Monday, January 20, 2020

Survival Guide for Potential First-Time Expats to Indonesia

Survival Guide for Potential First-Time Expats to Indonesia

by Arlo Hennings

Arlo Hennings - travel warrior

My stories and information are based on “living” in Indonesia as opposed to visiting as a tourist, an academic grant or on some other short-term arrangement. However, regardless of how long you stay, there is a takeaway with what I have to say for anyone.

Making mistakes goes without saying. We all make them. Try and learn and move on. Reversing course, however, is not always so easy in a foreign country. Having said that it’s hard to impossible to imagine what life is like in a country halfway around the world. Today, you can Google search for everything and take into account all the positives and negatives you can find and make an assessment. But, there is nothing better than the reconnaissance mission. Visit first before you move. People who are recruited for employment, research project or invited as VIP do not need to worry about the same unknowns a new expat faces.

Back in 2011 when I moved to paradise long before there were Bali related Facebook community pages, blogs, Vlogs, videos, and books, there was limited information available online besides the alluring and mythological tourist photos of green pristine jungle and colorful Balinese dressed up in their exotic ceremonial costumes, Wikipedia, one old National Geographic documentary, history book, Lonely Planet, and the Hollywood romance story, “Eat, Pray, Love,” which I did read and by coincidence lived next door to where the author lived in Ubud. Once the new airport was built in 1969, remodeled in 2013, the Internet arrived in the late 2000s, a new 2nd International airport under construction in North Bali, the island zoomed from the 19th to the 21st Century in about 20 years' time. From that moment on Bali was changed forever. What will become of Bali in the 2020s is anybody's guess but the warning signs are flashing.

I relied more on what I was being told by expats who had lived there for a long time and their stories and advice. I had never met the expats in person and our connection was they were musicians and I was a professional agent. Before I left for Bali, they signed a representation agreement with me. I thought I was being pragmatic and organized.

Beyond the musician's sketchy details, my research needed a serious fact check. I hadn’t a clue about what Bali was really like. Life in a country that was, in essence, a different universe. A decision based on photos and words from strangers.

I was going there to live, not a retreat or a Fulbright grant.

I was a late 50s Baby Boomer. A victim of the 2000s Great Recession over 50 out of work club. Having lost my job and unemployed for over two years I faced homelessness. Lacking other options, I sold my home, for half of its original value, to a young immigrant couple. Ironically, they came to America for a better life — the same reason I was leaving it. I was about to find out what it meant to be an immigrant, only in reverse. In an act of soup line fear, I booked a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia.

In preparation, I backed up my life on an iPod. There were worse things that could happen, I reasoned - like a drunk driver severed your spinal cord. Government mismanagement and corporate avarice blew away everything I had like a Category 9 hurricane. My life evaporated before my eyes: job, house, cabin, pet, health care, car, an extensive record, and book collection, everything that collectively added up to the past 50 years of my identity, gone. Each item I lost felt like a butcher chopped off a part of my body. My suitcase was full of bloody fingers and toes. Even contact with my adult daughter would become a challenge, and then there was the even more frightening prospect of losing a reason to want to live. My beloved cat, Boo Boo, was adopted by my daughter. Basically, anything I couldn’t carry, with the exception of my guitar, and my witness, a lonely fish swimming in an aquarium. There was a sense of freedom in jumping off a cliff. The unpredictable winds of change fingered my hair, the smell of lightning over a rice field, the hunger for a dream over the sacred smoke of 10,000 temple fires. A flute in my head played and filled the canyon lands of my skull with an ancient melody that sounded like how a boy once saw his life outside a bus window.

I was crazy in a sick society. 

The jet was somewhere over the pacific before it dawned on me this was really happening. I watched a sun that didn’t set. I accepted a red wine from the flight attendant and began to gulp down the reality of where I was headed. All I knew about Bali was from a yoga musician I knew who lived there. He said it was cheap. Until I had a better idea of where I was going, it was a type of cheap that I could swing for a while. The trip was going to take at least 27 hours. I would arrive a few days before Christmas in an alien world. I had plenty of time to sit there and stare out the airplane window. Push the rewind button flashing on the tiny iPod screen in my hand and wondered if I was making the right decision.

Welcome to Paradise

I was called a Quaker Head, Colonist, greenhorn, naive, travel rookie, or just plain stupid and unlucky but my next three years in Ubud went like this. In the first months, I suffered from an incurable problem with dysentery and after many attempts seeking help with no avail at the local clinic, I finally cured myself with anti-biotic. I went through several mishaps with unscrupulous expat landlords who made the hard to deal with Balinese look like saints. I dislocated both my big toes from slipping on the wet rock leading to my villa door. On the Bali New Year called Nyepi, I vomited so bad from something I ate that I passed out and lost my memory for 24hrs and woke up in a 3rd World hospital.

One truth was that the villa rentals were reasonably on the cheap but the owners would never repair them expat or Balinese alike. I listed half my villa on the (technically illegal) Airbnb site and managed to almost break even on my rent. Everybody it seemed was in the housing rental game. If I had a dollar for every Life Coach and Yoga instructor card pushed into my hand for a rental discount I’d be rich. My best friends were an expat strung out on the Bali moonshine called araq and a woman struggling with cancer who was also in the villa tourist rental game lived next door. My lack of a friendship network wasn’t from a lack of effort. The expats I met came from every corner of the planet were tribal and into things that didn’t interest me or just shake me upside down to see what fell out. The Balinese were looking for more than hanging out. As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time alone. That's not to say anyone was wrong. If you can't transcend it move on.

