Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How You Know It's Time to Go Home

It’s not Bali’s fault.  To be fair, it didn’t have much of a chance at success.  For one thing, even though our fancy Sanur beach resort was supposed to be our last stop before going back to the place we’ve now come to call “Tea Party Nut-Job Land,” because of a weird series of events involving Filipino pirates, orangutans, and sea shells in the shape of John the Baptist’s left buttock, we ended up spending five days in Malaysia at a fancy beach resort there.  Two weeks of crazy travel ending in a beach resort equals really cool vacation.   One week of crazy travel ending in a beach resort and then going to another beach resort equals—well—anti-climax. 

Then there’s the fact that when we first showed up in the Bali we stayed in Ubud, which is arguably the coolest town in pretty much anywhere.  Years from now when I think back to Ubud, I’ll remember circles of men at the fire dance chanting words from an ancient play, a busy street full of markets and laughing women, restaurants where they greet you with scented towels fresh out of the cooler, and waking up in the morning to find monkeys on our porch, searching for food.

Okay, so the monkeys were a little scary—I mean, they’re cute from a distance, but when they’re chasing your six-year-old daughter with bared teeth, the charm sort of wears off. 

But even so:  Ubud was awesome.  Our hotel was surrounded by rice paddies and had a little open-air swimming pool full of cold cold water.   The people were gracious and kind, there was music everywhere we went.  We loved Ubud.

So Bali—or at least our beach hotel in Sanur—didn’t have much of a chance.

Of course, they didn’t do themselves any favors. 

“We’ve given you an upgrade,” the hotel clerk said as we checked in.

“I love you,” I replied.

He looked at me, a little startled.  I smiled.  He frowned. 

“Um,” I said, “Have you met my kids?”  I gestured toward the far end of the open-air lobby where Lucy was doing cart-wheels, Jamie was head-butting Will, and Will was trying to read something involving dragons and boy geniuses. 

I expected this would ease the tension some, but his frowned deepened. 

“Um,” I said, “and my lovely wife?”

The clerk nodded at Ellen, then said something in rapid Balinese to the concierge.  The other man answered back, then rose from his desk and came over to the counter.  The two of them chatted back and forth for a minute, then the concierge gestured toward the kids. 

“These are your children?”

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but despite the concierge’s attempt at a warming smile, I could tell there was a problem.

“Please,” he said, and nodded toward his desk.  I followed him over.

“You have been given an upgrade,” he said.

“That’s very nice.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are rules in The Club.”

“The huh?”

“The Club,” he said, and started typing at his computer. 

Turns out a lot of fancy hotels have a “club” section, an area reserved for special customers.  Sometimes this section has its own pool, sometimes it has a special bar.  Generally the rooms are substantially nicer.  What exactly makes the customers “special” varies from resort to resort, but at our Sanur hotel, that special features was—

“Excuse me?” I said to the concierge.  “I’m not sure I heard you right.”

“No kids,” he repeated.

I looked at him.  He was busily typing away, eyes intent on his screen.  He didn’t seem to be joking.  Then I turned a looked at my kids.  Lucy was still doing cartwheels, flashing her bright-pink designer bloomers (“Francie-pants”—look them up on-line), Will had given up on his book and was strolling the lobby fingering the objet-d’arts on display, each of which stood over a small cardboard sign that said, “Do Not Touch.”  Jamie was—well, I’m not sure, but it looked like he was digging through the garbage.

I turned back to the concierge.  “No kids?” I said.  “Really?”

I’ll admit he was very nice.  He explained that The Club area was set up for couples on their honeymoon, older folks looking for a quiet get-a-way, and other people who generally hated kids. 

“But didn’t you know we had kids?” I asked.

He shook his head, still typing. “Your reservation said ‘Mr. and Mrs.”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “But we also asked for two rooms.”

“But all it said was ‘Mr. and Mrs.’”

“Two rooms, for five people.  Who did you think the other three people were?”

“’Mr. and Mrs.’”

I gritted my teeth.  He kept tapping.  What was he doing, filing his tax returns?  I wondered for a minute if maybe he, too, had a blog, if maybe his was called “Why Kids Suck.blogspot.Com,” or maybe, “Stupid White Men Who Are Even Dumber Than Most of the Other Stupid White” 

In the end, he was forced to compromise.  Since no other rooms were available, we were “allowed” to stay in The Club for one night.  After that, our “up-grade” would be down-graded and we’d be thrown into some rat-hole with the rest of the breeder riff-raff.   As if that weren’t bad enough, for our one night n that Shangri-La they, we were warned to keep the kids very very quiet.

“So as not to disturb the other guests,” the concierge informed me.

“Sure,” I said.  “We wouldn’t want to annoy any guests now, would we?”

As we followed the bell-boy along a palm-lined path, I turned to Ellen.  “I knew I should’ve brought some fire-crackers.”

“The annoying thing,” she said, “is that they clearly upgraded us because they were over-booked.  It was their mistake to begin with.”

Which is true enough.  And it’s also true enough that when Ellen makes a comment like that, things are seriously out of whack.  Ellen is, after all, the kind and gracious half of our dysfunctional little marriage, and seldom has a mean word to say about anyone or anything.

The Club rooms were gorgeous, with a capital “GORG”:  tiled floors, high ceilings, plush beds, big balconies overlooking a terraced series of cool blue swimming pools (forbidden to the children of course).  In short, pretty much the nicest room we’d had during our travels in Asia. 

“Hey!” Lucy said, when she noticed the big French doors.  “Look!  A balcony!”

“Balcony!” roared Jamie.

“Noooooooooooo!!!!!!” Ellen and I hollered simultaneously, leaping across the room and slamming the doors shut just as the two of them, followed by Will, were about to head into the open air, hurling kiddy cooties and noise pollution before them like Pig-Pen at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. 

The kids just stared at us, frozen in their tracks.

“No,” I said, just to make sure they’d gotten the point. 

They continued to stare, trying to cipher why their parents were being even more bizarre than usual. 

“You can’t go out there,” Ellen said. 

“Why not?” Will asked.

“Because—“ I said, then couldn’t figure out how to explain it.  “Because you can’t.”

“Why not?”  This time it was Lucy. 

“Because,” Ellen said, “children aren’t allowed out on the balcony.”

The three of them took a moment to digest this, and then Jamie—who learns quickly, particularly when it’s something his parents would rather he didn’t—said, “Why not?”

“Because,” I told him, “this is the place that hates children.”


Okay, so that’s overstating it a little.  But just a little.  The resort—or at least The Club portion—definitely had a bit of a Vulgaria feel—the land from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where kids are illegal—as though kids were not just forbidden, but hunted down, bagged, tagged, and fried with onions.  It wasn’t just that you couldn’t hear the sound of children, laughing, splashing, farting with their armpits.  You couldn’t hear anything.  There was no noise.  Anywhere.

“Weird,” said Ellen, coming out of one of the bathrooms. 


She held up a hairdryer.  “The instructions are in German.”


She shrugged.  “The signs in the lobby.  They were in German too.”

We looked at each other.  “Now that I think of it,” Ellen went on after a moment, “the guide book did say this side of the peninsula was sort of reserved for German and Austrian retirees.”

I frowned.  “Really?”  I’d always imagined Bali as a kind of laid-back, free swinging place, sort of an Indonesian Jamaica, minus the dreadlocks and that really bad movie about the guys with the bobsled.  After a year in Hong Kong, where every building, every bus, every public toilet almost disappears under a shingling of signs forbidding this or that behavior (Bouncing a ball is illegal?  Really?), Bali seemed like welcome relief.  Now though, I pictured a parade of sun-dried geriatric Germans parading by my chaise lounge in string bikinis and sling-shot Speedos, frowning in that Hessian way because my children were breathing too loud. 

“Maybe we should switch hotels,” I said. “What’s on the other side of the peninsula?”

“Drunken Aussie college students.”

“Then again . . .”


Dinner didn’t help.  It was already late, so instead of our usual routine of wandering the streets until we found something that looked good, cheap, or both, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant and make an early night of it.  We knew this would cost us, but it seemed the best option at the time.  Besides, we reasoned, hotel restaurants are usually very nice.

And this one was too.  Sort of.  Right next to the beach, it featured a long tent-like structure under the swaying palms.  The only problem was that it was breezy, so they’d lowered a series of thick plastic sheets to block the wind.  Which would have been okay, had the plastic not been so sand-blasted and scarred as to be opaque, making you feel as though you were sitting in a styrofoam cup.  We could hear the surf, sure.  But see it?  No way.

The food was okay though, and not overly expensive, particularly as we made the children share a pizza.  Between the protein and the wine, we were feeling a little better, a little less cranky.  Then Ellen stopped mid-conversation and stared.  I looked at her, waiting for her to continue, but she didn’t.  Finally, I followed her gaze.

