Thursday, 20 October 2011


Day 7
So the days are now well and truly blending into each other. Serious maths was called for to work out what day it is I write this. I've stopped bothering to put on regular clothes between swims. I may cease certain personal hygiene routines.

Early mornings waking up and watching the boats come in, a swim in the ocean, the set breakfast (tea, fruit salad, boiled egg and toast), a short read, a pool swim, a long read, a quick dip, lunch (noodles or club sandwiches), sleep, read, swim, walk up the road, beer o'clock, swim, dinner (sate, gado gado, fried rice, grilled fish...), frog spotting, bed. Really there isn't much else to do here.

I finished the Thirteenth Tale and have started on Blood - back to Aussie contemporary fiction.

I'm aware after my last post, aware as I was writing it but chrystalised by comments after posting, that it's really hard to accurately, truthfully, write a balanced account.

I do want to be truthful in saying that travel with kids is much much harder than travel without, and that at times it feels a lot like it's too hard. With D and I in particular, who have spent a lot of time in Asia over a 25 year period, there are many many things we take for granted in being in a place so different from home. We are accustomed to the crazy roads, the complex social relations of status and class, the unfamiliar bits of familiar foods, the adapting to what comes our way.

Even kids who are good at this stuff (and some are definitely better than others by dint of personality or varied experiences at home) can't keep up with grown ups for whom these challenges are if not easy then at least predictable and most certainly a product of their own choices.

I love travel, and from my first solo backpacker foray to India as a stupidly naive baby not yet 21 I've happily taken on the challenges that travel presents for the incredible insights I have felt I have gained through those experiences. All cliches aside, I don't think I've ever felt the kind of contentment, understanding or peace I have felt when pushed to the limits beyond my comfort zone in a strange land.

But when you factor kids into the equation, everything is different. I need more resources to manage my own thoughts, decisions and anxieties than I would at home (no auto pilot here) and this inevitably leaves less for the usual demands of parenting, let alone the surge in demand brought about by their confusions, anxieties and confronting thoughts. And the millions of unfamiliar potential physical and emotional threats they are oblivious to that require your constant vigilance.

And then on top of all that (as though it weren't enough!) the exponentially larger number of key decisions to be made (from where to sleep, eat or play to how to manage a small's meltdown in the customs queue or 3am onset of illness) puts a huge burden on the negotiation and compromise capacities of both parents - at exactly the time they are feeling an especially great need to minimize the number of variables and pressures on their plate. Working as a team is never harder.

So goodness doesn't that all sound like a fantastic incentive to spend enormous sums of money and use up your annual leave to bring the smalls abroad?

Well this is the balance thing. It's so easy to write about the pain. It's hilarious reading and a great dinner party story to share the time you fell down a drain, left your passport in a taxi or picked up amebic dysentery. And the kid lifting your top and shouting boobies! in the middle of a silent temple ritual or hurling all over the check in desk of a nice hotel outclasses anything a grown up can do in terms of narrative richness.

And equally how hard is to write about, to experience, the more compelling, profound and awkward moments in life? All the good stuff's already been written, by better writers than me, and if you haven't experienced it words can't tell you and if you have they pale into insignificance next to what you know to be true.

Why is it that I have willingly, delightedly subjected myself to the hardships and disappointments of travel again and again? Because they have taught me, nurtured me, made me more resilient and confident, more able and more knowing, and filled me with joy. I want to keep being that person who discovers through challenge that I can and I am, I want my kids to see me be that person and I want my kids to become those people too.

And it's not just about the experience of being challenged and enduring and solving problems, though this is enormous, and about puzzling over the awkwardness that meetings across cultures bring, the mismatched expectations and misunderstandings.

There is something more specific to travel in the developing world, to being confronted not just with one's own monumental privilege in the world and to the immense gulf between ourselves and those who sit apart from us through poverty, difference, suffering or lack of choice. Increasingly this also entails the sting of recognition that our very privilege is the cause of much of this. The aspiration to have our wealth (and by wealth I'm not just talking about money but also the things brought about through sustained social wealth and surplus - healthcare, education, infrastructure, mobility and so on) and the willingness to achieve it through exploited labour, unregulated manufacture, pollution, waste, the rampant tourism, corruption and so much more. Travel here makes it very hard to suppress the knowledge that our patterns of consumption directly bring about a level of destruction that is unsustainable.