After screwing me, my two musician expat clients disappeared and I learned they didn't have a work Visa in the first place. Contracts are worthless between foreigners on an island that was more similar to the lawlessness of the Wild West or Pirates of the Caribbean. I also entrusted the locals more than the expats because, for the most part, I knew where they were coming from. If you had a notarized contract with a Balinese you stood a chance it would be honored.

The area outside of Ubud where I lived was going through a burglary wave and I slept with a knife under my pillow. I thought to build a small villa of my own and gave a local the money to do it and he ran off leaving me a partially constructed building. Many months and dollars later, I finished the villa. My first rental guest was brutally raped and murdered by a bandit and not only did the young school teacher lose her life but I almost ended in prison over the matter.

During my years in Ubud there were many good times too, I can’t complain. My daughter visited and I met a couple from my hometown in the USA who helped me edit my book. Both had a good time. But the bad parts never would have happened in my former home.

Not all visits or expatriation end in mistakes on Bali of course. My mistakes some I can write off as happenstance but others I own. What happened to me is in no way to suggest that it will happen to you. The takeaway is to be prepared for the unexpected. Be flexible, adaptable, patient, and learn the ropes. Without knowing the language your chances of long-term survival are not good. You will need help.

Bali has succumbed to bad planning and regulation, which has led to pollution, overcrowding, horrible traffic, chaos, and frustration. Another word for it would be "greed." Parts of the island are better than the other. The center of Denpasar featured discotheques, prostitutes, penis trinkets, rowdy tourists, and a lot of crime. But to be fair mixed in with the bad there are nice shops, restaurants, festivals, and people of all races trying to earn a living. The image of Bali being a paradise still remains strong in the minds of unknowing foreigners. My friends think I’ve hit the big time living there! Every year a new wave of expat dreamers splash ashore and as many floats away on life rafts. The turnover is dizzying and makes it hard to care who anyone is. There are many expats who established successful businesses on Bali and I am one to believe they started long ago when everything was much less expensive and competitive. Some grew organically, the right place at the right time like the Yoga Barn.

Since the dawn of time, people have dreamed of paradise on Earth. Those places include 
Atlantis, Gyanganj, Xanadu, Shangri-La and recently, Bali. 

Back to reality

Health care is questionable, toilets lack soap, packs of wild, rabid dogs abound, restaurants lack inspection, dengue and typhus are prevalent, and if those things don’t get you maybe a python in your kitchen cupboard or a drunken tourist on a motorbike will.

Once you get out of the city you might find a spot where you feel the only person on the planet. Many of the locals are wonderful. If you open your mind to it there’s a lot to learn like Gamelan music, Balinese art, dance, temples, and Hinduism. Chill out and take in a local jazz band. You can live with a romantic partner without a marriage book. Unlike nontourist areas on other islands there’s no limit on alcohol and the sense of false freedom is so intoxicating it corrupts the mind. A Balinese man literally saved my life and if it wasn’t for his help I would have died or disintegrated. A Balinese editor published my writing in a local magazine, many other locals went out of there way for me in ways people from where I came from would have never done. I was also fortunate to meet an Indonesian woman who although she couldn’t speak English moved in with me and saved me from being an owner of a lonely heart and prison.

What’s left of the lost green jewel of Bali can best be found from the balcony of a private 5-Star luxury hotel and a guided tour in your air-conditioned car. The more adventurous can find parts of the old Bali and befriend a loyal local friend. It’s out there. You have to dig harder to find it.

I wrote about my experience in Bali and Indonesia in greater detail in a book called “Guitarlo”— sold everywhere. You can read a review about it in the Bali newspaper.

My land blessing ceremony in Ubud, Bali.
Excerpt from the book Guitarlo -

"I set about my day with renewed vision and focus, more determined than ever to break down the barriers separating me from my companions, in this new sphere of being. So far, I’d had little success at connecting in any meaningful way with the people I’d encountered on this journey. It was important to me to build new friendships, but my experience thus far with others in this place — whether native, foreign, or even fellow American expats — often left me feeling discouraged. Besides having my first housekeeper, my landlady had also seen fit to employ a gardener to care for the grounds. Although I considered domestic servants, whether indoors or out, to be an unnecessary extravagance, I had come to be grateful for them, not nearly so much for their domestic skills as for the role they would play in my enculturation and adaptation to my adopted country. Over the past few weeks, I had begun to develop a congenial relationship with Wayan (pronounced Why-Ann), the gardener. Like Made, Wayan is a common Balinese name, indicative of the lowest Hindu caste, called Anak Agung. While all were equal within the temple, in the outside world there existed prejudicial attitudes between the Anak Agung and the people of the upper three castes. Wayan was 38 years old at the time; small in stature and strikingly handsome. With his Javanese Muslim wife, Etty, Wayan had a 12-year-old son, who was a budding music prodigy. Contrary to accepted tradition, Wayan had adopted his wife’s religion, despite the strong disapproval of his large, traditional Hindu family. Etty worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week making hand-beaded bracelets, earning two cents per bracelet, to help make ends meet.

