Bali is a popular travel destination, aptly named Island of the Gods. It’s the top tourist destination in Indonesia, and people seek luxury and decadence with beaches, food, massage, surfing, scuba diving and yoga. Locals are incredibly kind, gentle and welcoming; and foreigners frequently remark they have landed in paradise. Like me, many tourists come to Bali on vacation and quickly decide to move here, relishing our sublime existence on this island.

However, paradise is relative and many Balinese still live without access to clean water, electricity or flush toilets. The average income is $1,569 per year. Eighty percent of Bali’s revenue is dependent on tourism, which also means the cost of living for locals is rapidly rising.

In the past 20 years, the number of orphanages in Bali has doubled with over 70 orphanages housing thousands of children. Most of the children have a living parent, but are too poor to care for their family. Parents want the best for their children, and orphanages provide a free education (school fees, uniforms and books are often too expensive for poor families), meals and accommodation.

I recently visited a Muslim orphanage, Panti Asuhan Yappenatim, unique since Bali is 93 percent Hindu. A friend arranged the visit, bringing donations she had raised at her birthday. The orphanage was founded in 1985 and expanded over the years to include an on-site school and is now home to 150 children, ages 6 to 19. The government provides .25 per child per day (about $100/year), and only for 30 children, so they raise donations for the balance.

Children immediately swarm us and many girls greet us with the respectful greeting from children to adults, grasping my hand and raising it to their forehead with their heads slightly bowed. This simple gesture immediately touches to me.

One of the older students asks to accompany us and be our tour guide. Fahri is 17 years old and from a neighboring island, Lombok. A few years ago, he accompanied his father to Bali seeking work, and moved into the orphanage after his father returned home. Most students see their families once a year for a Muslim holiday, but when I ask if he goes home (assuming he doesn’t due to the travel expense), he stretches out his arms at the orphanage and replies, “This is my family now.”

The orphanage sent Fahri to Java for two months for intensive English language classes and it’s obvious he’s an ambitious young soul. I ask him about his plans for work, he gets a thoughtful look and says, “My dream is…” He takes a long pause and I’m contemplating his options, doctor, lawyer, scientist, silently pleading he doesn’t say housekeeper! … and he responds simply, “A teacher.” It’s the perfect answer. And then he asks me for my Facebook name.

We walk into the kitchen and inhale the delicious aromas. Fruit and vegetables are piled onto the floor and we discover they don’t have a refrigerator. We are astounded, 150 children and no refrigerator. The dishwashing station is a concrete vat blooming with mildew. But the kids are happy being stacked eight deep in their dorm rooms, staff relating they only recently upgraded from dirt floors to ceramic tiles.

After the tour, we sit down in the office to make our donation. We sign the log, marking our names, address and amount. In Bahasa Indonesian, the staff member acknowledges our donation, restating our names and addresses and formally accepts the gift. Then he switches to Arabic and for the next five minutes offers us prayers. I sit silently, overwhelmed by the entire experience. Letting his blessings wash over me and feeling grateful for another day in Bali.







Living in Paradise

It’s been a few months since my last blog posting from Italy. I recently tallied my year of travels and visited 46 cities/towns in seven countries, staying in 70 different hotels/homes! So you can understand my desire to hunker down and be still for awhile.

In October, I returned to Bali to settle down at long last. My first few days back in Ubud, Bali, I looked at 20 different homes, and it was easy to select my sweet little studio. My living space is 450 square feet, with half my living area outdoors. The second story balcony includes an outdoor kitchen, dining table/desk and chairs; all overlooking a serene rice paddy field. In Southeast Asia, the hum of motorbike and car traffic is incessant. However, my house is on a quiet footpath with occasional dogs barking and the hum of insects. I fall asleep to croaking frogs and wake up to roosters crowing. And my rent is only $300/month, including housekeeping twice a week! My neighborhood is a 30-minute walk into the city center, or just a $1 moped ride from my always-available landlord. Many days pass without leaving my pedestrian-friendly neighborhood since we have a yoga studio, delicious restaurants and many of my friends live nearby. At a minimum, I travel into town for my weekly massage (90 minutes for $11!).

I’ve adopted a simple lifestyle and didn’t even have wifi my first six weeks back in Bali. My refrigerator is stocked full of fruits, vegetables and tofu, and would make my mother proud. I cook two meals a day, whereas in Seattle, I was lucky to cook one meal a week! Yoga four times a week, weekly massages, meals with friends, and only 5-10 hours a week of work. People are always asking me what I do with all my free time and I somehow manage to never be bored (okay, I have learned to be totally entertained by watching the ducks frolick in my rice paddy field).

The past few weeks, I’ve had different friends from Seattle visiting, and it’s been such a joy to share with them my small slice of Bali. We have visited beaches, temples, healers, attended ceremonies, practiced yoga and sang karaoke. They have all remarked on the special nature of Bali, and the personal transformation they have experienced during their time here. One friend related that I’m so much more open in Bali then I ever was in Seattle. And it’s true. I was very happy in Seattle and hope to return there someday. But Bali nurtures this soft, easy, open side of myself – just an unleashed Annie!

Every day, I meet people and they ask me where I’m from and I practically jump up and down with excitement, loudly proclaiming, “I LIVE HERE!” Tourists look at me jealously, while expats sometimes remark that I’m on my honeymoon. Bali instills a constant feeling of gratitude in my life. I hope to never lose this feeling of excitement and joy about my paradise.


I haven’t blogged in many weeks because I hit a wall and had serious traveller’s fatigue. During my first 25 days in Europe, I visited eight cities in Spain and France, stayed in nine hotels/apartments and took ten trains. I am grateful for visiting friends, eating delicious meals, and seeing amazing sights; but had to slow down and take a serious break. I needed a vacation from my vacation!

In Milano, I stay with a friend from high school who has been living in Italy for many years. Coincidentally, her family from New York is also visiting and I am welcomed into their family for a few days, relishing the comfortable, easy banter and intimacy. After her family departs, my friend and I drive down the Adriatic coast and stay in a beach town for eight divine days, doing absolutely nothing but lounging on the beach, eating delicious food, and making friends with the vendors. The beach vendors are from India and Africa, and we are the rare tourists that actually speak with them. Mostly middle-aged men that have left their families to make a better lives for themselves in Italy by sending money home. Each day we are warmly greeted with a “Ciao bella!” and they stop trying to sell us anything.

After my luxurious beach vacation, I hug my friend goodbye and head to Venice. And I suddenly realize it’s the first time I’ve been alone for eight weeks. After one obligatory day sightseeing in Venice, I retire to my room for two solid days, holing up to read, sleep, bike and practice yoga.

I emerge from my respite and travel to Florence to meet a friend from Seattle. Florence completely restores my love for travelling with it’s charming streets and people. We talk to every shopkeeper and learn about the price of apartments, growing conditions of the current fig season, and where to buy good street food. And I eat gelato twice a day, my favorite flavors are dark chocolate with orange, and mango – YUM!

Next up is Naples for the United Nations World Urban Forum. A friend from Seattle is speaking at the conference and I crash in her room and attend the Indigenous People’s Forum. For the second time in a week, it’s sweet to see folks from Seattle, and I’m wrapped in the instant community of the Northwest.

The stars line up and I attend a week-long singing workshop outside Siena, organized by a friend from Bali. I’m so happy to be reunited with my Balinese community and the first time I enter the bus to meet everyone, I’m jumping up and down with joy. Twenty of us are gathered to sing, cook and practice yoga in the stunning setting of the rolling Tuscan hills. Most of the participants are in choirs and because I’m such a ham, my tone-deaf self winds up in center stage for every song. Okay, I absolutely LOVE to sing, but after being told to lip sync during recitals as a child, I relegated myself to singing loud and proud by myself in my car, or in large groups of friends at karaoke. I’m overwhelmed by sheer heaven when our group sits on the steps for the Duomo (Cathedral) in Siena and sings, gathering a crowd and much applause. I don’t get much sleep at the workshop from all the activities and socializing, and look forward to a lot of rest at my next stop, a meditation center in Curasci, Italy.

I briefly met Sabine and Francesco at Gaia Oasis, my favorite yoga retreat center in North Bali. They told me about their new center for awakening, Buona Vita, nestled at 3,000 feet in the mountains of Umbria. Based on very little information, I plan on spending a week there, and it isn’t until I’m on the train to my destination that I realize I may be the only guest. In fact, I am their first official guest participating in the full schedule, the other visitors being friends and family. Our day starts with 6 am meditation and I quickly abandon my hopes on catching up on sleep. Every day is jam-packed with joy, and I’m amazed by my good fortune to be with them. The schedule never stops and our mornings are filled with meditation, yoga, Buddhist teachings and breakfast on a sun-drenched porch. We work for many hours in their abundant garden. It’s been many years since I gardened in my first house, and I fondly recall many hours with my grandmother as a child and my ex-girlfriend gardening. We harvest zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, basil, chard, parsley for our huge meals. And in true Italian fashion, we take many cappuccino breaks. Sabine is also a trained psychologist and in between gardening, cooking, cleaning, eating and meditation, I work on forgiveness and my heart cracks wide open. I feel lighter, and the quiet stillness of the Umbrian hills is reflected in the stillness of my mind.











