Tag Archives: travel writing

In case you were wondering (an exercise in continued self-indulgence)

So far in Semawang Stories, I’ve described what life is specifically like in Bali and some peculiarities therein. This week I thought I’d give a little insight into what I actually do all day, you know, for, like, money and stuff.

First of all, Semawang Stories does not make any money and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. Unless one makes it big, being a mostly full-time writer isn’t exactly a lucrative business so I’m not exactly planning on making it rain anytime soon (plus there aren’t any (legal) strip clubs in Bali).

The best part of this ‘job’ is that I make my own hours and work is almost entirely on my own schedule. I say almost because deadlines from editors are a thing but fortunately I haven’t had too many as of yet. With the exception of my Vice Sports article on the #muzzaswell, which was somewhat time-sensitive because it was essentially on a weather system, my pieces haven’t needed to be rushed out.

The real reason I chose this subject is that the past 48 hours have been a pretty rapid series of highs and lows. On Friday, I wrote a piece about a local jazz festival I attended last weekend which should be published next week. And frankly, I kicked its ass. It’s the same feeling you get when you drop 20 in a game of basketball. The piece will be on a site called Bali Coconuts that I’m just establishing a relationship with having written this article for them about an art festival here in Sanur. On top of writing what you know is a good piece, submitting two articles within two weeks and getting paid for both (albeit underpaid) is damn gratifying.

Then, I woke up Saturday morning to find that a piece I’ve been working on for almost two months, one that will be my first in print, will likely be delayed until the next issue. The Editor-in-Chief wants it re-worked and some more urgency put into what I find to be an already engaging narrative. But as my editor put it, this is a big boy magazine and the Editor knows what the hell he’s talking about. More to the point, I’m incredibly proud of this story and this is absolutely the right magazine so I’m content to let this play out.

And yet, in the very same batch of emails (since I’m +12 hours from the East Coast, I get a whole day’s worth of email first thing in the morning), came a positive reply from an outlet I’ve been trying to pitch for months about a story I’ve been trying to pitch for months. This is no guarantee that I’ll be published, but it’s a big breakthrough and could very well lead to more consistent work in the coming months.

And this is basically what I spend most of my time doing, finding stories anywhere I can, putting together pitches that will grab an editor’s attention and then waiting. The waiting mainly consists of finding more stories and, in this age of constant media, keeping up with what’s going on in the world (i.e. surfing the web and reading content. Also, pro-tip, if you want to improve your writing, start reading more, find an author you like, and copy their style until you find your own.).

On the whole, I really can’t complain. I love doing this and, while I may not be making much money at the moment, I know that I can write as well if not better than many others (present post possibly excluded) who are doing it for a living so I know I can be a success if I put in the time. And I don’t mind doing that. As with many jobs, success depends as much on whom you’re connected with as how good you are at your job.

I’ll end this spiel here with the promise to return to a non-insect and more Bali-related topic next week. Thanks for tuning in and make sure to check out this week’s Frying Pan Podcast. It’s our best yet.

If they catch me at the border, I’ve got visas in my name

If you have spent an extended amount of time in a foreign country, there is a word that is will likely send shivers down your spine: visa. Living, let alone working, in a country whose passport you don’t own is can be a huge pain in the ass because of arcane bits of immigration law and byzantine bureaucracies (which is kind of a repetitive phrase, historically speaking). Now, I’ve already stated my opinion on immigration in conclusion to a blog post a couple months back. I said then that I was leaning much more towards the libertarian, laissez-faire, freedom-of-movement camp and now I can confirm I have arrived in said camp and pitched a tent. There was no single event that precipitated this conclusion. Rather it’s been a months-long albatross of worry and contemplation over what to do with ­Imigrasi Indonesia.

As with many areas of Indonesian public policy, laws regarding immigration are often changing and inconsistently enforced. I’ve heard tell of a man who lived in-country for twenty years on successive tourist visas without ever being deported. I’m not going to take that chance. After several months on successive “Visa(s)-on-Arrival” (aka VOA’s or a tourist visas), which means flying out of the country for a night or two every 60 days, for my next renewal (in September) I will need to come up with something different. But here’s where it gets complicated.

