You don’t need a marital breakdown to eat, pray and love around the world, writes Belinda Jackson.
IT WAS a year spent chasing Julia Roberts around the world; Julia, in turn, chasing Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the book Eat Pray Love, which is now a movie (opening in Australia on October 7) in which Julia morphs into Liz, tears and all.
Reader, I have to break it to you: life does not always imitate art. Yes, I, too, ate myself a second backside in Italy and witnessed prayer in India but in Indonesia, at no time did I meet an Argentinised Javier Bardem and Billy Crudup wasn’t warming the bed, waiting for me to get home from my travels. On the romance front, I got dealt lisping silk sellers, excitable rickshaw drivers and casually copulating Balinese monkeys.
Mind you, I am not a skinny, depressed New York woman who has religious epiphanies on her bathroom floor telling her to move to Third World countries to find herself and make a pot of gold on a book-and-movie deal in the process. That particular feature at the end of the rainbow continues to elude me, as does Billy, despite the countless letters.
The first time I went to Italy, back in my backpacking youth, men would fly past on Vespas, shrieking, “Ciao, bella!” and I would stop and wonder who was calling my name. Ah, Roma, the eternal city, eternally flirting.
I remember tasting thick, golden olive oil poured over chewy breads, breathing in the scent of perfectly red, perfectly ripe tomatoes in the street markets, shooting espresso while standing at cafe counters and the cool rush of gelato on my lips on a sweltering summer’s day.
Years later, while working from Cairo, I find myself in Milan. Serious, gloomy, autumnal Milan, the fashion maker and deal breaker. Where long-legged girls lope the streets in canary-yellow tights and red tunics. Where the Milanese brush hastily past the bedraggled tourist standing in the pouring rain reading a fast-disintegrating map. Only the immigrants stop to help and I speak more Arabic than Italian in the northern city.
Backpack exchanged for laptop bag, this time food is snatched on the go from exhibition hall stands and late-night pizza cafes and it’s when I realise I’ve eaten bread and pork (a novelty when based in Egypt) three times that day, that it is the breaking of me. So, I head south to Tuscany to rediscover the love, food and dolce vita that in Milan is hiding behind the financial newspapers and skulking elusively in secretive palazzo courtyards.
Tuscan walking tour in a nutshell: so much walking! So much rain! Not enough sit-down time! Too much food! I would like to think that my eating activities are balanced by my exercise activities but I think not.
In a classic “eating to feel better” move, my Milan-bruised spirits are restored by pici, a Tuscan pasta: fat, hand-rolled spaghetti strands doused with a wild-hare ragu. I could have had the wild boar ragu but it’s all porcine in the end.
Breakfast is brioche and perfect cappuccino. The boys on Vespas are replaced by fleet deer running past and hares sitting on quiet roads … who knew I was about to eat them? And the vineyards yield the region’s famed Brunello di Montalcino. Pecorino, prosciutto and panini – the alliteration just makes it easier to eat. And it sounds a whole lot better than ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
The Hindu priest dots sandalwood on my forehead.
The bright-yellow splash makes my senses sing every time I catch a curl of the warm, spicy fragrance.
“You haven’t been to India until you’ve been to Varanasi,” a well-heeled woman once told me. “After that, everything is India Lite.” So, I cut to the chase and hit Varanasi, the holiest city in a holy land, the city of Shiva and the city of light. Varanasi is where the sacred Ganges flows, where the devout bathe and the aged wait out their time to die in a place of sacredness and purity amid a cacophony of tolling bells, prayers, chanting and traffic.
“If you want to see the city, you have to see it with the heart and the eye,” says Anub, a Varanasi local. “No one is bigger than religion or belief.”
Six hours after my arrival, I’ve floated a tiny boat of flowers and a candle down the river, observed the battalions of faithful, stripped almost naked and plunging in the water, smelt the flesh-fed flames of a distant cremation and watched as even Indians do a double take at the sight of a young Western boy dressed as a holy man in a dhoti (think Ghandi’s white ensemble) and dirty blond dreadlocks.
This town’s all about karma, you know, and washing in the Ganges is supposed to be the cure.
However, the water of the Ganges is a dull olive green and it doesn’t smell so good. I dabble my feet in it and sprinkle it over my hair but, as for leaping in, like the young boys this hot evening, maybe not.
“What is it that drags you foreigners to Varanasi?” a bewildered Delhi socialite asks. I have decided it’s not the cow pats, slammed on narrow alley walls to dry then stacked in elegant, symmetrical towers and burnt in lieu of expensive firewood. Nor is it the heaving, polluted streets clogged with bicycles, pedal rickshaws, cows, auto rickshaws, cars, four-wheel-drives and trucks, all leaning on their horns.
I have decided it’s the half-naked sadhus, with their crazy eyes, saffron-coloured loincloths, their matted hair and beards, the ropes of beads around their necks and the little metal tridents they carry signifying the three main deities of Hinduism.
It just proves you can be whoever you want to be here: cast off your old identity and create a new one. Want to walk around in a sarong, barefoot with rings on your fingers and bells on your toes? Tattoo, pierce, go rogue? Don a pashmina and live out Jemima Khan- beautiful-veiled-woman fantasies? Dress head to toe in army fatigues, PLO scarf and jasmine necklaces? Grow your hair long, learn Sanskrit and yoga and dub yourself his or her holiness? In Varanasi, it’s all possible and the show is playing 24/7/365.
