Shuen Li (Shelley) writes a very personal account of her escape experience. Her main advice: the discomfort you feel from the judgement from others is only a small price to pay for the magnitude of appreciation you will feel from listening to your heart, no matter what.
You see, I was always trying to please others. So that I can be given permission to travel abroad after I have fulfilled certain family obligations. So that I need not to be married first before I can embark on my first overseas trip. So that I will be loved for the person I am and not for the things they want me to be. And look where it got me.
I lost an annual sum of my wages to a man whom I thought loved me. He left me without returning it as he had promised. It hit me so hard that I realised how unhappy I actually was with my life, even though I was holding a well-paid respectable position in a government organization. Yet I used my seeking for love from someone else as an excuse for not listening to my own heart, and following it.
So there I was, at my doorstep, with my plane ticket and luggage, ready to go to Bali. I left with my mom’s words, “You walk out the door, you don’t come back again”. I was done with daily cups of coffee to keep me awake, done with the incessant chatter of complaints, gossips, fashion, politics, and done with always having to justify my choices. So, monthly renewals of my visa eventually got extended to a year. From a city woman to a countryside Balinese dancer and English teacher, who would have known? I just dived right in what I now see as a priceless adventure.
So you might want to know why my escape is short-lived. Instead of listing all the mistakes I have made, I will list them as things that I appreciate:
1) Selling all my gold jewellery at a pawnshop in Gianyar
My most treasured piece was my first gold ring I bought in Singapore as my birthday present, and painfully so, I could only sell it at a price 10 times much less. They were my last resort when my funds were draining, and I had to make a tough decision as to what really mattered to me, my survival or material things? But then I realised shedding away things which do not serve my purpose was the first step to simplifying my life. Giving away my shoes, accessories and half my wardrobe to the locals felt uplifting and even more so for those without the means to buy them.
2) Overlooking immigration and accommodation costs
The largest portion of my savings was spent on renewing my social visa, bearing in mind fees differ from place to place (not to mention immigration officers). I never knew how inconvenient it was and the risks involved in having an unreliable sponsor for my visa, especially if you want to travel all around the island.
All I can say is, trust your gut more. I have learnt that it is always better to learn from experienced expats before taking the plunge. I trusted too easily and spent more on homestays which lack better living conditions which others have and charge at even lower rates.
Living with local families is another matter. Drinking and washing clothes from the spring, teaching neighbourhood kids how to read and speak among the clucking chickens, and curious dogs – blissful! Depending on who you live with. If they try on your clothes without asking you, be graceful about it, and then give it to them if you feel you can do without. But don’t get swept off by persistent ones who brag about their poverty and expect more sympathy from you.
I once met a Swedish lady who bought a house for herself and her Balinese husband, but ended up living in a homestay because he brought in his whole family and she could not support them all. For me, it took a loss of my ATM card to stop me from relying on drawing out more funds for others than what I would spend on myself.
My advice: Give what you can, then gently leave them alone.
If I had cared more about my purpose in Bali, I would have planned better and saved money for more traditional dance lessons which I dearly enjoyed.
3) Unprepared for mishaps
I once fell into a drain and got my leg pierced by a protruding metal rile. My tight bloody jeans had to be torn off at the hospital where nobody could spoke English. And in my struggle to be understood by the doctor, I realised just how crucial the following months will be in mastering Indonesian if I wanted to reach out to the locals.
I had accidents where my right breast nearly got ripped off by a huge angry dog because I naively went to pat his head. I was knocked off balance in the middle of the road when a heavy bundle of wooden sticks broke loose from a motorist’s backseat.
But none of them is as baffling as my recovery from food poisoning which was not detected by a local doctor but discovered by a traditional healer who advised me to eat porridge. So one day I stopped by a warung for porridge, and met Nana. She left Japan 2 years ago, and creates amazing batik paintings. We communicate only in Indonesian, but she is someone whom I can walk with every step of the way through life. Because of her, I have learnt to bless all the buggers for making me stronger.
4) Walking alone
I do wish for a man who dearly loves me and enjoys travelling with me. But it was through those moments of solitude that I found inner strength to rise above that lonely feeling and just soak in the presence of nature around me.
There was a time when I felt helpless after countless rejections from jobs I applied to in Bali. I was walking along a beach, worrying. Then I noticed 2 dogs running against the wave breaks and just leaping into the sea with complete abandonment, then swimming back to shore to play chase. I was so delighted by their enjoyment that I forgot what I was worrying about. That same day, I received an opportunity from one of the contacts of an expat to teach at an elementary school.
Since my return to Singapore, I no longer enjoy watching TV. I spent my nights in Bali admiring the star-studded sky, appreciating the sound of crickets and geckos. My afternoon walks were filled with the chatter of ducks among the endless brilliant stream of paddy fields, playing with the local kids by the river or looking for butterflies and flowers with the kids. In any way, kids teach us to be true to ourselves, and I am in deep gratitude for them and for the friendships I have cultivated with inspiring local individuals whom I would never have met had I not ventured out on my own.
So, never be afraid to ask for help. I did not realise how much my Balinese friends were willing to help till my pockets were burnt and as embarrassing as it was to ask for help, they welcomed me with open arms. Had I lowered my pride to ask for help before compromising my health, I would have left my then-Balinese boyfriend much earlier and focus more on caring for my own needs and building a career in Bali.
I thank you Adele for recommending the Commonsense Agency when I needed help on writing a more effective CV in my search for job opportunities in Europe. I thank you Eliza for teaching me how to present my CV with more clarity, and your encouragement not to give up.
I am learning to make peace with where I am living in now, and I still keep that hope of ‘travelling the world’ alive in my heart. As Marcel Proust once said, “Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux”. (The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.)
I believe if you find things to appreciate from where you are now, and consistently thank them in your mind, regardless of whatever is prodding you to escape, then that calling you have been looking for will show itself to you.