How to eat with locals in Bali

2014-03-14 15.23.01Some of the best and most memorable experiences I had when I was travelling were from getting off the tourist trail and meeting locals. I had a fabulous dinner with a Cambodian family (complete with deep fried tarantulas!!) who were getting ready for a ceremony. Of course let’s not forget the handsome local I met in Bali who changed my life forever :P (that would be my husband!)

Locals cook the best food, know the best places to go (that aren’t in the guidebook) and it’s just generally fascinating and heartwarming to have a proper conversation with someone who lives in the country you’re visiting. I made sure to do this in every country I visited from Nepal to Thailand to Vietnam.

The only problem is that it can be quite hard to meet locals unless you have an existing contact. Safety is also an issue – it’s not always advisable to go off with someone you’ve just met in the street and you really have to use your street smarts to weigh up if it’s a genuine offer of friendship (and turning it down would make you miss out on an amazing experience) or if you’re putting yourself in danger.

So when I heard about Withlocals, I just thought it was a wonderful idea and why had nobody come up with it before? The website connects you, the traveller, with locals in countries all over Asia for experiences including meals, tours and other activities. It’s a much more personal experience than booking a tour with a company and you get the opportunity to forge real connections and friendships with people who can explain more about their culture and lifestyle in the country you’re visiting.

After browsing the available options in Bali, we decided to book a homestyle Javanese meal with Dotty. We chose this experience because we thought she sounded interesting to talk to (we were right!) and Javanese food would make a nice change from Balinese food for me.

IMG_2339 2014-03-14 15.22.24 2014-03-14 15.30.12 IMG_2356 IMG_2350 IMG_2349 2014-03-14 15.34.51 IMG_2361We’d arrived pretty late due to a mixup with directions but were still welcomed graciously into Dotty’s home. Her house was beautiful (the photos really don’t do it justice!) and was located on top of a hill with sweeping rice field views. She also runs a B&B from her home, which you can book through airbnb. We ate upstairs for the fantastic view and then had tea downstairs.

As we were so late, we were starving when we got there, which was a good thing as there was so much to eat! We had a real feast of sweet soy chicken, tempe, sweetcorn fritters, curried eggs and this vegetable which is my favourite – they call it jepang here in Bali. We ate until we were stuffed and there was still loads leftover.

After lunch we had papaya and the most amazing lemongrass tea made with cinnamon, ginger and palm sugar.

While the food was amazing, what really made the experience was Dotty herself. She was incredibly welcoming and friendly and fascinating to talk to. After living in Jakarta, Australia, and now Bali (and having grownup children living in the UK among other places) she’s got a really metropolitan view on the world and it was fascinating discussing her life and the differences between Bali and Jakarta.

We had a lovely afternoon and i could have really stayed chatting well into the evening but our poor taxi driver had been waiting for us for over 2 hours :p

Anyway, definitely a great experience and excellent value for money and if you’re travelling anywhere in Asia I’d strongly recommend seeing what experiences you can do from the Withlocals website (I’m going to be listing Made on there soon if you need a Bali tour guide!)

Visa woes

visa-indonesiaIt’s getting to that annoying time of year when I get a load of bills at once – all my domains are up for renewal, my health insurance expires and of course, I have to get a new visa to stay in Indonesia.

Like many longterm expats in Bali, I’m staying on a KITAS visa. This allows me to stay for one year without having to visit immigration every month like the 6-month sosbud visa. A KITAS is normally a working visa but I have the “ikut suami” or spouse-sponsored version which means I’m not allowed to work as my husband is supposedly supporting me.  A big HA to that!

Anyway like many things in this country, applying for visas is rife with corruption. I choose to get my KITAS through a local agent as they make it so difficult for people who try to do it themselves that it’s just not worth the hassle. The official price of a KITAS is 700,000rp but going through an agent you’re going to be paying 3-4 million. For that fee the agent sorts out all the paperwork for you, deals with (and bribes) all the officials and generally makes everything easier. If you don’t know of any local agencies or you want to plan ahead there are a number of online alternatives you can use.

I’ve seen people crying in frustration at immigration because they’ve tried to apply for their visa on their own. It should be a simple task but they make it as hard as possible, calling you back to sign another bit of paper several times and making you wait for hours to get your passport or fingerprints taken (with an agent you’re straight to the front of the queue).

I’ve been more than happy to pay for the convenience and lack of stress. However this year I really wanted to apply for a KITAP. A KITAP is a semi-permanent residence visa, valid for 5 years to anyone who’s been living in the country for at least 5 years. I was actually eligible for this visa years ago as they changed the law so that people married to Indonesians would only have to wait 2 years but what’s law and what Bali immigration will let you do are two different things.

I called my agent to ask him his price for arranging a KITAP – TWENTY FIVE MILLION RUPIAH!!! or about 2k USD. This is just pure insanity, especially considering the official price of a KITAP is about 3 million. I could try and go down the road of applying for it on my own but to be honest, i really don’t think i have the mental energy. Think i’m just going to suck it up and pay my agent for another KITAS.

Things like this get really annoying about living in Bali. Everything can be arranged – for a price. The laws surrounding immigration and mixed marriages are highly frustrating. Not that the UK is much better in this regard at the moment but I really think they should make things easier for those who are married to Indonesians. Letting me (or at least my husband) own land and allowing our kids to have dual citizenship would be a good start.

Improvements are happening slowly so I’m hoping by hanging on, it will be a lot easier for me to get my visa  a couple of years down the line. Maybe they’ll even invent a proper lifetime visa without having to give up my British citizenship. Wishful thinking? Sigh…

 

That time a monkey stole my glasses…

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So I’ve just been sorting out my photos from the end of last year in preparation for backing them up (one of the things I am aiming to do more regularly this year!) and I realised I never told you all this little story from the end of the year.

A couple of weeks before Christmas I took a day trip out with my dad to do some sightseeing in Nusa Dua before having a yummy fish dinner in Jimbaran and then going to collect Sue (his wife) at the airport. I rarely make it down to this part of Bali and dad’s never been there before so it was  a fun excursion for both of us.

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After checking out the beach at Padang Padang (which is the ‘Ubud beach’ in the movie Eat Pray Love, despite it being a 2 hour drive from Ubud) we headed to Uluwatu . Uluwatu is a temple perched high on the cliffs of the south coast of Bali. It’s also overrun with monkeys. Now monkeys are not an usual site in Bali, in fact probably the most famous monkeys in Bali are the ones in Ubud’s very own monkey forest. However the monkeys at Uluwatu are somewhat different from their Ubud cousins… (the monkeys pictured above at Padang Padang are much cuter by the way!)

Of course you always have to be careful with wild animals and avoid getting too close, showing them food etc etc but in general the monkeys in Ubud monkey forest are pretty friendly. Give them a banana and they’ll be your best friend. The Uluwatu monkeys however, give them a monkey and they’ll snatch it off you, hiss at you and then throw the peel in your face.

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We’d been warned by two different people on the way up to be careful with our glasses as apparently the monkeys like stealing them so I was on high guard. I prefer to keep my distance anyway as being jumped on by a monkey is not an experience I wish to have again (see below for previous experience at Sangeh monkey forest). Normally I wear contact lenses but for some reason I didn’t this day. Take note, if you’re going anywhere in Bali where there are monkeys, WEAR CONTACTS!!!

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So I was minding my own business, taking a picture of the cliffs when this huge monkey runs out of nowhere and snatches my glasses right off my face! I try to grab them back but he hisses and tries to scratch me. My dad tries to get them but he’s now baring his teeth and looking pretty threatening. By this point we’ve attracted quite a bit of attention and a few other tourists come over and try to tempt him into swapping my glasses for a banana but he’s not giving them back. Then he decides to bite off the plastic around the bit that goes over your ear. I give up, realising i’m not going to get them back and resign myself to walking around half-blind for the rest of the day. Hey, at least it wasn’t my camera!

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15 minutes later I’m sitting near the top waiting for my dad to finish taking some photos and a guy comes over and hands me my glasses (plastic bit missing but otherwise ok!) no idea how he managed to get them back but I was very grateful!

Telling this story to my dad’s friend who also lives in Bali and he told us of the much worse fate of another tourist when he was visiting Uluwatu. A monkey snatched his glasses and ran up a tree, snapped them in half and threw them at him. While he was distracted by this, another monkey stole his phone. A baby monkey then ran up his leg and he kicked it off at which point he was attacked by all the adult monkeys biting him. Apparently the monkeys at Uluwatu are particularly vicious little bastards – you have been warned!!!

