In the three months since I arrived in Bali, the rice shoots have grown two feet. Made’s youngest child, Lode, has sprouted too – from an infant at her mother’s breast to a young girl chasing through the paddies after her five year old brother, Gedde.
“Roh-bean! ” Made is at my door at 8AM, a palm-woven tray balanced on her head piled high with food-laden plates. “New moon, celebration of Saraswati!” she says handing me a plate of saffron rice and shredded chicken. I give her a one-armed hug. “Bye Made. I love you!” I call out as she traipses off through the rice fields with 2-yr. old Lode close on her heels.
Maybe because they sense in me a lost soul, Made and her family have taken me in. “You go to temple with us tonight?” she asks. All week long, the men and women of Penestanan have been streaming in and out of the temple for the annual celebration, Odalan. Lode is wrapped in a tiny sarong and Gedde in the all white going-to-the-temple ensemble worn by adult males. Made’s plastic pink curler is gone; tonight she is no longer matronly chef of Made’s Warung, but Made, maiden princess. The rhythmic clanging of hammers hitting the bamboo shafts in the kul kul tower pull us in. Women in tight sarongs and lacey tops stride regally under three foot towers of offerings on their heads. Like the ladies back home bringing food to the church potluck, they are bringing food to the gods, which they will share with others. We kneel on bare earth before a shrine. Made places the offering of food and flowers she has brought on the ground and lights a stick of incense. We hold out open hands to receive holy water sprinkled from a flower petal by the old pumanku, a priest’s assistant, and tuck flower petals behind our ears – even two year old Lode knows the routine. “What should I pray for?” I ask Made. “Whatever you want. No problem!” she says. I follow my adoptive family to the outer temple where young girls are dancing the barong – their eyes darting to and fro, arms swaying sinuously at their sides, fingers twitching and curling. Later we walk home through Penestanan and up the dirt road to Mades Warung (“Best Food in Ubud”) and the house I am renting next door.
I am not the first foreigner who has found “home” on the island of Bali. Unofficially, there are 20,000 foreigners living and working here. They are mostly concentrated on the southern coast from Sanur to Seminyak and in the center of the island, in Ubud, where I live. The Ubud expatriates are for the most part artists, traders, and businessmen and women who offer services to tourists and/ or the expatriate community.
Here are the stories of a few of the expatriates of Bali:
Diane and Beth, proprietors of Taman Rahasia Hotel “The Secret Garden” Boutique Resort Spa & Restaurant
Diane, from Florida, stresses that she wasn’t trying to get away from something as much as coming To something when she made her move to Bali in 1994. Two years ago, daughter Beth joined her and together the two built the 8-room hotel Taman Rahasia.
Diane says, “Bali attracts a high percentage of creative types – artists, writers, and designers. Living here,” she says, ” has allowed me to express myself in ways that I never knew I could.”
I ask the women to talk about some of the challenges of living in Bali.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who came here with their western thinking intact and were thoroughly disillusioned,” Diane says. “The different concept of time, what we call rubber time, is a big one.”
Beth adds, “It’s key to remember, that no matter how long you’re here, you’re always a guest in this country.”
“Are there any gaps in services which might be filled by someone interested in starting a business in Bali?” I ask.
Diane says, “We could use a good deli.” Beth adds, “Or a good bookshop. But you can successfully run an “old” business if you add a unique twist.”
I ask them about the high number of single western women who live in Bali, many with Balinese partners.
Beth says, “Women are attracted to Bali because they are safe here. You can be walking alone through the rice fields in pitch black with a man walking right behind you sharpening a long curved knife, and you know he’s just a man going home from work in the rice fields.”
“What is the biggest difference between life in the U.S. and life in Bali?”
Beth says, “We have so many attachments to things we think we have to have. Living here you realize how complicated we make our lives, and yet how simply and well you can live.”
Diane says, ” I just bought my first TV a few months ago, and that was just so that we could watch videos.”
“Would you recommend Bali to everyone?” I ask them.
Diane says, “You have to be a person who is not attached to things and people. Those who come here tend to be people who let life lead them rather than trying to control it. The Balinese don’t have a word for future – they don’t think about tomorrow the way we do. And the truth is, we don’t know. If change is hard for you and if you have big control issues, you don’t belong here.”
Martial, 42, from France, owner of the Highway Internet Cafe and PT Bali Kreasi Bisnis
Martial’s expertise, in addition to the computer business, is land and property acquisition and all things visa-related in Bali. He also has a software and printing business. Martial left France and a prospering real estate business because he says,”I worked like an animal to make 600,000 francs a year ($100,000 U.S) but the government took 425,000 of that in taxes!”
“I work with many foreigners who come here expecting to make a fortune. The problem is that while building costs are low, land is very expensive. With 250 million rupiah ($25,000U.S), you can build a very nice house with marble, fine wood, and a pool. But land costs are between 100 million to 200 million rupiah per era. ($10,000 to $20,000 U.S. It takes about two era to build a typical house.) And so foreigners come to this beautiful island and they hear, ‘Darling don’t you want to build a house on my land?’ So you build a house on the land of your boyfriend and after five months or two years, your boyfriend says, ‘It’s over.’ Who is the owner of the house then? The owner of the land.”
