Bali Daze / Dragons in the Bath Reviewed by Bill Dalton


Toko Buku2009

(Dragons in the Bath was re-issued under the new title of Bali Daze in 2012)

In November 2000, after living in Singapore for over 10 years, a Canadian woman stepped off the plane in Bali to begin a new life. Thus begins Ibu Kat’s first chapter, “Stepping Off the Cliff” in her book Dragons in the Bath, a singular blend of memoir, non- fiction essays, ethnological observations, social commentary and flat out editorializing.

After relating how she came to the decision to leave Singapore and how she had come to love Ubud, ‘the little mountain town’ she had visited since the early ‘70s, Ibu Kat subsequently describes her humble beginnings in the rice fields of Bali just a few meters from the jungle.

She first had a house built in three and a half months by 14 men using the most rudimentary traditional tools and no electricity. Determined to make the smallest footprint possible and ever mindful of her energy consumption, she personally limited her power supply to 2000 watts.

The author gradually adjusts and in a short time revels in her newfound rural lifestyle in the company of three dogs and a bald parrot. We read about Ibu Kat’s travails with immigration, her first time behind the wheel of a car, her troubles hauling water for a week, constructing a septic tank, a wastewater garden and her hilarious ill-fated experiments raising ducks and chickens.

In 2001, she began an environmental awareness column called Greenspeak in the popular local newspaper, Bali Advertiser. Her column has since become a voice of conscience for the Bali expat community as well as a valuable source of information on what it’s actually like living in Bali.

The everyday occurrences Ibu Kat describes are the same scenes that we pass by on the road or observe in our own yards that usually don’t deserve our attention. But in the hands of a skilled writer with a keen and subtle sense of irony and humor, ordinary and mundane events can come to life.

In the same way that Thoreau saw a microcosm of the universe in the tiny workings of an ant colony and Whitman a splendor in the grass, this writer describes the minutiae of nature with rapt precision – waxing rhapsodic over the spectacular colors of a reticulated python or the olfactory, auditory, hygienic and composting charms of the swayback Balinese pig.

Above all she is a lover of animals. This is a good thing when you consider the never-ending succession of unsolicited wildlife that wander in and out of her garden and home. Like the book’s cover which shows a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals in a tropical domestic setting, the majority of the stories are, in one way or the other, about her friendships, accommodations or confrontations with dogs, snakes, spiders, birds, meter-long monitors and tokay lizards.

Read about the Rat Zapper which kills rodents by electrocution, a breed of ducks so stupid that they are unable to reproduce, the secret life of bats, her irrational fear of Canadian bears, the paradoxes of the Bali Starling breeding program, and the important work carried out by Bali-based foundations that rescue and neuter tens of thousands of dogs.

Most of the stories are about the misfortunes, behavioral quirks and myriad personalities of stray mangy mutts that she has adopted or is breaking in, the pecking order of her three dogs, her dachshund who thinks it’s a Doberman, her thwarted attempts turning her dogs into vegetarians.

In the truly haunting and unforgettable Kasey & The River People, she tells of one of her dog’s encounter with the mystical Orang Sungai, the River People, who lurk down in the ravine below her house. I told the tale to my 10-year-old daughter and she had nightmares for three days and still keeps her curtains tightly shut every night. (Her room faces a river.)

With intriguing titles like Pit Bulls Don’t Eat Tofu and Two Naked Men in a Ditch, readers at first never quite know where a story is going to take them. One might begin with her sitting by her pond enjoying morning tea, and then before you know it she’s telling you how to build a pond. An errand to the warung for more sugar leads to an essay on the history of coffee.

Besides herself and all the creatures that populate the book, the only other main character is her housemaid Wayan. In the delightful story, “The World According to Wayan,” this likable Balinese woman comes across as knowledgeable, superstitious, down-to-earth and fiercely protective of her mistress.

Wayan keeps popping up throughout the book – cooking, preparing traditional herbs, serving as a foil for Ibu Kat’s naivety, bemused by her various projects, all the while interpreting, negotiating and acting as go-between. The only other person we get a glimpse of is Wayan’s husband who serves as gardener, handyman and occasional driver.

Of course it is the author herself who is the most developed character. Her thoughts and actions reveal a patient, worldly, eccentric, culturally and ecologically sensitive, and acutely observant woman who loves animals, gardening, a sip of wine now and then with friends.

Because each story must adhere to a set word length in the newspaper where they were first published, the book is divided into easily digestible chapters of 2 or 3 pages. This is our gain as it gives us a chance to absorb several episodes each night – like “eating one chocolate after another” her friend Diana Darling wrote in a review – and get a bit of insight or a chuckle before falling asleep.

Yet in spite of the brevity of the chapters, Dragons in the Bath is packed full of intensely lived experiences and a wealth of direct and indirect advice on how to negotiate with a Balinese builder, design a Balinese garden, plant and spread mulch, make compost. An index or simply a list of chapters in the front matter would’ve given the book more utility as a work of reference. (A book without an index is like a house without windows.)

In “Ethical Villas,” Ibu Kat spells out the responsibilities of villa ownership. In other pieces, she’s an outspoken environmental crusader pitching permaculture, electric motorcycles, the use of vevitar grass to prevent soil erosion, or a social activist promoting charitable associations, a dental program in one of the remotest villages of Indonesia, volunteering help in the recovery of tsunami-devastated Aceh.

As a loving tribute to the Balinese dog, zoology lessons on animals she has encountered all over the world, and as a chronicle of the island’s developing rural infrastructure, Dragons in the Bath is ultimately a warm-hearted and engaging on-the-ground account of how to live a responsible life in the countryside of Bali – equally appealing to the animal lover, foreign homeowner and anyone contemplating ever living for any length of time on Bali.


Retired, Rewired Reviewed by Bill Dalton



Toko Buku2017


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.