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Sole Journey: Learning to be a travel guru, thanks to the shock of Bali

First, there are the warnings: "It's so far away from home." "Can you really handle being on a plane for that long?" "Be careful exchanging money, you will get ripped off." And so on and so on.

Haven't all traveling Americans heard this before when venturing into unfamiliar territories? Except the warnings sound like this when you live close to the border, like I do, in San Diego: "Mexico is so dangerous; aren't you worried about getting decapitated?" "The lines at the border are so long and it's scary if you walk or drive." You get the point, right?

Second, there is the reality. Any and all of these events can truly happen to you or any traveler. And yet the excitement of the journey and the utter chaos that can unfold awaken a spirit within that says, "Just do it!"

For me, this was the experience I enjoyed on a recent trip to Bali. When the wonder moves your spirit, you feel like Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. You fly the coop, looking for anything and everything never experienced. This is when you start a journey and become a different kind of traveler -- a guru -- when you throw caution to the wind and yearn for something new. By most accounts, this guru-type experience is as welcome as a cool breeze on a hot summer day.

During the summer, GayTravel.com announced its travel guru competition. Now in its second season, the competition is heating up. Contestants have crafted Halloween costumes, been featured on websites by their employers, written blogs and created Facebook pages. With a prize of $30,000 and free travel while on assignment for six months, the guru applicants have their heads in the right place!

Personally, I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by, so I entered. Both my head and my heart are intertwined with wanderlust. It is a basic fiber of my being. So, I felt it necessary to make a run for the title. Travel inspires a feeling that excites many of us. Truly, who wouldn't want to seize this opportunity? The allure of a new culture, a new adventure and the cerebral pondering: "Is my culture, my experience, the only true path to happiness?"

In the beginning as a traveler, I started with the familiar. In particular, U.S.citizens such as myself usually start by traveling to places with similar cultures. These countries, such as Canada or England, are easier, a little cheaper and not a huge culture shock to visit. Often, they plant a seed, an allure that spreads deep within the traveler heart. After this point, destinations viewed as predictable become par for the course.

When experiencing the culture becomes the reason for a journey, one's eyes begin to open. Religions that engulf a newly explored region, foods that makes a tummy grumble and memories that change us forever are just over the horizon. And yet, once experienced, make a person a travel guru. The experience changes a part of you, at the core. It erases the mind's program created by safety, education and the "American experience." A traveler becomes curious, wanders through the streets searching for the perfect photo and ultimately arrives awakened as a member of the global community. Arriving to guru status, thus the Gay Travel Guru competition was perfect for me!

The long journey to becoming a travel guru

Most recently, I experienced a guru-like moment on my recent five-week hiatus from my home in San Diego. First, one full week of traveling was spent performing the duties of my job, serving clients on a private jet. Next was a full week spending time in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C. with my family, celebrating my cousin Lindsey's 30th birthday. She organized a ‘70s disco roller-skate party that was a total blast and a great way to start the next three weeks of vacation I had planned. After the party, I hopped on a commercial aircraft and headed to Cali for a few hours of unpacking and repacking for my international trip.

Here's a sample of my flight schedule. ILM-ATL-SAN (drive home, change out suitcases, run errands, exchange currency) SAN-LAX-SYD - drive to Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia. Total elapsed traveling time 24 hours or so. Door to door, naps don't count. And this was just to spend a week in Sydney and Wollongong, both in New South Wales in Australia. Since, this article isn't so much about Sydney as it is about learning to be a guru, let's move on the juicy stuff because after Sydney my journey continued to Bali. And that's where the guru-style traveling continued and my mind swam in a sea of new culture.

From Sydney to Bali, Indonesia is about five hours of flight time. This doesn't include customs and immigration processes and for those, I think it's appropriate to add about two hours to the journey, so let’s go with seven total hours.

The shock of Bali

On my particular trip, I opted for the morning flight. I had been asking around for weeks, "What's Bali like?" I don't think I ever expected what I would find. From what I had heard, it was nothing like India or Bangkok in regards to the sheer amount of people. However, after I arrived, I was more than confused at the general chaos of life on the island of Bali.

I am not interested in driving nor riding down a two-lane road with the following sharing my path; schoolchildren riding bikes (sometimes two or three piled on top of one bike), at least 10-15 scooters breezing by at all times, buses, horse-drawn carriages and carts, tourists walking (no sidewalks), and the occasional rickshaw. No, I'm not interested. I also am not interested in the mad dash to clear customs and be bombarded by immigrants to Bali. Most are offering services and are currently living in Bali after having escaped their countries looking for a new life. And finally, in the midst of my shock and confusion, I remembered what I AM interested in, the experience. So I begin the surrender and remind myself that I wanted to be open-minded during my journey after all, the idea here is a holiday.

