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.

Here we are in Ubud, Bali, the setting of the “Love” part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love”.

So far, I have not left my husband to go find my Phillippé (for those of you who are worried).   Should I decide to follow in Gilbert’s footsteps, however, I would apparently have plenty of company here in Ubud (women of a certain age looking for romance . . .).  Actually, I wonder where they find the energy in this lethargy-inspiring climate!

Learning would be the best way to describe our first week here;  this country is full of complexity and contradiction.  First of all, our bodies still learning to function in this very hot, humid climate (first lesson, drink water constantly).

Other things we are learning:  to sleep with the night chorus of frogs, birds, and cicadas, and the sunrise crowing of roosters.  To walk on the road without being hit by a scooter.  Our first words of Balinese (matur suksima = thank you) and Indonesian (dri-makasee = thank you).  That the questions, “Where are you staying”, or “Where are you going”, are polite conversation and do not require a precise answer.   That every day brings new religious ceremonies, holidays, and offerings.   And learning the market value of items versus the “tourist price”.

Although the kid’s main “homeschooling” task has been keeping a daily journal, I’d like to think that they are accomplishing lots of “experiential” learning.  Vivianne is amazed at the many life-forms in the jungle:  beautiful flowers (falling from trees throughout the village – really), banana and coconut trees, salamanders, monkeys, giant millipedes, huge butterflies, dragon-flies, tropical birds, bats, and ant super-highways.  She was somewhat traumatized in the monkey forest, by a macawk who jumped on her head to steal and eat her brand-new flower hair clip (yum, styrofoam).

Théo, ever the 7-year old boy, is fascinated with the scooters, the tilling machine used to plow the rice patties, spectacular lightning and thunder-showers, the RC car with flashing lights owned by a boy down the street, and the way our hotel staff fold napkins and towels into hats, butterflies, and swans (he is now begging me to buy him an origami book – internet will have to suffice for now).

Last night, we attended a traditional Balinese dance performance, where every eye and hand movement has meaning.   The kids were seated in the front, the best seats in the house, and were transfixed for 90 minutes.   They were previously able to take a Balinese dance lesson, so Théo was thrilled when they did “his” dance, a warrior dance.  Of course, they were just as thrilled with our bedtime ice-cream snack.

On another level, we have been confronted with some third-world realities, such  kids and babies without helmets on scooters, roosters spending their days in tiny cages (we haven’t told the kids about cock-fighting), poor old ladies begging for money, a slug crawling in the lettuce in Vivi’s sandwich (she handled it quite well – even ate the rest of the sandwich!), washed out roads and rubbish in alleys, and people grabbing our arms, begging us to buy stuff.

But this is Ubud, so this all coexists with 5-star restaurants, the Nike store, Billabong, and high-end spas and villas. Central Ubud is very touristy, especially since the Gilbert book publicized it widely.  Spas promote “eat, pray, love” treatments, and one can buy any variety of souvenirs blaring the slogan.  It is obvious however obvious that the country-side, and the “real Bali” (where the tourist buses don’t go) is never very far.

These are of course just my first impressions.  We are hoping to both gain a deeper understanding of the culture and country, and to venture further afield in the next few weeks.

Next up is Nyepi, a religious holiday starting tonight with a parade of monster spirits (people have been working hard on the styrofoam and papier-mache monsters all this week).  The monsters are later burned to dispel evil spirits.  Tomorrow is a day of fasting, rest, and purification dedicated to the Gods;  everything in town is closed.  Tourists are given a break, so if we stay in the hotel compound tomorrow, we will still be able to eat.

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We arrived in Singapore past midnight, to a blast of heat (30 degrees celsius), and humidity (89%)!  We find ourselves to be constantly thirsty.  Luckily, our hotel has a lovely rooftop pool.   Also, air-conditioning is present on the MRT, the buses, and everywhere indoors, so we have not been far from a place to cool off.  Further, every afternoon has brought loud but refreshing thunderstorms.  Running through warm rain is such a novelty!

