You know that feeling you get towards the end of a vacation—when you start dreaming of sleeping in your own bed, cooking foods you love in your own kitchen, and when things like ‘running errands’ sound weirdly appealing. Well, when you’ve been traveling for five months, that feeling comes and gos on the regular. And it becomes especially apparent when travel conditions are less than ideal. Like, say, riding for twelve hours on the world’s shakiest train, or staying in a town with customary 8-hour power outages, or eating rice for every single god damn meal, just to name a few.
Although Bali isn’t anything like the home I know, there’s something semi-familiar about it. It’s easy, and comfortable, and accommodating. It’s also the place where I met up with a very familiar travel companion: my adventurous momma.
It seems there are four things that make up a pretty great vacation: Fun people, lots of adventure, relaxation, and, of course, good food. If you know my mom, you know we can tick off the first credential. I think it’s safe to say we checked the other boxes as well, but I’ll let you be the judge.
FRESH, FAMILIAR FOOD
Before I flew to Bali I was in Myanmar for a month. Myanmar food is very interesting and actually quite good. But nearly everything is greasy and a base of either rice or noodles. The same was more or less true in Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. So, as you can imagine, my tolerance for rice and noodles was wearing thin.
When I first arrived in Bali I almost felt guilty ordering non-Balinese food. Food is such a huge pillar of a country’s identity and when you opt for familiar western food in these foreign places, it feels like you’re missing out on a huge component of their culture. But when the thought of eating yet another bowl of fried noodles is nearly nauseating, missing out on a little culture becomes more and more palatable.
On Mother’s Day, my mom and I had dinner on Sanur Beach and split a seared tuna steak served with a simple cream sauce. A supper club-style dish. Nothing groundbreaking, but simultaneously, perfect.
We also each ordered a big salad. This was the first “real” lettuce salad I had in months. Back home, I think I eat salad 4-5 times a week, at least. I’m not talking about little side salads, but hefty, filling medleys, packed with beans, cheese, eggs, sometimes meat, roasted vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Man, I really miss those salads.
This untraditional ceasar was a suitable substitution. Again, I can’t say there was anything particularly special about it, except for the fact that it was exactly what I was craving. Fresh crispiness. Nothing fried. No rice or noodles in sight.
Little did I know that this salad would serve as a gateway drug leading to a temporary lettuce addiction. Take this seared tuna salad, where the tuna resembled a pork chop, both in appearance and texture. A very meaty piece of fish.
And then there was this rainbow bowl. Equally delicious and Instagram-able.
Let’s not forget about this tempe bowl topped with an egg and entire avocado.
Or this simple, salad-like burrito bowl. Hard to screw this up.
And last, but not least, this tuna carpaccio served alongside a cheese-filled-pasta salad. Ok, this one doesn’t really fall into the salad category, but let’s pretend.
In between this salad daze, we even managed to fit in a few traditional Balinese dishes. Here’s proof.
It probably goes without saying, but the “great food” component of a vacation also includes great drinks. Or even just decent drinks, but enjoyed in a great setting. Bintang is the Balinese beer of choice. It’s not great. But when you’re drinking it steps from the ocean with Mount Agung on the horizon, it magically tastes delicious.
“It’s Bintang time somewhere” became a common term of phrase.
My mom and I’s first major excursion was to Nusa Penida, a 45-minute ferry ride from Bali. It’s a fairly undeveloped island, best explored by scooter.
The most extreme activity we did on the island, or maybe even on the whole trip, was a snorkeling tour. Yes, that’s right, the most extreme thing we did was snorkel. But hear me out. The boat ride alone was rough, with massive wave after massive wave. Our first stop was Manta Bay, with crazy choppy water. The boat stopped and the “guides” dumped us off with no information, no lifejackets, and no indication of how long we’d be there. There were probably 12 boats in the bay, each with eight or so snorkelers. It was impossible to keep track of your boat, let alone your group.
I did get to see a couple manta rays gliding by, which was pretty awesome. But a bit difficult to enjoy while you’re gulping down mouthfuls of saltwater, trying to spot your mom somewhere in the sea of snorkels.
I took one photo that day. Although the rest of the stops were much calmer and more pleasant, I was focused on keeping my breakfast inside my body.
After the (admittedly overdramatized) snorkeling event, something more low-key was on the agenda. And we certainly found it at Atuh Beach. My favorite place on the island, for obvious reasons.
That crystal clear, turquoise water and craggy cliffs are what paradisiac dreams are made of. We hiked down to the beach, relaxed and swam for an hour, and then hiked up the other side. The views, in every direction, were incredible.
A close second to Atuh Beach was Tembeling Beach, which was less of a beach and more of a steep hike to some picturesque freshwater pools.
Even the ferry ride back to Bali was an adventure. The boat was busy so my mom suggested we sit on the exposed tail. The joke was on her. The five-engine-speed combined with the enormous waves and runoff from the roof resulted in a mini monsoon, with the edges of the boat getting the brunt of the storm. I couldn’t stop laughing. It started as a little splash here and there and by the time we got off the boat Mary was drenched from head to toe.
Back on the main island, we stayed in Ubud for a few nights. If you’ve ever read or seen Eat Pray Love, you know of Ubud. But the Ubud we experienced was not the same place where Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love. The Ubud we experienced was packed with people and Polo shops. It was less of a zen oasis and more of a chaotic clusterfuck.
We did stroll around the city, enjoyed some meals, and did a bit of shopping. But the best parts of Ubud were the trips outside the city. For our first stop we headed north to the Tegalalang rice terrace. Touristy, yes. But undeniably beautiful. And the further you walk into the terrace, the less selfie sticks you see.
While we were scooting to our next stop, a Balinese guy named John pulled up next to me and mouthed the word, “police.” Obviously, this was intriguing, so we pulled over to get the rundown. He said there were officers ahead who were checking for international driver’s licenses and giving tickets to tourists who don’t have them, like us. But, conveniently, John and his family own a coffee plantation and it’s just ahead, right before the police sting. We could go for a free coffee sampling and by the time we’re done, the cops will be on lunch break.
At the time, we were so appreciative of this guy’s concern and kindness. But now it seems so obvious that we were tricked into buying his shitty, quite literally, weasel coffee. Oh well. The coffee tasting itself was pleasant and, if we pretend there was any truth to his story, we avoided a ticket.
Full of more sugar and caffeine than any human needs, we hoped back on our scooters and headed to Mount Batur, an active volcano with its most recent eruption happening in 2000.
It almost looks like a shadow, but the darker section of the mountain is actually a lava flow. I’ve never seen anything like that before and found it very cool.
We also made our way to Besakih Temple, the largest Hindu temple in Bali. I’m going to practice the golden rule of ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all’ because I’ve grumbled enough in this post. So, here’s a picture, and the only thing I will say is that for a religious tour, there was a lot of dishonesty involved.
One of our last and most beautiful excursions was to Nungnung Waterfall. Getting to the waterfall requires trekking down many sets of steep, stone steps. This is usually a good indication that the attraction will be beautiful and relatively unoccupied. And it proved true at Nungnung. The area was dewy and green. The sun came streaming through the trees. And it smelled very alive, healthy.
We brought our swimsuits with the intention of taking a dip, but the water was chilly and the mist kept us cool. But that chill quickly disappeared as we started the climb back to the top. And lucky for us, we got to the top just as it struck Bintang-time.
The last component of a great vacation is relaxation. My favorite “do nothing” day was at a beach in the small port town of Padangbai. To get there, you hike along a rocky path just on the outskirt of town. If you see cows grazing, you’re on the right track.
The end of the path opens up to a small white sand beach and big aqua sea. There are a few little huts selling food and drinks and a handful of other tourists lounging in the sun. The occasional, big rolling waves made it so fun to swim here.
And, like everywhere in Bali, there were relentless locals selling knickknacks and massage services. Here, Wayan tries to convince my mom she needs a locally made coconut hair oil. He made the sale, although sealing the deal took a little caressing.
On our final days in Bali we stayed in Uluwatu, a popular surfing community. Along the coastline there are a bunch of different beaches to explore. We’d leisurely cruise around, stopping for a swim, snacks, and San Miguels along the way.
And as the day wound down, we’d find ourselves perched at a cliffside bar or seaside restaurant where we’d watch the sun go down over the Indian Ocean.
It takes a very long time to get to Bali from the United States. It’s an expensive flight. And traveling to a country, let alone a continent, you’ve never been to isn’t easy. But my mom was willing to do all of these things to have an adventure with me.
Countless times on the trip we would be talking to a local, usually as we were hiking up a set of impossibly steep stairs or renting an under-serviced scooter, and they’d say something along the lines of “strong momma.” It always made me laugh, but they were right. She is a strong momma. In more ways than one.