The Gap – it’s bigger than I thought

November 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.



  1. hi vyt, thank you for sharing your thoughts! to answer your question, in my opinion, let they be proud and happy to find their kost, the kost they both can afford, without your noble help ( you can think about that gift maybe next year )… myself (boule) once lived with my fiance (local, now my husband) in a simple kost, 1 year, 250.000 IDR a month, shared bathroom with my neighbors and we were the happiest (!) ppl of the island. there was no need that daddy helps out with money… sunny wishes, rrr

    • Thanks – very valid point and one that addresses a big concern of mine – i.e. how does one balance a genuine desire to help with the perception of patriarchal interference? It’s a difficult question, not unlike helping out your kids as they are growing into adulthood. I never really mastered that one either 😉

  2. I’d do exactly the same thing, if i could. Pleasure is short-lived, happiness is long-lived; making other people happy – however, whenever, why-ever – is one of the most fulfilling functions of a human being, I reckon, and as a by-product – which isn’t the same thing as a motive – you, the giver, get to feel bucketloads of happiness. (I’m not good at articulating this, sorry.) Henry Adams said (about teachers): “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Replace ‘a teacher’ with the word ‘giving’, and there you have it. blah blah blah. goodonya, V. Keep happy. xx

    • Your articulation works for me. Thanks!

  3. appreciate your reflection on how we all need to try and understand the differences between cultures. There are so many levels to this difference it’s often difficult to help & encourage in an appropriate way. Always tricky to know the limits of what’s proper when interacting with others when we don’t (can’t) know where the boundaries are from helping out to being patronising. You’re spot on with regard to that ‘fine line’ and wanting to help where you can.

  4. Coming to terms with the vast difference in circumstances between yourself and those Balinese you become close with is a journey in itself. As a kind and generous person you want to help, but where is that line?
    I would offer this to think about. Most young couples have their first child on the way in the first 12 months of marriage. If you pay rent for a year, will your pembantu feel obligated to you in some way? Will she feel free to stop working while living in the place you paid for?
    Something else. Will your pembantu wonder what she did wrong if you don’t offer to pay the second year’s rent? (it’s happened to me). The boundaries of your gift may be clear to you, but not necessarily clear to her – it can be a cultural misunderstanding.

    All young couples need help setting up their first home. Perhaps something other than rent could make a nice wedding present? A fridge, bed, kampor gas..

    • Food for thought – and some excellent suggestions. I am grateful for your input!

  5. appreciate your reflection on how we all need to try and understand the differences between cultures.

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