Summer in LA

I took the summer off. From what, you ask? Good question! Not that anyone would confuse my schedule here with a Bangladeshi factory worker or even Ryan Seacrest’s — still, I have things to do, sometimes very important things. Seriously, the spas here aren’t going to stay in business if I don’t get my $12 massage at least once a week. And, last I checked, those green smoothies after yoga don’t just drink themselves. Honestly, I just wanted to spare everyone updates from our trip to Los Angeles that were likely to read as follows: “Look at us! we’re driving on the 405…….and now, here we are on the 10 freeway driving some more….oh, and brace yourselves – here we are on Wilshire Blvd — you guessed it, still driving.” Pretty exciting stuff!

Although the immediate urge to update everyone on our summer activities didn’t hit me during our visit, there were a few things that jumped out at me that might bear mentioning. We flew into LA on one of those hazy, mid-summer days, and looking out as we landed, I was struck by the contrast between the color saturated jungle island we had just left and the sprawling, lusterless concrete jungle we were coming to. I’ve lived in Los Angeles most of my life and often the city simply fades into the background as I go about my daily life. But this time, I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes. It’s funny (at least to me) what you notice. First, I think I spent three hours on one trip to the grocery store. I’m fairly certain the produce guy asked security to follow me around the store due to my overexuberant handling of the nectarines. Have you seen (or really looked) at what’s available at the grocery store? I can tell you, I used to shop every week but, I never noticed or appreciated how amazing it is to have all that, right there, anytime you want it! Thank you Trader Joe’s!

Second, being away from advertising is a relief. The first ad I noticed when we got back was a Target ad – where a mom is shopping for back to school stuff and filling up her cart – it was sped up to happen quickly. To me, it looked more like frenzied, crazy person frantically grabbing everything she could rather than a sensible mom shopping for school supplies. Instead of creating a longing for #2 pencils, I just wanted that woman to get some adequate medical care. Yikes!

And thirdly, back to LA means back to driving, myself. Now I’m not going to sit here and say I love sitting in traffic on the 405 or that spending hours in my car on mind numbing errands is my favorite thing to do. Nonetheless, there is a certain freedom I miss about having a car, driving that car, by myself, and going wherever I want. If I need Millk of Magnesia or Preparation H, I don’t need to ask someone to take me to get those things! As one crazy, English mom at Green School explained to me — “it’s impossible to have a proper secret love affair when your driver has to take you to the trysts” Now that’s something I hadn’t considered…but, you have to admit she does have a point. At the risk of sounding entitled and ungrateful, and as much as we love our driver, Indra, I can’t wait to get behind the wheel again.

Now, the real reason we went back to LA was to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. My mother planned a lovely party for him and we didn’t want to miss the festivities. In lieu of a real present, we made him a movie. It “stars” many of the friends we have met here in Bali including Indra and Gede who I’ve mentioned many times on the blog.

If you’re interested here’s the link:

Coffee, Chaing-Chaings and Crumbling Commodes

The last couple of weeks have been super busy, filled with school activities and a few family excursions. With the school year wrapping up, the kids (and their parents) are getting really excited to travel back to Los Angeles and visit everyone they’ve missed so much over the last five months!

Allie and her class recently performed a concert on the Gamelan which is a traditional Balinese orchestra. They worked on their piece for about two months and performed it last week. We were really impressed! Each of the kids played their own instrument and it all came together really well! Allie played the chaing-chaing cymbals which is the instrument that gives the Gamelan it’s deafening distinctive sound. Thankfully, she didn’t have to practice at home!!

Fletcher reading a poem he wrote for Earth Day:

Video of the Gamelan performance:

In addition to preparing for the end of the school, we’ve been exploring some other parts of Bali. We have spent most of our time in Ubud, with an occasional trip down south to the beach so, last weekend we visited a coffee plantation in north Bali. We also participated in the Green School white water rafting trip with a bunch of other families. It lasted about two hours down the beautiful Ayung river that flows around and through parts of Ubud.

