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Friday, 16 January 2015

Bali - our tropical paradise heaven. Snorkel till you drop!

Bali - our tropical paradise heaven! Amazing snorkelling, incredible diving, delicious food, friendly people, seaviews to die for, dances at the temple, and fresh tropical fruit and flowers growing in lush abundance everywhere.

What is there to say about a tropical paradise where the days pass in an endless orgy of swimming, snorkelling, going out for lunch, and out again for dinner, cocktails and food for next to nothing, and kids happy to learn and we happy to teach at beach school? OK, it's not an actual orgy, but it's still pretty good. Everyone knows that the only travellers' tales that are actually interesting for those back at home are the ones fraught with disaster and chaos - you were robbed by a passing group of camels who chased you at gunpoint through the desert? You lost your passports and all your money and had to walk 10 miles through sub zero temperatures as night fell over the Siberian tundra? Sheep's intestines for dinner three nights in a row? Oooh, tell me more! But tales of happiness and merriment are hard to grab interest: the eyes glaze over, the attention wanders. Understandably so. I'm afraid that from Bali we don't many terror tales of travel hell, as life was easy and life was good. The only problem is that it's over now - and I'm not sure we will ever find such a beautiful setting and such peace and contentment again.

We stayed for over a month in the Kembali Beach Bungalows in the sleepy little seaside village of Amed on the north east coast of Bali where they first saw a car in 1991 and there still aren't very many even now. It is a beautiful setting with Bali's highest volcano, Mount Agung, rising in the background of the black sand beach, with snorkelling over stunning coral populated by hundreds of brightly coloured tropical fish as soon as you step into the water. Kembali Beach Bungalows was built by a Dutch couple in 2006 on a stretch of absolute beachfront in Amed and there are 8 bungalows, a nice big pool, a restaurant for breakfast and lunch and dinner can be ordered in, and two raised huts for sitting and drinking pre-dinner beers, or post-dinner beers. Two of the bungalows have a small corridor joining them and it was this killer feature that made me book us a stay here for a month - one bungalow for me and Danny, and one bungalow for the kids with a quick escape route for Rosie to find us in the night if need be. Our bungalow had one very big four poster double bed with mossie net surround which we didn't use. The kids' bungalow had the same big bed which Rosie and Poppy shared with Poppy using the mossie net and spraying all the entrances with repellent and still getting bites, and a daybed for Joe with a muslin surround which he used to create some small concept of privacy. My mum stayed for 2 lovely weeks with her own bungalow next door with also a daybed which was used for sleepovers by the kids. All around the bungalows are lush and verdant gardens full of palm trees, banana trees, frangipani and bougainvillaea constantly maintained by the friendly staff.

The snorkelling and diving is amazing. The coral begins almost immediately you step into the water, indeed at any time except high tide you have to be careful to swim gliding over it so that you don't damage it, or have it gash you. The fish are incredibly brightly coloured with the most amazing variety of spots, stripes, rainbows, luminous colours and shapes. They also have the most terrific names, like - bicolour parrotfish, oriental sweetlips, Vlaming's unicornfish, titan triggerfish, Sergeant Majorfish, lagoon triggerfish, Orange lined triggerfish, six barre wrasse, Turkey zebrafish, peacock grouperfish, Emperor Angelfish, Seal-faced pufferfish, Moorish Idols and many many more. It's really like something out of a stunning wildlife film all around you all the time. Joe, Poppy and I have even seen sea turtles - swimming out from just under us, less than a metre away - amazing.

Amed, being a sleepy little village, also gave the kids the opportunity for some new-found freedoms. They got to walk to beach bars by themselves for lunch, and to another restaurant where the staff knew them well and looked after them for dinner. This place even had a darts board where Joe who struck up a friendship with the staff was challenged to games. (Meantime, of course, Danny and I got to go to our favourite restaurant 2 minutes walk away and enjoy an evening of free babysitting...) Poppy and Rosie got to go next door to a lovely smiley massage lady, Kadek, who doted on them and have massages from which they emerged glowing with health and glistening with oil, smiling and weakened with happiness - "Mmmmm" was all they could say. Joe got to do a full PADI open water diving course, and supplemented it with an "adventure" dives - such as a night dive, in which he floated right next to a sleeping turtle, and saw squids and octopuses and all sorts of things. Joe, Poppy and I all dived at the wreck, the US Liberty which was amazing; Poppy and I just once, Joe several times.

And then there was beach school. Life settled into a routine whereby kids got themselves up for breakfast (this was a major life change for a start), and then we had a full morning of beach school.  Danny and I would mix and match of who had which kid/ kids, and we would usually have a quick chat the night before, often with the kids, and decide who would be learning what with who. I usually took Joe for maths, Danny usually had Poppy for maths, and we would mostly take it in turns to have Rosie. We would sometimes set Joe and Poppy the same tasks, for each of them to complete at their own level - eg write a guide to Bali, or write a report on Indonesia taking into account country size, economic development, size of population etc. Sometimes we set tasks which would have monetary prizes so that they could choose souvenirs to buy from one of Amed's only two shops - for the Fish of the Reef project Poppy earned £3.50 from a maximum of £5, given in local currency. Joe earned himself another dive. Rosie also had a task to draw a person a day for a week and for each one she earned 50p - her drawing skills improved no end, and there was no problem with attitude. In general, all the kids were very very good at getting on with their beach school tasks, whether it was Joe working through his science and maths book, or Poppy reading The Secret Garden in "guided reading", and we were happy to teach, most of the time.

Then Danny and I at least, and sometimes the kids too, would snorkel / swim, either in the sea or pool or both before lunch. Then we would go out to a local restaurant for a lunch of delicious fresh juices, and delicious local fare all freshly cooked in the kitchen. Then in the afternoon there would sometimes be more beach school, but there would always be more swimimng/ snorkelling. And before the sun began to sink behind the volcano again, sending the sky into a festival of pinks and purples, there would always be pool fun time for all of us. During all these times Rosie learnt to really swim, which was a real joy to see. Poppy and Joe made diving in into an art form, and Joe even managed to teach me (who had never been able to dive before in my life) to dive, which was a real joy to me. Although somewhat saddening for the kids, I think, because they no longer could have the cheap laugh of watching me "dive" in.

And then after sunset we would all go out to dinner to another restaurant for more of the same. We would talk how about beach school went in the morning, what was planned for the next day, we would talk about where we should go tomorrow, if on a trip or just for lunch and dinner, and sometimes we would play cards after my Mum brilliantly taught the kids how to play Rummy, and I taught them how to play bezique. Sometimes we would have a Father Ted or Fawlty Towers episode treat before bed. And that's it. Repeat the next day. It was enough; it was good.

Sometimes there were other kids to play with - whether it was some kids on the beach who challenged the kids to arm wrestling matches - they beat Poppy but couldn't beat Joe - or other kids in the hotel who all had pool time fun together. But most of the time it was just the five of us and yet we didn't drive each other crazy. Of course there was the constant distraction of the sea and the pool enabling us to play together every day. There was also the almost constant distraction of wifi (except when it went down), to provide twitter for Danny, facebook for me, youtube videos for Joe, Moshi Monsters for Poppy, and an endless supply of music from spotify for Rosie. We also developed some fairly serious "firehouse syndrome" topics of conversation - a good one was asking Poppy to devise plots of films that she had never seen. Citizen Kane was a favourite of mine - she mis-remembered the title and so devised an entire film plot around a community of dogs, Canine Citizens. I also particularly liked the plot of Rambo - which involved the President's hamster, called Rambo, who grew to be the size of the Whitehouse and a major security threat.

We also befriended a group of four girls who sold trinkets on the beach after school - I bought them a writing book and set them questions and wrote them out vocabulary to try to hep improve their English. And I persuaded Rosie to part with reading books that had become too easy for her and we read them together and then I gave them the books. I hope it helped. They were very sweet and good-natured and so I was pleased that I managed to get the Dutch owner to print photos of them to give to them, which was something they had asked for. Two other girls I gave away clothes of Poppy's and Rosie's which I persuaded them to part with, both in order to have things to give away, and to lighten our carrying load, a permanent obsession of mine.

When the full moon came along, and the nights were illuminated with its pale glow, the walks along the side of the road with no pavement back from dinner were even more magical, with the crickets keeping up a constant chorus and the hot tropical night wafting past.  Sometimes after we had put the kids to bed, Danny and I would sit in the raised huts at Kembali which face straight out to sea watching the moonlight on the water and listening to the gentle sound of the sea. With the full moon came a four day long full moon festival at the local temple in the near village of Bayuslantern where so many of the staff at the hotel lived. We were lucky enough to be invited to come along to the ceremony by the driver, Kutut who was in the gamelan orchestra. We went three nights in a row - the second night we were given Balinese ceremony clothes to wear by Kutut and so we had a hope of blending in. We met many people we knew - from the staff at the hotel, the workers in the Reef Bar, the massage lady, Kadek, who briefly kidnapped Rosie and brought her over to sit with her and her friends. Rosie is our passport to everywhere - she holds such fascination for everyone here with her smallness, her blond hair and her blue eyes. But we were all welcomed by everyone at the temple - no one seemed to mind us being there at all, and the dancing girls were delighted when I took their pictures. I was delighted when Kutut suggested we put the pictures on a memory stick to give to all the people we had photographed.