I came to look forward to Wayan’s daily visits. Besides keeping the bushes trimmed, the leaves raked, and the outdoor area of the villa tidy, he was an exceptional handyman and competent mechanic; possessing any number of other skills. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do. Because Wayan was nearly fluent in English, communication between us flowed easily, and he often served as my interpreter with non-English speakers. With equal skill, he could repair my scooter, extract a wasp nest from my bedroom, or shimmy barefooted up a 30-foot coconut tree — with the ease of a monkey — to fetch me a coconut. What Wayan lacked in stature he more than made up for with his vibrant personality and generous heart. He was hard working and fearless, with a warm, genuine smile that could light up a room, and make you feel good just being in his presence. Although he possessed a plethora of attributes that would be the envy of most Western men, he bore himself with such gracious humility that I stood in awe of him. Probably, what blew my mind most of all about Wayan, was his shyness about asking for money, even when it was well earned. When it came time for him to be paid and I would ask what I owed, he would look down at the ground, shuffling his foot and say, “Whatever you want to pay.” Sometimes he wanted nothing in return and only when I would forcibly shove money into his pocket would he reluctantly accept it. I found Wayan’s unpretentious demeanor so endearing, as to reaffirm my belief in humanity; that which I was sure had been lost back in America, along with everything else. Unlike other Balinese that I had paid for various services rendered, Wayan didn’t call me “Boss,” but “Bro.” I finally had a real friend on the island other than an ant and my guitar. In some ways, I felt more of a connection with him than with anyone else I’d ever met. Wayan would become an indispensable guide and source of strength and encouragement through ominous and foreboding passages ahead. I even came to think of him as my guardian angel because I was certain that without him, I might have abandoned my quest altogether and returned to America more defeated and broken than when I left. Like Made, Wayan willingly shared his story. By allowing me to see the world through his eyes I was able to gain new insight and perspective into the world of the Balinese people before they were thrust, with little or no preparation, into the 21st Century on a wave of technology and tourism. Wayan was born in the spring of 1975 to a family of rice farmers. He grew up sharing a traditional family compound with his parents and at least 50 other relatives. While 50 people living together may seem like a staggering number by American standards, some family compounds are even larger and might house as many as 100 family members. Their village of Kutuh Kaja had a population of approximately 1500 at the time, made up of some 300 families. I listened intently as Wayan recalled stories of his youth and told of the Bali of not so long ago. Although Wayan is in the same age group as most of the children born to American baby boomers, that’s where the similarity ends. Completely foreign to him were such contrivances as mechanized toys and electronic gadgets. In fact, while the first wave of baby boomers’ offspring in the U.S. were mindlessly flipping through 100 TV channels by remote control, playing Super Mario Brothers on early game systems, watching videos, and beginning to discover the world of computer technology, Wayan and his peers were doing school work by oil lamp because electricity hadn’t yet made its way to Bali’s remote villages. When not occupied with schoolwork or daily chores, he would swim in the river that once ran behind the village, an activity he remembers fondly. Wayan recalled the construction of the first paved road in his village in 1995, and even then only the wealthiest of villagers had a motor scooter for transportation. Wayan was in his late teens when television made its debut. It was a community event in which one day of each week a nearby soccer field would be converted to a public theater where villagers could go to view television programming projected on the large screen that was set up for the purpose. It wasn’t until the age of 25 that Wayan had the opportunity to attend a rock concert. There were no malls and muscle cars, no telephones in the village, and no air conditioning to counter the brutal tropical heat. It was hard for me to imagine such a primitive lifestyle, compared to my life growing up.

According to Wayan history nor English was taught in Balinese public schools and those who became proficient in English learned mostly by independent means. Wayan got his English lessons from an Indian man just a few years earlier, and when I inquired as to his knowledge of his country’s history, he responded that the past had never been of much interest to him because his life had always required staying focused on survival in the present. Wayan listened politely as I gave him an overview of what I knew of Indonesia’s history of genocide, occupation, slavery, terrorists, and political upheaval, before finally becoming the remote outpost of art and culture and the Mecca of healing practices that have made Bali a popular tourist destination. When I had finished, Wayan lit a cigarette and sat silently for a few moments before commenting, “Thanks, Bro. Good to know.” I felt he was merely humoring me and really didn’t care much one way or the other. The river that had once been a valuable resource and hub of activity and recreation for the village was now gone. Most villagers now own motor scooters and smartphones. The fortunate ones have laptops and a few own a car. On an eye-opener note is the central character of the book "Eat Pray Love," Ketut Lyer, healer. Lyer’s son drove around Ubud in a Ferrari sports car, buying up backpacker hostels, and branding them with his father’s name. By 2009, Internet usage was commonplace and the island was teeming with tourists and expats. In little more than two decades, Bali and the surrounding area had traveled from the 19th to the 21st century. For many villagers, like Wayan, it meant new jobs that had not existed before. Landowners could now obtain a significant sum of money for their rice fields that had, in many instances, failed to make a profit for many years. And for the “beautiful people” from foreign lands, with time on their hands and money to spare, it meant a new venue for self-discovery, where they could visit healers, admire ancient temples, meditate at a local yoga center, and later exchange their tales over a skinny caramel macchiato at Starbucks. Wayan had difficulty pronouncing my name because the sound of the letter “r” is absent in the common Balinese language. Even though he would practice saying it, it usually came out as “Aldo.” As our relationship grew, I began helping Wayan with organizing and promoting his business of locating and procuring suitable accommodations for foreign visitors. With printed business cards, the proper social media promotion, and nice new dress shirts bearing his business logo, Ubud Royal Properties, it wasn’t long until his cell was ringing, his company was booming, and his income had increased significantly."