Living in Bali is always filled with unusual experiences, here are a few we were able to capture lately:

147 Days

I’m going to come straight out with it. I have a bit of a problem. Strictly speaking I actually have multiple problems, most of which I don’t particularly care to share, but there’s one in particular that I feel I must get off my chest at this moment.

I am addicted, enslaved and altogether powerless over television. Yes, television. That glorious box we all possess that emanates messages of light and happiness and all that is good in the world. And I can’t get enough.

As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I dabbled in t.v. Access was limited, so each interlude was a sweet, rapturous moment spent with the Bradys or the happy gang from Love Boat. It was a simpler time of scripted shows, laugh tracks, three networks and no remotes. A time when families understood each other and the bad guys always got what was coming to them. These were my gateway programs, and soon I was hooked.

Later, as I got older, I graduated to programs which required regular viewing – serials, mini-series and the occasional soap opera (I swear that was only on a couple of drunken nights in college). The depths of my dependence demanding a more and more serious commitment. As my habit grew, I deluded myself with “I’m a social viewer, I never watch alone –only at parties or with my roommates.” and of course, “I can quit whenever I want.”

But could I? As time went on, I was becoming more hard core. With the advent of Tivo, not only could I skip commercials, I could now binge watch episodes of series I had recorded, sometimes all by myself. Watching Lost until the wee hours of the morning, waking up next to a half eaten lean cuisine, a diet coke and microwave popcorn in my hair, even the cat refused to look me in the eyes. Stumbling through the next day on a few hours of restless sleep, babbling to myself whether the island really is purgatory, was starting to take it’s toll.

And then it happened. I hit bottom. I was watching television in the garage as I cleaned out the minivan, (yes, the garage….obviously for all those long hours on the treadmill…whatever..). I was flipping back and forth between Entertainment Tonight and a Seinfeld rerun while scrubbing the spilled yogurt out of the backseat and I got a glimpse of myself in the side mirror. Who had I become? With glassy eyes, dilated pupils and a creepy smile frozen on my face, I was a monster. Something had to change.

Upon our arrival in Bali, I was the first to notice that our house had only one small television. I started to feel the onslaught of a small panic attack. I calmed myself with the thoughts – “oh well, it’s only 27 hours back home” or “it’s cheap to build here – I wonder what a bamboo media room would run?” Ironically, I didn’t even bother to turn it on. At first, everything here was new and exciting and I didn’t think about television….for a while. And then, about a month into our stay, I sat down to relax and turned on the t.v. For those of you unfamiliar with Indonesian television, it is a dreadful mash-up of Javanese soap operas, Australian Football and Al-Jazeera. And, as if to rub salt in my already gaping wounds, Hulu, NBC.com and just about every other site with replays of American tv shows are unavailable here due to licensing restrictions. I had been mercilessly cut off. So, I said to myself. That’s it. I’m done. That was 147 days ago.

I can’t say that every day has been easy. Pangs of withdrawal creep up all the time leaving me with important unanswered questions like – Who won this season’s anemically contested American Idol? Will Kim and Kanye get their own well-deserved show? and Why does Ashton Kutcher still live with Jon Cryer? I certainly don’t have my finger on the pulse of pop-culture like I used to (for all I know, those questions may have already been answered!). I didn’t even hear about the crazy lady who just loves cats until last week (from my ten year old daughter, no less!). I fear I’ll be terrible at parties when people bring up the Voice and I struggle to come up with relevant comments, eyes darting back and forth, scrambling to change the subject to cover my shame. I dread those moments.

I guess that all begs the question – what have I been doing since I went cold turkey and gave up television? That’s a tough one. I’d love to tell you my life has been instantly transformed but, honestly, I don’t feel that different. Maybe, I was so far gone that the results of my quitting will take some time to recognize. I do remember a girl in high school who’s family never owned a television and I think she’s working at the NIH or JPL or someplace where they discover important stuff. I, on the other hand, have read a few books and am playing more board games with my kids. Some days the quiet and peace in the house is startling (never too startling though, due to the mellifluous din of the neighbors roosters), yet, I find myself enjoying it. One of the biggest benefits I’ve found is the freedom from the unrelenting barrage of warnings and frightening stories coming at me on a daily basis. And, who knows, maybe someday I’ll discover some important stuff too. But, right now I have to go. It’s my turn to roll.