In 2010, I volunteered at several orphanages in Vietnam, including Tam Ky, located in my mother’s home province of Quang Nam in Central Vietnam. Shortly after I left one of the orphanages, 14 families from Spain arrived and adopted all of the babies. My Vietnamese-Australian friend, Tiffany, has stayed in touch with many of these families over the past two years and invited me to join her in Spain to visit the families this summer. She even offered to pay for most of my expenses, so I readily agree to her generous offer.

The journey from Bali to Barcelona takes 34 hours, with layovers in Kuala Lumpur (where I meet Tiffany), Bangkok and Cairo. When we land in Barcelona, we are so exhausted that we sleep through our first night in Spain, even though we only intend a short afternoon siesta.

Barcelona is a far-cry from Borneo and Bali, and I relish the clean, silent streets, although I miss falling asleep to the sound of frogs croaking and waking up to roosters crowing. Tiffany treats us to a sumptuous 8-course tasting menu. The restaurant is so fancy that we ring a doorbell to get buzzed into the secure dining room. When Tiffany leaves the table, a waiter immediately appears and folds up her napkin without touching it, using two spoons and two forks in a hilarious display of service. She stops eating after 4 ½ courses so I wind up eating a staggering 11 ½ courses and savor every bite! I’m just amazed by the contrasts in my life since days ago I was using squat toilets and bathing in dirty river water.

Our next stop is Zaragoza, Spain to meet four families with adopted Vietnamese children. On the train ride, I’m suddenly stunned by the significance of our trip and overwhelmed with emotions. I feel quite nervous as we walk towards the Old Square, and spot the first family. We hug and kiss the parents and their three-year old daughter. She is a bit shy at first, but Tiffany bribes her with chocolate and lipstick, and I play tag and peek-a-boo. Soon she is holding our hand and sitting on our lap, just like the little baby we had embraced two years ago in Vietnam. My Spanish is limited, as is their English, and we communicate through basic words and the handy use of an Iphone app translator. The father thanks me for taking care of his daughter before they adopted her. I quickly reply, “De nada (you’re welcome).” But he stops me before I can shrug it off and looks at me deeply, “No really, thank you so much.” I get a bit weepy, the first of many teary moments.

The parents are hungry for information about their children. What was their life like at the orphanage? Who were their birth parents and why were they given up for adoption? Did they have health problems? What were they like as babies? Tiffany volunteered for three months at the orphanage, and has some information to share with the parents. My mother is from the region, so I know what life would be like if they had remained in the orphanage. I wish we could provide more, but the parents are grateful for any information, since they only received the clothes on the babies’ backs and the official paperwork, nothing about their children’s health or history.

We spend two days with four families in Zaragoza, several of them driving long distances to meet with us. They are so grateful to the volunteers who loved their children before their adoption. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to meet them and get a glimpse of their life in Spain. The parents absolutely adore their children. Of course, all parents love their children; but these parents seem particularly loving and doting. They even dress their children like themselves!

After Zaragoza, we take a night train to Leon and another family meets us at the train station at 6am. He asks us if we are tired, and I lie and tell him no, because I know he is anxious to talk to us about his daughter. We only have 24 hours in Leon and are meeting with three families, so every minute is packed with activities. We arrive at their home, and I’m delighted to be assigned to the daughter’s bedroom. She was my favorite baby girl in the orphanage, and I’ve often wondered about her fate.

All of the parents have waited many years to adopt their children. Their voices sometimes choke with emotion, describing the bureaucracy with agencies and the Spanish government, paperwork, endless waiting and anxiety, until they suddenly receive a phone call and must immediately schedule the long trip to Vietnam and pick up their children. Our host shares the video of the first time they see their children at the orphanage, immediately recognizable from the one photo they have received and probably looked at a thousand times before their trip. The parents hold on to their babies so tightly and look like they never want to let them go. At the orphanage, babies sleep on wooden slat beds with a bamboo mat. Several parents tell us that on the first night in the hotel, the babies constantly stroked the mattresses and sheets, simply relishing the softness.

There is a big joke about birthdays. In Vietnam, birthdays are not significant like in the United States or Europe. During the war, papers are lost or changed and many people change their birthdays when they emigrate to the United States. At the orphanage, they don’t know the real birthdays of the children and randomly assign them a birthday based on their general appearance. The parents look a bit horrified at first, but then I tell them my mother and brothers (all born in Vietnam) don’t know their real birthdays either! Is my brother really a Scorpio, who knows?

What I do know is that everyone in this equation is incredibly lucky. The children are fortunate to be raised in loving households, and have opportunities they never would have received in Vietnam. The parents feel incredibly blessed to have perfect and adorable children that fill their lives with joy. And I am just a bystander with a big smile stretched across my face, awestruck to witness the transformation in these children and families’ lives.









After many months of comfort in Ubud, Bali, I venture south to Canggu, Bali to meet my friend, Anne-Louise, for a 3 ½ day Anusara Yoga and Anatomy workshop. These days, I’m just amazed at my once fragile and fatigued body’s ability to do new yoga positions. The workshop deepened my yoga practice and I leave with a renewed sense of strength.

Anne-Louise is a BBC producer/yoga instructor from England. In Bali, I’m always meeting women with high-powered stressful careers, who are transforming their lives to follow their bliss — tax attorneys/tarot card readers, financial analysts/personal assistants, and stock brokers/spa managers. She’s been in Bali for 8 months, and like me, feeling the need to travel off the ex-pat and tourist trail. Ever the producer, she’s planned a 10-day adventure in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo that is primarily Muslim. Anne-Louise tells me to pack light, chiding me when I want to pack three dresses and two bikinis. I pare it down to one dress and one bikini that never reach the light of day. I scoff at her for packing a mosquito bed-net, gaiters, syringe (in case we need a clean one in a hospital!) and Colloidal Silver. The joke is on me since we have used three out of four items on our trip.

Our journey begins with a three-day river cruise in Tanjung Puting, home to several orangutan sanctuaries. We commission a huge boat with a crew of four: guide, captain, cook and assistant, and the cook’s 6-year old daughter. In an effort to get a good deal, I’m forever mentioning my birthday (special birthday price?). The boat pulls over and the machetes come out, the crew hacks down foliage to weave hats and decorations for my birthday celebration. They even manage to find some balloons, cook a birthday feast, sing Indonesian songs and I feel so blessed to spend my birthday in Borneo with my new friends. We sleep on the outdoor deck on mattresses under a mosquito net, and every day feels like a National Geographic special. We go to several orangutan feeding sessions and are just floored by these gentle shy creatures, that only exist in Borneo and Sumatra. We go on a night walk, hoping to see some unusual nocturnal creatures. Besides bats and bugs, the most exotic thing we see are LEECHES! Anne-Louise has loaned me her gaiters, which I’ve worn over my Capri pants tucked into my socks. Somehow, leeches still manage to wiggle their way under my pants, but fortunately I detect them before they attach themselves to my skin. Our guide is not so lucky since he’s only wearing Crocs and we collectively groan from the blood-swelled creature, which wriggled off promptly when coated with tiger balm. Anne-Louise is always bemoaning the state of hygiene on our trip. We have a few hours of electricity a day, with a functioning shower. After she learns the shower pumps water from the river (which our squat toilet dumps into) she politely asks for a bowl of hot water for bathing each morning. With her British accent, all her requests sound delightfully charming. I always tease her, “What’s a little fecal matter between friends?”

We retain our guide to travel to Tanjung Keluang. I rarely travel with guides, but am quite happy with our choice when we arrive to the turtle sanctuary on a small island. The staff of ten young men doesn’t know what to do with us, since they have never had an overnight guest (Indonesians only go for day trips). In an effort to break the ice, I immediately start promoting Anne-Louise as a yoga instructor. She had taught the boat crew yoga and they had responded enthusiastically, and this group is even more engaged. In addition to 6 male staff, she also teaches three visiting women; all first-time yoga students. Yoga has been a bonding element for this trip, and all the women hug and kiss us after the class, grateful for their first yoga lesson. The staff are very sweet, even leaving the generator on all night with the light on in case we want to use the toilet (we grimace at this waste but are grateful for their kindness). Sharing one squat toilet with ten men is not our favorite event, and we laugh that they place their can of toothbrushes inches away from the toilet (hello backsplash!). After days of pee-stained feet, we decide to splurge on a three-star hotel with hot showers, flush toilets, air conditioning, cable TV and wifi.

Next on the itinerary is Banjarmasin, a large city in Southern Kalimantan where we hope to arrange a guide for rural trekking and staying in longhouses with Dayak tribes. Many guides approach us on the street, but they are all locals that don’t venture out of town. One guide tells us he is passing through Kandangan, a three-hour drive away and en route to our destination, and Anne-Louise jokingly tells him they should drive us for free. After a private discussion between the guide and driver, they tell us they will drive us for free, if we meet them outside the airport because they are dropping off guests and don’t want to double-back into town. We are completely shocked by the offer, but Anne-Louise is immediately suspicious and tells them we will call them later. Besides being a hygiene freak, Anne-Louise is also a bit paranoid. She’s had some negative travel experiences, and has an active imagination. She tells me in a British schoolmarm voice, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I disagree, telling her I instinctually trust the guide. She googles his name, learns he is cited in travel guides, and cross-checks his phone number to authenticate his identity. After exploring other expensive, or exceedingly complicated options, we agree to the free ride. When we meet the guide the following morning, he is very gracious and tells us we are stopping soon for the driver to eat breakfast. While we are waiting in the car, an old lady approaches us to sell us street food. Although Anne-Louise buys the baked items, she quietly confides in me that maybe the guide told the women to sell us drugged food so they could kidnap us for ransom! As she’s snacking away, the guide tells us we are going to pick up a woman to drive with us. Anne-Louise takes me aside, telling me if they pull a switcheroo and a man gets into the car we should make a polite excuse and find another ride. As we pull away from the parking lot, we enquire about the missing female passenger and learn she’s not joining us and was the driver’s friend’s niece. I silently smile at Anne-Louise, my faith affirmed in the kindness of strangers.

We arrive safely in Loksado, a small village nestled in the foothills of Maratus Mountains. Surprisingly, we are the only guests at this 16-room river lodge. They have electricity a few hours a day, through a generator, and we are thankful for a western toilet even though we flush it with buckets of water. We hope to spend two nights in the river lodge, going on local treks and bamboo rafting. But it is impossible to find a guide, even though we repeatedly ask the lodge staff and in the nearby town. We realize foreigners must be a rarity when people repeatedly pull over on their motorbikes, asking to take photos with us, the exotic foreign tourists.

Every day is filled with negotiations. Fortunately, Anne-Louise speaks a decent amount of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, but it also means I become a bit lazy and leave the logistics to her. It’s a welcome break, since I typically make the travel arrangements and bargain for my friends. Bartering is standard procedure in Southeast Asia, but Borneo brings it to a whole new level that is quite comical. The game begins when we ask for a service or item. They repeat our request numerous times, phrasing it differently each time, lighting up a cigarette and staring off into space. Frequently, they disappear for awhile to discuss it with others. When they return, they ruminate on our request again (and again) and finally state an exorbitant figure. Anne-Louise and I have already discussed in advance our ideal price and top price, so she immediately responds with our desired price. Our latest tactic is for me to walk away, so she has to find me to discuss the new price after they’ve countered with their price. It can sometimes take HOURS. We find this particularly amusing because we are usually the only tourists in town. We always pay more then we should, knowing the amount is generally inconsequential to us, but a great deal of money for them.

When faced with extreme poverty, I always think about my mother’s childhood growing up without electricity or running water, and how in one generation our family’s life has been transformed. My life is so absolutely golden and I count my blessings every single day.









Several months have passed since my last blog entry. It’s difficult to chronicle all the amazing things about my life in Bali. Yes, I’m still in Bali! People ask me how long I’ve been here and get a knowing smile when I tell them I originally came for one month and am still here five months later. Ex-pats relate their own story of coming for vacation and remain for decades. But no! – I protest, I’m moving to Vietnam. I’m just on vacation.

As the months pass and every day is filled with joy, wonder and blessings; I decide not to resist the ranks and to move to Bali. Vietnam is a part of my heart, my mother’s home country and a vibrant, dynamic place. I can always move to Vietnam later, open a yoga studio and adopt a child. Some of my friends have joked for years that I’m like an M & M. Hard on the outside, but sweet on the inside. Bali softens my soul and brings out the gooey, chocolaty parts of me. Since making this decision last week, I wake up with a new sense of awe, feel like I’m floating in a dream.

The most difficult part of leaving the United States, was leaving behind my community in Seattle. I’ve lived in dozens of places in five different states. Seattle was the first place I really settled down, and had a loving community of hundreds of friends and family. I knew I’d want to create a community in Vietnam. And here in Ubud, Bali, I’ve found a sweet community. Nestled in the neighborhood of Penestenan, amidst rice paddy fields and foot paths. No noise from cars or motorbikes, just the rushing sound of water from rice field irrigation, constant crowing of roosters, and falling asleep to a cacophony of crickets and frogs. Morning yoga under a majestic Banyan tree.

Every day, I witness the daily devotion of the Balinese. Offerings to the gods pepper doorways and streets. I’ve been privileged to participate in ceremonies that include blessings, chanting, dancing, sitting meditation, walking meditation and fire. Being raised Catholic and shunning religion in my teens, I’ve had a negative attitude towards prayer. I viewed it as making deals with God. If I prayed hard enough and he gave me what I wanted, then I would promise him the moon and the sky. Thinking I was bad or wrong if my prayers didn’t come true. Now, I’m learning how to pray. Chanting and offering flowers from my heart. Feeling gratitude for all my blessings. Praying for my family and friends. It’s bringing out the softer side of me.

Bali is a deeply healing place, and every day I get stronger and brighter. I’m discovering muscles in new places and am in awe of my body these days. Falling deeply in love with myself, and even embracing my pot belly!





Bali has completely spoiled me. The simplest details are filled with beauty. Every day, my hotel room is filled with fresh flowers: on my bed, nightstand, coffee table, altar, bathroom sink and shower. And there are lovely inspirational quotes on my pillow that change daily as well, “Be happy in the morning for what you have, and in the evening for who you are,” and “Compare yourself to no one and you will realize all that you are.”

I’ve spent three weeks at a mountain and beach yoga retreat center, Gaia Oasis, with yoga classes twice a day, vegetarian meals and a salt water swimming pool. For the first week, I basically had private yoga lessons with so much personal instruction. The yoga teacher utters the most delicious phrases which I try to remember for future use when I’m a yoga instructor (maybe it’s just her British accent that makes it so appealing). She teaches Anusara yoga, a joyous heart-opening practice and I float out of each class. In Seattle, I’ve hopped around different yoga studios so this is the first time I’ve felt connected to a yoga teacher, and am quite sad when she leaves.

Remaining open to the new yoga teacher, I show up early for the first class. Up until now, we’ve had yoga classes in two beautiful yoga studios, opening up onto a frog-filled pond with lotus flowers, or an octagonal building facing the beach. There are fresh flowers, incense, candles, Buddha statues and sound systems with lovely chanting. So my psyche is totally shattered when I walk into our new space and the floor is covered with mice droppings. Upon further inspection I realize they are little black bugs! The air in the room is totally still, it’s a plain unadorned room and suddenly I’m not in paradise anymore. The bugs are quickly swept up and we begin our yoga practice. The teacher has an awkward style and I’m yearning for my last yoga teacher. Slowly, the remaining bugs on the floor begin to wake up and start crawling towards my yoga mat. And more bugs are dropping from the ceiling – the place is totally infested! I try to be zen, realizing I can’t always practice yoga in idyllic conditions and should rise above the chaos. Later, I discover the place really IS infested with millions of bugs and the room is closed for repairs. I’m even offered a free massage for my inconvenience!

The resort operates as a non-profit, funneling proceeds into several local groups including supporting a local school by purchasing uniforms and meals. I visit the school on a special day, as eight schools gather together to share song, music and dance. All the schools are quite isolated, and some children have to walk 4-hours one-way for a half-day of school! The narrow trail to the school is quite treacherous, and our mopeds skitter along the rocky unpaved road. In this rural area, I can see many homes with dirt floors and no electricity.

We are greeted by 500 cheerful children, crammed into a concrete open area, surrounded by classrooms with tin roofs. The girls swarm around me, testing out their English and showing off their Justin Bieber baseball caps. The first performance is a Gamelan group, traditional Balinese music. Then it’s a group of eight girls, dancing a coordinated dance to American pop music about falling in love. I’m a bit shocked when a group of 10-year old girls start gyrating their hips, horrified by the Western influence. Fortunately, it’s rounded off with a traditional Balinese dance.

I learn that the Indonesian government has eliminated the school fees for primary education. For many poor families, barriers remain such as purchasing three school uniforms and supplies. Most children continue their education until they reach high school, when school fees become compulsory.

The resort is also trying to help local farmers, and provides land for tenant farmers. They are helping to restore the soil, providing different crops with higher yields and higher market values, and have provided infrastructure for fresh spring water to be piped into their homes. But 80 percent of the water is used by the hotel’s 11 guests for bathing and toilets. The other 20 percent of the water supply is used by 40 families for drinking water and all household purposes. And of course the water supply runs dry 3-4 months a year, and they have to walk long distances for water. I realize my personal water use directly affects the surrounding village and immediately start reducing my water consumption.

It’s true Bali is paradise for so many tourists. But I’m realizing there is always another side to paradise.







Undercover Annie

I’ve been in Bali for 4 weeks, and decided to stay another month. It’s been an intensely healing journey for me and I’m just not ready to leave yet.

Although I’ve been practicing yoga for 10 years, it hasn’t been on a regular basis and I don’t push myself very hard, for fear of the pain or injury. These past few months in Bali and at the ashram in Vietnam have really elevated and deepened my yoga practice. And for the first time I can do a head stand! The spiritual aspect is a huge factor for my inner journey.

Bali has been so inspirational for me. The people are extremely gentle and humble. It’s been a good lesson for me to slow down my monkey mind, that I don’t have to be busy constantly, and to open myself to silence and stillness. I’ve attended several cleansing ceremonies in Bali, and have just been floored by the utter devotional displays. Women and men, young and old, all of them chanting with their eyes closed, heads raised up, smiles of pure bliss. Occasionally, people will start wailing and crying. It’s a bit stunning to see a grown man sobbing next to me, but I soon realize it’s just a natural emotional release for them. Balinese people spend about half their income on various ceremonies – no wonder they are so blissed out!

I’ve spent a few weeks at an amazing mountain yoga retreat center in North Bali, Gaia Oasis. The bungalows are nestled in the hillside, surrounded by lush banana trees, bamboo groves, coconut trees and flowering bushes. Yoga is twice a day, overlooking a pond filled with frogs. My first few days, I stay in my room recovering from food poisoning. Eventually, I feel better and venture out, sharing meals with other guests. One of the guests, after a two-minute conversation about healers, looks me straight in the eye and tells me I’m “undercover.” I don’t quite understand her meaning, maybe it’s lost in translation? So I ask her to clarify, and she tells me I’m undercover because I look so happy, but deep in my eyes she can see great pain and sadness. At first I feel a bit defensive because I am so unbelievably happy, but then I take a step back and own her words. I’m an incest survivor and have been working on these issues for decades. I’ve tried talk therapy, alternative treatments, meditation and hypnotherapy. And even though I can surround myself with goodness today, these horrible things happened to me as a child and I can’t change the past. In Bali, I’ve had so much time for contemplation that I’ve realized forgiveness is the true path for healing. Not for them, but for me.

A few days later, the yoga teacher leads us in a mantra about healing and forgiveness. She tells us to picture someone who needs healing and we begin the mantra (ra ma da sa, sa say so hung). I close my eyes and I’m at my brother’s house in New York. It’s a sunny day and I run into the house and hug my brother and mother tightly. We go into the back yard, feel the grass beneath our feet, throw our heads back in exaltation, holding hands, laughing and dancing. But then I imagine my Grandfather (who molested me) and he looks a bit uncomfortable. I hug him and we start to dance together. Later, my other brother joins us (who also molested me). I am really truly happy dancing with them. Afterwards, I open my eyes in this yoga room and am completely shellshocked by this spontaneous forgiveness.

A few days ago was Nyepi, Balinese New Year. It’s a day of complete silence in Bali. All the electricity is turned off, no one works, you can’t leave your house (or hotel), airplanes don’t even land in Bali! New Year is always a time to reflect on my life and think about my future. So this Balinese New Year, I decided to let love and joy into my heart. My new plans are to go to yoga teacher training in Vietnam in 2013, and open a yoga studio in Hoi An, Vietnam. I’m opening my heart more every day, and so amazed at where it’s taking me.

Finding Family

My friends from Seattle and I travel to Nha Trang, a beach town in Central Vietnam. In 2010, I’d visited a friend who was volunteering in Nha Trang at Chua Loc Tho, a Buddhist orphanage and school. I return to the orphanage with my friends and look for the main nun, hoping she will remember me. Several Buddhist nuns are huddled around a baby and seem very concerned. Through my limited Vietnamese and lots of miming, we discover the 3-month old baby has just been dropped off to the orphanage earlier in the day. The nuns peel back the blankets and his shirt to reveal he doesn’t have any arms — the lingering effects of Agent Orange after almost 40 years. The baby’s face is a splotchy red and he’s agitated, his gaze bouncing around the room. I scoop him up, try to burp him and cover him with kisses. When I put him down, his eyes meet mine and he smiles. This kid has spirit, and I know he will be okay, being raised by these loving Buddhist nuns. My friends and I present the head nun with our donation and shortly thereafter, the baby is whisked away to the doctor and through our support, they can also obtain his documentation. In addition to the orphanage, they also operate an on-site school for 80 poor children from the surrounding villages. We walk over to the school and are quickly bombarded by children lunging for our Iphones after we take a few shots, expertly using the touchscreen to scroll through our photos and laughing. The head teacher lines up the children and they sing songs for us. The head nun invites us to lunch and we eat in silence, moved by our experience.

My friends return home to Seattle and I travel to a yoga and meditation center in Cu Chi, Vietnam. The driver picks me up from the airport and doesn’t speak any English, responding with stony silence at my attempts to make conversation in rudimentary Vietnamese. I stare out the window, passing thousands of signs that I can’t understand. And suddenly I feel panicked. Can I really handle living in Vietnam, when I can’t speak or understand the language? Will I become totally isolated, the way I feel at that moment in the taxi? I know it’s just a fleeting feeling and will myself to sleep.

I wake up as we arrive on the grounds of Sivananda Yoga Vietnam. I quickly walk past ponds filled with lotus flowers and am ushered into a 2-hour yoga class that kicks my butt (I’d spent two weeks overeating with friends and zero exercise). During the 2-hour evening meditation and chanting, my body silently screams in pain and I briefly contemplate leaving early (I’d booked for five nights). The wake up bell is at 5:30 am and the last lecture ends at 10pm. This isn’t exactly the restful retreat I’d envisioned… The daily schedule includes four hours of yoga, four hours of meditation/chanting, karma yoga (work = cleaning), lectures and two vegetarian meals. I’m on the yoga “vacation” (although it doesn’t feel like much of a vacation!) and there are also 70 students attending a month-long yoga teacher training class. One of my favorite activities is the chanting. It’s in Hindu and people are swaying with their eyes closed and playing the tambourine. I’m cynical for a scant 10 seconds and then give in and am singing loud and proud, stumbling over the words and loving every minute. I meet some amazing people and in the rare moments of free time there are massages, acupuncture, warm walks in the evening and many showers to cool off from the heat. The days fly by and suddenly it’s my last day and I’m so sad to say goodbye.