“Only an Indonesian can own land in Indonesia. On the other hand, the highest right that a foreigner can have here is a lease agreement – a contract which allows you to build on leased land for 25 years and can be renewed another 25 years. After that the land and whatever is on it belongs to the landowner. In my business we provide not only guidance, but loan and lease agreements to secure acquisitions.”
“There is one way a foreigner can purchase land and that is to create a PMA, or a foreign company. It costs some money and is a complicated process, but it can be done. However, you will still be a foreigner in Indonesia without the same rights as Indonesians.”
“Is now a good time to invest in Bali?” I ask Martial.
“I will say one thing; there is only one Bali in the world. And so if you buy a piece of Bali, it is likely that it will appreciate in value.”
“What about visas?” I ask him. “There are a number of different visas,” he says. “Some require you to leave the country every two months (like tourist visas) and there are those that allow you to stay longer (working visas). Regardless of which one you obtain, it will cost you $5 to $6 a day to live in Bali.
In our ‘How to Live in Bali’ package, we can help people with all of this. It took me a year of experience to learn what I can tell a client in 45 minutes.”
I ask about Indonesia’s reputation for corruption – the payoffs, the palm greasing. Martial says, “I prefer to call it commission. If you were a police officer making $50 U.S. a month and you had two children and a wife, you too would be looking to improve your income. I deal regularly with this as a business owner, and sometimes when they give us good service, we show our appreciation.”
“What about medical care?” I ask. “It’s good for regular intervention, but if you have an emergency, well, it’s not so great. You absolutely must have health insurance to transport you to Singapore in case of a serious illness or injury. If you want to live an adventurous, nice life, something very different, you take the risk.”
“What is the best thing about living in Bali?” I ask Martial.
“The absolute, breathtaking, gorgeous beauty of the girls. The women here are great. As business partners they are hard working, they are clear, and they are fast. Balinese women have the most beautiful breasts in the world because they grow up carrying everything on their heads. That means they have exquisite posture and the muscles here (he points to his pecs) are permanently working. I weigh more than 100 kilos. I’m not bad, but I am no more Casanova. When I see a girl in France and I say, “Hello Baby, you look very sexy,” she says to me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Here when I say hi to a girl here, she looks at me and smiles. ‘Terima kasi.’ she says. Thank you very much. Unfortunately I was 36 years old before I knew about Asian girls, or I would have lived here a long time ago.”
“So moving to Bali was a good decision for you?”
“Every morning when I wake up and see my servants smiling and they bring me a French crepe with some strawberry and some rice and I listen to the birds, walk around with my cats, and smoke my first cigarette, I say ‘Oui! This is it!'”
Jim, 60, health practitioner and owner of Cendana Spa, from U.S.A.
Jim came to Bali from Monterey Country, California in 1995. He is a chiropractor and psychologist who offers healing to tourists in a sumptuous spa environment.
Jim’s story of getting to Bali began when the Loma Prieta earthquake flattened the office building where his practice was located. He lost everything, but with the help of U.S. government loans began to rebuild again. A major economic recession hit California in the early 90’s and he was forced to close his practice again. He and his wife of 36 years moved to Carmel, rented a small bungalow, and he opened up another chiropractic office. This time his plans were cut short by the death of his beloved wife. “Enough was enough”, Jim says. He flew to Singapore to be near his son. Son took dad to Bali for a healing holiday. Dad stayed in Bali. Dad began to heal, and now Dad, remarried recently, is back to healing others again.
“The name Ubud comes from Oebed which means ‘place of healing'”, Jim says. Bali is a healing place, and I needed it badly.”
“It was costing me $5,000 a month to live in Carmel. I am too old to start over again in the U.S and to make enough money to live the way I like to live. At Cendana Spa I offer counseling, tissue cleansing, colonics, chiropractic, nutritional supplements, massage, facials, pedicures and manicures, spa facilities, and neuro linguistictreatments in a beautiful transforming environment. I teach my patients how to change their lives.”
I ask Jim about the business climate in Bali.
“The Balinese have lived in a communal society for 10,000 years or so and they share what they earn. If someone new comes along and does well, there’s a lot of jealousy. They have a different ethic than I have and it’s hard for me to adjust to it sometimes. A contract has some validity, but still what can you do if they decide not to honor it? Take them to court and sue them? Indonesia has the most corrupt justice system in Asia. Whoever pays the most wins. It’s a risk you take and you accept the rules the way they are here, or you don’t come.”
“What type of expatriates do best it in Bali?”
“Those who are open to whatever experience comes to them and trust in the universe that whatever happens will be in their best benefit. I’m not afraid of losing anything because I’ve already lost it all. If you can give up control and expectations and fear, then you can make it in Bali.”
“What’s the worst thing about living in Bali?”
“I miss the cultural things like theatre groups.”
“How very comfortable it is here. When I start to get discouraged about the difficulty of doing business in Bali, I remember what it was really like in the U.S. – the constant threat of legal action for one thing.”
