There’s possibly no better way of rekindling your admiration and adoration for something incredible than sharing it with someone else. The weekend before March Break, my parents arrived for a two week excursion through Jakarta and Bali, and we were about to share our Indonesia. With the vacation careening towards us as we finalized grades and prepared for parent/teacher conferences, Sarah used her travel agent expertise, honed from our trip over Holiday break, to design a complete Balinese experience, and I threw something together for Jakarta the week before their arrival. My parents have had to endure my retelling of Indonesian stories when I was a foreign exchange student here in high school and again during my backpacking days seven years after. Now on our second year as expats, it was about time they came and made some stories of their own to tell. More importantly, as the person who ripped their grandchildren from their clutches and moved them as far as you can get outside of the moon, I wanted to show them why we believe it is all worth it. Even at my age, I’m still haunted by my desire for parental approval.
My parents arrived at midnight between Friday and Saturday to Jakarta’s Terminal 2, a time when a number of flights come in from Tokyo and Taiwan. I gave them explicit instructions not to accept any help from porters (they had no Rupiah for the expected tip) and move directly out of the airport to meet me. In typical Jakartan fashion, Terminal 2 has two exit points, and I, of course, was waiting at the wrong one. Fortunately, they stayed put and I eventually located them, put us in a taxi, and headed back to Kelapa Gading. Although my parents are experienced travellers in their own right (our France adventure last summer, for example), the trip to Indonesia from New England is taxing for anyone. Not nearly taxing enough, however, to avoid making a serious dent in the duty-free gin they brought once I got them settled in their hotel, conveniently situated in our apartment complex. The next morning the kids barged into their room and jumped into their arms, ecstatic to see John Deere Mimi and John Deere Pa. Some things distance and time can never take away. We took a relaxing day touring our apartment grounds and school. The kids got to show off their swimming skills and after passing out from the excitement, our nanny Iin watched over the sleeping cherubs while the adults went to the exquisite and very Indonesian restaurant Lara Djonggrang. Filled with artefacts and antiques from throughout the country, Lara boasts a menu of amped up traditional food and presented to perfection. It is a restaurant not to be missed in Jakarta. We finished off the evening with a visit to another fine establishment and my local watering hole, Tortuga.
The next morning we traveled to Old Batavia’s Kota Tua, an older, colonial section of Jakarta. Old Batavia is situated around Fatahillah Square, where you can catch a few interesting street performances, buy colorful trinkets, or be bombarded by groups of high school students, desperate to interview you with questions in English to complete a school assignment. We toured the Wayang (puppet) Museum, an important and diverse art form in Indonesia, and caught part of the Ramayana presented in wayang kulit (shadow puppets). Fellow teachers Brent and Caitlin, along with Brent’s visiting sister and her friend who had also just arrived from the States, joined us for a leisurely brunch at the historic Jakartan landmark Cafe Batavia. On our last evening in Jakarta, we ate dinner in La Piazza with a number of our fellow teachers to kick off the March break. Although I was reticent at first to have my parents in Jakarta, they enjoyed witnessing and participating in our everyday. But its still Jakarta, and a few days is just enough. We were Bali bound the next morning.
It sounds pompous and spoiled, I know, but Cian and Áine love going to Bali, so they have been excited for weeks. For them, it means the freedom of living in a rented house with more open space, going to the beach, and more zany travel adventures. Our first destination was the cultural (and cultural tourist) center of Ubud, where it is easy to get overrun by Westerners greedy for their piece of spiritual enlightenment. Despite this, Ubud is a must for anyone’s first step onto the island. Sarah wisely booked a villa out in the countryside on the edge of town, where we could get in and experience the wonder Ubud has to offer while still being able to escape to a more real Bali when we were done. What we didn’t realize was what getting away meant- the cars can only go so far until the road narrows to a path, so the staff of Villa Solera picked us up on motorbikes to take us and our luggage up into the scenic terraced rice paddies. Mimi and Pa hesitated for only a second, then hopped on the back and rode up. “This is going to be awesome,” Cian said as he watched his grandparents disappear into the fields. Brent, Caitlin and entourage were staying just down the path, convenient for group dinners and beers.
