Bronzed bikini goddesses gaze through mirrored sunglasses over ocean waves.
Bleach-haired surfers with six-pack abs you could see from space look as cool and unperturbed as Roman statues.
You are in Bali.
Specifically, you are in Canggu, Bali; and currently, you are at the beach with your friend and fellow Montrealer, Melissa, who is 29, gorgeous and without body fat, but also funny and unapologetically honest. She's been here since January. The first piece of advice she gives you about Canggu: "Don't fall in love."
The two of you have just watched the sun set while drinking coconut water out of actual coconuts. Now you're at the beach bar, where a guy one barstool over strikes up a conversation.
He asks if she teaches yoga. Where she's from. How long she's been here. He not only doesn't speak to you, he doesn't even make eye contact. If you'd just arrived, you might be shocked. But this is Canggu. At 39, you are not only over the hill but down the other side, across a stream, and pretty much on another continent altogether.
Canggu is a visually stunning paradise where rice paddies meet ocean. Like most of Bali, it is full of kindness, and very relaxed. Out on the roads, cars, trucks, buses and scooters press up against each other, snaking through black exhaust in an unhurried manner, everyone just emanating this "we'll get there eventually" vibe. A friend tells of seeing a scooter driver come within millimeters of a full frontal crash with an old man on a loaded bicycle. They both made sure each other was okay, smiled, and went about their respective days.
And then there are the foreigners.
So many. So beautiful. Travellers, expats, digital nomads. Models. Surfers. So much Instagramming, of cellulite-free bums in bikini bottoms, of chaise lounges next to infinity pools, of breakfast bowls that cost enough to feed a Balinese family for a week. A recent article called "Eat, Pray, Colonize" perfectly captures how the Bali for which foreigners claim their love often has little to do with the actual Balinese or their culture. It's not like you're not guilty of this. You have come to Canggu to try out a co-working space -- a place where aforementioned digital nomads (i.e. you) can get a reliable connection, and, if you're lucky, meet a few like-minded souls. Your commute to work in the morning looks like this:
On your first day there, like a good little expat, you order a smoothie at the adjacent café. A girl sitting nearby has just received her breakfast bowl.
"I ordered extra mango," she says to the (Balinese) waiter.
He smiles so genuinely that your heart melts.
"I am so sorry," he says, "but we are out of mango."
The girl says she paid extra for mango. The waiter apologizes and says he doesn't think she has. The girl asks why you would have a breakfast bowl with mango on your menu when you don't have mango? The waiter apologizes once more. You are riveted -- had this happened in Montreal, he would have spat in her food by now, or worse. The girl asks to see the bill. The total cost of the extra mango is about $0.50 Canadian. You burn with shame at being a white person in Bali.
Incidentally, $0.50 is how much it costs to print one page at the co-working space. A few streets over, it costs $0.03.
The vast span in the price of things is telling. A street food dinner for four comes to $10. You try a Mexican restaurant, where two tiny tacos -- the kind where you're already hungry before you've finished them -- cost $14. You can pay $1.50 for a coconut on the local beach, or $400 for a day of eating and drinking for two at a beach resort, accommodations not included.
There are a thousand opinions on this. It supports the local economy -- of course. Bali is still magical -- it is. Bule (white people) are ruining Bali -- we are. Bali is changing, rapidly -- it is. You write this as you use the air conditioning and connect to the Wi-Fi and drink the filtered water.
You notice that Canggu sometimes brings out the worst in you. You, Ms. Positive Body Image, have not in years been more disdainful of your poor stomach and crow's feet. It doesn't matter that the average age here is 23, and that you are, well, not that. All the perfection and toned muscles have you vowing at least twice never to even look at another cheeseburger again for the rest of your life.
But more often, it brings out the best in you. Every day since arriving Canggu you have met more of another kind of beautiful people. You've learned about the courageous leaps they've taken, the businesses they've created, how they've supported local tradespeople and the environment. Sharing these stories leaves you feeling like a young backpacker again.
One afternoon, you go for a walk on the beach. You pass people selfie-ing next to surfboards, flexing butt cheeks that defy laws of gravity. Three girls, each more model-like than the last, are spread out on a sarong. One obsesses over a boy; another about her (non-existent) thighs.
And then, you remember that, while you never looked as flawless as these women, you were once their age. Also, you had zero confidence. Maybe minus four. You wouldn't go back to being that person for all the tacos in Indonesia. You wouldn't go back five years, or even two. But also, you wouldn't trade any of it. Because right now, at 39, in Canggu, you are more at peace than you've ever been.
You hop aboard your trusty scooter and drive off: away from the sunset, and full of gratitude. You're not in love. Not yet. But you might stay just a little bit longer.
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