Unplugged in Ubud
For quite awhile, the number one thing on my bucket list has been to go off the grid, to vanish from the saturated, self-absorbed social media scene and abscond from the modern millenial world. Would it be easy? Undoubtedly, no. I'm a millenial. Technology is ingrained into my daily life, and I’m regretfully more dependent than I would like to be. However, my third day on Bali I was blessed and cursed with a motorscooter accident (*not my fault*) that left me without my glasses, wallet, and phone—it did leave me with what I would call a minor concussion though. A few days after the debacle, and after I had moved from chaotic Canggu on the southwest side of the island to Ubud in the jungly heart of the island to start my English teaching program through Green Lion Bali, I realized this was a twisted, yet fortuitous opportunity to unplug. So I decided that for the first week I'd be teaching in Ubud, Bali, I would fully disconnect from the virtual world and immerse myself wholeheartedly in the present. During my orientation week full of activities—like a tour through the Monkey Forest, Balinese cooking classes, teaching seminars, art clases, Bahasa Indonesian language lessons, a Balinese fire dance show, a tour of the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, a jaunt to a distant and hidden waterfall, and even a trip to the Temple of Holy Water to experience a religious ritual during their yearly celebration of Kuningan and Galungan (a festival lasting about two weeks in September in which ancestors are honored through ceremonial dance, prayer, and festivities)—during all of this I would off the grid. It was time to start livin', L-I-V-I-N.
I "lasted" 6 days before I felt compelled to log back on the computer and tell the parentals I was still alive and not kidnapped by the local Balinese mafia. In those mere 6 days though I learned much more than I anticipated. Among many minor lessons about my unhealthy dependence on my phone (as well as other technology like laptops, iPods, etc), I learned just how much I use my phone for without realizing it. My phone was my barrier to reality, the lens a substitute for my own eyes, the music a muffler to the soundtrack of the world around me. It was (and still is) an altogether crippling dependency, a dependency inhibiting my existential and esemplastic experience on my travels.
Takeaways from My Experience
The first challenge of unplugging confronted me the very first morning when I woke up to the neighborhood roosters cawing their crazed cock-a-doodle-dos at what I assumed to be sunrise. Even that early I realized that I'd no longer have a way to wake myself up in the morning. No big deal right? Well, considering that I was on a daily schedule for my program’s orientation week, this would be problematic. Free breakfast was 7-9 every morning and free dinner was 530-730 in the evening, and I desperately needed them because I would not be able to buy food during the day thanks to losing my wallet in a motorscooter accident. Moreover, I had events & tours at predetermined times throughout each day and I wanted to get the most out of my experience. With no alarm clock and no watch, I had to learn how to tell the time by the sun's position in the sky. No I jest, I simply had to figure it out.
I pieced together that the roosters announced the beginning of each day at sunrise, usually around 630, which meant I’d get up early with them, get ready, and go to the canteen and read or practice my Indonesian until they opened. As for the orientation tours and activities, if I made it to my meals I could typically tag along with a friend until the morning excursion at 10, and I could do the same with a roommate to catch the afternoon activity at 1400—though I felt depending on others for this somewhat defeated the point of disconnecting. However, I did not want to isolate myself from a social experience, and I considered dinner, served shortly before sunset, an opportunity to walk over and mingle with the others in my program.
The first two disconnected days my sense of time was dramatically distorted. Time itself didn’t change, but my perception of it certainly did. I took for granted how important and relevant time was to my day and my experience. After riddling out the timing of all my daily schedule, the next couple days I drifted out on my own for solo explorations of Ubud and left some of my timing up to serendipity. I'm not a man of schedules, I prefer to live spontaneously and see what surprises may present themselves. I walked more slowly. I listened more carefully. I absorbed the sights, smells, and sounds of Penestanan Kaja. Although I didn’t always know what time I was or how long I had before the next activity called, I paradoxically felt liberated. I felt more present than I had when I knew exactly when now was. Sure, the future endeavors lay ahead of me, but they were a blank canvas that I would paint with my day regardless. There was no rush to get there, each moment would take me methodically along to the next, and each day would be painted into magical memories in my museum of consciousness.