Wayan Sujana
Three years later, Wayan became ill with Hepatitis B. His wife had no money took him to a local hospital where he received vitamins for treatment. Horrified at watching him die, the expat who bought my villa used $20,000 AUD of his own money and moved him to a better hospital. It was too late. Wayan died. Two years later, the expat who tried to save Wayan died from cancer in the same bedroom as my first guest. Altogether, four of my good friends died within a short period.

Do you still want to live in Bali?

I will talk about the cost of living in a few paragraphs.

First, there are other important facts to know. The island is part of Indonesia and although Bali has certain self-Governance it is under the thumb of Jakarta in the world’s largest Muslim majority country in the world. What does that mean? Like anywhere, there are national political issues and local issues to contend with and some can affect you so read their local media. You can learn a lot more from local media than someone’s travel blog. Try the national Jakarta Post and the Bali Advertiser.

Keep in mind Indonesia is regarded by the modern world as a “Developing Country” which should downgrade one’s expectation of making comparisons to a person’s 1st world country. In addition, 25 million Indonesians still live on less than US$1 per day and Indonesia is now the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world. Today, the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people. With that in mind, consider extreme poverty is your neighbor. And any time the haves walk beside the have nots that desperation can lead to trouble. Not only in Indonesia but anywhere. Today, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation, the world's 10th largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, and a member of the G-20. An emerging middle-income country, Indonesia has made enormous gains in poverty reduction, cutting the poverty rate to more than half since 1999, to 9.8% in 2018. The Indonesian archipelago is made up of 17,508 islands, (3,181 mi) from east to west containing the most volcanoes of any country in the world. Over 300 different native languages and six official religions recognized by the government — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The last time the Government counted in 2017 the population was an estimated 264 million. Indonesia is also the second-largest user of Facebook in the world.

Do not assume all of the Indonesian elite class does not care about the struggle of others. One Indonesian wealthy musician who I barely know donated money to my daughter's liver transplant fund.

Remember no matter where you go in Indonesia there are no Civil Rights or true legal protection for foreigners. For example, the house I funded for my wife, I don’t own. Regardless of a prenup agree that states joint ownership, on divorce, I’ll never get my day in court. Curtail, negative comments about their politicians on social media or even an innocent remark about the Mosque being too loud can land you in jail. Don't drive a motorbike into a swimming pool. Behave. 

Ready to pack your bags? Remember, “ if you don’t like it, leave,” (local encouragement).

As a developing country, there are long lines and traffic congestion everywhere. Patience would be an understated quality an expat needs to survive in this country. Besides the fact, you can’t drink the water and there is no proper waste disposal with the exception a truck might pick up and dump it somewhere in the jungle, on the road its basically hells bells, there is no insurance and accidents are settled on the spot. Electric and other cabling look like dangling spaghetti noodles as the wires loop above the street corners. One city is a nondescript as the other. If the product is in demand one street will sell the same item in triplicate. A local will be waiting for you to sell a ticket to see a waterfall. There is little regulation on anything except narcotics and Visas. And maybe if you’re living on Java with an Indonesian woman you’ll need a marriage book. All sales are final. To get a repairman may take days.

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Want to stay for good? You can but for a price. There is no immigration path and you must renew your Visa forever regardless of your situation. See my budget below.

Health care as I mentioned before is by western standards generally questionable (better or worse depending on where you are) as an expat you can buy the Indonesian public health service called BPJS but don’t expect too much except a long line and if you’re lucky you will be okay. Keep in mind that Indonesians who can afford it go to Singapore for their health care needs. I was misdiagnosed twice for skin cancer and the Doctor/University Professor recommended that a plastic surgeon fix it. The dentist took several trips but they finally got it right. A crown cost me $75 USD. In America, it would be $1,000 USD. If for no other reason than health care, Indonesia is a questionable choice for expat retirement. Moving to Indonesia without International health insurance is extremely risky.

I hope whatever is wrong with you, they have the experience and technology to handle it. If you call an ambulance it will take an hour or longer depending on the time of day and where you are before they arrive and then there’s the journey to the hospital. The traffic does not yield to emergency vehicles sometimes they can’t. There is no place to go. If you call the Police they’ll maybe show up at some point and want to be paid.

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

After three years in Ubud, Bali I moved to Yogyakarta aka Kota seniman, (the city of artists). Yogyakarta, (central Java) is a place where more than 3,000 artists and 300,000 University students call home. Jogya for short is considered to be the heart of Indonesian culture. I was anxious to see what it was all about. I packed up a motorbike with my few material possessions and strapped on all the years of my life. There was space and a place for everything, and nothing too burdensome to carry. All of my experiences had brought me to this remarkable starting point, and I could not leave them behind in some pile of unclaimed baggage. I sold my villa and went exploring with my wife, Tuti in tow.

