bali connection

For a long time now, I’ve been haunted by Gamelan music. Unique to Bali, it is part of everyday life (played at Festivals, ceremonies and funerals, events which seem to take place frequently), by an orchestra (Gamelan means orchestra) typically of local people.

Gamelan is a rich, hypnotic, repetitive, sophisticated music, created by players each playing quote simple lines of music - the simplest being the deep gong (that’s where the word comes from).


While in Bali, we were invited to a funeral from one of the people of the village where we were staying. Sadly, it was not of a 90 year old man, but the 35 year old wife of our Bemo driver. It took place right at the edge of the water, on a beautiful sunny day - the kind of day you hope for every day of your life. The village Gamelan was there, and I had the rare privilege of standing right along side them as they played. Being surrounded by the sound, feeling it reverberate through your skin, was perhaps the most uplifting musical experience of my life (which has included concerts by the likes of U2 many many years ago, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, the La Scala orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti, and many others).

Standing there, I also felt I knew where Brian Eno got about 50% of his tricks from ;-)

Much more than just a holiday

We are back from our month in Bali. We left in a blaze of Oprah excitement and christmas parties and - after 4 weeks of being offline - returned to the aftermath of yet another Australian summer national disaster.

If you would like the short version, here it is: we had a great time. Please go to Bali.

Long version: When we set off for Bali we were so excited that we were staying in a beautiful house with a big pool, right on the sea. That the house came with a chef, cleaner, manager, gardener, security guard and that we had also hired 2 local nannies to live in with us to take care of the children. We were looking forward to sleep sleep sleep, eating delicious Balinese food cooked for us by our chef, having massages out in the gazebo, being pampered, recovering from a long difficult year, relaxing, reading, drinking cocktails and otherwise completely indulging ourselves.

We certainly got all of the above.

The house was beautiful

as was the pool by the sea

the food was delicious, the staff were solicitous, the massages superb. we read about 20 books each, drank way too much of a rather dubious local brew called Mister Vodka (as John said “I don’t know who this Mister Vodka is, but I don’t want to meet him in a dark alley”) and slept in every morning. Most nights after the kids were asleep John and I would sneak out to the pool for a swim under the stars, with the only sound the crashing of waves and the barking of geckos.

Having said that our holiday was completely different to what I expected. If I could only use one word to describe it, that word would be “humbling”.

What we didn’t really understand when we set out was that where we were going up on the North coast of Bali is the poorest part of the island, completely different to the South. Most of the people who live near where we were staying have nothing at all. Like, seriously nothing. When I read about people up in Queensland losing everything in the New Year floods my initial reaction was that ironically, so long as the people in Queensland escaped with their lives and their clothes on their backs, they still had more than the people of Northern Bali because they have their land, access to health care, government assistance and opportunity to rebuild.

So, with that in mind, this is our Bali story.

We stepped off the plane in Denpasar, bleary from a 4am start, trying to find the ATMs to pay the arrival tax (if anyone is going to Bali in the future please make mental note now: the ATMs are on the other side of immigration, so if you don’t have enough cash to pay for the tax what you do is wave your passport at the nice security man, go through immigration, find ATM, get out money, go back through immigration smiling and saying ‘terima kasih’ to the nice security man and then go and pay for your visa. do not do what I did which was ask several nice security men ‘di mana ATM?’ and then not believe them when they try to usher you through the diplomatic entry lane bypassing all bureaucracy. And then continue wandering around the arrivals hall trying to stick your credit card in the electronic information booths in the misguided hope that they might spit out some money until nice security man actually abandons his job of protecting the borders and personally escorts you to the machine. Better still, just bring at least $30 per person cash to pay for your arrival tax instantly. much easier!) By the time we negotiated the ATM, wrassled our bags through the customs area where poor old Schapelle met her doom, found our driver, packed car and set off on the drive through the mountains we were ready for our holiday.