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Nice weather for ducks

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One of the nicest things about living in our own place is that we’re not subjected to the in-laws strange ideas about child rearing (like children must never play in water because it will make them deathly ill).

We’re right at the start of the rainy season and we’ve been experiencing afternoon downpours for a couple of weeks. After being cooped up inside for a couple of hours during a particularly torrential rainstorm, I let the kids outside to play once it had slowed to a drizzle. Maya has an extra interest in splashing in puddles at the moment due to her obsession with Peppa Pig (she’s also started calling me mummy pig?!)

Happy kids, happy ducks and lots of mud. What’s not to love?

Blood, babies and the realities of expat healthcare in Bali

IMG_1256A newborn Kiran, already angry – he screamed non-stop for an hour after being born.

Bear with me on the gory title, I’m going somewhere with this.

I was inspired to write this by a campaign that was going around on my Facebook news feed yesterday about a Russian woman living in Bali who had lost her unborn baby during her last month of pregnancy due to complications and was now in Sanglah hospital in a coma, fighting for her life. The campaign was to try and find as many people as possible to give B+ blood to increase her chances of survival. I just checked in on the story now to find that she has sadly died, leaving her husband and 4-year-old daughter. So utterly tragic.

Would she have lived if she was in a different country, perhaps with a readily available blood bank? Impossible to say but this problem comes up time and time again. Bali does simply not have enough blood and if, god forbid, you ever get into a serious accident or have a life-threatening illness that requires a blood transfusion, there is a good chance you will need people to donate “on demand”.

And people do get into accidents – motorbike accidents usually. Then childbirth is another big risk. I hemorrhaged after having Kiran, luckily not badly enough to need donated blood but it’s definitely something to consider in advance if you’re planning to have a baby here. I’m in the lucky position of having AB+ blood which means I can receive donations from any other blood type, but others are not so fortunate.

Pregnant women with a rhesus negative blood type are particularly at risk as it is in critically short supply in Bali. While around 15% of Caucasians have rhesus negative blood, only 1% of Asians do. The problem is a real one and I’ve heard of women shipping in blood from Singapore in preparation for labour, in case of complications.

The Red Cross maintains a register of rhesus negative donors in Bali and if you plan to live here for any significant length of time, I would urge you to make sure you know your blood type and add yourself to the register so you can be contacted when a supply is needed. My ‘lucky’ AB blood is almost useless as it can only be donated to other AB types.

From time to time incidents like the poor Russian girl come up and I do think about those of us who have chosen to live in countries less developed than the ones we come from and the risks we are taking. Bali’s medical care is improving but is still way behind the likes of Malaysia and Singapore and expats with serious conditions are usually flown out of the country.

It never really occurred to me to go back to the UK or go anywhere else to give birth – there are some good hospitals here, with well-trained doctors (although maybe a little on the laid back side – read Erica’s account of the differences between Jakarta and Singapore). They just don’t always have the resources that other countries do when things go wrong. As expats we’re often spoiled with hospitals that look like 5-star hotels with service to match. It’s easy to forget that most of the rest of the country don’t have access to these facilities – the maternal mortality rate in Indonesia is one of the highest in Southeast Asia.

If you’re interested in donating Rh-negative blood while you’re travelling in Bali, you can contact the Red Cross or Kim Patra. If you’d like to donate to a cause to improve healthcare access to pregnant women in Indonesia, Bumi Sehat is a wonderful organisation.

A Woman’s Work

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Mother’s day in the UK is the fourth Sunday but in Indonesia it’s the 22nd of December, conflicting nicely with Christmas (not that Christmas is celebrated in Indonesia but I’m not about to give it up any time soon). In the UK, the traditional celebration is to be brought breakfast in bed by your kids along with some kind of macaroni art or painted pebble or some other kind of handcrafted goodness. Here, things are rather different.

Mother’s day in Bali, like most special days, means more work for all the women. While it’s a day to celebrate and honour mothers, they don’t get a day off. On the contrary, the events planned usually require a few weeks of preparation.

In every village in Bali there is a banjar. This is an organisation that you could think of as the village council – all important events are discussed here and preparations made for important ceremonies, weddings, funerals and the like. A couple become members of the banjar after they are married and are expected to attend meetings and be involved in the community by joining in with communal cooking and cleaning and ceremony preparation.