Besides the horrible traffic, Jogya is everything Bali is not. It’s quiet, low key, and the locals are halus (soft) in manner. The hustle and bustle of tourists were gone. The ones seen were not the same drunken, obnoxious, selfie tribe that litter many of Bali’s beaches. Jogya (the city) is an urban experience filled with art galleries and artists to go with them. I befriended many. The housing was cheaper than Bali and overall I liked the vibe and able to walk for much of my needs was a bonus. Living on a remote Bali rice field had its meditative moments but it grew tiring. I itched for mingling, conversation, company, a sense for being “here” and a new leaf to turnover. Jogya was predominantly Muslim but if not for the women wearing hijabs I noticed no difference from the Balinese Hindu except there was a Mosque versus a temple. If there had been underlying bad feelings between the two religious groups in the past it appeared that tolerance replaced it.

Reading from Guitarlo at a Javanese arts festival in Jogya called "Gila (crazy) Days" (video)

I was envious of the expats who appeared content with their businesses and settled into their new home. Regardless of my ongoing sense of rootlessness, my list of Indonesian friends grew into the hundreds and I felt more connected. I visited every temple, theatrical, musical, and beach the area had to offer. In addition, I was making regular trips to Jakarta to hang out with Indonesian music celebrities. One experience that was alarming was witnessing a Balinese family squabble that got physical but I had never experienced a riot. One day, a short distance from my villa was a riot between the Islamic Defenders Front, (FPI) an Indonesian Islamist political organization and a group of students. The police and military showed and broke it up. I didn't see it happen again. Jogya and Jakarta are headquarters for the FPI and what they’re all about is beyond this essay. Two years passed, I felt I accomplished a lot in Jogya but I saw the end of the road. And my wife was tired of being in tow of my wandering and wanted a home. The compass pointed to her home town called Pandaan in East Java Timur. The worst thing that happened in Jogya was for unknown reasons the ATMs went offline and I could not access any money for a week.

Pandaan is a small town nestled between two mountain ranges and a place that employs many of the locals in factories. About two hours to the south is the active volcano Mt. Bromo, Malang and Batu, and to the north, about two hours is Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya. Another two hours to the east lies the ocean and the heart of Javanese magic, the Dukun Santet in Probolinggo. The nearest good hospital and market are also another two hours away.

Outside the town, the mountains are pristine and feature quaint villages. Next to poverty are two professional 18 hole golf courses, resorts with horses, and an abundance of hotels. Many are located about 10 minutes from my wife’s village on top of the mountain tourist resort area called Tretes. In Tretes, a handful of expats congregate daily at a local restaurant and drink beer. Are expats on Java any different from Bali? In general I found most expats on the surface friendly, aloof, hard to pin down, and they come and go. There is a rumor expats on Bali are the most disreputable in all of SE Asia? After nearly 10 years living in Indonesia, I can count my solid expat friends on one hand and half of them died.

My village or kampung is called Plintahan, consists of 1,000 locals who are friendly, poor, but resilient and generally happy and kind-hearted. The average income for most Plintahan villagers is about $1-$10 USD per day. There are no social means programs so you are on your own to survive. The family relies heavily on each other. A job is hard to come by. Tuti’s uncle is 111 years old and the rest of her family live in villas connected to each other. With the help of neighbors, she built a nice townhouse-sized home on family property for approximately $15,000 USD.

My house in Plintahan

In Plintahan the community news is announced by loudspeaker from the local Mosque. Guns are illegal. There are rarely arguments between neighbors and relatives but this is human and to be expected. Each family contributes to a community chest to cover the expense of (2) all night guards and trash pick up. To get by many borrow money from the community chest, their employer, and if possible a credit company. In other words, they’re all in debt. I am also the only person who can afford an Internet connection and air conditioning.

One of many village celebrations in Plintahan

I am the first and only white person to live in Plintahan. The locals referred to me in humor as "bule kampung" (white villager). As such the notoriety has made me a local celebrity. I have participated in many weddings and funerals. I think they’re honored that a foreigner wants to be part of their community. Honestly, I did feel cut-off and marooned in this world far from my Scandinavian former home. I had no like-minded community. The reason, for the most part, is language. Not knowing the language will alienate you. To test my theory try and live with a spouse that can't speak English.

Indonesians are polite but I think it’s more of an auto-response. For example, the Japanese bow, it’s an ancient traditional courtesy but that doesn’t mean they’re your new best friend. Making a lasting friendship with an Indonesian takes time and often has to be earned. In America we can cold call or reach out to people we don’t know and try to connect. In Indonesia, you need to meet in person and build a relationship. Something involving money to their benefit always helps.

Where I am there are no libraries and except school books, no one reads. I had my book “Guitarlo” translated into Indonesian and to my delight many Indonesians from other parts of the country liked it. My wife tried to read part of it, stopped in shock, and thought, “Are you a terrorist?”

The prevalent indigenous music is dangdut and it blasts from the speakers of many Indonesian homes, weddings, and celebrations. If you can sing or play guitar learning a dangdut song can help make you popular. Indonesians love humor! If you don’t believe me check out the young, Australian Vlogger, Londokampung. His silly language-based, prank videos made him rich. More examples of foreigners leveraging Indonesian language for notoriety is an American who is known on YouTube as Raja Dangdut. He sings dangdut songs on his cell phone while driving his car in Los Angeles. Doing so, landed him on the Indonesian CNN TV show. Another foreigner who is making good money off the Indonesian language is Vlogger, Sascha Stevenson. Unlike the American, Sascha has been a long time expat and paid her dues as a teacher turned media celebrity. I tried to make a prank video using the Indonesian language. These Vloggers are another example of the power of language. Unlock it and a new world will open to you. The Vloggers could never make money like this in their home country.

