Rather shakily, I realize that we’ve been home for well over a month!  It’s certainly been a blur, and feels a bit like coming back to the office after a prolonged and un-compensated absence.

In one month, we’ve filled up an exhausting schedule.  First off, we battled West to East jet-lag for at least a week (much worse than flying west).  During this week, we traveled 3 hours to Grandpa and Grandma’s house.  My mother-in-law would wake at 2am to the clink of spoons on cereal bowls – we were up and ready to go!

Although I have traveled in Asia before, the “reverse culture shock” still got me.  The wide, sterile, empty roads of our neighborhood.  The outrageous consumption.  Snow in April.  If not white, brown.  The isolating impact of a cold and car-driven city.  Unhappy, tired, unfriendly faces.  Alligator skin (mine).   Obesity.  Frenetic business.  Sarcasm and bullying amongst young kids as normal interaction.

I can’t believe that the fax I just sent would have bought a lovely restaurant dinner in Bali, or paid somebody’s wages for a couple of days.   I hate filling up the mini-van, realizing how much I consume here, and that one fill-up would pay a Balinese salary for a month.   (Don’t worry, I’m trying to remember the positives of our culture as well, such as “universal” quality health-care).  But, if I felt that I lived in Consumer Central before, now I know that I do.

The busy-ness has also quickly dug in it’s tenacious claws:  In the space of one month,

1) I start a new part-time teaching job and additional locum work.  Because my new schedule doesn’t leave quite enough time (or energy) for homeschooling, I plan to hire an education student to come in the mornings.

2) Dan, ever frugal, decides that he instead will home-school.

3) Dan still runs his company.   After 2 weeks of this,

4) Kids start at a new public school.  New supplies, routines, bus schedules.

5) Dan, ever frugal, decides to repair broken Subaru motor, himself.  It has cracked valves.

5)  Dan and kids (while homeschooling) plan a huge birthday BBQ party at our house,  to which they invite well over 50 people (thank goodness the sun shone).

6)  Kids activities resume: soccer season (Dan coaching Vivi’s team), along with the return to Aikido, piano, violin lessons, and play-dates.

7)  Miscellaneous re-entry items such as haircuts, dental and doctor appointments.

8)   Unhappy return to housekeeping:  shopping and cooking 3x/day, 7days/week  for a family of 4 that acts and eats like 10.  Cleaning and endless laundry piles.

Yes, we should have stayed in Bali longer.  But, there are moments that I am affirmed that our trip was not just escapism.  For instance, at the mall, my 6-year old girl exclaiming, “Mom, you don’t need to buy me sandals and a bathing-suit!  That’s too much and you’ll spoil me”.  Or, nightly, the kids praying for the Japanese people hurt by the earthquake and tsunami.

Or Théo reminding his sister how much they have compared to the majority of kids in the world, and how stuff doesn’t necessarily make people happy.

The Pelangi School Earth Day Concert was great!  The concert coincided with Théo and Vivi’s last day of school in Bali, so it was a bitter-sweet day.   Théo did an awesome job of his drumming, and Vivi was amazing at singing her new Indonesian songs.

We were sad to say goodbye to the great teachers and new friends we had made.

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Théo’s 8th birthday was on our last day in Bali.  Since we had such a stellar location at the villa, I decided to host a small pool party for him.

Not surprisingly, hosting a birthday party in a foreign country turned out to be slightly complicated.  For example, I discovered at the last minute that the grocery store only orders about 8 hotdog buns/day, so a few repeat trips were necessary (the store is 40 minutes away by taxi or motorbike).

Also, although I had planned to use the villa’s main residence to bake the cake, it turned out that no one had ever used the oven and we couldn’t turn it on!  So the cake was baked in the guest house toaster oven!

Another worry was that the party was turning “Balinese”, as in people kept inviting themselves and their kids!  I started to worry when even our taxi driver told me he would bring his kids.  It turned out fine, as in more than enough food for everyone, and Ketut was an amazing help.

Finally, it absolutely poured rain for the entire week before the party.   Thankfully we had a hot afternoon for the party.

We pulled it off!  The kids had fun,  Théo felt special, and we were able to “give back” a bit!

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Serendipitously, we met a fellow-Canadian who owns a beautiful villa with a guest house.  The villa is 15 minutes drive from Pelangi school, and 30 minutes from Ubud.  Our friend and his Balinese wife are letting us stay at his villa for our last 2 weeks in Bali, for budget-hotel prices.  The villa has a huge pool and is set peacefully amongst rice fields.  It’s a great way to finish off our trip and soak in the beauty for a while longer.