Being a non-Balinese speaking bule and pregnant or looking after a small baby for most of the time since our wedding, I have so far avoided most involvement in the banjar, but last mother’s day, a few days before Christmas, I went along for the annual celebrations. Every year for mother’s day in our village, a fun walk is organised. Now getting up at 5am to trek miles through the rice fields rather than being served breakfast in bed is not really my idea of fun but this is all part of being a woman in Bali.

After the walk, the women congregate in the bale banjar (like a community hall) to exchange gifts. These are all very small gifts with the emphasis being very much on “it’s the thought that counts”, or not in some cases…. I received a pair of big pink nylon knickers. Made’s aunt got a packet of noodles. The woman next to me unwrapped a box of mineral water. The previous year, Made’s mother was most unimpressed with her mystery gift that turned out to be sanitary towels.

Anyway, opening the gifts does provide a few laughs and these women aren’t going to get any presents from their husbands or children so they have to rely on each other – it’s really a tough life being a woman in Bali.

Gender bias isn’t as bad here as it is in some other countries like China or India – children are treasured whether they happen to be a boy or a girl – but still, boys are favoured to a huge degree. In Balinese culture the boys stay with the family, taking care of their parents as they grow old. Here, children are your retirement fund. When a woman gets married, she goes to live with her husbands family and becomes a part of his family. Because of this, girls are not given any inheritance and in some cases are given less education because they are not considered part of their parent’s family any more once they are married.

Women here are tough and they work hard. They get up before dawn, sweep the compound, go to the market, cook for the family and make the offerings and then they go off to work. Many cultures have traditional gender roles that involve the woman staying at home to look after the children while the man goes to work but here women are often expected to be the main breadwinner too. It’s pretty common for young women to hand over their babies to their mother in law’s care when they are a few months old so they can go back to work. After returning from work, there’s no rest – only more cooking, more caring for children, more making offerings and more community commitments.

And what do the men do while the women are busy taking care of their families and earning money? Well in many cases, not a lot. You’ll see men sitting around, drinking, playing cards and stroking their cocks. Bali is definitely a man’s world.

A  year or two ago in preparation for some kind of village competition, every house was asked to display a sign listing all the duties of a good wife. This involved taking care of the home, taking care of the family, taking part in the community, working to make money. As you’ve probably guessed, there was no alternative list for the man of the family.

I was fairly shocked when I first came here to see that women do most of the heavy lifting and carrying on building sites. Whenever there’s a building project going on, you’ll see women carrying huge piles of bricks on their heads.

Women are expected to look after their husbands and take care of guests, whatever else they may be doing. Made often bemoans the fact that i don’t get up before him and bring him tea and cake, despite the fact that he never actually drinks it when I do make him tea. Of course my response to Made saying “make me tea” during the first months of our relationship (please isn’t really a common word in the Indonesian language) was “you’ve got hands, make your own damn tea!” I’m actually lucky to have married into a fairly progressive family – Made and his father both cook, clean and do other things that many men don’t. But I’m still expected to drop everything and make coffee for everyone like a dutiful housewife if Made’s friends turn up at the house – it’s just not the done thing for the man to make the coffee and we must keep up appearances…

I do think (and hope) things are slowly changing in Bali. Now women work and spend a lot of time away from home they’re exposed to more ideas and opinons. Bali is definitely becoming more westernized, particularly in the tourist areas and I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. It’s becoming less of a rarity to divorce which means more women can escape abusive relationships with less worry about being completely ostracized from society (however the husband retains custody of the children in 90% of cases).

There’s no doubt about it, it’s hard work being a woman in Bali…

The Motorcycle Diaries

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Pretty much everyone who lives in Bali gets around by motorbike or scooter. I’ve ben here nearly 5 years and I’ve been intending to ‘learn’ how to ride a motorbike for almost as long. I say ‘learn’ because there’s really no learning to be done – most of the bikes are automatic and it’s more a case of just having the confidence to get out on the road.

Actually I did learn several years ago in Nusa Lembongan – a little island with no cars. I was perfectly happy pootling around the little dirt tracks of the island but as soon as we got back to the mainland, I lost my confidence again.

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The traffic in Bali is crazy. It’s basically every man for himself (or woman, whatever) and there are no rules. Very few people have an actual license and those that do just buy it – there’s no official test.

