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Slow Time and the Bali Walk and Talk

Ridgeline Transmission 188


Ridgeline subscribers —

Time is yours, he said, and it was — time, ours, for the next week as we walked across Bali. Time and sweat, so much sweat. Leeches? They were ours, too, but with less blood and horror than expected. (“Our record is thirty on one person!” they told us. We maxed out at just a handful, no boots sloshing thick with our own juice.) Stink was also ours, as were home cooked vegetarian meals and mangosteens and shared cigarettes and crossword puzzles and sleeping side by side on elevated wooden platforms and Jean Valjean’s lyrical plight and bandanas and making our guide laugh so hard he cried and a single flat white coffee so perfect and mythic and unexpected it can only be explained as Indonesian jungle magic.

But time — that was the key. Take away everything else and you’d still have Walk and Talk sorcery, a sorcery built on time. Kevin and I have run a bunch of these now (six or seven or eight depending on how you count) and after every single one I think: Wow, I’m glad we did that. The main reason being: kind people doing interesting things + an extended, unbroken series of days = a depth of understanding and connection and friendship you can’t recreate with even a thousand casual chats.

Something in a rice paddy

Banal fact #1: Excess time in the jungle creates pockets of boredom.

Banal fact #2: And pockets of jungle boredom reveal details you’d otherwise miss:

A languid chat with one of the guides about her family, of hearing the intricate history of her impressive lineage. Of a father prophetically and astonishingly named Bazooka Togatoro, named so because of the explosion heard when he was born (who’d go on to wrangle and cuff the masterminds of terrorist acts in the early 2000s; coincidence? I think not!). Of dowries to be paid (and of deep-cut, multi-year slights — a younger sister failing to get the approval of an older brother to be married first). Of thousand-person weddings. (“Just one day!”) Of digging up the bones of grandparents a decade or more after they were buried. Of finding a rupee note in that grandma’s tattered dress. (“Like a little gift from the afterlife!” she says with a big smile.) Of scrubbing and brushing clean those fleshless bones and teeth. (This intimacy with death, with the past — remarkable.) Of placing the gleaming skull in a tiny wooden coffin, and then that tiny wooden coffin inside the family mausoleum.

Sixteen generations, she says. That’s how far back we can trace.

What a thing. Me? I’ve barely got one. Have dug up precisely zero bodies, have never brushed clean a skull.

Life on a platform

Lazy time on wooden platforms without walls. No phones. Connectivity? Yes, but mostly ignored. (As we implored on night one, and recommend in our Walk and Talk guide. (Confession: I touched my dumb phone more than anyone else; mea culpa.)) Hours upon hours spent supine without chairs or tables, just woven bamboo mats that followed us day by day. Three feet beyond the platforms: torrential downpours that always began a few minutes after we arrived, sometimes lasting twelve or more hours. This was good time, rich time. Heavy rains and thick air time. More time is always better than more money, wrote Kevin a decade back, and it’s empirically true. Slow walking allows for wide eyes on the lookout for wild flowers. Each day a new Tiger Bouquet collected mid-walk, stems cut, dunked in a little glass on the edge of our home for the night. Like I said: Idle time on wooden platforms.

tasting coffee mid-walk

This was probably the “laziest” and most continuously “bored” anyone in our Walk and Talk group had been in the last five years. Maybe ever in life. A goofy gift, mostly unplanned. Mainly because the days were a bit shorter than usual Walks, but also because we set off early to beat the sun. Away from families (thanks spouses!) and work obligations (uh, thanks CEOs!). Us, a bunch of overachievers laid flat by jungle encroachment, sharing chocolate snacks and fruit and crackers and smokes against panoramic backdrops on an IMAX scale. Arriving one night in a fog so thick that the trees and rocks took on an otherworldly parallax quality — everything in that foggy nearness felt like it had been painted on heavy, stretched canvas. And then when we woke: Holy smokes — a flip-flop. No fog. Crystal air swabbed clean overnight, clear views down the entire valley to Lake Tomblingan. A different otherworldliness, like the platform had traveled a thousand miles as we slept. Look, Kevin said as he raised the curtains around our platform, waking us all (Kevin was always up first). Look at this view! (Half-conscious, from inside my beloved mosquito-net cocoon, I thought: Sailor? Ship? Jean Valjean hauling a mast? What sea is this?)

Lake Tomblingan

The platforms were in the backyards of villager homes. Farmers, mostly. One spot, a coffee shop next to a waterfall. A waterfall that was never named until a Dutch couple came by many years ago and said, Why don’t you call it … this? (I don’t remember the name because I was so … dismayed? that it was named by a random Dutch couple. But I suppose, too, this is how things get names: A random decree on a random day.) The café had chairs and benches. We were grateful for the chairs and benches.