First of all, I will need to decide which visa to apply for. The “KITAS”, which is a full working visa, is unlikely. It’s expensive and involved and you need your employer to sponsor you. Then there’s the Sosial/Budaya (Social/Cultural) Visa, which allows you to stay for up to a year but does not allow you to work. This is the most likely choice because I won’t ever be getting paid in Indonesia directly, at least for the foreseeable future, and it is relatively simple to acquire. Finally, there is the business visa. Similar to the budaya in length, it allows you to “do business” in Indonesia, but has some opaque restrictions that I have yet to comprehend. It also requires you to leave the country every 60 days to renew it.

As I’m sure you’ve gather by now, the minutiae of immigration isn’t particularly interesting, yet in the ex-pat community it is a constant topic of conversation. Message boards and Facebook groups are rife with agencies offering their services and newcomers asking for advice. To a degree, I understand the political psychology behind Indonesia’s hesitancy to allow in a flood of bulés. Indonesia is for Indonesians first and foremost and behind that philosophy there is a strong strain of nationalism/patriotism with roots in the Indonesian Revolution. As an American, I can only commiserate. But as much as anti-immigration rhetoric and policy is hurting the US economy, it is maiming Indonesia’s. There was even talk earlier this year of requiring Indonesian language skills for KITAS applicants. Fortunately that law was never passed, but in a (for better or worse) global economy it’s unfortunate that a country so far below its economic and development potential would handicap itself with unnecessary regulations.

While rumors of more stringent regulations abound (it’s hard to tell which are true and which are just the complaints of expats), there is some hope. As has frequently been the case of late, it comes from President Jokowi who has opened up visa-free travel to a number of new nations, including the US and UK. For all you who are thinking to come visit, that means you can stay for 30 days without paying a $35 visa fee. So at least there’s that.

Fear and Loathing in Indonesian Toilets

The following is a conversation I had at a futsal tournament, last weekend:

Bule teammate of mine: “This is a pretty nasty story, but I just took my first Bali shit.”

Me, fearing the worst: “What do you mean?”

Bule teammate: “Like there wasn’t any toilet paper in the bathroom, so I had to use the spray thing. Never used that before so I had to ask one of the kids how to use it. [Insert attempted demonstration] I’m not sure I did it right but it did the job.”

It went on from there with me recovering from my initial concerns and surprised that this was his first “Bali shit”. He’s been here longer than me, but I guess has been able to time his moments better than me. Still, I could relate. When there are drastic alterations to something as personally mundane as visiting the restroom and when you are unfamiliar with the apparatus in front of, or underneath you, there is a certain amount of fear.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Indonesian bathrooms is in their variety. In my limited experience, there are at least seven or eight different articulations of receptacle, each with its own accouterments and cleansing devices. For someone raised on the simple urinal-toilet dichotomy, with the rare trough thrown in during more public scenarios, this variety and complexity can lead to awkwardly long visits and even more uncomfortable questions to Indonesian friends and/or significant others.

Equally confounding is the frequent insistence, in the not uncommon occurrence of the standard western apparatus, that toilet paper not be flushed down the bowl. This is often communicated through a conveniently placed sign, which – in the case of more solid events – is met with the following line of reasoning; “Doesn’t toilet paper disintegrate in water?” and since one doesn’t want to take that chance, “Ok then what do I do with it? Surely not in the wastepaper basket in the corner…” To which on sees no alternative and comes to the conclusion, “Yes, in the wastepaper basket in the corner.”

There are a few things that I have yet to crack and one of them is the bucket full of water and accompanied by a floating ladle. I have a good idea about its purpose but won’t begin to contemplate the specifics let alone take it for a test drive. There’s also the hose with spray nozzle that is strategically placed in most restrooms. The hose’s fundamental use is undeniable, but its very existence raises the conundrum of spray direction (from the front or back), the debate of which was included in the extended version of the conversation that began this post.

Many of these confusions revolve around a simple but fundamental difference between the way westerners and Indonesians understand sanitation. While for the bule, a wipe is sufficient to feel clean and comfy, for the Indonesian, a wash is needed. When it’s put like that, things start to fall into place and one realizes that they honestly have a point.

Indonesian food is delicious but is often dangerously spicy, even to the point of infamy. Here on the Island of the Gods, it’s been given a name: “Bali Belly”. I’ll forgo the details but say only that when afflicted, bathrooms that one can comprehend and feel comfortable in are a valuable resource. And this is where fear can very quickly turn to loathing.