Stuck in Bali

Stuck for writing ideas is what I’m referring to. Hard to imagine the feeling stuck because you’re desperate to leave Bali. For me at least.

I do meet ex-pats living here who get like that every few months. They use words and phrases like ‘feeling trapped’, ‘gotta get out of here soon’, ‘Bali fever’. Some are more specific, such as;
‘I need to go somewhere organised for a while, where the traffic is predictable, where the infrastructure works all the time, where the water is safe to drink.’
‘Just because I live here doesn’t mean I want to travel less.’

The result is that most ex-pats are always just back from somewhere or already planning the next trip. Which for me can be a bit tedious; essentially it feels like I haven’t left home, where the conversations constantly turn to the same topic.

Of course, there is more focussed travel. A common necessity is the ‘visa run’, where people who haven’t got through the bureaucratic miasma of obtaining longer-term residency have to leave the country for a day and come back. The cheapest option is usually Singapore, although some go to KL or East Timor and spend a few days there. One gay couple I know went to Europe to get married, because to do it here is illegal and could result in major visa problems.

Another is medical check-ups and procedures. Bali has some good options for surgery and dentistry, but Thailand is much more favoured. Medical travel is a huge industry there, and the reports about price and quality are glowing. Vietnam is well thought-of, but it’s a bit more expensive to get to.

Finally, the need for face-to-face contact with family and friends rarely goes away completely. Given my demographic, it’s ageing parents and new grand-children that are mentioned most, along with important events, especially marriages, or major family get-togethers. Grand-children can be game-changers. I know couples who are leaving permanently, or for the majority of the year, to be closer to them while they can. The women in particular don’t want to miss the opportunity to be involved, and to support their children with their babies.

I have met people who have no-one left outside Bali, or no desire to stay close. I read the phrase ‘the whiff of burning bridges’ somewhere recently, and that’s not an uncommon part of the back-story here. They have either no contact, or leave it at occasional emails or skype calls. Somebody told me they had chosen Bali because ‘it is as far away as possible from my family’.

The ones who have no desire to travel fall into two groups; the fully settled and the poor. The first are resolved; ‘I’m staying here till I die and that’s that. If anyone needs to spend time with me, they can come here, because I’m staying put.’ One woman, in her nineties, almost blind, has refused all efforts by her family in Europe to go home and be cared for. She was born in Indonesia, lived away for nearly seventy years, and feels completely at home in Bali.

The poor, and there are many of them, have just enough money to rent accommodation, eat and socialise a bit. They know the restaurants that still offer lunch for $2, Travel is an out-of-the-question luxury, except the occasional visa run. It used to be possible to ‘buy’ that entry stamp on your passport, and might still be, but the consensus is that it’s too dangerous now. Some hide away for years without a visa.

I knew a man who got away with it for more than a decade, living with a local family in a tiny, remote village. He worked for a well-known Ubud restaurant without pay, instead getting as much food and alcohol as he wanted. He tried so hard not to create any record of himself, but somebody noticed. Tipped off in time, he hung himself just before ‘Imigrasi’ arrived to deport him.

Finally, there are the wanderers, always moving around the world, but staying in each place for long periods. They may have good insight about that, and not put down deep roots, or keep hoping against the evidence that this is it, the place to call home for ever. Turkey, Costa Rica, Thailand and Mexico are all mentioned often. I do miss one woman, who was the life of the party here for ten years. She moved to Mexico a few month ago, ‘because it’s time for my next adventure’. She is about to turn ninety-one. From there she had already visited Antartica, and is currently in London.

So, the crowd is never settled here, always in flux. There are downsides, like the frustrations of my choirmaster, who just can’t find a date for a performance when enough singers will be here at the same time. After tearing his hair out about it last week, he announced that he was going away for two months directly after our next concert.

But it works for most people. Last week I chatted with George at croquet. He has been coming to Ubud for thirty-five years, with his late wife until twenty years ago. He stays in the same Homestay for two months every year, June and July, paying the same price since 2000–$15 Australian a night. He strolled into croquet, said ‘Hi folks, I’m back.’; picked up a mallet and played. That’s just how I slip in and out of Bali. Works for me.

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