Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth. —Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
UBUD, INDONESIA—Near-death experience is not something most travellers would consider an essential part of any successful vacation. But after my own close shave during a late winter getaway to this renowned Southeast Asian Arcadia, a renewed sense of gratitude for life has guaranteed that memories of my first trip to Bali will linger long after the photos of beautiful places my husband and I took there have vanished from our respective Facebook feeds.
We were staying at a family-owned rice farm in the village of Tangayuda in the Gianyar region of Bali, twenty minutes’ drive north of Ubud, the island’s bustling centre of art, yoga, and Green Living. Ubud’s thriving alternative culture has always drawn tourists, expats, and soul-searching hippies by the bushel, so we wanted to stay well enough away from all the noise without being completely isolated. The villa we chose—a simple wooden bungalow nestled in a jungle ravine, 300 metres down a steep walking path from the village road, with a dramatic vista of ascending rice terraces surrounding us from our outdoor kitchen patio and infinity pool—certainly qualified. We were almost exactly in the geographic middle of the island.
The fact we arrived two days before Nyepi, a Hindu celebration of Balinese New Year known as the Day of Silence, when locals stay at home to fast and meditate while businesses are closed, meant that our Bali adventure wouldn’t really begin until Day Four. (On Day Two, there was a single motorbike outing to buy groceries in Ubud. But thanks to a monsoon downpour—and lingering jet lag, which had us in bed far too early—we missed out on a colourful street parade that every village puts on the night before New Year’s, an animated procession of gigantic statues symbolizing heroic victory over evil spirits. At least we got a sneak preview during the drive in from the airport at Denpasar, as many of the completed figures were already on display.)
Having wandered through the rice terraces on the morning of Day Two, we were eager to see more of our surrounding environment the next day, and before the heavy monsoon rains started up again—even if that meant leaving the house during Nyepi. After our gracious host, Maday, assured us that we would not be violating the spirit of Nyepi as long as we stayed on the property, we decided to follow her advice and explore a forest trail, off the path from our villa, that leads all the way down to the river. Turning left at the bottom where the trail meets the river, she said, we would find a waterfall. In the end, we did not stray from the family’s acreage. But we did take the wrong trail, and our trek ended almost as soon as it began. If not for a few critical inches, our whole vacation might have ended there as well.
Lune was convinced that the first opening in the trees we spotted off the main path was the trail Maday had mentioned. It began with a slippery, seventy-five degree vertical descent through mud and weeds—fine for a native of Burma/Myanmar who grew up walking barefoot in the mountains of Karen State, but not such easy terrain for the Western suburban-raised me. Reluctantly I followed him down the slope, my feet shifting awkwardly in my orthopaedic rubber sandals like they had the day before, during our walk through the rice paddies. Thirty metres into the trail, where the land began to level out, Lune approached a small bridge going over what appeared to be a creek hidden by vines.
The span was not significant—the bridge was made of six shanks of bamboo, each about four feet long, and required only a couple of steps to cross—so anyone fit enough to hike this trail could easily have jumped across without even touching the bridge. But Lune crossed it with two steps. On the other side, he turned around to answer my complaint about the trail. “Come on, Honey,” he said, “this is not Vancouver—this is Bali. An adventure. Just enjoy.” Then he spun around again to continue on his way. Arriving at the bridge moments after him, I scanned to its left. Beneath the vines, the drop to the creek appeared to be only a couple of feet. So, without hesitating or pausing to scan to its right, I set foot on the bridge.
I was about to reply to Lune’s comment about adventure when the two or three bamboo planks I had stepped on suddenly splintered and snapped under my weight. In an instant, I was sent hurtling into an abyss: a fall to the bridge’s right that seemed to last for two full seconds—the longest two seconds of my life. Disoriented by sudden gravity, I saw nothing on the way down but rapidly gathering darkness. As I was falling, instinct told me that I’d lost control of my future and was now at the mercy of the elements. From this awareness came an accelerating sense of panic: my descent was taking too long to end well and, since it was pretty clear I’d be landing on my back, I was convinced that these moments could be my last.