It had been a dream of mine that I had often mentioned before we arrived in Bali - to rent a motorbike and zoom around being my own agent and taking kids on the back whenever the fancy took me, or them. My kids mostly, that is. So, after a few days I took the plunge and rented a bike and took Joe for a spin. Unfortunately, I had rather glossed over my memories of driving motorbikes in Vietnam and had remembered the great feeling of freedom, but forgotten the constant feeling of being out of control and an imminent danger of death. Going along was fine - it was just turning and stopping I had issues with. I brought Joe back safely, took Poppy a two minute ride to the only other shop in Amed, eventually managed to bring her back safely - after a passing stranger drove the bike back onto the road for me, and then handed back the keys with a never again shudder. So, we settled for riding on the back of competent drivers' motorbikes - much more fun, because the constant fear of death was almost entirely removed. Driving back from the temple through the hot and still beautiful tropical night dressed in our Balinese finery passing palm trees and rice paddies, with Rosie, Poppy and I and the driver all squidged on is a particular memory. Also letting Poppy and Rosie go on a motorbike to Amed's other shop on the back of the bike of one of the staff members, but on their own, is a memory they hold dear. Only in the developing world.

It is surprising how quickly you get used to waking up every day to bright blue skies and over 30 degree heat. The heat is constant and the amount of sweat produced to try to counter it is terrific. Even at night the air con shows that the temperature of the room is 30 degrees. If you take a 5 minute walk you are covered with sweat, which is why nobody does it who can avoid it. Even an hour or so doing beach school sitting calmly at a table and chairs and you find yourself entirely glistening with sweat and desperate to jump in the pool. The good news is that once the beach school is done, you can.

The wildlife of the tropics is so abundant, and so extravagant. We love especially the geckos we see everywhere, and especially the singing gecko who seems to sing out their name "gecko, gecko."  Another favourite was the loud drilling sound that Mum heard every night from her bungalow. She called security to find out what was causing it and see if they could put a stop to it. It seemed to come from the next door house and she thought maybe it was a fire alarm. Security investigated - it was a frog! It was fully agreed that there was nothing that could be done to stop it. She was very philosophical about it - even though the sound was so loud that it penetrated the latest in in-ear ear plugs!

We travelled around Bali, going to the beautiful island of Gili Air for two nights. The boat ride there was 45 minutes on a fast catarmaran. We were all looking forward to it as we climbed aboard the modern boat about to zip over the bright blue sea. Five minutes out at sea and I remembered that I always get seasick on boats, and so does Poppy. And this time so did Rosie. This was our only bit of travel hell we had on Bali - it's astonishing how long 45 minutes can be when you are throwing up and feeling as sick as a dog and just wishing, wishing, for dry land. The crew had seen the way we were all looking and so had moved us to the back of the boat (we had wrongly thought that the front of the boat would be the best place to sit) where the ride was calmer. Danny stayed at the front and narrowly managed to avoid being sick, but he did end up with his entire shirt being a different colour as it was completely soaked through with sweat, because the other disadvantage of the front was that it was so hot that it was pretty much like the Black Hole of Calcutta. But it was worth it to get to Gili Air.

A completely beautiful tiny island with white sand beaches all around with coral lying about 20 feet away from the shore, crystal clear turquoise waters, only horses and carts and bicycles for transport. We bicycled around the island on the sandy tracks towards sunset time watching a deep red glowing sun sink into the almost luminous sea. We stayed at the superb Manta Dive (from which we still have the hotel key, oh dear) and ate almost all our meals at its Waterfront restaurant which served delicious food from its raised huts sitting right on the beach looking out at the crystal waters and the dark green mountains of Lombok beyond. Joe did his night dive here - he was the only kid and nobody else on the boat thought he had come to dive, they assumed he had to tag along with his parents and was merely an onlooker. Little did they know he has spent 7 hours at the bottom of the sea now.

