Requiem for a family holiday in Bali

Oh Bali.

You are gamelan wafting on the late afternoon breeze. You are a hawker selling honey from a bucket still buzzing with bees. You are the offerings that contain incense sticks, a shot of coffee, three wrapped sweets, a small bag of blood, some biscuits, and a cigarette, because Made says, “My God likes a smoke in the morning”. You are condoms in the Circle K mini mart called Oh Sutra! You are all the meals I bought for my toddler, which he refused to eat. You are cheeky kids throwing a line in for fish pond koi. You are a chicken perched on the front step of a Ralph Lauren outlet store.

You are dirty beaches. You are a gigantic statue of a man riding an elephant-fish (or is it a fish-elephant?) You are my son, issuing a volcanic vomit over an entire restaurant table after a “mixed juice”. You are my daughter getting the paparazzi treatment from Chinese tourists on an Ubud street. You are frangipanis under a burning sun. You are coconut husks drying on a string. You are $12 massages and delicious chicken on lemongrass skewers. You are my sister-in-law inventing games in the swimming pool. You are a hive of Balinese men and women doing secret temple business, sorting rice, butchering pigs, and folding banana leaves. You are my two-year-old learning to speak Bahasa better than the rest of us, all bagus and baik baik and tema-cussy.

You are banana pancakes for breakfast. You are luxury villas with struggling septic systems. You are street side vendors selling Bintang singlets. You are the people who buy them. You are fried chicken restaurants called “JFC” and “Ayam Pop”. You are greasy mie goreng. You are the neighbourhood-owned skateboard, carved entirely out of wood. You are Little Tea moving only at two speeds: running or being carried. You are my brother staring at his daughter with a look of the purest delight (and just a touch of Bali belly). You are a basket overflowing with pineapples. You are a family of five on a scooter with no helmets. You are fish steamed in banana leaves. You are painstakingly intricate textiles from all corners of Indonesia, Sulawesi and Aceh and Yogyakarta, and you are cheap, polyester sarongs imported from Taiwan. You are gelato in the flavours of salak and durian and soursop. You are my little boy asking for the fiftieth time, “Where’s Ketut?” You are my daughter eye-gouging her cousin and stealing all her toys. You are a shop window displaying bikinis available in either Xena Warrior princess chain mail or raw hide brown pleather.  You are teak joglos with woven palm frond doors. You are the dubious tap water that my kids insist on drinking in great mouthfuls. You are toddler tantrums in the middle of the street.

Etched in the cement, “When I follow my heart, I wake up in Bali”…

You are precarious electrical wires and open sewers and a wheelbarrow fixed with reflective foil and a piece of string. You are noodle carts and sate vendors set up on the edge of the sand dunes. You are stone statues under tassled silk umbrellas. You are a delicious cafe breakfast with a side of exhaust fumes. You are a Royal Wedding Eleganza Extravaganza, with teenage boys in formal wedding make up and old ladies gussied up in their best polyester lace. You are rutting roosters. You are the backpacker set dressed like the cast of Friends, all jean shorts (jorts?) and bandanas and straight legged pants. You are the duck with the mullet, who bursts into a restaurant expecting to be fed (and he is).

You are the shit from the duck, which covers Little Tea’s feet and coats my dress when I pick him up. You are the same shit that then rubs from my lap onto Baby Tea before I’ve noticed what happened, thus sending me back to our accommodation to change my dress and the babe, all the better for her to throw up on me again.

You are the rice paddies gleaming in half-cut morning light. You are the construction site my son has mistaken for a sandpit. You are the stalls selling penis bottle openers in all sizes and states of erection. You are a beach walk punctuated with copulating monkeys. You are the Malaysian tourists at the airport who generously share their sweets with Little Tea even though he spits those lurid pink biscuits straight into my hand. You are the book Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, which we read about fifty gajillion times. You are the petrol sold street-side in glass bottles.