It’s a three hour drive up to the North, you start out in Denpasar with its big shopping centres and government buildings and traffic lights and loads of traffic and gradually gradually life on the other side of the car window gets poorer. The shopping centres turn into mini marts, then into roadside stalls; the restaurants with the tourist coaches out front become warungs selling one thing only such as goat sate or chicken ball soup; the day spas become locals bathing themselves and their children in the stream next to the road; the 6 lane highway becomes a two lane road with no markings. You drive through Ubud which has fancy boutiques, up the mountain to Kintamani with its restaurants looking out over Gunung Agung and Lake Batur. Then, when you are past Kintamani right in the heart of the mountains, the fog rolls in, people are using elephant ear sized leaves as umbrellas, the warung selling plastic raincoats seem to be doing a roaring trade, people are shivering in jumpers. You start the winding drive back down the other side of the mountains, raining harder now, there are mini land slips at the sides of the road, the driver has to lean on the horn going around the bends to warn oncoming traffic that we are on our way. Then Zoe starts vomiting from being in the car and Juliet is wailing and none of us are feeling too crash hot and just when you think you can’t take it anymore there’s another half hour or so of driving and THEN you are at the Villa.

The staff are waiting outside the front gate for us. Kadek the manager and Komang the gardener/pool boy and Iluh the chef. We are whisked inside and our bags brought in and the children given juice. Meanwhile I am scrabbling around for an old towel or something to clean out the vomit in the car. And trying to make myself understood with my poor Indonesian while the staff look at me aghast as I am going through their cupboards that I need to clean up the car because Zoe has been sick. And when they finally understand what I am on about they give me the kind look one gives very old daft people or the mentally infirm and lead me out to the deck, sit me down on the couch, give me a mango juice and tell me not to worry about cleaning up the vomit, that is their job. I escape from the couch and race out to find the driver to apologise for the spew in his car, and for the several hours of ear bleeding wailing from Juliet and to give him some extra money to pay to clean the car and I again get the kind look from Made the driver, the exhortation to please not worry about it or the money, just have a nice holiday and he will be back to pick us up in a month.

The nannies Putu and Komang (the kids swiftly dubbed her The Girl Komang and Komang the gardener The Boy Komang) arrived too, they were staying with us as they lived too far away to come and go every day. There were enough bedrooms for them each to have their own room with ensuite but they decided to share I think because they wanted the company. Over dinner we got to know each other a little. Putu is 18 and from down South, in Sanur. Her parents are farmers, she is the eldest of 4 children.


The Girl Komang is my age, 40, mother of 6 children from ages 22 months to 22 years. She lives about an hour’s drive away.

The girls start melting down from the long day. Scarlie has a quiet mantra of “I don’t want to go in Bali. I want to go home.” and Zoe completely loses it and lies in her bunk bed screaming “TAKE ME HOME!!! RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!” for about an hour before passing out from exhaustion. At about 4am she sneaks into bed with me and John and Juliet and says “I’m just letting you know I’ve changed my mind. I do want to stay” then snuggles back to sleep.

The next day is spent booking massages, swimming in the pool, telling Iluh the chef what we would like her to cook us for dinner that night, getting to know Mister Vodka. And the next day, and the one after that. There is a festival in the village, we are invited. The Girl Komang takes on Juliet as her personal project and scrubs her scalp free of cradle cap, reports daily on bowel motions “she make good poo-poo”. Putu takes on the care of the older girls, many hours are spent looking in the fish pond. To keep the girls out of the pond I told them that there were eels in it who love to eat little girls, so there are several excursions a day to look for the eels and the girls make up the rule that if you are looking in the eel pond you have to have your hands behind your back otherwise the eels might jump out and bite them off. All visitors to the pond are watched anxiously by Zoe and Scarlie to make certain that this rule is strictly adhered to.

With the help of practice, a dictionary and much patience from the staff my Indonesian quickly improves to the extent that I can chat to the locals and we can all get to know each other a bit better. As the days go on I start to feel increasingly uneasy in my role as Madame, here to be waited on hand and foot. I try to explain that I don’t need my underpants ironed, that I can get my own glass of juice, that really all I want is to not have to shout at the kids for several weeks and to be able to take a nap when I feel like it. Putu, Komang and Iluh say they understand but continue to iron my pants anyway and don’t let me wash up when I try.

Kadek Frida helps break down the barriers.


Kadek Frida is the daughter of Kadek, who is the manager/host. She is 4, she is gorgeous, exceptionally cheeky, speaks Bahasa Indonesia about as well as I do (her first language is Balinese), likes nothing better than to eat sweets and wear sparkly dressups. Kadek Frida has clearly not accepted the local wisdom that the Australian Madame and Sir must be treated like royalty and not disturbed in any way. She instantly strips down to her knickers, shows me the scratch on her foot and gets in the pool, insisting that I carry her around pretending to be a nyamuk (mosquito), singing ‘ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump’, pointing imperiously where she wants me to take her. I start calling her ‘Nyonya’ (madame) which she accepts with a regal grace.

That first afternoon with Kadek Frida I learned the universal truth that if a child is shown an iPad within 2 minutes that child will have mastered Angry Birds and will be making the Talking Tom Cat say very rude things indeed. Within 5 minutes they will be fighting with another child over possession of same.

When Kadek takes Kadek Frida home a bit later I say to him that the girls had so much fun playing with her they are insisting that she comes every day and that I will be in trouble if she is not here. Of course, I forget that Kadek is used to guests who expect their every whim to be indulged, so from then on poor Kadek Frida is trotted over to our place every morning and instructed to play with the girls whether she feels like it or not. Not that she usually minds, though she does tell me that she prefers to play with Zoe because Scarlie is ‘nakal’ (naughty).

Christmas day is coming up and though the locals don’t celebrate Christmas they always love a party so we decide to throw a Christmas party for the local kids. Komang’s children come from their village, Kadek Frida is of course in residence, as are Ketut and Erna, Kadek Frida’s cousins and nieces of Iluh the chef. Plus Gede, Kadek F’s older brother and we are also expecting the sons of Suwit the security guard. Suwit’s English is worse than my Indonesian so we have difficulty communicating but he does say that the kids are looking forward to ‘the Merry Christmas’.

Zoe and I take a bemo into Singaraja to buy presents for the kids. A bemo is like a tarago with two bench seats down either side and no back door. Actually a very good way to travel as the breeze whistles in the door and makes it very comfy. We are expecting to be buying presents for Kadek F, Erna, Ketut and The Girl Komang’s daughter Geby. Then for Suwit’s boys, Gede and The Girl Komang’s son Mesha. We buy Ben10 hats and cars for the boys, barbie dolls and pink plastic phones for the girls, plus party dresses for each girl and swimming costumes as they don’t own them. Plus lots of chocolates brought from home.

Christmas arrives and so do the kids and we realise we have vastly undercatered when about 9 extra boys lob in to our party. So I start making up extra parcels with money and chocolate and telling John that if we really run out of presents I will start wrapping up his t-shirts and giving them away. Also a minor panic when The Girl Komang’s son Mesha turns up and is a girl thus probably does not want a Ben10 baseball cap and monster car truck thingy and no party dress for her but I manage to persuade Zoe to give away one of the dresses she brought from Australia and luckily there is a spare barbie doll.

We challenge the boys to a penalty shoot out competition with John as the goalie. None of the girls want to play as they are watching Barbie Fashion Fairytale, all wearing their party dresses.

Christmas winds up with some fireworks out in the back garden. I light one and promptly trip over my pants, fall to the ground and to the shrieks of horror of the girls and assembled staff have to crawl over the back lawn to avoid it blowing up in my face. Then we decide to light one of the big roman candles but John doesn’t bury it properly and it falls over and starts firing directly at us from a distance of about 10 metres. Everyone grabs a child and bolts indoors while being sprayed with gunpowder and bits of shot, much screaming. A scared bat flies into the house to escape the inferno, the house fills with smoke, we are all huddling behind a concrete wall, children crying, me grabbing the fire blanket trying to assess whether we have actually set the house on fire or not. Then once we realise that we are all safe and that there is a bit of a scorch mark on one wall but no actual fire we are all sitting on the floor crying with laughter. Great, awesome way to finish off Christmas though the girls are still crying and Scarlie says “I don’t want to do that again”. Juliet keeps pointing out the window wondering where the noisy lights have gone.

From Christmas onwards the barriers have broken down as the staff realise that we are not the normal sort of assholes they have staying and that we would actually like to get to know them, that we will not be reporting anything other than positive things to the owner of the villa and that generally we are actually human and enjoy their company. Little by little we begin to draw out what their lives are really like.

Turns out The Girl Komang had to wean her baby Geby to take the job looking after my kids.

That the money we gave her and the other staff for Christmas came at just the right time as it allowed her to pay her rent. That even though she and Putu were working for us for four weeks they weren’t getting paid a cent until the end of the job and that the agency was taking 60% of the fee we paid them. That Geby and Mesha live with The Girl Komang’s 90 year old mother in a 2 room house with a dirt floor, no electricity, no running water. the toilet is a hole in the ground dug in the bushes. That if one of the kids gets sick all Komang can do is rub toothpaste on their tummies and pray because she doesn’t have any money to pay for medicine or a doctor. That when Komang’s now 19 year old daughter was 7 she got tuberculosis. Komang wasn’t there, she was in Dubai working as a maid/housekeeper/chef/nanny from 5am-1am 7 days a week. Komang’s mum was also not there, she was out at work, and the little girl didn’t get to the hospital in time and is now permanently disabled.