Excerpt from the book Guitarlo –

On our auspicious wedding day, I woke up in Tuti’s rickety bed in what used to be her bedroom at Uncle Matt’s. The pink cement walls showed their age by the length of cracks from floor to ceiling. A century-old, black-and-white photo hung sideways above the door. The one low-watt ceiling light cast a pale twilight across the room.

Tuti spent little time there; her only clothes cabinet was stuffed with moldy-smelling shoes. Before she met me, Tuti had dated a Swedish tobacco salesman for seven years and lived in nice hotels. The house vibrated with a dozen women, young and old. Wearing traditional Javanese headscarves (hijab), the women sat in a circle on the kitchen floor. They chopped chicken and vegetables into meticulously assembled gift-wrapped boxes of food. Others cleared furniture and rugs from the living room, to create space for our wedding ceremony. By the time I drank my first cup of coffee, Tuti was off to a salon appointment.

During the early hours, my only morning task was to bathe — with a bucket of cold water. So, I took a stroll through Tuti’s village. I tiptoed carefully down a busted up pathway of chicken poop, and out to the main road. I avoided, as much as possible, the creek of raw sewage that crisscrossed my path. To my surprise, I did not see any wild dogs as seen in Bali. Here, feral cats seemed to rule, and keep down the rat population? In stark contrast to the lush botanical garden of Ubud, the village was made up of small, houses, standing side by side. Flower pots, and colors of red, blue, pink, and green, helped to brighten up the weather-beaten buildings. Terraces and front yards with laundry lines opened to the neighborhood. I felt welcomed here. Children, playing badminton and snapping the ceremonial pecut whip, greeted me with some English they knew: “Gerd m-o-o-ning, Miztrrr.” Women held their babies out to me, smiled, and blushed. I can only begin to imagine what they thought. Who was this stranger, and why was he here? For the first time, a white man came out of their TV set and stood in their village. I got a rock star treatment that I never took for granted. The thought of getting married again did not weigh on my mind. I was too overwhelmed trying to absorb what was happening. When I turned a corner to circle the village, I ran into a pengamen. This is a type of street performer, similar to the street guitar players who sing at taxi windows. Here, the entertainer goes door to door, hoping for a donation. This young man was dressed in drag, singing with a portable karaoke machine in his hand. How, I questioned, did that person fit into this Muslim culture?

I didn’t need a watch to know when I needed to head back. Each day is divided into five prayer times. The ubiquitous mosque speakers remind everyone of the time to wake up, eat and break for prayer. I got the message, loud and clear.

My knowledge about Islam was none, however. All I knew was Indonesia was the largest Muslim nation in the world with 90% of the population being Islam. Most Muslims are either of two denominations: Sunni or Shia. The overwhelming majority in Indonesia adheres to Sunni Islam. Honestly, I have no idea what that means. I can't read or write Arabic and unfamiliar with the Koran. My wedding was Javanese, Islam. A unique, ancient cultural tradition filled with beautiful ceremonies, music, art, folklore, magic, and mysticism. These people hated radical Islam terrorists more than Americans. There are Islamic extremists just like there is Christian extremist. I can share after the many years I lived in the heart of this Islam that the xenophobic hatred that is promoted against Muslims in America is bogus. So deep runs the anti-Muslim American propaganda that my sister looked at me in fear that I might have converted to Islam. In some people's minds, I married the "enemy,"

Hour by the hour, Uncle Matt's house slowly filled with family and relatives. They had only one new name to remember: mine. I could not remember or properly pronounce all of theirs. I greeted them in the best way I knew how. They arrived in their best sarongs, peci hats, and colored hijabs. Each smiled courteously, gave a slight bow, then took their place on the living room floor. Tuti wanted to forego the groom’s traditional “Aladdin-looking” attire. Instead, she asked Uncle Matt to outfit me in one of his business suits. Had I known, I would have bought an affordable new, odor-free suit that fit. Instead, I squeezed into a jacket and pants that smelled like Tuti’s musty old shoes. Uncle Matt sprinkled me with cologne, which did not enhance my scent. I did have a pair of new black shoes and socks, and a gold-colored tie. I wore a traditional Muslim hat, edged with golden leaves.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw a new me. Not a sorrowful man defined by his relationship failures. I straightened my tie and hat, and said to my reflection, “You’re a lucky man.” Mr. (Pak) Modin, the elderly holy man arrived. He greeted me and asked me to recite my vow. When I said it, he shook his head. I memorized the wrong vow, so he wrote a new version. Tuti’s English-speaking cousin said, “You have a few minutes to get the new one right, or recite it in front of everyone until you do.”

