When I tell anyone I spent eight months living in Bali last year, they practically start drooling. Images of a tropical paradise immediately come to mind and people naturally assume it was a blissful experience.
I too had visions of palm trees, white sandy beaches and exotic culture, when I accepted a consulting contract with an international school on the small Indonesian island. And although I had plenty of Eat, Pray, Love moments in ancient temples and beautiful rice fields, much of what I experienced in Bali took me completely by surprise.
Here are five unexpected lessons I learned while living in Bali:
1. Go with the flow — or die.
Bali is smaller than Rhode Island and is inhabited by over four million people and upwards of two million motorbikes. Driving in Bali means taking your life into your hands, as well as the lives of many others. But the Balinese have a very philosophical attitude about the crazy, crowded, potholed roads — just go slow and go with the flow. The mass of motorbikes, often with three or four people and a chicken or two on board, move in one big swerving swoop along the winding roads that crisscross the island.
I witnessed accidents on the roads almost daily, three of them involving fatalities. But every time, the Balinese people kept their cool. I never heard screams, cries, or saw panic, even in cases of death. The primarily Hindu island believes in karma and reincarnation, so if you die, then it was just your time to go.
2. We take so much for granted in the first world.
I never realized how much I take easy access to clean water, clean air and clean food and products for granted. In the first world, we have the commonplace ability to minimize exposure to harmful chemicals and microbes, based on the product choices we make as consumers.
In Bali, the rivers and waterways are used for irrigation, bathing, dumping of garbage, cremation ceremonies and receptacles of chemical waste. Septic systems are shallow, poorly constructed and often leaky. You're unlikely to find fresh, clean water that flows from the tap, like we have in the West. My daughters got intestinal parasites despite our best attempt at always using bottled water, even to brush our teeth.
Outside, the air is thick with exhaust fumes and smoke from constant burning garbage. Ubiquitous rice fields are sprayed regularly with pesticides, and the incessant mosquito population is also heavily controlled. In the stores it was nearly impossible to find any food, toiletries and household products that weren't laden with harsh chemicals. Out of desperation, I once paid $25 for a tube of natural toothpaste from a small health food shop.
The effects of chemical exposure took their toll and I developed a chronic sore throat and cough that was common among many fellow expats.
3. There is a dirty secret to being an expatriate living in a developing country.
Not far from the luxury resorts, ornate spas and fancy restaurants, much of the local population in Bali live in poverty. Their walled family compounds often house 20 or more family members with only a single burner stove, no flushing toilet and bare mats on the floor that serve as both furniture and beds. The only place to bathe is in the heavily polluted waterway nearby.
Many foreigners living in Bali have thriving businesses that manufacture jewelry, clothing, art and other creative products, many of which are crafted by skillful Balinese artisans. And while business owners benefit from huge profit margins, many Balinese subsist on average wages of less than $5 a day. But despite the imbalance between the luxuries of the rich and the impoverished local population, the Balinese still tend to be more joyful and jovial than even the foreigners.
4. It's awkward to hire someone to do your dishes and laundry under legal obligation.
Indonesian visas like the ones we had required us to hire at least two household employees. But instead of feeling luxurious to have a maid and someone to cook for us, it felt incredibly awkward. I never realized how much I had enjoyed the mundane tasks of caring for my family, like folding our laundry and cooking our meals. Moreover, I missed being alone with my family when we were at home.
It felt wrong to be paying other people to take care of our trivial household needs, when they had children and a household of their own to tend to. Minimum wage in Bali is less than $150 a month, for six day workweeks of 10 hour days.
Moreover, we were strongly cautioned by other expats to refrain from paying our employees more than minimum wage, because it "messes up the local economy." They explained that if we paid our employees more, everyone in their community would come to them to borrow money and we would end up doing them a grave disservice.
Perhaps there's some truth to this, but maybe it's the expats who need the "local economy" to stay in place as it is, so that they can continue to enjoy their affluent economy. Either way, we paid our employees more, and were also inclined to give them more days off, rather than requiring them to work as scheduled.
5. Sometimes there really is no place like home.
When we returned home after eight months in Bali, I inhaled gulp after gulp of clean air like it was a drug. I brushed my teeth with tap water and felt giddy. I started crying tears of joy at the health food store. I went to Bali in search of something new, something different — something I thought I had to leave my home soil to find. But what I discovered was a greater appreciation for my life back home than I have ever had.
So would I ever live overseas again? Probably ... but I will go into it with more realistic expectations next time, knowing that my home is just as great as any fantasy I have about any other place. Because just as the Balinese people showed me, happiness is a way of life — not a destination.