Feature: American Ex-pats in Bali
As I walk down Ubudís main thoroughfare, Jalan Raya, the traffic suddenly stops. Honking cars and motorbikes go silent as I watch a parade of normally laid-back Balinese become ebullient under the spell of music and color. They file past one-room art galleries, tourist restaurants, and Internet cafes. The women balance baskets of fruit and flowers on their headsÖ offerings to appease the spirits. The men, in street-length golden sarongs, bang bronze kettle drums as they marchÖ their coffee-colored skin off-set by matching white shirts and turbans. I see Hindu rituals like this performed almost daily in Bali. As hotel owner Chakorda Raka tells me, these ceremonies are vital.
Raka: "The important for the ritual is to keep the balance in our daily life, between heaven and earth, and good and bad ... so we can be able to live harmonious among ourselves and also our neighbor."Now, Iím not particularly religious, but I can appreciate that quest for harmony and balance. The ex-pats living in Ubud are also looking for a kind of balance. In the States, most of them felt the scales were tipped against them. Something was missing...whether it be love or the ability to live in wealthy comfort. So they came here. These ex-patriates are different from ex-pats who move overseas to get ahead in their careers.
Max: "Ubud area in Bali is uniquely different than almost any other ex-pat community that Iíve seen in Asia or anywhere because there is no corporate reality happening here...People came here through choice. People came here because we liked the place, and the kind of people who came here are the kind of oddball, kind of out-there, stranger people."Thatís Max, from California, who lives here his wife and kids. Iím talking to him on the veranda of his house, a mile up a twisting dirt road from Ubud. His nearest neighbors are noisy frogs, croaking in the surrounding rice fields. Max doesnít LOOK like an oddball: dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, he is clean-cut, 40-ish, but with a boyish face and neat sandy-brown hair. But though conventional in appearance, in the US, he didnít fit in, a feeling he says is common among ex-pats in Ubud.
Max: "Almost everyone whoís here, that lives here full time, was definitely a failure and an outcast within their own society. Thatís why we left. Successful people tend to stay at home. So we left, we came over here and found itís a lot easier to have the trappings of success in Asia, and particularly in Bali, than almost any other place on earth."Here in Ubud, Max lives in a two-story stucco house that sits back from the road, surrounded by a high wooden fence, on almost an acre of land. Itís no mansion, but itís as big as a suburban house in any upper-middle class American neighborhood. After the mosquitos on the veranda become unbearable, we retreat to a book-lined study. If this home were in California, where Iím from, youíd say Max was living the American dream. But for a whole lot cheaper. Here in Ubud, he pays 250 dollars A YEAR. Plus another 50 bucks a month for a live-in cook and maid.
Max: "Itís the equivalent of English upper-middle class of maybe 120, 130 years ago. In the sense that a working person, such as myself, can afford to have servants, have their own home separated from their servants quarters, have a cook that takes care of you, does the shopping for you. Have a driver. And that has not been freely available in the West for like a hundred years."But the servants, the house, the low-priced creature comforts arenít the only things that brought Max and his family to Ubud. Like so many people here, Max was also seeking a kind of freedom. Where other people mind their own business, and he can basically disappear.
Max: "Most of us donít really want to be seen."The US, he says, is too intrusive. He calls it a police state. Too many taxes. Too many rules. Too many cops. Which might seem ironic considering that Indonesia was until recently a dictatorship. But with the incentive of a modest bribe, officials HERE will ignore you.
Raka: "I have no interest in going to some place where I canít pay a policeman to leave me alone."And itís not just the police. Max feels that in America, the whole society passes judgement on him.
Max: "We come here because itís a very accepting and easy place to live... The local people here do NOT judge us by any standards that really matter to us. They judge us by their own standards - apples and oranges. So different as to be it doesnít matter."Perhaps ex-pats like Max havenít come to Ubud to fit in so much as to make peace with their role as outsiders and live comfortably in relative seclusion. Because in contrast to his leave-me-alone individualism, Balinese society, despite its rigid caste structure, is in many ways communal. You can see this in the local temple. Walk through the outer gateway, past intricately carved stone sculptures of dragons and demons, and youíll come to a courtyard where Balinese women, young and old, prepare for the next ceremony. They chat and swap stories while working. In essence, they bond. But the ex-pats who came to Ubud because they were outcasts at home remain outcasts here. They are not Hindu and do not belong. So the Western men in Ubud bond the same way they do in Europe or the States Ė they drink.
