Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baby steps in Bali

Baby steps in Bali
November 13, 2010

Youth culture ... a young Balinese dancer. Photo: Gregory Adams/Lonely Planet

On the cusp of a milestone birthday and with a baby on board, Dugald Jellie finds an island with room to grow.

This is no regular holiday, not when two hours into the flight I'm locked in a toilet, grappling with baby poo. It's a fraught business at the best of times, made harder by turbulence and the ping of a ''fasten seatbelt'' sign somewhere over central Australia. It's here I'm inducted into a mile-high club - for those who do the back-end of parenting.
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Who said travel is romantic? Earlier, we'd checked in with a stroller and suitcases packed with infant formula, bibs, muslin wraps, jumpsuits (his, not mine) and 94 nappies. We're the people you don't want to sit next to. Our carry-on luggage includes wipes, spoons, feeding bottles, a soft toy known as ''froggy'' and our six-month-old boy known as ''Ali''.

The first nappy is jettisoned on Jetstar. Others are discarded in Indonesia. Eat, Pray, Love? Our sojourn is more of a sequel: Cry, Poo, Dribble.

The trip's logic was simple: I wanted to be elsewhere when I turned 40.

Ideally, it would be somewhere exotic and far-flung, such as Barbados or Zanzibar. New Zealand figured in my midlife crisis, too. I grow older, I get introspective, I want to climb mountains. It's a perfectly natural response.

But holiday destinations are for now limited to lowlands. And this isn't the time to strike for Ethiopia, or just about anywhere else in Africa. Self-regulation is at work - it's called parenthood. We opt for a short flight from home and agree it shouldn't be to Devonport or Canberra. It is, after all, my birthday. We think Noosa, consider Fiji but decide to take the baby to Bali.

For all three of us it's a novelty. We've never been to this crucible of holidaymaking, an enchanted paradise in a daisy chain of tropical isles that's fixed in the Australian consciousness for reasons mostly of national anxiety or elitist complaint. It's a place of wonder. Are we the last to visit? Need I pack my footy shorts? Can babies eat gado gado?

We consult guidebooks, phone friends and search online before booking six nights in southern Bali at the luxurious Novotel Bali Benoa, a 189-room beach resort at Nusa Dua, with pools, tennis courts, coconut hat-making classes and a website that mentions the ''sound of a flute playing and the gentle movement of the waves''. Anything to keep the boy asleep.

On the cusp of 40, wings clipped by fatherhood, I succumb to the pre-packaged resort holiday. This path can lead only to batik apparel and dinners with puppet shows. We leave credit-card details and I think I've made a terrible mistake. I see the future and it looks like a daytime kids' club.

Young children and a holiday are, by definition, mutually exclusive. An introduction to the idea through a resort seems a soft landing. But on the advice of others, we also plan four nights in Ubud in the hilly heart of the island, where we determine to eat street food, show Ali the ''real Bali'' and meet his cousins who hang about in the Monkey Forest.

Arriving in Bali, as many of the 548,500 Australians who visited Indonesia last year can attest, is not all beer and skittles. Our flight to Denpasar takes about 6½ hours. It takes a further hour and 25 minutes to travel from one end of the arrivals hall to the other. In this interminably slow queue, in sapping humidity, some time after 11pm, I remind myself that travel has its etymological roots in the word ''travail'', meaning painful or laborious effort, or labour pains.

Outside the terminal we are greeted by a handwritten sign - ''Mr Jelly'' - and all is well. Never mind the misspelling, this is one of travel's great pleasures: to arrive in a foreign port and find your name held aloft.

An even more favourable circumstance awaits at our resort. We're given chilled guava juice in coconut goblets and told the hard news: we've been bumped by a wedding party. The bride is from Perth, the groom from Buenos Aires and the guests have booked out all the beach cabanas. Would we mind terribly if we're upgraded, free of charge, to a private pool villa?

Before our weary eyes, the doors open to a walled garden compound with a pool, thatched-roof pavilions, an open-air shower, spa, a free minibar and a king-size bed and all I think is that maybe the global financial downturn has an upside. If this is a dream, do not disturb.

''Your dollar is high, no?'' says Olivier Moies-Delval, the French-speaking resort manager, in bright morning sunshine. ''Australians come here in June, July, August, September and for Christmas. For them, Bali is affordable to have nice food, nice drink, to get some leisure at reasonable prices.''

