I’ve always loathed the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as I find it patently false. Any tough times in my life have only weakened me. Besides, I would rather be happy than “strong”.
It’s been a tough couple of years, lowlights of which included a series of bereavements, the most shocking the death of my 58-year-old father-in-law from Covid in the terrifying early days of the pandemic. Then there was the horror of being scammed out of the entire deposit for our first home by a cyber criminal on the day of the big move. Add the general lockdown-era feeling of disconnection from family and friends and even after the first ostensibly “back to normal” year of 2022 I still felt brittle and broken.
My hair fell out in clumps, sleep was fitful (playing PlusWord at 3am became a ritual) and tears were free-flowing. I certainly didn’t feel stronger, just depressed and anxious about the next blindsiding event.
The thing about trauma is that it can create a kind of mania. You are desperate to try anything to end the anguish. I rolled through all the classics: an intense exercise regime; subscribing to soothing horoscopes; comforting Amazon purchases, before finally turning to the self-help holiday. I was previously sceptical of this type of thing, judging it to be the preserve of entitled millennials reeling from microaggressions. But by this point I was ready to try anything for relief.
So off I went to Bali for a week of meditation, treks and (hopefully) personal growth. I was after that Eat, Pray, Love experience made famous by the noughties memoir, turned into a Julia Roberts film, where our heroine finds herself, both literally and figuratively, on the island. Although she also visits Rome and India, it’s Bali that remains most closely associated with the book and you’ll still find as many women searching for meaning there as you will Aussies searching for a boozy nightclub.
In reality, I was more likely channelling Jennifer Coolidge’s fragile, luxury-loving, wellness-seeking character from the black comedy White Lotus, which was somewhat fitting as I was staying in Bali’s two high-end Aman properties. If you have a hefty budget, there’s nowhere better to embark on a self-help endeavour.
The brand (even name-checked in White Lotus) essentially planted the flag of wellness holidays in Bali when it first opened Amandari, near the spiritual heartland of Ubud, more than 30 years ago. A couple of years later it was joined by Amankila, on the lesser-visited east coast of the island, for those after a more beachy, but still mindful, resort experience. Together they remain the benchmark for Bali’s breed of quietly luxurious hotels, inspiring many imitators keen to recapture Amandari’s traditional Balinese village design or its sibling’s rice-paddy-evoking tiered swimming pool.
Arriving at Amandari I felt an instant lift, the hit of tropical heat bringing me back to travels in my early 20s and a time before feeling knocked around by life. Still, it was hard to shake my frenetic tendencies so I duly signed up for every experience the hotel had to offer. While most might be content enjoying their sprawling suites, the infinity pool overlooking the river gorge and maybe exploring a temple or two, I needed to get on with the business of “healing” – or simply avoid being left with my own thoughts.
First up was a blessing at a water temple, designed to cleanse the spirit. Dressed in a traditional sarong and guided by a village priest, I waded into the pool and drenched myself under a crashing fountain – three times for maximum cleansing. It was invigorating but I wasn’t fixed just yet.
Next was a trip to a local shaman for an at-home healing session. He told me he could feel my sadness – though the tired eyes and hunched shoulders may have been a giveaway. He then told me my maternal grandmother, who he correctly sensed I had never met, was my guide through this difficult time.
A lucky guess, perhaps, but comforting nonetheless, serving as a reminder that she was a woman who had endured plenty of struggles herself, including a philandering husband, the death of her infant child and chronic health problems. Speaking to hotel staff later, they insisted the shaman is far from a tourist gimmick, with locals regularly visiting to unpick their own issues.
By the time I moved on to Amankila, my frantic energy had calmed a little. While simply sunbathing on the dramatic black-sand beach still eluded me, my mind quietened watching the sun rise on a pre-dawn boat trip and I was similarly soothed snorkelling among dazzlingly-coloured fish.
More revelations came during a “laughing yoga” session, where you essentially force yourself to guffaw between downward dog poses. In the past I would have found this practice, which promises to release endorphins and improve breathing, excruciating, but I had been stripped of my self-consciousness. The fake laughter strangely became real, the release so intense I then burst into tears.
It was during an early-morning mountain trek that I was able to see what my struggles had brought me. The aforementioned exercise regime meant I felt genuinely fit for the first time in my adult life. Instead of huffing and hoping it would soon be over, I traversed the muddy terrain with ease and was able to focus fully on the guide’s explanations about the surrounding nature.
On the final day, I swam a few laps of the pool and sipped a creamy iced coffee while reading Bob Mortimer’s life-affirming memoir. It felt like progress.
I would love to tie a neat little bow on it and say that the holiday totally reset my brain, but of course things aren’t that simple. I’m still struggling. But as 2023 dawns and reflection on the past year is unavoidable, it stands out as one of the few flickering bright spots. And when you are dealing with life’s crashing difficulties, these are surely the flotation devices to grab on to.
I may not have managed to mend myself, but my wellness journey gave me a chance to see the small things I’ve achieved, and got me out of my sad little mind, if only for a week. As such, my New Year’s resolutions are less about deprivation and more about life-expanding travel experiences that don’t necessarily improve us but reveal who we already are.
How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk; 03301 734 712) offers a 13-night Indonesia with Aman Resorts itinerary from £8,595pp based on two people sharing. Includes flights, transfers and B&B accommodation. Based on a March 2023 departure