19 July 2010
The second half of that day we spent creating our own art. In Bali, which is famous for all kinds of art work, you can take a class which teaches you to create rudimentary versions of the beautiful things you see: wood carvings, stone carvings, batik, silver jewelery. We picked the silver. The four of us went to the workshop of a silversmith whose work we had admired and spent 3 hours under his vague tutelage creating jewelery which would be our handmade souvenirs of our trip. His personality was perhaps less delicate and beautiful than his jewelery, and he often seemed annoyed that these ignoramuses had wandered into his shop to abuse his silver with his hammers, but we pounded on, merrily and with only occasional swearing. In three hours, we each had come up with an idea (all of us learning that our initial designs were too complex for beginners and pulling back and back and back from those ideas into ultimately very simple forms). We gained serious appreciation for the jeweler, who can take tiny gems and rough-looking silver pieces and craft them into the shiny baubles we love so much. We left the workshop bedazzled at our own artistic prowess (our grouchy teacher notwithstanding), and swapped bracelets and rings all over dinner, showering each other with well-deserved complements. I did not find a passion for silver as I found a (very latent) passion for glassblowing two years ago, but I do have a bracelet around my wrist (made by me) and a ring around my finger (made for me by Michael) in which I take new forms of delight.
That day closed with a frantic wish by Naomi for one last manicure/pedicure before heading home. We found a lovely spa which would paint her nails and also give the other three of us a 30 minute massage in the meantime. They lined up three massage beds in a room meant for two, and we left Naomi lounging in painted luxury while the three of us dipped our feet into bowls of hot water with floating petals. The Balinese everywhere were taken by Aidan’s near-white hair and smiling blue eyes, and this place was no exception. Aidan giggled his way through the foot massage and sighed happily through the back and neck massage, complete with chocolate-scented oil. The three lovely masseuses matched him giggle for giggle, happy sigh for happy sigh, taking at least as much delight in his happiness as he did. At the end, slick and reeking of chocolate, Aidan beamed at us all in delight. “I love Bali!” he said. Amen.
And then it was over. One last morning dip in the pool, one last breakfast in the open-air restaurant, the 90 minute drive through rubbish and beautiful stone carved statues, and we were at the airport, pulling on our socks and pants and stuffing sandals and sarongs into the outside pockets of our heavy suitcases. 20 short hours later we were flying through freezing rain to land at the Wellington airport. But ah, the dawn over the Southern Alps was magnificent, and Rob’s face at the end of the jetway, and Sarah and the two dogs at the doorway of our beautiful seaside house were as welcome as the tang of icy lemongrass lemonade on a hot Balinese afternoon. Aidan blissfully drank glasses of tap water; Naomi set about demolishing and rearranging her room for a new era in her life. Perhaps it’s a new era for all of us, our post-Bali family. We are closer than we were, with memories as shiny as our new silver baubles but less likely to tarnish. I am a convert to long and wandering family holidays in mysterious and beautiful cultures. And to coming home to a life I love.
14 July 2010
Ok, so Keith was right, the backroads are better. We’ve spent the last two days getting into the real Bali, and we’ve found things to take our breath away—for so many reasons.
On Monday, we were off to Bali Treetop Adventure, which is a series of platforms and ropes challenges high in the trees in a botanic garden. We were all alone at first, which was good because then others couldn’t see that Michael and I preferred the practice patch to the actual challenges, nor could they see that Michael started off on ropes that he later found out were for little kids. Many of us got in over our heads at some point—when you finish one tightrope and round a platform and then realize that you seriously, seriously don’t want to do the next thing. Three of us spent some time or another paralyzed up at the top of a tree. But not birthday boy. He was fearless. He climbed up and down, swinging and walking and sliding and hurling himself from place to place. I would have been terrified for him (as I was for me) if there hadn’t been such excellent safety harnesses. He was disappointed to not be able to do the hardest course, and made me promise that I’d bring him back when he was tall enough. It’s not so hard to promise to go back to Bali!
The whole family was less challenged and equally delighted by our day yesterday. We began with breakfast on a volcano overlooking a lake. While the black lava fields were chilling (1000 people were killed there when the volcano exploded over a village some decades ago), the glassy water and majestic volcano cones were somehow soothing. Then to a plantation where we tasted the sweet (but not in any way chocolaty) seeds which will become chocolate and held the bright red berries which will become coffee. We sniffed the branches of a cinnamon tree and fingered the leaves of the vanilla orchid plant. And we learnt about a coffee which they sell in Bali and say is the most expensive coffee in the world. Ready for why? It is a coffee berry which is eaten by a small fox-like animal called a luwak who then poops out the intact beans, which are collected, washed, dried, and then roasted and ground. I kid you not, but I’m still not sure that they were not kidding me. Anyway, we’re tourists so we drank some—and it was smoother than any coffee I’ve ever had. No postulating about why.
