainty as more and more countries curtail their citizens’ freedom of movement for public health reasons. Page views and reader numbers shouldn’t be a real concern at this time.
True. It will take some time before people get out of their mindset about page views and numbers. If this continues for long- a month or two, it will imapct most economies adversely. Stay safe, James.
In the aftermath of the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the island had to rely on domestic tourists to bring vitality back to its decimated tourism industry. I have a feeling this time around, when the pandemic is over or under control they will do the same. A friend of a friend who works for a five-star resort in Nusa Dua said that due to the slump in bookings these days, the company has to tell most of its employees to take unpaid leave, and those who are still working get reduced pay. Every day we read more bad news coming from the travel industry, from the closure of borders to the cancellation of many flights. This is certainly a very difficult time for those whose jobs are tied to this industry, but from the Earth’s perspective this is probably a really good time after so many years of constant pressures from humans. At least for now, a worldwide Nyepi sounds like what the planet needs.
It’s sad to hear about how this crisis is affecting so many people across the travel industry; taxi drivers in Bali told me that work had essentially dried up because Chinese tourists and those from other countries had stopped coming altogether. I would hope the Indonesian tourism ministry uses this current situation as an opportunity to gradually pivot toward a kind of sustainable, low-impact tourism rather than setting targets based only on gross visitor numbers.
The idea of a worldwide Nyepi is fascinating, James, but… can it work? I personally don’t think it can. It might be a great thing to have a light-touch Nyepi, a transition to a less push-push-push mentality, less me-me-me. I’ve returned to work (well, work from home) after having cut short our leave. I returned to a pile of do-this-now-and-this-now-too, panicky emails from executives that read a thing and get flapping like a scared pigeons and so on… you know the types. I’ve decided to go Nyepi on ’em. I’ve left work on Thursday 12th on the verge of a breakdown, I won’t allow myself to go back to that level again. That’s my Nyepi!
I’ve to say, it’s an interesting insight in your job. If you ever want to write more about it… I’d be glad to read it.
Ah yes Fabrizio, I guess the main takeaway from Nyepi is not the self-deprivation or the idea of a total shutdown, but the fact that we all need some time to breathe and slow down and reflect. What a shame you had to cut short your leave and return to such madness. Are you in the airline industry? I can’t imagine what it must be like now… my brother-in-law is a commercial pilot in Latvia and must be sitting at home now that the borders have been completely sealed.
About my job, there are certain things I would love to say out in the open but I’m almost certain that will get me in trouble down the line! Grazie for the comment, and I hope your family and friends in Torino are all well.
I’m a long-time subscriber and lurker. This post helps explain why you have such a beautiful way with words, and I like the inside look into your world. I’ve found that as a business editor, my 40 hours a week of “fixing” articles has made me a fairly insufferable reader and writer. (And makes me triple-check everything I write.) But your writing is poetry.
I’m in the States, and it’s about to get scary here. But someday (just not this May, as planned) I’ll make it to Italy. And down to Australia and New Zealand. And to Belize. Not right now, and maybe not this year. But the people and cultures and countries will still be there for me to learn from, and I will go.
Wow, Mandy, that’s very high praise. Thank you so much for the kind words – it’s good to know my blog entries here pass muster with a fellow editor! I should probably do a bit more triple-checking both at work and before I hit the “publish” button on WordPress.
The situation right now in the States – well, in Europe too – is very worrying. I have extended family in New York, Chicago, and Houston, and I do wonder how they are getting on. Things are not much better here in Indonesia; we’ve had so many of the same problems with the government bungling the initial handling of the outbreak (the health minister is an absolute sham) and too many people ignoring the advice on social distancing. On a brighter note, I’ve just subscribed to your blog, so I look forward to hearing the good news when those trips eventually pan out. We’ll all get through this.
Your writing passes muster because there’s a joy behind it. It’s your art (along with your photography). Even if I did read it with an editor’s eye, which I don’t, anything I’d consider changing wouldn’t take away from the actual piece. The sentiment.
You know how it is when you’re reading and/or editing. You can sense the artistic level. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully you’re nodding your head.
I used to self-edit every entry dozens of times, but then a friend told me to just hit the publish button and tell the story. I try to do that more often now. No piece of written work is ever un-editable, and a lot of it is due to personal preference or conflicting rules. Sometimes that takes away from the actual story. So now I make sure there are no glaring errors and just send things out into the world.