I'd like to explain my experience from a perspective of a person who planned nothing, not even a hotel, and ended up having one of the most amazing experiences of his life. If you've ever met a Virgo, then you know we enjoy NOT having a plan about as much as a stick in the eye. I am no exception. I decided early on that I would not be my normal freak self and overanalyze and plan. So, I threw caution to the wind and I booked a $17 shared room in gay villa online the day before I left.

Riding down the dirt road to the villa/house reminded me why I normally plan. Lack of lighting, potholes and disorganization jolted my senses. After standing in the courtyard entrance to the villa for 15 minutes asking questions, someone finally helped me and took my payment for the room.

Next, I was shown to my quarters, where I would be sharing a room with an Irish traveler. Immediately walking into the room, I was slapped in the face by a swarm of mosquitos and humidity. Having just arrived from Sydney, I was not enjoying my Balinese experience at all. So far, the best decision I had made was purchasing private transport from the airport to the villa. I love seeing my name on a placard when I arrive at any location. I guess I can be a little spoiled. However, since arriving, my character, my being, had been shaken. Not stirred, shaken.

After turning on the air conditioning and trying to lock my door to no avail, I headed back down the dirt road to look for the beach. Earlier, the owner of the property, creepy as he was, offered a map and some ideas for where to go. With camera and journal in tow, I finally arrived at the paved road and towards bliss, the ocean. Just a few minutes after sunset, I had arrived at Batu Beling Beach Warung.

A Warung is a Balinese restaurant. This particular one was located at the gay part of the beach. Most Warungs are very small and look like a shanty.

Meeting the angels of Bali

Still shaken and quite disappointed, I noticed a few ladies who looked like tourists. I introduced myself and promptly questioned them about the food and location. I was told to have a seat, relax and enjoy. These two introduced themselves as Janmaree and Verity, both Balinese locals after moving from Sydney and London, respectfully. The ladies also mentioned that for around five U.S. dollars, patrons can enjoy a beer or fresh squeezed juice and an entree at most Warungs in town. However, my mind would not stop fretting about the location and shack-like structure. This Warung was built in the sand, with no floor, no roof and no lighting other than a few torches and the pinkish glow of the setting sun.

I still couldn't see the beauty of this experience, but what I could see - a W Hotel, an oasis! Walking distance from where I stood. So off I went.

Upon arriving flustered at the W, I promptly discovered that for around $650 a night, I could get a room. That's a huge disparity from the $17 a night I had planned on paying, so after an $8 San Pelligrino, I headed back to the Warung and the ladies I had left behind. I was basically looking for more options. Taking their advice, I finally spotted a private table in the sand, sat down, and ordered dinner and a juice. After dinner I thanked the staff and the ladies for the food and suggestions. I began to explain to Janmaree and Verity the chain of events I had experienced since my arrival. They both shook their heads and basically said, "Bali has unearthed you." To say the least. The chaos, disappointment and utter shock had provided a mixed bag of emotions. None of what I had expected.

I came to Bali searching for a spiritual experience, a place where I could relax, take yoga, journal, reflect and reawaken my spiritual core. I had no idea that any of the events I was experiencing would take place, nor had a truly recognized the kindness of the ladies.

Upon my exit, Janmaree handed me a card. Embossed on the front, Villa 888. She explained that she had sold all her belongings in Sydney and purchased this home, aka villa. After a painstaking remodel and many tears, her Villa 888 had become her oasis. The number 8 in numerology represents many things. Achievement, abundance, executive, strength, self-disciplined, power, success, authority, psychology, entrepreneur, intensity, supervisor, provider, grandeur and material manifest - or are all associated with the number. Triplicates of the number hold strong powerful meanings as well.

It was at this moment that I realized my experience in Bali had been perfect from the start and very spiritual in nature. With this in mind, I walked back toward to road leading to my villa. The entire way, I wondered, "Should I just leave my villa and go to Villa 888 and stay with Janmaree?" I really couldn't imagine spending any more time in Bali feeling shaken by my experiences, nonetheless sleeping in that mosquito swarmed room.