Then we were onto our seriously dodgy bikes for 25kms over backroads and downhill through Bali. Other than the bike mishaps (both Naomi and Aidan’s bikes dropped their chains, but Aidan’s topped us all when he lost his whole crank and pedal), it was the most amazing bike ride I’ve ever been on. We stopped from time to time for the guides to tell us cultural things—we saw farmers planting rice in the paddy, up to their knees in water and mud. We went into a house compound and learnt about how they were set up and what they were like to live in. The kids were astonished—and perhaps aghast. In this compound, which our guide said was quite like his, there is no running water, no real walls, no glass windows. The kitchen still is over an open fire, the food processor a motor and pestle. The “bank” out back was one sorry looking calf who will be worth 6,000,000 rupiah in 3 years, two piglets and their mother (who seemed to know I was a vegetarian). They wove the bamboo at the back of their house into roofs and walls and floor mats. We were struck by the depth of the religion, the way it touches every moment of their lives, the way they live with their spirituality the way they live with themselves and their own thoughts. There was nothing about that life which was familiar to me, other than the mothers holding and nursing their babies, a common bond.
We biked past rice paddies, stopped at a tree that was more than 500 years old which vibrated with a kind of wisdom I can’t name. As we passed houses, children would race to their front doors to see us pass, shouting “Hello!” at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down with delight at Aidan’s cheerful Hello back. We chatted with the Swiss and Dutch families on the tour with us, with the Balinese tour guides. We ate lunch at a restaurant perched over rice paddies.
Then, finally, back through traffic much worse than DC rush hour, to the Monkey Forest in Ubud, where adorable and terrifying monkeys are the kings, and you are permitted to be with them as long as you don’t carry a bag (they’ll chase you as they did Michael and snatch it from your hands) or a banana (they bit our guide 6 months ago because he had a banana behind his back) or look at a baby funny. It was frightening and amazing all at once, the monkeys like humanoid rats, swarming over everything. Suddenly I got a glimpse of 5pm in New York City, when the humans swarm like rats out of office buildings. Are we really so different?
And so that’s two days in Bali. This morning we went to a local market, which was perhaps too real for the kids. Filthy and smelly and packed with scents and sounds and people who felt seriously foreign. We are not in Wellington anymore. Still, we rallied and bought a few gifts (but still not the ubiquitous wooden penis bottle opener which is in every shop). And Naomi, Aidan and I each got a henna tattoo. Now we’re home at the hotel, the cool pool a welcome and quiet space after the busy bustle of the last two days. Vacations can be exhausting.
Tomorrow is our last day. We have had wonderful and horrible times here. We will return home different, which might be the most wonderful thing to say at the end of the holiday.
Tonight, now back from our bike ride (which would have been perfect for Jamie--25kms, mostly downhill), I am too tired to write. Here are some pictures from yesterday when Aidan turned 9 at a high height! I'll write more tomorrow as we laze by the pool--no adventures scheduled!
12 July 2010
Keith told us that if we got off the main roads, we would find the fascinating world of the real Bali, but here we are driving from one hotel 1.5 hours to the second, and the life of the main road is fascinating. The roadway itself is a study in emergence, traffic patterns emerging and weaving, creating four lanes where just a minute ago there were two, then falling back into two lanes again. The ubiquitous motorcycles go wherever then want, whenever they want, a father driving with his three-year-old balanced on his knee, mother behind, infant pressed to her breast between them, luggage off the side and to the front. There are something like 200 times more traffic deaths here than in New Zealand. All these tiny heads, much beloved of their families, darting and weaving. I pull my seat-belted children closer watching.
We pass people shucking piles of corn, others selling it, packaged or grilled. Watermelons and corn seem to be the currency along the road, along with stands filled with bottles of clear amber liquid which we took at first to be a local drink until we were informed it’s petrol. Massive stone Buddhas smile serenely from rock carving stands and gilded teak lions roar soundlessly from woodcarving stands . Hand-woven baskets filled with daily offerings—frangipani blossoms, a banana, a cigarette or wrapped mint—sit outside each shop, each house, on the dashboard of every car. Beautiful girls in sarongs leave the baskets on the ground, in a spirit house, in front of a gate. Small boys wrestle playfully on front steps of a tiny shop.