TEDx Ubud

I just spent most of last Saturday at the TEDx event that was held here in Ubud. TEDx (versus TED) events are smaller regional happenings organized to highlight projects and people doing extraordinary things in the local area — in this case Bali, and other parts of Indonesia. In the past, I’ve spent hours on the TED website watching videos of brilliant speakers from past events so, I was ready and eager to be dazzled. Here’s what I took away from Saturday…

While the speakers that participate in the primary TED conference are extremely eloquent, often genius presenters (past TED speakers include- Pres. Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs, etc), it quickly became evident that, although all of the participants are doing extraordinary things, many were not all that practiced at being in front of a large group of people. At first, I was a little disappointed — I was hoping to be enraptured and entertained as I often am on the TED site. And, while I’ve loved watching videos of people like Taylor Wilson (the kid who developed a nuclear fusion reactor at 14), I also know the closest I’ll get to a rocket scientist most days is watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Like a shot of espresso, It’s easy to watch the TED talks, get a quick hit of inspiration, and then move on to more important things like deciding on what to feed the kids or why the cat just puked on the rug.

Yet on Saturday, it wasn’t Bill Clinton or the Dalai Lama making the presentations. These were real people. People I might have gone to school with or known from work. And although, all of them were quite accomplished and successful in their own right, it was their (for lack of a better word) ordinariness that made them imminently more memorable. While it probably isn’t a big deal for Bill Clinton to prepare for a TED talk, these people all showed tremendous courage getting up in front of the large audience (most with high expectations like myself) and putting themselves out there. And they’re all, without exception, doing amazing things. There was a young, exuberant woman bringing libraries to poor villages in Bali, an earnest, Indonesian man running an NGO focused on human trafficking, and a French woman who created an organization that is restoring the coral reefs off the coast of Bali, to name a few. They were all up there making themselves vulnerable to critics like me sitting in the audience.

After sitting through the event, I couldn’t help but think …..what am I doing in my life that is making a difference? I haven’t donated a kidney or started a foundation for blind orphans. I’m not even a vegetarian and sometimes, (gasp!) I forget to bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store. What does that mean for me? Am I doomed? Can I make a difference even if I’m not doing grand works mandated by a meaningful mission statement? If Woody Allen is to be believed and 90% of life is showing up than these people from TEDx are killing it – they’re showing up and bringing sandwiches. It begs the question – how can I show up more in my life? How can I be more courageous and passionate? Could I turn off the computer when my kids get home from school? Could I more than pretend to listen when my husband had a bad day at work? These are small things but, maybe they can lead to bigger things. I found it funny that after all the brilliant TED talks I’ve watched, it was not the Dalai Lama who generated these thoughts for me, it was a group of relatively unknown people speaking at a modest TEDx event in Ubud who radiated such optimism and showed by example that everyone can change the world – the first step is showing up. But, just in case….if you hear of any blind orphans looking for a kidney – let me know.

The TED website — http://www.TED.com

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Captivating young Lovely Indonesian woman who brings libraries to poor villages in Bali

Lovely, young Indonesian woman who brings libraries to poor villages in Bali

Eat, Pay, Leave

For those of you who never watched Oprah or maybe spent 2006 in a coma, you may have missed the sensation that was Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir recounting her journey of self-discovery that eventually became a movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts. And, for those of you who missed it, you’re probably unaware that the “Love” part of the book took place right here in Ubud – where Gilbert discovered the meaning of life, met her soul mate and lived happily ever after…..allegedly.

The wild success of that book had a largely unanticipated effect on Ubud — hordes of middle-aged women clutching dog-eared copies of the book, clad in flowing clothes, descended on Ubud in search of spiritual transformation and their own Javier Bardems. This created a backlash with some of the locals, (and by locals, I mean westerner transplants wearing flowing clothing who had arrived earlier than the aforementioned tourists and already achieved profound spiritual transformations). A few got their hemp drawers in quite a bunch and created t-shirts and posters with “Eat, Pay, Leave” -clearly demonstrating how much more evolved they truly were.

