Into the light

Emma Clifton heads to Bali after being jilted before her wedding

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Emma Clifton – magazine journalist

Emma Clifton was heartbroken when she was jilted a few months before her planned wedding. It was one of those traumatic events that life throws at women. Floundering about trying to cope, crying at the most embarrassing moments, she learned about a women-only retreat in Bali. With a friend, Emma flew to Escape Haven. There she met other women with similar crushing burdens: unexpected deaths, mental health issues, pressures of parenting or wanting to end a 20-year relationship.

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Reader, I didn’t marry him. I started this year engaged, and planning a wedding for December. But then he left me. And in the aftermath of that, as I worked out where to live, what to tell people and how to stop crying randomly at my desk, I planned a holiday.

It had to be somewhere sunny; where I wouldn’t have to think very much, and where I would be looked after. A solution arrived quickly: Escape Haven, a luxury women’s retreat held in a beach-side Balinese village, was suggested by a friend who had gone to the resort’s Byron Bay destination and was now booked in for the Canggu retreat. So, in an email exchange I can only describe as tremendously oversharing (on my behalf) and beyond-the-call-of-duty caring (on the resort’s behalf), I organised a trip, tagging along with my friend. It became a lifeboat of sorts. “At least there will be Bali,” I told myself, repeatedly, through gritted teeth. The time passed slowly: I screamed, I cried, I threw things. I cancelled all my wedding vendors via the world’s saddest emails. I drank a lot of wine. I did sad women are supposed to do, and eventually grew bored of my sad sack self. And then, almost three months to the day from the break-up, I applied a last-minute layer of fake tan and boarded a flight to paradise.

Yoga sessions at Escape Haven (above) help guests tap into Bali’s spirituality. The island’s Hindu culture is seen in statues and floral offerings made to the gods.

FOUR OPTIONS

The premise of Escape Haven is a simple one: a group of about 15 women stay for a week and try one of four different kinds of retreat experiences: yoga, surfing, fitness, or Ayurveda medicine. I pick Ayurveda, a type of traditional Indian medicine, because I am at a Defcon One level of emotional neediness, and trying different kinds of massages is the only challenge I can handle. I have only one goal for my time in Bali: please, please, please could I become less of a basket case? I’m only there for a week, so it’s a slightly tall order, but surely if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’ll happen in Bali.

Bali is known as “the island of manifesting”, and depending on your tolerance for woo-woo, you will either love that or roll your eyes. I am someone who re-read and re-watched Eat Pray Love before my trip and owns three (arguably ineffective) rose quartz love crystals, so you know where I stand. My travel buddy Stephanie, who picks the surfing option, is somewhat the opposite. Your Escape Haven week can be as hippy-dippy as you want to make it, but even the non-believers would be able to sense there’s something special about the island itself.

Orange marigolds (left), which are believed to tap into cosmic energy, have particular significance. Ancient Tanah Lot sea temple (right) is popular with tourists.

Spirituality is big in Bali – colourful offerings to the gods, made out of coconut leaves and filled with flower petals, are outside every door. There are about 20,000 temples on the island, with families having their own built in their backyard. The main religion of Bali is Hinduism and it’s estimated that the locals spend about one third of their time either preparing for, or participating in, a ceremony. The night we arrive, the streets are packed for a full moon celebration, making the already busy streets even more overrun. It is completely bonkers – which makes it completely perfect for me.

But upon waking in the morning, the hustle and bustle of the previous night is gone. Our boutique villa, which comes with its own pool and butler, overlooks a serene landscape of rice paddies and bamboo trees. New Zealand is a lush, green country, but Bali is so impossibly verdant that it has to be seen to be believed. And there are hibiscus and frangipani trees everywhere, which are put to good use during our week: they are in the bath, placed around your neck when you arrive, displayed on the communal dining room table… and the petals are used to spell out your name on the beds every other night.

