Traveling around the island is one of those activities that I should do more often. I get to take the bike out for a few bursts of speed on safe stretches of highway, I remember once again just how physically beautiful this island is, and I get a chance to talk with people outside my small social circle. I just returned from a two day trip down to Denpasar and Ubud, and my mind feels clearer, and my heart a little lighter than it was a few days ago.
I’ve been thinking about the question that is posed to me now and again (probably more frequently than now and again when I come to think about it) about why I live in Bali. I was just reading some comments on an expat forum where several members were discussing how much they disliked Bali now after living here for some time, with one writer being literate enough to sum it all up as “Bali sucks.” OK, the emotion there was pretty clear, and the frustrations that expats sometimes feel here aren’t just made up: there are lots of frustrations to life in Bali that can wear on people like traffic, corruption, visa problems, the education system, lack of an infrastructure sufficient for the population size, poor health care, scam artists and on and on. The issue is how to deal with these frustrations of everyday life, if indeed someone wants to deal with it at all.
First, the idea that Bali is paradise is absolutely poison. People that move here with that mindset (and I know many who have and few of those who are left) are setting themselves up for disappointment. Paradise is an emotionally loaded word. Now I sometimes use the word in relation to Bali, but usually somewhat ironically, and that may be why I’m still here and why I’ll stay. Let’s look at a few of the problems and see how they pan out when we look outside Bali.
- Traffic: True, traffic has become a nightmare in parts of the island. Try driving down Jalan Legian during the day and watch the folks on foot pass your car. But, I distinctly remember rush hour drives into Chicago and San Francisco when I thought that I’d never get to work. I get around the traffic problems by staying out of the main population areas unless absolutely necessary. If someone wants to live in Kuta, then it’s necessary to accept the traffic situation. Someday the Balinese authorities might develop a plan to deal with too many vehicles on too small roads, but probably not while I’m still on this planet.
- Corruption: Dealing with some officials means being ready to either stick to your anti-corruption guns and being prepared to wait for a while for your documents, or you can hand over a little “uang rokok” to speed up the process. I grew up in Chicago and bribes and handouts to cops and judges and building inspectors were a way of life, just like it is here. You can go along with the system or buck it in either place. It’s all up to you. To say that Bali has the market cornered on corruption is to say that you haven’t seen how things work anyplace else. I think that things are getting better rather than getting worse, but that’s just my perception.
- Visa problems: Yes, these are definitely a pain. Expats have more options than before though; the problem is figuring out exactly what the details of these options are. Another case of things getting better rather than things getting worse.
- Education: Even the government admits that there are problems with the education system here. Some teachers, administrators and government officials are working to reform the system. I keep looking forward to the day when teachers are paid a decent salary and given the professional development and support necessary to improve the system. Take a look at the United States education system and you see a lot of the same problems and a lot of the same mistakes being made in regard to standardized testing, government interference and such. The efforts of the Texas Board of Education to rewrite history is just one example of how badly things are going in the U.S.
- Infrastructure problems: Too many people, too many hotels, too many swimming pools, too many vehicles, too many villas. Not enough water, not enough electricity, not enough space on the roads. This may change eventually when enough people with vision are elected to run the government. Again, it will probably not happen on my watch, but I keep hoping it will for my kids and grandkids.
- Healthcare: Bali is missing the boat by not getting in on medical tourism. I just talked to a Chinese/Indonesian friend who is on her way out to Singapore for an operation. 200 million plus. If you’ve ever been in Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, you know how lucrative this business is. There are beginnings here to developing an international class of health care, but there’s still a long way to go. I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do if I get seriously ill again, but it sure won’t be spending 200 million in Singapore.
- Scam artists: It seems that I read more and more stories about expats, especially newbies, being tricked out of money usually over property transactions, but also over marriages where the local spouse is more interested in love than money. It’s always sad to read these stories, and I’m not one for blaming the victim, but sometimes folks just lack common sense (after all, how many of us didn’t behave like starry-eyed teenagers when we first came here). Potential expats need to do their homework and get information before they commit to moving here. And check, check, check. There is a lot of incorrect information on some of the forums. Newbies still use the “nominee” system for “buying” land, but the government has already come out in the press and said that they consider it illegal. Why would you give someone a huge chunk of money to do something that is, if not illegal, certainly on the margins of legality? We’ve all been through the “he’s just like my brother” phase of life here, especially before we actually settle down. I wouldn’t give my brother $150,000 to buy a house for me and hope that he would let me live there forever. And as far as legal documents go, well, that’s another story.
And love? It’s not only here where a spouse takes advantage of his/her wealthier partner. How many gold diggers are there in America, for instance? Marriage is a tough job no matter where you are. You’re always taking a chance. If this is the first time that you’ve been thought of as being wealthy, remember to protect yourself. You don’t want to be one of the unfortunate ones who have lost everything because of a bad marriage or a dishonest partner.
There are the negatives. They’re irritating, but manageable. What’s the balance?
- Family. Most of my family is here. I’d like to see the ones in the States, but health and travel costs are constraining factors so I have to content myself with emails, Facebook or Skype. My family here loves Indonesia and Bali, and that’s one thing that keeps me living here. My children will probably want to move on to explore new areas eventually, but this will always be home, and my wife and I will be here to welcome them back.
- Smiles. Sounds syrupy-sweet enough for me to choke on, but on my way back from Ubud earlier this week, I drove up through Kintamani and down to Singaraja from there. As I drove through the villages along the road, lots of smiles and waves. They had nothing to do with insincerity or wanting something for nothing. These were folks who were never going to see me again. They were just being friendly and that’s worth a lot in this world.
- Family and community life: People take care of each other, show concern for each other, and can usually be counted on to help when help is needed. I know that my children will take care of me some day if I become too ill to get around or too senile to be useful. No nursing homes, no visiting one day a month. Elderly people are still respected here, just as little ones are too. Walking down the street in my poor kampung is always a pleasure just because of the little exchanges and pleasantries that make life comfortable. A lot of my neighbors are poor as can be, but it doesn’t effect their innate human dignity or their delightful sense of humor.
- The physical beauty of the island: Just driving up through the Ubud area to Kintamani and down to Singaraja offers enough breathtaking vistas to satisfy me for weeks. Over developed or not down south, this island is still gorgeous and the scenery is all free.
- Pace of life: Sometimes the “tomorrow” or “soon” answer to getting something done can be irritating, but the flexibility of time is something that, as I’ve written about some many times before, I’m learning to accept and appreciate.
- The sound of the sea: I live seaside and for a lover of seas and oceans that alone is enough to keep me here forever. I love being able to snorkel in front of my house. I love watching the neighborhood kids line up along the sea wall trying to catch small fish.
- The weather: The heat and dryness up in Singaraja keep my old battered bones from aching more than they would if I lived in a cold climate.
- Religion/spirituality: Actually this is a complaint that a number of expats have about living here. Religion is an integral part of life for most everyone that lives here. Foreigners need to learn to accept that.
- Cost of living: OK, let’s be practical. Life is cheaper here than in the States. Cost of living continues to rise in Indonesia, but it’s still a long way from what it would cost us to live in the States. I’m retired now. That would never have happened in America. I want a chance to take some time, reflect on life, enjoy my kids, fool around with my pets, and read and write to my heart’s content.
So, another of my annual posts on living in Bali. Who knows what next year will bring.