Thankfully for us, the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love had died down by the time we arrived but, the nature of Ubud is largely unchanged. Ubud attracts people of all kinds but, there is definitely an otherworldly feel to the place. Visitors often become imbued with the Hindu traditions and practices which are an integral part of life, allowing them to see spirit in all things. At least that’s what I read on a brochure the other day…..sounds great, doesn’t it?!

I was hoping to experience my own spiritual awakening during our stay. I don’t think you can live here without becoming at least a little curious. I also wanted to discover the secret to the peaceful countenances so prevalent on the Balinese. Ironically, my opportunity came along recently during an especially chaotic lunch with the kids at a local warung (cafe). I met a woman who helps non-locals set up appointments with traditional Balinese healers. It sounded perfect!

We settled on a date and I roped in a friend to join me. After an hour in the car, we arrived at the traditional Balinese compound where we were led to the healer – a very distinguished looking, older man dressed all in white. We settled onto the tile floor of the bale (which is basically a porch outside one of the houses) to wait our turn. We were told to write down some questions we might want guidance on from Pak Mangu. About three hours later (it must have been a Bali HMO), we were up. My friend went first and began to ask some personal questions to which Pak Mangu answered with wildly inaccurate responses. Trying to overcome her skepticism, she moved on to a more specific question about a physical issue and Pak Mangu went to work on her using his hands and feet. He seemed to have an intuitive touch and was able to hone in on areas of discomfort redeeming himself a bit to my friend. After about 20 minutes, it was my turn. I was somewhat intimidated now for several reasons — one being, Pak Mangu didn’t speak any English so, we had a translator with us who would repeat our questions to him loud enough for anyone sitting within earshot to hear and comment on (amongst each other and only in Indonesian). I felt like I was in an episode of Seinfeld. I asked him “How long should we stay in Bali?” to which the gallery giggled after they heard the question. This was not going like it did in the book. Clearly, not the appropriate question. I quickly decided that, at least on this day, Pak Mangu’s soothsayer skills were on the blink so, better to stick with more concrete issues. I had been struggling with a cold so, I told him I had been sick and feeling tired all week. He laid his hands on my head and pushed on several points on my body and at times I would feel a surge of energy. Not the worlds colliding, heavens opening experience I was expecting but, after four hours on a hard tile floor I was grateful for anything. After our treatments, we were ushered to the temple where we prayed and Pak Mangu prepared our “medicines” which were curiously from the same bottle.

On the ride home our guide told us that our readings may have been inaccurate due to the full moon that was happening that night. Apparently, this affected how the gods were communicating with Pak Mangu. Maybe in the future the gods could mention beforehand that they are going to be tied up and spare us the four hours on the hard, tile floor.

Funny, the next day I felt really good. My cold was gone. Had it runs it’s course or did Pak Mangu actually heal me? Who knows? What I do believe is where we put our intentions our thoughts and actions follow so, maybe I wanted to be better and so, I got better. Not to diminish what Pak Mangu does for people. He struck me as a man who practices healing with a sense of purpose and dignity and I’m sure many people benefit from his dedication.

The subjective nature of spiritual experiences is becoming clearer to me. I’m certain our interaction with Pak Mangu was colored by our feelings of discomfort and lack of faith in the process, while others who visited him that day reported great results. Analagous to what I recently heard about Ketut Liyer, the healer who still lives and works here in Ubud, and the man Gilbert credits with bringing about her intense spiritual awakening. Apparently, he gives everyone who comes to see him virtually the same advice. Seems the gods are often distracted by the moon.

Although this didn’t pan out exactly as expected, I plan to keep trying as many new experiences as possible. Being in Bali is a gift, and one that I don’t plan squandering just because my first experience was not the transcendent adventure I hoped for – in any case, I’ll keep you posted.

Pak Mangu

Pak Mangu

Pak Mangu in front of the temple in the compound

Pak Mangu in front of the temple in the compound

Pak Mangu in his examining room/waiting room.

Pak Mangu and patients — in his examining/waiting room.