We have much more space at the villa, including a garden with a swing-set and a huge pool with kid’s floaty toys.  We also have access to a small kitchen, where we can prepare a quick meal, and where I made cookies in a toaster-oven for after-school snacks (the staff were amazed at my cooking skills!).  Theo and Vivi even have a new 6-year old buddy here.

But the biggest bonus for us all is Ketut, the villa’s smiley housekeeper and cook.  Instead of yet another stressful, sit-down restaurant dinner with cranky kids, the kids can play in the pool, climb trees, or play games with their parents until dinner is ready.   The “witching hour” has suddenly become pleasant.  For Ketut alone,  I would move here (I’d also move for “Superman”, the villa’s favorite shiatsu therapist . . .but that’s another story).

Dan is taking off to Hong Kong next week for a trade-show;  and we’ll all meet up in Singapore a week later.

I may not be able to post again for a while due to minimal computer access.  Soon, we begin our long journey home.  Next time you see us, we’ll probably still be jet-lagged!

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My personal opinion is that Theo and Vivi are doing a huge amount of “experiential learning” on our trip.  This more than compensates for the few months of kindergarten and grade two that they are missing.  However, we have also been proactive with the kids’ education.

We must have the Calgary grade 2 curriculum almost covered:  insects (cockroaches, a praying mantis, giant bees, spiders, butterflies and caterpillars, dragonflies, ant highways, and almost every other insect you can think of, but super-sized).  We’re also okay for “unique communities”, telling time, fractions, music, swimming, reading, and writing.

Theo’s menu-reading skills are a actually a bit of a problem:  “Vivi, there’s a kid’s meal!  Chicken nuggets and fries, and they have milkshakes!  What kind do you want, strawberry?”).

Vivi completed her Kindergarten curriculum last year in junior kindergarten, and had started working on grade one material in Calgary this year.  The kindergarten curriculum of safety and community awareness were covered here in unique ways for her:  earthquake safety training, and a visit to the Ubud post office.   Socially, we are not concerned:  she makes friends wherever she goes.

That said, the kids are still doing a fair amount of academic work.  They are completing a daily journal, and I am especially impressed with Theo’s effort.  He doesn’t want to miss recording a day or an activity, so I’ve had to encourage him to not take it quite so seriously.  Vivi needs more help but is a up to copying out a paragraph in her own words.  We also read books,  and play games such as Bananograms (like scrabble), Professor Noggins, “31”, and  “gin rummy”.  Vivi usually beats us all at “31”.

My pre-trip visit to the Calgary Waldorf school was also well-worth the gems we brought along:  The Wise Enchanter  (a journey through the alphabet), The Burgess Animal Book, The Eight-Year Old Legend Book, and Homer’s Odyssey for kids.

Besides all this, the kids will have attended a total of 4 weeks at Pelangi School here in Bali.  Pelangi was started by Canadian and American expats as a Waldorf style school, but is now following the English curriculum.  I find it a great mix of a gentle approach, along with solid academics.  The teachers are Indonesian, and the kids learn Indonesian and English.  I especially love the school cafe:  $2.50 for each child and I don’t have to worry about lunch or snacks!

The setting for Pelangi is ideal:  in a quiet rice field, with open-air Bamboo buildings.  The majority of kids are foreign as there is a cost, although much less than Green School.  There is also a significant Balinese attendance, with fee reductions and some expats sponsoring local kids.  Vivi had a slight bit of difficulty adjusting at first, as most of the kids in her class speak more Indonesian and Balinese than English.

Both kids are very excited about their upcoming school concert on Earth Day.  Theo is especially proud of his new drumming skills and is asking for a Bongo for his birthday.  If only I could transport Pelangi back to Calgary when we have to go home!

Three hours from Ubud, Amed is a collection of small fishing villages dotting the eastern coastline of Bali.  The area is quite remote and undeveloped compared to other places we’ve been in Bali.

Although spread out over a few kilometres, Amed has quite a few “warungs” (small local restaurants), a number of home-stays and backpacker’s bungalows, and a few nicer hotels.  My guess is that in 10-20 years, this area will look completely different, as development moves in on a bigger scale.

Being low tourist season, it was very quiet (except for the roosters and motos of course).  We were approached regularly by hawkers selling miniature fishing boats or kites, and schoolchildren selling necklaces and bracelets to help pay for school.

We stayed in a hill-side hotel, with a fabulous view over the ocean.  Unfortunately, the view was the best part, as the young local owner seemed overwhelmed with running the hotel and overseeing new building of bungalows.  He frequently complained that money was running out (foreign investment).  It seemed to me as if the investing partner had put up the money, and then left the local owner alone with a management job that he (and his family) was ill-prepared for.

