PART I: Views of expats who chose to stay on through the pandemic…

Illustration by: IO/Design Team

 IO – Recently, many embassies in Jakarta have instructed their citizens to leave Indonesia and return to their country of citizenship. This is usually a sign that they expect the situation in Indonesia to worsen and that it is felt that it would be safer for their citizens in their home countries. An exception is the Canadian government which is preventing even its own citizens from entering the country. Canadians abroad have been told to remain where they are and that their government will foot any hospital bills. 

Nevertheless, despite the uncertain, even grim prospects predicted for Indonesia in the coming months there are a number of expatriates who have chosen to stay on here rather than return to their own nations. The Independent Observer has interviewed several of them. Here are their stories: 

Peter Carey with wife Lina in 2011 after receiving the MBE from Queen Elizabeth II “for services to the disabled in Southeast Asia”. (Photo copyright with Charles Green)

Retired Oxford historian, Peter Carey has written much about the history of the region especially Indonesia. Before retiring from his position at the University of Oxford in 2008 he set up The Cambodia Trust to address the needs of mine victims there. Later its main sponsor the Nippon Foundation agreed to also sponsor programs in other Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia. In 2009 together with the Ministry of Health, Peter set up the Jakarta School of Prosthetics and Orthotics of which he was the country director until 2012. In 2013 he became adjunct professor at the Faculty of Cultural Sciences at the University of Indonesia. He has been in that position for 7 years and spent most of his time publishing in Indonesian the corpus of scholarly work that he has written about Indonesia for over 40 years, mostly on Prince Diponegoro and the Java Wars. “I am having the harvest of my life as a professor and historian of Indonesia,” commented the distinguished scholar for he has also been involved in exhibitions, dramas and currently with books both with the City of Madiun as well as translating into Indonesian two Javanese babads or chronicles. “For better or for worse, Indonesia is my life’s work and my goal is to use my skills as a historian and writer to open eyes to the richness of Indonesian history and culture and assist Indonesia in orbiting its culture internationally, as soft-power.” 

Peter Carey was born in 1948 in Rangoon (now Yangon). His father was English whereas his mother came from Northern Ireland. “My first identity is British and I my second identity is Indonesian,” he contends. “Both the Irish and the Javanese share what I refer to as rasa and this is in fact the urat nadi (the heart’s bloodline) of Javanese culture. We have not heard their voices because they do not have a soft-power footprint in the world.” 

Peter thinks most people do not have a true indication of the scale of the pandemic in Indonesia because the figures are hard to come by. He says, “We are at the beginning of the story and we do not know how it will pan out but if – God forefend – I fell ill and needed a ventilator to survive I would die whereas in the UK I would have a fighting chance. Nevertheless, I have made a commitment in terms of coming to Indonesia to publish, write and help promote Indonesian soft-power and that commitment is not possible for me to carry out from a distance.” 

Peter Carey with his family in the garden. (Photo courtesy of Peter Carey)

Peter’s life’s work is here and he is not leaving. He copes with anxiety and stress by firstly, having a routine and being disciplined in sticking to it. He gets up between 4 and 5 am and meditates, has a cup of coffee, goes swimming or biking, breakfasts with his family, works for 5-6 hours, has a siesta spends time with his son and his wife’s mother and so on till bedtime. Secondly, he sees this time of self-isolation as similar to a Tibetan Buddhist retreat which requires self-discipline, focus and no physical social contacts and he says that this gives people the time to try to answer the 3 most important questions in life namely, who am I? Where am I going and where do I come from? It is a life’s work to answer them but now is a special time and golden opportunity to work on the answers. Thirdly, he see this time as an opportunity to get an enormous amount of work done without distractions. And finally, it is a unique opportunity to be very deep with one’s own family and to electronically get to know and become closer to friends and acquaintances. 

Laurel Rushes gazing at the view from her home. (Photo courtesy of Laurel Rushes)

Meanwhile, Laurel Rushes is a 32 year old Australian with a background in communications and anthropology who has lived off and on in Indonesia for 7 years. She and her partner come originally from Canberra and first moved to Jakarta when her partner became part of an Australian government venture known as Australian Volunteers for International Development which is part of its aid portfolio. At one point they visited Ubud for a holiday and loved it. At the end of the year they moved there. “We really didn’t anticipate being here for so long. Off and on we would go to Europe or Australia but found ourselves keep coming back,” remarked Laurel. 