No pressure. Here’s what I practiced: Saya berjanji, dalam kejujuran dan ketulusan, menjadi bagi anda suami yang setia dan membantu. Roughly translated: “I, Arlo, take you, Tuti, to be my lawful wedded wife.” The mixup occurred because wedding vows, ceremonies, and rituals vary from region to region. Somehow I had been told to memorize a vow not customary in this area. At 4 p.m., Tuti — in a white, lacy wedding gown called the kebaya — made her gala entrance into the living room. We sat before Pak Modin, and in the presence of her admiring family. Lacking a wedding rehearsal, I must have looked like Mr. Bean goes to the Mosque. I misplaced the ring, handed the dowry at the wrong moment, and, to the delight and amusement of her family, reversed our roles. Everyone laughed, lovingly. After my first attempt to recite the new vow, Pak Modin smiled in approval. Tuti’s older brother, Kamid, stood in for the ceremonial role of her father. When her turn came, Tuti glowed like a goddess (widodari ) and happily recited her vow.

Click to watch the Javanese, Islam marriage vow video

We could now share Tuti’s old bedroom without shaming the family. The ceremony was followed by a prayer and a reception line. I touched each person’s hands to my forehead in honor of the almighty, Mohammad. We then relaxed into the reception. Tuti’s family sat on the floor, passed rice, made small talk (I was told), and shared gifts. I bought ice cream for all the children in the village, cranked up an old karaoke machine, and passed out modest gifts of money throughout the clan. We hired a photographer, who turned the living room into a photo studio. First, he took formal photos of the kids, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts. The sessions lasted for hours. They were eager to pose because it was the first time they had ever been photographed. I was thrilled for Tuti that her family gathered for this occasion. But I pictured one more witness — my daughter, Danika. I wanted to see her and hear her say, “I am happy for you, Daddy.” The women (of course) cleaned up, while the men went outside to play cards — until 6 a.m. About 3 a.m. I spotted Uncle Matt 100,000 rupiah so he could stay in the game.

I framed my favorite photo of Tuti and me. For our honeymoon, we returned to Bali, ordered pizza delivery, and snuggled up to our favorite dangdut singing contest on TV. A year and a half later, when we returned to her uncle’s place, Tuti was told by the village authorities that we were not legally married. Due to improper paperwork, we did not have the official buku nikah (marriage book) and were not allowed to live together?

Our requisite marriage book traveled through a labyrinth of government offices, ending up in the Department of Religious Affairs. There we faced the director, Mohammad Bejo, a stocky, middle-aged man wearing a batik shirt, and a black peci. While Tuti went into a lengthy explanation of our story, I crossed my legs and spaced out on the ceiling fan. When the attention focused on me, Tuti slapped my leg to uncross them. I later was aware that crossing one’s legs in a business meeting is considered to be impolite.

“I’m from Hollywood, USA. You know, Tom Cruise, President Obama, ” I said. Bejo nodded approvingly. Tuti roughly translated that he wanted to wear my sunglasses. “Those are Ray-Ban, American,” I commented. He put them on and smiled, “Are you a movie star?” Everyone laughed except me, I didn’t get it.

Because my permission to marry an Indonesian from the US Embassy lacked an American flag stamp on it our marriage application had been denied three times. Saved by the Ray-Bans they tipped the balance in our favor, and he “legalized” us. My marriage book was green and Tuti’s book, red — like a couple’s passport to Christmas. The photo looked like me, but the name of my dad, my birthdate and birthplace were misspelled. The documents claimed that we were Muslim. I did not designate that. Nor was I asked. Technically, I followed no organized religion and neither did Tuti. I supposed that our previous wedding suggested that we are Muslims. I hoped this squared with the authorities now. Tuti and I signed the buka, shook the director’s hand, and thanked him. We quickly set up a new wedding date, auspicious or not.

For marriage #2 we dressed up in traditional Javanese costumes, and I got to look like a sultan. The 'new' holy man who married us complained about my lack of Javanese and the time required to conduct the ceremony. The holy man said, “I could marry three people in the time it takes to marry you!” Uncle Matt and the gang kept with their tradition of all-night poker. Would we receive new wedding gifts? Did we have to return the ones we’ve been using?

An upside to all the craziness was a change in my visa status, which reduced my fees by nearly half. Our holy union, however, did not grant me any civil rights to property, employment, or a process of dual citizenship, no matter how long I lived in Indonesia. Besides tradition, what was the legal point of marriage? Our marriage is not legally recognized in the United States. If we ever decided to live in America, I would have to file a marriage petition for Tuti through US immigration. I do not know whether we will marry yet a third time.

Over the course of years, during our marriage, Tuti took good care of me. Eventually, we learned each other's language. After moving around Indonesia we finally settled in her family's village. The topic of religion never was never raised. If this is what it's like to marry the enemy then I highly recommend it.

Tuti and I wedding photo

Appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Do you want (3) wives? Yes, it’s legal if you claim Islam as your religion but you need the blessing of your first wife.

How much does it cost to live in Bali/Indonesia?

My lifestyle is based on my retirement pension, $1,665.00 USD per month. You can Google the current exchange rate. With that amount of money, I can afford the items listed below. My villa will be paid off soon. Needless to say, budgets vary according to lifestyle and always changing. If you have a major health disaster it can wipe you out without International health insurance. The left column is rupiah and the right is USD. As you can see I have an estimated disposable income without calculation of all the prescription drugs, a trip to America or elsewhere, as well as my Visa expense, which is a spousal, sponsored Visa called a KITAP. The cost for a KITAP is approximately $430 USD for (5) years (East Java Timur price). On Bali, I was paying nearly $1,000 USD per year plus a trip to Singapore for a retirement VISA. However, I still ended up broke every month before payday. By common Indonesian standards, I am well off financially.

