On my first visit to Bali 35 years ago, it was sensory overload. From Mount Agung in the distance to the lush flowered vegetation and the sparsely populated beaches, it was truly a visual feast. Art was everywhere. It seemed that nearly everyone was a painter, weaver, woodcarver or sculptor. Anyone who was not producing some kind of art was probably a dancer or musician. The ancient Hindu culture was friendly and welcoming. My wife and I visited again in July 2017. South Bali has become overdeveloped, over-touristed and overpriced. Having said that, even today, there are very few places in the world that are a better holiday experience than Bali especially if one goes to the cultural center of Ubud or beyond to escape the hordes of Japanese and Chinese tourists.
I officially retired on January 5, 2004 and had been looking for the perfect retirement destination. Of course I’d been traveling to Southeast Asia every chance I had for several years before that. Although I was torn between retiring in Thailand or Bali, for all the aforementioned reasons, I finally settled on Bali. While it is very difficult for a foreigner to own property in Bali, it is possible to negotiate a long-term lease, sometimes 30 years renewable for another 30. One of the best places to find property is in the Bali Advertiser biweekly newspaper. Actually in the two years I lived there, I rented two houses. The first I found in the Bali Advertiser. The second I found while driving my little rented Suzuki Kijang around the hills of Southern Bali.
My first house I sublet from a French-Canadian woman named Claude Clement. She was a very enterprising single mother who was operating a furniture export business. She was bringing in new and used teak furniture from neighboring Java and shipping to hotels and antique dealers in a number of different countries. Claude was very helpful getting me oriented in Bali. I met many of her friends and she was an excellent resource during my stay there.
The house was listed as a two bedroom bungalow 50 meters from the beach at Pantai Berawa, a small beach village about 45 minutes north of the main town of Kuta. The design was what was called “open living” in Bali. While the bedrooms were closed off, the living room and kitchen area were completely open to the outdoors. Initially I thought this was quaint. Later it turned out to be a big problem. Anyway, I was taken by the proximity to the beach and the charming neighborhood which included several villas and an exotic Hindu temple or pura next-door. The property was owned by a Brahmin family (they still have caste system in Bali) and Claude had leased from them. I agreed to finish out the remainder of her lease which was less than a year. In Bali, like many Third World countries, you don’t pay rent month-to-month. You pay for the entire term of the lease upfront. Shortly before the lease expired, Rai, the head of the Brahmin family, came by the house and offered me a 10 year lease for $20,000. I could’ve had a house on the beach for the next 10 years for less than $200 a month. I was tempted, but I declined.
Open living in Berawa
My brother, Bob, who, like me, was retired and divorced, was an aspiring artist. He found Bali to be the perfect venue for learning the finer points of painting. There was no shortage of gorgeous things to paint. After living for a time on the beach at Berawa, however, we were both ready to move elsewhere. The open living design of the house turned out to be a disaster for us. We experienced wave after wave of pestilence. The word for fly in Indonesian is lalat. The word for mosquito is nyamuk. We would place flypaper type devices all around the open areas of the house. By the end of the day they would be black from being covered with lalat. At night the mosquitoes were voracious. Then at times we would get waves of flying ants. We were surrounded by rice paddies on two sides. Frogs and geckos loved our home. Frequently I would get up in the morning and find toads hopping around the kitchen area. One time I went to put on my shoe and a toad hopped out. Open living was not for us city boys. I drove my little Suzuki Kijang around the more developed neighborhoods and found a wonderful villa for rent in the southern area of Nusa Dua. Yes, it was more than double the money, but well worth it.
Perched high on a hill in an upscale neighborhood called Taman Mumbul, Number 1 Jalan Pudak had three bedrooms plus a maids quarters. Every bedroom had a balcony with a view several miles down through the rolling hills to the ocean. We were not on the beach but the views were gorgeous. My total cost was $440 a month. As before, I had to pay an entire year up front. I had a slow dial-up internet connection and cable TV, which included the Fox News Channel. Thanks to my friend Claude, I had a full-time maid by the name of Nenga. She cost me about $70 a month. Because I was a foreigner, that was more than the locals paid. Her husband, Putu, worked half time as my gardener for $35 a month. Nenga and Putu used to work for Claude and she talked me into taking them. One problem, however, was that they spoke absolutely no English. As a result, I had to learn basic Bahasa Indonesia. It was actually a lot of fun. I still use it when I return to Bali.
Once I was moved in and had all the utilities connected, I set out to furnish the place. Bali was a decorators dream. Shops were full of wonderful pieces of teak furniture that could be purchased for $100 or $200 each.You would find the unfinished peace to you liked and have it finished in whatever shade you preferred, light or dark or medium. I liked medium stain because you could still see the grain of the wood. Even today I have some of the teak pieces and paintings I bought in Bali in my Arizona home. To put the finishing touches on the place, I was able to choose from thousands of colorful fabrics. Lastly, I went shopping for a number of Balinese paintings and sculptures. One could get an excellent original painting for $40 or $50. No doubt prices have gone up several times since then.
I look back fondly on my two years in Bali. It was an experience I treasure. Why did we leave? Two reasons really. The primary reason was a horrendous event that happened on October 1, 2005. Three terrorists from the island of Java wearing suicide vests came over to Bali and blew themselves up killing 20 tourists. Two of the bombers stood amidst diners at two different seafood restaurants on the beach in Jimbaran and detonated their vests. The other suicide bomber went to a busy upstairs restaurant in a shopping area of Kuta.
Jimbaran Restaurant site of bombing
On October 4, 2005, a strange, shocking thing happened to me that really made me realize I definitely was in a different country with a very different culture. I picked up a copy of the Jakarta Post to read about the bombing. I was shocked to see a photo of three severed heads on the front page (see below – viewer discretion advised . The headline said “Do you know these men”? It seems that the explosive vests they wore around their torso caused their heads to pop off like a cork. The police were able to retrieve the heads, clean them up, photograph them and publish them in the paper. Sure enough, a few days later, a neighbor in Denpasar recognized them and said the three men had been living in a house across the street prior to the bombing. A search of the house led them to the bomb maker in East Java. Great police work, but a tactic that wouldn’t go over well with the squeamish snowflakes in the West.
Even though our house was only a couple of miles from the bombings in Jimbaran, and we had eaten at those restaurants a number of times, we felt safe in our neighborhood. The problem was that this was the second major bombing in recent years and it decimated the Balinese economy. Tourists were afraid to come. Worse yet, none of our friends would come and visit us. So the fact that the bombing took a lot of the fun out of place was the main reason we decided to relocate. The second reason was that brother Bob met a bright young lady from Surabaya. They moved in together and later married. I was all alone in the big house. When it came time to renew my lease for another year, I reluctantly declined. We ended up relocating to the more peaceful island of Penang in Malaysia. That is another story.