You are ornate doors. You are temples on every corner. You are the chicken that crossed the road. You are the chicken that…didn’t. You are my toddler watching so much Thomas the Tank Engine on our IPad that Mr Tea says “That IPad is like cocaine”, and Little Tea says without even looking up, “No, I don’t like cocaine, I just like the IPad.”

You are warungs made colourful with plastic packets of food in all shades of the rainbow. You are the drivers who step out of cars on one lane streets to move motorbikes so they can continue driving. You are wizened backpackers covered in coconut oil on rented banana lounges, pretending that the sand isn’t burning and the sea isn’t filled with plastic. You are the airport security officers who wave us straight through the shortest queue. You are the highest flying kite, the one made from two garbage bags and string wrapped around an old can of Lift.

You are all of these things and, of course, you are none of these things, none of them at all.

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Have child, will travel

I’m a mum now. It’s never so obvious as when I pack my hand luggage for our trip to Bali. Oh, and when the obstetrician put a purple splay of limbs on my chest after 14 hours of labour and said, here’s something that will prevent you from sleeping, ever, ever again. Deal with that as best you can. But yeah, apart from that, definitely the hand luggage. In goes: ten nappies, three spew cloths, a baby sleeping bag, one packet of wipes, a handful of plastic bags, two rattles, an industrial sized bottle of hand sanitiser, a breastfeeding pillow and an artisanal rubber giraffe called “Sophie”. The backpack is stuffed to zipper-popping proportions and none of the stuffing is for me. In the end, I manage to squeeze in a kindle and a set of head phones for myself. And my passport. I remember a meme I saw wandering around the internet before I gave birth:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

I remind myself of that annoying piece of interweb trite as I caress my laptop lovingly before moving it from the “to be packed” pile and placing it under a mess of t-shirts in my cupboard so no robbers will ever find it. Stupid, sacrificing, self-flagellating motherhood. Give me my goddamned pie. And Microsoft Word. And the second season of The Americans. But it’s not all bad, I guess. We’re going to Bali for a family holiday – Me, Mr Tea and Baby Tea, who is now six and a half months and teething like a rabid dog. And who’s got time for laptopping anyway?

A word on Bali, especially for the postgraduate, single origin coffee drinkers amongst you. When I lived Down South, no one went to Bali for holidays. Well, sure, some people did, but as far as I was concerned they were mostly sports teams who wanted to drink their body weight in booze and, occasionally, each other’s urine. In a close-minded sweep, of the kind that we love to do in Australia where we assume that other countries exist purely as our playground and have no intrinsic value as a nation or to their locals, I reserved the entire island of Bali for footy bogans and their relatives on extended family holidays, especially if they liked getting their hair braided and having a squawking Kids Club nearby. And why would you lie about by an artificial pool, drinking lurid cocktails and watch other people’s kids savage each other with pool noodles anyway? No, I was going off to eat hot pot in Chengdu, to get diarrhea while trekking the Thai-Burmese border, to go to South Pacific islands without paved roads or green vegetables. It was the traveler’s life for me, by gum.

But when I moved to Darwin, I was forced to rethink my holiday prejudices. Of course, Territorians can still play bogan in Bali as well (if not better) than the rest of Australia. We like a wind chime and a knock off watch as much as the next punter. Many of us dress our toddlers in Bintang singlets and when the question is posed on local social media pages as to whether “midget boxing is a laugh worth seeing?” – there are plenty of compatriots who can (and will) answer, mostly in the affirmative. But the flight to Bali is only two and a half hours away – significantly shorter (and ridiculously cheaper) than grabbing a plane to Melbourne or Sydney. Also I worked full time now. That whole lying by the pool thing had more charm. And the Darwin old hands showed me another side to the Bali holiday equation. They had beautiful Balinese furniture in their homes; they spoke of yoga retreats and cooking courses and charming men called Ketut and Nyoman who could usher one across the island to mystical temples and boutique homestays. It wasn’t all Kuta, beer and skittles, they said. Ubud. Sideman. Amed. Lovina. Nusa Lembongan. Lombok.