I take the local bus back to Saigon and am the only foreigner. An old lady keeps turning around in her seat to look at me. After 10 minutes, she must conclude I’m a safe bet and moves herself and many bags next to me and settles in for the long ride. She’s chatting away at me in Vietnamese, smiling and offering me mangoes. My limited vocabulary and the predictable questions are always the same: I only speak a little bit of Vietnamese, I’m from the United States, my mother is Vietnamese and my father is American, I’m 42 and not married (this is always stunning to them), and I have four older brothers and two younger sisters. And I repeatedly say “I don’t understand.” Vendors hop on and off the back door of the bus, selling sugar cane juice, snacks and raffle tickets. There is even a musician with a microphone duct-taped to an electric guitar singing Vietnamese love ballads. And I’m not afraid anymore of moving to Vietnam. This is the country I know and love, and I’ll just take language classes!

In Saigon, I stay with friends who have two children and I love the family feeling. I hug the kids and ask about school. Play with the kitten and dogs. We eat home-cooked meals of breakfast and dinner and after 2 ½ months of travelling, it feels good to be part of a family routine. I ask them many questions about adoption, travel visas and residency status and am so encouraged by my options. And I even give them parenting advice – a bit cheeky since I’m not actually a mom yet!







My five weeks in Bali are complete bliss. I’ve been travelling alone for such a long time and so internally focused, that I’d almost forgotten the importance of human connections. Resuming my social self, I begin meeting fellow travelers at guest houses, sharing meals with new friends and going on outings. Most of them are on their own personal journey, and it’s wonderful to connect and share stories. One of the highlights is staying at Ashram Gandhi in Candidasa, Bali. My cottage is a few feet from the beach, and I can hear the waves crashing all night long. We eat our vegetarian meals communally, and yoga class overlooks the beach with cows softly moo-ing in the background.

At long last, my friends from Seattle arrive in Bali and suddenly my days are jam-packed with adventures. We return to towns I’ve already stayed at, and locals and travellers call out my name on the street. My friends are astounded that I seem to know everybody. On our first day, we hire a boat and head out to the small islands dotting the horizon. While we are snorkeling, the fisherman uses a spear gun to catch fish and a massive 11 pound squid. Later, we grill the fish and squid on a beautiful white, sandy beach.

In Ubud, Bali, I visit a healer with a delegation of six friends. The 82-year old healer is rail thin, and has a clean, bright energy. He takes short smoke breaks and cracks jokes between healings. The healer is in a chair and I’m sitting on the ground facing away from him. During the initial diagnosis, he places his fingers in my ears, probing my head, neck and shoulders. Before he hits a tender spot, he exclaims, “Ow!” predicting the pain. He tells me my head, heart and gut aren’t connected. That I need to swallow my smile and smile from ecstasy. It’s sometimes difficult to understand his English, and he tells me I’m from outer space (later, my friends have varying interpretations: I was abducted by aliens, I’m psychic, I live on another dimension). Then, he pauses and tilts his head to the side in deep thought. Everyone laughs, “Annie stumped the healer!” He asks me to lie on the ground, and takes out a twig, really a mini-wand and presses the twig between my toes. At first, I don’t realize I’m screaming out loud. The pain is excruciating and I’m yelping and laughing at the same time.

When we first arrive at the compound, we observe the healing sessions of a group of Swedish tourists. We exchange glances of horror when they scream and convulse from the twig. Then, the healer stands over me, splaying my feet with his, uttering Balinese words and motioning with his hands (I think this is the actual healing portion of the session). Afterwards, he uses the twig on my toes again and the pain is considerably less. His final words to me are “Don’t’ worry, be happy” – trite but true.

After a brutal all-night layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam exhausted with no sleep. We visit a friend in Da Nang, and in a manner of minutes we are all laughing hysterically. It feels so lovely to be back in Vietnam.

I use my 200-word Vietnamese vocabulary to make arrangements at hotels, with taxi drivers, and in restaurants. And I’m continually moved by the gentle, funny and strong souls of the people; easy to spot in a crowd of hawkers. The 50-year old man renting bicycles with the sweetest smile. The 18-year old boy carving bamboo roots into artwork. The 80-year old woman selling quail eggs and peanuts. The young women hold my hand, wrapping their other arm around my waist or stroking my hair. Vietnam is a part of my soul, and my new life starts today. I’m so grateful my Seattle friends can see me in MY Vietnam. They even email my mother that I have supportive aunties in Vietnam looking after me.