This is the book that has got me obsessing over Bali recently. This was to be our first non-Austen book for our book club after we finished our Jane Austen run. It was mentioned that this would be a fairly easy read, and while I do agree to some degree, I found it difficult to finish in one go.
Nevertheless, I liked it. And since author Elizabeth Gilbert focused on three different things in each of her trips–“pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence”–I’ll be focusing on one thing about each part that struck me the most.
When Gilbert went to Italy, it was to explore the pleasure aspect of her nature and also to learn the language “just because she wanted to.” What struck me most was not the food, for because only she could know how pleasurable it was, her joy at eating slice after slice of pizza or devouring strand after strand of pasta did not translate to something pleasurable for me; I resented her, actually, for being able to enjoy such food while all I had during those moments I was reading it were crackers and sliced bread. No. It wasn’t the food that got me; it was the language.
I tried learning French when I was a kid and was given a children’s audiobook about learning French. All I still have with me are rouge, un deux trois and yeah. That’s it. Then I took up Japanese in college. Three semesters, two Japanese speech contests (one of which I won), and a Level 4 language certification got me ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, konbanwa, ikura desu ka, ima nanji desu ka, and a bunch more lame tour guide phrases.
But Italian? I had always thought it was a beautiful language, but reading it on print and hearing it as I attempted (lamely) to pronounce the words–now THIS was something I could appreciate. Gilbert’s stories in and about Italy strengthened my resolve to one day visit the place and do as she did: eat and speak Italian.
I don’t know about you, but for me, India (and Indians, I suppose) is synonymous with stink. I am told that it is due to the numerous cows they allow everywhere because of their belief and also because of the combination of spices that they use in their cooking. (I once stood next to someone who looked like he was from India in an elevator once and yes, there was a slight smell. It wasn’t bad, actually.) It’s very prejudiced, yes, but if there’s one thing I learned from my girl Austen’s famous story it is that you have to get past your prejudice. So. Setting aside everything I’ve previously heard about India, I plunged into Gilbert’s darkest moments during her journey to self-discovery and fell in love with the country and its people.
Gilbert got me pining about meditation caves and clear night skies and drinking soda out of a bottle with straw (in my country, you put it in a plastic bag and stick a straw in it) and elephants. The one thing I remember most, though, is the following :
But Yoga can also mean trying to find God through meditation, through scholarly study, through the practice of silence, through devotional service or through mantra–the repetition of sacred words in Sanskirt. While some of these practices tend to look rather Hindu in their derivation, Yoga is not synonymous with Hinduism, nor are all Hindus Yogis. True Yoga neither competes with nor precludes any other religion. You may use your Yoga–your disciplined practices of sacred union–to get closer to Krishna, Jesus, Muhammed, Buddha or Yahweh.
At a time when I was questioning my religion (not my faith, mind you), Gilbert reassures me that I’m not wrong to look at alternative ways to get closer to God. I still wanted to get closer to him, but with all the controversy with the Church and our parish priests’ inability to engage the younger people and the not-so-devout-casual-practicioners, I was having trouble bringing myself to church on Sundays.
Gilbert’s openness to people, to ideas, to the world and to the cosmos put her through some degree of pain, but when she got through it all, her peace resounded through her words and I was touched.
BALI. Yes. That’s what struck me the most. Not the soul-searching, not the sex with hunky Brazilian rich man, not the conversations with Ketut Liyer… No.
That’s what struck me.
We have miles of beaches here in the Philippines as beautiful as in Bali, but it wasn’t just the beaches that got me; come to think of it, the Bali beach wasn’t mentioned much in this part. There were rice fields (paddies?) and shops and monkeys and healers (reminds me of the local hilot and albularyo) and herbs and cheap stuff and so many things that are so similar to what we have here that I’ve gotten curious about their “versions” of what we have.
From what I remember from my Asian history class (which I did not do so well in back in college), Indonesians and Filipinos are both from the Malay race and have a lot of cultural similarities and values. Gilbert’s depiction of Bali, particularly of Ubud, where she stayed, got me thinking about how, if we were so similar, did we get separated into different countries? The obvious answer would be “because of the Spanish,” but why did we welcome the Spanish the second time around instead of fighting them and consequently keeping our native culture?
My interest in Indonesia was historical and cultural in nature, which is why as soon as I finished the book, I started thinking about how I was going to save up for a trip to Bali and where I was going to stay. I began looking at cheap apartments in Ubud and airfare. Then when my beach-loving friends brought up Bali as the next vacation, I jumped on the idea. As much as I wanted to explore the culture of Indonesia, I was as in love with the beach as my friends, so I decided going to Kuta or Legian or Seminyak or one of those gorgeous Bali beaches instead of Ubud was okay by me.
Elizabeth Gilbert must have been really really good as a travel writer because by the end of the book I was wishing terribly that I could visit all the places she visited and go off the beaten tourist path. I found myself lusting over the Italian language (and okay, the food, too), reverent of Yoga (hence my renewed and stronger desire to join a yoga class), and obsessing over Bali.
And you know what the best part of my experience with this book is? It’s that I actually enjoyed a non-fiction book! I’m a fiction girl through and through, but this was a refreshing break from the YA books I’ve been reading lately. To whoever suggested we discuss this in our next book club meeting, THANK YOU! 😀