This seems the universal pursuit. Daily rituals begin at the breakfast buffet with a tacit agreement among guests to disregard peer restraint. How else to explain my excessive intake of crepes with maple syrup and chocolate? One man takes video footage of the spread. Women eat in bikinis. Our boy is introduced to papaya and the high chair. Everybody's on holidays.

In this congress of leisure we meet other Australians doing as we do and I realise our travel faux pas. We had bought a $99 stroller before our departure, concerned about the carousel fate of a more expensive number. It looks cheap because it is cheap. But most other parents have come with Italian-made Bugaboos. I feel the social anxiety of the outsider. Their stuff is better than our stuff.

First teeth, baby monitors and the flight are all discussed. A Perth couple say the going rate for a nanny is about 30,000 rupiah ($3.40) an hour a child. They're on a return visit and already have booked a family suite for next year. With cheap airfares and two children aged under four, it's an overseas holiday that makes family budget.

The day's serious business of doing not much begins with a morning nap. It could be the perfume of frangipani or the sultry air at ''womb temperature'', or that we share parenting more equally - for whatever reason, he takes to sleeping like a baby. It makes for happy parents. In waking hours we delight in his loveliness, dip naked in the pool and count goldfish in a pond that divides us from the outside world. We don't want to leave. We've become the Novotel family.

''Australians generally consider a Bali holiday a time for relaxation and pleasure,'' says Agnieszka Sobocinska, a friend of my partner, who arranges to meet us at the island's current hot spot, the Rock Bar at the lavish Ayana Resort and Spa at Jimbaran. We order rounds of lychee martinis, caipiroscas and peach daiquiris and toast our good fortune.

Agnieszka is here on a year-long Endeavour fellowship, based at a university in Denpasar, where she's researching the two-way exchange Australian tourism has with south-east Asia, and Bali in particular. ''For many people it's a holiday that's their main or only experience of Asia,'' she says. ''And for this reason [Bali] plays a really important role in shaping Australians' opinion of their region.''

Our preoccupations are instead with the logistics of travelling with a baby. On a day's outing to Seminyak and Kuta, for instance, we're slowed by a funeral procession that stops traffic for the best part of an hour. It results in us arriving at Seminyak hot, hungry and cranky. He needs a nappy change. We need chicken satay. All of us require a ceiling fan.

Stifling heat, humidity and our cheap baby pusher conspire against us. Instead of seeing the sands of Kuta, our afternoon is spent in traffic, heading back to Benoa, and on the way having an existential parenting moment. In Bali. With baby. In the back of a taxi, singing Three Little Ducks. Sometimes you cannot imagine how life turns out.

''Hello, Ali! Hello, Ali!'' It's our daily greeting at Yellow Flower Cafe, a delightful eatery on a garden path at the top of the Campuan Steps near Ubud, and a salutation that becomes our motto.

''Hello, Ali! Hello, Ali!'' Each day we turn up and each day they gleefully take our boy from us, amuse him, pass him about, cuddle him and introduce banana and rice to his diet. He loves it. We're thankful for the babysitting.

Friends had suggested the best time to travel with a child is before they can walk and talk. It's self-evident that we no longer travel light but neither of us had fully realised all the joys of introducing a baby to a new culture. Locals play with him. Other tourists strike up conversations. Touts leave us alone. Everybody smiles.

With our little boy strapped to my chest, our engagement with the world - with another place - takes on a whole new meaning. We are no longer anonymous. Our pale-skinned, blue-eyed child is a spectacle. Everybody seems to know his name. Maybe it's a cultural thing, maybe it's the friendliness of Balinese people.

As we wait to board our plane home, with a group of young women crowding around him, I think about how our son has been feted on our travels like a rock star. His parents? For now, we're just his roadies.

Pacific Blue (Virgin Blue) flies to Denpasar, Bali, for about $790 return, including taxes, from Sydney (6hr 20min non-stop) and Melbourne (6hr non-stop); price is based on two one-way fares, so you could fly there with Pacific Blue and back with another airline. Garuda Indonesia has a fare for about $820 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney and Jetstar also has non-stop flights. Australians can obtain a visa upon arrival for a stay of up to 30 days for $US25. Novotel Bali Benoa at Nusa Dua has family rooms from $93; see

1 comment:

Ashton said...

It's not easy to travel and go on vacations with babies.
Anyway, I've found a great apartment rental Buenos Aires with everything a baby can need.