Much of our time in Singapore has been spent at the city’s three world-class zoos:  the Jurong Bird Park (“The World’s Largest Bird Paradise”), the Singapore Zoo (“World’s Best Rainforest Zoo”), and the Night Safari (“The First, The Only”).  We were able to see an extraordinary variety of birds and animals, and also a few shows featuring extremely well-trained animal stars.  The animals in general did seem quite well cared for, in very large and natural looking enclosures.  There were also free-ranging orangutans, and large walk-through enclosures full of fruit bats, flying squirrels, and various exotic birds.  The Bird Park and the Zoo are also involved in various conservation efforts, such as protecting the 12-wired bird of paradise and the Proboscus monkey.

Although traveling with children is often like window-shopping – you can look but you can’t really go in – we are enjoying the Singapore atmosphere of multiculturalism, varied architecture, general friendliness, and endless food choices (Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, plus English, Western, and everything else, at any price point).  The different neighborhoods are so well-marked out (stemming from Colonial history), that crossing from one into the other is like visiting a different country (e.g. Little India to the Colonial District to China town . . .).

Theo and Vivi have developed a taste for Bubble Tea, Dan seeks out the big multicultural food courts, and I’m partial to fresh papaya and either Iced Kopi or hot Kopi made with espresso and condensed milk.  The kids are still attracting lots of attention, mostly from the many tourists from other Asian countries.  The kids have also developed amazing stamina for our all-day walking tours!

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It was great to spend a day with our expat relatives, Uncle Aaron and Auntie Amy.  They live on Lantau island, which is accessible by train or by ferry.  Aaron is a pilot for Cathay Pacific, and Amy works in a medical office.  We liked their cute apartment, and enjoyed being served a great coffee, home-made granola, and a German beer (Aaron often flies to Frankfurt).  The kids were also relieved to go for lunch involving pizza, spaghetti, and cake.

Uncle Aaron is especially cool, obviously because he is a pilot, but also because he has an X-box!  Théo and Vivi couldn’t get enough of Rock Band, and improved their skills impressively over a few hours.

Our time in Hong Kong has been a bit of a blur!  After about 3 days of jet lag, we finally woke up at about 5 am instead of 2 am.   Yesterday, we woke up at 7 am!  The kids are adjusting to being 16 hours ahead, although Théo is still exhausted (meaning cranky and constantly acting up, teasing Vivi, etc.).

The day after our “fart” day, Théo and went on a factory tour (related to Dan’s business) to Shenzen, China, while Vivi and I went to the Ladies Market in Monkok.  Both days were full-on culture shock for the kids.

Théo was treated as a novelty toy at the factory, and treated to lunch, which started off with chicken feet for appetizers (not the best first meal on a woozy stomach).  Théo was so grossed out that he barely ate anything for about 24 more hours, when we stopped at a “Monster Burger”.  It was also a very full day for the boys, as they had to leave at 8 am and didn’t get back until about 6pm.

Vivi and I had our own culture shock, when we naively took a shopping trip to the most populated place in the world.  Hong Kong itself is incredibly busy, with 6.8 million people crammed into a city the size of Manhatten.  But Mongkok, the area that contains the Ladies Market, is the world’s most densely populated area, at 130, 000 people per square kilometer (compared to the 1 252 people per square kilometer we are used to).  Vivianne was stared at, her cheeks pinched, and her head patted.  Many residents of this area are immigrants from mainland China, and have had little experience with cute little red-headed girls.  It was pretty overwhelming, especially on a few hours of sleep.  We bargained for hair-clips for both of us (found out later that we got a good deal), and had lunch at a noodle shop (suspect meat but the noodles and broth were fine!).

The day after was a sight-seeing day on Hong Kong Island.   We took the world’s longest escalator, which goes for 20 minutes up the side of a mountain.  We also took the Peak Tram up Victoria Mountain (although the weather has been unusual, socked in with fog, so no views), and ran down through the forest.  Over on Hong Kong Island, it is much more familiar, with more tourists, expats, English speakers, and more familiar restaurants and stores.  We found a Chinese staple that the kids love – coconut buns fresh from the bakery.  We are also quite adept now at taking the MTR commuter train, as it takes at least 45 minutes for us to get out of the suburbs where our hotel is located.