March 31, 2009

Bali Vacation - Nusa Dua

We spent the last three days of our Bali trip relaxing and resorting in Nusa Dua. Jacob busied himself with ping pong and pool basketball and some of the kids club activities. We all enjoyed the very calm white sand beach, the shaded pools, and the great flowers that were everywhere. It was terrific togetherness time.

Thursday was Nyepi. According the the information given out by the hotel, "Nyepi is a day of total silence and meditation in Bali. Hindues are expected to stay at home and abstain from turning on lights, cooking fires, working, or travelling." While life as usual goes in in the resort, you cannot leave or swim in the ocean. So we were kind of prisoners in the hotel (You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave . . .) No problem at all (except the hotel restaurants were really crowded!).

At kids club, they had some special activities where Lauren got to dress up as a Balinese dancer. (She was taught to form the "dancing hands" by one of the hotel workers). Jacob opted out. He spent the whole week in a bathing suit and that swimming shirt (which he refers to as his "topping.")

We did venture out of our resort and into the village on two of the nights, getting to enjoy some of the great local food and exceedingly cheap drinks.

On our last night, Friday night, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge village-wide celebration complete with banging clanging bell music (all Balinese music seems to have banging clanging bells), costumed dancers, and dragons. The whole town was there. And us. Its always so much fun to randomly run into local events like these.

This last shot is from back at the hotel, where we returned after the festival to kill time until our very late-at-night flight home. The hotel had its own dinner and dancing extravaganza. (We felt like we got the more authentic version down in the village!). It is a picture from behind the stage of a Balinese dancer.

And that about does it for our week in Bali. Great family trip.

March 30, 2009

Bali Vacation - Ubud

On Tuesday, our check-out day from the Hard Rock, we chartered a car, with a driver and tour-guide to take us on a tour of Ubud, and then on to our hotel in Nusa Dua. (You can do this really cheaply in Bali.) We really packed it in -- this day of touring felt like two days (but in a good way).

Our guide was a very sweet local Balinese woman who, despite never having left the island of Bali, spoke excellent English. She had a very sweet way of answering our questions by gently saying "It is true." Driving around Bali gave us an appreciation of the number of temples. Each family compound has a temple, ornately carved from stone and decorated in bright yellows. Flower and incense offerings are placed pretty much everywhere.

We also saw many of the women of the town walking to temple carrying various (very large) offerings on their heads. Quite the balancing act.

And what would a drive through Asia be without the obligatory guy-on-motorbike-carrying-dead-chicken?

Ubud is known as an artist colony, and is absolutely brimming with stone carving, wood carving, silver, batik, and other art. The streets, lined with artist studios and little cafes and restaurants, were very lively. Ubud has a really interesting feel - a blend of artsy, hip, and traditional Balinese. Our first stop was at a batik artist studio, where artisans were making batik clothing, which are made by layering wax (klowong) over designs and then dyeing it.

They also had a beautiful display of batik art; we loved the uber-vibrant colors. Mike is always a sucker for the bright orange; we came really close to buying this piece.

Stop number two was at a wood-carving studio. There were a whole bunch of artisans outside, sitting in a circle working on carving and polishing the various pieces. While we browsed, Jacob and Lauren held court with the workers, and soon were put to work. They felt very comfortable there, and made fast friends.

The surrounding rice fields are lush and beautiful. One of the best sights of the day were the Tegallalang Rice Terraces. This super-green large terraced rice-field is quite the spectacle. We actually learned a lot about growing and harvesting rice and wheat from our guide. (You would think that living in Japan, we would know something about it by now!)

Here is another drive-by shot of some of the rice fields:

After the rice fields and a nearby scenic waterfall, we hit the highlight destination for the kids - the Sacred Monkey Forest. This was a really cool place. Very docile monkeys roaming all about - including onto you, if they think you have food- amazing banyan trees, and some ancient temples. Great combination.

Afterward, we hit the very crazy, crowded, multi-lingual, colorful, and overwhelming central market in Ubud. These places are fun, but a bit overwhelming if you spend too much time there!

After the market, we drove on to see a dance exhibition of three traditional Balinese dances in an outdoor stage. The first dance, Kecak, tells the famous Hindu story of Rama, Sita, and the golden deer, that includes a chanting a-capalla type male chorus.

The second dance, Sanghyang Dedari, is a "trance dance" that features two young girls who dance with their eyes closed, but in unison. The grand finale that blew us away was the Sanghyang Jaran Dance, another trance dance that involves a guy who dances barefoot on fire. This was insane:

We saw more dancing at dinner, this time Legong dance. The costumes for all of these dances were very beautiful. The movements seem very Indian-influenced.

All in all, it was quite a day. We arrived at our new hotel late in the evening, and Lauren quickly passed out on the lobby couch while we were checking in. The Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa is a beautiful resort. The lobby has reflecting pools with huge fish, stone-carved Balinese temple-architecture (backlit at night), and beautiful orchid displays. Our room has a great balcony that overlooks the pool and the beach. There was a clear starry sky. And it was pin-drop quiet. (Quite a contrast from the Hard Rock and Kuta). We went to bed excited about spending the next three days relaxing here.

March 29, 2009

Bali Vacation - Kuta

Bali is one of those places we had heard terrific things about, and which really isn't so accessible from the East coast of the U.S. So we decided it would be our family get-away destination this year for Spring Break. We had a blast. The next couple of posts will be about our family vacation to Bali, Indonesia.

We chose two very different places to stay while in Bali, starting at the Hard Rock Hotel in frenetic shopping and surfing-crazed downtown Kuta, and ending the week at the relaxing Nusa Dua Hotel and Spa in secluded and luxurious Nusa Dua. (Both came recommended by friends; we couldn't decide between these two very different destinations, so we just split up our time and did both!) In between, we chartered a car for the day to check out some of the sights in the fascinating Ubud area of Bali.

Our journey started in Kuta. Very late at night. We arrived at the Hard Rock, located in front of Kuta Beach, at about 12:30 AM on Saturday night. From the sound of things, the party was just getting started. The music from the Centerstage Bar was pumping. All sorts of people (including a particularly large Australian contingent) were out milling about the streets. All the energy made us feel wide awake, so we took a little stroll around the hotel grounds and the pool before warding off Jacob's call for a second dinner and hitting the sack. We are so lucky that these kids are such great travelers! They are better than most grown-ups.

There was a disconcertingly detailed security sweep at the front gate (remnants from the bombings in Kuta in 2005) that gave us slight pause . . . . We saw that at both hotels, so it must be necessary. But other than that, we felt very safe. It was the first time we had stayed at a Hard Rock Hotel. It was a very fun family-friendly place.

We spent Sunday hanging by the pool, and then headed to the beach for a fabulous sunset. Jacob had a blast jumping waves. Serious waves at Kuta Beach. Surfing, lots of crowds, and lots of locals hawking their wares. One funny encounter was with a Balinese guy who spoke to us in accented English about whether we wanted a taxi. Lauren looked back at him and dead-panned - "We don't understand you. We only speak some Japanese!"

The vibe at Hard Rock was totally fun. Rock and Roll music plays non-stop. The pool is the largest in Kuta, and includes two perfect sized kiddie slides, as well as music that is broadcast through the water so you can hear it while swimming underwater. We got in some great restful pool time that made our three days in Kuta feel more like a week.

Here we are with the iconic Bali surfer dude. We encountered him on our way to Kuta Square, a shopping district in down-town Kuta. We had an extremely humorous encounter with a team of time-share-selling con-artists who tried to convince us that we had won a grand prize of $1000 and a free stay at a time-share, but it had to be claimed immediately at their resort 45 minutes to the south. ("Sir! I cannot believe it! Three stars. You are a winner! This is the first time for me!")

We ventured out onto the very busy streets of Kuta to go out for dinner and do some browsing. For dinner one night we hit local fave Warang Made, and discovered a delicious local vegetarian peanut-saucy specialty called Gado Gado. The spring rolls (lumpia) were also stellar. Jacob (re)discovered that timeless classic, pancakes for dinner. As for shopping, there are no prices and it is all in the haggling. We scored a new dress for Lauren, and a Barcelona soccer outfit that Jacob pretty much wore for the rest of the week. We did OK price-wise (we think), but can safely say that having a begging 7 year old by your side does not make for the best leverage in price negotiations. (Incidentally, the exchange rate is about 11,600 Indonesian Rupiah to $1, so you can blow through 100,000 RP like nobody's business.)

We spent all our evenings at the Hard Rock at the Centerstage Bar, watching live music while drinking cocktails and sharing dessert. We all loved hanging out and watching the action. Breakfasts were had overlooking the pool. We got to sample some interesting new fruits, like passion fruit and snake-skin fruit. Snake-skin fruit had the consistency of garlic, but a nice firm sweet taste.

We spent Monday at Kuta's fabulous Waterbom Water Park. Best water park we have been to, hands down. We rented a thatched little cabana hut near the kiddie area, where we could hang out in the shade. But we did not stick to the kiddie rides. They have a ton of different slides that you can ride, either on one or two person rafts, boogie slides, or on your back. There is also a great lazy river. Our very first ride was the tame-sounding "Macaroni." Lauren and Jacob went first in a two-person raft, and Mike and Ilena followed. This covered slide - fast as hell and completely in the dark - had us both sure that we would come down to find our kids scared out of their wits and in tears. They both LOVED it, especially Lauren who kept riding Macaroni all day! (One of our favorites was the Boomerang, which Mike and Ilena did together, while the kids watched. Here is someone else's video we found of it - no camera that day for us).

On our way back to the hotel, we encountered this very interesting ritual on the beach called Melasti, a beach-side purification ritual performed on the days leading up to the Hindu holiday of Nyepi. (Bali is the Hindu enclave of Indonesia - 90% of Balinese are Hindu)

Those curved bamboo poles are religious symbols called penjor. With the Nyepi holiday occuring on Thursday, the streets everywhere were lined with them.

March 20, 2009

Spring Break - Off To Bali

Today was a Japanese Holiday in observance of the Spring Equinox. So Mike had the day of from work, which was really nice. The kids, on the international school calendar, still had school, so we got to enjoy this picture-perfect day outside together.

We fit in a morning run, and also spent some time hanging out at our local Rokko Island coffee shop/hangout Tully's Coffee, before seeing Dave and Heather off to Tokyo. After picking up the kids from school, we all rode our bikes headed down the Marine Park area of Rokko Island, threw the baseball around, and flew our kite. Unfortunately, Lauren's became "heart broken" when our kite flew away while she was flying it. It sailed over the water (before we could grab the last bit of string) and off past the horizon like a balloon that you let go of. We wonder how far it made it? There were much tears, but there will be other kites!

Tomorrow, we are leaving for our spring break trip to Kuta and Nusa Dua in Bali. Back with more posts after we return . . .

March 19, 2009

Lauren, Stylin'

Lauren has been going with the (very trendy around here) knee-high sock look lately.

It's very Japanese school-girl.

WBC - Semi Finals

Well, the WBC field has been narrowed to four semi-finalists: Team USA, Venezuela, Korea, and Japan. Japan ousted the Cubans (again) earlier today in convincing fashion to claim the final spot. Korea looks tough. Venezuela also looks tough, and beat an injury riddled USA Team to gain the higher seed. Should be an interesting conclusion . . . .

What's Cooking?

One of the cooler things about living in another country is truly getting to experience its culinary delights. Sure, America is "the melting pot" and all, but being truly immersed in another culture, its foods, grocery stores, etc... has proven to be one of the the biggest pleasures for us while in Asia.

Among our friends are some very talented chefs. One of our Singaporean friends has been piquing our interest in the food of Singapore by providing us little containers of delicious dishes such as Malay Chicken Curry and Singapore Chili Rice (this includes chilis, peanuts, and cocunut rice - wow!). Since we've loved all the tastes, we decided to go a step further. Ilena has now had several "cooking lessons" with her friend and has successfully made (on her own) Malay curry and Chicken Rice.

We love the Asian flavours. We have integrated fish (the only cheaper item in grocery stores here comparison to back home), rice, soy sauce, ponzu, mirin into much of our everyday cooking. In addition to all the cooking, we have definitely adapted our tastes and are now quite used to many Asian "treats" like furikake (a rice topping that Jacob cannot get enough of), tsukemono (i.e., pickled things), rice crackers of all sorts, nori, green tea and eggs on just about everything. Ilena has also spent several sessions in local cooking classes. We posted previously about her Japanese Nabe class, where she learned such dishes as Chicken Meatball Nabe and Shabu Shabu.

Most recently, Ilena has taken up quite an interest in Thai cuisine. In two separate classes, she has been working on 8 separate Thai dishes, each more delicious than then last. We're working hard to try and find the necessary ingredients (around here the absolute best spots are some hole-in-wall shops in Motomachi, Kobe's China Town) to make the dishes and are optimistic that we'll be able to find the same ingredients back home in New Jersey (i.e. banana leaves, coconut powder, special Malaysian curry powder). Mitsuwa, or NY China Town, here we come!

March 17, 2009

Kyoto with Dave and Heather

On Sunday, a truly beautiful day, we all went to Kyoto. Since you can literally spend weeks exploring Kyoto, we decided to focus this trip on a temple that we had never been to before, Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the eastern part of the city. The walk up to Kiyomizu is a steep hill, chock full of street food and little gift shops.

The grounds of Kiyomizu-dera, nestled at the base of the mountains to the east side of Kyoto, are tremendous. We were content to stroll around near the temple a bit, and check out some of the nearby buildings and the temple gate. We also happened upon a neat art exhibit housed in one of the temple buildings.

After Kiyomizu, we wandered through the Gion District for a bit, including alleys with the old-style black wood houses. We stopped down by the Kamo River for a bit of a rest, and happened upon these geishas out for a stroll.

Our final destination for the day was the Nishiki Market, known as Kyoto's Kitchen. This crowded covered alleyway spans 6-8 blocks and filled at both sides with sellers of all sorts of Japanese food products. Many have free samples, and it was quite the experience just to slowly wander and sample our way through. We also had THE BEST warm sesame covered onigiri in the world. There can be no better.

We were pretty spent after the two days of sightseeing. So, after we grabbed some dinner and rode the super-tall escalators in the ultra-modern Kyoto Station, we headed on home. A nice day in Kyoto!

(Dave and Heather's adventures continued on Monday and Tuesday, as we sent them off on their own to Hiroshima and Miyajima. They stayed over at a great ryokan on Miyajima that we had stayed on when we were there last year. Tuesday was the most beautiful day we have had this season, and Dave and Heather spent it hiking on Mount Misen on Miyajima. We think Miyajima was their favorite spot in Japan. And we can't argue with that!)