Bali Beaches and an Un-Planned Christmas

I’m sold on the un-planned Christmas.

I told people I wasn’t doing anything. Wasn’t going anywhere. Would stay home and think happy thoughts and that was absolutely my intention. Then a get-together scheduled for December 21st had to be moved. How about the morning of the 24th? Christmas Eve Day? Does that work?

Well..I wasnt’ going to…but…sure. That works.

It turned into a psuedo white-elephant-gift-exchange, great coffee, and lots of laughs. Santa appeared out of nowhere, and carols played non-stop.

Warm and fuzzy inside I walked home with a gentle breeze cooling my face – one of Bali’s stellar-weather days – glad that I’d had Christmas Eve morning with good friends.

I’d barely gotten inside the house when my phone beeped a Whatsapp message. It was my neighbor next door inviting me to an impromptu lunch – if I didn’t already have plans for Christmas tomorrow. The complexion of my solitary holiday was changing fast.

I’d love to!

The high-octane energy of a family with a young child is a whole different ball game from the gray-haired gatherings I’m used to. But who can resist a five-year-old dynamo on pink roller skates?

We were well entertained and the meal of four-hour Balinese green beans, chicken betutu, cream-cheese mashed potatoes, and homemade frosted Christmas cookies was magnificent. The wine didn’t hurt either.

All that and a mystery guest. I finally got to meet a person I’ve been hearing about for years and if anything, the glowing reports were too humble. He’s one of those down-to-earth, funny, sincere, fascinating VIPs that you just wouldn’t expect to run into at your neighbor’s spur-of-the-moment Christmas lunch.

After two celebratory days I didn’t want the fun to end. I suggested to Ketut that it was time for another motorbike adventure. My back took weeks to recover from the marathon ordeal I put it through three months ago, but a visit to the beaches south of Ubud wouldn’t be a taxing trip. I wanted to check out the rumors that there are actually people down there – visitors – domestic tourists – because in Ubud they’re rare as unicorns.

As with most outings, eating figures in at some point. For this trip I wanted to stop at Cantina Warung. It’s on a dirt road that dead-ends somewhere between Seminyak and Canggu, and it’s so close to the ocean you almost feel the salt-spray on your skin. We’d check out Sanur and Kuta beaches on the way and easily be back in Ubud before the predicted afternoon downpour.

There was no traffic as we approached Sanur. The bodies standing in the water were fishermen, not tourists. Ketut thought he saw one family that probably came from another part of Indonesia but the few people enjoying the sun and sand were local. I’d expected that. Sanur isn’t the hotspot for vacationing party-ers who want a nightlife.

We hopped back on the bike and continued our search. Traffic by the Mall Galleria was almost non-existent.

In Kuta and Seminyak the story was the same with a slightly different twist. Here there were no locals, just a smattering of visitors and miles of empty lounge chairs on the deserted beach. Were we too early? Were the partying people still in bed nursing hangovers? It was getting on toward noon – surely they’d be up by now – if indeed they were here at all.

On the bike again I hollered through my mask at the back of Ketut’s helmet. “This adventure’s making me hungry. Let’s get lunch.”

There are several restaurants in Bali that are so enchanting I just want to keep eating so I can sit there for hours guilt-free. Cantina Warung is one of those. A constant ocean breeze, the rumble of breakers rolling in, comfortable chairs…don’t ever underestimate the importance of cushy seating – it’s huge…and today there were people sunbathing. People swimming. People walking dogs. We’d finally found PEOPLE!

We settled in and ordered lunch. Ketut is predictible – fried chicken and coca-cola. I had the BBQ chicken burrito with fries and a mojito. Not sure why the french fries came garnished with herby greens. They were easy to remove. But I have to say, that chicken burrito with chunks of avocado, crunchy lettuce, a sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce on the melt-in-your-mouth grilled poultry – oh my! I’m drooling just remembering.

We’d whiled away about an hour and a half when Ketut pointed to a sign that I’d ignored and said, “Look. Our table is reserved for eight people at four o’clock. We can stay three more hours.”

That’s when I ordered two cups with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in each, and a pot of coffee to pour over it. We stretched that out until about two o’clock when all of a sudden Ketut said, “Mungkin hujan di Ubud sekarang.” Whoops! In my idyllic reverie I’d completely forgotten about the afternoon rain I’d been hoping to avoid.

The ride home took us through Canggu. There was a lot more traffic there than we’d seen anywhere else. Shops and cafes were open. Perhaps what I’d heard was true, that Canggu is the hot spot right now. Hot may be too optimistic a word. A warm spot.

As we approached Ubud the road was wet. “Maybe rain is already finished,” Ketut said. Three minutes later we were pelted with huge sloppy drops.

“Do you have your plastic, Ketut?”

“Ya. You?”

“Ya.”

“You want to stop?”

“No.”

“Good.” He laughed.

How precious, memorable, and unexpectedly rich this holiday has been. I could have sat home and survived. I would have called it a fitting end for a year during which many of us have done little other than sit at home and survive. So I’m going to see my unplanned Christmas as a positive energetic shift, a vital lurch propelling us toward a brighter 2021.

May it be so.

A Very Bali Christmas!

Excitement pulses in the air.  Merry Christmas! I hear the greeting through my open walls. Will I get used to it…Christmas in the jungle? There are none of the familiar markers, snow, cold, carols playing non-stop in the stores for months. It’s Tess, hanging over her balcony next door, heralding Christmas morning. I step outside into hot sunlight. Nina appears, too. Merry Christmas! Nina will be hosting the party tonight. It’s a potluck white elephant gift exchange. The white elephant concept has been the topic of conversation for weeks. Nina and I, the only Americans in the bunch, understand. Nobody else does. It should be interesting.

It’s a planned potluck as we say in the Midwest, so we all know who is bringing what. I found a recipe for Vegetarian Tofu Green Curry. My task this morning is to cook it so the flavors can blend and intensify prior to serving later on. I initiate step one, grate fresh coconut and toast it. Fortunately, I still have most of the coconut Ketut harvested for me the other day.

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The nut scared the daylights out of me when it came crashing into the garden. There is one stately palm beside my house. Every now and then, a mature coconut releases and thunders through the thick foliage surrounding the tree like a stampeding elephant. This one came to rest right by the terrace.

P1050298I retrieve a chunk of it from the freezer that keeps things mildly cooler than the refrigerator but far from frozen, and grate it. The instructions say to toast in a dry wok pan over a medium flame. It works! In no time I have a cup or so of fresh coconut delicately browned. So far, so good.

P1050300I assemble the next ingredients, garlic, shallots, green and red bell pepper, ginger root, lime leaves, and Thai chilis. For extra flavor, I’m using coconut oil to sauté the first ingredients. Fragrant steam fills the kitchen. In the next moment chili essence hits my tender throat tissue.
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After a fit of coughing, wheezing, and tears, cooking continues. Vegetable broth with a few tablespoons of fish sauce, green curry paste, coconut milk, and a mixture of spices, cools the heat of the peppers.

I dice an enormous sweet potato, a jumbo carrot, and firm tofu, toss in most of the toasted coconut, then simmer until the root vegetables are crispy tender.

While it bubbles I have a few minutes to escape for another sunshine fix. There’s commotion next door. To ensure that the party goes on rain or shine, Tess and Paul have loaned a tent for the affair, but the tent stakes are missing. Ketut, the master of improvisation, disappears and returns with a handful of silverware. Knife, fork, and spoon handles inserted into the earth become tent pegs.

The smells from Nina’s kitchen make my stomach rumble. I leave the tent-raising and hurry back to my own fragrant stew. Mmmm! It looks amazing! I chop tomatoes and cilantro, squeeze fresh limes, and add these last minute details to the mix.

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Wallah! A little garnish with a red pepper plopped on top and my dish is party ready!

Tess, Paul, and I are the first to arrive. It’s apparent that the women got the memo…wear black!

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The tent is in Nina’s yard (Nina’s the one in the middle), Tess and Paul are staying upstairs in the house to the left, and my house is behind the tent to the right. We live in close proximity. It’s a good thing we like each other…a lot! And there’s the elegant teepee! So far the weather is ideal. We may not need the tent but it adds an element of security against sudden climate change.

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Sudi and Paul chill with a couple of Bintangs as the other guests trickle in. It’s decided that gifts and games come first. Darkness descends so the group moves inside and the fun continues!

P1050312Julie, the neighbor just a little farther down the path, is prepared. She brought games. In animated detail she explains the first one. She calls it Pass the Parcel. It’s like musical chairs but with a wrapped package. As the music plays, the gift is passed from one to the next around the circle. When the music stops, the one holding the gift unwraps a layer only to find another wrapped parcel inside. But a note also comes with each layer bearing instructions that must be followed. This part reminds me of spin the bottle!

To ensure that Dewi, the youngest member of our diverse group, remains engaged and entertained, she is charged with the task of performing every instruction along with the person who was lucky enough to be left holding the box.

P1050326Here Dewi and her Dad dance with a chair. Later, Dewi and Tess lay on their backs and ride bicycles. Dewi is in her element. All agree that she’s a born entertainer. Her antics are rib tickling funny.

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Finally it’s the moment everyone has been waiting for…the white elephant! Gifts are taken from their place under the tree and stacked on the table in the middle.

P1050316Everyone has a turn selecting a wrapped package and opening it.

P1050328Stealing is encouraged but I’m the only one who acts on it. Yaniq (in the hat) has unwrapped a jar of peanut butter. There are few things I enjoy more than peanut butter. I really like the photo frame that came in my package, but…gotta have the peanut butter. Yaniq yields his loot without a fight.

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The last gift to be opened is a lovely surprise. Ketut made a special trip to Kintamani yesterday to pick up his white elephant. We were all touched and thrilled to get these bracelets, hand-made by his wife Komang, with our names stitched in red letters.

P1050343I’m Serry. It’s an upgrade from Zelly. That was Ketut’s first stab at my foreign sounding name!

With all the fun, we’ve worked up an appetite. Christmas smorgasbord in Bali is an exotic feast. The countertop groans with bounty. There is smoked chicken, mei goreng, pumpkin soup, salad rolls, garlic toast, sayur urab, smoked duck, and my green curry. Wine flows freely, as does laughter and conversation. For dessert, Nina breaks out her tins of Christmas cookies, all red and green frosting with sprinkles. We’re stuffed but still manage to put a sizeable dent in the cookie inventory!

Games and gifts finished, Nina disappears with Dewi. The party princess is finally tired and it’s time for bed. I sneak a peak at the clock. Half past midnight! Christmas 2013 has passed. The guests file out, droopy-eyed but smiling. Then Tess and I do what we have probably done after Christmas feasting countless times before…I wash, she wipes, and pretty soon the kitchen sparkles.

P1050334Thanks, Nina, Sudi, and Dewi. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a happy good night!

Next stop…Christmas!

Well, we polished off Thanksgiving just in time for Christmas. Nonstop, aren’t they? The holidays…

The tree arrived from New Jersey making the trip up the 24 floors (I stand corrected, I thought it was 21) on Kellen’s back, to their penthouse apartment. We had spent several days prior determining which tiny space would be the best for a potentially tall but hopefully skinny, tree. Kellen ceremoniously secured it in it’s stand…PERFECTION!

The scent of evergreen permeated the air. Joy lit candles and turned on Christmas music. Let the festivities begin! Then she hauled out boxes, upon boxes, and more boxes of ornaments, each one lovingly wrapped in newspaper. As she disrobed them each had a story. Joy is the historian, the keeper of old photos and family relics, the sentimental promoter of tradition. She’s also the undisputed boss.

“Do you like to do lights, mom?” Joy asked in a voice that translated, “Your job is lights!” I don’t think I’ve ever NOT done the lights. It’s an art that I don’t entrust to anyone else. They have to be done right. And this year they have to be perfect because if they aren’t, Kellen will disassemble them and make them so! I know this about him! He is more OC, AR. and BS than I am! (No, I won’t decipher the acronyms!) And make no mistake, I love that about him!

So I did the lights and Kellen approved. Whew! Then, because he has height going for him and the right tools for the job, he was assigned the task of affixing the tree topper. He nailed it. Good job Kellen!

About this time empty boxes, scraps of newsprint, unused strands of lights, and miscellaneous snowmen and Santas were strewn haphazardly about. Joy brought out the wine. She has an instinct for these things. Her timing is impeccable!

It was a muscat, sweet and fruity, just like the company! Kellen tried to achieve the same beautiful reflection through his Miller-champagne-of-bottle-beers but the results were not photo worthy. About that time we were singing along with Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, attempting to stretch our alto voices to the impossible registers of coloratura soprano with only moderate success. Then, at some point, the elves arrived to spit-polish and clean up.

Joy loves her beautiful tree…

and I love my sweet middle child…

The holidays: we love them, we hate them, we eat and drink and make too much merry, but I wouldn’t trade this time in New York for anything. Merry Christmas!

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