It's Valentine's Day and the two of us are soaking in a private tub overlooking the muddy brown rush of Bali's Ayung River. Pinwheels of lime and orange slices float along the surface of the steamy water, alongside shredded ginger stalks of lemongrass, and crystals of sea salt. We chose the "revitalizing bath" from the spa's treatment menu because we thought the chunky fruits would look the coolest on Instagram, but the water feels even better than it looks, thanks to shakti oil made on the premises. It's a moment of over-the-top luxury. The only hiccup came before we stepped into the tub, when the spa attendant handed us robes, slippers, and disposable black panties so we could go topless for the experience.
"Um, do we have to?" Ashley asked the attendant, who stared.
"Bathing suit is okay?" Kaitlin pointed at her green one-piece.
It was a little too complicated to explain in Bahasa Indonesian (we were still working on the six syllables needed to say 'thank you') that we are not lovers, not newlyweds—just two best friends trying to take a scented dip together. Though we've been privy to each other's lowest lows during emotional breakdowns and work catastrophes and survived the 31 hours of travel required to reach this bath, being naked together in what is basically a bowl of pho is not something we're interested in. The attendant gave us a little shrug. "You do you" transcends linguistic boundaries.
We met six years ago as coworkers in New York City, our similarities immediately apparent: We're both former cheerleaders who grew up near the Jersey Shore, listening to Blink-182 and partying with lifeguards, ambitious and adventurous and very,very single. Our first conversation over our cubicle wall started when Kaitlin was prepping for a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, a place Ashley had just been.
Even during our low-earning early twenties, travel was a spiritual imperative. There's that moment when you get off the plane and smell the air–will it be smoky, green, floral? smog or clear blue skies?– that makes us feel alive. We had each been chasing that high on our own, but we started traveling together with a trip to Thailand in 2014. We're constantly debating our next destination, and at 11 p.m. one night last summer, a flight deal to Jakarta arrived in Kaitlin's inbox. She texted and suggested buying tickets the next day. Ashley said "Why wait?" and the 10,000-mile journey was booked by 1 a.m.
The turquoise waters, the misty green rice paddies, black sand beaches, and dramatic Buddhist temples all made Indonesia seem like an ideal way to unplug from everything awful going on in the world and renew our spirits. Our only slight concern? Unlike Thailand, which had brought us plenty of cute Aussies to meet (and flirt with), Indonesia seemed like a couples-only country.
Americans tend to fetishize islands like Bali, Tahiti, and Fiji as once-in-a-lifetime destinations reserved for an occasion so special—say, a honeymoon—you can justify taking two-plus weeks off from work. As a single person, these picturesque locations get pinned to that "One Day, When I'm Not Alone" board, filed away for an uncertain future. But, now in our thirties, we had stopped planning travel with the ghost of future husbands hanging over us. "The One" might never arrive, and, even if he does, who's to know if he'll share the same passion for travel? That he'll have the spontaneity Ashley craves or taste for spicy street food Kaitlin can't get enough of?
So we went all out on gorgeous accommodations: a private villa with its own pool in bustling Yogyakarta, a magical bamboo treehouse in Bali's cultural capital of Ubud, and a beachside bungalow on the island oasis of Gili Air. The best part: Even the most luxurious-looking places were just $40 a night at most. Any of these spots would have been ideal for consummating a new marriage; instead, we used them to celebrate our freedom and our friendship.
That celebration started in the terminal. After practicing what to say, we asked the employees at the gate if any upgrades were available. "See, we're on our honeymoon," Kaitlin said, smiling affectionately at Ashley. The agents paused, then visibly softened. "It's their honeymoon!" they cried to each other.They were thrilled for us. And told us it would cost four figures. So much for embarrassing ourselves in pursuit of airline perks.
Nothing tests a relationship like travel. We spent 31 hours shuffling between New York cabs, New Jersey Transit trains, jumbo airplanes and puddle jumpers, siphoning Wifi from a ramen shop in Tokyo, and sleeping through our layover on a bench in the Jakarta airport before finally arriving in Yogyakarta, the heart of Java. We didn't shower for those 31 hours, and we barely slept. Kaitlin forgot her phone between the seats on the flight from Tokyo to Jakarta; Ashley lost a debit card to the Yogyakarta airport's ATM. We landed hangry at 6 a.m. only to learn that Indonesia doesn't really do the breakfast thing.
Not even a day in, and we were at our worst: cranky, exhausted, and starving. These ugly moments are usually reserved for a family member or a spouse; you can act like a total garbage person to them, knowing they still have to love you. Friends are trickier.But we know each other well enough to know the best plan is to give each other space or silence, turning to books or naps to deal. It was a quiet first day.
The 9th-century Buddhist monument of Borobudur is Indonesia's answer to Cambodia's Angor Wat and Myanmar's Bagan, reached via a marigold and incense-scented climb.
We made it to the top just as the sun started to peek through the mist, illuminating the intricate details of the 2,672 relief panels running along the terraces. Then we spent hours examining the scenes and pitying the Buddhas who had lost their heads over the centuries to earthquakes and war.
While roaming the upper terraces, we were approached by a group of high school students who were there for their English exam, which required talking to native English speakers. Happy to meet local Indonesians, we ended up chatting with the teens for a half hour (they showed us photos from their home town in Bali; we told them about living in New York City, where one of the student's sisters attended Columbia) before exchanging Instagram information so we could share pictures later and find out whether they passed their exam. Both of our groups had come to this temple — the largest tourist destination in Indonesia — to experience the opposite of what we encountered in our daily lives.