This morning in the one hour left at our resort hotel, we went down the waterslide dozens of times, played our last games of ping pong, admired the sculpted perfection of the hotel and grounds. I heard a pattering noise and then a crash and a burst of water. A man with a machete was up a coconut palm, pruning the lower branches and cutting out the potential-missiles of the coconuts. There were no tears and it was with good cheer that we piled into this little car in our standard form: Michael in the front, the rest of us in the back with Aidan in the middle.
We pass little store fronts, grungy houses with cement walls and no windows holding up sheets of tin roofs, glimpse through ironwork gates into posh courtyards and plush hotels. Here there are rows of corn, towering coconut palms, a sign that says “antiques made to order.” Rubbish and blossoms blow listlessly in the pre-rain breeze.
Through a rainstorm, past ever more quaint villages, and we were down a side street and to our new hotel. This is not Disney Bali. This is actual Bali, a hotel in the middle of a rice paddy, a gathering of Balinese builders carrying straw and brick and dirt on their heads and back to build another villa here. Then another ride through villages, past brown hens followed by a flurry of black chicks, past a village celebration, past tiny houses selling massive paintings on stretched canvas, and we were in Ubud. This village, swarming with people and cars and motorcycles, has mazes of markets and miles of storefronts selling everything from inexpensive silk sundresses (yes, I bought one) to massive “antique” metal sculptures (made to order?). We fingered cloth and silver, and Aidan drove his first market bargain (“How much are these?” he asked. “5,000 rupiah,” she answered. “How about 2000?” he shot back in a flash. She took it.). Then, just before the rains thundered down, we got a table at Lamak, which the guidebook had said was one of the best restaurants in Bali, where we waited damply for one of the finest meals we’ve ever had. We celebrated Aidan’s last night of eight-ness with stories from earlier birthday parties and declarations of what he’d like the next year to hold. The rain splashed around our feet and legs and dripped down my back. We shouted over it and passed the mocha tart around the table.
Tomorrow we will go to the Bali Botanic Gardens, way to the north, to walk through the flowers there and play on the ropes at the Bali Treetop Adventure. It is Aidan’s birthday tomorrow, and he’s selected every moment of it, although it turns out there’s a beautiful temple near the park, built in 1633, which I’m allowed to visit. The next day we have booked a back-roads mountain bike tour through villages and rice paddies. We are discovering real Bali is even better than Disney Bali, and that family vacations are more precious than gilded lions.
Pictures today are from our last hours at the beach--perfection before the rain storm and then our first hours in real Bali, as Naomi fingers the sarongs in the Ubud Market. The last picture is Aidan's last picture of eightness--eating a magnificent dessert.
11 July 2010
And so ends this portion of our holiday. We have perhaps stayed at this beach resort slightly too long, long enough for the kids to mistake this for home, for us to know the front desk staff at this massive resort, for Aidan to have made one friend from Jakarta and another from Milan. I fear that the kids will weep tomorrow when we bundle into a taxi to take us farther north, into the world of rice paddies and temples, away
from the world of waterslides and cool tropical smoothies you can order from the bar at the pool, and drink at the bar stool, legs still swimming.
Before we go, though, here are some postcards from our time in South Bali, since none of you are likely to ever get an actual postcard from me (my cousin Michael is the best in the world at postcards, and I've seen him spend hours at it. Me? I buy them and sometimes even write them. But I never, ever mail them. Details.)
First postcard, our snorkeling trip. We piled on a boat and were first taken to Turtle Island, which I imagined as a tropical, little-explored island where sea turtles once bred and where we could have a nature walk out of the sun. HA! We ended up calling it Turtle Alcatraz, because all around us were sea turtles and other creatures locked in jail. We were knee-deep in the seedy side of tourism, with a snake with his mouth scotch-taped shut and a beautiful sea eagle in a cage just about the size of his wingspan. We couldn't get off that island fast enough.
Next stop, snorkeling in a small and sad reef in the middle of a world of container ships and jet skis. Still, we held hands, the four of us, and watched beautiful--and apparently hearty--tropical fish. It was Aidan's first time snorkeling, and it turns out he can talk constantly, even under water. Who knew?
Postcard two, the next day. Watersports.
After haggling over the price (Michael drives a hard bargain), Aidan was off to do the thing he wanted more than anything else on this Bali trip: jet skiing. (Yes, I know I mentioned those with disdain in the last postcard, and yes I still hate them, but it was the dream of my nearly 9-year-old and only 15 minutes of two-stroke engine hell.) Aidan rode at the front and one of the instructors rode behind him, and it was the ride of his life. Because the wind was wrong for Naomi's dream (parasailing), we all signed up for a two-person wake-rider. After the jet ski, we hopped onto a powerboat. First Michael and Aidan bounced along and then it was our turn. I won't wax on about the brain-jarring, bumpy, terrifying ride except to say I was delighted to be on land again. The other three loved it.
