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Living in Bali: An Expat’s Impressions

By Robin Sparks

“I hardly know why I went to Bali. Perhaps it was to satisfy myself that other men had lied. For I was disillusioned. Months I had wandered in far places…. I had glimpsed the beauty of the earth’s end. She was a slattern, soiled wench; and pursuit gave way to sad depression. I scarcely sought beauty any more; but now found Bali” Hickman Powell from “The Last Paradise, An American’s Discovery of Bali in the 1920’s”

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.

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.

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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.

Excerpted from “Let It Go And Let Bali: Looking At The Expatriate Scene In Bali” in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 40.

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