There was once a time when I wanted to fly. And I mean actually spread my arms wide, jump off of the couch and soar straight through the living room and out the front door. But following a deflating day of trial and (many, many) errors, and a long talk with Dad, I accepted that people couldn’t fly and gave up my Peter Pan daydreams.
I don’t think it was so much about the flying but more the feeling of complete freedom. But after sports, countless clubs, running the school paper and earning a 4.5 GPA—all so that I could hustle through three unpaid internships while studying at UCLA and working part time at Starbucks—you could say I grew to accept that feeling free, like flying, wasn’t something humans could do, either. It’s funny how adulthood creeps up on you like that.
I watched one by one as my fellow Bruins went off to law school, med school, dental school or the workforce like myself, and didn’t question the “road to success” we all seemed to be on. Until one day, after a 50-plus-hour workweek I looked up from my to-do list and thought, There has to be more to life than being really, really, ridiculously hardworking. I intended to find out exactly what that was.
At a point in my life where everything felt calculated—from when I would send that email, to my half-marathon training schedule—I did something completely unorthodox. I bought a backpack and a plane ticket to Bali on a week’s notice to meet my best friend who was adventuring throughout Southeast Asia. I call it the “trip of a lifetime.” And here’s why—why it was worth it to me, and why it could be worth it to you, too:
COURTESY OF MEGAN NICOLE O’NEAL
1. You’ll be reminded that life isn’t as complicated as we make it.
Life in Bali unfolds at a rhythmic pace—a waltz if you will. Yes, people still drive fast and curse traffic. But if you stop a local to ask for directions, they will likely walk you to your destination and not once will you catch them glance at their wrist to check the time. In Bali life isn’t measured by minutes but in moments. Things somehow seem simpler when viewed from that perspective.
Think about your average day. Did you brush your teeth with tap water? Eat raw fruits or veggies? Use air conditioning? Despite the millions of tourists who visit each year, Bali is most definitely a Third World country. That means no ice in your beverages, fully cooked everything, and you can conveniently buy gas out of Absolut vodka bottles from your local corner shack. But there are also squatty toilets. You will never forget the value of a trifecta bathroom (Western toilet, toilet paper and hand soap) ever, ever again.
3. You’ll learn not all strangers are dangers.
At the risk of sounding very un-American, I have to admit the people of Bali were some of the friendliest strangers I’ve ever met. Despite the language barrier, they happily invite you into their temples and customs. It was refreshing to see such openness and acceptance of others. Obviously, I don’t advise wandering down dark alleys solo. But I do think we could all learn a thing or two from the Balinese on cultural acceptance.
4. No cell service
You will not be able to answer emails, return voicemails or #TBT. And it will be glorious! Some restaurants and hotels offer free Wi-Fi, but I implore you: Get off the grid. You’ll thank me later.
5. “Going with the flow” will become your new way of life.
Did you know that for Balinese New Year (Nyepi), the entire island must, by law, stay indoors for 24 hours so as not to attract evil spirits? I didn’t either, but we learned that very quickly during our stay. We also had the wonderful inconvenience of getting pulled over by the police and had to talk our way out of a ticket, just hours before an overzealous taksi driver rammed into us on the road (only our motorbike was harmed). And I’ll never forget the day a wild monkey bit me! Definitely unsettling, but you know what we did? Grabbed a beer at the closest bar and cheered the fact that neither of us had broken bones or rabies. Even Beyoncé is served lemons every now and again. If you can’t put a little umbrella in your drink and call it lemonade, your life is going to be pretty sour.
6. You’ll recognize the beauty in contrasts.
Bali is breathtakingly beautiful, and not like Ryan Reynolds. The most vibrant green rice fields paint the countryside and sky-blue crystalline water lines the shores. All while mounds of trash and people with dirty, shoeless feet walk the dusty alleys winding in between. Bali has two faces, much like many of us, and reminds me that it’s OK to not be perfect, or have everything “figured out.” That the uncertainties, the imperfections or the contrasts from what we like and dislike about ourselves or our situations, can be a really beautiful thing.
COURTESY OF MEGAN NICOLE O’NEAL
7. Your adventure will be what you make it.
On our trip we had beach days, temple days, excursion days boating to a nearby island or hiking a volcano in the dark to see the sunrise. We tried anything and everything we came across and it hurts my heart to think that these life-altering experiences might not have happened because I was too preoccupied with “the future.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think planning for the future is important. (I see you, 401(k).) But if you’re always living for tomorrow, where’s the value in today? And when did “our future” become synonymous with trading our daily lives for the mundane? Call me crazy, but I believe it’s possible to find a balance in enjoying today while building a successful tomorrow.
In one way or another, this happens to all of us. Be it our dreams of flying, or playing in the NBA, or being the first female president. We’ve all had a bigger-than-life dream we were told was “impossible.” But as I sat there on the top of a volcano in Indonesia with my arms outstretched, watching the sun rise before me, a realization washed over me: I was flying.
All the extra hours at work, the studying, the volunteer work, had all, like bricks to a staircase, carried me to that wondrously unplanned moment. Sometimes you achieve your dreams, just in a different way than you’d expect. And sometimes it takes a spontaneous backpacking adventure through Bali for you to figure that out.
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.