Bali, my winter resort, never seems to
fail me. Each year I feel the magic of
transportation, the act of moving my body
into a new body-field, whereby the pervasive
relaxed culture, living far more in the
sensual present, seeps into my pores. The
urgent media chatter of financial doom
fades away into the sounds of crickets, the
rising and falling crescendo of cicadas in
the surrounding coconut palms and frog
orchestras in the night, back there somewhere
in the wet rice fields.
The concerns of falling empire, declining
stock, drops away as I watch the ladies
thrashing the newly harvested rice in ancient
rhythmic cycles. Tension from work,
the brace against the coming winter cold in
the Pacific Northwest, dissolves in the humid
tropical warmth and my body comes back on line.
I settle down into it, shirtless
on the porch. Fruit salad in the morning is delicious.
It is mango season and
the papaya is sweet and juicy. All around me coconuts,
papayas, bananas and rice grain swell daily.
Surrounded by food, close to nature, the joys of an agrarian
culture satisfies my soul so
much more than digits on
the online account.
Bali is a social world.
Things are done in groups;
work parties gather together
for lunch breaks in the fields,
craftsmen work together,
carving and painting crafts in
collectives, religious celebrations,
processions in the
streets, gamelan orchestras,
dancing troupes, students
walking home in their uniforms,
old men gathered together
holding their fighting
cocks in the late afternoon.... even bathing, are done
collectively. It is rare to see
a Balinese sitting alone. As a consequence, social manners,
greeting and acknowledgment
of others is very important. It even seems to rub off
Whereas a smile and greeting to unknown westerners
may be meet with a
puzzled look or a blank stare in Thailand, here in Bali,
it has a high percentage of
acknowledgment! Western ex-patriots here thrive on
Over the past two or three years the Balinese have
wrestled control of
their local government away from the otherwise
dominant Javanese in Indonesia.
Their social and cultural organization is formidable
in the electoral process.
Made, who I have known for years and from whom I rent
a motorcycle each year,
proudly told me that the Balinese had won an exception
in a recent islamic fundamentalist
legislation forbidding public nudity. They had reserved
the right, on
cultural grounds, for their old women to remain in bra-less
comfort and the pleasurable
enjoyment of bathing nude in their streams and irrigation
ditches. Made had told me, during the same quizzing
session, that corruption was growing and
entered virtually every level, even into the acquisition of jobs.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “ but say, a policeman job,
at the lowest level....do you know how much it costs for that
position? Seventy-five million rupiah.
They only earn twenty-four million a year in their basic salary.
So, three years of salary goes into getting a policeman’s job.
They do it because they can
eventually earn it through bribes, like catching motorcyclists
without helmets anddriving licenses.”
This evidently applies to all government positions.
After a week or so in Bali, I had the surprise of meeting
my brother, Marlin’s,former wife, Lorna.
He had alerted me to the fact that Lorna and her older sister,
Margaret, would be in Bali at the same time as I.
She recognized my voice and spotted me eating in a restaurant.
We had an experience which illustrated the style in which a bribe
could solve an involvement with the police. I had given
Lorna a ride on the motorcycle and had forgotten to bring an
extra helmet. We were stopped. I was escorted up to the
policeman’s booth and fingering the ticket book, he had looked
intently at me and asked, “Justice?”
Whereupon, I reached into my wallet and laid
two dollars worth of rupiah on the table. He
smiled, we got up and walked back to the motorcycle
and after Lorna had got on, helmet-less,
he whistled, stopping traffic and waved us good
journey, as we sped off down the road. It was
done with the most civil of good manners!
It was fun to spend time with Lorna and her sister, Margaret.
They had grown up in a similar background to
mine; missionary parents. Their father and mother
had first served in China and after China closed,
their father had come to India where he might use his
Chinese, working with the small Chinese communities
in India. They had also gone to schools in southern India.
We had broad overlapping experience and our conversations
engaged memory banks that had rarely seen the river flow past.
Margaret has retired in Costa Rica and
she spent a good deal of her time sketching
as a way being present and drew the
most detailed miniature drawings with exquisite
borders along the edge, different
with each drawing. Lorna, meanwhile, was
taking a breather away from her normal
artistic work with ceramics and used her
time in Bali mainly to just relax...... but
nevertheless still pursued some new activities
like taking gamelan lessons using a
bamboo gamelan and learning to dive in
Ahmed, a village on the southern coast of
Bali. We would occasionally go out for
dinners, braving the gamut of shopkeeper’s
greetings and invitations to buy
from the stores along the way to the restaurant.
Lorna, also involved in retail, was
torn between empathy and her budget.
This winter I explored the idea of buying
some land in Bali, thinking out what
might be the best way to approach that
desire. My friend, Michael Bockelman, an
American retired in Asia, was open to doing this
in concert. Since my use of any building
would be only for part of the year, this would
insure a friend would be there to watch
over the building and land in my absence,
rather than returning to a dismantled building
with familiar parts of it showing up on the neighbors
structures. Besides, going in on it
together would lower the overall investment. We both
got quite excited about the prospect
of owning a little bit of paradise.
We motorcycled through the back roads along the
flank of the mountain, searching for little
enclaves that still had the untouched
civility of old Bali and possessed the
natural beauty both of us were so fond
of. The choices which appealed to both
of us were places along the terraced
rice fields that overlooked the wild gullies
worn deep by streams. Such a
place put one outside the villages where
Balinese traditionally crowd together
and overlooked these gullies which are
generally left wild. The Balinese are often
surprised that a foreigner should
want to live in isolation and especially
near these gullies where bad spirits
were known to live. Our process would
be first to identify a good piece of land
and then Made, essentially our real estate
agent, would go through the discreet
process of finding out who owned
it and begin the enquiry of whether the
owner would be open to sell. This has to
be done with great delicacy. A conversation
might begin like this....’Would you
be mad with me if I were to pose a question to you
in regard of your property?” After re-
ceiving a reply, “No, it would not cause anger to be
asked such a question”, could the
matter be gone into slowly and with great formality.
We tried to attract the least detection of our desire
under the cover, when asked, by
virtually everyone we met along the path, that we
were merely out for a pleasant stroll
through the rice fields. Coming to the same place
more than once, would confirm, regardless
of what you said, that the rich foreigners
were looking for land, and the word
would be out through the village network,
and the owners of the properties informed.
You show up too many times and you are
totally exposed while the owners dreamed the
multiples of the value of the land they might
ask for in this feverish display of interest!
Made informed us to be very careful what we said.
The owner would want to let it be
known that he had sold the property for a fraction
of what he received, even at the risk
of being taken a fool, to quiet the flames of envy and
lessen the amount the local banjar
might request of him at the next fund raising.
It soon became apparent that the sale of
property was like some giant fish hauled in and
everyone would be taking a slice in the
feeding frenzy. Made told me that the surveyors
would expect 100,000 rupiah each for
their placement of rocks outlining the borders
of the property, as well as a feast provided
by the owner of the property and perhaps,
even a few girls. Then, to expedite the legal
transfer and forestall the papers languishing
in the governmental office, 5,000,000 rupiah
would be required to the officer in charge.
A year at best would be required to
process this with more payments going to the lawyer
and notary. Payments would continue
for a building permit, and signatures from of all
neighboring owners and payments
to the head of the banjar or local village council
would be necessary for such a waiver to
be signed, besides the bribe to the government
official to do his job. A back payment for
costs incurred in creation of the road which led to
your property and any irrigation work
to the network of canals affected would further
escalate the costs. My mind whirled with
this growing list of costs and the thought that
each hurdle could grow into another possible
obstacle. I begin to wonder how much
of the fish would be left.
Then there is the problems in the legal
structure of the final paper one received as a
titled owner of the land. To buy property in
Indonesia, one had to do it with an Indonesian
partner. The general cost is a modest 1% of
the cost of the land up front and 5%
when you sell, which would include all the
buildings and improvements you had made,
similar to the costs one might pay a real estate agent
in the States. However, the legal
language to insure the co-signature of your
Indonesian partner when you intended to
sell had just been struck down in court, leaving
many foreigners wondering if they held
No. 2 paper! with the obvious uses one might have
with such paper. Evidently, many co
signers were just sitting on it, waiting for the
aging foreigner to die off and then taking
possession of the property...besides the other
strategies I begin to hear about....like
forcing a distressed sale to the co-signer for a
fraction of the cost, after the co-signer
had put back door pressure at the emigration
department, notorious for its corruptibility,
leaving one with land but no longer able to l
live on it. Maybe there never was a fish!
Perhaps just renting a cheap room or bungalow,
I began to think, might be the best way to go.
As this desire began to lose its hold I resumed
just living day to day, and Bali again
began to reveal its charm. Vast free vistas of
terraced fields and wild gorges opened up
again, free of ownership. The normal pleasantries
of smiling workers and good food
provided a lovely background to my lazy
reading on the front porch and afternoon amble
through the rice fields, watching the ducks
nuzzle the harvested rice, shake and wiggle,
preen and quack like there was no tomorrow.