The intricate expression of Agama Hindu in Bali is intense, and the Balinese have a very strong, tangible relationship with their Gods and spirits that has nothing to do with the wimpy, New Age pyramid power spirituality many tourists arrive with. Spend some real time with the Balinese, and you will be in for a Mr. Toad’s type of life-altering wild spiritual ride. Mimi and Pa needed to get their feet wet, and what better place to start than the epic battle to balance the forces of good and evil in the Barong and Rangda dance, which we attended the next morning. We also commenced the necessary souvenir shopping of Bali crafts and visited a temple new to us all, Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave. Built in the 9th century, it is an ancient, important religious site. We entered the cave, looked into sacred pools and descended down into a ravine, where unfinished stone carvings were honored, still in situ. The newly experienced equatorial heat, however, started to wear on my folks, who have just come from an especially bitter New England winter; so after a quick tour, we retreated to the villa for a soak in the pool and/or air-conditioning.
Dedicated to John Deere Pa, we spent the next day at the Elephant Safari Park, where we were able to ride elephants and tour the manicured gardens about 30 minutes outside of Ubud. Unlike the sanctuary at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, where the elephants are reintroduced to a more natural lifestyle, we rode and interacted with the well cared for pachyderms. The kids had serious reservations about climbing on top of elephants to ride, but we forced them into it (Sarah literally picked up a kicking Áine and dropped her into the saddle) and they ended up loving it. Cian and his elephant became best friends because they both love chocolate.
Living in the rice paddies gave us some time to explore between trips into town. We walked the paths along the forested paddy streams, which distributed the correct amount of water to each terrace. Specifically placed weirs allow farmers to change the volume and direction of the flow depending on the weather conditions. Rice farming, however, is back-breaking work and all done by hand in Bali, so it’s no wonder many farmers have chosen to sell their family land, farmed for generations, to developers. The catch, of course, is rice paddies and their quiet, idyllic landscape are being lost to those who desire a villa in them.
We strolled through the Sacred Monkey Forest on our last day in Ubud. This beautiful sanctuary, besides being home to hundreds of rowdy and bold long-tailed macaques, contains three temples. The first is deep in a jungle ravine shaded by a large banyan tree along a sacred spring. The other two, dedicated to the gods Siva and Prajapati, are temples used for burial and cremation ceremonies. The Balinese bury their dead while collecting the funds necessary for the elaborate cremation ceremony. In connection to the third part of the Hindu trinity, destruction, the areas are decorated with fascinating statuary of Hindu monsters and demons. It is one of the best temple sites in the Ubud area for its verdant ambiance. The monkeys, of course, provide some added entertainment, as they enjoy climbing up the bodies of foreigners to check their pockets and bags for food. We toured some other temple sites as well before heading back to the villa for our last swim and relaxing moments within the rice paddies.
Now that we had completed Balinese synopsis in Ubud, it was time to get a bit more into less touristed Amed on the northeast shore. This is the port town for the fast boat to bring foreigners from Bali to the small, popular Gili Islands and onward to Lombok, the next island east, so there is a small, drifting population of bule in transit or sticking around to enjoy Amed’s beach scene, but scant compared to overrun Ubud. We stayed for the week at the Bali Beach House, with a backyard door opening to the ocean and a breathtaking view of Bali’s tallest and most sacred volcano, Gunung Agung. Here it was like staying with a Balinese family who took care of us, played with our children, and helped us to understand Balinese lifestyle. Nangeh was a trained chef and had us in the kitchen watching and helping as he created delicious Indonesian meals.
One of the highlights of the trip was a sunrise sail to go fishing. Pa, Cian, and I left early in the morning, with the only light from the bright Milky Way, and met our friends Andrea and Daniel, also staying in Amed over the break, at a row of beached traditional outriggers. In the darkness we climbed into two of the boats with local fishermen, motored out a bit, then opened the sails to head farther into Lombok Strait. As the sun rose we had an unbelievable view of Lombok’s Mount Rinjani, Indonesia’s second highest mountain, and behind us the contours and seams of beautiful Bali. We fished with one long line covered in over a hundred hooks, trolled behind us as we sailed out and back again. Cian, excited to catch fish for the first time, was initiated into the Powell Family Curse, which for generations has haunted the fishing success of our family. “Oh, well,” Cian said, “at least it was a nice boat ride”. For the Powell’s, its always just a boat ride.
