The holy city of Varanasi, India.
The holy city of Varanasi, India. Photo: AFP

 

 

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.

EAT Italy

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.

PRAY India

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.

LOVE Bali

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.

Trip notes

ITALY

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Rome via Hong Kong or London; Emirates flies to Rome  via Dubai.

Getting around

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

Further information

turismo.intoscana.it, italiantourism.com.

INDIA

Getting there

The Sydney-Delhi route is serviced by Thai Airways, Qantas, Singapore  Airlines and Malaysian Airlines.

Getting around

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.

BALI

Getting there

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.

Getting around

One-day shore experiences off the Seabourn Spirit include exploring Ubud’s  cultural jewels and the Sangeh Monkey Forest.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/gurus-for-all-and-bikes-to-spare-on-road-to-happiness-20100916-15e4p.html#ixzz28VPNwSDE

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