A main draw for the Amed area is diving and snorkeling.  There is a wide variety of professional diving experiences offered, including night dives, wall-dives, and WWII ship-wreck diving, all apparently rivaling the best in the world.  We opted not to dive, given the excellent snorkeling, the expense of diving, and then there’s those kids to take care of.

Theo and Vivi have become quite good swimmers and snorkelers during our trip, although Vivi was frustrated that she couldn’t dive when snorkeling (we made her wear a life-jacket in the ocean).  The snorkeling off the beach was quite impressive, with many schools of colorful fish and some cool coral formations.

My favorite place in Amed was Jemelek Beach, a small fishing community with great snorkeling off the beach, some low-key restaurants and home-stays, and thriving village life.  Vivi and I went snorkeling there one morning and didn’t leave until sunset.  The restaurants here were also some of the best and cheapest, so we could indulge with iced coffees (me), milkshakes (Vivi), and fruit lassies.

Every evening on Jemelek Beach, local kids of all ages would play together in the ocean or on the beach, until sunset.  Popular games included soccer, high-jump (the only landing pad being the hard rocky sand), and hook & line fishing.   When we ate in a restaurant, various members of the family would be coming in and out, often carrying a baby on their hips.

Amed would be the perfect place for a young backpacker to chill out for a while, stay with a local family, rent a motorcycle, get a diving certification, and learn yoga.

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Bali is literally a nusa dewata Bali, or “island of deities Bali”.   It is the only surviving Hindu island in the world’s largest Muslim country of Indonesia.  Balinese are extremely proud of their culture, family structure, and religion.

I am still surprised and amazed at the apparent depth of commitment that Balinese have to their culture and religion.  The Balinese calendar is full of ceremonial dates, and daily life involves multiple offerings and blessings.  Significant amounts of time are spent making daily offerings to various spirits or preparing for celebrations.  Some expats we’ve met roll their eyes at yet “another ceremony” that shuts down traffic, or has their staff leaving for home villages for weeks at a time on a regular basis.

Temples are ubiquitous, present in every household and every village, and in many other natural areas.  Offerings are made daily by women of the household, by people on their way to work, or just when passing by a special place (usually a small basket filled with flowers, rice, and incense, with various other items often added, such as crackers).  Ceremonial processions are a common sight, with participants of all ages dressed beautifully and carrying elaborate offerings.  Gamelan is often heard throughout Ubud and during processions.

The Balinese Hindu religion apparently is nothing like Indian Hinduism.  Rather, it is a unique combination of Hinduism and Buddhism, with animistic influences.  To me, it seems very complicated.  It is all orchestrated by the Brahman priests (and their families), who are charged with leading village spiritual life.

When Balinese go about all these offerings and ceremonies, they have the 4-limbed Balinese swastika in mind.  With humans in the center, it exemplifies the desired balance between humans, God above, plants and animals on the side limbs, and the earth on the bottom.  All must live in harmony and support each other.  While there is only one true God in Balinese Hinduism, God may manifest in many different ways and in many different things.  All life is sacred.

Wayan, an experienced tour-guide, explained it in this way:  sometimes he is known as “father”, sometimes “son”, sometimes “tour guide”, etc., but his spirit remains the same.  Thus, the offerings to the “spirit of the tree”, or “spirit of Krishna or Ganesha”, are offerings to different manifestations of God.

When Wayan dies, his spirit will rest in the graveyard temple until cremation, at which time it will come back to the family temple.  At some time in the future, his spirit will be reincarnated, into a new baby within his extended family.  About 40 days after a baby is born, a priest will determine who’s spirit is reincarnated in the baby.  Wayan said that it is often uncanny how the person’s character is so similar to that of the deceased person.

The  results of this constant daily focus on living with the Gods, seems on my first impressions to be quite positive.  As a culture, I would use the word “mindful” to describe most Balinese.  They seem to understand that they are a part of a greater whole, and that their collective responsibility is greater than their individuality.  For example, they use Nyepi day to help purify the entire world, not just Bali.  I have witnessed extreme patience and tolerance, and an impressive sense of humour.  There is a strong concept of Yin/Yang, that in everything is both negative and positive, and that these must be honoured and kept in balance.

The extended family structure seems to be an ideal situation for children.  Although most don’t have much in the way of material things, kids often have large extended families in a culture that adores children, all living in one compound or at least in the same village.  Babies are carried constantly for 3 months, at which time they have a ground touching ceremony.  The women work hard, but have constant female camaraderie and support in the way of child-care.  Families sleep together in one bed.  Even “attachment parenting” can’t compete with all this!  It is more like “the attachment village”.

