Jul 6, 2022
I HAVE A WEIRD CONFESSION for a travel writer: I’m an anxious traveler. It’s not the unfamiliarity of the new. That’s the sublimity that keeps me coming back. It’s the planning.
I fret over the length of the flight, knowing turbulence can send me into panic attacks. I fret over where to stay, trying to find the optimal combination of comfort, convenience and safety within my budget. I fret over what to do and when to book, not wanting to miss anything during my limited time but not wanting to give up on spontaneity. Then I fret over whether all this fretting about a privileged luxury isn’t rather self-involved.
It’s neurotic, I know.
After being grounded by Covid for two years, I added another layer of anxiety. When is it OK to travel for leisure again? What happens if I get sick overseas? What if I don’t manage the ever-changing border controls? The tailspin of catastrophizing made staying home in my pajamas forever start to look attractive.
And yet, the band-aid had to come off sometime.
Looking to avoid the crowds you’d find in the more populated areas of Bali, I headed to Tanah Gajah, a resort by Hadiprana, where just 20 suites and villas are spread over six hectares in the iconic rice paddy vistas of the uplands. The property was originally a summer home for the family of famed Indonesian architect and art collector Hendra Hadiprana and much of his collection remains, unique paintings and wood carvings brightening the villas and weathered statuary lining the paths.
Tanah Gajah name means “realm of the elephants,” and while they aren’t native to Bali, hundreds of their likenesses can be found around the estate, including a massive carving of Ganesha standing guard at my villa entrance. As the private butler encourages me to tear the sanitation strip off the gate like a formal ribbon-cutting, he says elephants are powerful symbols of protection, believed to neutralize bad energies responsible for misfortune and disease. I put a little more faith in the daily nanotech disinfection spray but give a nod to Ganesha just the same.
My search for pre-pandemic sanguinity begins with a bespoke immune-boosting lunch of fare traditional to Bali at the more intimate Dua Dari, sister property to Tanah Gajah, perched on jungled slopes above the Petanu River. Seated before a golden statue of the lion-like barong, another mythological protector, I receive a cornucopia of homestyle dishes, many including organic produce from the resort’s own gardens. Along with a fish curry, there’s urap (a salad of blanched string beans and shredded coconut), boiled peanuts, corn fritters, homemade tempeh, and tofu braised in fragrant spices like turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, and garlic that are associated with benefits from improved digestion to cancer prevention and heart health. And of course, the ubiquitous lime brings a good dose of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory vitamin C. Topping it all with a spicy shallot and shrimp sambal, I’m soon crying happy tears from the delicious heat.
The next morning begins early with a purification ritual to shake off two years of Covid anxiety. The ritual anointment is common practice for Balinese, who believe it cleanses body and spirit. The priest, all in white, murmurs Sanskrit prayers, ringing a bell with one hand and sorting through a pile of fresh flowers with the other. He judges them by criteria unknown to me, some going to the altar, some in the water he’s blessing, some tossed to the ground with a perfunctory flick. A chosen few are passed to his wife, who places one behind my ear and another between my fingers. Following her example, I gesture to chakra points at my forehead, hands, heart, stomach and feet, alternately pushing away the fear I’ve been carrying and beckoning in peace of mind. Then dribbles of water are poured into my outstretched hands, alternately to drink or to sprinkle over myself. I’m so focused on trying to get the steps right, the ritual passes in a flash, but a full coconut of water poured over my head at the end snaps me to attention. Finally, rough white yarn is tied around my wrist, signifying a protection that will linger until the bracelet falls off.
The ceremony feels matter-of-fact rather than solemn, to me suggesting a certain stoicism, a sense that misfortune comes to all of us at times but is rarely as catastrophic as we imagine, just a part of life’s ups and downs. That comforting thought returns to me from time to time over the following days when the unfamiliar feel of the wooly bracelet draws my attention.
I was anticipating a desire to keep to my villa during my stay to avoid exposure, but the Tanah Gajah grounds are so exquisite, I’m soon tempted out, enjoying the inclusive high tea and sunset cocktails pond-, pool- and (a Bali trademark) paddy-side in turn. At first, it’s hard to shake the instinct to mask up—still the norm where I live in Tokyo—but the expansive open-air pavilions of Balinese architecture feel so low risk that my masks end up forgotten at the bottom of my bag. Soon I’m joining the audience of the kecak fire dance performance and morning yoga lessons, enjoying the random human interactions with that make traveling so fun. After years of lockdowns and mask mandates, the ability to greet a stranger with a smile feels positively decadent.
To rub out any last anxiety, I head to the spa for the ila Adreno Restore treatment, a two-hour indulgence targeting the adrenal glands, the organs where many stress hormones are produced. After an exfoliation and massage, the masseuse applies warm packs of soothing vetivert, pine, cedarwood, ashwagandha and pfaffia over the glands, leaving me pleasantly boneless and serene.
Back at my villa, floating in the pool, I wonder if this serenity will last after returning to the city. Just then, I spot a fist-sized snail trundling placidly over the garden wall and I decide Bali is presenting me with some parting advice: stay hydrated, move at your own pace, and from time to time, park yourself someplace beautiful and just be.
tanahgajahubud.com; nightly rates from one-bedroom club suite for US$345 net and one-bedroom club pool villa for US$485 net.