Laurel says that last month in its travel advice, the Australian government advised all Australian nationals in Indonesia to return to Australia even those who had been living in Indonesia long term. They were warned to be careful about deciding to stay because if they should later get sick or want to come home the Australian government would not be able to help them. “When your government issues that kind of advice and lots of airlines between Indonesia and Australia are holding their flights – well, in that sort of situation you want to listen to your government’s advice. So, it was a hard decision for us to make. We felt quite anxious and kept asking ourselves if this was the right decision. For a week we kept changing our minds but finally we thought: This is where we live. In Australia we have no house to go back to and our family members live in different cities so, we would almost be going back as strangers. Going back to Australia would not have felt like going home because home is here…” 

The Ubud view Laurel Rushes loves. (Photo courtesy of Laurel Rushes)

So, they stayed. Laurel says that their community is here and that she and her partner have very strong friendships in Bali. “Our circle of friends is very strong;,” muses Laurel. “Some are Balinese and some are Jakartans and that’s part of the draw to keep coming back to Ubud. The community makes it so feel like home. We find it peaceful and lovely. We didn’t think we would stay so long but every time we left we just kept gravitating back because we like it so much. ” 

Laurel and her partner practice social distancing, so she is not worried about herself. She is more worried about her Indonesian friends and the impact on their loss of business due to the disappearance of tourism in Bali. She notes, “People are just starting to realize that this could go on for some time and they are struggling with that and it is hard to see that. One thing we do is to try to support our community. Many artist friends are losing their jobs so I try to commission work from them. Expats are usually not so reliant on the local economy so my suggestion to expats who are staying on is that if you can, try to support the local economy. We are seeing all over the world how people try to support local business even if local shops and bars shut. For example, we order weekly grocery boxes from farmers. 

You know, I don’t know any expats who decided to go home. The people we know feel like they have a role to play: You do not just leave when the going gets tough. You try to help…” 

Emerald Starr visiting the Tirta Gangga Water Gardens in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Emerald Starr is an American who has lived for over 30 years in Bali. He is 68 years old and was born in New York where he studied psychology and religion with Hinduism and Buddhism as his primary subjects. Emerald’s father was a renowned textile designer and Emerald himself worked for many years with textiles and in the garment industry. Then after moving to Hawaii he was successfully involved in real estate for a number of years. After retiring he decided to move to Bali and live there. While he was in the garment industry he lived in India for a number of years and he visited Bali with his family while on holiday. Thereafter, he went there again several times for holidays. He slowly realized that he really wanted to retire there and in 1989 he settled in Bali.

Emerald feels very drawn to the Hindu culture and the people of Bali. “I wanted to live in a Hindu culture with people who have similar spiritual beliefs to my own,” he declare 

“Also, before Bali I was living in Hawaii and there I really learnt to love living on a tropical island and so in a sense I was also looking for a tropical island to retire to – with all the natural beauties of Hawaii.” 

A view of Mount Soraya and the sea that Emerald loves. (Photo courtesy of Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The fact that Indonesians have traditionally and then after independence through the Pancasila had a strong tolerance towards different cultures, beliefs and ways of life is something that he also very much appreciates. Emerald now lives in an exceptionally beautiful part of Karangasam which is a little off the beaten track. Living in the vicinity of rice fields he has spectacular views of Mount Agung from his window, but also of the sea and the island of Lombok. On a clear day he can even see Mount Rinjani. 

Like many of the expats who have chosen to remain Emerald says that the main reason he has chosen to stay and brave out the virus in Indonesia is because Bali is his home. “I am now a permanent life time resident of Indonesia and have a home in Karangasam where I feel very comfortable and connected. I have a good relationship with the local community and a shared faith with the village where I live – and frankly I feel safer here than in New York because of Indonesia’s hot damp tropical climate which seems to be less conducive to the spread of the virus. Also, in the United States things seem to be going crazy at the moment! 

At first there were just a few thousand cases of people infected with the corona virus, then in just a few months it became 300,000 cases and the numbers are rising. At first there were about 100 who had died and then suddenly it was 10,000 dead! So, I would not feel safe there. It’s not that I am afraid to go to America but in Indonesia it is a relatively smaller number of people who have been infected, so far and I live in a rather remote area here.” 

Emerald is staying at his home with a long-time friend from Hawaii who happened to be visiting him when the outbreak began to become serious. So, he is not alone and his advice to others is to be responsible and an example to others by following the government protocols and regulations. He is trying to eat healthy, get enough sleep and practice social distancing – and he finds that that is not a hardship. 

Emerald says, “The way to stay in good spirits is by finding something every day to be grateful for. Be kind to the people with whom you are in contact and reassure them that this too will pass…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read:
Part II :
Part III:
Part IV :