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Anyway, I began making a regular pilgrimage to Bali, ostensibly to do yoga but really to read books on a day bed. I’d stay in Ubud, wandering rice paddies and photographing doors and attempting to eat, pray and love, but mostly just eating. On one of my wanderings, I met a woman who’d just come back from the Gili Islands. Gili Air, she said, was magic. Palm trees, white beaches, no cars. Overlooked the island of Lombok. And she’d stayed in a place owned by Nigel from UB40. What a character, she chortled!

I came of age to UB40. When I started watching Rage in the late ‘80s, it was all “Kingston Town”, ad nauseum. The lyrics are as good as I remember:

And when I am king,
surely I would need a queen
And a palace and everything, yeah

UB40 was also the soundtrack to my year in Tonga. You could walk along the main road in Nuku’alofa and listen to “Red, Red Wine” just through the speakers of passing cars, all tuned to the same radio station. You couldn’t buy much in the way of red wine down town, but you could slow jam to it all you wanted, along with Eminem, Kelis and a particularly ubiquitous Pacifica remix of “Who Let the Dogs Out.

And now Bali had discovered my soft spot. Forget white sand and beach front cocktails. There was a chance to meet Nigel from UB40? I made my calls and got on a fast boat. After a slightly sickening trip across, I got off at Gili Trawangan to a sea of bronzed backpackers frolicking in the water. I could wait for an interisland boat to Gili Air, they said, or Nigel himself was just around the corner grabbing supplies and could give me a lift if I stuck around for another hour. So I did. And Nigel picked me up, tattooed and mouthy, with an accent that came straight out of an Essex pub.

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I was beside myself with excitement. And when he offered to buy me a gin and tonic after we rolled out of the outrigger canoe on the nicest stretch of white sand on the island, I rolled up my sleeves with anticipation. Ready for him to confide all the stories from the road, the time he played pool with Mick Jagger, the process they went through to give “Can’t help falling in love with you” a reggae make over, whether Ali Campbell and Maxi Priest ever got into fisticuffs. But Nigel just wanted to talk shop: the resort, the website, how hard it was to get good help around here, etc. I was disappointed but I didn’t want to be uncool. I didn’t push it. If Nigel wanted to forget his days at the helm of UB40, well, that was up to him.

There wasn’t any Wi-Fi to be had on the island in those days, but I checked Wikipedia when I got home. No mention of a Nigel in UB40.

Anyway, such were my previous Bali hijinks. And these are the things you can do, travelling without a baby! Restaurant hop, snorkel, chase down never-were celebrities, travel between islands without a crate of your favourite disposable nappies. I wasn’t convinced that Bali with a baby would be as much fun.

I remember my grandmother rolling her eyes once when recalling a particular family holiday at the beach. “Everyone else had a very nice time,” she sniffed. “But I just had to do a lot of cooking in a kitchen that wasn’t nearly as good.” Is that what a holiday with a baby means, I wondered? Not sleeping, but in an exotic location? Breastfeeding, changing nappies and reading Where is the Green Sheep? for the eleventy millionth time (spoiler: that sheep is always asleep, smug little fuck) without all the infrastructure at home that makes it easier?

And the whole process of Becoming Mummy has taken some work for me, much more than I expected. I’d always wanted to have kids, and yet I often found myself mourning my child free life, feeling around for it like a phantom limb, even the bits of it that weren’t that good, like being seriously ill for two years or meeting Nigel from UB40 only to have him bitch about his work-life balance on a beautiful tropical island. And also not actually be from UB40.

I dropped into work with Baby Tea a few months ago, and one of my colleagues looked up at me curiously. “So what’s it like, being a mum?” she said.

Gosh, I stammered. Exhausting! Hard. But good. Yeah, hard but good.