I have also been touched at the gentleness of the men, the way the older boys and men interact with, care for and joke with the younger children.  There isn’t much in the way of Macho behavior.  The men seemed somehow “filled up”, or secure and connected to each other, in ways that many Western men seem to be missing.

Tourism and development are rapidly changing some of these dynamics.  We have no plans to even visit Kuta, otherwise known as the playground for young Australians, complete with any hedonistic activity anyone could want, at cheap prices.   Now that rice farming is less and less common among this generation, many children are not living traditional lives.  Wayan says that his children don’t want to farm or work with the tourists.  They want to go to university and get professional certifications, so that they can have lives much different from those of their parents.

A highlight of my visit here would have to be visiting Besakih, the most sacred temple on the island, on the most sacred mountain, Mt. Agung.  We visited on one of the most important days of the year, on the full moon.  It also happened to be the most important full-moon day in ten years.  The different spirit manifestations are said to come down and inhabit the family temples for a time.  The temple was filled with people coming to pray, receive blessings, make offerings, dance, and just hang out with large extended families.

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Three hours drive from Ubud, up a meandering mountain pass road, and down “Snake Road”, is the town of Lovina.  We arrived somewhat nauseated, but were much refreshed by the lovely “welcome drink”, offered on guest’s arrival by nearly every hotel.

The ocean was a nice change, after 2 1/2 weeks in Ubud.  Vivianne was especially thrilled, as she is our little beach girl – she could spend entire days hunting for shells and digging in the sand.  Our small hotel was certainly set in paradise, with the most beautiful gardens surrounding the pool area.   A short walk through the rice paddie was a local fishing beach.

Although only here for two days, we managed to do two of the area’s main tourist activities:  snorkeling and sunrise dolphin watching.  We also spent a fair amount of time being engaged by and trying to avoid hawkers;  it is slow season in Bali and the smaller areas seem especially desperate for tourist dollars.  One man in particular seemed to show up on his moto at several points throughout our days, with various items for sale.  Finally, Dan, giving credit for persistence, gave in and bought a few trinkets (and provided fodder for a “life-lesson” for Théo).

Both the snorkeling and dolphin watching were done from local outrigger fishing boats.  Luckily we had brought a life-jacket from home for Vivi, and masks for us all, as the equipment was questionable.  We were also concerned by the chugging sound coming from our motor;  it reminded me of one of the old farm tractors.  Who knows why the dolphins keep coming back each morning to be chased down by a fleet of noisy outboard motors.

Disconnected from internet, we didn’t hear about the Japan earthquake until 2 days after it happened.  Apparently our area had been put on tsunami alert, but we had no idea!  The night before the big earthquake, I had felt tremors in Ubud.  We started feeling a bit vulnerable, and booked our next beach accommodation on a hillside location!

Here in Ubud, the Green School has created quite a buzz, and has been garnering international media attention (BBC, CNN, ABC, CNBC, TED.com, and even The Globe and Mail, Feb, 11, 2011).   I first came across this school on the internet a few months ago; in that short time, the school’s renown has increased exponentially.  Only 3 years after it’s inception, the school is suddenly a draw for many international students and their families.  Classes are filling up.

Why all the excitement about Green School?   It’s mode of operation is, “Empowering global citizens and green innovators who are inspired to take responsibility for the sustainability of the world”.  A tall order, but certainly some interesting ideas have taken shape.  Also, there is rising controversy about the project.

Théo, Vivi, and I visited the Green School on one of their bi-weekly, after-school tours.  We hired a driver to get the 30 minutes to and from the country location.  There were approximately 30 people on our tour, ranging in description from prospective parents and their children, to grandparents, tourists, architecture buffs, and engineers.

The school itself is beautiful, all of the buildings open-air and made of bamboo.  Even the furniture is beautiful, sleek, and made of bamboo.  Green jungle and rice patties surround the campus.  There are interesting sights, from the hand-placed volcanic rock pathways, to exotic endangered birds (a grade 9 biology project),water-buffalo, and a cow, to a mud-pit created to honor a popular local sport (some sort of mixed martial-arts mud-wrestling – I didn’t quite figure that one out).  Each class has its own organic garden.

The “heart of school” is a gigantic bamboo, 3-story structure, which is apparently a big draw for the architectural crowd.  There are even sunken “pods”, which on the hottest days can be turned into air-conditioned “bubbles” complete with desks and benches.  There is an interesting project going on, involving a “vortex” turbine to get Green School completely off the grid.

