The first major piece of life advice came from my mother when I was eleven years old, as she drove me to school in her shiny black Jeep Grand Cherokee. With Lionel Richie’s Back to Front playing in the background, she told me to make sure I could always stand on my own two feet, regardless of what I did in life, as that way I could control my destiny.
My mother was, and still is, the most resilient person I know. She had me young, at the age of 21, after meeting my biological father and her first husband. Smart and street savvy, she helped him run his businesses and books, and was so good at it that he began calling her “his lucky penny”. This luck didn’t spill over into her short marriage, and infidelity forced her take the reins on her own life, especially now that she had a child. When I was just 10 months old, she withdrew enough money from their bank account to get us out of the Philippines and start anew, moving to southern California to join my grandparents and uncles and to pursue the American Dream.
But the cycle and lessons continued when she remarried into an abusive 14-year relationship. My mother’s life advice in the car soon became more frequent; it was her plea and her hope that we learn from her pain. The day she divorced my stepfather, a year and a half before my high school graduation, was the last day I ever spoke to him again. I took control over how I saw my life, no longer burdened by his overbearing presence, and my career became a singular focus. I had to learn how to stand on my own two feet.
While my friends took time off to satisfy their wanderlust, my career was the excuse not to travel with them. My rational brain told me that, if I left for too long, I’d lose my grip over landing a job opportunity, but this excuse was really just a warm and stifling security blanket covering my fear that I would lose control of my future. Years later, it was a break-up that shifted my entire being. It wasn’t a long relationship, but a murky end caused me to look inward, breaking open a very big truth: control was controlling me, an invisible player for my entire life. My desire to mitigate risk by managing outcomes only exacerbated the fear I believed I was eliminating.
All those years I resisted travel, it was this — and a few hard prods from some loving friends — that prompted me to book a last minute ticket to Bali, a place I had long harboured a draw toward. And to Indonesia I went with no set itinerary in mind, planning instead to take each day as it came, with a deep curiosity to see what I could find if I finally let go.
I’d often heard about ‘Bali magic’, an intangible that feels very real once you touch down on the little island. After six days, I visited Tirtu Empul Temple in Ubud on a quiet Friday morning, performing a sacred water ritual alongside the locals, washing away what I needed gone from my life under its fountains and holy waters. Flowing into the three pools, I submerged myself again and again, letting go of the person I had held together for far too long.
In the hushed divinity of Tirtu Empul, I finally opened my eyes. Surrounded by the warmth of the Balinese people, I noticed how despite having little, they still smile every day, inviting you into their simple homes and encouraging you to find balance. It’s precisely where I saw that magic, in moments big and small, and I began to see it all around me.
I saw it in the intricate carvings of centuries-old temples, the precision of their details a gift to the gods; in the layers of deep blue sea at the foot of a tall Uluwatu cliff. Even when I felt darkness and loneliness right to the marrow of my bones trying to find my bearings in a foreign land, I realized that darkness helped me see what is beauty and light.
I saw it in an Ubud monkey that climbed my leg, chewing on my jean shorts pocket in a futile attempt to find food, making me laugh. That magic and beauty were in watching pastel sunsets with a $2 Bintang beer in my hand, and when I floated in a pool under a clear night sky, stripping down to nothing and swimming under the stars. When I crashed a scooter straight into a ditch on my second day and came out bruised, but alive. It was in the eyes of a young mother I met in a hot springs pool, deep in a Lovina mountain forest. And it was there when I ate grilled fish and steamed rice with my bare hands under a tiny open hut at the edge of a beach, then danced with abandon till 3am with new friends, twinkly gazebo lights above and whisky cokes in hand.
Ever so gently on that island in Indonesia, I began breaking out of the box I had created for myself my whole life and, slowly, I began to see my soul. I found myself accepting every experience, every person, every moment – and my heart burst. I started walking my own path, recognizing my own acts of bravery and resilience. I finally understood that beauty and magic are often in the places you least expect them to be, in the little things so many of us choose to miss when we hold on so tightly. And that’s the thing about surrendering, saying ‘f*ck it’, and discovering adventure by saying yes to the unknown. In the end, you find yourself breathless but standing tall, having landed on your own two feet just fine.