Day One, March 16th, 2020: I had just left New Zealand, and after roughly a 10 hour flight, I had arrived in Bali, Indonesia for the 2nd time in my life. It was almost 5 years to the day that I first arrived in Bali in 2015. Such a sweet moment for me stepping foot on this beautiful island once again. This time around I was there to photograph and participate in Purify: A Water Meditation Retreat. But, before the retreat began, I had one order of business: get tattooed. I wish I had photographed that experience, but alas, I was jet lagged and wasn’t thinking much about it. I had my friend Ari come pick me up from the parlor and I headed back to Ananda Cottages to get settled into my room. My God did I miss this place. And just a few minutes before bedtime, I was welcomed back with the huge Bali rain that makes this country so magical.
Day Two, March 17th, 2020: I woke up in the morning and was greeted by the smell of sweet incense. Every morning, the Balinese people will make an offering, also known as Canang sari’, in order to ask for protection, keep balance between good and evil, and express gratitude to the gods. It was just about time for the Purify Retreat’s opening circle, so I quickly made my way down the stairs, across the bridge, through rice paddies, and finally, into our retreat space. Shellie was still smudging the space before the participants arrived, so I was sure to be as quiet as possible to ensure she could remain in her calm mindset. Before we knew it, the other 6 women arrived and it was time to begin the healing,
A storm was brewing in the distance, but luckily, it held off until our Fire Blessing Ceremony was complete. I opted to not take photos during the actual ceremony in order for me to be fully present. I wish I could put into words how powerful it was for everyone. Before the fire ceremony begins, everyone receives a black, red, and white bracelet. The colors represent the three God’s and are worn to protect against negative energy. It is also intended to be worn until it falls off on it’s own. We started with prayer, meditation, and chatting mantras… putting forth into the universe what we wanted and needed. By this time the fire was raging like a beast and it was time to give our offerings to the flames in order to fully set our intentions and to encourage change. We mostly kept to ourselves and inner thoughts throughout there ceremony, but there was one point in which I looked around the circle. I made eye contact with Shellie and couldn’t help but feel the tears of healing fill my eyes. They started streaming down my face and Shellie held her hands to her heart as we continued our connection. The biggest smile I’ve ever smiled emerged and at that moment, I knew change was in the midst.
Day Three, March 18th, 2020: In the earliest hours of the morning, I was woken up by a small earthquake shaking the ground underneath my bed. So far we had experienced intense fire and intense earth during the Purify Retreat. By this point in the morning, we knew we were running on limited time in Bali. The world was changing quickly and soon we would have to make the decision to stay or go home to our own countries. We grabbed our homemade lunches and headed off to our first and (unknowingly) only excursion of the retreat. Gunung Kawi is a scared temple dating back to the 11th century. We learned all about the 10 funeral monument cliff carvings also known as candi. These monuments are a huge mystery. No one truly knows who carved them or who they were for. But there is likely speculation that they were carved in honor of King Anak Wungsu and his family members.
Soon, we had made our way down a long flight of stairs to access the small but sacred water temple. Now, if you know me, you know that water and I don’t get along so well. It’s not that I’m “afraid” of it, its just that I find water to be super dangerous and not very fun. I knew I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and participate in this water ceremony, but I certainly didn’t think I’d become anxious about it when I heard the sound of the waterfall. I decided to get in the water last, so that I could focus on photographing everyone else going through the purification steps. First, you set your intentions while providing an offering. The water is thought to have healing powers, so the nexts steps are important. You then make your way to the large waterfall to cleanse before moving to the smaller water spouts. At the smaller water spouts, you cup your hands and drink a sip of the healing water, then bring your hands to your head. We liked to repeat that process ten times at each spout, but the amount of times isn’t as important as remaining mindful and open during your purification. With my aversion to water, I reluctantly entered the pool, but remained clear headed and calm (did not think that would happen) throughout my entire experience. Afterwards, the priest showered each of us with flower petals on our heads and feet. We gave our offerings one more time before the heavy Bali rain made an appearance. It was the most perfect and symbolic end to our water purification ceremony. What better send off than to be cleansed one last time by rains from the heavens.
