If you are laboring in the context of unrequited ambition or some pent-up dream, Bali can be the perfect place to address The Project, however you define it.
A tropical vacation is fun and rejuvenating, but stay in a place like Bali long enough and it just might trigger a larger sense of perspective in you. Be warned: removing much of the pressing need for income and heavy clothing under which you have been been straining for a lifetime can have ontological ramifications.
Glimpsing a less-constrained you in very different circumstances, even if only for a moment, hints at a larger, fuller life that you might otherwise have lived. It suggests a life that you might–being still alive–still live.
For me years ago, the word ‘expat’ meant being Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, Graham Greene or Hemingway in Cuba, or even Bogart in a Casablanca nightclub. I have my moments but I never feel as distinguished or well-dressed as any of those guys.
But when an old friend came to visit us in Bali recently and mentioned with just a hint of fraternal sarcasm, “Hey you’re an expat now”, it got me thinking. I bought my little base here in 2005 and have been in Bali nearly continuously since mid-2008. Had I passed some arbitrary time requirement? What does ‘expat’ mean in 2013?
A 21st century expat in Bali or elsewhere in Southeast Asia can enjoy the exoticism of his chosen location without many of the attendant inconveniences, deprivations or even dangers endured by those iconic figures from another time. OK, so call me soft. Still, talking to friends via free Google video chat or flying inexpensively to Singapore for a visa run and authentic masala dosa is something I wouldn’t swap for doing it the way they did 50+ years ago.
Being a Bali expat is an exercise in having it both ways, sometimes almost embarrassingly so. Having said that, the frustrations and negative aspects built into expatriate life in Bali keep me from getting too smug. Today I’ll just tell you about the good stuff, the 19 best things about being a Bali expat, according to me. In no particular order:
1) Getting laundry done by a friendly Balinese family, three minutes’ walk away. They charge 15 or 20 US cents per piece, folded and neatly bundled for next-day pickup.
2) Enjoying the melting pot that is Bali. Not only do people come from all of the world for everything from short visits to making a long-term base, people come from every corner of the Indonesian archipelago for the opportunity that exists in Bali, or simply to vacation.It’s hard not to feel stimulated by the sheer variety of people here–everyone seems to show up eventually!–there’s nowhere better to see it than on the beach at sunset time.
4) At night in the rainy season, sitting at the computer surfing the planet with my cat on my lap, or just sitting in warm humidity on the balcony, listening to the late-night torrents.
5) Having time to read every single book on the “must read” list.
6) Having time for my sunset walk on the beach every day. Funny how I never have to force myself to get a nice hour and a half worth of low-intensity exercise here. I know it’s good for me but I do it because I love it.
7)Having time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s ironic that being so far away from home without a work schedule means that you have more time to spend with people than when you are geographically closer to them. It goes without saying that you have the technology in Bali. You’ll have a connection at home and there is free Wi-Fi in most of the restaurants, which means among other things that your VoIP telephone solutions work great internationally without ever having to involve a ‘service provider’. Also, when friends and family come to Bali to visit–a surprising amount do–we get to spend hours and hours talking as we rarely seemed to back in the realm of the busy. People are more interested and interesting without a schedule and so, most likely, are you.
8) Magnificent luscious fruit. I wouldn’t want the stellar vegetables to feel left out either, and one certainly will find both elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but I’m amazed still at the variety and freshness of mangosteen, papaya, pineapple, honeydew and watermelon, several varieties of bananas and mangoes, rambutan, snake fruit, dragon fruit, durian, etc. I always have fruit at home and indulge in a half-papaya every day.
9)Taking spur-of-the-moment flights to interesting places. I start every day in Bali knowing that if I got the urge I could wake up the following morning in any one of a hundred interesting cities, watching the world come alive in Chiang Mai, Kovalam Beach in Kerala, Ho Chi Minh City, Penang, etc. etc. If you’re coming to Asia from Europe or the United States it would be difficult to see too many of the places you’ve “always wanted to visit” without taking a six-month sabbatical and aggressively connecting all the dots. Lots of people buy a backpack and do this at some point, but having a base in this region means spontaneous explorations won’t break the bank, nor even require much planning. Led by Air Asia, the availability of cheap flights has increased dramatically over the past 10 years; more competition has meant that one is no more than US $100 or $200 from destinations worthy of checking out. Most days, I do not jump on that airplane. But I can, and that has made all the difference.
10) One-hour massages priced from US$5.
12) Good quality DVDs and CDs of recent film/music releases on every corner for US$1. I know that no one is getting paid but the people from whom I buy them, most of whom make less in a month than Johnny Depp slips the valet.
13) Having time for leisurely two- or three-hour meals in restaurants, depending on the conversation and who might show up. Never will there be an insinuation that you should order more or perhaps free up the table. This is not unique to Bali of course; budget travelers in the region know the Asian informality that blurs the line between eating and socializing. I’ll admit that I have sat for so long after a meal that I get hungry again and order another meal. Well, I’m not the only one. Since Internet access is a given at Bali restaurants, it’s easy to combine the additional dimension of working, alone or together with friends on the Project. Or not.
14) Not spending time trying to convince myself that to defer life is to live. Get ready, here’s a heavy idea that I didn’t invent: in dreams begin responsibilities. Execute and come to a place where you are (finally) without reasons why you can’t act, today, and you will find if you are worthy of this dream of yours, and all the effort that it took to get you here in the first place. You can fall into a deserved retirement when some arbitrary timetable finally allows you to, but if you decide that it is time to live today, making an equally arbitrary decision that’s fundamentally different because it is of you, that you deserve to pursue living as you define it, the onus will be on you to act. I think of it as having time to pursue my projects, and simply to breathe. Of course you can do it anywhere; being in Bali was a catalyst for me, a freedom metaphor.
15) Losing weight with no effort. Yep, you read that right. Don’t call me if it doesn’t work for you, but the warm climate in Bali makes me less focused on food. Portion sizes at restaurants reflect a culture not obliged or intending to feed the insatiable. I tend to eat to live in Bali rather than the other way around. It sounds pretentious so let me elaborate: I have no fixed schedule in Bali, so I’m without the scheduled mealtimes on which I fixated back in the salt mines, for lack of other immediate satisfactions. Engagement in activities that interest me has added up to shedding at least 40 lbs. I’m sure the walking doesn’t hurt either; out of 24 hours in the day it’s easy to make time for it.
16) Bluebird brand taxis cost no more than $1-$2 for just about everywhere I want to go. Air-conditioned, pleasant drivers who turn the meter on every single time without having to be asked.
17) No problem getting around with English, though if you’re a Bali expat you’ll pick up at least basic Bahasa Indonesia, as it’s one of the easiest languages to learn: no verb tenses, a Roman alphabet with no difficult pronunciations, etc.
18) Arriving back at my condo in the afternoon hours on a steaming hot sunny day to the pleasure of the cool air in our little place. Add the right beverage and you can go from wilted to refreshed in about 10 seconds. If I feel like getting especially decadent I can pop a DVD in and watch it during the midday heat, until 5 PM or so when it becomes much cooler and time to hit the beach for sunset.
19) Meeting interesting long-term expats, most of whom seem to have biographies worthy of a movie. Think you’ve been around? In the market last night I run across an acquaintance in the produce section. He’s a charming fellow with a US accent in his early 60s (I guess) who has been in Bali and elsewhere in Asia for most of the last 40 years, and always looks as though he’s heading to an afterparty in the Hollywood hills. My understanding is that he has been a collector of Dayak art since he was a hippy, and that he’s made countless trips up rivers in Borneo in his day.
He tells me he has nearly 5,000 Facebook friends now, and very little time for anything other than keeping his active online and off-line social life organized. He allowed someone to place an ad to sell a house on his Facebook wall and to his surprise it sold very quickly; he sees this as an enormous business opportunity-not that he particularly that needs the money-and feels like the future is wide open, full of possibilities. I’m not sure if he has ever had a “real job” back in the United States, but no mention is made of impending retirement and Social Security compensation. He is clearly not waiting for anything. I imagine he never has.
Being a Bali expat has been an adventure in living for today without sabotaging tomorrow. We are taught that there is a natural dichotomy between enjoying oneself and doing what it takes to pay for or even deserve that enjoyment.
At the risk of sounding like a simpleton or making anyone uncomfortable who spends time employed in a job he or she doesn’t like, let me speak plainly. This distinction is a delusion, played out on a mass scale by good people who too often don’t even question their participation in it. Life doesn’t have to be win lotto/nose to grindstone, holiday/work, or retired/not yet retired. If one embraces today there are other ways to live!
I know too many people whose lives are evidence of this not to believe it.
What about you?
Have you always wanted to be a person who writes, paints, sculpts, makes furniture, designs clothes or leather goods, designs shoes, jewelry, or toys? Are you interested in being an Internet entrepreneur, making a real difference at an orphanage, being a freelance travel consultant, a wedding planner, a documentary filmmaker, or building your own home? Do you just want some time to study something new, for all the right reasons?
Redirection may be too expensive for you to consider ‘back home’, but It’s cheap enough in Bali to pursue even a vague interest, and I will bet you that it results sooner or later, directly or indirectly, into a means of paying the bills.
It won’t take much.
If you have an idea for a better purpose that won’t let you go, living in Bali (or many other places in Asia) will give you time to work on your project. This means you’ll have time to step back from your life and a schedule that has turned somehow from being a comfort and an acceptable price to be paid to being a soul-killing drag, short and simple.
You can step toward a better plan of your own devising.
If you look your dream in the face, even if it’s just a vague desire for more, and tell yourself that only people with trust funds, or those somehow ‘chosen’ can escape, you’re half right. None of my friends in Bali have trust funds as far as I know, but we were in fact all chosen for something different.
But here’s the secret: it was we ourselves who did the choosing.
Hey, remember the quote about the devil finding work for idle hands to do? It was handy for people who wanted you to keep your nose to the grindstone, toward an end they’d supply, that would in turn profit them.
Those devils found work for you to do in return for concepts like security, and the satisfaction of small desires. Shed this ah…arrangement.
Having time to be self-directed, possibly for the first time in one’s life, is the basis for a profound transformation for many people.
Not everyone has a hole in their life which can be filled only by taking action which might seem imprudent to others. But if you do, don’t kid yourself in an effort to placate ‘others’. Your friends will cheer you on, and the other folks don’t really care that much anyway.
By the way, you don’t become a Bali expat and ‘never go back’, unless you really don’t want to. Chances are that the same flexibility that made Bali a possibility in the first place will take you back to where you’re ‘from’, though you’ll probably return without the person you are now.
What is the one question I can answer for you regarding being an expat in Bali or Southeast Asia? Just leave it in the comments and I’ll give you the best answer I can.
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