I’m not so scared of the driving itself; it’s more the other people on the road. I’ve seen so many near misses while I’ve been here and at least one person dead on the road (from trying to undertake a truck on the inside lane by the looks of it).

As well as the general insane craziness of the driving there are also little kids driving motorbikes to school and tourists who jump on their bikes the first day of their holiday and drive probably more dangerously than anyone else. I also suspect that few of these tourists have travel insurance or realise that driving without a license will void their insurance.

It seems like every week I’m hearing about somebody killed or injured on a motorbike. Just this morning I read about an 11-year-old boy who attended the international school in our village, killed on a day out on a motorbike with his older brother.

So you may be wondering why I’m even contemplating going out on a motorbike when it’s so dangerous. One word: freedom.

motorcyclediaries4I’m somewhat isolated in the village here and I rely on Made to drive me whenever I want to go anywhere. There’s not much of interest within walking distance – a couple of mini marts and a swimming pool.

Learning to drive a motorbike and getting out on my own would open up a whole new world to me. I’d be able to pop into Ubud for a coffee, meet up with my friends without needing Made to pick me up and drop me off and drive to the supermarket whenever we ran out of bread or milk.

I’d also like to get out and about with the kids more. When Maya was going to playgroup, Made would drop her off and pick her up so I was very uninvolved – which is definitely not what I want.

However, risking my own life on a motorbike is one thing but taking my kids is another thing altogether. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel confident enough on a bike to take them, even like most Balinese kids they’ve ridden on the back of a scooter almost from birth.

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We do have a car and learning to drive it would also be an option but I’m not even considering this. I think driving a car in Bali is a million times harder than a bike and while technically safer for you, there are so many accidents involving motorbikes and cars. You really have to be looking everywhere at once and it’s totally common for bikes to be overtaking on both sides at once.

So I’ve been saying I’m going to learn pretty much from arriving here (I remember sending Made an email from Australia when I’d only been here a month saying I was going to learn as soon as I got back). I’ve had being pregnant and not being able to go out for long with a small infant as an excuse for a long time but that excuse is no longer valid.

We even bought a new bike last year that is light and easy to drive and won’t break down.

My excuses are running out. I must get on that bike. Call this my public accountability ☺

The downside of living in the tropics

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So I posted this photo on Instagram a few weeks ago when they were mosquito fogging in the village. This basically involves coming into every compound in the village with machines that pump some kind of poisonous smoke into the air that kills off the mosquitos. I was not best pleased about it at the time, as being Indonesia, I was pretty sure they were using DDT or something horribly toxic to humans as well as mozzies (and any other insects judging by the number of half-dead cockroaches that came crawling out of the drain).

I ran and shut myself inside when I heard them coming (the machines sound like lawnmowers) but it didn’t do much good as the smoke seeps in through any little crack and then is actually trapped inside so I had to go out anyway and be totally surrounded in white smog smelling of petrol. Nice. Maybe you can get an idea of my terror from the photo I snapped of the smoke starting to pour through the ventilation holes in the wall (kids were out with made, luckily).

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Anyway the purpose of this mosquito cull was to try and curb the tide of dengue fever that’s been sweeping through our village (and the rest of Bali) recently. We’ve had an unseasonably wet ‘dry season’ this year, meaning there are a lot more mosquitos around, along with all the nasty diseases they carry. Luckily malaria is very rare in Bali but there are plenty of other horrible things you can catch.

Let me tell you a little about dengue fever. You catch it from mosquitos that bite in the daytime, rather than at night. This means that most mosquito protection such as nets and spray is useless as people only use them in the evenings (yes you can use spray or lotion any time but I tend not to use it at all as I don’t want chemicals sitting on my skin every day). You can spot the mosquitos that carry dengue quite easily as they are black and white stripy.

Made’s mother was first to go with a raging headache and fever for 3 days before we took her to the hospital to get checked out. I started feeling like I was getting unwell (achey feeling and fuzzy head) and thought it was probably the start of a cold. The next afternoon and night the fever hit me as I felt freezing cold after my shower with hot water and went to bed wearing long clothes, socks, a fleece and a blanket. That night I had no idea if I was dreaming or hallucinating half the night as I was basically delirious. We no longer have a working thermometer so I don’t know how high my temperature got but high enough to make you feel like you’re tripping is pretty common.