Across the sidewalk, back toward the main body of the hotel, stood two huge—I dunno—gryphon-dragon-phoenix-type thingies, their green figures shining in the glare of two ground-level spotlights.  I’d noticed them earlier, but hadn’t spent any real time thinking about them.  Now, though, Ellen couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of them.

“What?” I said. 

A rueful smile creased her face.

“What?” I said again. 

“Look,” she said.  “Look carefully.”

I did.  Two winged dragons, dark green with gold and red trim, highlighted by halogens.  I looked back at Ellen. 

“I don’t get it.”

She was still smiling, or maybe it was more of a grimace, it was hard to tell in the refracted light of our particular styrofoam cup. 

“Can’t you tell?” she said.

I looked again, more carefully this time.

“They’re facing the hotel,” she said.  Away from us.”

And then I got it.  All night I’d been looking at the dragons the wrong way, thinking they were direct toward us.  And I couldn’t understand why their faces were so peculiar, why their eyes seemed so strange, why their mouths were pursed like that.  Now that Ellen pointed it out, though, I understood that what I’d thought were their shoulders were actually their haunches, that what I’d assumed were eyes were just decorative paintings on their hind quarters.  And what I’d thought were their mouths were . . . well . . .

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s the largest sphincter I’ve ever seen.”

And detailed, too.  Elaborately so.  As we could tell, even from ten feet away, because—you know—of the two very bright spotlights shining right at them. 


This isn’t to say that Bali was bad.  It wasn’t.  Every where we went their were palm trees and rice paddies and sandy beaches.  Stormy-faced god and goddess statues stood on every corner, and the Balinese had decorated them all in white and black plaid skirts and golden sashes.  Below each---and sometimes in random trees or along fences—folks had left hand-size baskets woven of palm fronds and filled with rice, flowers, and burning incense:  offerings to the gods for good luck. 

So Bali wasn’t bad. 

But we were.  We were tired—tired of traveling, tired of hotels, tired of restaurant food.  The kids were tired of being away from their own beds, tired of not being able to play with their friends, tired of having to get breakfast at a buffet every morning.  Ellen and I were tired of them fighting over which channel to watch as we took our morning showers, and tired of walking past dusty market stalls and having folks try to sell us stuff. 

Indeed, we were sick of stuff, which is saying something.  Whereas we’d spent roughly 80% of our waking hours in China and Vietnam buying artsy little crapola for our friends and family back home, in Bali we could barely focus our eyes on any of the beautiful wood carvings, woven placemats, or shell necklaces. 

The one exception to this rule were the prominently displayed carved wooden penises that seemed to be everywhere—and I do mean everywhere:  we must have seen 10,000 of these things in 4 days.  Ranging in size from infantile to gia-normous, they were nearly as detailed as the dragon butts.  Some of them were attached to bottle openers or carved ashtrays, but most of them were just, well, standing there, if you know what I mean.

“What’s the deal?” I said.

Ellen just rolled her eyes.

“I’m serious,” I said.  “We haven’t seen anything like this anywhere.  Why Bali?”

I’m sure we could have found out easily enough—by asking someone, or even cracking open the index to our guide books and looking under, I don’t know, “weird willie obsession”—but we just couldn’t be bothered. 

None of which is to say that we didn’t have any fun.  We did.  We spent three or four hours a day in the hotel pool, frolicking with the kids and thanking god that most of the Germans were wearing one-pieces.  We wandered up the beach some, taking in the parasailors and brightly-painted fishing boats. 

We had some good food.  There was a nice English-style pub down the road from our hotel, and hotel itself had a breakfast buffet that included—I’m not making this up—chocolate-covered strawberry and banana pancakes.  

And right outside our down-graded up-graded hotel room—which was, I must say, a dump—stood a beautiful straw-roofed pagoda surrounded by a cool dark goldfish pond.  It—the pagoda—was carpeted with woven straw mats and triangular pillows that you could lean against as you read, or chatted, or napped.  I love watching goldfish, and I love the smell of straw, so this place quickly became one of my favorite spots on earth. 

So we did enjoy ourselves.  Really we did.  And eventually we even stopped referring to our hotel as “The place that hates kids.”


But . . .

I don’t know what it was.  Maybe it was just that we’d seen one crazy nice hotel, one crazy nice beach, one crazy nice country too many.

