This was all my idea. And there were many moments before we boarded the twenty-five-hour flight for Bali via Taiwan when I thought I was crazy. Like when our fourteen-year-old daughter, J.C., announced we just had to get a hotel with a pool and internet access so she could lounge by day and email her friends by night. Or when eleven-year-old Annalyse whined, “Why can’t we just go to a beach near home?”
But I wanted to return to the island paradise I had discovered twenty years before husband and children filled my life. Yes, I had been warned: “When you get a taste of island paradise, enjoy it once, because you can’t return. It will never be as good.” I knew the risks of returning, yet memories of Bali, seductive as a Siren’s call, were luring me back.
Traveling with backpack and on a slim budget, I visited Bali the first time when I was traveling alone around the world. On the crowded, touristy beach in Kuta, I met another woman who was traveling alone. We agreed to flee the commercial coast and whoop it up cruising by motorcycle on the roller coaster of dirt roads along the northern shore and up to the base of the volcanoes. Along the way, we kept a wary eye out for the lethargic cows and dogs reluctant to give up their comfy spots in the middle of the road.
In the hills outside Ubud, we negotiated narrow footpaths amid terraced rice fields to a remote and simple guest home. The elderly owners, Katoot and Naoman, were childless, a great tragedy for a Balinese couple. “God gave us you—our young visitors—instead,” they said. “You are our children to watch over and to make happy,”
At night the croaking frogs in the irrigation ditches lulled us to sleep. For breakfast, Katoot, our host mother, brought us fresh homemade yogurt with sliced papaya and mango. We spent our days bumping along dirt paths on our motorcycle, visiting local festivals, temples, artists’ workshops, and even an elaborate cremation. At night, Katoot gave us long massages while our host father, Naoman, softly played his gamelan for our pleasure. Our guestroom had no running water or shower, so we bathed like the locals, in a steep valley under a waterfall, during the morning “ladies hour.”
That was my first trip to Bali, and years later, as a wife and mother it was to Bali that I longed to return. I wanted my family to experience paradise too.
Bali’s charm, I knew, lies not in its beaches, towering volcanic mountains, or luscious green terraced rice fields, but in its people. For me, paradise could only be captured a second time if my family and I got to know and were welcomed by the Balinese.
I didn’t search for Katoot or Naoman or try to recreate the same experiences. They belong to another trip, another age, a closed photo album in my mind.
We decided to pamper ourselves and the girls and stay in a luxury hotel at Jimbaran Bay, a wonderful relief after the long trans-Pacific flights and layovers. J.C. and Annalyse gave it a “thumbs-up” after they checked out the TV, video collection, free internet access, and ocean view from their own villa. They fought over who would sleep on which Balinese bed (under mosquito nets), they raced each other to jump into the private plunge pool, and denuded the tropical garden of melon-sized, pink hibiscus flowers to wear in their hair. They quickly discovered the main pool with its infinity-edge (water cascaded over a fall to soaking pools and hot and cold whirlpools below). They soaked or swam in each pool before making their way to the beach. We found them lounging by the water’s edge and bribed them with mango milk shakes into joining us for a catamaran sail around the bay. Then we switched to boogie boards to surf in the large waves.
A successful family vacation offers something for everyone every day. Dad read a novel in the shade on the beach. Mom took an Asian Cooking Class and learned how to cook with lemon grass and Thai basil, and prepare Hot and Sour Prawn Soup, goyza, and soba noodles. The teens alternated between watching videos on the TV, body surfing, playing in the pools, getting their hair braided in cornrows and painting their nails. One afternoon we hired a driver and car to take us to a crowded, commercial beach so the girls could go parasailing. They loved it, we tolerated it. We bought elaborate, colorful kites in the shape of majestic ships and tried to fly them along the beach.
We were enjoying a different paradise than the budget Bali I had discovered and grown to love two decades before. But then, I am a different person now. Much of my pleasure now comes from seeing my children and husband happy.
Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether the charming old Bali of decades ago still existed. If so, I knew we had to get away from the deluxe resorts and the beach to find it.