“I am grateful for the good experiences and the bad ones I’ve had in Bali. I was able to rebuild my life. I have remarried, I have a beautiful home and servants, and I am working again helping others to heal.”
Elliot, in his 60’s, Exporter, from U.S.
A number of expatriates can be found on Thursday nights at Nuri’s ( a cafe owned by expatriate Brian, from New York) for fresh tuna night. That is where I meet Elliot, a robust southern gentleman from South Carolina. I ask Elliot how he came to be in Bali. He says, “I got a divorce and there was a big ‘ole hurricane. I cashed out and gave away everything else. A friend living in Guam at that time told me there were no Rent-A-Wreck companies there so I bought 45 used automobiles and started a used car rental business. It did great. Then a typhoon came along and blew all the cars into the ocean. I used to come to Bali with my girlfriend. I started buying things and then a few extra things to sell. They’d be snatched up in a few hours. So I began exporting furniture out of Bali to Guam. When Guam was full of teak furniture, I struck up a deal with a furniture wholesaler in South Carolina and started shipping to him. That’s what I do today. I own nothing except for my business, and that’s the way I like it.”
Tony, in his 50’s, retired, from Australia
Tony, a Hemingwayesque father of 5 children, moved to Bali three years ago after a divorce. He has just bought 42 era on the side of a mountain. “Living there will give me the isolation I love,” he says. “It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of land, very spiritual. From the top you can see the volcano and the ocean.” He bought the land under a lease agreement with the owner for 110,000,000 rupiah ($11,000) and plans to build a house for under $30,000 U.S. He says, “People back home have no idea they can live in Paradise for so little.”
Theo Zantman, 50-years old, artist, from Holland
Theo came to Bali in 1970 after living in Tunisia for several years. “When I arrived in Bali, I felt at home immediately, as if I had come to visit my
grandmother.” he says.
Theo paints every day in his studio, which is located in the old art center, Penestanan. Theo’s art is in galleries all over the world including a permanent exhibition in Belgium where his son manages his business.
He says. “Bali has a spiritual energy that is found in few other places on the planet – it is in fact one of the chakra points of mother earth.”
A three-dimensional portrait contains shadow and light. The Balinese understand this concept well – the religious offerings which are such an integral part of their lives, are made to the bad gods as well as the good. Even paradise has its dark side.
Harassment by hawkers on the beaches of Bali -“Sarong? Madam want beautiful sarong?” “Bali Boy? Only $20!” – is relentless. Even in Ubud, you can’t walk through town without being assaulted by locals trying to sell you everything from”transport” to paintings. I am told that this is a relatively new phenomenon and only occurs in the tourist centers; that in the villages, people are still content to make a living off the land.
But it goes beyond pushy street vendors. Stealing and home robberies are commonplace in Bali, although, thankfully, physical violence is not. If you leave a personal item (like the sunglasses I “lost” at the medicine man’s house), it is highly doubtful anyone is going to say, “Excuse me maam, but you left your….” My explanation is that in a society where everything is shared, the lack of a boundary between yours and mine, means that everything is up for grabs.
Lack of privacy is another issue that I as a westerner find difficult here. Bali’s communal lifestyle means everything is shared including time and space. The nice thing about this is that my neighbors watch my back, but on the other hand, I cannot work at home uninterrupted. When I leave (usually to “hide out” at a cafe), everyone I pass on my way out of the neighborhood says, “Miss Robin, where you go?”
I mentioned corruption earlier in this story. in some ways it can be a good thing. It’s easier, for instance, to simply hand a policeman a few bucks if you are stopped than to go through the hassle of receiving a ticket and all that that entails. It’s also more convenient in many cases to pay someone off than to wade through the mountains of regulations required in most countries to get anything done. (Building permits for example) The negative side to this is that the Balinese see foreigners as bottomless sources of income and their efforts to profit from them are creative and persistent.
Clock is Ticking…
After three months, Bali is still best. I will return in January, during the rainy season to be sure. Next week I will go home to reconnect with loved ones and to tie into a slipknot, the loose ends which need to be secured before I make the move.
I have begun the process of exploring ways to earn my keep in Paradise. As a writer, thanks to the Internet, I can work anywhere on the planet where there is an electrical outlet and a telephone line. I will finish my book about expatriate havens. (Look for it this time next year!) And I will offer creative writing workshops in Bali.
I may have found my place in the sun, but I’ll continue to check out expatriate havens in South Africa, Cambodia, Brazil, and beyond – and I will share my findings with you.
Thanks to all of you for your emails of encouragement and for hanging with me on this journey of self and geographical exploration. It is you, the readers, who have fueled the adventure. And so, for now anyway, I will keep one toe in the U.S., and move the rest of me to Bali.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
All of the following are located in Ubud, Bali:
Dr. Jim Taylor
“Best Food In Ubud” (and a great place to find houses for rent in the rice paddies)
Br. Penestanan Kaja
PT Bali Kreasi Bisnis
“We create, develop and maintain your business.” Highway Internet Cafe