w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Bali was not on the original list, but when we decided at the last minute to add New Zealand and Australia to the docket, Bali seemed like the perfect place to break up an otherwise super long flight, catch up on some writing and flesh out details for the next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, by the time we got around to locating housing, our options were limited, which is how we ended up in the very sleepy village of Lovina in north Bali. I won’t bore you with details of our Lovina stay because frankly, we didn’t do much except overeat, homeschool, curse the crappy internet connection and take turns swimming with the insatiable mermaid/attention monger, Oona. Lovina was not terrible, but a little dull, and therefore requiring the full patience and enrollment of Camp Mom and Dad. I most definitely did not have time to plan our trip or write, but it did give me some time to reflect on how much the kids have grown and evolved during this trip, the characteristics that have come into sharp focus, and what I hope they will take away from this experience.
Those crazy homeschool moms with the vegan shoes and hemp tunics totally called it: “You might have grand plans for sticking to the standard curriculum now, but just you wait!” I threw out half their textbooks months ago, whittling it down to just a couple of math books. Their blogs replaced their writing books, reading up on native birds became Isoo’s research paper, Oona flooded her Kindle with Wimpy Kid titles (which thankfully was later replaced by the C.S. Lewis series). I did exactly what I promised would never happen: I let them lead their own learning.
In Ireland, we would wake to find “out birding” scrawled on a square of toilet paper. Breakfast in Spain meant a bowl of cereal and vulture sightings on the terrace. By HCMC, Isoo would grab my cellphone and his binocs, walk down to the store with some dong, buy himself a banana muffin, and bird until his scrambled eggs were ready. This is what I wanted to give my kids (and frankly, what I wish I could give to myself) the chance to selfishly, greedily indulge in their passions.
It is interesting to see what happens when your kids are stripped of the white noise of traditional school expectations, peer pressure, cultural norms, and especially in Isoo’s case, comparisons in physical growth. Their true self rises to the surface and it’s fascinating to see who has emerged. This is Isoo: obsessed with birding, solitary, filled with worry. He does not miss his friends or soccer or piano or the over scheduled structure of his old life. The other day he lowered his bincos and said “Mom, you remember in the school yearbook I wrote that I want to be a soccer player when I grow up? I really regret that. I just felt like that was what I was supposed to say because no one my age knows what an ornithologist is. But you know that’s what I’m going to be when I grow up, right?” I look at him, still so small, and slack from 6 months without sports. I nod, “of course,” I say. Inside I pray this kid, this tiny, nerdy, passionate, super cool kid will not be undone by middle school. Re-entry for him will be toughest of all.
Who could not love a kid who after months and months is still haunted by a momentary lapse of authenticity? Isoo is the most truthful person I know. He is also the kindest. He walks into the bathroom to find me chasing a spider and whispers, "Go spider, go, please escape down the drain!" And at 11 years old, he exhibits an envious amount of focus and discipline for his passion. And yet it’s been a real challenge to be around him. His anxiety runs on a frantic never-ending loop: Is that cooked enough? Are you sure this ice is machine made? Is this water clean? Do I have to do math? Ugh, why do I have to do math???? Are you coughing? Why are you coughing? Am I reading too slow? Do I have to take away minutes if I’m distracted? Are your hands clean? Am I eating too much? Am I eating too little? Do I have a fever? Are my cheeks red? Am I brushing my teeth too long? What happens if I skip a day of flossing? Will this food make me throw up? Can you feel my forehead again? Does this look like a rash? Is that cooked enough? Is it? Is it?
He needs to know the exact temperature, the population, the average income; statistics that can help him quantify and prepare for any given place. He bombards me with requests for probability: What are the chances we will miss our flight? What are the chances there will be a tsunami? What are the chances I’ll get sick? What are the chances we’ll be back by 9 p.m.? 8 p.m.? 7:30? None of this is new; he has always struggled with anxiety, but it comes in big gulping waves with every new location, sometimes blanketing and shading the entire experience so that no one else can breathe. Lately Isoo is convinced that water will make him vomit. In the 90 degree heat it’s a challenge to keep him hydrated, Chris and I take turns being the heavy, resulting in tiny sips parsed over hours of urging. Most days we fall into bed, exhausted from exercising either too little or too much patience. But I get Isoo. We are in many ways alike, his worries an echo of what I hear inside my own head and work so desperately to tamp down.
And then just when you think you can’t do it anymore, just when you are convinced that this neurotic, obsessive, uncompromising little individual has spoiled the entire trip, Isoo closes his magazine, turns his liquid hazel eyes on you and says something like, “Well, Mom and Dad, I think I’m going to go upstairs now and work on my novel.”
Oona continues to miss her old life. In the last few months I've see her growing away from the brother she once worshipped. She finds Isoo’s mania annoying and is resentful when he fills the room with worry. They pass each other like strangers. If Isoo is like me, Oona is definitely...not like me. Think Sigourney Weaver when she gives birth to the alien that rips out of her abdomen. Except my alien came out with jazz hands and doing cartwheels. Oona's life, if left to her own making, would be filled with gelato, sports, monkey bars and friends. She is wonderful and exhausting in her own way. She talks nonstop, skips everywhere, snacks constantly and needs chronic attention. She wants to eat and try everything. Each child is allowed to select one excursion in each country. Isoo without hesitation opts for birding. Oona’s picks are annoyingly exciting, comprised of waterparks and ziplining. In Lovina we take her to the Bali Treetop Adventure Park, a series of open-air treetop climbing circuits. I complete 3 out of the 7 courses before deciding that a fear of heights does not define me as a failure. Isoo betters me by completing an additional circuit, but as he steps onto the wobbly criss-cross sky bridge suspended over a ravine, he curses his sister saying, “God! Why does she have to be so good at this stuff?” Chris, not wanting to let her go it alone and refusing to be bettered by an 8 year-old, persevered with stoic determination, his misery and fear only betrayed when he looked my way and mouthed “You owe me!” But Oona didn’t need any of us. She raced ahead, clipping and unclipping the carabineers, adjusting her own harness and climbing her way through the jungle.
Oona has the cheerfulness of someone who is aware of her charmed life. I see her in a crowd of tourists with her high swingy ponytail, Converse sneakers, strong, tanned legs, her big eyes and pretty face and she just reeks of privileged America. When strangers approach her and ask to take her picture, she obliges, always smiling for the camera. At the Vietnam War Museum a man with no hands, a victim of Agent Orange approaches and then smiling, extends a mangled arm. Oona takes his squishy stump and without missing a beat, shakes it saying, “Hi, my name is Oona. It’s very nice to meet you.” I hope she never changes. I hope she never loses this confidence or becomes boy crazy or a mean girl or spoiled brat or a vidiot. I hope she never becomes trampled by the mundanity and uncertainty of life, the acceptance of everyday tedium that so often defines maturity. Because right now her brother may fear the world, but she knows that it, and everyone in it, is her friend.
And yet, the thing she wants most is to go home. Of all the places she’s been, Evanston is still the place where she feels most herself. She meets some girls in the pool. As we walk back to our room, I ask her if she had fun playing with her new friends. She shrugs her towel clad shoulders and says, “It was OK,” code for “She’s not Mia or Eden” because nothing can beat her old friends, her old neighborhood, the sold house she still calls home. Re-entry will be hard on her, too.
When this trip is over, I hope the kids understand what a privilege and joy it’s been to see and experience the world. I hope they LIVE WITH APPRECIATION of the big and little things we take for granted in our lives back home. And when we’re back home, eating dinner in the car as we shuttle from swim team to soccer practice, Oona struggling to pull on her swim cap and Isoo grumbling about the shower and the homework and the piano practice that still lie ahead, I hope they will recognize what a gift it was to have this freedom and time to grow into ones’ self. When it’s all said and done, isn’t that the real journey?
As for Baii, only a fool wouldn't love this paradise. It's an island lush with palm trees, terraced rice fields and overgrown bush. Raging waterfalls, the lapping sea. Incredibly warm, kind people. We were lucky enough to see Lovina, Ubud and Jimbaran Bay, but it's true that our visit would have been made better with more research, patience and fresh eyes. Bali was a little heavier on lux and lighter on culture than we all preferred (especially following Cambodia). Everything was a supreme hassle to get to and when we got there, it was not necessarily worth the trouble (Sekumpul Waterfalls, Banjar Hot Springs, the Rock Bar, etc.), and frankly, it was not our first time experiencing island life, seeing rice terraces or swimming with dolphins (I know this sounds obnoxious, but it's the truth). Alas, I can see why most visitors prefer to just lounge by the pool. As I said, only a fool wouldn't love Bali.
The villa in Lovina was pretty sweet. We had not intended on renting such a big house, but it was the only one we could find with fully enclosed bedrooms (yay! air-conditioning!). The remote location made it a steal - much cheaper than a hotel. It was hands down the fanciest place we stayed.
The outdoor living area. I am now an expert at distinguishing gecko poop from mouse poop.
And it came with a crazy infinity pool and views of the ocean.
Isoo takes his mandatory turn playing with Oona in the pool. A rare moment of togetherness.
Isoo had a nice little set-up going at the villa. Generous breakfasts and a huge upstairs suite for all of his private tween needs.
Our view from the terrace: sunset overlooking the rice fields.
But the best thing about the house? The amazing staff! Komang and Elah were not only the kindest people and most talented cooks, but also became family friends. One night the ladies brought their boys over to play and watched all the kids while Chris and I went out to dinner (our second date in over 6 months!). It was great to come home and hear the kids around the table giggling with their new friends.
We hired a driver to visit the nearby Banjar Hot Springs. It was fine, but in the heat and humidity, we would have preferred a cooling pool.
We hired a driver and made the trip to Sekumpul Waterfall. It was a very long and very expensive ride. When we got there, we were tricked into a hiring a "guide" who turned out to be two 12 year old girls. We had hoped to go swimming in the waterfall, but after a few meters of hiking, we learned that the path down to the falls was closed. Grumble grumble.
The short hike to Sekumpul.
Oh well, it still made for gorgeous views.
We also hired a driver to take us to the Bali Eka Karya Botanical Gardens in Bedugul. Did I mention that Balinese sculptures are very dramatic?
The plantings are beautiful, but because the grounds are so sprawling and the weather so hot, everyone just drives through. Weird to be in nature and sit in a car.
Inside the Botanical Gardens is the Bali Treetop Adventure Park. Note the lack of helmets and guides.
Little missy doing what she does best.
"When is this over?" Isoo on one of the rope bridges.
The drive up to Bedugul was very twisty and slow going, but the views were stunning. This is the real Bali of lush foliage, beautiful lakes and children walking home from school. Yes there are touristy towns with their manicured resorts and pools, but I much, much prefer the wild, green drama of the real Bali.
A departure from the usual brown uniforms and requisite braids. School kids dressed up for the full moon celebration.
After Lovina we drove down and spent a week at the Intercontinental in Jimbaran Bay. I wanted to give the kids a chance to do some watersports not available in the north, which is known primarily for dolphin watching (and polluted black sand beaches). The kids had their own ideas and preferred to hang out in the pool instead.
Shirleys at the swim up bar.
It was not terribly cultural, but it also was not horrible.
I literally had to drag them out of the pool and into surf school. The instructor made them do their own paddling and wave catching. Oona and her little arms were exhausted at the end of the day, but both did great.
The kid is a natural.
We took a field trip to Ayana Resort's famous Rock Bar for drinks. The views were great, but the drinks were terrible, the wait was ridiculous and the scene was 20-somethings trying too hard.
Ubud was really more our style. I loved the rice fields and the laid back vibe. If we had planned better, we would have done less Lovina and Jimbaran Bay, and more Ubud.
We ate at Sari Organic, a little restaurant in the rice fields. Our view (Isoo is somewhere in the field tromping around in the mud).
My guy doing what he loves best.