The fever was followed by an incessant headache that paracetamol didn’t touch, nausea, lack of appetite and a constant bitter taste in my mouth that made everything taste off. There’s no treatment for dengue fever, it’s just a case of keeping fluids up and waiting it out. I constantly chugged water from the first night of fever (I actually had a raging thirst all night and was constantly thirsty) but Made’s mother ended up in hospital with dehydration.

After the fever abates is the fun stage where you can die from internal bleeding but obviously I didn’t die. Dengue destroys your blood platelets so your blood stops clotting properly and it can be dangerous to take ibuprofen or aspirin, which thins the blood. The final stage when you’re nearing recover is the rash. Oh the rash! So by this point I’m feeling ok but i’m covered head to toe in a red rash which itches like crazy. I had to take my wedding ring off because I was scratching my hands so much, all my fingers swelled up.

Oh I was feeling so sorry for myself. Plus on top of this I had the kids to look after on my own most of the day as the rest of the family were visiting meme in hospital. This was over the time of a big ceremony and poor made had to do everything himself while I let dvds babysit the kids and made advantage of free calls from Android to moan to my parents about how ill I was.

By the time you get the rash, you know the worst is over only you’re knackered and have no energy. Right on the tail of getting over the dengue I came down with a terrible stomach bug (oh by the way it also wrecks your immune system). I woke Made up in the middle of the night because I felt so terrible and he wanted to take me to hospital because apparently I’d gone completely white. I managed to fob him off until 6am when he insisted on taking me, came back with a bag of medicine and proceeded to sleep for 24 hours. No joke. Honestly I have never been so wiped out in all my life.

So there you go, that’s why I haven’t been around the last couple of weeks. Let me tell you, dengue is no joke and judging from some other accounts I’ve read, I had a very mild case of it. I’m now trying to catch up with all my work after not being able to do anything for 2 weeks and that is also no joke. I’m actually starting to feel like I’ll never catch up.

Anyway, I’m having another rethink about work as I never seem to be on top of it. I’m still working way more than i’d like and not spending as much time as I’d like with the kids. I’ve taken on a couple of interesting new writing jobs lately which involve me doing fun activities and going out and researching child-friendly things to do in Bali so I guess that will help. But i’m going to be looking at cutting things down next month – being so sick really makes your realise what’s important and I don’t want to spend every day sitting at the computer and not spending time with the kids, even if it means we’re broke forever. Once I can get our debts paid off we’ll have loads of breathing space but I think that’s a few years to come yet. Sigh.

So in other news, it is my birthday tomorrow! After several years of expecting Made to do something and being disappointed, I have come to terms with the fact that the Balinese just don’t do birthdays so I am making my own fun. Nothing spectacular but I’m planning on having a child-free day, doing no work (even though I’m miles behind) and going out for lunch with a friend. Not expecting any presents but I may treat myself to some online phone cards and a Frankie magazine :) Oh and cake of course!

We also have a fun family mini-break coming up soon, which I am very excited about!

I can’t believe I have drivelled on for 1000+ words about my tropical illness. Bet you are all riveted! Till next time :)

A simple childhood

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Work is just not happening this morning so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a bit of structured procrastination and continue my discussion about first world vs third world attitudes to money and life.

It never fails to amaze me the huge deal that is made about how much babies ‘cost’ and how everyone rushes out to spend thousands on expensive strollers, brand new clothes and other ‘must-haves’. This fairly recent article from the Guardian suggests that it costs £222,458 to raise a child to the age of 21 – 0ver £10.5k a year! Now I know that childcare isn’t usually free and there are some necessary costs in terms of clothing, food etc, but that is just ridiculous.

I know I’ve talked about this before but I was glad about living out here when I was pregnant that I wasn’t expected to buy everything on those lists that are included in every ‘preparing for baby book’ with everything from bottle warmers to baby food makers. How ridiculous. We had no cot, we had no pram, we had a cheap baby bouncer but no expensive automatic swinging contraption and I never felt for a second that our kids were deprived in any way.

Things just get worse as they get older with the pressure to buy toys, clothes and other kid junk. I’ve noticed a bit of a backlash in recent years towards this and there does seem to be an increasing trend to buy second hand clothes instead of getting everything new and focus on real play, rather than buying plastic flashing toys.