Being an Escape Haven guest is like being a cross between a millionaire and a baby. Every aspect of the retreat is luxurious – the food, the bedding, the grounds, the pool. Everything you need is either waiting for you, or just a question away. You are taken care of the entire time; there are around 25 staff members – roughly two for every guest. Watching my fellow guests work out which spa treatment to have next with the laser-eyed intensity they normally bring to boardroom meetings was hilarious, because there were literally no other decisions they had to make. Escape Haven is also a feminist utopia: there are no men on site, apart from the kind, charming ones who bring you cups of ginger tea and fresh juices. I, a recently jilted lunatic, felt truly at peace in this environment.

Terraced rice paddies (left) are a common sight in Bali; traditional ceremonial dress is both colourful and floral (right)

Unlike a lot of retreats where you have to swear off coffee, dairy, alcohol and/or fun, Escape Haven instead allows all of these things and, in fact, has a “never go hungry” policy. This is a policy I’ve been following all my life on a personal level, and I believe it’s one of the reasons the retreat is so popular, because it attracts the kind of women who like to eat and enjoy themselves. As a result, meal times are one of the many daily highlights (there are no lowlights). The food is a beautiful showcase of the best Bali has to offer: fresh, organic, made on site, seriously delicious. You get about four or five options per meal, including nasi goreng, corn fritters, beef rendang, satay chicken, plus there’s pudding in the evenings – and always the possibility of wine.

But what really makes this experience so profound are the all the sad woman activities that women I meet while at the retreat. On the first night, we all sit around to answer the question, “What brings you to Escape Haven?” It would be really easy to give a perfunctory answer, but that’s not what any of us do. Instead, the truth slowly comes out, one honest answer after another. The women are there because they are all in the midst of surviving the big things that life throws at you, and they need help. The unexpected deaths of close friends and family; the struggle of mental health issues; the pressures of parenting; being left heartbroken (moi); or wanting to end an almost 20-year relationship. It is a very good reminder that no one’s path is easy and as much as a week of pampering might sound like the kind of females-only frippery that features in a lot of chick-lit, it taps into something a lot more important. Sometimes women just need to be taken care of.

BALINESE HEALER

The general timetable involves your chosen activity of yoga or fitness or surfing, eating delicious things, and getting a facial or massage or maybe both. When you’re not doing that, you can be dropped into town or just read by the pool. Naps are encouraged. Then there are the more… alternative offerings. There’s a Balinese healer, a body works healer, a tarot card reader and someone simply referred to as “The Russian”. I go right ahead and book all four immediately – I’m not here to muck around.

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Balinese women arranging offerings to the gods. Preparing for and participating in religious ceremonies is a big part of life for the local people

The body works healer tells me how my breathing patterns mean I never let anything go, and manages to unknot a back injury that’s been causing me pain for years. The tarot card reader is a delight as he talks me through where I’ve come from and where I’m going – and hits a few home truths about my personality on the way. He also tells me I have “the wife material card”, so things are looking up.

However, it is the Balinese healer who makes the biggest impact. I have always been someone who believes in, well, everything, but it’s fair to say the events of the past year have badly rattled me. So when the healer, Kuman, tells me he’s going to heal my chakras and I might see colours, I am doubtful, but open. Well, blow me down if it doesn’t happen. At some stage during the meditation, the backs of my shut eyes morph into a lava lamp (I know how this sounds) of blue and green and purple, and my eyelids start twitching madly. I’m crying, and he’s pouring coconut water on my third eye, and my brain is a kaleidoscope and it’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me and I loved it. I emerge looking like a total mad woman, with the whites of my eyes glowing like never before and my fellow retreaters are split between wanting it to happen to themselves (which it does to several) and thinking there’s something wrong with me. But that’s fine – it is a moment so bizarre and other-worldly that it does the thing I have been waiting for. It brings the light back in.

Bali is filled with the gifts that help our souls: sunshine, the sea, good food, pristine nature, a peaceful atmosphere. But it’s the spirituality, as well as the presence of the other women, that takes my week beyond what I hoped it would be. We all wear various badges of pain and responsibility, and a week like this gives you an opportunity to leave both temporarily behind you. Sometimes a trip doesn’t just change your life, it also saves it.

First published in The Australian Women’s Weekly, January 2019. Reprinted by permission.

Read Emma’s previous piece for BUZZ – Eat, Cray, Love.


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