And I want my kids to know that. I want every person who buys the newest shit at Zara to come here and walk through these communities and see why it costs 10 times as much to make a garment in Austrialia as it does to ship it in from Argentina, Indonesia or India. It costs so much less because we don't care that they chuck their production waste into the local river, or that kids don't go to school or that life is shorter and harder for almost everyone who lives here. Most of us don't give a shit because it's so easy to not confront what that means for other real life people.

So when we walk up the road after our afternoon naps we point to the houses in the village and ask Amy if she would like to live here. Can she imagine waiting here for the bus to go to school, about that being a sign of her great good fortune? How would it be to be that guy over there who has gone out fishing all morning and comes home with only 4 small mackerel in his catch and that what he earns from that is all the family has to eat and pay bills and buy everything else they need?

Of course she can't know. Just like she can't predict the crazy traffic here or when money needs changing or what dishes off the menu might make her sick or will taste like crap. She can't know that yet. But in time she can if she has these experiences. In time she might understand, and she might help others to understand. She might see that everything she does, the choices she makes, the things she buys, the way she lives her life affects others. Everything has consequence. And in knowing this she might become wise, I might become wiser.

Somewhere in there is my hope for humanity.

A little more balanced now?

Monday, 17 October 2011


Day 1
Surprisingly smooth getaway and flight. Child annoyance factor pretty high till I manage to swap seats with D and get an aisle between me and the rest of the family. Of course cheap airline tickets means no food on little trays so we order from very small selection of fancy junk food and celebrity chef lunch treats. Luke Mangan's gourmet new York sandwich at $9 is actually mostly alright. Bugger me.

Also spot an acquaintance from high school on flight, a bloke I remember with great fondness, who now surfs everyday and works for rip curl. Wow. Jealous much and very bouyed that someone gets to live the dream. Hope he's still the nice bloke i remember him being.

Arrive to that familiar cocktail of humidity, pollution and untreated sewage overlaid with the scent of frangipani. We also walk past the departure lounge cafe with mock Western style burgers and chips on display. There's no mistaking this tourist Asia biz.

Pass the visa and immigration points, visit a commonwealth bank ATM in the luggage collection hall (feels so weird and not right and yet so convenient at the same time).

Use our first filthy wet urine stinking squat toilet of the trip. No mistaking an undercurrent of genuine undeveloped Asia.

Douglas, our driver, fights chaotic jammed up traffic (including a road largely blocked by an abandoned van which has both rear wheels missing) to get us to the hotel while Wil, overcoming his initial distress at the lack of seat belts manages to bounce around the back seat and damn near throw himself out the window.

We arrive at the Suri, a delightfully wee complex of just 4 bungalows thoroughly overcome with dense tropical gardens, stone paths, lotus and lilly filled fish ponds, thatched roofs and high enclosing stone walls. Perfectly Bali.

Our room is all timber and whitewash, exposed thatch on the ceiling and sliding glass doors to the outside bathroom, eating area and personal lotus pond. Nice. The kids immediately strip for a swim in the pool and explode the entire contents of their back packs all over the room for that lived in feel.

It's at about this time that we discover exactly why they do that thing in Australia where you have to take you credit card out of the ATM before it dispenses your cash. Ironically I did the exact same thing in Bali in 2000, though luckily realised about 20 paces after leaving it behind and ran back to find it still sticking out of the machine. This time it was D's turn to get distracted, grab the cash and run. Cue some internet research and phone calls to cancel the card and some rapid financial plan b development.

Determined not to get rattled and doing our best to straddle 2 time zones and a growing tiredness (i think saying yes to that offer of a taster glass of french champagne in duty free at 9am may not have been wise) we head out for a quick early dinner to cafe Bali - a typically touristy international mash up of Dutch croquets, Indonesian sate, mee goreng and Mexican quesadillas all made somehow better than they really are by tremendous attention to service and decore.

A walk home via the mini mart for ice creams, beer, water and morning juice and time to tackle the trauma of who will sleep where. The children refuse to share the king single so amy opts for the mattress off the day bed on the floor despite the absence of a mosquito net (cue midnight blood sucking feast and requests to join mum and dad under their tent). Everyone except D is in bed and asleep by 8pm local time (11 back home).

After the aforementioned midnight musical beds, Wil wakes and needs to be taken to the toilet, helped to find his drink, his sleepy toy monkey yadda yadda, can't sleep, is scared, wants to sleep in my already over subscribed bed...all of which results in me sharing the single with him for a toenail scratching night of frustrated sleep.