From years spent travelling alone, I’d acquired a ring on my wedding finger, a band of protection that sometimes worked, sometimes not. But by the time I get to India, the ring is morphing into reality, with a beau in the offing.
“Is he Arab?” the Indians ask, incredulous that a white girl would go to such extremes. “Yes, he’s Arab,”
I say. “But how could this be?” they ask, drawing on a background of cross-caste no-no’s.
“It’s a love match,” I learn to explain simply. Aaaaah … and they lean back, smiling beatifically, relishing the romance as only truly romantic Indians can. “Still, if you change your mind, Indian men make very good husbands,” adds one persistent rickshaw driver, stroking his round stomach. “Or lover. Just try once, before the wedding.” I decline.
The Balinese must love Julia Roberts: tourism is up 10 per cent already this year, thanks to the Tall One.
In Ubud, the locals take only a minimum of prompting to admit that they are, in fact, Julia’s bosom buddy and that author Liz might have eaten in their cousin’s restaurant.
The savvy Balinese know the power of the tourist dollar and the effect the movie will have on their island, which has been largely free of middle America’s greenbacks.
There’s something about Bali and bicycles – Julia, Liz and I all straddle bikes and take to the Balinese roads. We are on different routes – my vigorous mountain bike bash through the jungle includes a detour from the rest of my pack to go tearing down one of Bali’s major highways. You could mistake it for a village path, except for the blaring mini-vans, tooting motorbikes and deaf pedestrians crammed in my oncoming path. Let me tell you: there is no love on Bali’s potholed roads.
Neither is love found, not with a suave, 52-year-old Argentinian a la Ms Gilbert, but it sure is pulsing in the Sangeh Monkey Forest. I confess: I’m not a monkey fan. I can’t work out how Indians can simultaneously revere and throw stones at the malevolent spirits. But the love in the forest is not directed at me. It’s a mass monkey orgy, with copulation being the name of the game.
Couples are clinched in the trees above or pursuing the object of their ardour through the vines. Make no mistake; my companions, including a little six-year-old, are charmed and watch their amorous antics with uncomprehending delight. But these monkeys comprehend plenty, as one demonstrates, adroitly defecating in my open handbag, annoyed at the banana-free zone hanging from my arm. Meeting and falling in love with Javier this is not.
Instead, I fend off the clinging beggars in Ubud’s busy market and young guys fresh from Kuta beach flogging DVDs from motorbikes adorned with super-brown barefoot Euro-hippie chicks in long skirts, singlets and baleful faces.
I discover too late that the Four Seasons hotel has snagged Ketut Liyer, the little medicine man who inspired Liz Gilbert to chuck it all in and go and learn about traditional medicine and herself at his knee.
Damn. I could have found myself or at least gotten a $30 mantra.
A quick internet search reveals blogs about Ketut handing out mantras left, right and centre and thrashing smooth one-liners worthy of a nightclub desperado at the end of the evening.
Some say he rattles out the same thing to each person in the tour group, others say he’s the most inspirational person on the planet. Some are aware of the irony of a string of depressed middle-aged women beating a path to his door to find themselves. Many, I have to report, are not.
Well, Bali is packed once again, India is all abuzz while Italy … well, Italy’s too cool to get too excited about more visitors, this time clutching Eat Pray Love instead of, say, Jan Morris’s Venice or, more recently, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun.
Would anyone actually want Liz Gilbert’s journey?
OK, aside from the hunky, cashed-up husband, being able to speak Italian, the funds to take a year off and, of course, spiritual enlightenment. But I could do without the road-to-Damascus moments, the generous love handles as a present from a loving Italy and the street hustle of downtown Ubud.
Perhaps the success of the book is that it answers the need for a Forrest Gump of the noughties; for people seeking pithy, world-wise sayings. But for those seeking to replicate Eat Pray Love it’s wise to remember the adage that no two journeys are the same. And for that, I am truly grateful.
POSTCRIPT: Belinda Jackson found love during her year chasing Julia chasing Elizabeth – not in Bali but in Cairo. They have recently married.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel and The Yachts of Seabourn.
Qantas flies daily to Rome via Hong Kong or London; Emirates flies to Rome via Dubai.
Mary Rossi Travel has six-day Tuscan walking tours from $1990 a person; includes accommodation, breakfast and dinners, maps and daily baggage transfers between hotels. Add-ons include a three-day wine-and-cooking course, $1200 a person, 1800 815 067, maryrossitravel.com
The Sydney-Delhi route is serviced by Thai Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines.
Intrepid Travel’s nine-day Holy India Short Break is $1550, twin share, and visits Delhi, “little Lhasa” Dharamsala, Sikh Amirtsar and Shimla, intrepidtravel.com.
Jetstar flies direct from Sydney to Bali (Denpasar) four times a week. 131 538, jetstar.com. You can also get there by boat: the Seabourn Spirit will spend next February cruising the Java Sea and its Spice Islands, from $4999 a person for 15 days. 132 402, seabourn.com.
One-day shore experiences off the Seabourn Spirit include exploring Ubud’s cultural jewels and the Sangeh Monkey Forest.