We were sad to leave Gili Air, partly because it was so beautiful, and mostly because we knew the only way to go was back on that accursed boat.. We got on, puke bags at the ready, with trepidation in our step and fear in our hearts. Rosie was hoiked up on the roof again, by a helpful stranger, and then we grabbed the back seats, Poppy sitting next to a nice chatty chap, who turned out to be a teacher from Lombok who had come to Gili for a day trip out, and then we were off. First stop Lombok. A quick jaunt across the straits, watching Gili Air disappear into the distance, and we arrived at Lombok harbour. Palm trees all around, and the Lombok chap got off and I took his place, sitting next to Poppy sideways on at the very back of the boat. Now for the real trip, the 45 mins of, what would it be? - boat heaven, or boat hell?! The sea was as smooth as regal icing, and we were sat in the right seats, and the boat trip was ...wonderful! This was what I had in mind when I had booked this boat trip - travelling again, zipping along the deep blue sea, leaving foreign lands to travel to other foreign lands, the sound of the ocean in my ears and salt spray on my lips - heaven. Just before we got off, a French chap who had been taking many photos of the receding Gilis and Lomboks, and the spray the boat created, talked to us - he had heard us say to the Lombok teacher about our year's trip, and wanted to say how cool he thought it was. Thanks! - at times like this I think so too.

We also travelled to the mountains in the middle of Bali - a little town called Bedugul surrounded by lakes and waterfalls and planted with all the crops of the island. Bedugul is a small town with a big Muslim population, but from what we saw, and from what our driver Ayat said, everyone seems to get along. Bedugul is 1,000 metres high but only a 45 minute drive from the seaside town of Lovina - in only 45 minutes you go from constant hot, sweaty, tropical heat to cool English-like summer days in the day time, to cool, cool evenings all year round. It's an astonishing difference. In Lovina we stayed 2 nights - just in hope of seeing dolphins in the sea. On the first morning we hired a boat at 8am to go out to sea to try to see them but no luck. Just sunburn instead. On the second morning we hired a boat at 6am resulting in less sunburn and ... more dolphins! It was wonderful to see them coursing through the water, curving and rising out of it, their dark sleek bodies moving so fast through the water and so close to our boat. Mission accomplished that same day we took the 45 minute drive up to the cool of Bedugul. The kids were ecstatic with the climate! Joe rejoiced in being able to wear long sleeves and long trousers, and actively jumped for joy in the rain!

He had plenty of opportunity to jump for joy because it rained every day we were in Bedugul - such a novelty! Sometimes it was grey drizzle of the real Lake District type, with low grey clouds entirely covering the not so English volcano behind the town, and sometimes it was absolute torrential lashing rain, also very reminiscent of the Lake District! One of the days we went down to the lake and decided, while it was drizzling, to take a rowing boat out. Once upon the grey lake, the drizzle turned to downpour and Danny and Joe had to row for home at great speed while Rosie cowered into me to try to keep somewhat dry. The rain set in then for the rest of the day - we retired to the hotel for a nice hot bath (ahhhhh! - haven't had a bath since Athens!!) and an afternoon in. Very like the Lake District. The kids haven't had any telly since Switzerland!! and so they were thrilled beyond belief to be able to sit down to watch some mindless cartoons and somewhat unsuitable films.

In Bedugul we stayed at the lovely Strawberry Hill Hotel which was built 40 years ago by an English- Balinese couple (he English, she Balinese). They are still going strong as is their wonderful hotel composed of "mountain cabins" each with bath (did I already mention how great the bath was?), beds and verandah, a restaurant with a real fire to keep out the evening chill, and rows and rows of strawberries in the garden available for guests to pick, alongside astonishingly bright and verdant tropical flowers. Their hotel is clearly a destination hotel for the town and draws in many local tourist up for the weekend from the heat of Denpasar.

On the way to Bedugul we went to the Gitgit waterfall - a vast 20 metre plunging torrent of water, but which empties into a small safe pool. Rosie paddled in the shallows while the rest of us changed into our swimmies and plunged in - wow! It was cooler than the swimming pools or the sea, but not as cold as a Lake District waterfall would have been, and it was wonderfully exhilarating! Then on the way from Bedugul to our next port of call, the busy seaside town of Sanur which we stayed 3 nights in and found to be rather too busy for us, and so we curtailed our planned time there in order to come back to Kembali a day early, we went to another waterfall, the Munduk waterfall. Danny and I were the only ones brave to back into this torrent. And we also visited the hot springs of Banjar. The water was rather too bright green for Danny, who suspected it of being not entirely clean, but we all went in nevertheless. A big pool for swimming, a smaller, hotter pool complete with spouting animals, and a very small pool with torrents of water pouring in which gave the most tremendous back massage.

