The Gap – it’s bigger than I thoughtNovember 23, 2009
So there I am, sitting in my villa, gazing at the things around me that I take for granted. Multiple luxurious bedrooms, ensuite bathrooms, a big, well-equipped kitchen, a garden and a nice pool. Then there are all the bule toys that many of us seem to hold sacred, like satellite TV, airconditioning, fridges, fans, wifi, comfy furniture … it’s a good life. But my local friends that come to visit don’t really see all that with the same perspective as I do. They look around and take in the surroundings, but they don’t really seem to view it as a home. “You live here by yourself?” they say in a tone of incredulity. To them, it’s some sort of aberration, something so far removed from what they consider to be a home that it may as well be a department store, or a monument.
They wear the same expression as they do when walking past a luxury hotel – it’s there, but somehow it doesn’t seem relevant to them. The first question they always ask is not “How many bedrooms?”, but “How much do you pay in rent per month?” I’m too embarrassed to tell them, because they would be shocked, knowing that they could buy a house in Denpasar for an amount equivalent to just four months of my rent. Their second question is never articulated, but hangs in the air just the same: “How well do you treat your staff?” After some rapid-fire colloquial Bahasa interchanges with my pembantu, they relax a bit. I get looks which approximate guarded approval, mixed in with subliminal messages which inform me that they still think I’m crazy, but at least I’m the happy sort and therefore probably harmless. I feel like I have correctly answered Question One of some bizarre unspoken exam. In their eyes, I have perhaps moved one step closer to being qualified to live here in this peculiar, oversized, unBali-like edifice.
I can understand this, because in Bali, family is everything. Even if I have my own family or guests staying here during visits, my live-in helper is considered to be my permanent ersatz ‘family’. Therefore the measure of my worth as a human being is how I treat her, not where I live or what I own. I have always thought that she has been happy staying here. On one level, she probably is. But I see the anticipation in her eyes and her joyful body language as she leaves for her one night and one day off each week – a parole of sorts – to stay with her family and spend some time with her fiancee. And that has nothing to do with the physical surroundings of the family home where she stays. I’ve been there. It’s tiny, consists of one room and absolutely minimal furnishings and facilities. It’s also spotless and tidy, and the hospitality of her family is absolutely heart-warming. It’s home – in a way that my villa, for all of its excesses, can never be for her.
And now, she is getting married in a few weeks. Off to Java for an intimate family and friends wedding, then back to work at the villa after an appropriate break from duties here. Her sense of responsibility (more likely her desire to keep her job) meant that she offered to stay on as live-in helper for me after the wedding, but her eyes begged me to refuse. Her look of utter relief was priceless when I told her that of course she could keep her job – as long as she went home to her freshly-minted husband after work each day.
So now she is looking for accommodation – and not having much luck. “Everything is full” she says wistfully. Curious, I asked what she was looking for. “A kost”, she says, meaning a communal boarding house. “In Kerobokan, near my family, and under 350,000 per month”. At that price, everything goes fast.
“So, what sort of place are you looking for?” I ask. “You want, what – a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen?” She is shocked. “Oh no – too expensive! Only one room”. It’s my turn to be shocked. No bathroom? No kitchen? She reassures me that it is OK – the shared bathroom for all residents will be just 20 metres down the corridor, and there is usually a gas burner for cooking in the room. Besides, she says shyly, “my husband will be there”. What she doesn’t say is that it will be theirs. A home. And she seems so happy at the prospect.
After all this, I spent a fair bit of time gazing around my palatial digs and reflecting on economic gaps, relative wealth and happiness. I’ve heard it said that success is having what you want, while happiness is wanting what you have. I’m successful; she is happy. I’m happy too, and I realise now that she is also successful.
At least I now know what my wedding present to her and her husband will be. I’m going to stake them a year’s rent on her new kost, but I’ll make damn sure that it has at least a private bathroom. Am I spoiling them when they are already so happy? I mean, it’s not as if I’m buying them a villa or anything. All I need to do is sacrifice one meal a month at La Lucciola. That I can do. I prefer warung food anyway.