Unlike my first trip to Bali, motorcycle travel today is considered very dangerous for tourists due to the chaotic and dense traffic on the roads. If we wanted to explore the island and stay in more modest and authentically Balinese lodging, we would need a driver. You can hire a driver and car from your hotel, the local tourist office, or simply choose one of the many drivers waiting on the side of the road.
We wanted a driver who spoke good English, so he could show us his Bali and stay with us as we traveled around the island. We chose Made (mah-day), who met us at our hotel and became a part of our family for the next week. He was personable, kind, and patient; his English was good enough to help us with any situation. We shared dinner, dominoes, jokes, and stories every night. With Made at the wheel of the minivan borrowed from his older brother, we were a multicultural family. It was easy for Made to find a hotel room near ours every night, for which we paid. Together we tromped through markets, visited temples, and ate in local thatch-roofed restaurants where Made knew the owner, the cook, and the waitress. Together we ate leisurely meals in lush gardens filled with carvings and statues of frogs, gods, and goddesses. The girls sipped fresh mango smoothies, munched on satay, fried noodles, and pizza, while we feasted on the Indonesian rice table, with duck roasted in banana leaves, prawns, and spicy curries. We ventured out to the north shore to dive and snorkel on the protected coral reefs of the West Bali National Park. Amid a dervish of rainbow-colored fish we glimpsed lion fish and shark.
Best of all, Made liked us and invited us into his life and home. Outside the bustling artists’ village of Ubud, he took us to see the “real Bali” that I had so longed to visit again. With Made in the lead, we trekked along steep slopes, through a maze of frog-green rice fields, down to a muddy river where young boys were bathing and women were digging sand from the riverbed to be used in construction; shoveling it into baskets, they carried the sand on their heads up the gorge. When the young boys first saw our teenage girls, they held their hands over their private parts and stared. Soon they returned to their play and ignored us passing on the rope and bamboo suspension bridge above them.
We climbed up a steep slope, through banana groves, mango, coffee, and cocoa trees to Made’s villagewhere we were treated as honored guests. His mother wore the traditional long Balinese skirt and her best Maidenform bra. “Why doesn’t she wear clothes?” asked JC. “She’s wearing more than she usually does, just for us,” I replied.
Our hostess brought us leaf mats to sit on while we watched Made’s barefoot, bare-chested uncle shimmy up a nearby coconut tree with a machete. We watched him grapple with the branches until, half an hour later, he descended with three perfectly ripe coconuts. He lopped off the tops with his machete and offered us a refreshingly cool drink of coconut milk.
Made’s aunt quietly came out of the kitchen with three delicate bamboo trays filled with rice, purple bougainvillea, and fragrant frangipani flowers. She gently laid these small offerings at the base of stone statues outside the family temple. Made explained that Balinese women make and give offerings numerous times each day. This offering was made after food was cooked but before the meal was enjoyed.
This simple gesture, I thought, embodies the spirit of Bali that pervades the island. Their culture surrounds you, in the music, dance, and religion. You see it in Balinese faces, you feel it in Balinese dances.
Later in the day we drove to see one of the most important ceremonial events in Balinese culture—the cremation of a body. Regretfully, we missed the ceremony by a day, so Made, terribly upset to see us disappointed offered to take us to the wedding of his close friend. At the Balinese wedding we were seated on chairs like royal guests. Well-dressed women and men insisted we take their seats in the front rows. An elderly woman sitting next to Annalyse smiled, nodded, and took her hand and gently held it in her lap during the ceremony. After recovering from her initial surprise. Annalyse quietly responded with nods and smiles.
We were served snacks of peanuts and chips and soft drinks. When the religious ceremony was over, the tiny, beautiful bride and her groom came to welcome us and chat.
On the twenty-five-hour journey back to the USA, I thought about our daily lives at home. So dominated by routines, job stresses, and the different demands of each child, we can easily lose perspective on what is most important to us.
When traveling, my husband and girls and I converge back into the core of this magical relationship that is family. In Bali we depended on each other for guidance, help, and fun. We got to know each other better, as well as the gracious Balinese people. And when we returned home, all was new, and we were closer and more connected.
Now I know paradise can be revisited. I saw it through the eyes of my children. Fourteen-year-old J.C. summed it up when she said, “Everyone here takes happy pills. Let’s take some home.”
I guess we did.
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