There is a black spider the size of my fist four inches away from my bed.
I am holding a kitchen knife.
The knife isn’t meant for the spider. It’s my first night alone in a cottage in a small village in Bali, and I’ve just awoken to strange noises outside. I am very slightly paranoid, so I’ve retrieved the most dangerous kitchen implement I could find. I was just turning on the light to put it in a safe place next to my bed when I saw the spider. Who has now, in a further twist of horror, vanished... under the bed? Under the pillow? Waiting till darkness so he can leap out sink his poisonous fangs into my neck?
My heart pounding, I grab my phone and Google “dangerous spiders in Indonesia”. An image comes up of some monstrous brown tarantuloid straight out of Harry Potter. This is obviously the cousin of my spider, who is soon going to drag me outside and feed me to his salivating babies who are waiting under the floorboards.
And I am alone. There is no friend or boyfriend, or husband, or housemate. There is definitely no concierge. I don’t even have WIFI, for fucksakes. How this would help me now I have no idea, but somehow, its absence drives the whole thing home.
And worst of all, this is by choice.
I had WIFI, 24 hours ago. I had housemates, too. One of them, Tim, a wildly bearded surfing crossfit-junkie, would take that spider down without blinking – in between baking a loaf of homemade bread and making cracks about my lack of love life. I have spent the last 6 weeks living with Tim and his girlfriend, Leannah, and they’ve become like family, as have Sarah and Casha, who lived in the house before I did. We've made meals together and started creative ventures together and cried together (not Tim); shared late nights around kitchen tables, brainstorming sessions, and grueling Pilates classes in an effort to keep our bodies halfway up to Canggu par. Canggu itself is teeming with events and gatherings for like-minded nomads and creatives. It’s ironic, isn’t it? How you can live on the same street as someone for years and never say more than hello, and then go and form immediate, close friendships with strangers in a strange land? Maybe sharing the common path of trying a new life on for size is all it takes, but in any case, after two years of traveling and looking for community, I feel like I’ve finally found one.
To which you might ask: then what in god’s name are you doing alone in a cottage in another town?
First off, I have a thing about traveling. Which is that while I’m doing it, I should be, like, traveling. Yes, I realize you can’t move around constantly and also have community, but leave it to me to try to defy that logic.
Look, life in Bali is amazing. It’s warm. The people are kind. The food is cheap. It’s green and lush and most things move at slightly above zero miles an hour, which is the perfect pace for someone like me, who wishes they could just enter their brain into the Ironman.
Gratuitous Bali rice paddy shot
“I feel really at home here,” I said, a few weeks ago, to a visiting friend.
She said, “I never thought I’d hear those words escape your lips.”
But it's still life. There is still heartache. There are still bad days, and really bad days. There are the setbacks and challenges of starting a new business. And there is still loneliness, because life is lonely business, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either full of shit or on really good drugs. Being abroad, I feel, gives me no choice but to love myself more, and equally to fess up to parts of myself I wish, well, weren’t.
I know. Poor me.
A few days ago, still in Canggu, I visited a healer. I’ve clung to cynicism about energy work for years, at the same time experiencing things with some healers so extraordinary and transformative that they simply can’t be chalked up to being “all in my head.”
At the end of the session, the healer said,
“You have to stop resisting.”
I’ve always been told I’m “too sensitive.” I’ve tried everything to get around it: therapy, exercise, meditation. While there’s no doubt these things have helped in my daily life, the sensitivity factor has only picked up as I’ve gotten older. Some days, no matter how at peace I am, it's like I tune in to what the person across the table from me is feeling, and whatever that is stays with me for hours. Sometimes, being in large groups is overwhelming. I need a lot of quiet time, and a lot of alone time. But I don’t want to listen to those needs. Those needs piss me off. I don’t want to be a delicate flower. I want to be normal. I want to be a good friend. And I don’t want to miss out, especially here, where so many great and exciting things are happening.
The healer said, “Stop bending over backwards for everyone else, and start bending over backwards for yourself.”
So here I am, in a village outside Ubud. I’m not a huge fan of Ubud, with its Disneyland spiritual vibe and roving gangs of selfie-stick-wielding tourists, but I found this little cottage for rent for almost nothing, with a king-sized bed and writing desk, in the forest next to a farm and rushing river. Where I can be alone, and quiet, and maybe stop resisting for a bit.
And where I will meet my end after a deadly spider attack.
I hover over the bed, making loud stomping noises and banging the wall, clutching the only thing in the house that approaches anti-spider weaponry: a can of aerosol bathroom air freshener. The spider does not reappear.
At a loss, I text my landlady.
Me: Are there any dangerous spiders in Bali?
Landlady: Ah! In the bathroom?
Me, peering under the nightstand: No, bedroom.
Landlady: The spiders are usually harmless.
Landlady: They don’t bite or attack people.
Well, that’s something.
Landlady: For us Indonesians, spiders are a protector spirit. I never kill them.
I put down the can of air freshener.
Landlady: You might want to outside and light some incense, just to say hi.
Me, half-joking, until I remember where I am: To the spirits?
Bali is, of course, the island of spirits. Hand me my granola certificate now (if you haven’t already,) but you can feel it in the air. Every day, women place baskets of offerings to the gods, in front of doorway, at the entrances of properties, and next to shrines. Some friends rented a house in Canggu, and he, a diehard cynic, kept feeling something brushing against his feet in one of the bedrooms. They asked the housekeeper about it.
“Oh yes,” she said, casually. “There is a ghost. She has very long hair, down to the ground. She’s 1000 years old.”
There is a box of incense outside the front door. I take a stick, light it off the stove, and hold it, sitting outside in the night, chatting with the landlady. We learn that we are both into Buddhism, and have been on similar journeys.
She writes, “It seems I have been waiting for you to come and stay at my place.”
We say goodnight, and as I stick the still-burning incense into a potted plant, I spot a bright light which appears be hovering outside the kitchen window. It zooms off. Another one follows. Fireflies? They’re far brighter than any I’ve ever seen – like miniature flying glowsticks compared to the little guys back home. I stand at the edge of the patio, craning my neck, listening to the sound of the river in the ravine. There is splattering of stars, so much brighter in the darkness of the countryside. The pigs next door make opinionated pig sounds. A dog howls in the distance.
I'd planned to come to Ubud for a week. I will end up staying for three – not for any of the Disneyland stuff, but because of this place, the freedom this solitude will offer, and the people I will meet. My landlady will introduce me to her friend - a shaman - who will take me to a ceremony in a village. There, I will watch a medicine woman channel spirits, in attendance of women, men and children, to whom this is just part of everyday life. Another healer will poke me on the bottoms of my feet, releasing such emotional agony that I will howl in pain. Both he and the shaman will hone in on the sensitivity thing, and encourage me to stop trying to stomp it down, and even to bring it into my daily life. “It will not be an easy journey,” the shaman will say. “But it will be so worth it.”
Oh, and she’ll tell me one other thing. That in Indonesia, spiders signify a crossroads in life: a place where you must be the master of your own fate.
But that night, I know none of this. I just know that there’s still no sign of the spider, and it's getting late. After weeks of sleeping badly, I’m exhausted. I take a deep breath, go back inside, and crawl into bed, certain I’m going to be awake all night.
The next time I open my eyes, it’s morning.