Charlie: "This place is kind of like the ďCheersĒ of Bali, where everyone knows your problem."Naughty Nuriís is a local ex-pat hang-out on the outskirts of Ubud. Nothing fancy. A patio of picnic tables underneath a corrugated tin roof. Mosquito coils keep some of the bugs away. But most of the patrons innoculate themselves with martinis, served in a proper thin-stemmed glass with an olive. The regulars are white and mostly men. Middle-aged or older. They are balding, and no longer worry about hiding their beer bellies. Here, at Naughty Nuriís, they find community. A man Iíll call Charlie has come for the company Ė he doesnít drink. Heís is 6 feet tall, and well over 200 pounds. Charlieís in the middle of a story that much of his audience can relate to - his marriage back in the US to a Balinese woman.
Charlie: "When we got married, it was the first time sheíd ever heard a Christian liturgy for a wedding. And the preacher was doing ĎRepeat after me.' And he said, ĎAnd make a covenant with God.í To which she replied, ĎAnd make government with dog.í"Charlie moved to Ubud with his wife three years ago, after losing his job at Apple Computer. And now, itís Charlie who faces the culture clash. For example, he speaks Indonesian, but some of the locals still wonít talk to him.
Charlie: "I just say, ĎSelamat malam, bagiamana sisi membantu andaÖíThis kind of non-acceptance is routine. Which makes life tough if you work with Balinese employees. Like Joey. With his long blond hair and skinny frame, 40-year old Joey looks more like a hippy surfer than a boss. But he runs a documentary film company in Ubud with a Balinese staff.
Joey: "And all our employees looked at us as mother and father. You have to be really careful with people. OK, itís like, how would I deal with my son? How would I deal with my daughter? And thatís the way you deal with employees."These are the kinds of cultural challenges that prospective ex-pats donít anticipate. And one reason Joey cautions tourists who want to move here.
Joey: "They say, hey, what advice do you have about living here. And the first thing that we say is ĎDONíT.í Itís not all itís cracked up to be."Bali, he says, is a bit of a mirage. There are the little annoyances. Charlie would kill for good Mexican food. Max misses good books. And everyone agrees the local TV is lousy. But the real challenges are more daunting. Some Westerners go stir crazy - a sort of temporary insanity the ex-pats call Ďgoing tropo.í The bugs, the heat, the loneliness and alienation...they just get to be too much. Charlie says the dream of paradise fades quickly.
Charlie: "We see a lot of people come into Bali and look like their setting up shop, and maybe last a year or less and bounce back out."The folks whoíve come to retire get bored. The ones who need to support themselves find they canít get a work visa. Iíve changed the names in this story because almost all the ex-pats I met work here illegally.
And so the people who come to Ubud to put some balance in their lives find that they also have to perform a BALANCING ACT. Because, just as with a Balinese ritual, a successful life here requires sacrifice. Yes, the perks are great. You can live like a king in Ubud on 10 thousand dollars a year. And the slow pace of life affords Charlie a special kind of balance that most parents would envy.
Charlie: "Iíve got a lot more time to spend with my children than I might have if I was back in the States... Bali is a great place for children."But the scales tilt in the other direction too. Ex-pats must adapt to a culture that overturns everything they know about how society works. And as Max says, they can never fully assimilate.
Max: "I learned to speak the language, and I go to the religious ceremonies and give them as much respect as possible, but as far as me being a part of it - no way. Itís not possible."Itís not possible in most countries. Ex-pats, everywhere from Mexico to Morocco, are perpetual outsiders. And so perhaps the balancing act foreigners face in Ubud is representative of ex-pat communities around the world. But then, if they wanted a melting pot, they would never have left America.
In Ubud, Bali, Iím Jeff Tyler for the Savvy Traveler.
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