While I lie in bed listening to the music pumping out from some nearby bar and the honking of taxis and motorbikes as well as an extraordinary number of low flying aircraft and wishing for nothing so much as unconsciousness I am very much debating over the ratio of joy to pain entailed in a tropical holiday with the kids.

Day 2
Thankfully this day entails no travel, no commitments and no visits from the bad parenting police. In fact I thoroughly prove my good parent credentials by diving into the pool fully clothed when the kids get into trouble after straying too deep. Both the kids are scared witless by the experience and I surpass myself by not having a total meltdown. I do, however wish I had been wearing something a little lighter weight than the cotton t that will take about 6 days to dry in this humidity. We are all very aware this is a very small price to pay.

We walk down to the beach where swimming is forbidden for the day due the wildest currents and waves I've possibly ever seen. Instead we sit at a fancy beachfront hotel and have iced tea, pretending we are guests so the kids can swim in their pool. The view is spectacular.

We limp home, have some lunch at the bali bakery (again with the bastardised international cuisine - a 'japanese' sandwich with chicken terriyaki, mayo, lettuce and tomato on brown bread and side of skinny fries) and then everyone except Amy crashes for a lengthy afternoon sleep.

God, the restorative power of sleep! If I have one important lesson to learn in this life it is get a shitload more sleep.

I go to duck out to the shops while the kids get back in the pool only I have to wait a bit since the air con for the restaurant next door (the very funkily decked out Junction) has just kind of exploded and caught fire, blocked the gateway out of our compound. The staff in their uniforms of black t shirts with the restaurant logo on them all stand around outside waiting to be told what will happen. The flames are put out promptly with fire extinguishers and hoses (?!) but the smell of burning electrical works hangs nastily in the air.

I am more than a little disappointed this also means we can't have dinner there as planned and when we head out at dinner time the sign on the door says closed for maintenance. Instead we eat at Kuni's for Japanese - a wonderfully fitted out and serviced Japanese place (affiliated with the Melbourne Kuni's perhaps?). Amy being the only one who didn't nap is showing the wear and tear and even voluntarily passes on an ice cream.

Both kids into the single bed and Amy is asleep almost before her head hits the pillow. D and I read and write while listening to nice music from the iPad. Things feel much more manageable.

Day 3
After consuming the villa supplied set breakfasts - muesli set for me, croissant set for amy, egg and bacon set for the boys - we go about the business of deciding what comes next. With our prebooked accommodation now done until next week we are commencing the party of the trip that is critical to D's sense of pleasurable travel - the unplanned adventure.

While in the past I have been in agreeance over the joys of this bit (the unexpected pleasures and treasures to be found, the bargain rates to be bartered and so on), I feel somewhat less convinced about it now that travel involves four of us and the kids have no patience, no sense of adventure and no capacity to appreciate the process of finding new digs, involving as it does a lot of waiting and weighing of options, doubling back and taking risks.

But this holiday isn't just mine, and I do understand not just the joys that can come from the spontaneous travel, but also the importance of each of us getting something out of the trip that is exactly as we'd like it. All good in theory.

But today it's the business end of this and involves getting a car and driver, negotiating stops and finding accommodation at the end of a long drive. Wil talks incessantly, whines in bursts, finally has a sleep and then wakes to inconsolable wailing, all while our accommodating driver (pork chop, yeah you read that right) drives back and forth on a very narrow and really shitty hilly road on the edge of the sea.

Luckily this place is well off the beaten track (ie it's one of the few place in Bali you can go where being an Aussie is an oddity, where there is no amplified music, mini marts, ATMs or imported beer. Old school paradise) so completely blocking the road to U turn is no big deal.

After what feels like an eternity to me, but is in fact a fairly quick and painless half hour, we are installed in a picture postcard bungalow in stunning garden surrounds looking directly out to sea. The beauty and relative simplicity of the place compared to the classic tourist strips of kuta and legian, and my joy at recapturing our experiences here in this very cove in 2000, is almost enough to gloss over what is an apparent level of environmental degradation in the area that is nothing short of shocking.

What has happened in Bali over the last decade gets me thinking about my travel experiences, and what's happening in the world, particularly Asia, over the last 25 years, and how sad I feel all over again when I think about the double edged swords of tourism and development and my own part in that.

