Mud pits and the Star Spangled Banner

The music in the car was reggae, just like in the cafe the night before. It was easy to forget I was in Bali until I looked out the window and saw the now familiar shrines and women carrying things on their heads and little petrol stations with liquor bottles outside a shop, holding the fuel for the hundreds of scooters that drive by.

Coming back to Thomas and Sylvia’s house in Sanur gave me the perspective of my first impressions of Bali to compare to my experiences now almost a month later. Sanur seems much busier, full of more vacationers in the big hotels on the beach and less spiritual than the many little villages that I have traveled through. It’s still Bali and still beautiful but I’m also glad to have had the chance to see and learn much more about this part of Indonesia than many of the sunburned white people on the beach.

I also got to do two of my favorite things – sing in a chorus and see a wonderful school. Sylvia sings in an international chorus and I was invited to come along for the night. Since they needed another alto, I got to sight read the harmony part of an eclectic collection of songs from the Java Jive to a Christian hymn. We sang a rowdy Australian ditty (the director is from there) and the Star Spangled Banner they are preparing for a 4th of July concert. For that one, I switched over to the soprano section where I realized again how challenging that anthem is both musically and for non-native English speakers, verbally. “Why does your anthem mention bombs bursting in air?” I’m not sure my explanation was particularly helpful but my singing the melody line strongly definitely was. After working so hard on the first part, we never got to sing the last line. “Coitus interruptis”, quipped the saucy Aussie.

During the break, Sylvia introduced me to an American who is part of a pre-K – 11th grade private school called The Green School. We quickly found we had many things in common and he invited me to come visit his school. It has been featured internationally on CNN, the BBC, etc and there was a group of Chinese educators coming for a visit after school the next day. “Come early”, he said, “and I’ll show you around. We don’t usually allow visitors while the students are in class, but I’ll make an exception for you.”

The school is about an hour from Sanur so Sylvia called her favorite driver to take me the next day. Little did I know that the drive would be as interesting as the destination. First, we stopped at a post office so that I could mail a package home. My daughter’s birthday is in May and I knew it would take 2-3 months for a package to arrive by boat from here. I chose the slow route as it cost almost $30.00 to mail a package weighing less than 5 pounds. I tucked in her present (shhhh), some musical instruments I bought for my school, a dress and a skirt I had made here and a few odds and ends.

Back on the road, Kariada and I talked about all kinds of things from the Balinese customs around holidays, families, affairs, and divorces to some of the finer points of Hinduism and spirituality. We passed a cremation ceremony where the ashes were just being collected to take to the sea. We talked about the Hindu belief that the souls of people come back to their families sometimes in another generation. At 12 days old, a medium is consulted to learn about the soul of a new baby. He told me that his grandmother talked to her husband, through the medium, to learn that he was returning in the form of her new grandchild. Boys are expected to take care of their mothers as they age (and girls leave the family compounds to join their husbands’ family) so they are particularly valued. Once married, women never return to their original home so affairs are tolerated so that families stay together. Kariada explained with multiple generations living together, they have to work together to keep everyone happy and everyone weighs in on a potential new wife marrying a son as she will become part of the household.

We talked about the upcoming holiday, Nyepi, which is held on the eve of the new year (this year in March as the Balinese calendar is a shorter year). It’s a time of total quiet and rest, some say so that the evil spirits think everyone has left and won’t bother them this year, others say it’s more of a time of quiet and meditation. Everything is closed, including the airports. There are no cars on the road, food is not cooked, no one leaves their home. Food is prepared the day before including for any tourists. Imagine what the world would be like if we all stopped moving for a day!

Upon arrival at the Green School, I was immediately struck by the welcoming and friendly vibe that I got as I entered the bamboo gates. There is a little outdoor cafe (everything is outdoors as there are no walls) and a coffee stand. The students here grow the coffee, roast it and sell the lattes and iced coffee drinks to the parents, staff and visitors. That is the philosophy of the school – for students to be engaged in real activities that support their own learning, the community and the earth. Ben gave me a great private tour of the various buildings, one for each class, as well as a huge “heart” building that’s 3 stories of bamboo holding the library, computer lab, science center and classroom space as well as other things. The buildings are all made of sustainable bamboo and have won awards for their design. The older students have helped to draw, clear land and build some of the buildings as part of their work. Windows are made from old car windshields and cubbies shaped like a pineapple or amoeba are made from bamboo. My students would go crazy for the giant bamboo pirate ship.

One of the first things that I saw was a huge mud pit. I wish I had been there earlier that day to see the younger students playing! There was an aquaculture place for the 5th graders, pigs, goats, chickens and endangered Balinese starlings which they are helping to raise in their aviary. There are rice paddies and organic gardens where students grow their own food. They are close to being off the grid with their solar panels and a unique vortex waterway for hydro power from the river. One of the stunning buildings is a huge bamboo bridge that spans the river. I sat in briefly on a marimba/drum band practice and peaked into early childhood classrooms where children were napping in the heat or reading quietly. If I’ve ever seen a school that resembles a jungle version of Marlboro (where I teach), this is it. Substitute a snow ball field for the mud pit and our students would feel right at home.

The bus load of Chinese visitors was waiting at the gate as I left, sipping an iced mocha from the school coffee shop. What a treat to see such a place and my thanks to Ben for taking time out of his busy day to show me around.

This morning, there is packing going on all around. Sylvia and Thomas will be moving into their house this weekend, leaving this rental home behind after three years. I have been packing as well, getting ready for my flight tomorrow to Bangkok, and then on to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand the next day. The best part of the day was first thing this morning when I checked my email and saw that my daughter Emily got into grad school at Yale! She’s going to make a great nurse/midwife and I’m so excited for her. With the technology of Face Time, we were able to share a face to face conversation from the other side of the world, and the other side of the clock, her day ending as mine began.

My time in Bali is coming to an end. Sylvia and I will do a yoga class this evening and then I’ll set my alarm for my early taxi ride back to the airport. It has been a full and wonderful experience, being here on this magical island. I’ve had a great safety net here with Sylvia and Thomas helping me to experience the “real” Bali. My huge thanks to them and to the wonderful people I have met here.

It’s time for me to fledge and strike out for a new place on my own. I go this time, though, with increased confidence that I can navigate my way through new Asian places.







Leave a comment


  1. Dawn Fogarty

     /  March 1, 2012

    go with God -you are a blessed woman – continue to ENJOY and be amazed!

  2. Janie Sherwin

     /  March 1, 2012

    Ellen … I just came in from shoveling my driveway after throwing another belt on my snowblower. About 8 inches of snow arrived overnight, and Curves is closed for the day. What a nice respite to be transported once again into your exciting travels! Safe travels.

  3. pam perkins

     /  March 1, 2012

    One of the best rewards of travel is confidence in knowing you can go anywhere, do anything, and survive. Congratulations to Emily! XXOO

    PS I am riding with The Babes tomorrow. They ask about you.

  4. Phyllis Biegun

     /  March 1, 2012

    Continuing to enjoy…..

  5. paula

     /  March 4, 2012

    Oh, I loved this post! From your description of an amazing school to your own education on the customs and traditions of this culture, it was wonderful through and through. I love the idea of silence on NYE to fool the devils into thinking all were gone…I may have to implement this into my own life. Sure beats getting drunk in my book!

    Do you pinch yourself, knowing how incredibly fortunate you are to be having this experience? I am so proud of you, stepping out and taking on the world on your own! What growth from the Mother Goose days, eh? Loving being on this journey with you!!

  6. Margery McCrum

     /  March 4, 2012

    Just saying a quick hello, congrats to Emily and sending you a big hug full of love and wonder. I think of you often and continually shake my head, what an amazing trip you have crafted. Love, Margery


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