Finally, a deep pool of rushing water broke my fall. After a few seconds of thrashing about I resurfaced in confusion, standing in the pool with its water up to my chest, uninjured apart from a few scrapes caused by splintered bamboo. Then I looked up and was horrified: I had fallen fifteen feet through a hard-rock crevice, with outcroppings on either side, and into a rocky pool. Had I slipped off the bridge, or tried to grab hold of something when it collapsed, or otherwise fallen at a different angle, my head would have hit the rocks on my way down. Had the weather been dry in the days before our walk, and I’d fallen in the same direction, I would have broken my back and shattered my skull on the hard stone bottom of that pool, which would have been empty. I had truly cheated death.
The shock of this knowledge was sickening. Having survived the fall with barely a scratch, I thought about how terrible an end this would have been; how tragic the irony of the stone-and-water setting, thirty-five years after my younger sister’s life ended under a giant rock in a river; how much I loved Lune, my family, and my friends; and how awful it would have been to have left them all this way. I was about to burst into tears when I noticed my sandals floating on the water’s surface. After one sandal continued down the creek, I stupidly rushed to grab the other—as if I could have retrieved the first—and then realized that the only eyeglasses I’d brought to Bali, a pair of transitions with expensive Dolce Gabbana frames from Milan, the glasses I wore every day, were no longer on my head.
After letting go of the second sandal, I took a deep breath and dunked under the murky water, blindly running my hands along the pool floor in a futile bid to locate the glasses. Giving up—it seemed rather pointless to be focussing on material possessions when I had just barely avoided oblivion—I turned my attention to the task of pulling myself out of the semi-cave where I’d landed. The walls were too high, and there were no wedges along them deep enough to allow me to spider my way up their smooth, slippery surfaces. Creek water continued flowing all around me.
Lune, surprised by my sudden disappearance from the trail, had run back to the bridge when he realized I’d fallen through it. When I resurfaced from the water I could hear his frantic calls from above, out of sight, then his relief when I responded that I was okay. After reassuring me that he would get me out, he shimmied down the rocks to a ledge just above so that he could see where I’d ended up. Then he presented his hand, followed by his foot, to try and pull me out. When those options proved too slippery, he took off his shorts and—with the quick-witted know-how I’ve come to appreciate over seventeen years with this man—rolled them into a rope-like coil and lowered one end of the fabric so that I could grab onto it while he clutched hard on the other end. It took every ounce of our strength, and my trust in Lune not to slip into the cave himself or let go of the shorts (which would have sent me on a backward tumble into the rocks), to finally pull me up, completely spent, to safety.
“This is karma for not observing the spirit of the day,” I joked, after catching my breath. “Remember? We were supposed to stay in the villa and do nothing, like all the locals. Oh, and thanks for saving me.” There were some more jokes about my big ass being too heavy for the bridge, and thanks to the spirits for taking only some trendy glasses and a pair of sandals instead of my life, but inside I was wrestling with a couple of existential questions not easy for an atheist who anticipates no eternal reward: how much longer do I really have left on this earth, and how many more near misses before finally I run out?
The next day, on the first leg of our island tour with Maday’s husband, Kadek, at the wheel, we passed by a road sign indicating construction up ahead. Its message, “Hadi-Hadi!” (Balinese for “Caution! Caution!”) got me thinking. In all of my Southeast Asian adventures over two decades—including four years of expat life in Thailand (and multiple visits there since 2006), a seven-month sojourn in Burma/Myanmar, and visits to Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, and Vietnam—I had never come as close to snuffing it as I did on our third day in Bali. Nor had I ever worried, even for a moment, that I might be in danger of doing so whether in Asia or Canada. But my fall through that bamboo bridge changed everything.
There’s nothing like a brush with death to concentrate the mind; to finally demonstrate that, at fifty-five, you are no longer the slim young ectomorph for whom death was merely an abstraction. As adults, we are expected to abandon long before middle age the presumptions of immortality more appropriate to reckless teen daredevils. But until that moment in the creek, I still hadn’t received the memo. Despite all the risks I’d taken in my life up to then, both at home and abroad—and in Southeast Asia, those included everything from swimming in jellyfish-infested waters in the Andaman Sea to accepting a ride after midnight on a handsome stranger’s motorbike in Hanoi—I had proceeded merrily along with indefatigable nerve, as if nothing could stand in the way of a clear path to my nineties and a comfortable death from natural causes, with my head on a pillow, loved ones playing guitars at my side, and extra hits of morphine on request.
Well, two seconds of free fall from a collapsing bridge have a way of putting an end to such hubris. And for that I can only say: Thank you, Bali.