COVID is heartbreaking and worrying and upending life as we knew it. I have friends in Houston, too, and the county just ordered people to shelter in place. Extended family members in Indiana were hospitalized with it, and my aunt’s mother died last week because of it. It’s shocking — and it’s only the beginning. My anxiety about the virus itself has stabilized, but my worries about the economy roil under the surface.
I hope your family and friends around the world are hanging in there. And that you (and Bama) stay safe, as it sounds like you’re in the same boat with a government that’s doing things a wee bit differently than you’d prefer. I’ll keep you updated if you do the same.
(And your subscription was a lovely thing to earn. Just please forgive my rampant use of commas.)
I’m so sorry about your loss. It really does hit home when people you know fall ill with the virus and end up in a serious condition. I’ve read heartbreaking stories of people who weren’t able to say goodbye to their own parents as they died alone in an ICU or isolation ward.
With the case and fatality numbers rising every single day, there’s a danger that those who are less affected will forget how there is a real person behind every number. I hope your extended family members are on the road to recovery or have since been released from hospital. May your immediate family and closest friends remain safe and healthy in these trying times.
(P.S. No worries about the commas – I myself have a tendency to overuse semicolons and hyphens.)
It’s so good to see you back James! Thank you for sharing a bit about your work. Does your boss read this blog? I’m sure he’d be impressed and get a laugh. The life of a travel editor with all those “free” trips sure does seem dreamy, but most of us who aren’t in the business fail to think about the realities that you mention.
I’m glad your magazine continues to publish albeit with less advertisers and less pages. I totally agree that we need something positive (like beautiful travel stories and images) in this difficult time.
Bali (with the exception of Kuta) holds a special place in my heart. The landscapes and beaches are stunning but for me it has even more to do with the overall aesthetic and spirituality –the graceful way most people carry themselves, the care and beauty put into the floral offerings, the exquisite ceremonies….I had not heard of Nyepi before, but it sounds like what we need.
History has shown that we aren’t so good about learning from our mistakes. I do hope though that this worldwide crisis is a wake up call.
All the best to you!
Thanks Caroline! There is so much I’ve missed here and I’m looking forward to catching up on everyone’s posts in the coming days. I think my boss knows *of* this blog, but he doesn’t read it or even have the web address – at least not to my knowledge! This latest trip was the most stressful experience I’d ever had in Bali, to the point where I felt happy to leave and return to my normal routine in Jakarta.
You are so right about the deep spirituality that pervades everything the Balinese do, and their incredible devotion to artistry and craftsmanship – it is something we are losing (or have already lost) in our fast-paced industrial lifestyles. I hope things in Vancouver are under control and that there isn’t too much of a disruption to daily life. Take care!
A fascinating read. Sorry to hear that your industry is suffering because of everything happening in the world. It helps to face this with an optimistic approach and think of the future, when normality is returned.
I too am a big lover of Bali, and I feel the magic that you’re referring to whenever I am there. I have just returned from the island after my four month trip got cut short. It was such a shock to see tourists slowly leave one by one, and to see how much Bali relies on tourism. A good friend of mine from Jakarta lost his job as a musician and is having to return back home as he can’t afford to live and needs to return to family. It was almost like a ghost town when I left, something they probably haven’t experienced since the Bali Bombings in the early 2000’s.
I love what you draw upon when talking about Nyepi too. The celebrations were subsequently cancelled in multiple areas, but the practice of the Day of Silence still continue, which sounds a lot like the rest of the world right now. The parallel you draw between the impact of Nyepi and the global consequences of this pandemic is so insightful, for the first time in a long time everything has come to a hault and the planet can finally breathe again. Let’s hope humanity can learn from this and continue to look after our world. Stay safe and take care.
Hi Amelia, welcome to the blogging world and thank you so much for those heartfelt words! Back in the first week of March, Bali already felt much quieter than usual. The taxi driver who took me from the airport to Seminyak told me business was terrible because so many people were staying away – he had to wait hours and hours just to pick up a single passenger. I’m sad to hear that your four-month trip through Southeast Asia had to be cut short… I’ve heard Indonesia is now extending tourist visas indefinitely but of course it’s wise to fly home and be close with friends and family as we never know how things will pan out. I hope Portsmouth isn’t so badly affected and the panic buying has eased somewhat. Take care too, and may you stay happy and healthy throughout these crazy times!