I suggest that you do have more money than me!

Other perks? I can get a 90-minute full-body massage in my house for less than $5.00 USD. Great haircut for less than 50 cents. Almost anything can be repaired for cheap. Local restaurants are also inexpensive. My motor scooter aka “rice rocket” costs $1,200 USD new and barely uses (1) tank of petrol per month. Train, bus, taxi, pacek or plane domestic transportation are low-cost.

Can’t break your western diet then the food prices will set you back because it’s imported. A cheap bottle of wine will cost $27.00 USD. Not to mention the variety of foods in markets (depending on where you are) is limited. What do the locals eat with an income of $75 per month? Tofu, Tempeh, egg, chicken, Ikan Asin (cheap fish), gado-gado, sayur sop, pezel, nasi goreng, and rice. Plus, add chile sauce! BTW - rice costs 4x more per kilo on Bali.

And those prescriptions? It would be helpful if you could enter a search on an Indonesian web site and see if your medication is available and the dose. Often times the dose is not the same so good luck.

Other items like smartphones, computers, TV, and other electronic gadgets cost the same as where I came from. Automobiles cost the same as 1st world economies too. Therefore, across the board, not everything in Indonesia is less expensive. Housing, labor, motorscooter and locally made goods a definite yes, but anything else?

Other considerations – the expat factor

Familial and friend Dislocation - accepting the fact that not everyone where you came from is going to approve where you went to live. I’ve been called names like “runaway” and subjected to attitudes including what I am doing is irresponsible and somehow bad. I believe much of this response is jealousy and ignorance-based. Ignore it. So many have had dreams that will never come to fruition. When they see the few who have they look for negativity.

Living near a Mosque – consider that Indonesia is the largest Muslim population on Earth and if you have an issue with that better decide to live elsewhere? Except for Bali, there is a Mosque everywhere. (5) Times per day the Mosque broadcasts prayers that can be heard from afar so whatever you do don’t complain. To complain is considered blasphemy and you can go to jail for it or worse. If you listen closely to some of the prayer singers, they are both talented and wonderful to listen to. The din of many praying amplified is quite moving and a fine example of the power and importance of religion in Indonesia.

Change – Indonesia is an ongoing, ever-evolving nation with laws and rules often changing day to day. There is a lot of misinformation online and non-updated Government web sites. Tourist photos can be deceiving. Opinions vary. When you’re on the outside looking in it’s hard to figure out. When you’re on the inside looking out it’s still hard to convey.

Poverty – Indonesia is a poor country. The poverty is agonizing and even with the thickest skin, the pain will sink into your heart. If you are insensitive to the lives of have-nots you really should choose a different new home.

Adjustment disorder – adjusting to an alien culture takes time. Go with the flow or drown.

I ain’t got nobody that I can depend on – self-reliance is a big part of living abroad. Even if supported by many we are basically all alone in the world. This can become magnified in a foreign country when language and cultural differences are to the extreme.


No matter where you try and live the grass may always appear to be greener. Your new life abroad will come down to what you can tolerate, letting go of modern conveniences, ease of access, adaptability, the trial and tribulations of a new set of cultural mores and language, entitlements, and the fact you are now the stranger.

Living abroad will test you to the breaking point and if you survive you’ll remain if not you’ll pull your hair and scream. It’s not easy to live in a place where English is not well known and laws are Draconian. The reality you are familiar with will be turned upside down.

I truly believe in order to survive and find happiness abroad, you must give up some of your beliefs, mores, ways of life. A part of you must be sacrificed as you deal with things you do not agree with but must tolerate. This is not easy to do. It takes a strong will to change. A part of you will be gone...not many can deal with that.

The expat experience has rewards but it’s not for everyone. And remember, appreciate their pride and don’t complain.

Sampai jumpa (see you soon)

About the author - By James Joyce

Regardless of the setbacks and obstacles, Hennings faced in Indonesia, his words can be found in Indonesian media outlets such as the (Bali Advertiser, Tirto, and the Indonesian Expat Magazine.) His music contributions can be found on his own Indonesian Jazz label (Indojazzia), which landed a young pianist from Bali, Eric Sondhy, on worldwide music charts, plus his own critically acclaimed CD Jawa Warrior. In addition, he is the curator for the music podcast show 107.3 2Ser Australia, featuring the latest in cutting edge music from the Indonesian archipelago. Furthermore, he is the first foreigner to participate in the Indonesian music awards (AMI). Hennings also managed the International critically acclaimed Indonesian band, I Know You Well Miss Clara. Finally, he was the Director of Business Development for the Ubud Concert Series and the Indonesian Music Expo (IMEX), and a testament to his newfound popularity with Indonesians are thousands of followers on social media.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Indonesia.

Recommended resources:

A Brief History of Bali, A Geek in Indonesia, Journey Through Indonesia, A Brief History of Indonesia by Tim Hannigan. Island of the Dogs (documentary). Hotel K and Snowing in Bali by Kathryn Bonella. Jakarta Jive, Bali Blues by Jeremy Allan. The photography books found at Afterhours Books.   

© Arlo Hennings 2020