Life slowed down in backwater Amed and we enjoyed the calm, relaxed ambiance. Much of our time was spent at the villa and its neighborhood, enjoying the nearby water gardens, catching large millipedes for temporary pets, and, of course, eating. Sarah and I took the kids snorkelling for the first time and their lives were changed forever. Cian took to it immediately and couldn’t stop, while Áine insisted on picking her head up out of the water every 10 seconds to tell us what she saw. “Mama! There’s a purple fish!” We would witness an occasional ceremony on the beach, watch the boats go by, and at night step far around Charles II, the humungous spider in my parent’s bathroom. Sarah said she was already sad to leave the Bali Beach House before we left Jakarta. It was pretty wonderful.
The island of Bali is protected by the Sad Kahyangan Jagad, the six directional temples built to maintain spiritual balance on the island. Although the temples included vary depending on who you ask, one that usually makes the list is Pura Lempuyang Luhur, 30 minutes from Amed. The complex rises up a small mountain and consists of 7 separate temples, dotted along the 1,700 steps to the top. It wasn’t a hike for the grandparents or the grandchildren, so while the kids were busy in the pool, Nangeh dropped me off at the bottom to navigate my way up through the mountainside jungle and into the clouds, passing Balinese deep in ceremony, preparing for the arrival for the month’s full moon. Through the trees, lifting up the slope of the mountainside came the deep, guttural songs of Brahmin priests in ancient Sanskrit with the occasional scent of incense from the temples. I was suddenly a world away and Bali became timeless. I passed few people outside of those in ritual, and fewer bule. At the top temple, I was invited to attend their ceremony, which I reluctantly declined, as Nangeh would be meeting me at the bottom for a ride home. As I descended, I found myself among a hundred or so temple goers preparing to enter the complex. They carried offerings of food, flowers and incense, ornate decorations of banners and umbrellas, and a small, mobile gamelan orchestra. Priests led prayers, consecrated offerings, and prepared for the ceremony as the attendants went deep into prayer or instigated excitement with calls and hollers, the contrasting moods along with the hypnotic gamelan creating the perfect environment for trance and communing with the Gods. As the group proceeded into the temple grounds, I entered the car and returned to the villa. It was an unforgettable spiritual morning and another glimpse at the beauty and power of Agama Hindu.
My parents were to leave for New Zealand, the second leg of their journey, on the Friday, so we left Amed that morning and traveled south close to the airport. Sarah chose the luxurious Westin Resort in Nusa Dua for the remainder of our weekend. This was hermetically sealed Bali; the Bali for those who want to say they’ve been there but don’t want Bali to touch them. Along Nusa Dua’s coast is a string of highbrow resorts connected by an asphalt path, so visitors can rent bikes or stroll along to make sure the Jones’ resort is not better than the one where they’re staying. The polished, mass produced Balinese statuary decorating the resort grounds contrasted sharply with the moss covered, organic Gods and demons set into the cultural landscape on the rest of the island. The Westin’s too perfect temple received half-hearted offerings from hotel employees while the bule took pictures. It was a dispiriting scene that left me cherishing the rest of Bali more and savouring yesterday’s memories of Pura Lempuyang.
So what would ever have us stay in such a spiritually bankrupt region in one of the most sacred places on Earth? The kids, of course. Westin has beautiful swimming pools, one with a slide, a white sand beach to catch crabs and build castles, and an extensive kids program at their Kid’s Club. Under the guidance of the staff, the kids have a different activity each hour, leaving Mommy and Daddy precious time to have a normal meal together overlooking the ocean without getting covered in ketchup or cutting chicken nuggets into smaller pieces. Glorious. Our last day was Easter Sunday, and the Kid’s Club had a full morning of games and activities all being overseen by a creepy Easter Bunny. We had to leave for the airport at 3:00pm, so at 2:30 we pulled ourselves out of the pool, changed, and grabbed a taxi.
Leaving Bali this time was harder than before, because we didn’t know when we’d be back. Sarah, the kids and I each have a deep love and respect for the island, and throughout our time here in Indonesia, the kids have been more excited about a trip to Bali than any of our other destinations. As we flew back to return to our Jakarta lives, I reflected on the many more “one last times” we would endure over the next few months, because Sarah and I have signed contracts with a new school in a different part of the world starting the next school year.