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11 January 2023

I went to Bali specifically to avoid my family but flew home early just to be with them

For a few days I try to continue with my trip, but I no longer care about water ceremonies and rice terraces.

By Pippa Bailey

The first thing I learn in Bali is that the weather forecast means nothing. This 2,000-square-mile island must be home to at least 20 microclimates; the weather changes minute to minute, mile to mile. I visit in the wet season, which means that while it is always hot, it is also always humid, and often raining. Still, it never rains for long.

I am up early my first morning in Ubud, walking among paddy fields to a sunrise yoga class (I’m unbearable, I know). It begins with a cup of green tea and, as everything seems to in Bali, a refreshing cold towel – which is already very much welcome, despite it only being 7am. On the mat directly ahead of me is a man who, it soon becomes clear, has never done yoga before, and he provides both high levels of comedy and quite the view up his shorts.

As I lie on my back during shavasana, a gecko flits across the bamboo roof above me, and rain begins to fall. By the time I’ve found myself some breakfast and dodged my way around scooters and canang sari pavement offerings and arrived at the Monkey Forest, the clouds are beginning to clear. It is quite possible to get very burned in Indonesia even when the sky is a dense, unmoving white – this is the second thing I learn – and I have gained at least five new forehead freckles after an hour of walking among the long-tail macaques and the dangling roots of ancient banyan trees.  The monkeys move quickly and sometimes aggressively, and when they do so small children and large adults flap and shriek.

A Balinese man called Gusti drives me around, since I cannot operate a scooter, and south-east Asian traffic does not seem to provide the ideal conditions in which to learn. He teaches me to greet people in Balinese – om swastiastu, which loosely means “god bless you” – and to say “thank you” (suksma) and “you’re welcome” (mewali). (I learn all this on the drive from the airport to my first hotel, so I suppose technically this is the first thing that I learn in Bali.) 

Gusti is not Gusti’s real name. The third thing I learn in Bali is that Balinese people are given names in order of their birth, from first to fourth. There are a few different options for each of these positions, but the most common are “Wayan” for the eldest, “Made”, “Nyoman” and, lastly, “Ketut”. If a family has more than four children, the cycle starts again. “I” might be added to denote a boy, while girls take the prefix “Ni”. (They also don’t have family surnames, and so here I am not “Miss Bailey” but “Miss Pippa”.)

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While Gusti – a sort of  nickname – drives me from temple to waterfall, pointing out local foods and the occasional snake, we laugh a lot, often to show that there is friendliness and willingness, even when we don’t understand each other. I ask him if he is married, and he says: yes, two. It turns out he means he has two children, not two wives, and we’re laughing again.

The fourth thing I learn in Bali is that my dad has leukaemia.

It always seems so melodramatic when characters on screen, receiving this sort of news, sink to the floor, and yet somehow I am on the floor. I try, for a few days, to continue with my trip – it is what my dad wants – but I no longer care about water ceremonies and rice terraces. It is deeply ironic that this has happened while I am on a trip expressly designed to avoid my family, but I do not care about irony either. As I tell the Emirates phone operator, I just don’t want to be here any more. On Christmas Day it rains oppressively, with the pathetic fallacy of Year Seven creative writing homework.

The next evening I am flying through eight time zones for the second time in a week. In the hours before my flight, I lie in the sun by the pool and think about the state of suspended reality in which I have lived for the past few days – with the knowledge of the thing, but far from the physical reality of it. Soon my days will be dominated by hospitals, and while I do not resent this (I will unquestioningly do anything to make my dad’s days even the tiniest percentile better, easier, more comfortable), for the second time in two years, my life is irrevocably changed by something absolutely beyond my control.

This is all I will write on the topic, because, despite what I often say, not everything is column fodder. This particular grief is not mine to do with as I will, but private, collective, ongoing, and, on good days, infused with hope. It never rains for long.

[See also: What Charles and Camilla’s dirty phone call taught us about the English language]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor