Eat, pray, love

Liz Gilbert promised love in Bali. I went and found something more

Meditating in Bali

The overnight flight glides over the Atlantic Ocean. I’m fatigued and restless—an awful mix. In a futile quest for sleep, I hit the call button. After what feels like an eternity, a visibly drained flight attendant, her hair hastily thrown into a messy bun, comes over. Her disheveled scarf brushes the nose of the slumbering passenger in the aisle seat.

Without preamble, she asks, “What can I get you?”

“A glass of red wine, please,” I reply softly, recognizing her exhaustion. Had my two seatmates been awake, I would have saved her the trek by going to the galley myself. Out of nowhere, my previously dormant seatmate springs to life, saying, “Make it two, stewardess.”

My fists tighten involuntarily. I detest the term ‘stewardess,’ and for good reason. First, the days of glamorized air travel are long gone—cabin crew are primarily safety officers now. Second, I’m both a flight attendant and a committed feminist, with zero tolerance for archaic labels like ‘stewardess.’
However, considering he’s just woken up, I bookmark my feminist discourse for a later time.

He starts to share travel stories, and while I appear to listen, I’m actually tuning him out. I hope his uninvited yarns, paired with a glass of subpar merlot, will finally lull me to sleep. As he rambles on and my wine glass empties, my eyes finally start to close. I slip into a much-needed slumber.

Food at an outdoor market

A drastic return to reality

Days later, I’m in Barcelona, striving to fall back into my usual pattern: gym, work, study—basically, everything I hadn’t been doing while island-hopping across Indonesia. As I prepare for work, a notification illuminates my phone screen. It’s a photo of me in Bali. Sipping my coffee, I find myself revisiting the chain of thoughts triggered by a conversation with a stranger on a plane. I reflect on the past four months of aimless wandering, spent trying to mend emotional scars.

Author with grandmother

Eat: Italy

August in Italy was, let’s say, “interesting.” Specifically, I was in Iglesias, a Sardinian town overflowing with secrets that make you grateful for leaving. This quaint, trauma-producing locale was once my home, and I spent 20 days there drowning my issues in gastronomic excess.

Mornings meant sinking my teeth into focaccias oozing with olive oil. I was sipping Aperol Spritzes by noon, followed by my grandmother’s pasta for lunch. A post-lunch nap lasted until 6 PM, making way for a second round of aperitifs at 7 PM. I’d swirl negronis in my glass, priming my appetite for another feast. Eating became my way to sidestep conversation, and drinking was a means to avoid introspection.

But no amount of food or drink could truly distract me. Everything seemed to pull emotional triggers. My grandma showered me with love, which was both comforting and a poignant reminder of other familial gaps. The local gossip never ceased, as is custom in small towns. Straight men, my former tormentors, uncomfortably chuckled at deliberately offensive jokes aimed at my sexuality.

I wanted to stand tall and own my identity, irrespective of the judgments of narrow-minded individuals. But internal barriers held me back. The old beliefs and fresh triggers made my 20-day stay challenging. Nonetheless, amid the overindulgence and emotional turmoil, I did make some headway in confronting these issues. Yet the discomfort dredged up by this town was merely an additional layer on top of other, still unresolved, matters.

Street scene in India

Pray: India

In September, I ventured to India, hoping it would somehow unlock answers to the questions haunting me. But relaxation eluded me there; instead, I oscillated between tears and laughter at the absurdity of my life, with a dash of last-minute work on looming deadlines. It wasn’t until my final day, in the pollution-choked atmosphere of Bangalore, that a gut feeling urged me to leave my lavish suite at the Radisson and wander the streets. In this aimless walk among the markets, I began to glimpse a taste of freedom after ten emotionally exhausting days.

Drawn by intuition, I found myself at the first Ganesh Chaturthi festival since the pandemic began. Sipping chai on the sidelines, I was unexpectedly pulled into the celebrations. Omkar, a young boy, encouraged me to dance freely, proclaiming, “It will liberate you.” And liberate me it did. I danced uninhibitedly, finding more freedom in those movements than in countless therapy sessions costing $200 apiece. At that moment, I prayed to any listening deity for a change.

Indian taxi driver

My kryptonite: Mr X

Back home, however, the change I yearned for was conspicuously absent. I was still caught in the emotional snare of pursuing the same man, feeding my dependence on his sporadic validation—a reply every five business days, if I was lucky. The irony wasn’t lost on me: here I was, in a sun-drenched city, yet living a life that felt increasingly colorless. His intermittent presence had morphed into an unhealthy idolization.

By October 31st, my delusion reached new heights. I had somehow convinced myself that we were in an exclusive relationship, making even innocent flirting with others seem like a betrayal of this fictional bond.

As November unfurled its seasonal gloom, I took a cue from the novels and films that shaped my existence, impulsively booking a one-way flight to Bali. In a desperate attempt to reclaim my emotional footing—and perhaps a final bid for his attention—I penned a farewell letter straight out of a 19th-century romance novel. In it, I laid bare my vulnerability and desire for genuine connection, ending with a challenge for him to reciprocate my feelings or set me free. There was no response.

Author and local woman

Love: Bali

Landing in Uluwatu, Bali, I found myself skipping from my luxury boutique hotel and beaches that seemed borrowed from paradise. I was restless and emotionally exposed, having heard nothing back from him after my daring letter. I turned to writing and meditation, silently imploring Bali to fulfill its reputation as a place of healing, as championed by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Leaving the beaches for Ubud, a name that means ‘medicine’ in Bahasa Indonesian and a place believed to be a confluence of healing energies in Hindu culture, I embarked on a series of therapeutic sessions—acupuncture, yoga, and shamanic healing. During one intimate session in a family compound, a healer named Wayun spoke words that struck me: “Your heart is pure, but your soul is lonely. Love will find you—soon in Bali and then in a few years, a love that will last.” I left the session, my energy altered, but my skepticism about love was still intact.

Later, in the labyrinth of holistic healing that Bali offered, I participated in a shamanic ritual. Visions of shapes and a falling man filled my mind, leaving me with more questions than answers. But wouldn’t it be Bali if there were a place to surrender to such experiences?

The next day, dining at a sushi restaurant and wrestling with the menu, a Dutch woman started a conversation and recommended some rolls. She warned me that another ten days of intense healing could overwhelm me, suggesting instead that I venture to the Gili Islands. Taking her advice, I canceled my hotel and booked a boat trip, ready to follow another whimsical yet compelling turn on my journey for self-discovery and healing.

Food on a table seaside

Gili Air: Love nested among the banana pancakes

I set foot on the idyllic Gili Islands, a haven free from cars, where bicycles and horse-drawn carriages rule the roads. My Airbnb host, named Bunda Mami, greeted me with the sort of hug I’d usually seek from a loved one. Each morning started with her serving banana pancakes and fresh juice. My schedule was blissfully free of yoga, healing sessions, and acupuncture. I spent my days cycling around the island, sipping coconut water, and lounging on the beach.

On my second day, a notification from Grindr flashed across my phone. His bio read, “Borricuo from NYC traveling through SE Asia.” We exchanged messages and numbers, eventually meeting for pizza and beers at sunset.

There I was, sitting on a tropical island, waiting for a stranger, when I felt a sudden kiss on my neck. Startled, I turned to find a striking Puerto Rican man. As we sat side by side, drinks flowed freely, making us tipsy. The conversation turned deep, and my guard lowered for the first time in a while. I felt safe. His hand rested on my thigh, and his smile warmed my heart. Though we’d only just met, I felt oddly at home.

Papi and I luxuriated in a beautiful emptiness, conversing and making love during the following days. The woes concerning Mr. X and my prior life issues vanished temporarily. As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun, and soon enough, my return to the mainland became inevitable. Papi and I kissed farewell on a rustic pier, promising to reconnect in New York soon.

A healer had predicted I’d find love in Bali just days before. Despite my skepticism, my experience proved him right. As I let go of my past hang-ups, I encountered a love that filled my heart. I found what I yearned for in Bali: the genuine feeling of love.

Street scene

L train to 34th and Hudson: my heart was content

I came back home, paradoxically feeling more adrift than before. Yet one constant remained amidst my frenetic global flights: a morning text that arrived at 2 p.m. and a video chat to bid goodnight. In early 2023, I bargained with colleagues to exchange my usual Japan circuits for consecutive New York trips.

Among my fondest memories was disembarking the crew bus, exclaiming that I wouldn’t be checking into the crew hotel, and hopping onto the L train to 34th and Hudson Yards to meet Papi. Arriving in uniform and shivering in the February cold of NYC, I’d be greeted with a glass of red wine and a comforting hug that felt like home.

Those three months were beautiful. But the man I thought would be a lasting chapter was a mere footnote. On March 3rd, I found myself weeping uncontrollably on the L train back to that crew hotel—the very place I had so defiantly claimed I’d never return to. After a heartfelt conversation over tacos in Chelsea, Papi and I parted ways. We cried, and I couldn’t fathom how something so beautiful could dissolve so abruptly. Yet it did.

Love liberates us

But not everything was lost. Papi taught me about love, which was transformative for a wounded kid from a small town weighed down by shame. From that point on, I no longer felt undeserving of love or the need to seek emotionally unavailable men. I understood that love is about respect; it liberates and unites us.

In the words of the great poet Maya Angelou, “Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates.” Or to quote Carrie Bradshaw, “Some love stories aren’t epic novels, some are short stories.”
It leaves me pondering: Are these various loves, whether magnificent or flawed, sent our way for the sake of self-discovery, growth, and healing?

I may not have the answer, but I do have gratitude. Thank you, Mr. X. Thank you, Papi. And thank you to those who have yet to enter my life.

My heart is filled with your love—or sometimes, favorably, the absence thereof.

Don't forget to share:

Your support makes our travel guides possible

We believe that LGBTQ+ people deserve safe vacations that allow them to be their authentic selves. That's why our City Guides aren't locked behind a paywall. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated