In late September of 2022 I landed in Bali for my first trip to Indonesia’s well-known jewel of health-conscious travel, pumping surf, and yoga galore. However, I only spent a short 36 hours in Bali before departing. My real destination was a remote island in the archipelago. I had a Yoga Trade exchange lined up as a surf guide and permaculturist for an adventure retreat. The position, as I understood it at the time, required taking guests out on surf excursions once or twice a day and putting some hours into the garden/food forest when the surf was low. I was beyond excited with the vision of near empty lineups, a tropical coastline, and the opportunity to further my knowledge of permaculture.
I had found the position six months earlier on Yoga Trade while I was managing the kitchen and garden at The Yoga Farm in southern Costa Rica. The owner of the retreat in Indonesia and I met virtually after my initial inquiry and quickly agreed not only that I had the skill set he was looking for, but that I should plan on staying for a long stint of exchange, four to six months, with the potential to move into a paid position afterwards. I was a bit skeptical about the idea of a six month job interview and commitment, as well as the rushed communication the owner and I had, but I figured I could always work things out down the line as needed. Additionally, the position was perfectly suited towards skills I had and wanted to improve upon. It all felt like an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.
I was welcomed warmly upon my arrival at the retreat and immediately thrown into the workflow of guest relations and surf. The place was stunning: a set of cabins nestled into a cliffside overlooking a peeling reef break, a second story yoga shala with a steady breeze and a wide view of the sea, and freshly prepared meals sourced from the land. What more can you really ask for? Luckily, on my first few days I overlapped with the prior surf guide, and he was able to show me the ropes. I quickly learned that each work day began at 5:30am and there were no off days, as guests were continuously flowing in and out. Additionally, the owner’s communication skills were described as “difficult.” But hey, 5:30 wake up meant sunrise surf sessions, late morning yoga, and siestas before another round of it all, right? Yes and no.
After a month’s time I had scored some of the best waves of my life, tended to the gardens, made close friends with the two other volunteers and local staff, witnessed a bit of the island culture, and enjoyed creating connections with the retreat guests. However, I was also already starting to feel burnt out. I wasn’t finding almost any chance for nourishing or grounding personal time given the demanding seven-day-a-week schedule nor did I feel fully heard or seen in my always brief communications with the owners of the retreat. I began to question the commitment I had made, my personal goals in taking on this position and traveling to the other side of the world for it, and my personal values. For a week or two I tossed around my ideas about the blessings and challenges that always come with exchange work.
The opportunity to work in a field you’re passionate about whilst experiencing a different way of life in a foreign land. The freedom of having your basic needs met in exchange for part-time work. The beauty of creating lasting connections with people from all over the world. The ability to learn new and diverse skills in a relatively risk-free manner. The feeling of being secure and at home in a totally foreign place that allows you to grow, experience, learn, and commune. The countless lessons that come alongside taking yourself out of your comfort zone and trying something new.
Finding the balance in living where you work and carving out personal time. Finding the courage to speak honestly about your needs and boundaries whilst being in such an environment. Not fully knowing what you’re getting into and with whom until you arrive. The need to establish good communication and a clear working arrangement in a foreign place with new acquaintances. Encountering people’s various expectations and ideas around how much work constitutes exchange for room and board. Every now and then, the unfortunate possibility of being taken advantage of or misled in your work.
Six weeks into working, I felt I was ready to leave by the end of the second month, but I also had some internal conflicts about that choice. I would be cutting out early on my six-month commitment and leaving the owners with a gap to fill. I would be leaving behind such a beautiful place and a local community I was just beginning to become acquainted with. I wouldn’t have the chance to see the permaculture projects I started come to fruition.
My path forward didn’t feel clear. I felt bad about the idea of going back on my word and sad not to take full advantage of my time there, but the truth was my heart wasn’t in the work anymore and my attempts at communication with the owners always went askew or weren’t even acknowledged. I had already reached a point where I felt drained of my own life force. In a way it felt like I was turning my back on perfect waves, new skills, and an overall great opportunity, but the reality of the situation and the work had soured. The exchange had gone from a “perfect opportunity” to an uncomfortable and somewhat grueling environment that I was now slogging through, which didn’t feel fair to me, the owners, or the guests.
