Places we visited, main costs, activities, stories…
1. SANUR – SE coast. Stayed 1 week. $70/night hotel (for two standard AC rooms), breakfast included, with pool, by the beach. $25/day food. Sanur was touristy but low key, and a great place to start the big trip. The beach is sprinkled with colorful fishing boats, and though it’s not the cleanest beach, we found that a little trash made for good sand toys. The water is warm, clean, shallow and full of treasures like sea stars. We ate at cheap mom and pop restaurants serving Balinese dishes to your table in the sand (fried rice topped with a fried egg and chicken satay became our staples). Pop takes your order, mom cooks, and grandma takes a nap on one of the tables. Besides restaurants along the beach strip, there’s a yoga studio, massage stalls, diving/snorkeling tours, and some fancy resorts, and at the end of the strip is an awesome local hangout with street food, motorbikes parked on the beach, and friendly Balinese people enjoying family time.
Bro learned how to swim in Sanur, and I learned that kids don’t need swimming lessons, they just need to be in a pool every day. Big-Sis learned how to snorkel. I honed my haggle skills, and we bought our Bali-wear (still wearing). Lil-Sis sighted her first Hindu offering, and we ventured sneakily into our first Hindu temple. Lil-Sis got attacked by sand fleas and mosquitoes, repeatedly, and was covered in bug bites (even in between her fingers)! It was in Sanur we discovered that hard boiled eggs are only half cooked, Bali coffee is synonymous with Taster’s Choice, European travelers do not like loud children, ATM machines eat bank cards, and stray dogs are a fact of life.
Sanur was the first and last time I would feel afraid of Bali: When the bill came at our first dinner out, we realized we hadn’t changed enough money at the airport. The waitress offered to take Tom on her motorbike to an ATM and then to drive him back to our hotel. Coming from a US city where one generally does not head off to ATMs with total strangers, I thought…What? You’re going to leave me here to walk back to our hotel alone in the dark with the kids in this foreign country while you go driving into the night on a motorcycle with this woman you don’t know to get CASH? What if her wingman is waiting for you at the bank? What if she’s a Balinese temptress (no, that is not a real thing) and you become her sugar daddy? (If you know Tom, you know how silly this is. If you don’t know Tom, trust me, it’s ridiculous.) As I walked back nervously with exhausted kids on the windy beach path I was hyperaware that I was the only tourist in sight and that a few older men were watching me. Why are they smiling at me? Do they want something from me? Are they following us? It occurred to me after about the 5th smiling, wrinkled Balinese face, that they were just being friendly and curious… Stop previous train of thought. Reevaluate. Huh…that’s interesting. So I tried returning the smiles, and they waved! One of them put up three fingers with a questioning look as if to say, “Really? You have three?” And I rolled my eyes as if to say, “Yep, and thanks for noticing that it’s a handful!” Not only did the waitress return Tom in one piece, unbewitched, with a wallet full of rupiah, she refused to take a tip for providing door to door service just so the silly Americans who should have made sure they had the local currency before they went out to eat, could pay the very small dinner bill. I got the message from Bali that night: I could let my guard down; things were different here.
2. UBUD – Central Bali. Stayed 6 weeks. $30/day for 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom house, $30/day food. Ubud is an artistic and cultural center with a crowded, touristy “downtown”, and gorgeously green rice fields amid traditional villages on the outskirts. Plenty to do and great food options here! It’s a yoga mecca, which means I saw as much lululemon-wear in Ubud as I do in Philly (yeah, that much). Juices, smoothies, organic, vegan, and of course a plethora of Indonesian foods from super-duper cheap to just plain cheap. It’s also a traditional performance mecca, so one can see Balinese dance, theater and music every night of the week under the stars. Fine art and craftsmanship abounds, and you’ll find it in the least likely places, not just the galleries. We bumped into an older man who sits at the top of a hill painting eggs. For a few dollars you can sit there with him and paint your own egg. He’s happy to teach you. That’s Ubud.
Ubud was the first place we hunkered down to “live” ever-so-briefly for one month. We opted for a big, rustic, open, communal-style house equipped with a meditation space and a yard. We attempted to cook in the sparse, ant-laden outdoor kitchen. We washed our underwear in the sink. We started homeschooling. It was hot. We discovered the following creatures also lived in or near our house: bugs and insects galore, birds, snakes, rats, geckos of various sizes, a beehive equipped with bees, dogs, cats, frogs, enormous flying beetles, spiders, roosters, and chickens. Lil-Sis continued to get feasted on by mosquitoes. We had no way of getting around except taxis, and
that got old, and pricey. I watched longingly as other westerners scooted past me on motorbikes with their kids (and their yoga mats) on the back while I stood sweating on the sidewalk with my kid on my shoulders. But I wasn’t ready to tackle motorbike riding; too scared for good reason, and Tom was against it. So we hoofed it, up and down the hills, up and down the concrete staircases, through ricefields. So far Ubud was the only time I lost weight on this trip! After a very short period of roughing it, I gave up on cooking alongside the insects, was through washing underwear, and refused to carry my squirmy child on steep inclines while sweat dripped down my back. Following a minor mommy meltdown (turns out these occur frequently on the road), we started eating out almost three times a day, using the cheap local laundry services, and paying for taxis to go anywhere. And mommy was happier, which makes everyone happier!