Later, looking out over the palm trees and rice fields nestled between Borobudur's two volcanoes, Sindoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, it was hard to hold on to any gripes from our journey. How important is an MIA ATM card when you're sitting on an ancient building that literally represents the universal journey toward enlightenment? That mysticism and serenity — and just giving ourselves permission to sit and appreciate the moment without overthinking it — was like pressing reset on our trip.
The Airbnb bamboo treehouse we had booked in Ubud certainly seemed right in line with the area's reputation for lush romantic settings. A queen bed dressed in blues and purples was protected by a matching blue mosquito net and dangling turquoise beads. Blessedly, the net protected us from Bali spiders as big as our hands, and when we woke up, we were treated to the treehouse's true magic: modern plumbing smack in the middle of the jungle, with a 270-degree view of rice paddies and an organic garden. When we got in late the night before, we were starving (Seamless hasn't quite reached Ubud yet), so one of the staff whipped us up Balinese fried rice and egg noodles for about $2 each, served with a crisp Bintang. For breakfast, we savored smoothies made from fruits and veggies grown mere feet away were served on-demand.
It was the kind of setting that could keep you in bed admiring the view all day—and if it was a different kind of romance we were after, we might have. But Ubud had other charms to offer. We walked the rice paddies at sunrise and gorged ourselves everywhere — Ubud's abundance of raw, organic foods are served so beautifully, it felt like a travesty not to order seconds (who knew coconut-crusted chicken stuffed with mango could taste so good?). At Warung Sopa, a vegetarian restaurant, the strawberry juice was so fresh we drank them out of their supply.
As Valentine's Day dawned, we found ourselves in that beautiful bowl of pho. Even treehouses in the middle of rice fields get WiFI these days, and when we checked Instagram that morning we were bombarded by our coupled friends' lovey Instagram and Facebook posts.
"There's nowhere I'd rather be, right now, no other life I'd rather live. But it'd be cool to have someone, to be in love," Kaitlin finally said aloud, summing up what we'd both been thinking.
The beauty of the setting and restorative nature of our trip gave us the emotional space to be totally honest both about what was missing and everything we were experiencing in abundance. Our day was full of romance—not hearts and flowers, but exoticism and excitement. If your friends are the family you choose, do they not deserve consideration as your great "loves"? Yes, there's something special to traveling with a spouse, and we'll certainly both be booking couples' trips some day in the future if that's where our lives take us. But we're both willing to put money on the fact that we'll still be traveling together long after someone puts a ring on our finger.
Plus, the couples at home were making us jealous with their Instagrams. We could certainly do the same.
The Gili Islands, a trio of volcanic belches floating between Bali and Lombok, are basically paradise. Gili Trawangan is the largest and most cosmopolitan,while Gili Meno is the smallest and most sedate. We made a Goldilocks pick with Gili Air, which offers a little bit of both.
After a rollicking ferry ride, we arrived to a port where instead of cab drivers, we found pony-drawn buggies festively decorated with yarn pom-poms and ribbons (no cars, scooters, or motors of any kind are allowed in the Gilis). A pony jauntily trotted our bags and our sun-burning bodies to the other side of the island, all of three-quarters of a mile away, where we checked into our beachside bungalow.
A cheerful British staffer—who explained that she's been putting off a job offer in London to stay in the Gilis— served us welcome beers and offered to arrange an afternoon sail and snorkeling session with a favorite fisherman. "We can't find him right now," she admitted."I'll call his wife, though. How about 2 p.m.?"
As two New Yorkers who schedule nearly every minute of their lives, we weren't quite sure how we'd fill our hours. A nap? Many naps? But our time on Gili Air gave us a different kind of luxury: time for the kind of leisurely discussions that meander from work gossip to dating prospects to family frustrations, aka the glue of intimate connections. As other friends have moved away and married, we've both struggled with the disappointments of friendships that have frayed or disintegrated. These exchanges remind us that even platonic relationships stem from chemistry and attraction — and there's really no better place to have them than on a white sand beach while watching the sun set.
After margaritas on the beach on our last night in Gili Air, we found ourselves without any open restaurant options—island vibes, apparently, do not last all night. We made our way back to the bar next to our bungalow, ordered a beer, and mentioned missing dinner. We almost wept with joy when we were told that the staff had saved us leftover fried tofu and curry soup, which was heavenly. We wolfed it down while our new friend Walter, the bartender, taught us a new card game and we sat with the rest of the staff still hanging around and all drank too many Bintangs.
It was a clear glimpse of laidback beach life—one of those perfect moments that makes you wonder about your priorities. Why do we push ourselves so hard for a bigger paycheck, a better title, a larger apartment, when apparently we can be supremely happy serving beers and playing cards?
We had 20 hours in the capital city. We made lists, but within a few hours of wandering Kota, the one-time center of Indonesia's Dutch colonialism, and Glodok, the city's Chinese enclave, we were sweaty, dusty, and overwhelmed. As two lone Western women, we were the minority, and locals pointed at us and whispered.
We needed a break and found it at a rooftop bar. It felt like cheating to end the trip not at some historic site, but with lemongrass mojitos. Floaty EDM played as we watched storm clouds gather. The Muslim call to prayer rang out over the city, while thunder began to crack. It was quintessential Indonesia — chaotic, spiritual, beautiful.
It wasn't the ending we planned, but we felt a semblance of Bali's peace up there and vowed to bring it home. Our New York world will benefit from our newfound appreciation for chill, an ability to laugh at tough times, and reminder that together, we already have everything we need.
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