So you don’t need to be rich to raise a happy kid. On the contrary, it seems to be a trend that a lot of well-off families actually spend less quality time with their kids. Are the children impressed with the fancy clothes? I doubt it. With the fancy toys? Maybe but I’m sure they’d be just as happy with a stick and some dirt. And being on a budget forces you to be creative about the activities you do with your children. I was really inspired with Georgia’s pledge to spend nothing for a year, despite preparing for the arrival of a new baby and you don’t have to take long looking through her site to realise how happy her kids are and how they get out and about and explore and paint and do other stuff that kids should be doing. One of the major steps she took which sort of made me gasp, was getting rid of all the toys. Extreme? Maybe, but maybe not. Rather it just proves the point that anything is a toy for kids and they’re often happiest playing with things that don’t have a primary function of being a toy.

Made tells me stories of growing up in his little village in Bali which I can’t even get my head around as they are so far removed from my own experiences. Every 6 months on the Kuningan holiday, our village hosts a market on the football field next to one of the temples. This is a source of great entertainment for the kids who love shopping for new t-shirts, toys and knick knacks.

He spoke with some sadness over the fact that this event wasn’t so special for kids any more as they get so many things day to day anyway. When he was a child, he got new clothes only twice a year at this market when he was allowed to go and pick out a t-shirt. The village kids were so excited by the crowds and entertainment that they’d run around playing well into the night, whereas now they’re happier indoors playing computer games.

Another story he told me was that they had no money for toys, even a simple ball. So when Galungan came around and they slaughtered pigs for the ceremonial feasting, the village kids would blow up the pigs bladder and use it as a football, providing days of entertainment.

I’m not saying I want my kids to wear the same outfit every day for 6 months and entertain themselves playing with the internal organs of pigs but I think it’s just proof that children don’t need much to be happy.

There are a number of different world happiness indexes that are published yearly, including a few that are focused on the happiness of children. I think that the results of these surveys always need to be taken with a pinch of salt, especially when countries with extreme poverty come out on top – you need to check what data they’re using to compile their indexes, but it does provide some interesting food for thought. I found this study which seems to be a fairly well balanced view on what makes kids happy worldwide. The verdict? Family, friends and playing came out as the top three sources of happiness. No surprises there.

I think back to my own childhood and what are the most intense memories. Do I remember the clothes I wore or the toys I had? Not really (although I still have a soft spot for the magic treehouse). What I remember: picnic lunches in the garden on sunny days, yearly camping trips to France, getting to stay up late on the annual New Year’s Eve party that rotated through my parents friends, woodland walks and water fights. This is what I want for my kids, making memories, being happy, having fun. My yearning for the simple life is still pulling against my yearning for pretty things and I’m still working on balancing work with home life but we are getting there little by little.

The Sound of Silence – Nyepi, New Year in Bali

I’m writing this post on Nyepi Eve but I’m scheduling it to post tomorrow, on the day itself. Why not write it tomorrow? The traditions surrounding New Year here are unique to Bali – a day of silence where no one leaves the house, no lights or electricity are used and the island appears abandoned to all but the birds and animals that share it as their home. The TV signal is scrambled but our banjar doesn’t go as far as cutting the electric. However I’m going to try to mark the occasion by taking the opportunity to have a day off my computer until boredom wins out, at least.

I think Nyepi is probaby my favourite ceremony of them all. Hindu or not, nobody gets the chance to ignore Nyepi in Bali. The airport is closed, there are no cars on the roads, tourists are trapped in their hotels and the night is the blackest of black with a million shining stars free of pollution from electric lights and traffic fumes.

There is just something really special about taking a day off from everything and I feel so lucky to be here every time Nyepi rolls around. Another new year (1935 according to the Balinese Saka calendar), another chance for a fresh start. No distant traffic to spoil the silence and a day for the earth to exist naturally. What a great way to start the year, don’t you think?

On Nyepi eve we parade Ogoh Ogoh – effigies of demonic entities around the village and make a lot of noise to scare away any malevolent spirits. The hope is that when they return, there’ll be no sign of human life and they’ll go away to bother someone else.

Maya and Kiran were both very excited by the Ogoh Ogoh this year and have been watching them being made in the village with great excitement for weeks. I left Maya with Made after watching the parade set off and then Kiran and I returned home to bash some pots and pans and get those evil spirits out. 

nyepi9 nyepi8 nyepi6 nyepi5 nyepi4 nyepi2 nyepi1 nyepi10

Here’s to another year of life and love in Bali.

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