March 31, 2018
I’m sitting on a lounger (I’m lounging on a lounger?) overlooking an infinity pool which itself is overlooking a sloping watermelon plantation. Pink orchids peek out between palm fronds. A fourteen-year-old blonde beauty slowly paddles through the water. She happens to be my child. I’m drinking a cold Bintang beer. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.
Lana and I are in Bali. We arrived yesterday after over twenty-four hours of relatively hassle-free travel (no lost luggage, no missed flights, and hallelujah, no forgotten antidepressants). We are here for just over two weeks. My excuse to all concerned (Lana, her dad, her school, Uncle Sam) is that we’re here to shop for the shop. There will definitely be some shopping, some sourcing for future shopping. But even more importantly to my work (and my life at large), there will be travel, which in and of itself will spawn perspective and inspiration. Already today, on our long walk to village and beach, Lana and I devised a new summer line of garments constructed from up-cycled linen. We also meditated some on my relationship with her step-mother - where we can bridge gaps, the things that she and I have in common (love of whole foods and cooking, adoration for Lana and her siblings, apparently the same taste in men). This, for me, is the essential by-product of travel; a new view of the old scene, fresh solutions for stale problems.
While still back home, we booked only these first two nights of accommodation. The rest of the trip is open. We will follow our fancy.
We’ve never been to Asia. This is our first trip to the developing world since Ethiopia eight years ago. Already it’s an adjustment to avoid drinking the water from the tap. The river of overloaded scooters streaming pellmell on the wrong side of the road is discombobulating.
For now, we are ensconced in an elegant villa, our only plan for luxury, a prescribed antidote for jet-lag. Soon we will head out in search of natural beauty, beach shacks, volcano villages, and hopefully less white people. But, for now, this is quite delightful. And $120 a night.
April 1, 2018
I was telling Lana yesterday that traveling with her is like traveling with a clone of myself. Beyond the fact that I raised her, imbuing in her plastic brain my values, my preferences, my tastes (and yes, I’m well aware that even at this late date she could reject all those), beyond all that, we are similarly wired. She, like me, like my mother, is fastidious. We Balger(my mom)-Lavoie(me)-Caprons(Lana) like to plan. We like to read our Lonely Planet cover to cover and chat about all the possibilities. We like to know when we’ll eat and when we’ll sleep. We’re detail oriented.
Lana said, “Oh my god, you would have so much fun with a clone of yourself. You’d talk for hours.”
“‘Let’s read!’’ I suggested joyfully.
“‘Let’s take a walk!’” said Lana
“‘Let’s drink wine!’”
“‘Let’s go to sleep!’”
This girl knows me well.
April 2, 2018
I’m sure I’ve reported this here before but my father’s favorite toast at weddings (and, as I remember, he toasted at EVERY wedding he attended - this apple does not fall far from that tree) was “Don’t expect too much.”
He was, in fact, quoting my mother’s father, a man who emigrated from Romania in 1915 and ended up widowed, working as a laborer and feeding his family from his garden through the Depression. He had reason not to expect too much.
When Lana and I envisioned our sojourn to SouthEast Asia, we imagined cultural immersion - beaches, yes, the dollar going far, yes, but also burial ceremonies, home-stays with Balinese families living off the land (I know, I know). What we’ve found instead, at least so far, is tourism, and worse, tourists. This place seems geared towards sucking money out of Westerners. And you know, God speed, we Westerners have a lot of money to suck. But culture, beyond delicious food served in humble warangs, beyond translating the dollar to the rupiah, beyond the echoing call to prayer (at least on Muslim Lombok) we have not yet found it.
Yesterday we journeyed from Southern Bali to a small island off Lombok, called Gili Air. The trip involved not one but two hour-long taxi rides visiting not one but two ports in search of a boat to the Gili islands. Once found, we waited for the boat for an hour past it’s departure time (marginal cultural experience) before traveling two hours over water to Gili Air.
We hoped it would be quieter, more pure. Instead we found ourselves dragging our roller bags through the sand, rejecting every suggestion Lonely Planet had for accommodations, dodging sunburned drunk whities before, in desperation, landing on an over-priced “traditional” “rice barn” “bungalow” that was mosquito-infested and reeked of mildew. It was a sad day.