Thanks for the update James and your words of wisdom. It certainly is an unimaginably difficult time. No one knows what the future will hold. We are all trying to remain hopeful in this scary time and remember the things we love. I sure miss travel but I miss just having a normal life the most! 🙂
You’re welcome, Nicole – thanks too for the lovely comment. 🙂 In hindsight I was really cutting it close by traveling the first week of March, even if it was a domestic trip and for work! I remember living through the months when Hong Kong was the epicenter of SARS and it was nothing like this. Guess it’s true that real life is stranger than fiction. And I share your feelings about missing the times when things were normal – fingers crossed this pandemic will be over by June or July.
Yes this is so crazy isn’t it. It doesn’t even feel real. I always think that you in Asia are better prepared than we are here as you have been through epidemics before. It is hard because there is so much blaming and finger pointing right now in the US. I just wish I had better faith in our government. But thankfully I live in a state that is doing what is right. Take care and keep us updated on how you are doing.
I am new reader of your blog. I have not been to Indonesia but have lived in Hong Kong and also being an Indian can understand how the Asian sensibilities work. We are living in crazy times not knowing what is real or what is fake news. Can only hope for the best for all of us.
As they say, life can be stranger than fiction. It sure is difficult to maintain a positive mindset amid all the grim headlines and major disruptions to our normal lives. I’m cautiously optimistic that May will bring a little more good news from around the world.
Hope you and Bama stay safe. Human beings are naturally social creatures.
We cancelled our Europe trip for June.
Much appreciated, Jean. May you remain safe, healthy, and sane as well. I’m encouraged to hear that the situation in B.C. is looking much better than in provinces out east. Hard to say when international travel will be possible again – maybe September at the very earliest.
This is a different post from you, James. The last months sounded stressful for you. Didn’t know you were such a dedicated travel editor, even in times like these when travel is so uncertain. I hope you don’t get any more nightmares of you in just your underwear at work. There’s been news when travel resumes especially with flights, it will be different. You probably might have read travel will be so much more expensive in the future to cover costs losts right now, and seating arrangements on planes might be different. In Australia domestic travel might be happening again soon but no word on international travel. I hope you’ve been well during this time. Take care and stay safe.
Thanks so much, Mabel. Apologies for the long-delayed reply – for some reason I didn’t see this comment until now! I’m happy to hear that the situation in Australia is looking good and individual states are already relaxing restrictions. It seems like domestic travel will be the way forward at least in the next few months. That said, there’s talk of Bali reopening in October for international visitors because infection rates there have been quite low compared to places like Jakarta, and of course so much of the economy there is dependent on tourism. We shall see.
I went to Bali looking for fabric and was ashamed to be Australian. The behaviour I saw was awful. I went again after the terrible bombing of the nightclub and saw a different Bali.
I am currently in Italy and was in lockdown for almost 3 months in our mountain house. I was very lucky to be in such a beautiful safe place.
Italy has been open since the 18th of May and people are coming in from other countries, not like in past years obviously, but I worry that the virus numbers here will start to rise. I see businesses struggling in our small village and I wonder what will happen if we have to lockdown again.
Isolation in a hotel for 2 weeks in Australia is putting me off going home and I expect my rescheduled fight home in October will be cancelled anyway, so I expect to be here for many months to come.
These are strange and worrying times for all of us. I hope for a better 2021.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Debra. Bagni di Lucca seems like such a good place to ride out the pandemic, although I’m sad to hear that the local businesses are not doing well. The latest word from Bali is that thousands of people in tourism and hospitality have lost their jobs; the island reopened for domestic travelers at the end of last month, but with new case numbers as high as ever in other parts of Indonesia, I wonder if that was a wise decision.
I did read about the strict quarantine measures in Queensland, and how they’d closed the border with New South Wales. Just a year ago the idea of that would have been totally far-fetched and dismissed as practically impossible. But I’m glad that Brisbane isn’t seeing the same surges that have afflicted Sydney and Melbourne. Fingers crossed a few vaccines for this virus will be rolled out soon.