That of all the jobs Komang has done like the job with us, we were the first people to try to get to know her, to give her a present, to ask her to take a day off to go to be with her family for Balinese Mother’s Day, to ask her what the agency actually pays her.

Putu too said that the only other families that she has worked for that have been nice to her were Australian families. Turns out that while we were celebrating Christmas (and Putu’s birthday) Putu was desperately trying to help her family. Denpasar had had its own floods, her farmer parents couldn’t get to the markets to sell their produce, her sister was sick with no money for medicine and not able to work and they had nothing to eat. They eventually pawned Putu’s scooter to get a little money for food.

Of course I gave Putu some money for her family but she insisted on giving half of it to Komang because, as she said, “Komang has much less than I do”.

Iluh and Putu and Komang ( The Girls) all became good friends with each other and Iluh started staying back at nights to hang out, take a shower and gossip. Apparently we were the first guests to invite Iluh to actually share the delicious food she was cooking for us. And of course having a shower was a fantastic luxury in a village where people bathe in the sea or a cold stream.

Iluh still did all the cooking and cleaning but she also relaxed a bit and started to have some fun - coming out to lunch with us all and to the local natural springs swimming pool, or to see the dolphin show.

Or staying and having a girls pyjama party, watching Sex And The City 2 and eating the Balinese version of timtams.

The Girls kept asking me why we were being so nice to them and the only way I could explain was by saying that the only way for us to have a nice holiday was by ensuring that they had what they needed and that they too were having a nice time. That there was no way I could enjoy being a spoiled Western woman allowing myself to be pampered by people who were being paid less per month than we would spend on a takeaway meal.

Komang and I became good friends, both being mothers and the same age we had a lot in common though of course our lives are vastly different. Komang has worked only about a billion times harder than I have in my life. I learned Indonesian at my free high school, she never went to school but taught herself how to read and write and speak English and Italian by listening to her employers. I had my first baby at 35, she had hers at 18. When I was 23 I went to London for a holiday shopping at Harrods and seeing the Christmas lights on Regent Street. She got shipped off to the wilds of Kalimantan as part of a forced government transmigration program where she had to try to be a farmer, deliver her friends’ babies and deal with hostility from the locals. I had the opportunity to get any job I wanted to so long as I worked hard and didn’t fuck up. She works harder than anyone I have met in my entire life yet has had no opportunities because with the hopeless infrastructure and massive bureaucratic corruption in Bali you need either a rich patron or family connections to get anything. I worry that my girls won’t enjoy school. She knows that unless someone like me pays for her girls to go to school they won’t get to go at all. I worry that I might die and my daughters will be emotionally screwed up by having a dead mother. She worries that she will die and that her daughters will starve to death.

I have to add that at no point did anyone whinge or have their hand out asking for anything. No-one complained about their hard lives, in fact I think they were all very happy though of course stressed about the usual things like not really liking Iluh’s boyfriend and wishing she’d dump him, and having period pain and being annoyed that Indonesia lost the soccer grudge match against Malaysia. But how nice for them if they could live in a house with a floor and be able to send their kids to school and afford to eat chicken more than once a year and get medicine if they get sick.

Luckily for me and for my holiday not being spent by me freaking out feeling helpless and sad and spoiled it is really really easy to help people in Bali if you have a little bit of spare money. Things are cheap.

$1 would buy noodles for breakfast for Geby for a week

$5 buys antibiotics if someone is sick

$120 will pay for a Mesha to attend high school for a year

$200 would buy Komang’s 90 year old mum a bathroom so that she doesn’t have to dig a hole in the ground to go to the toilet

$2500 would buy Komang her own house, with a bathroom and electricity and running water

I know John and I will be able to help Komang get at least a bathroom for her mum and to sponsor her children’s healthcare and education. I am immensely grateful too that I have somewhere to send the kid’s castoff clothes, old toiletries and medication. Putu wants to be a chef and we are going to try to help her get some training and work opportunities. She might even come to Australia to be our au pair.

