What's Your Idea of Paradise

rice paddies in west Bali
rice paddies in west Bali

On the Concept of Paradise

Over the last six months, two significant personal anniversaries passed: my 61st birthday and the 21st anniversary of the beginning of my life as an expatriate. When I turned 40 (one of those landmark birth dates like 21, 30, and 50), my life was already spinning on an orbit that I hadn’t planned – my son had left my home to finish his senior year in high school with his mother, my third wife and I had gone our separate ways, and I had been offered a job teaching in a small international school in the highlands of New Guinea where an American mining company had carved out a small town as the base for their gold and copper operations. With my personal life in disarray, a move to a remote island seemed like a sign from the heavens. I took Horace Greeley’s advice “Go West, young man!” to heart in spite of being somewhat past what I considered to be the “young man” years, and I set off for life in the jungle.

When the two anniversaries arrived recently, I was wrapped up in getting used to the idea of retirement. It was with the discovery of a long-forgotten book, Savage New Guinea , that I began to reflect on the past. The book has an inscription from an old colleague from my days as a graduate student in anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, it reads: “ A present for Bruce from Lee, fellow travelers.” Lee and I had done fieldwork in the same mountain area in northern California. Upon discovering the book, I realized that I had never finished reading it, and began to do so.

The Danish author, Jens Bjerre, was a former newspaper editor who reinvented himself as an explorer. Bjerre’s New Guinea book, published in 1964, is amply illustrated with color photographs of tribal residents of the highlands. The book’s dustcover notes that Bjerre “…often shares their life, sleeps in their huts and eats their food…the expedition was twice attacked by armed natives and Jens Bjerre himself was wounded by an arrow.” As I read the dustcover, I could remember the bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley where Lee and I had scouted for a supply of books for me to carry with me to the jungle. This one had seemed lurid enough to give me something to compare my future experiences to.

The first chapter of the book starts, as do many travel books, not in the destination, but in the process of reaching the destination. Thus, we get a chapter on the “South Seas paradise” of Tahiti that Bjerre notes is renowned as the “island of love.” Bjerre treats the reader to a description of the treats awaiting the intrepid traveler with the brown-skinned beauties. (Actually he comments that the “pure Tahitian” women is not beautiful at all, but the women who are a mix of Chinese and Polynesian are the most beautiful women in the world.) Bjerre’s “anthropological” descriptions of the Tahitian woman note that they are childlike in their simplicity, easily amused, faithful for the time that they are with a partner, but ready to move on to another partner when the time comes. He recounts his meeting with an elderly American businessman who took up with a vahine and sold his business in the States so that he could live in bliss in paradise. The rest of the book describes his encounters with various tribes in the highlands of New Guinea.

The reason that I bring Bjerre’s book up is more the first chapter than the rest of the book. It is the notion of paradise, free love, the simplicity of life in the tropics that most interests me about Bjerre’s writing. For these are some of the same notions that I held, in spite of my anthropological training, when I first came to Irian Jaya, and then just four months later to the island of Bali – another “paradise” (often mistaken in popular myth as being located in the South Pacific). I’ll come back to a few more of Bjerre’s comments later in this article. For now, I want to discuss the concept of tropical paradise.

I consider these topics while sitting on my roof overlooking the Bali Sea. School children returning from the day's lessons run through the streets below. A flock of white pigeons circles overhead. A southern wind cools me as the sun travels through the sky up to its noon position. I think back to my years living on the island of Sumbawa. That large, mostly undeveloped island is one of the thousands of Indonesian islands that presents itself as a paradise. But what is paradise for the foreigner? Sumbawa certainly isn’t the island of love that Bjerre wrote about – no bare-breasted Tahitian vahines flirting with the foreigners. Sumbawa isn’t even Bali, another of the fabled islands of love with bare-breasted Balinese women gazing doe-eyed at the gaping foreigner, but during my years in Sumbawa, it smelled of paradise to me.

So what is it that makes a paradise for the Westerner? Let’s make a list:

  • warm weather
  • palm trees
  • coral reefs
  • warm seas
  • lush mountain scenery
  • available women or men (apparently brown-skin somehow makes the “native” more lusty)
  • exotic fruits ripening on the tree ready to plucked
  • colorful alcoholic drinks decorated with fruit (tiny umbrellas are ok too)
  • a few coconuts
  • plenty of leisure time
  • colorful ceremonies
  • a sense of timelessness
  • a lack of violence
  • a supply of cheap and friendly workers to cater to your needs
  • lots of fat and happy children to serve as a backdrop (as long as they don’t live in your house)
  • ? – add in your own requirements for paradise

This is my traditional list. Let’s add a few more items for the 21st Century seeker of Paradise that I’ve collected from various expat forums.