Our guides were fabulous. Kevin tracked down and hired an agency called Astungkara Way (Instagram). They’ve designed a ten-day pilgrimage across the entire island of Bali (working to open up routes and build those wooden platforms and establish relationships with farmers and other locals), but ten days is a bit much for a Walk and Talk, so we opted for their six-day “Tree to Sea” walk. A perfect amount. About 77 kilometers in total. We added an additional day on the front (walking from just outside Ubud to the tree). We felt like we were in great hands the entire way. Everyone from their team was kind and brilliant, hyper-educated, weirdly well-read. Our main guide, the inimitable Rustaman — yoga master, philosopher — could be found in the evenings reading a little Dostoevsky in the corner.


This was by far our most “rustic” Walk and Talk. No solitude, no individual room to retreat to at the end of the day. Just a big platform with a bunch of folks squished together. Sweat, sweat, and more sweat. No laundry. So much humidity, anyway, that nothing could possibly dry. But decent little toilets and well-designed cold showers (not that you’d want a hot one). No Bali Belly (that I know of). This shared (mild) discomfort (as a card-carrying introvert, I was worried — but mostly delighted to find that I didn’t lose my mind) probably increased the bonding. I don’t know if I’d run another Walk and Talk at quite this level of rusticity (it is SO NICE to retreat to a silent room after talking for fourteen hours), but it was a worthwhile experiment.

In the end, I feel like we got a “true” or “authentic” experience and connected (however tenuously, however superficially you can without language and only seven days) with the people and culture of Bali in a way that would have been impossible on our own. The guides even slept next to us. That is until our prodigious snoring (“Like the oldest monkey in the forest found the world’s first trombone and let loose,” said Sam) drove them to sleep sensibly in tents apart from the group.

After our days and days of walking through jungle and village, of seeing life being lived at a local scale and local pace, of catching glimpses of six a.m. ping pong practice before school started, returning to Ubud was like getting slapped in the face, and made me all the more grateful for the intimate and honest path Astungkara Way has constructed. (There’s definitely another “bizarro” Bali of “retired” thirty- and forty-something foreigners self-declaring as “witches” and “gurus,” and if that makes you uncomfortable (as it does me, as it did to many of the Walk and Talk attendees (“I’m telling people I’m going generally to Indonesia; I can’t bear to say Bali,” one admitted!)), Astungkara is the perfect antidote, and made me fall in love with the small slice of the country we saw, a slice apart from the social-media-distorted version you may know.)

6am pingpong practice

A coffee or afternoon walk with someone is one thing. Spending six nights and seven days together, soaked from sunrise to sunset, splayed out at dusk on bamboo mats like fish to be dried, idly sketching and note-taking and palavering, sharing vegetarian meals each night over three-hour focused conversations — well, that’s something wholly different. And something I suspect most of you reading this have never done. (Certainly not as adults; I had never done it before the first Walk and Talk. If you have: I’d love to hear the context under which you did it!) Nine people. Mostly strangers. Picked for their creativity and kindness.

What comes from the time commitment? (A week is a long time for most people to chop out of their lives.) Perhaps most importantly, extended time engenders a kind of trust that’s tough to approximate in an hour or two-hour long meeting. You also gain the ability (“superpower”?) to connect a lot of disparate dots — ideas, comments, stories that appear on day one suddenly interlock with ones on day five or six. (Now multiply this by everyone in the group.) To “arrive” somewhere often takes a day or two, and then with the end in sight, you begin to feel the pull of the “real” world a day or two out. So you gain four or five “truly present” days when you spend a week together (lots of parallels to ten-day Vipassana meditation retreats; arrival and departure, mental presence, etc etc etc). And finally, you get to see how innate certain personality quirks may or may not be. It’s tough to “fake” something for seven days, twenty-four hours a day. Run properly, after a week, you’ve witnessed eight other blueprints for living and thinking about the world. Personally, co-running these walks with Kevin, getting to observe good humans up close for months (the sum total of all these Walk and Talks) has had a profound impact on the way I think about the world, family, life, art, optimism, politics, and more. I can feel my internal compass shifting in ever more “holistically positive” directions after each one. Or, at least that’s how it feels to me.

But, time — that’s the key. As our great guide Rustaman told us each morning at the end of our little pre-walk stretchy yoga sessions: Time is yours. The perfect distillation of life, the universe, everything.

A week like this past one in Bali can remind you of the power of creating “slower” time (no devices, a little unstructured torpidity, pens on paper), and how matching it with hours of walking creates days so full and rich they’ll feel as dense and memorable as entire years.

Wow, it’s been a busy couple months. I’m catching up on everything. Thank you everyone for the amazing inbox of notes and letters around my recent Tōkaidō walk. I’ll be writing more about that soon, too.

Until then,

Sam at the ocean

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