When driving around the island you are struck by how many temples there are at every moment - whether they are communal village temples, like the one we were invited to the full moon ceremony, or private family temples, or just small shrines for each restaurant, house, market. And every night and morning the people put out offerings of woven bamboo and rice for the Gods - we spent a morning making some at a local place, and found that they are all made out of natural materials, and made by everybody, every day. I guess it is this adhesion to their own particular religion, and the fixation of it on all things natural, that makes Bali so unique. It is also the scenery of the island - the lush, bright green rice fields with mountains behind so thickly forested with palm trees, pineapple trees, mango trees and the high volcanoes that give Bali the rain and keep everything lush. Of course, with development the island must change -too much of the population still live in shacks. The infrastructure of the island is not terrible - the roads are mostly in reasonable shape, and all the mountain ones we went on have good recent surfaces. Many new developments are reasonably sensitive to the surroundings - retaining the red tiled rooves of traditional Balinese architecture, but on many roads, big concrete buildings are being thrown up with little or no regard to their environments. The other pressing problem facing Bali in my view is gaining control of its rubbish - too many river beds and street corners have vast quantities of rubbish just chucked there in a great heap many feet long. I hope that when I next come to Bali along with the inevitable development I hope there will be an improvement, not worsening, of this situation.

When my lovely mum was with us we also took a trip to a water palace called Tirta Gangga. This is a site which looks old but was actually built in 1948.  We weren't expecting much - the way the Lonely Planet guide that I had borrowed from (20 years old, even though it was not the first edition!) described it made it sound like it was barely worth a visit. But in fact it was terrific! There were pools and statues and twirly bridges everywhere - the first pool was full of great golden carp which we fed, and stepping stones leading you on paths between the statues and around the fish. What fun! There were great spouting creatures disgorging fresh cool water into pools and rushing streams. The site is based around a natural spring and so the water is cool from the high mountains of the island.

And then there were the pools for swimming in, and they were  - ahhhhhh! We changed in the changing rooms and then all got ready for the dip - for the first time in so long we had to brace ourselves to get into water that wasn't tropical hot, instead it was deliccccciously cool. Ahh! And what a view from our swim - with a pagoada like water fountain ahead of us, banana leaves with exotic red flowers to the side of us, and the pool surrounded by cool grey stone and statues of dragons and other creatures. It was perfectly wonderful.

After we had all had a goodly long swim we walked around all the pools to the restaurant with a gorgeous view of all of the pools and ate a meal in the shady cool to the sound of piped Balinese bamboo xylophones and birdsong.

After my mum had left we made another trip, to another nearby wreck - this one is so close to the surface of the water that it is perfect to snorkel around. It was a short drive along the coast in Kutut's comfy cool car and then we arrived at the beach and settled down in a restaurant and ordered drinks to pay for our keep. Poppy and I went snorkelling first - it was amazing! Such a fabulous amount of coral with such a vast number of fish all around it, and so very close to the surface that you could see just everything by only snorkelling. It did help that it was very very low tide at the time. But wow! So then Danny went in, then Joe and everyone agreed it was pretty sensational. So then Danny and I took Rosie and and she absolutely loved it too! A great success.

But most of the time we didn't go on trips, we were just here at Kembali in Amed, our tropical paradise. Bananas growing on the trees by the side of the road, palm trees stretching up to the hills behind, chickens running about in every front and back yard, and always the sea, the sea, so full of incredible coral and fish just at our feet. I think this may be true heaven on earth. How ever shall we cope with the big city that is Sydney next?

You know life is good when your husband says to you "Hey, this is the life isn't it." But you know life has got really good when your 12 year old son, not known for coming forward with information on his emotions says "Hey, this is the life isn't it." And it was.

Beautiful Amed

And neighbouring Jemeluk

Stunning Gili Air

Beautiful Balinese boys at the temple

And gorgeous Balinese girls at the temple

Gran on a bike! Definitely not an aged p

Dancing girls dressed up in stunning costumes

Joe on the beach

Rosie with offerings we had made

Danny in a hat, on a boat

Yours truly, different hat, same boat

The kids and my mum

Poppy in the sunshine

 A birthday celebration to remember! In the wonderful Reef Bar

Rosie on Jemeluk beach

Now that's what I call a shower! The wonderful Gitgit waterfalls

Beautiful Tirta Gangga

The Kembali gang!

A shower made for two.

The very green hot springs at Bajar

Beautiful Kembali Beach bungalows

Beautiful Bali, we will always remember you