That’s right. At some point in my life I lived in BALI. No, not the “Eat, Pray, Love” bullshit you’re thinking of. I didn’t stay in a fancy ass villa with an infinity pool, nor did I fall in love with an expat (that’s what happens in that movie, right?). I recently went into a dusty, old picture folder on my hard drive and found a billion pictures from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. So I’m here to tell you about it!
The best decision I ever made while studying at the University of Texas at El Paso was participating in a study abroad program. Considering that the rest of my college career consisted of me not doing shit to enhance my CV (because, well, um, have you met me?), I’d say I was very lucky to have been chosen as part of the 12-person group by Dr. Stacey Sowards (now the Chair of the Communication Dept. at UTEP) to go to Indonesia for three weeks in the summer of 2013.
This was the first time I EVER traveled abroad (excluding Mexico) and I can confidently say that those three weeks were some of the most memorable of my entire life. One of the most interesting places on the three-week trip was Sumber Klampok, a small remote village in the rainforest area of West Bali National Park, located about four hours away — through winding, two-way jungle roads — from Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali.
UTEP and Rare, an environmental-conservation organization that focuses on behavior change and resource protection through locally led solutions, have an ongoing partnership to up bring ecotourism in different regions of the world. At the time I visited, Rare was in the process of establishing programs and “Pride” campaigns in various parts of Indonesia, including this area of Bali.
The residents of Sumber Klampok play a key part in the ecotourism and “Pride” campaigns that keep this area alive. They host homestays, work as guides on snorkeling/scuba diving or cultural tours of the village, and even aid the conservation of Bali’s only endemic species, the jalak Bali (Bali starling). It was incredible to see these birds being cared for in people’s homes to promote breeding, especially since back in 2005, it was believed that only 10 of these birds remained in the West Bali area. Thanks to the love and dedication these people have for their village, the jalak Bali could be on its way to no longer being on the endangered-species list.
For about four days, I got to live with Syamsul, Suhaena and their niece Mila, a traditional Muslim family who graciously opened the doors of their humble home to a group of four students they could hardly communicate with. They hardly spoke English and the extent of my Bahasa Indonesia knowledge was limited to ordering nasi goreng and a Bintang (fried rice & the national beer).
I’ll never forget thinking I had for sure traveled back to the 90s when Mila (pictured above, second from left to right on the top row) pulled out one of those handheld analog one-word instant-translation devices to try to ask us about our lives back home. The last time I remember seeing one of those things was when I was trying to cheat my 4th grade English-language class homework when I still lived in Mexico. For reference, I’m 26 years old now, so that must’ve been about 17 years ago.
Before leaving on the trip, I had made it a point to take a lot of pictures of El Paso and its landscapes in case I got homesick. Having to rely on nonverbal communication, the pictures came in very handy when we were trying to explain to Suhaena how flat El Paso is but that it also has a huge mountain range smack-dab in the middle of it.
I’d never been completely disconnected from the Western world before, nor experienced anything so liberating and strange. We didn’t have access to computers, cell phones or even TV during our homestays. However, we did have completely delicious access to the family’s unbelievable home cooking — flavors and dishes that I have yet to recover from. From the tastiest, richest nasi goreng to diced-up tempeh (fermented soybeans in cake form) smothered in spicy garlic sauce, Suhaena’s cooking will forever be a part of me.
I remember being completely mystified and confused at the fact that they never closed their front door. The door was open literally the entire day (they’d close it when we’d go to sleep). Anything could come in through the patterned wooden frames that made up the glass-less windows on the home or it could just walk in through the front door … and EVERYTHING did come in the house. I’m still a little bit traumatized from the time I avoided going inside our room for an entire day because there was a HUGE WASP just chillin’ and flyin’ around as if it totally belonged in there.
Or the fact that there were actual Bali starlings living in the kitchen! I mean an actual member of an endangered animal species was living under the same roof as I was! And who can forget the dramatic bloodbath scene of the mosquito I had just slapped off my leg that plopped onto the floor and was carried away by an actual horde of ants no less than 15 seconds later.
While living in Sumber Kamplok, and actually for a large majority of the trip, I was a mosquito-net burrito. I mean, we’re talking more-deet-than-woman status because your girl happens to be allergic to mosquito bites — something that THRIVES in the area. At one point I had more than 10 mosquito bites and I’m surprised I didn’t die from all the deet exposure.
Nonetheless, experiencing a different kind of lifestyle than my own — including a tiny earthquake that I hardly felt — was so humbling and eye opening. It’s an experience I’ll cherish forever and I’m ever so thankful that I got to live all those things. I wouldn’t change the rogue wasp or any of the mosquito bites for anything in the world!
If you somehow made it all the way to this point, you’re the shit. I have so many more stories about this trip — make sure to come back and check them out soon!