And how my kids will never see the things I have seen before they are dead and gone for good.

Such sobering thoughts in a hot climate can only be dispelled by black sand beaches (so cool!), swimming, beer, local food made well, a good book (the thirteenth tale - marvellous thanks Tania) and the sound of children laughing. The beer also helps you ignore the night time sounds of rodents in the roof should you be so unlucky as to witness those.

Day 4
Rinse and repeat.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


I've been trying to work out what makes people feel so strongly about The Slap and this last week, it's adaptation for TV. It's been a while since I have heard so many people talk to much and so negatively about something I feel quite OK about. Lots of people feel like me, some really love both the book and the TV series or just the book or just the TV series. Either way, there's lots of talk and lots of strong feeling.

Plenty of others have summarised the story so I won't bother doing so here - and besides, all that's interesting about it can't be conveyed that way.

I've been thinking about it a lot, and trying to really boil down to some essential primordial ooze. I'm sniffing around the fact that for quite a few people the TV version seems 'better' than the book.

To me a lot of the punch of the book came from the relentlessness of being inside people's heads. The first person narratives, stripped as they are of social censure and niceties, full as they are of the rage and frustrations of the impositions on our personal freedoms give a somewhat misanthropic view of the world.

This seems to lead a lot of people to find the characters hateful and distanced, utterly unlikeable and easily criticised. They invite judgement.

And yet, at the very same time, the book seems to me to be about what it is like to live in that world of being judged. So much of what the characters feel, and the way their behaviours manifest are the dance of judging others with righteousness, whilst rejecting or suffering the judgements of others.

In the TV show, with the inner voices largely lost, what we see are the less nuanced, more guarded actions of people who seem to oscillate between their selfish impulses and their resentful restraint. The strain of tolerating each other, the world, shows clearly.

I think, I suspect, that much of what people don't like about this whole view, is the assertion that it is such a strain. Are people really that self absorbed? Really that angry? Really that shallow? Is it really so hard for people - people from different times, generations, cultural backgrounds and political persuasions - to just get along? to be accepting and respectful of each other?

There's this scene early in the first episode where the boy - the slapee - is first shown in all his undisciplined annoyingness. He's sitting on the floor banging a wooden spoon on the bin and wall, making a racket his parents appear to be oblivious to but which clearly annoy the hell out of the man of the house. He leans over and takes the spoon from the boy, exchanges an eye roll with his wife but says nothing to the parents and leaves the room. The father of the boy then picks up a spoon and starts tapping it annoyingly on a plate. After just a few taps he quietens the noise, slows and then puts the spoon down.

The super annoying kid - the kid with no discipline and no accountability, the kid with no impulse control, the kid with no requirements to accommodate the needs of others is in simple terms a total pain in everyone's arse. The difference between the kid and his father (and most of the other characters) is not what they want to do, it's the degree to which they manage to control their desires to do it.

All the characters fail, in one way or another, to control themselves, and they all, in one way or another, resent and react against those people they perceive as the ones responsible for their need to be self controlled. In laws, old friends, parents, spouses, children. Everyone is a drain it seems. And everyone is quick to point out eaxactly what they don't like about everyone else.

There's a level of horror to the idea that the best life can be is a monumental effort to almost contain our messy, annoying, near poisonous inner selves, knowing all along that our efforts will never succeed and those we love most will see our failings and judge us for them.

But is that all The Slap has to offer?

Why do I like it if that's what its telling me?

I think because despite all that these people still go on. They don't kill one another, they don't abandon one another. In the face of the horror they persist in trying to make it work. Cheek by jowl with our selfish impulses and base desires are our drives to reach out and connect, to try and control ourselves in order to be both tolerable and tolerant. Those inner voices in the book are greatly concerned with the dilemma they find themselves in - no matter how misguided their efforts at escape may be.

Perhaps I am cynical and pessimistic. Perhaps others are in denial over our true natures. Perhaps I just run with the wrong crown. There's only a squint and a sideways look between them afterall.

Or perhaps I am simply looking for something good to take from it in order to not be another judge. In the Compass interview with author Christos Tsiolkas (thanks for the link Adelaide!) he makes a point about the characters' sense of entitlement, and about contemporary Australia being full of complainers and judges. Perhaps my impulse to like it merely comes from not wanting to be that person. For this five minutes anyway.