Postcard 3. Spa-ing. Bali is famous for its spas, so we wanted each of us to have a taste of the spa experience. We stopped in the heat of the day in a little village and popped into a tiny spa, just slightly wider than the massage beds themselves. While I ate the best curry of my whole life, Naomi had a mani/pedi. And when she was done, Aidan had his first massage. I've always thought Aidan was a cheerful fellow, but post-massage Aidan was so blissed out you could hardly even focus your eyes on his beaming face. He kept describing it--the scent of the oil, the feel of fingers on his scalp, the hand massage. He is a spa-convert.
Michael and I didn't need to be converted. This morning we shipped the kids off to a tennis lesson and we headed to a "spa sampler" for two. Boy do they know about the spa experience here! There was ginger tea and a footsoak (petals in the water) and a massage and a facial. Then a soak in a huge tub (petals in the water again). It was all outside and yet private, with a gentle breeze and bird song. I tried to hold as many of the sensory pieces as I possibly could--the sound of the ethereal music, the feel of hands on my scalp, the astringent smell of cucumber rubbed on my face, the taste of sweet and spicy hot tea. Bliss.
Lest you fear, it hasn't been total bliss, however. After the water sports (and all the brain jarring), we all hit a wall and ended up everyone fighting with everyone else. Then, when we wanted to be away from each other, we discovered the limits of sharing a single room--one person fled to the balcony, one to the bathroom, and the other two were stuck not speaking to one another on the massive bed. We disagree about what to do. We are hot and irritable. We have the constant battle between wanting to experience culture and wanting to stay as close to Bali Disney as possible.
And we have felt our strangeness here. We are already tired of having people constantly trying to sell us things, constantly pulling or pushing at us to buy this dress or that hat or this all-day tour of the island. We cannot speak any of the other languages around us. We have seen people desperately poor and tragically rich. We have watched monkeys in cages and turtles pining for the sea. We have felt guilty and sweaty and nauseous and grumpy with the world.
But then there are times like tonight. Aidan had wanted to go to the cheesy Caribbean Pirate’s night at the hotel, since it’s our last night. It was 348,000 rupiahs each (kids half price) which turns out to be about NZ$50 a head. Too much. So we headed into Nusa Dua town, outside the security gates, which is like leaving Disney and heading to the wilds of Orlando. We picked a German Beer Garden, just for variety. Michael had Chinese egg rolls to start and then a veggie green curry, Naomi and I split a swiss rosti, and Aidan had chicken nuggets much to his delight (Although, truth be told, Aidan’s was actually a chicken cutlet as my grandmother would have said, and he said that he actually preferred “chicken nugget food-like product” which was honest, but a bummer.) There were murals on the wall of quaint German scenes—cities and mountains. And then the entertainment began—two Indonesian folk singers on guitars, singing old favourites from the 60s and 70s—the Beatles, James Taylor, and then songs we have to assume are the equivalents in Russian, German, Spanish, maybe other languages. It was as out of place as you can imagine, and we loved it. We sang and ate food from several cultures and just were generally silly. This is what holidays are for, I think.
Next stop is Ubud. We leave Disney Bali behind and plunge into a more real Indonesian experience. How do you say "wish us luck" in Bahasa?
08 July 2010
A girl could get used to this.
Today I actually began to play. I went down the waterslide a billion times. I played ping-pong and lost to Aidan (but only barely). I did underwater somersaults. What a joy! I began to wonder why we do this so seldom and then I forgot to care.
When the sun got too hot, we headed back to the stores pick up some things we had forgotten. Aidan bought jandals. Naomi got a second batik sundress. Michael got a second linen shirt. I bought a purple bikini (that's different!) and a sarong. We're relaxing into this Bali thing.
Then, for dinner, to Jimbaran. This fishing village at the edge of the airport is famous for its sundown fish dinners on the beach. You actually pick out the live fish and they cook it for you (allegedly--Michael did all the picking etc because I am very nearly about to give up eating fish and I couldn't handle the reality of all of the swimming fish). Aidan drank watermelon juice and Naomi had a coconut and juice concoction while we watched the fishing boats chug into the harbour and we waited for our grilled snapper. It was utterly unlike what I expected and also perfect. Ahh how I'm loving learning to play.
(pictures today are all from Jimbaran and, my dear Melissa, include both Naomi's braids and Aidan's tattoo!)