Today, finally blessed with wifi for the first time since our plane landed, we perused airbnb. After touring three excellent options (at least compared to our landing pad last night) we happened upon a beautiful spa with accommodation. For the next two nights, we’re paying $100 for an exquisite villa with a private pool. Tourism isn’t so hateful at the moment. It’s not “real Bali” but is there a “real Bali”?
April 7, 2018
Since last we talked (you/me, journal/Liz), Lana and I have travelled to neighboring Gili Meno (smaller, mellower than Gili Air but still, sadly, a tourist mecca). We spent two nights at a yoga “retreat” (open-air bungalows centered around a yoga stage in the middle of the jungle - my flip-flop broke in the sucking mud). We were pretty much the only visitors but once out on the (crazy-beautiful, white-sand) beach overlooking the turquoise water (cry me a river) we were far from alone. We entertained a constant stream of young men peddling sarongs and jewelry, swam in a sea of Australian-accented English, paid too much for vegetarian curry and instant Nescafe (Lombok coffee being the color, consistency, and flavor of mud, in my humble opinion).
Last night we had a come-to-Jesus. Lana, exhausted by harassment (poor tall blonde nubile thing), turned off by yet another culture trying constantly to sell her something, cried Uncle.
We’ve been wrestling with where to go next. Farther East into unexplored Indonesia? Hop a plan to Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia? Last night, we decided to come back to Bali. Give it one more shot before bailing via air to somewhere less spoiled by the West.
Buoyed by action, we boarded a ferry for Bali, upon disembarking negotiated a taxi for Sideman (pronounced “Seed-a-man” - Lana: “Let’s go see da man”) and after an hour of inevitable scooter-slaloming, arrived at a hotel overlooking mountains, rice paddies, cows and quiet. We are possibly the only guests. It’s cooler here - maybe eighty degrees instead of one hundred. Our room is open to the wind and air, which for the first time since our arrival in Indonesia is doable without air conditioning.
The man who greeted us at reception, Gede, is sweet and open - all the attributes we’ve heard about the Balinese people.
I sit on our balcony, the clothes I just hand-washed dripping over the railing, giant black ants trundling peacefully over them. Swallows bank and dip for bugs in the breeze above, huge ebony wasps tranquilly buzz the bougainvillea that climbs the balcony. The teenager is below in the hot tub, watching a show on her phone, plugged into wifi and stupid American television for the first time in a long time - safe, unharrassed. A glass of my very favorite Indonesian (probably Spanish) chardonnay is at hand, cows are lowing, someone is plonking away on an instrument somewhere above us on the hill. I am clean from the shower, not yet sweating, sore from yesterday’s yoga class, blisters on my feel treated with iodine and band-aids (or dare I say “foot plasters”). People, I am happy.
April 8, 2018
Lana hasn’t been feeling well today. She was up in the middle of the night with a headache, feeling hot. We had a late breakfast, a walk through the village hunting fabric (Sideman has many weavers) and then I brought the wilting girl back to the bungalow. We kept our 3:00 tandem, facial appointments (I haven’t had a facial since I was in my twenties but for fourteen dollars how could I say no?) but then cancelled our trip to the night market (crazy yummy street food, apparently). We’ll do it tomorrow if she’s feeling better. Tonight we’ll have dinner in our room and watch a movie.
This trip is about experiencing Indonesia, yes, but even more it’s about being with my girl - squeezing the juice from these last moments of cozy childhood.
April 9, 2018
When we were in Ethiopia, Megan (life-long friend/sister/travel-adoption-support) dubbed five-year-old Lana the Pokey Puppy. Never has there been a more accurate moniker.
I’ve waited for Lana all her life. I waited for her to be born (almost two weeks overdue, thank you very much), I waited for her to stop crying (colic!), I waited for her to nurse (always reluctant, she quit for good at ten months). When she was three, I waited cumulative hours for her to put on her shoes. We once had a two hour standoff parked in front of an Inverness boathouse because she refused to dress her bare legs before entering the outdoor birthday party (it was January and forty-five degrees) which was only resolved when she agreed to sit on my lap under a blanket for the entire event (which she did, placidly, both of us marooned amidst trampoline-hopping kids and dancing adults).
She does not like to be rushed. When anxious about time, she slows down. I have learned to be gentle in my prodding, to give her miles of lead-time before a transition.
Today, while Lana lingered over a breakfast of pineapple and toast, I said, “If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘Lana, you ready?’, I would be a very rich woman.”
If I had an additional dollar for every time she asked me to wait, usually while walking in hot sun or, alternately, pouring rain, I would be Bill Gates wealthy.
She slows me down, this kid. Maybe that’s why she was sent to me.
April 11, 2018
Yesterday was nuts in every way. We’re here in Ubud, Bali’s cultural center. It’s like a mini Asian NYC; a million shops, a zillion restaurants, prices running the gamut, packed with people, traffic moving like a honking river at flood stage.
We landed in Ubud and while we loved the town, our airbnb stunk, literally. We Balger-Lavoie-Caprons are sensitive to smell. After some searching, we landed on a pension housed in an ancient building. We dragged our suitcases through the packed streets (“Taxi?” the local men asked, “Taxi?” - clearly knowing us to be insane white people who desperately needed some assistance).
The new place was, while quaint, dysfunctional. Lights weren’t working, mosquitos were swarming in the closed room, breakfast was inedible. And so began our day-long quest for a decent place to stay. Between a visit to Monkey Forest (starring crazed monkeys roaming free, thoroughly irritated with people, alternately charming and alarming) and a three hour, fifteen course lunch at the fanciest restaurant in Bali (exquisite and all for $80 a head), we searched. We walked, in the wet heat, for hours, chasing down leads from Lonely Planet, from airbnb, from friendly waiters, but none would do. We’re picky, it’s true, but somehow Ubud wasn’t forthcoming with something even moderately acceptable. Finally we found an efficiency hotel far from city center with cartoon monkeys on the walls. It’s colorful and moderately fun, the beds are good, the lines are clean and it has a rooftop deck. Sold, finally sold.
And so I stowed Lana in the air-conditioned room with her phone and blessed wifi, climbed on the back of the bellman’s scooter and rode, in a skirt, sans helmet, through the sea of zooming motor-bikes and taxis to retrieve our suitcases from the previous night’s hotel. I’m normally a person who prefers to move slowly (in terms of physical speed, certainly not in the emotional/romantic/business/real-estate realm - there I can’t move fast enough). I have a healthy fear of motor vehicles, insisting Ben never ride a motorcycle while he was married to me (poor man), but when I found myself speeding through the warm air, on the back of a bike for the first time in almost thirty years, I was delighted. The dangerous freedom of mopeds.
April 14, 2018
The day after the last entry, Bali Belly struck hard.
Hungry for dinner late in the evening after our long and beautiful luncheon, we ventured just two doors down from our hotel to an unknown sushi restaurant. Mistake number one. Mistake number two: we ordered glasses of water. “Filtered, yeah?” I asked the waitress. We have come to feel tremendous guilt over our bottled water consumption (empty plastic bottles littered virtually everywhere we gaze). For the most part in more urban settings, restaurants will offer filtered water by the glass.
Lana took a gulp of her water, grimaced and said, “Um, Mom?”
I then took a sip from my glass (why? WHY???). It was almost hot and tasted of sewer. The waiter, when pressed, admitted it wasn’t filtered but claimed it to to be “clear”. As opposed to brown, I suppose.
By noon the next day, cramps had set in. Days later we still need to have a bathroom close at hand.
After two more days in Ubud, we were done, the energy of the city, at first so appealing, had finally exhausted us. With four more days until we boarded the airplane for home, we decided to head to Nusa Penida, a neighboring island lauded for being less inundated with tourists. On the boat over, we were befriended (“picked up” might be more accurate) by Tony, a middle-aged Balinese man I continually wanted to call Davy because that name made about as much sense. Tony/Davy sold us on hiring him as our guide on Penida. You need wheels there (big island, low population, sparse far-flung villages) and I’ve never piloted a scooter (and, even if I had, the roads are notoriously rough). I figured Tony/Davy was sent by the Hindu gods.
Tony/Davy drove us to a few different accommodations before we settled on the best of them, which was marginal at best. That night, after killing endless oversized black ants and having three Indonesians in our room attempting to fix our tepid AC, the voices from the adjoining room began.
At first we thought we were listening to one half of a phone conversation.
“I can’t believe you,” a young American woman brayed. “You’re a fucking cheater and a fucking liar.”
Lana set up camp next to the slatted door that connected the rooms and was there for the next few hours, rapt. I put a pillow over my head only to be awoken at 3am and again at six to the woman’s outrage.
Lana filled me in over a breakfast of mud-like coffee and stinky papaya.
“She’s pregnant,” Lana said. “She found out last night that her boyfriend’s been cheating on her.”
The boyfriend was in the room, it turns out, just quiet in his shame. Lana reported that as the evening wore on, the woman discovered that he was not only sleeping with one other woman but three. Lana was listening to the story unfold in real time.
“It’s so weird,” she said. “This big moment in these people’s lives and I was the only witness.”
We meditated for a moment on that poor baby, born into chaos.
After breakfast we packed our bags, putting the hotel firmly in Tony/Davy’s rearview mirror. Tired of searching for accommodation, of making everything up on the fly, bellies sore, we texted our first airbnb hosts. We would take the one o’clock boat back to the mainland, and return to that lovely villa.
Tony/Davy was not pleased with this turn of events. He drove us quickly, jerkily, on dirt roads to see beaches. While beautiful, the Indian Ocean on that particular day was disturbed, not safe for swimming. We were grateful to bid Tony/Davy farewell. He pressed his business card into my hand. “No throw in the rubbish!” he instructed.
We are now back at Juan and Geoff’s (a Colombian/Australian couple with exquisite taste). The compound is absurdly beautiful. This morning, roused by Bali Belly, I encountered a small black snake on my way out of the bathroom. My muffled “eep!” was enough to send it slithering into the bedroom where it hid for two hours until the two house-men (I refuse to say boys) removed it. I’m out-of-my-mind afraid of snakes. I spent those two hours peering fearfully at the floor from the relative safety of my bed. Lana found the whole situation hilarious.
By ten, I was getting my first motor bike lesson. Match, another Australian, a friend our hosts, was my teacher. Never a braver or more patient instructor have I met. He spent an hour with me and by the end I was driving in traffic with him on the back, dodging dogs and children, potholes, trucks and endless mopeds. All on the wrong side of the road. I only crashed once, into the smallest of rivers.
April 22, 2018
We are home, newly in love with the cool air and the public garbage cans.
In the last days of our trip, a French ex-pat lounging on Juan and Geoff’s lawn asked, with French directness/derision, “So do you love Bali or do you hate it?”
The question was a dare, one that I dodged. “Love it!” I squawked.
“Mmm,” she said, stretching her brown bare legs in front of her, “You’d be surprised. Some people, they don’t like the traffic and the garbage. It is too busy for them here.”
“Ha!” I laughed.
I didn’t hate Bali but it was not as easy to love as I imagined. At some moments, it felt like everything that’s wrong with the world. Gazing at the heaps of plastic trash, gagging on exhaust, nauseous from the water, I would think, this is what we’re doing to our earth, to ourselves, Westerners more than anyone.
But here’s the real benefit of travel. Lana and I are freshly amazed at the loveliness of home. Our beds, our cats, the hills flushed with green, the sunlight dancing off the long, shifting grass. We have renewed passion for our friends, these complicated quirky sweethearts that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. My shop, which did great business in my absence, staffed by some of those gorgeous amigos, is, I’m remembering, not only my source of material sustenance but also creative. I have brand new energy to bring to it.
And Lana and I, after weeks on end together, each other’s sole company, are as close as we were when she was an infant and we’d spend hours staring into each other’s eyes. It looks different now, her nestled next to me on the couch, texting her friends. It’s a teenage version of mother-daughter intimacy but the connection is heartily present.
Bali was not our ideal destination, it turns out. But it’s really not the destination, right? It’s the journey.