As if motherhood was a yin-yang, swirls of black and white with a tiny circle of hard in the good, and a tiny circle of good in the hard. Later, I berated myself. Motherhood: exhausting! Hard but good! Surely I can do better than that! My younger colleague probably didn’t care anyway, but I felt like I’d done my new life a reductive disservice. Still, I wasn’t really sure how to describe it.

Motherhood. Was it those first six weeks when it felt like I was hit by a truck, every single day? The parts of my body that were cracked, torn, fissured? The hunger that had me eyeing off Mr Tea’s dinner plate every single meal, all “are you gonna eat that?” Was it regret: that I used to talk about important things like politics and journalism and The Bachelor and now I said things like “How did you get food in your ear?”, “Gentle with mummy” and “Come on, all the other babies are wearing their hats”. Or the jealousy that shot through my body when I heard that someone else was going to live in New York, had published their first book, was putting on a festival show? The feeling that I was a fraud of a mother, singularly ill-equipped to deal with a tiny person, who shat and screamed and cried without explanation?

Or was it the way I would choke up singing songs or reading stories to him because he was so goddamned beautiful? Hard but good didn’t touch the smell of his breath: gummy, warm and milky. Or the time he was nuzzling into my shoulder and I thought we were having a moment but actually he was busy pulling on a blanket behind my head. And hard but good seemed wholly inadequate to describe my 5am fit of exhausted hysterics when Baby Tea did a projectile wee into his own mouth, a perfect looping arc of piss.

Of course, being a Mum is all those things. Feeling—and being—fraudulent, exhausted and elated all at the same time. The hunger, the crying, the stories and the songs, the piss in the mouth. It’s all of the light and all of the dark, all things ordinary and extraordinary.

And in travel, as in life.

Our trip to Bali with a baby in tow was great. Not because I “found myself”; I didn’t. Not because I realised my new life as a mother is better or worse than being child-free; it isn’t. Not because the holiday was perfect; it wasn’t. We breastfed endlessly in uncomfortable chairs, read the Mem Fox canon for hours, administered baby Panadol in desperation at 3am, dealt with overflowing bodily fluids in the back of taxis. At one point, Baby Tea was crying inconsolably at the airport. I’d fed him, we’d changed nappies, jiggled him, sung songs, shown him the planes from the window. Eventually I handed him over to Mr Tea and muttered something about needing to go to the toilet. I didn’t. I wandered through the bookshop, washed my face, bought ice cream, briefly fantasised about catching the plane home solo (or to, say, Berlin) and then slowly, reluctantly returned to my boys.

“See?” Mr Tea said to our babe. “I told you she’d come back!”

“You have my passport,” I replied.

But overall, travelling with a baby rocked, in a way that I never expected. Cranky old men melted. Balinese women gushed. They told me birth stories and added to the obscure parenting advice column: “Shave his head three times!” “Don’t let him eat pineapple before he turns one!” Immigration officials were kind. They let themselves stop looking for drugs or terrorists for a few moments and tickled Baby Tea’s chin or exclaimed over his newly minted chompers – “Rabbit teeth!” Airport queues were easier, friendlier places. Groovy Malaysian teens took selfies with him. Japanese tour groups pointed at him like he was Lady Gaga doing a fashion shoot on location. Language was less of a barrier. Strangers gave us things and talked to us and picked him up for cuddles. I took him down to see the seaweed farms on the southern tip of Nusa Lembongan, but mostly just to bask in his radiated glory as we walked around. When we climbed out of the pick-up truck on return, a girl I didn’t recognise from our resort yelled out, “Hello Baby Tea!” I must have looked confused so she said, “Don’t worry! We all of us loving Baby Tea so much!”

I got time to wallow in those jolts of joy and the growling, protective love that comes from the bottom of my belly, even despite bouts of hammering sleep deprivation and the occasional, shameful, running away fantasy. I found some space this holiday for the old me and the new, the life I’m not leading and the life I am.

And you know something? I reckon that Kids Club/lurid cocktails/toddlers in Bintang singlets concept has more merit than I previously thought. Maybe next holiday.

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