The brainchild behind this school is a man named John Hardy.  He came to Bali as a young man and artist, and developed an internationally successful jewellery company based on traditional Balinese jewelery making.   After selling his share in the business in 2006, he set about creating the “Green School”.   Besides being “green”, the Green School is meant to promote Steiner-influenced, holistic, experiential learning, a contrast to Hardy’s own school experiences.  Although only wealthy foreigners can actually afford the tuition ($10 000.00/year), there is a scholarship fund for local kids – 20% of enrollment.  The school has spin-off projects such as “Green Camp” for visiting schools, and even a concierge to help with visa and housing requirements.

Hardy has now become a champion for bamboo.  A grass, it can release 35% more oxygen into the air than trees, and it grows exceptionally fast.  As a building material, it is very “green”, can be treated against termites or beetles, and if protected (by elephant grass), can be exceptionally strong and durable (can last 150 years).  Hardy has developed a program to give bamboo seeds to farmers, and buy the resulting bamboo for harvest.  He also built a bamboo hotel, Bambu Indah, and has helped start Ibuku, a bamboo building and furniture company.  A current project is building a master-planned “green village” of 32 homes close to the school.  Hardy also wishes to build another 50 Green Schools.

Théo and Vivianne adored the school, and of course want to go there.   Théo has been concerned about “being green”, since a year of hype in a Calgary grade 1 with no real action.  I think he was surprised to see a school actually trying to live up to its message in a practical way.  The kids have begged to attend all of the Waldorf/Steiner influenced schools we’ve visited, and I certainly wish that I could have given them that kind of gentle start to their formal education.

Either way, the Green School will be an interesting project to watch, in terms of how it handles its growth and manages the surrounding controversy, and whether it achieves its goals.

Watch John Hardy’s talk on TED.com.  It’s called My Green School Dream.   The comments are also interesting.

What would happen if everything in your country shut down for 24 hours?  That’s exactly what occurs here on Bali once each year.  This year, the Absolute Silence Day, on March 5, celebrates the 1933 Caka New Year of the Balinese Hindu calendar.

The goal of Nyepi is to both celebrate the new year, and to aid in purification of the world from human activities.    All entry gates into Bali are shut down, including all harbours and the international airport (excepting transit, emergency landings, and medical evacuations).  All occupants of the island must stay at home, and refrain from lighting fires (i.e. cooking), working (excepting emergency staff), traveling, and amusements.  No TV, iPods, computers, or music.

The Balinese being such hospitable people, and tourism accounting for the largest portion of the island’s economy, tourists in hotels are granted certain exceptions.  We were given specific hours for eating, and a special menu that included buffet items, and other “quietly produced” food items (i.e. no blender drinks).

Had we strayed from our compound though, we would most likely have been quickly escorted back quickly by police.  We were also asked to keep lights and noise to a minimum (you can imagine that with 2 hyper Canadian children, it was not the day of rest for me that everyone else seemed to be experiencing).  Many tourists actually schedule their vacations around this holiday to avoid “losing” a day of fun.

The day prior to Nyepi Day is “Tawur Agung Kesanga”.  This day involves a sacrificial ceremony to the underworld spirits, so they will not disturb humans during Nyepi day.  In the evening there is a parade of “Ogoh-ogoh”, or huge, fearsome monsters, created diligently over the previous month from bamboo, paper, cloth, paint, and other materials (eg. styrofoam).   Various groups compete in an effort to produce the scariest monster.  One crowd-pleasing Ohoh-ogoh involved the surprise release of two doves from the monster’s head.  Later in the evening, the monsters are burned to dispel the evil spirits.

The Ogoh-ogoh parade was indeed fearsome, with rowdy young men hoisting the large effigies and making a huge amount of noise with their voices and various instruments.  The street police could barely restrain the young men, yoked into their bamboo struts, from spilling over into the watching crowds.  Vivianne, after nearly being trampled (Theo valiantly protected her), in addition to the noise and scary monsters, was terrified.  Theo, of course, loved it.

The day following Neypi feels somewhat like New Year’s Day in Canada.  There is a holiday atmosphere, people visiting relatives and eating special meals.  It is  known as a forgiving day  where one resolves any resentments with others.  In the evening, there is a long temple ceremony, with music and traditional dancing until very late.   Entire families attend, with all ages (including toddlers) in traditional dress and costume.

In Nyepi weekend, the Balinese demonstrate strength of tradition and community, as well as an innovative model for climate change.  The Balinese government has actually called on the world to embrace a Global Day of Silence.   Imagine the impact if the entire world shut down energy consumption for just one day.