Why I Choose to Live in Bali: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bali (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern)

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.

melastiI’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.

The Negatives

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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?

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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The Expat Life in Bali

Expats can be incredibly difficult people to deal with. I say this after 26 years of expat life, and I include myself as someone that can be difficult at times even though I generally make an effort not to be quite so difficult. The internet has made expat life even more bizarre than it has historically been because now expats can act out in public for large (or small) groups of strangers without taking even the least bit of responsibility for their weirdness.

image from planetasia.org

image from planetasia.org

What brought this topic up? A few paragraphs in one of Paul Theroux’s travel books about his meeting with some expats in Thailand as well as the regular shenanigans over at any one of many expat forums and facebook groups. And so, the expat life (including myself at times although I generally refer to myself as an immigrant):

  1. You pretend not to notice other foreigners around you.
  2. You regularly bring up the days, months and years that you’ve been an expat on the belief that the longer you reside overseas the more you know.
  3. You love to speak Indonesian, or better, Balinese in front of your expat friends, but only if you know that they know less than you do.
  4. You make a point of eating all the local dishes including things that no regular expat would eat including parts of a chicken like the feet.
  5. You have a significant other who either speaks English (or your national language for those of you who come from non-English speaking countries) fluently or not at all. You never want your significant other to speak “broken English” because your friends will think your S.O. is either a bar girl or a cowboy.
  6. You have children who speak at least two languages.
  7. You make a point of eating local food, but have a kitchen filled with the most expensive imported items available.
  8. You make a point of knowing obscure points of Balinese or Indonesian history so that you can best your expat friends on forums or at dinner parties.
  9. You regularly drop the names of well-known local politicians, business leaders, or artists (musicians, painters, writers, etc.). You don’t actually need to know them, you only have to convince others that you do.
  10. You only wear local traditional clothes on the proper occasions. If you wear them regularly, people might mistake you for a backpacker or tourist.
  11. You have a lawyer or notary who you regularly consult whether you need advice or not.
  12. The manager of your local bank pays social visits to your house and invites you to ceremonies at his or her house.
  13. You complain about your household help while explaining how much you pay them and what tremendous benefits you give them, and how three of their children are in university because of your generosity.
  14. You collect all the new expats before your friends do so as to enhance your status as an Expat-With-Influence.
  15. You extol the beauty of traditional architecture and the joys of tropical design, but also make a point of letting everyone know that you have the latest imported shower from Ace Hardware. Your house has a two page photo spread in the latest coffee table book on tropical architecture written by an expat.
  16. You have an architect – either foreign-trained or a local one who has lots of expat clients – who has designed your house and garden and charged you the cost of ten locally made houses.
  17. You complain about the corruption in the country, but have many stories to tell after a few too many drinks about all the times that you’ve bribed either the police or a local politician.
  18. You live in a kampung, not one of the new expat only compounds.
  19. You call your house a villa and have an infinity pool. You have solar panels on the roof for hot water to showcase your green lifestyle, but also have four air-conditioners running 24 hours a day.
  20. You have a long-term relationship with the head of the immigration department or the chief of police.
  21. You live in Ubud, Seminyak or Canggu.
  22. You have had at least one mystical experience in Bali and speak about it in hushed tones and explain your experience as an example of how integrated you are in the local community.
  23. You shop for imported delicacies at the expat delis and drink imported wine.
  24. You express your deep love and affection for Bali and the Balinese/Indonesians who live there, at the same time that you complain endlessly to your expat friends about the life, culture and religion of Bali and Indonesia.
  25. You’ve lost your sense of humor about life here and your role as an expat many years ago.
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Civilization Collapses in Ubud: How I Satisfied My Hunger and Lost My Bearing

You can never tell what is going to happen when you wander into the rarefied air of Ubud. Perhaps I’ve been here (in Bali that is) for too long. I tend to be a person of habit: during my years working as a teacher, I woke up everyday at five and left for work at six; my youngest granddaughter and I go out for a walk around the city every morning at seven; I’ve been staying in the same homestay in Ubud for the past 25 years; the morning after I arrive in Ubud, I visit Ganesha Bookstore and buy one or two books then I go out for a walk and buy a dress for my wife and some clothes for Zoey. I think you get the point.

And, I tend to be something of a traditionalist these days. I see the same folks on my trips, and I like eating in the same little Balinese warungs when I’m on my own and in the same tourist-oriented restaurants when I’m with friends and visitors. I cringe when people talk about their villas. I find much of the change on the island annoying at best, catastrophic at the worst. I do much of my shopping at the little Indonesian-owned businesses that look the same and are staffed by the same set of characters as they were 25 years ago. My Uncle Ed told me once long ago during my SDS days that one day I would become more conservative. Hard to imagine, but perhaps time has snuck up on me.

So, what has set off this paroxysm of navel-gazing? I ordered a pizza for delivery from one of the local restaurants in Ubud. Not the end of the world? For several years now, I’ve taken delight in making fun of foreign residents of Ubud who seem to enjoy whining about slow restaurant delivery, or wrong orders, or cold food, or the lack of a sufficient amount of restaurants serving the right food for delivery.

DSCF0917As I mentioned to a friend recently, restaurant delivery is one of the things that I’ve always considered to be part of the new Western-fueled decadence of Ubud. This may not seem like the end of the world, but for me ordering a pizza, or anything else, seems like an unalterable concession to the tidal wave of the Westernization of Ubud. That being said, if the Balinese are OK with it, then I’m just going to have to go along with it. After all, I’m in favor of McDonald’s and KFC and Burger King coming here if that’s what the local population wants. So if the Balinese or other Indonesian residents of Ubud think that delivery service is the bee’s knees, then I guess that I can order a late night pizza for delivery to my favorite homestay without guilt. On the other hand, guilt may just be one of those little pleasures of life that I enjoy so much. And maybe it’s time for me to accept some of the changes happening on this little island.

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