A Nomad Finds Roots While Suspended Between a Mountain and the Sea

bali illustration
credit: Jen B. Peters for Hunker

When I first arrived in Ubud, I wasn't impressed — at all. I had booked a cheap hostel in the northern part of town before my trip, and I jumped in a taxi to take me there from Canggu, a village on the southern coast. It was a hot and humid morning last October, and as we drove into the central highlands, the constant turns of the road rocked me in and out of sleep.

As I opened and closed my eyes, still jetlagged from the flight, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the new sights, smells, and views. I told myself, "The day I manage to travel around those roads alone, without the assistance of a map, I could say that I live in Bali, I am home." I didn't know during that first ride that feeling at home in Bali means so much more than knowing a route by heart.

I also didn't know how long I'd stay. I hadn't made any plans, other than the hostel, and it had been more than a year since I had lived in one place for long. Before this, I had been working on yachts that sailed throughout the seas, and I shared my personal space with a crew cabin and my boyfriend. Then, before that, I moved everywhere on land: I made temporary homes in London, Shanghai, and Milan. I spent days on trains, checked into hostels, and crashed with friends. I once set up a tent in Tasmania for two weeks — that was my favorite. But after four years of nearly constant traveling, I was committed to finding a real home.

Yet, when I arrived in Ubud, all I saw through the taxi's windows was traffic, tourists, and chaos. I didn't know the language or the culture, which wasn't a new feeling, but it felt different here. I knew that Bali, an island province of Indonesia, is divided into regencies. Those regencies are parcelled into districts, which are then separated into villages. There are more than 700 villages in Bali. And the idea of "home" is just as elaborate.

Not too long after I moved into another temporary homestay, and unpacked my "kit" of comforts — including a purple blanket, matching pillowcase, five postcards, incense, and speakers — I learned about the Balinese idea of home. Architectural structures are built on the concept of Tri Angga_, a three-tiered hierarchy that starts with the high and sacred _utama_, then the everyday space of _madya_, and then the lower and impure _nista. Each level corresponds with the landscape. First there's Mount Agung, the country's revered highest peak, then the lowlands, then the sea.

In a traditional Balinese home, the gateway faces south toward the ocean, and it's protected by a shrine to welcome good spirits and push away the bad. The kitchen and bathroom are positioned close by, as the impure sections of the family compound. Then, higher up and facing north, there's the family temple and the house of the oldest family members, usually the grandparents.

I first learned about this when everything was still new and jarring. A friend I met in London was visiting me for a few days, and as we wandered around, we walked through a doorway off an alley. That's where we were welcomed with the statue of Ganesha, an elephant-headed deity widely worshipped as the "remover of obstacles" and the "lord of beginnings." We had wandered into a guesthouse run by two sisters, Wayan and Nyoman. And suddenly, I felt like I had a reason to be here.

Wayan's family was building a new house within the compound, and it wasn't long before I asked to live in a bungalow next to hers. In the afternoons, we watched the stone carvers meticulously work on Wayan's house. At night, we would sit on the porch and talk, and she would teach me about what a home needs — how it fits into a narrative that stretches far beyond its walls.

A house needs to have stories, she said, a connection to its family. It needs to be tied to the gods, to the sun and the moon, to good spirits. Only then will the house be protected. When her house was finished, she said we would put drops of chicken blood on the walls, because then the house "would be alive." And during the year, we would push bad spirits away with fire, chants, holy water, loud drums, and arak, a local liquor. Wayan taught me all of these traditions, and she made sure to make me feel like I was a part of them. Since we met, I have participated in ceremonies, Balinese birthdays, the birthdays of family temples, and other important sacred days.

I'm an outsider who is slowly working her way in. I have goosebumps when Wayan tells me stories about the spirits and the gods. And I feel joy and nostalgia when Nyoman tells me anecdotes of past ceremonies, the stepping stones of her childhood. I keep the sea at my back, and Mount Agung in front. I have a roof over my head. And more and more, I am learning to understand where I live and the people who have welcomed me. It's a place of myths and history suspended between the mountain and the sea.

It's been a little more than six months since I moved to Ubud. I now have a scooter, and when I drive it hugs the winding route of a thin road cutting through the lush vegetation. It's a road I travel often, the road I took when I first arrived by taxi. And although I know the route by heart, it's not what makes me feel at home.

I've found home because I've found meaning. And that is an adventure worth taking.

Lilli Crovara is a freelance communications consultant and content creator who manages communities of digital nomads with a conscious approach to travel.