Mental Snapshots in my Museum of Consciousness
Without my phone I lost my camera. I had a GoPro--which was limited to fish-eye photos--and a few shots left on my Polaroid, but it wasn't the same as the accessibility of the phone, and I considered both to be technological entrapments I temporarily swore off. With no camera, I was left with two choices. One: I'd have to journal my exploits--and be excessively descriptive and detailed in order to repaint the picture in my mind. Two: it was up to me now to make memories so vivid that I would have no choice but to remember them, to make memories that would be etched into stone in my mind and stored in the halls of my museum of consciousness.
In retrospect, reading this many moons later, some of the memories have faded, but my meticulously detailed journal has the power to transport me right back. In my mind I can go down the rabbit hole back to that classroom in Pejeng Kaja, to my bamboo bunkbed in the Teblin House dormitory, to the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, or Holy Water Temple. Some of my memories will be inescapably present in my mind, others lost in the sands of time...more fading as time continues its ceaseless march forward. Often times I now feel like a boat borne back against the current of my memory, rowing back to rediscover and refine these memories before they disappear entirely. At times like that, I wish that I had had my camera, wish that I took photos to at least give myself a timeline of all the surreality I lived through.**
A New Soundtrack to My Life
Without my phone I was left without the joy of music, well, my music at least. Whether it was Bon Iver or Bob Moses, the new soundtrack to my time would be Penestanan’s outdoor symphony. There was no longer the possibility to tune out of the present and into my own introspective world.
In the morning I heard the roosters caw and crow to greet the rising sun; the crescendoing hum of passing motorscooters; Balinese voices singing and chanting at morning and evening ritual offerings; the Green Lion lady cooks singing American pop like Katy Perry as they served breakfast and dinner; dogs barking at each other, passersby, and perhaps nothing at all; the crackling of a miniscule clove in my Sampoerna cigarettes as I took a drag; and if I was up early enough, while the village still slept, the wind rustling the leaves of the surrounding Frangipane trees. With headphones in I would have missed all of that. When I think of Ubud now, my memories are set to the sounds of the village. For the first time I truly understood that I listened to the world around me, I didn't just hear it.
A Recalibration of My Senses
By wholeheartedly opening up the world around me I (re)learned the miraculous power of all my senses. Without music, I tuned in to all the lively sounds of the world around me, but it was more than just listening. I learned just how much I'd been neglecting my other senses while I hid myself away in my own individual universe.
Even without the glasses I’d only recently lost I could still see the amazing, intricate sights of the village. There were the deliberately arranged flower offerings in the morning and night with the blue or purple flowers to the north, yellow flowers east, white or pink flowers west, red flowers south, and decorative greenery in the middle; warungs lined with local dishes like nasi goreng (fried rice), chicken satay, sambal sauce, gado gado (steamed vegetables), sweet and spicy tempeh, and much more; back room tables behind these warungs where men and boys drank, gambled, and shot the shit; the slight rustle of Frangipane leaves in the breeze; the villagers passing on their motorscooters, whether it was a solo rider or a family of four with a kid tucked between the parents and one on their shoulders; the strong village ladies carrying water jugs, groceries, etc on baskets atop their heads; paraders dressed in symbolically pure white, marching women adorned with fruit baskets, dancing dragons, and the processions during a Kuningan parade ceremony. Life was in the minor details, and these details made life so much more lucid and lurid.
I caught the sweet scent of the frangipane flowers blooming; the pungent clove smoke permeating the air from Sampoerna cigarette; the savory scents of fried chicken and saucy beef emanating from the local warungs I walked by, especially the chicken satay at the corner near my dorm house; the gasoline tinged breeze on my motorscooter; the rancid smell of my bare feet after a long day of walking; the wafting opium scented incense burning as offering to the gods at household altars.