The best part of our stay in Ubud was the connection we made with people. Our landlords were a wonderfully warm Balinese family with a little boy Lil-Sis’s age. She ordered him around in English, and he refused her in Balinese. Big-Sis interviewed our landlord Agus about life, religion and culture in Bali. He spoke to her honestly and humbly in a way that men rarely do in my experience. We also met a slew of other western, traveling families, and the kids had a blast playing with these new, fast friends from the US, Canada, Australia and Europe who could relate to the adventures of travel and shared a need for socialization.
As foreigners, our days were focused on how to get from A to B, where and what to eat, and who is sleeping with whom, but we also kept pretty busy with the sights of Ubud… Rice terraces…monkey forest…Bali zoo…whitewater rafting…traditional performances… workshops at the Writers and Readers Festival…yoga classes…the library…museums…gamelan and Balinese dance lessons…Hindu temples and ceremonies…There was plenty to do.
3. GILI AIR- small island between Lombok and Bali. Stayed 1 week. $80/night hotel apartment with two bedrooms and living room, pool, breakfast included, on the beach. $30/day food. The Gili Islands are beautiful, tiny islands where there are no cars or motorbikes, only horse drawn carriages. Gili Air is mostly a tourist destination, but there is a small Muslim village inland, which you can ride a bike through in under an hour (watch out for the cows and chickens). Gili Air is the place to do nothing but wade in the crystal clear water, snorkel right off the beach, and eat seafood and ice cream. We found one good restaurant and kept going back to it. Overall, the food wasn’t great on the island. Gili is a popular diving site, but we didn’t attempt that. Big-Sis and I did a day-long snorkeling trip, where she touched a baby octopus and swam alongside giant sea turtles! The atmosphere on the island is very laid back; no need to wear shoes ever, and if you’re Lil-Sis, no need to wear clothes ever. Areas of the beach were covered with white coral, which made convenient building materials for creative little hands. We did notice that the attitude of the locals in Gili Air was less hospitable than in Bali.
4. MELAYA-West coast. 4 weeks. $60/day all included: 2 bedroom 2 bathroom house, private pool, on the beach, all day help (cook, clean, babysitter). You won’t find Melaya mentioned much in the guide books. There are very few tourists there, and there’s not much to do but sit on the beach, swim, take long walks, watch the local children walk their cows, and visit the traditional food market. Our kids LOVED the month we spent there. They swam, played in the black sand, explored big rocks on the beach, made music, and swam some more! Mid-day it was almost too hot to be outside and you could burn the bottoms of your feet on the black sand, but by each gorgeous sunset the air was perfect for dinner by the pool. We met the most interesting and kind people in Melaya. Kadek Mega, the Balinese woman who took care of us, and her family who also worked at the small resort, became very special people to us. We learned so much from them! Despite the language barrier, we all worked hard to communicate and teach each other about culture and religion. It’s here we saw an inspiring cultural event, a Balinese Hindu Cremation Ceremony.
Our scariest moment in Bali: The day we arrived in Melaya, we unpacked our bags and looked around in awe at the solitude on the beach outside our door. We noticed after a short while, that we hadn’t seen Lil-Sis in a few minutes. We called for her inside the house. No response. We called for her outside the house. No response. We looked under beds and in closets. We screamed for her. No response. I checked the pool frantically over and over. I ran to the beach and screamed her name in my big, momma-bear voice. In seconds, there were local people of all ages coming out from the trees onto the beach to search for our little girl. They didn’t know us or who they were looking for, but they knew that help was needed without being asked. Men came into the villa, others jogged down the beach. After what felt like an eternity, Kadek spotted little toes sticking out from behind the curtain. She swooped up Lil-Sis and smothered her in kisses in a flurry of relief (we had only known Kadek for an hour, as we had just arrived). It was the beginning of a special bond between them.
Our final dramatic Bali moment was also in Melaya: after much whining on my part, we decided to tackle our fears of motorbike riding so that we could get around this part of the world more easily in the coming months. The village roads there were small and deserted; a good place to get our feet wet on two wheels. Tom went first, and rather than get his feet wet, he broke one of them. It was a small accident, involving only Tom and his motorbike. He started up too quickly after making a turn and the bike got ahead of him. Those things are powerful machines! He wisely declined an offer to have a traditional Balinese healer fix his foot. He received good medical attention from the local public hospital, and we had all the hands-on help we needed while he recovered. Thankfully, he wasn’t in a lot of pain, and the event forced us to lengthen our stay in such a beautiful, peaceful place.
We celebrated Halloween in Melaya! Our new friends there had never participated in Halloween before, and they were happy to help us make it fun for the kids. I’m sure the kids would rather have been home with their friends collecting a pillowcase full of candy, but our Bali version was one that we’ll never forget. Here’s our MTV video:
After about one week in Bali, Bro asked, “Why are all of our friends here taxi drivers?” Well, first of all, because we don’t know anybody else! Because they are so nice! Because when we get out of the car, the first thing they do is pick up Lil-sis and give her a spin before setting her on the ground. Because while they drive us to our hotel, they tell us all about their children, and pull over at their village temple to show us how beautiful it is. Because when Lil-Sis throws up all over the back seat, they calmly insist on cleaning it up themselves and look more concerned for our child than their upholstery. Because, now let’s be real, they want us to hire them again tomorrow. We had a wallet full of favorite taxi drivers’ cards, so many chatty, helpful escorts to choose from. The confusing thing was, they often had the same name! Tid-bit: Balinese people name their children by birth order… 1st born is Wayan or Putu, 2nd born is Made or Kadek, 3rd born is Komang, 4th born is Ketut, and then it starts all over again.
Definitely put Bali on your list, and thanks for following along!!!