  • A fast connection to the internet
  • Satellite TV (don’t want to miss baseball, soccer, cricket, football, the American Idol)
  • An infinity pool
  • A nearby gourmet restaurant
  • A nearby gourmet delicatessen
  • An international airport within easy reach
  • A spa
  • Neighbors from your own country
  • A nearby bar with an excellent wine list and single malt scotch
  • A reliable bank with internet banking
  • Air-conditioning

An Afternoon with a Paradise Seeker

While visiting the local hardware store for some new window fittings, I watch a stocky red-faced foreigner jabbing his finger at some large nails speaking in a mix of bad Indonesian and colloquial American English. The three employees are having fun with him until his frustration surfaces, “Just give me the fucking nails.” Broad smiles subtly disappear and the foreigner receives his nails at a premium price. I pick up my fittings after a brief conversation about the foreigner’s bad manners. Leaving the shop, I notice him coming out of the shop next door with a broom and bucket. As he loads them in his new Toyota Landcruiser, he turns and says, “Where you from?”

“The States,” I reply somewhat defensively. I’m not sure why I’m suddenly defensive, but I am. I take a breath and try to forget the little tirade in the shop. “Chicago. You’re American?”

“New Jersey,” he says suddenly smiling.

We exchange the usual expat information: where we live, how long we’ve been here, what we’re doing. Apparently, my responses pass some expat test, and he invites me over to his house for a drink. Despite my usual misgivings about mixing with foreigners in Bali, my curiosity gets the best of me and I accept.

I follow him on my motorbike through the city and out towards the tourist area. He turns off on a small road and we drive up through rice paddies until I see a house surrounded by a high wall set in the back of the paddies. A small satellite dish sits on top of the two-story white brick building. We pull up at a three meter high steel gate topped with a lion head. An Indonesian dressed in black pants and a blue batik shirt opens the gate. A small driveway leads up to the front door of the house. The door is huge – at least three meters high and made out of what looks to be teak. As he walks up the steps, a women dressed in black pants and a blue batik shirt opens the door and greets him, “Good Afternoon, Sir.” He instructs her to collect his shopping from the gatekeeper, and we enter a large vestibule that opens on to a large living room filled with leather couches and chairs surrounding marble-topped tables of various sizes. I notice that there are large windows around the room but all of them are apparently closed. Then I realize, it’s really cool in here. Ah, he’s air-conditioned his house.

His maid wheels a liquor cart in to the room, as we settle in to the soft leather chairs. I feel a stream of cool air on the back of my neck. The room is bright and pleasant, tastefully decorated with Balinese paintings and Indonesian crafts. A white staircase on the left of the living room leads up to the second floor. A 43-inch plasma television nestles up against the east wall. I feel like I’ve entered another planet.

Over the next two hours, over a number of glasses of single malt scotch, we discuss our backgrounds and reasons for coming to Indonesia. He fits a profile that I’ve become familiar with – divorced, grown children, sold his business and house when his wife left him, trades stocks on the internet and hangs out with a circle of expats scattered around the island. Most of his friends are Americans, although he has a few Aussie and Canadian buddies. He ended up in the north of Bali because he had a local girlfriend, but when she discovered that he was more interested in getting the honey and not buying the pot, she quickly broke off the relationship, and he decided to stay in the north since he had already started building his house. He leases the land from a Balinese for a substantial sum, but as he has “some resources” he doesn’t get overly concerned with money. He currently has a Javanese girlfriend, but she apparently comes and goes as she sees fit.

“Why here in Indonesia?” I ask feeling somewhat sluggish after a few hours of whiskeys. The P-word comes up.

“Paradise. I wanted to move to Paradise. I’m sick of political correctness, women wanting it all, children constantly asking for money. Here I can be what I want to be.” He sinks back in his chair.

I take my leave of Little America (but isn’t that what immigrants do – create little bases of familiarity in new lands?), and drive slowly back home. It’s another variation on the paradise theme – not one for me, but then who said I have the corner on the paradise market.

What's your idea of Paradise?

Bali, tropics

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Comments 3 comments

dinamars profile image

dinamars 8 years ago from France

quite interesting to read your story. Thanks for promoting Bali and Sumbawa, they're such lovely paradise :). I never visit Sumbawa though, but dreaming to go there someday...


drbruce profile image

drbruce 8 years ago from Singaraja, Bali Author

Thanks Dina. Sumbawa is still quite isolated and lovely, but I expect that once the new airport opens in Lombok we will have many more tourists.


Allexita 8 years ago

What a great story drbruce.. Sumbawa is a great island to visit..I hope i can meet u soon..

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