All those sights, all those smells….and all those tastes. Each bite, no matter what I ate, screamed its flavorful story out to me. The chili spice, sweet peanut, and hint of garlic in my favorite Balinese dish, tempeh. The overwhelming sweetness of my mealtime fruits: papaya, watermelon, grapes, and slightly sour salaks. The refreshing bitterness of a Bintang beer. The acidity of my black morning coffee. Others in my program complained about the bland and sometimes repetitive meals we ate. Wrong attitude. It was likely just my imagination, but my food tasted better.
Last, but not least, touch. I didn't realize how much of the minor details I had overlooked. Some things were remarkably unforgettable, like the crisp and refreshing water at the Holy Water Temple or the furry paw of a Macaque Balinese monkey in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary Ubud or the leathery snakeskin like peel of a salak. I felt the artificiality of the rubber grip on my scooter when I torqued the throttle; the curly tangles in my growing mane and Castaway-esque beard; the fragile, feathery pages of my Emerson & Vedanta book; and so much more.
Re-engaging all my senses sometimes made me feel as if I had been granted some supernatural abilities. I joked this was the devil in the minor details, but this was all nonsense. My presence—wherever I was, whatever I was doing, whenever I was there—granted me a gift of gratitude and appreciation for all I was experiencing.
Navigating like the Good Old Days
For awhile I felt lost without my phone, and I mean that quite both figuratively and literally. Live maps were a navigational crutch I would be without. Consequently, I learned how my parents, my parents’ parents, and my ancestors before them got around: studying paper maps and asking for directions. There was only one minor caveat, I had to ask for directions in another language. All those mornings I spent practicing my Indonesian before the canteen opened for breakfast and all the times I was the annoying overachiever asking and answering questions in my language lessons were now blossoming into an unexpected utility. At the time I didn't know how valuable all my practice would be. Now, if I wanted to go anywhere, say Kanto Lampo secret waterfall or the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, I'd have to lock in the directions in my mind beforehand via a paper map then ask for directions along the way if I got lost, which I surmised was inevitable. Di mana kantor...(where is the...) and Bagaimana saya bisa iche sana? (how do I get there?) became almost catchphrases considering how much I used them during my 6 days unplugged.
On an existential and metaphysical level, lacking navigational capabilities hit me like a sack of bricks. On a physical level I depended on maps to get me where I was going. But how much did I depend on external sources to direct my own metaphysical journey through life? Without my phone (camera, map, iPod, etc) how did I press onward while those around me sat absorbed in it? All I could do was, and still is, take it one thought, one step, one day at a time.
All in all, it was an extraordinarily enlightening 6 days. In hindsight I wish I had the fortitude to take my experiment further. How much more could I have gained from my month on Bali if I unplugged the entirety of my time there? It is simply one of those things I’ll just never know. Those 6 days were immeasurably valuable. I learned to appreciate the present, to be where I was when I was, which in turn dramatically affected my mental state and happiness. I learned to make memories so vivid they would be etched in my mind as long as it is lucid. I discovered the difference between listening and hearing and re-tuned my senses to the point it felt borderline supernatural. With my sensate capabilities, I started a culinary journey calibrating my taste palette. I invested more in learning another language, and someday I’d like to return to Bali—and the rest of Indonesia—and fluently pick up Bahasa Indonesian.
After departing from my enlightening experience on the island paradise of Bali and returning to the materialistic, superficial bubble that is Orange County, California I was thrown back into a lions den of self-absorption, social media, and technology. With the lessons I learned on Bali, however, I integrated time to go off the grid, to unplug, to disconnect, each day.
These are simply my lessons. As much as I appreciate you reading my words on the screen right now, I’d say it is your turn to unplug. Try it just for 5 minutes now, 6 minutes tomorrow, 7 the next day, and so on. See for yourself how you feel going off the grid.