Royal Cremation Ceremony

Here in Bali they know how to send someone off properly. Today, I attended the cremation ceremony for the king’s brother who died recently. Similar to the royal family in Britain, the royal family in Bali has no official role in government yet, they are still revered and granted an important place in Bali culture and society.

Cremations are one of the most spectacular ceremonies in Bali. In the beginning of our stay here, we were amazed by the number of ceremonies that are conducted almost daily – honoring anything and everything. Weddings, deaths, births, teeth filings, blessings of tools, and on and on and on. You name it! If it relates to any aspect of life (or death) they acknowledge it with offerings to thank the peaceful spirits or to placate the darker forces. At first glance, the preparations (including the decorations and offerings) were all similar or standard for each rite. Now that we’ve been here a little while, I’ve started to notice differences in how Balinese observe their religious rites. Much like the US, the size and spectacle of a ceremony depends on the wealth and importance of the family. And nowhere is this more evident than in the cremation ceremony. While the poorest of the Balinese are buried, and eventually, (sometimes as long as five years later), cremated in a group, the wealthier are cremated right away. While there may be differences in the pomp and circumstance of the cremation ceremony, the belief is universal that the body needs to be burned to set the soul free from worldly ties, and to start a new life in a world that is believed to be even more beautiful than Bali itself.

During the cremation ceremony, there is a large procession of people dressed in colorful clothes, carrying gifts and offerings, accompanied by musicians playing traditional music. The body is carried at the top of a large tower. The size of the tower depends on the status of the family. Today the deceased was a member of the royal family so, the tower was 11 levels which is the maximum height and reserved for royalty. As the tower is carried through the procession, It is shaken and spun around to confuse the spirit of the deceased and prevent it from returning to haunt the living.

Upon arrival at the cremation site, the celebration stops and the body is transferred to a coffin, usually in the shape of a bull or lion (today was a bull). The coffin is then set on fire and the crowd goes nuts to celebrate the departure of the spirit into the heavens.

Here are two videos from the ceremony. My apologies for the quality. It was pouring so, I didn’t go to the actual cremation which is after the procession and open to the public. I wasn’t that keen on standing in the rain. 😅

If you’re interested in a good quality video, I’m attaching the link to the king’s funeral procession that took place a couple of years ago. It looks much better than mine – it was taken by a real photographer. It’s a little long but the end is crazy!

Singapore

We’re in Singapore for a long weekend. The kids had a couple days off of school and we needed to make a visa run, (our visa requires that we leave Indonesia every 60 days). While Singapore is relatively close to Bali in miles (two+ hours by plane), in other aspects, it is light years away. I certainly can’t speak for all ex-pats living in Indonesia but, I’m always reassured by the close proximity of Singapore. Knowing that good medical treatment, air conditioning, and serious retail are just two hours by plane has made living in Bali less intimidating.

We’re staying on Sentosa Island, an area of Singapore self-proclaimed as “Asia’s favorite playground” — I would say it’s more like being in the middle of a giant, somewhat tired, theme park. There are tons of “family adventures” to experience, even a Universal Studios which we didn’t feel compelled to visit since we live so close to the original. We did however, check out the new aquarium, which is purported to be the largest in the world, and it was definitely big. Not sure it’s the greatest aquarium, or even close to as good as the Georgia aquarium in Atlanta but, it is huge.

Although they have gone to great lengths to offer attractions for the whole family on Sentosa, the real draw is the enormous casino located right in the center. This made a lot more sense after watching tour bus after tour bus filled with middle-aged Asians disappear into the underground parking structure yet, curiously, no one was emerging to zip line or enjoy the bug zoo. While the kids are having fun, I’m about done here (1 1/2 days on Sentosa is plenty!) Apart from the stifling heat, we’re having a good time (never realized how much I adore central air!). I’m looking forward to exploring the city to discover some of the more interesting elements of Singapore.

I must admit we’ve brought our shopping list of “necessities” we’ve missed since moving to Bali and I’m hopeful we will be able to find everything –although, I suspect we’ll realize upon our return that we haven’t really been deprived of much at all. The whole idea was to learn to live with less so, I feel a bit hypocritical rushing to the mall here…..but, hey, I’m not made of stone! 😉