But I don’t know if we are going to have enough money to help all the other worthy children of Northern Bali get the education, medicine and food that they need.

So here’s a plea. And I know I sound like Liz fucking Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love let’s buy a house for my shonky friend in Ubud and then write a book about it and cast Julia Roberts as me in the movie.


If the above has in any way moved you and you would like to help, here are some things you could do.

First of all, please have a holiday in Bali and try to stay somewhere a little off the beaten track and tip generously. I had heard all sorts of horror stories about beggars etc but seriously apart from one toadlike porter at Denpasar airport not a single person anywhere asked me for a tip or tried to sell me anything or tried to rip me off. You will have a great time. If you want to have the sort of holiday where when you leave the staff come in on their day off to wave goodbye and then break down weeping uncontrollably because they will miss you, go to Northern Bali.

If you have little children and you are going on holiday to Bali and would like to hire a babysitter, please consider hiring Putu or Komang. For about $40 a day or about $4 an hour you will have them as your children’s personal slaves, they will iron your pants, cook your food, love your children as their own. Putu lives down South so wouldn’t need to live in with you if you are staying in the more touristy areas. Komang would need to live in unless you were staying up around Lovina or Singaraja. I have their contact details if you are going there.

Or if you have a spare couple of dollars and would like to know it would be hugely hugely helpful to someone’s child - seriously, even $5 would be a big help, please donate to this fantastic charity which works in Northern Bali Helen Flavel Foundation helping children get to school, old ladies have toilets and people have houses that are made from bricks instead of sticks.

Helen and her team work from their home for no wages for 40 hours a week helping the beautiful people of Northern Bali. Helen tells me she currently has 20 children on her books who are in desperate need of sponsorship. Just $150 a year would allow one of those children to go to high school and have the opportunity to get a job.

If you don’t like the idea of sending money directly please consider making a loan via microfinance with an organisation like Kiva. Kiva allows you to make small loans to people in developing countries to set up their own businesses. You get your money back and you get to make a difference. It’s like being a fun mini-bank! I am encouraging Komang to register with one of the Indonesian branches as she would like to set up a small shop.

So we are now home and have wonderful memories from our trip. Instead of being the ultimate luxury it was more like a month staying with a bunch of uncles and aunties and cousins who all miraculously got on with each other and had fun. In luxurious surroundings. Everyone mucked in and had a great time.

No-one more than Juliet (nicknamed cumi-cumi or The Squid) whose plump bottom did not ever touch Balinese soil as she was constantly carried around by one or other of her many adoring slaves. Wherever she pointed her little finger she was instantly whisked to, her every utterance was repeated in adoring tones, she was waltzed around, sung to, built hammocks for. She has been so utterly spoiled that she refused point blank to get into her car seat for the drive back to the airport and would only consent to stop screaming if she sat in my lap on the front seat, with Made the driver holding her hand. I am afraid that Juliet will be very miserable for a while now she realises that her days as a Little Empress are over.

some photos of our trip

Ketut with the cumi-cumi.

Scarlie insisted on me cutting her hair the same as Kadek Frida’s. with nail scissors.

Sate lesson. There were howls of laughter at my first efforts but eventually passed muster.

Party on the last night. We hired a gamelan orchestra and dancers to perform in the back garden, set off some more fireworks, invited all our friends. I asked Putu what people would serve their guests at a typical party and she said “the kids love fried chicken and rice and for the grownups just some beers and cigarettes and arak (local spirit) and maybe some peanuts and chips”. Then when I came home from the shops with 5 chickens to chop up and fry and arak, beer, smokes, peanuts and chips she looked at me aghast and said “I didn’t mean you should actually buy all that stuff, I was only kidding. That was like fantasy stuff!”

Naturally during the last dance everyone was made to get up and make a dickhead out of themselves

Balinese funeral. You hope when you go to these things that they will be some 104 year old man who died in his sleep but sadly it was the funeral of a 35 year old woman who had breast cancer. No-one told us but we worked out that she was the wife of our bemo driver, who had been driving us around up until the day she died. And who was there the day after the funeral to drive us around again, smiling and laughing at our bad Indonesian.

What’s the time Mr Wolf Bali style

first tooth extracted by The Girl Komang

words a parent never wants to hear: “come on Kadek Frida, let’s go and ride on your motorbike!”

Happy 2011 everyone, I hope this year is prosperous, fulfilling and exciting for all of us Sara x