I eventually made the hard decision that I had to be upfront and tell the owners I was going to leave. I would happily finish off the month of work, but then I’d be taking off. Funnily enough they asked me to have a meeting that very same day.
They began the meeting by stating they felt that although they appreciated my effort at the retreat, they didn’t think it was going to work out for me to stay there long-term. Surprised and a bit relieved, I agreed! We were on the same page. Neither of us felt we needed to go into the details about why it wasn’t exactly working, and that was fine with me. I had my reasons and they had theirs. What happened next is what upset and shocked me, my co-volunteers, and even the local staff.
Prior to the meeting the owners and I had made a deal that they would organize a quick return trip to Bali for me in order to renew my visa. After they informed me at the meeting that it wasn’t going to work out long-term, they said they had booked me a flight to Bali the next morning (in less than twenty-four hours) and because of that I should pack up my bags and not bother coming back.
The finality and tone of the whole meeting was hard to believe. My initial reaction was to fight for my position and desire to finish out the month’s work at least, but I quickly realized that if they didn’t want me there I had no need to work around that energy for a few more weeks. I said okay, made some calls, tried to make some arrangements for what was now my immediate return to Bali and spent the afternoon packing my bags.
In the late afternoon one of the other volunteers came by my room to snag me for a final sunset paddle. When situations like this occur and something changes so quickly and drastically, it feels hard to know where and how to land yourself. Everything gets uprooted and all of a sudden you’re left floating without a plan or a clear next step. Luckily I was able to shed those worries, share a final sunset session with the other volunteers, and laugh off the uneasiness.
As we dangled our legs in the sea from atop our boards, I looked out towards the vast violet, orange-smeared ocean horizon and prayed my thanks to the surrounding land and sea for all it had given me during my time there. I prayed that I would be able to come back and renew my connection with such a precious coastline and local community.
Whenever we land in new communities, work environments, or foreign places, the best thing we can do is listen. Listen to those that have come before us, listen to those who call it home, listen to the land, and listen to yourself. It’s rare that a place will meet all of our expectations and preconceived ideas. As we strive to be resilient and honest human beings we must be willing to adapt to our new surroundings and shift the perspectives we brought along with us. We can take on the challenges of Yoga Trade opportunities as catalysts for tremendous growth whilst we also revel in the beauty of all the blessings. Everything we encounter, “good or bad,” can be used as a tool for our learning.
Moving forward I feel it’s important to know my boundaries by exercising them, to not be afraid to communicate clearly about work/life balance, and to stay open to wherever my path leads. I feel that ultimately, if I listen deeply enough, life will tell me, will even bring me, exactly where I need to be. The world is open, beautiful, and full of opportunities. I’m extremely grateful for the platform of Yoga Trade and the abundance of these exchanges it has inspired and made accessible.
The day after I returned to Bali I was invited by a friend (whom I know from the Yoga Farm in Costa Rica) to join her kriya yoga and self development retreat. I was welcomed into a new community, new practices, and a flourishing vision for moving forward. Life had delivered me from a situation that had run its course and immediately placed me where I needed to be to feel refreshed, rebalanced, and ready for my next evolution. If we are open to the flow of this world, I believe these exchanges Yoga Trade makes accessible can provide us with exactly what we need at the time, whether we know it then or not.
Leo is a listening and men’s circle facilitator, surf instructor and guide, avid meditator, and movement practitioner. He is a passionate farm-to-table cook and budding permaculturist. His endeavors take him all over the globe each year in search of deepening his spiritual practices, connecting with foreign lands, and pursuing a wide range of interests. In 2022 Leo managed The Yoga Farm’s garden and community kitchen in Costa Rica. His most recent explorations have been in India, learning from a martial arts master in order to heal chronic pain and injury. Each July through September Leo returns home to New York to teach surfing and relish in summer’s long days. Connect with Leo on instagram (@leoturpan) for any inquiries, questions, and/or collaborations.