07 July 2010
I am at “holiday school,” Michael keeps telling me. This is where I learn to be on holiday, a lesson that the last 40 years have not prepared me for. I am sitting looking out at the sea, which isn’t all that uncommon, granted, but in this case it’s the Indian Ocean, which does strike me as rather unusual. There are seaweed farms in the distance and the sound of the pool basketball game’s occasional highs and lows wafting up to our 10th floor room. This is Bali.
There are so many things that strike me about being here. There’s the sheer beauty of the place, the millions of colours of blue of the sea, the rumpled and rich tangle of greens in the wild space next to the hotel. There’s the gilded luxury of this resort, the nicest place I’ve ever stayed. I was disgusted that we were going to Nusa Dua, a gated resort community in the south of the island, designed to corral the upscale tourists in a manageable space. But this hotel was picked while I was working in Sydney, and it was selected for the 30 metre water slide and the interconnected series of pools. It seemed like a kind of Bali-lite to me, Disney Bali. And so it is, but geeze, how magnificently done this place is, Disney Bali or no.
We arrived yesterday, gasping into the heat and humidity of the afternoon. Bali, for those of you in the Northern hemisphere who think of New Zealand and Australia and Bali as close neighbours, is seriously far away from New Zealand (the key lesson here being that EVERYTHING is seriously far away from New Zealand). Three airplane rides—one of them 10.5 hours in a Singapore airlines plane that was state-of-the-art 10 years ago—and 20 minutes in a taxi and we were here, in the lofty open-air lobby of the Nikko Bali Resort.
I spent the whole trip not doing work. I didn’t particularly do anything else—there were no movies I wanted to watch or books I wanted to read—but I felt how strongly I was not doing work. It was like an itch I’m used to scratching or a hunger I was used to feeding and I was feeling the raw desire for it, the blind press to do something that I usually do. It was hard to resist.
This trip wasn’t planned originally as a way to test my holidaying skills. It was originally Naomi’s trip, planned for the time following her Bat Mitzvah to take the sting out of the fact that she would have her Bat Mitzvah far far from the centre of her Jewish life, far from her Jewish family and friends, far from the place where Bat Mitzvahs were a regular part of a teenage experience—rather than the semi-freakish event they are in New Zealand. But the press of the oddness, combined with everyone’s dissatisfaction at the lack of family at the event, made us postpone the Bat Mitzvah into a time in the future when we might hold it in the US. But then the question: What to do with the airplane tickets to Bali?
So Naomi’s trip became my trip, a celebration of my 40th birthday and a test of my capacity to be on holiday as this one is nearly twice what any holiday has been before (nearly 2 weeks). I’m not supposed to do anything that I feel like I’m supposed to do. This morning I didn’t work out. On the plane I didn’t work on my book. I put a vacation notice on my NZCER email. In one stunning move of self-restraint, I left my beautiful laptop at home. Zowie.
And so I’m here. Today, on our first full day, we splurged at the hotel breakfast buffet. We sat in a garden overlooking the sea, eating fruits we’d never seen before, and wondering at the range of breakfast-desires this hotel needs to serve: American tastes (eggs and bacon), Asian tastes (noodles and pork and hotpots bubbling away), European tastes (chocolate croissants, yoghurt, French cheeses). There were flower petals strewn on the tables. My tea was English, the juice guava, the water bottled. The waiters bowed as they saw us and opened doors as we walked through them. I changed into my bathing suit and went down the water slide with the kids again and again. I played pool volleyball (or, er, I tried to play pool volleyball but there wasn't as much volleying as you might want). To coax the kids out of the hot sun, we took them to the thing called a mall around here, another toe-dip into the actual Bali culture. Naomi had her hair braided into cornrows. Aidan had a henna tattoo of a dragon painted onto his bicep. We fingered sarongs and wooden carvings and tried to do the conversion math. What did it mean that the sundress was 149,000 rupiahs?
We wandered to a public beach where the sand had not been scrubbed so clean and the people in the water were as many shades of brown as there were shades of blue in the sea. (Here at the hotel there are many shades, but most of them have crispy pink undertones marking them as pasty-tourists unprepared for the Bali sun.) This is the more real Bali, and leads to conversations about poverty and wealth and what it means to be a developing nation (and what DOES it actually mean to be a developing nation?). And then for dinner, a little restaurant on a main street just out of Nusa Dua, is more real Bali still. Aidan’s half chicken was a seriously half chicken. Michael’s fish still had their heads. My veggie curry made me sweat more than the humid night air. Naomi ate rice. And we talked and laughed and ate and wandered with cars and motorbikes whizzing past. So THIS is holiday, when you just hang out with your kids and laugh and eat strange foods and listen to every kind of language all around you. This is my first test in holiday school. I think I will enjoy the next one.
ps careful readers will see aidan's new short hair. More pictures tomorrow!