Our family is currently taking a collective sigh of relief to stop, unpack our bags, and stay a while in Bali. Our lifestyle is pretty sweet, even with our disappointment in the house we rented through VRBO, Whitney Bungalow. Mathilda has named it the “camping house,” which sort of fits. The filth and creature factor is definitely akin to sleeping in a tent outside. Though Whitney Bungalow needs an overhaul, specifically in how it is maintained, advertised and priced, we have loved its location in Penestanan, especially the little corner we live in.
Since most newer houses outside of Ubud have been built among the ever-disappearing rice fields and not directly on the street, they are accessed by charming gangways. The path to Whitney is especially enchanting since it briefly runs alongside a small gorge that reminds me of the wild fern and vine-laden slopes of Hana. Everyday we are greeted by friendly neighbors who always ask (in keeping with the Balinese way), “Where are you going?” Since this is more like a greeting and less a real question, “around” seems like a sufficient answer to me, but “jalan, jalan” (meaning, having a stroll) is better. Our favorite neighbor is Kadek and her family. The kids love going there–she babysits them for a small fee.
Our pathway is quiet, lined with daily, handmade offerings called “canang” of flowers and incense along its canal and at the threshold of homes.
Chickens skitter about and a puppy always scampers along, nipping at the kids’ shorts. The golden orb spiders with their huge glistening, gilded webs are good for nature viewing, too.
Walking around Penestanan has been lovely. We don’t really need a car; we just get a ride (usually in nice SUV’s) on demand from taxi guys waiting by the road, such as when we go out of the area, into central Ubud, or to the kids’ school. The latter is another pleasant journey, as we pass terraced rice fields lined with towering palm trees, all radiantly green from the rain, traditional homes and temples, as well as many Balinese ladies in beautiful lace kebayas performing their morning offering rituals. By the way, Balinese ladies are awfully pretty…
Just before school, we drive over a breathtaking canyon carpeted in damp moss, quivering bamboo, and massive philodendron plants climbing above the raging Petanu river below. Walking to most places with little driving (and we don’t have to actually drive) has been ideal in this area with extremely congested and erratic traffic. We can arrive and drop the kids off feeling relaxed and carefree.
At Whitney Bungalow, we are bereft of all chores, even laundry, which we did in fact do some of in Thailand. There are no dishes, no cooking, no making beds or taking out the trash. These aspects combine to make our days here pretty damn carefree. Today, Chris got to work out at a local gym that costs $6/month, watch a $1 DVD at home, and get a one hour head rub while Merle and Mathilda were at school. I got to swim at a nearby lap pool and eat a gorgeous salad at Alchemy, a local hotspot for raw foods and holistic health. Then a fresh, plentiful Balinese meal was prepared for us at home by Made, Whitney’s owner.
This is a great improvement from dealing with those energetic freakazoids 24/7, eating out all the time and moving from place to place. Driving for one month in Thailand had its own stresses, too. Life in Bali is good!
Still, I would not say that the Ubud area in general is great for kids. Since there is zero city planning amidst furious growth, coupled with a corrupt government (both local and national), Bali, in terms of infrastructure, lags behind other tourist destinations in SE Asia. There are absolutely no parks, no stroller friendly sidewalks, the aforementioned horrific traffic, including no place to park the cars (often, someone will just be stopped in the middle of the road to “park,” and hearing our aghast remarks, the people here just say, “This is normal.”). Ubud, a heavily populated area filled with families, does not even have a decent mall where kids can roam around and play inside. KidsWorld in Pejeng was ok, but its small, dirty and blazingly hot space made me long for the bright, cool, clean, wifi-rigged play areas in Thailand that were pleasing for both kids and parents alike. All of the excellent outdoor playgrounds in Saigon really put Bali to shame. Still, kids of this age are easy to please, and we managed to have some good times, though usually outside of Ubud. Sanur, with its so-so beach and play space, Peek-a-Boo, were good options for us.
It appears to be challenging to settle down here as expats with kids of any age for a few more reasons: for crawlers, you have watch out for consumption of the ubiquitous gecko poop (looks like a piece of chocolate!), and for new walkers (or day-dreamers like my kids), the many ponds and canals lined with amazingly slippery moss just seem to pull little ones in, not to mention the multitude of other random water features. They are definitely pretty but potentially sketchy.
Also worth watching out for are the red ant processions, unlevel walkways, and steep staircases not built to code. I would think it would be painfully boring to be a teenager here, with no public spaces to hang out (such as our beloved Pearl Street Mall) nor movie theaters. Even the internationally famous Green School is said to be more desirable for younger folks, since it is not yet accredited. Indeed there is the fabulous Bali Zoo, Bird park, and Waterbom (a waterpark), which seem to resemble nice resorts in terms of their gorgeous landscaping and customer service. But, each of those outings cost our family $100 each time in entrances fees, a real gutting when trying to stick to a long trip budget. Throwing papaya up to a hornbill in mid-flight at the Bali Zoo was worth it, though.
The beach is always an option–after all, it is an island, right? So, for one night we headed over to Canggu. It was fun mostly due to our company (our neighbors, the King’s). Their kids, Isla and Greyson, have become beloved buddies of Merle and Mathilda.
Yet, as with many beaches in Bali, the surf was too rough for most save the intrepid surfers. I was proud of Merle braving a few waves, but Mathilda would not go deeper than her knees. Though the coastline and waves were beautiful, the most striking feature of Canggu beach was that it was horrendously filthy. Poor Bali is really suffering from rubbish problem. Seeing this, I suddenly remembered the awful ring of trash floating out at sea around the island we observed just before landing. Even before touching down, we knew Bali was having some serious growing pains. Littered beach aside, the King’s took us to an amazing seaside restaurant situated on a bluff with an expansive lawn where the kids could run as free as the breeze with lots and lots of other kids.
Despite the Internet, water, electric (did I tell you ours goes out a few times everyday?), traffic, and trash problems, Bali, as it has always been, is for the beauty lover. It seems as if the tropical climate has such a tight grip on development that it will never cease control. So houses, hillsides, roads, and fields, if they are not carved out for rice cultivation, are enveloped in the grasp of the wild, tangled jungle. The relentless Hindu/animist practices here seem to revolve around making sure this mortal world is colorful enough for the gods, constantly producing ornate, baroque-like structures, music, paintings, and carvings. Bali has seemingly such a surplus of flowers that not only are they everywhere naturally, but flowers can be found on our beds each day after they are made, tucked in altars on street corners, adorning each step of a staircase, strewn on spa couches, petals in baths, on top of toilets, nestled in cabinets and picture frames. Flowering bushes that are mere potted plants at home envelope our two story house.
Most of these pictures were taken in and outside Whitney Bungalow. Bali = flowers everywhere!
So, perhaps there is a happy ending for now: Bali will always be beautiful, especially if you are willing to overlook and forgive. I know we can.