Day Four, March 19th, 2020: At this point we had experienced intense fire, intense earth, and intense water. Next up… Intense air. And this air would end up turning the world upside down. This day started off as calm as ever with soothing sound meditation combined with morning yoga. Once everyone was limbered up, a hooping workshop was led by none other than Caterina Suttin. Most of the retreat participants had never picked up a hula hoop in their life, so this was a wonderful introduction workshop. Hopefully it got these women hooked on the joy of hooping!
After our little lunch excursion, we headed back for one of the most powerful breath work meditation workshops I’ve ever taken. We all laid in a circle with our heads towards the center as Shellie guided us through relaxing each part of our body in order to full tap into our thoughts and breath. This type of breath work tends to be a bit painful if done correctly. It hyperoxygenates your blood, causing you to feel tingling and numbness in parts of your body. It’s quite intense and powerful, and all in the name of healing your inner child. This workshop last a couple hours, leading us well in the night. After we had all come back to our bodies, we sat in darkness together, surrounded only by the sounds of nature and the light of candles.
Reality started to set back in and as we turned the lights back on, we knew it was time to make a decision about ending or continuing the retreat. The pandemic was taking the world by storm, and not only did it feel irresponsible to stay on an island that relies on their people to be healthy, but we also knew that Bali and the United States could close their boarders in and out at the drop of a hat. We made the decision that night to end the retreat several days early and began searching for and booking our emergency flights back to the United States. I was feeling some pretty extreme anxiety at this point, so I headed back to my room alone. And lucky for me, my friends felt that I probably shouldn’t be alone. Shortly after, they all showed up at my door step and we all had a little anxiety together as we booked our flights. But at least we were together haha. And for the first time throughout the retreat, the local pup, Vishnu (god of protection), came and stayed with us until it was time for bed.
Day Five, March 20th, 2020: Our last retreat day. After morning yoga, we left the jungle and went straight to the beach. And because I was now friends with the water (after our water purification ceremony), I decided to go knee deep into the ocean. It wasn’t too bad, but still… even though the water was warm and beautiful, it’s not my favorite thing. Afterwards, we were invited back to our friend, Ari’s, village to see how Balinese people really live outside of the tourist areas. Their villages are stunning and beaming with history. Everywhere you looked you could ask questions of who and why, but you’d be there for daaaays.
Once we got back to Ananda cottages, we started packing our belongings. Tomorrow we all depart the beautiful island of Bali and head back to our homes. We gathered in our meditation space one last time. Shellie intuitively chose oracle cards for all of us to read and reflect on. Caterina gave each of the 8 participants her own hoops that had been carried by her all over the world. And of course, we discussed how to reintegrate back into society. Usually reintegration is difficult in itself, but going straight into quarantine would surely make things more difficult. We had just one more hour of “play time” before many participants had to leave to catch their flights. We basted some music and danced away before it was time to say goodbye. A few of us went out to dinner at The Elephant for one last meal in Bali as we watched the sun slowly set behind the jungle trees.
While I was finishing packing up my belongings, Caterina came to visit me to say goodbye. And just as it was 5 years prior, she pulled me out to my room to show me a sight I had never seen before. We walked down the steps to the rice paddies when she pointed up towards the sky. “That’s the Southern Cross”, she said. Somehow I had never payed attention to the fact that the southern hemisphere had different constellations. The Southern Cross is basically the Big Dipper of the southern hemisphere. Its one of the most prominent constellations in the sky and we had the most perfect view of it on our last night in Bali.
Day Six, March 21st, 2020: It was finally time for me to say goodbye to everyone. Our time in Bali got cut super short, but every second was worth it, and in reality, it was the right and responsible decision to go back to our own homes. I had a few hours before I had to catch a shuttle to the airport, so a few my friends who I had met in Bali in 2015 came to visit me while I waited. It was SO good getting to see them and hoop with them one last time before I departed. Except next time I know there wont be a 5 year gap between our visits!
This entire journey, from Hoop Away NZ, to South Island New Zealand, to Purify in Bali was a wild ride, especially at the start of a worldwide pandemic. After getting stuck in the Tokyo airport for over 60 hours as I watched the entire board of flights get cancelled one after the next, I finally had my flight back to LAX on March 23rd. Going straight into quarantine for two weeks ended up being a good thing for me. I had time to reflect on my travels and experiences, and had time to reconnect with my hoop. I look forward to the day when everyone feels safe and comfortable traveling again. And to all the friends I’ve met along the way, I can’t wait to see you all again.