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Re-defining Both Vacation and Work: My Three Weeks in Bali

Roshan Paul

Vacation as Deceleration

The sun had set, anticlimactically, behind a cloud. Nevertheless, it lit up the sky with a dark orange fire I hadn’t seen in a long time. The horizon, from where I sat cocktailed on the beach, spanned multiple panoramas. It was a very big sky, and it was on fire; a beautiful orange-purple flame as far as my eye could stretch in either direction. Into that fire flew a little tiny speck of a passenger plane, at the edge of the horizon itself.

“They must have an even better view of this sunset”, Danielle, one of my fellow “tribe” members, remarked. (More on the tribe later on.)

I thought of the 200 or so people in that plane, flying close to the fire in the worst year of airline safety in recent memory (just a few days after the Air Asia crash in fact), particularly in this part of the world. We were in Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia. I thought of those 200 people, and the lives they lead: big, full lives that dominate their own existence, as our own lives do ours. And yet, from where I sat, far away and down on the beach, the giant machine that carried them was no bigger than the edge of my fingernail, no thicker than an eyelash.

From the standpoint of one simple sunset, hundreds of lives were no more than a speck of an eyelash. It was a sobering thought as 2015 began, full of promise and potential. I had come to Bali in December to “decelerate” after two intense startup years in which I flirted with burnout and exhaustion. In 2014, the year of high-profile plane crashes, I took 53 flights (i.e., once per week on average), flying around the world nearly four and a half times. In 2013, it was fewer flights but still more than four times around the world. I watched that plane fly into the fire and tripped over all the possible metaphors for my own travels.

Towards the end of 2014, my mysterious ankle sprain recurred. Mysterious in that there was no known or immediate cause. It first happened in 2011, a year in which I flew even more. I just woke up one morning with a torn ligament and hobbled around for nearly 2 months until it healed. Much of that hobbling happened in airports. In late November last year, it mysteriously returned – and hasn’t fully healed nearly 2 months later. You don’t need to be a Balinese healer to note the cosmic metaphor of too much running and too little rest.

And so I came to Bali. One of the most captivating and evocative places I’ve ever been to. It isn’t the most beautiful or the most interesting. But in the slow rhythms of life on the island, especially the central cultural entrepôt of Ubud, where healthy-but-delicious food, Hindu temples, yoga and massage come together over rice paddies (which I had never before considered physically beautiful), I found the ability to slow my mind as much as my body, and enjoy the gradual pressing of the brakes of the ride I’ve been on.

Every morning during my three weeks in Bali, I spent an hour trying to meditate. Nearly all of these meditations happened over paddy fields, where flocks of little birds raided stalks of rice as scarecrows waved ineffectually in the wind, and the green-yellow fields stretched on and on.

Despite all Bali has to offer, I didn’t do much tourism on this trip. I found that deceleration was in fact about ‘not-doing’. When I was thirteen, my family took a holiday in a beautiful backwaters resort in Kerala. There were so many possible river and beach activities but all Dad seemingly wanted to do was lie in a hammock, snooze, read, and then snooze again. In frustration, I asked him what the point was of coming to a place of such beauty if all he was going to do was sleep. He looked at me wearily and said, “One day you’ll understand.” And now I really do!

Even as I tried to not-do, I found it hard to quell the voices in my head that said, “Ok, we’ll meditate till 9am, then eat breakfast, then go snorkeling, then read, then lunch, then…” I realized it was my addiction to progress, to the accomplishment of small goals, ticking things off the daily to-do list, that led to a satisfying day, week, life. I’m always looking ahead – it’s hard for me to appreciate what has been, and what is. But it makes slowing down counter-intuitive, and thus hard to do, no matter how important and satisfying.

I don’t want to end this addiction because it leads to valuable productivity, but admitting to it gave me a new definition of vacation. Vacation is now simply the lack of schedule and, even more importantly, the freedom from accomplishment. Let’s see how that goes.

Work is Changing

The motto of the Impact Hub in Ubud (called ‘Hubud’) is “Work is Changing”. They sell flamboyant orange T-shirts emblazoned with this phrase. After spending a week there, I began to see what they meant.

What’s not to love about wearing flip-flops to the office, checking them at the door, then entering a mostly wood-and-bamboo workspace, with an outdoor patio that hosts a modern café, beanbags, and hammocks, while overlooking a serene rice paddy? And then, after several hours of working, step across the street for a $10 massage of global quality and follow that up with a 50-cent chilled tender coconut juice capped by a little umbrella. You wanna do this too, don’t you?

After my deceleration vacation, and before returning to “real life” in Nairobi, I spent a week with a group of people through a concept called Tribewanted Bali. The idea behind Tribewanted Bali is the deceptively simple and brilliant insight of my friend Ben Keene, who noticed that many entrepreneurs and freelancers spend winters somewhat miserable, schlepping from café to home in the gloom of afternoon twilights. Why be cold and morose in London when you can be warm and cheery in Bali – and make new friends? Although expensive to get there, it is cheap once you do. Thus, in the end you save money and have the idea-whose-time-has-come experience of remote working.

Ben in fact found more demand for the idea than he initially anticipated. In Ubud, the “tribe” spends two hours together each day actively trying to collaborate. Apart from that, everyone works as normal. Except that when you’re barefoot, in shorts, T-shirts or bikini-tops, then it doesn’t feel much like work at all. And it really doesn’t feel like flying into the fire.

Remote working is growing in popularity; the New York Times covered it a few weeks go. No wonder then that Hubud’s flame orange T-shirts are in high demand. I wanted to buy one but only sizes “S” and “XXL” were available. Work is indeed changing.

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