Maybe it was just that we were tired—two-and-a-half weeks on the road is a long time, especially with three kids who think that having an raspberry contest in a the middle of a fancy restaurant is an appropriate way to pass the time.

Or maybe we were just ready to get home—home home, in Virginia, not Hong Kong.  Ready to get back to our own beds, our own toys, our own friends.

Or maybe it’s not that we wanted to go, but that it was time to go, whether we wanted to or not.  Because maybe when you’re sick of these things—the hotels, the beaches, the people, the food, the countries—maybe when you have to struggle even to notice these things, to not feel blasé about them—maybe then it’s just time to get out of Dodge, whether you want to or not.

I don’t know. 

What I do know is that we’ll go back to Bali someday.  Simply put, we haven’t done this country justice:  we need a good two, three weeks to roam the entire island, get out of the tourist areas, sample more of the food, really see the people, really try and understand the place (and their weird obsession with willies).  Our last morning there, an elderly Frenchman came over and tried to play with Will and me (don’t ask).  Anyhow, once I’d determined he wasn’t a child molester, he seemed friendly enough and we got to talking about our countries and our travels.  And he told Ellen and I about this amazing place, way up in the hills of Bali, were there were no tourists, no airplanes, no jet skis and souvenir shops—“Just,” he said, and then gestured with his hands and looked up at the sky, “just—stars.”

So yeah, we’re going back there.  I know that for sure.

And then there’s this:  after our last morning at the resort, after we’d stuffed our faces with banana-chocolate-strawberry pancakes and swum in the pool one last time, after we’d packed our bags and knelt to look under the bed, after we’d paid our bill and left a nice tip for the help (including our favorite concierge), I took a minute and wandered out of the room and across the path to the big pagoda surrounded by a fish pond. 

Settling on the straw mat, I inhaled that dry-grass smell one last time, wondering if I’d ever be here again.  Below me, dozens of brightly colored fish curved and slid through the dark water.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the big surprises for me in Asia is how I’ve come to love these fish.  I love their colors, their bulk, love the way that muscularity glides through the water—so silent, so graceful.  So peaceful.  You can be anywhere in Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui on the peninsula or even in Central, at some restaurant full of noise and heat and waiters hustling by with steaming trays of dim sum—you can be at one of those restaurants and have to go to the bathroom, and follow a hall toward the back that takes you to an open-air sink and men’s on the left and women’s on the right, and there, right there in the middle of this massive city in this busy region on this gigantic continent—

--right there you’ll find a small pond with a tiny fountain in it and a dozen orange and black fish sliding back and forth in crystal water.

And you’ll breath deeper.  And longer.  And your pulse will slow—and you’ll just know that you’ve added three years to your life.

So now, sitting in Bali on that open-air pagoda, I watch these fish and breath deep and feel the anticipatory stresses of packing and travel leave my chest.  I watch as the red and blacks slip past the oranges, as the pure whites glide by the red and whites.  A giant black one slips out from the shadows and makes his way back and forth among the rest.  He’s huge, maybe five or six times the size of the rest of them, so big he takes your breath away.

 “Big dumb fish,” I say, “don’t you know you don’t belong here?”

I watch him for a while, observe the way he seems never to touch the other fish though he passes them so closely, indeed, seems to disturb their patterns, their swirls of motion. Where did he come from? I wonder.  Why is he so big?  Is he cruel?  Do the others fear him?  Might he not actually feed on them every once in a while?

These are silly questions, I know.  A friend of mine once told me that fish memories only retain information for three seconds.  “Hey look,” said my friend, imitating the large grouper we were admiring in a restaurant tank.  “A castle.”  Then—seconds later—he did it again: “Hey, look!  A castle.”

Which would be a miserable life, of course:  who wants to live with no past, no moments, only the now? 

But then again, I suppose, there are times when such an approach is good, when it’s best to live in where you are right now, not thinking about your next move or mistakes you’ve made or whether or not this hotel or that beach is as good as the last one you were at.

Maybe.  I don’t know.  But I stay there as long as I can, resting on that woven mat, shaded from the warm Bali sun by that straw roof, watching those gorgeous, muscular fish gliding back and forth, their colors flashing in the afternoon light.  And most of all, I watch that big black fish—that giant black fish, so anomalous, so unnecessary—drifting in and out, searching, restless—until he disappears into the shadows as though never there at all. 

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