As my thoughts continue to wander, the sound of a motor scooter interrupts my mind. As i turn to look behind me, Janmaree and Verity are scooting up the hill and about to pass me. I wave them down and try to focus my energy and attention. After stopping I say to them, "Do you have room at your villa tonight and if so, how much?" Janmaree asked a few questions, told me her availability was exactly the amount of time I had planned to spend in Bali and it was settled. I would be taking a cab and meeting them at Villa 888 within 30 minutes. I must say, I had no idea what my $20 a night bargaining would bring into my experience, but at least I would have two new friends to converse with. I also had no idea that Janmaree was doing me a HUGE favor by offering a room to me for $20 a night. I would later discover the normal prices at the villa.

Once I arrived back at my villa, I spoke to the owner, who called me a cab and refunded me my key deposit. The key never even locked the door to the room anyway, so I don't see why it was necessary. I smiled a big grin as I climbed into the cab and couldn't care less that my $17 room rate wasn't refunded. My thought was, "Maybe they will buy a lock that works."

Arriving in paradise

Shortly, I would arrive at Villa 888 and the negative phase I was experiencing in Bali would end.

Upon my arrival, Janmaree and Verity greeted me and escorted me into the villa. I stood in amazement at the sights before my eyes. Marble floors, azul-colored pool, breakfast nook, Koi pond, lush flora and Balinese carved wooden eves revived my existence. The angels had guided me to paradise. And I wasn't even in my room. After passing through traditional hand carved Balinese doors, I was shown my quarters. Not a just a room. A full king-sized bed, with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall separating me from the gardens that housed my outdoor shower and bathroom. I felt like I walked into heaven, seriously. My unplanned journey had taken a turn that I could have never predicted.

Over the course of the next four days, my dealings with these amazing folks continued. I had daily breakfast near the Koi pond, yoga in the villa, met fellow travelers from other countries who were also experiencing Bali for the first time, and planned tours.

One day I spent hours on motor scooter with a wild Spaniard who thought it would be funny to call me a gringo. I didn't think it was cute; however we continued to travel together. We visited Uluwatu, a surfers paradise with beautiful wave breaks and a barrier reef. We saw Bali's most renowned beaches. We visited massage areas, restaurants and boutiques, all of which looked as rustic and handmade as you can imagine. The vibe: absolutely stunning, inspiring and breath-taking. It is common to see photo shoots taken on the sand, videos of world-class surfers being filmed in the water, and locals all basking in the sun.

A few days later we took "The Sexy Tour." Basically, Janmaree of Villa 888 helps you plan it using her connections. I also met Janmaree's fabulous housekeeper and assistant, Wayan. Her husband, also Wayan, owns Sexy Tours. The name "Wayan," is Hindu in nature and loosely means "First Born Child." Therefore, it is very common. There is usually a second name that follows the name Wayan when referring to people. My tour driver went by W.A.S.P. I made a reference to what that means in our country and the Spaniard, myself and W.A.S.P. traveled together for a full day.

We visited many sites that day. My favorites was the Monkey Forests in Ubud, a Hindu healer revered the way we revere our doctors, and the rice paddies in the rain forest of the mountains.

Wayan explained to me that to experience the true Bali, you must leave the touristy areas down by the beaches. He explained that people looking for work and immigrants new to Bali have surrounded the touristy areas and changed the culture. I definitely noticed the difference between the two areas. It's much more peaceful up in the mountains and the true culture of Bali begins to reveal itself when winding through the hills. Progress makes change, I couldn't agree more.

My tour and trip came to an end when Wayan volunteered to take me back to Villa 888 before dropping me at the airport. We picked up his wife, and the two of them told me stories of their lives, their children and their home. I was sad to go, but I felt like I had discovered a place that was life-changing, so I silently vowed to plan a return trip.

It was all a little surreal, the meeting of the locals, the exploration, the "no plan" attitude that I forced on myself. I couldn't believe that my journey was ending! Nor did I want to face the red-eye flight back to Sydney and then California. However, I was stirred this time, not shaken back into reality. Wayan had begun advertising our arrival to the airport. I started announcing my goodbyes and Wayan grabbed me and gave me a big hug. "I want you to be my brother, my family," he said. His wife shook her head “yes” and I could feel the emotions gathering up inside of me.

I have never visited a place that scared the hell out of me and yet completely gave me new energy simultaneously. This experience will carry me forward for many years.

Wayan's words and kindness confirmed my suspicions. A guru learns along the way and realizes that the only constant in life is change. A guru takes an opportunity and makes it his, the opportunity thus changes his being. Everyone else is just a traveler. But every traveler is on his or her way to being a guru. It's just a matter of walking a new path, even in the face of fear.

Jason Coleman is a flight attendant on private jets that take him on exotic journeys around the world. He is also a writer, photographer, event coordinator and percussive step dancer who also volunteers in the local LGBT community. His Sole Journey column appears regularly on SDGLN.

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