When I started packing to leave Singapore for Bali in 2000, my friends were confused and apprehensive. Why was I leaving their safe and orderly little nation for the chaos of Indonesia? The civil unrest, financial crisis and fall of Suharto in 1998 were still vivid memories in the region. Many of us had sheltered evacuees fleeing from the deadly riots in Jakarta. What was I thinking?
I was thinking like an expatriate.
The definition of an expatriate is someone who lives outside their native country. Thousands of us here in Bali have chosen this role, or perhaps it has chosen us. We’re living outside our countries by choice, and our perspectives are very different from those of our fellow nationals. Many of us plan to be here until we fall off our respective perches.
What makes an expatriate? Many of us started travelling to exotic lands when we were young; I was in Bali in 1969. We were seduced by different cultures, cuisines and even partners. Some came to start businesses or do good works, others to retire or fulfil long-held dreams to explore their creative potential. Whatever the circumstances, our reasons are our reasons. We’ve lost the early programming that kept us safely behind whatever version of the white picket fence we left behind.
I was already an expatriate when I left Singapore for Bali, and have now been living out of Canada for almost half my life. To this day I can’t define my reasons. I’ve just returned from a month visiting the land of my birth and it is indeed a great country; I just don’t want to live there. My home is Bali, my roots are deep, this is my place now. Friends and relations in Canada can’t fathom it. Neither can the Balinese.
The Balinese have a very strong sense of place. Anchored by their family temples and banjars, men stay in one place for generations. Daughters enter the family compounds of their husbands. Sons bring their wives to the father’s family compound when they marry, and so do their sons and grandsons. These days family compounds are sometimes overcrowded and some sons may build a house on family land elsewhere, but will always come back for ceremonies. The soul of the family through the generations is in the family temple.
We foreigners move at least several times in our lives, and some of us have lost count of the number of front door keys we’ve owned over a lifetime. Just as the Balinese consider it normal to stay in one place for their whole life, it’s standard operating procedure for us to change residences, cities and even countries.
I moved into my current house in Ubud in 2002, only the second foreigner/tamu to live on my street. I attended the temple on high holidays, contributed to the ogoh ogoh fund before each Nyepi and paid more than my share of road improvements and banjar events. I was tolerated in a friendly way but of course could never be anything but that strange foreign woman with all the dogs who lived behind the blue gateposts.
I’ve never had any security issues in my banjar, which I put down to my noisy pack of rescued Bali dogs. It wasn’t until recently I learned that my housekeeper Wayan Manis has been murmuring for many years that I had supernatural powers and it was best not to mess with me. I don’t, but no one ever has, just in case.
Neighbours were genial, except for one crooked old woman who consistently looked through me as if I was invisible. Perhaps I was, to her. Then a couple of years go I was outside my gate trimming the vines and saw her shuffle up the lane. I greeted her as always, expecting the usual rebuff. But this time she stopped and examined me lengthily from rheumy eyes. At last she declared, “Masih disini (You’re still here.)” After 15 years of observation she’d decided that perhaps I was indeed a permanent fixture in the neighbourhood, and worthy of recognition.
Finally, I feel accepted on my street. The bapaks acknowledge me with a lift of the chin as they zoom past on their motorbikes. Kids greet me by name. I visit the little shop in my sarong to buy eggs without raising an eyebrow. And now that I’ve become rooted in the neighbourhood, I’m about to leave and start all over again.
A 20 year lease feels like a very long time at the beginning. But the dimension of time seems to telescope as we get older, and I’m now just three short years from the end of my lease. Land prices have increased to the point where I can’t afford to stay downtown. So I’ll be moving out to a nearby village – dogs, parrots, hens, pigeons, turtles and all.
I’ll be putting down roots for the last time; the next lease is 30 years. So I have quite a lot of time to get to know my new neighbours, and give them something fresh to gossip about.
To the Balinese I represent a group that is strange beyond imagining. Single, childless women are as rare as dragon’s teeth in this society. According to Indonesian law, people are officially geriatric at 60. Yet here we are, energetic and silver haired, refusing to act like old people. Even stranger, we’re not afraid to live alone. We take an incomprehensible interest in waste management, unpolished rice and stray dogs. We flit from house to house and banjar to banjar like wild birds. In fact, our eccentricities are endless.
But it’s been getting more difficult to transplant ourselves here in Bali. Costs have spiralled and affordable housing is an ongoing challenge. Many of us on fixed incomes are staring down the barrel of an expiring lease in an increasingly expensive rental market.
People are finding creative solutions. Sharing is becoming more popular. And a friend in downtown Ubud has started an interesting project which could be replicated elsewhere.She’s building seven pretty little houses as a small intentional community on 17 are of riverfront land. There’s a big swimming pool, community club house and shared laundry. It’s walking distance to central Ubud and pet-friendly.
The concept is to create a community of like-minded people aged 55 and over who will own their leases and pay monthly maintenance. The houses are designed so they can be adapted to become more elder-friendly as tenants age. Yes, there are all kinds of management and governance issues to negotiate. But this is an imaginative pilot project that could provide an affordable housing solution for aging foreigners. We need less space and less stuff as time goes on, and friendly neighbours.
Our sense of place may have a smaller footprint but our roots will still be deep in Bali.
Copyright © 2018 Greenspeak
You can read all past articles of Greenspeak at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz
Ibu Kat’s book of stories
Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired,
Rewired – Living Without Adult
Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle