RETIRED, REWIRED BY CAT WHEELER
As Bali’s population of resident Westerners ages, a whole genre of homegrown literature has emerged: The Bali Expat Memoir.
Often self-published, these books are written by restaurateurs, musicologists, impresarios, home birthers, art collectors, tourism pioneers, etc. Cat Wheeler stands in the top rank of these contemporary Bali-based writers, taking her place among other women who have shared the same rapture for the island as Anais Nin, Jane Belo, Vicki Baum, Anna Mathews and Katharane Mershon from earlier times.
Retired, Rewired is the story of long-time resident Wheeler’s journey to proud and exuberant elderhood in Ubud. Wheeler is perhaps best known for her popular Greenspeak column in the Bali Advertiser under the pen name ‘Ibu Kat.’ She is also the author of Bali Daze (2009), a collection of her experiences living in Ubud for more than 16 years. This new book of captivating and informative stories are addenda to that earlier book in which she settles into her adopted country, builds houses, engages local help, networks with neighbors and deals with the personalities of outlandish pets and random wildlife living all around her.
Since 2002, Wheeler lived in a small banjar near Pura Dalem Puri in the southern Ubud suburb of Tebesaya, spending most days barefoot in a sarong and seldom venturing south of Mas. In a sense the book is an elegy to Ubud’s passage through successive throes of change from a dusty little country village, which she first visited in 1969, to the still delightfully comatose town in 1992 on her second visit to the slow, sweet and sleepy Ubud of 18 years ago when she finally took up permanent residence. She has since lived through the 2002 terrorist bombing when this cultural capital of Bali became a bankrupt ghost town, its world’s discovery beginning around 2010, right up until recent times when traffic jams, hordes of tourists and astronomical real estate prices foretold an irreversible tipping point to come.
The book is required reading for anyone ever considering any kind of semi-rural farming enterprise on Bali. In her visceral connection with the human community and sharp observations of the natural world and life cycles happening around her, the book is not unlike a farmer’s almanac, a careful journal of gardening, outdoor pastimes, raising poultry and dogs, huddling under wild tropical storms, the loss of a beloved avocado tree and other arcana and general information that would be useful or amusing to other Asian-based homesteaders as for that matter any expat of all ages living in the tropics.
Wheeler’s most intimate friends are animals; at least it is animals which she chooses to write about with the most enthusiasm and perspicacity. Twelve chapters out of 39 are about pets and denizens of her house and property. Ibu Cat seems to have an especial fondness for our feathered friends, but her affinity towards animals also extends to the lowliest of creatures, taking note of the behavior of snails, the antics of pet turtles, harmless but terrifying spiders and the mating habits of Muscovy ducks. There are also anecdotes about rescued street dogs, a capsule discourse of Bali’s pig culture, the history of the Bali Heritage Dog, everything you ever need to know about Tokay lizards as well as the astounding amount of work, worry and planning night and day that it takes to breed chicks and raise laying hens.
Although Retired, Rewired is literary narrative and the very first sentence asserts that the book isn’t about the nuts and bolts of living in Bali as a retiree, every episode gives more texture, nuance and atmosphere than any guidebook could ever aspire to. Even with all its light-hearted bantering, there’s an abundance of rock-hard advice and practical information buried in the text: tips on designing open and closed spaces, bathrooms and bedrooms; house-building; renovating old buildings; tropical landscaping; where you can get your Persian carpet professionally cleaned; the procedures, paperwork, documents required for the burial or repatriation of foreigners dying in Bali.
Whole chapters are in themselves real life cautionary tales that illustrate the richness and peculiarity of daily life in Bali and the unpredictability and strangeness of social interactions between Westerners and Balinese. The Lighter Side of Urban Development, for example, is a hilarious tale of building projects that sprang to life outside Wheeler’s gate that typify the organic and haphazard manner in which projects are started, delayed, changed and at last finished while the whole neighborhood is thrown into chaos. “Bali is not a culture that plans ahead,” she wryly posits.
Other topics concern themselves with healthcare and societal issues useful for gerontologists or anyone involved in geriatric home care. With their natural warmth, friendliness and compassion, the Balinese are well-suited to care for people of advanced years and for anyone with disabilities and diseases. One chapter addresses the big issues of taking care of aging expats, their even more aged parents as well as funeral arrangements for both.
We learn that taking care of old people is not for sissies but an ongoing sitcom with an aging cast, unforeseen script and unknown duration. Losing the Plot in Paradise tells of an Alzheimer patient’s care through the eyes his wife and caretakers. For 14 years five Balinese bathed the patient, gave him meds, kept him company, cooked for him, fed him, took him on drives to the beach, strolls in the rice fields and to the gym so that he was able to remain in Bali instead of being placed in some institution back home.
Ubud The One Trick Pony reminds us all of the painful lesson learned from the 2002 Bali Bombing – the startling fact that the island’s economy is almost totally dependent on tourism. All sectors – travel, construction, retail, restaurants, hotels – are connected to this highly vulnerable industry that results in cultural erosion, lack of diversity, a poor work ethic, a high turnover of the labor force and a chronic lack of qualified skilled workers. One bomb or natural disaster could bring the whole economy to a standstill.
Bring on the Dancing Girls reflects on the new face of old age in Bali in which the silver-haired Wheeler and her ilk are indelible fixtures – active, vital, healthy, full of piss and vinegar and fully intending to remain on the island to the end. In this eccentric community there’s no such thing as old and it’s never too late to try something new. Though not following routines that are as orderly, safe and predictable as those found in the West, Bali’s independent old cusses in their ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s jog, build houses, take yoga and dance classes, stay engaged with iPads and smartphones and remain intellectually sharp.
A romantic contemporary biography of life in Bali as an older person, Retired, Rewired is written in fluid, witty colorful and unaffected prose. Wheeler does not judge but is relentlessly optimistic and philosophical no matter how disrupting or inconveniencing the circumstance. Her temperament and voice are even and steady, never stooping to rancor. Sadness and resignation perhaps, but not rancor or complaint.
Above all else, this upbeat series of mirthful and thoughtful life sketches gives elderly foreign expat retirees the confidence and daring to spend their final days in Bali, in what the author calls The Last Lap. The book is an insider’s perspective of what to expect and what is physically in store for all of us in the years to come. The writer herself is preparing for the day when she will be moving from independent living. At age 65, and boldly reckoning to live another 30 years, the lease on Wheeler’s Last House will expire in 2045. But she’s not going anywhere. In spite of Bali’s woefully undeveloped infrastructure, lousy internet connections, bouts with dengue fever, pit vipers slithering into her bathroom and blackouts that plunge the whole island into darkness, there’s no place else she would rather be.