Peeling Back The Layers Of The Bali Onion

September 26, 2010

A recent email from a friend who has been following my febrile maunderings, both in the Bali Times and on-line, gave me pause for thought. After saying some nice things (always pleasant to hear even if undeserved) she went on to say about my more recent articles: “I seem to detect a note of angst …”

Hmm, I thought – she is not wrong. My earlier articles did seem to focus on the funny, bizarre and absurdist side of Bali life. It was all new, and in the beginning, as a wide-eyed expat, I wrote more about the comedic travails of a bule in a strange land than about the darker aspects of local politics, regulatory shenanigans and endemic corruption. But lately, my posts have been more about the systematised and creeping hostility faced by some foreigners here, and the difficulties that this creates. Not good, I thought. Has my joie de vivre truly been replaced by the dreaded expat ennui? Is the quality of my life now being measured by whatever angst du jour is being served by Warung Bali?

But her next two questions prompted even more introspection: “Are you a bit sorry you made the move? I am curious as to what you are feeling now about making the big move 15 odd months ago.” Oh dear. Based on the increasingly frequent articles where I whinge a lot, one could be forgiven for thinking that disillusionment and regret had set in. So I had a bit of a think about all this while at one of my regular sunset beach sojourns, and tried to crystallise my usually amorphous thoughts and feelings into something more precise, something that could be written down and analysed.

I failed, of course, because trying to distill the essence of one’s relationship with Bali into a few banal bullet points is like using Power Point slides in place of philosophical discourse. Coming to live in Bali is like peeling an onion. At first you just see the whole onion, and think that because you recognise the shape, colour, smell and texture, you know all about onions. My onion was appealing and quirky and I was delighted to play with it for a long time. Then I decided it was time to peel off the outer skin to explore new properties. I found them, but many were unexpected.

Some delighted me – the relaxed, unstressed and cheap lifestyle, the beaches and the people themselves. Some distressed me – the corruption, the difficulty of getting the police to do anything, the nightmare of bringing personal effects to this country, and the belief of many locals here that foreigners are walking Automatic Teller Machines.

Inevitably, peeling off more layers of the Bali onion revealed complexities unheard of in a more ordinary vegetable. There is a depth and richness in each successive layer which can only be found in cultures other than one’s own. And just as inevitably, some of the gems uncovered by my search for underlying structure, mores, culture and practices were delightful – the vibrant cultures of the Indonesian people who live here, creating an eclectic, chaotic and wonderful mix, the vagaries of the tropical climate and the spectacular scenery in places other than South Bali.

Other revelations were less than inspiring. The increasing antipathy of the central government towards expats and their school-aged children, and the refusal to issue and renew KITAS permits was one. The imposition of an internet filter which slows down an already borderline network infrastructure is another. The use of ‘blasphemy’ legislation to attack and vilify ‘heretics’ in direct contravention of both the principles of Pancasila and the Indonesian Constitution is yet another. Throw in tacit government support of the criminal thugs of the FPI and Bali’s shortsighted over-development and you have a number of factors that tend to take the gloss off paradise for its residents.

So in retrospect, I guess I have been writing more about some of these latter aspects, simply because living here for a while exposes one to the broader socio-political issues that affect expat life, and some of these are not amenable to light-hearted writing styles. But does that mean that I have become a curmudgeonly old fart who is disillusioned with life in Bali? Some have unkindly pointed out that I was already one of those before I came here, so Bali life has not changed me one iota. I must reluctantly agree.

Am I sorry I made the move to Bali? A resounding “no” to that question. Bali is a wonderful place to live, despite the chaos of its infrastructure and governance. The emerging democracy in the region is a crucible of frustration at times, but it promises a bright future if it is not hijacked by radical fringe elements, greed and corruption. Of course the place has flaws. But diamonds have flaws too, and their value and beauty is unparalleled.

However, one outcome of all this unseemly introspection is the realisation that I am getting jaded, critical and cranky in my writing. I want to recapture some of the wide-eyed, dopey innocence I had before. I want to see the funny side of intransigence again, to feel the newness of this place regardless of my own ennui. I need a little time to do that. That’s why this will be my last post. At least for a while.



  1. I was grinning, nodding, agreeing, and wishing I could write half as well as you do. I was quite happily immersed in another Borborigmus essay. That is, until I reached the penultimate sentence. No. You cannot quit writing, even for a while. Your writing not only brings me pleasure, it also helps crystallize my own thoughts and adds dimensions to my Bali experience.
    Please keeping chatting with us and giving your gems of insight and wisdom.

    • Thanks for the kind words. When my joie de vivre, my moxie and my energy returns, perhaps I will scribble some more. In the meantime, I will just concentrate on being slothful – and keep observing the chaos …

  2. I hope you don’t become slothful for too long. I’ve enjoyed your writing so much that I have forwarded some of the posts to my sister who has lived over there for years. She in turn has shown other ex-pats. All have found your writing style very amusing and could totally relate (with humour) to the experiences you described.

    Whilst I don’t live there, I have travelled to Bali enough to sit nodding and laughing as I read about your experiences.. You brighten my day, taking me from my small dull office, away to colourful Bali, if only for a few minutes. Thanks.

  3. you can’t stop writing, you just can’t, …. your saved as a favourite on so many computers around the world … people now have expectations to have a regular fix reading your articles …. it’s like a drug and we are the addicts

  4. hey vyt, i am definatly looking forward to your next blog, i’m curious about it – but take your time! in the meantime i’ll try to count the rats in my tropical garden, to avoid the chaos in my hood and on the streets. oh, and there will be time for some beautiful gamelan, i’m sure! do not stress yourself. easy.

  5. Well, I have to admit I would still rather be living in Bali than Australia.
    Moving to Bali with my son, his partner, two children and two cats just got TOO hard. I admit defeat, at least for the time being.
    I can see how much easier it would be for one person (you) and I could and would do it tomorrow if it was just me (and one cat) but the whole kit and kaboodle was just about impossible.
    I retire a lot poorer and with files of paperwork to rise another day.
    I still envy you, Vyt.

    • Nothing is impossible. To do it all at once is challenging. To stage your family’s move (i.e you move first with others following later) is far less challenging. It also makes more sense for one person to get established first and therefore provide a stable base for the others in due course. Ultimately your son and his partner will have to take responsibility for their own family anyway – why not now?

      It may even be time for Andra now – pretty radical thought, huh? 😉

      As for the cats, unfortunately they’re no longer an issue. The people doing the ‘semi-legal’ pet transport have been closed down and all smuggled animals are being destroyed at the border since last month. Rabies is now a huge problem in Bali and you have no way of getting animals in at all now, regardless of ‘semi-legal’ offers by purveyors of fine transport for bule cats … 😉

      • Well, at least my cats won’t get rabies as I have spent several hundred dollars having them immunised.

        If rabies ever hits Cairns, by god, we’re ready!

  6. Please don’t go away forever as I have enjoyed your stories so much and have passed them on to family as we all love Bali, but it is very interested to hear the other side that you write about, so please write it as you see it is fine with me.
    I’ll be looking forward to reading more about your life in Bali, I hope you won’t take to long.

  7. Time for me to upgrade from lurker to commenter after that post.

    I think it’s a good thing you don’t shy from writing of the downside of life on the island and I love the way you do it without ever descending to the embittered moaning I see all too frequently on expat forums. Positive negativity! :p

    That said, I also totally get “wide-eyed, dopey innocence”, and agree with everybody else here: Your writing will be sorely missed. Don’t stay away too long!

  8. Enjoying your writing… don’t stay away too long!

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