A Letter from Bali: Sitting on an idyllic Indonesian isle, a Dorchester emigre craves local connections in midst of the crisis

The waves roll in on Thomas Beach in Uluwatu, near the southern tip of Bali. My wife is sitting on a deck chair on the patio of our remote AirBnB, which hangs over a cliff that overlooks the idyllic swimming and surfing spot. Her parents are in chairs on either side of her, laughing at some private joke from her childhood. It’s a taste of home for her that we both know that she’s incredibly fortunate to have. These days, many expats in these parts don’t have the chance to fly back to their native countries; fewer still can boast that their parents were already on a trip in Asia that’d been scheduled last fall when the Covid-19 outbreak hit and could still swing down as planned.

The tropical milieu notwithstanding, it’s a bittersweet scene. What was supposed to be a more than two-week visit has been cut to just a few days as the State Department has issued a “Level 4” travel advisory and told all Americans traveling overseas to get home ASAP or risk being stranded “for an indefinite period.” We both know that this is probably the last glimpse of home that either of us will have for the foreseeable future.

Before I go any further: We’re fine. My wife and I have visas that allow us to stay in Indonesia through next August; the rent on our home is paid up through then; and we’ve got a small stockpile of food and water set aside in case the robust logistics chains that supply this tourist mecca seize up. (Since Bali sits on the Ring of Fire, has an active volcano, and has experienced tsunamis in the past, this was something that we set up as soon as we arrived.)

As comfortable as we are though, we are painfully aware that we’re not back “home” while the Covid-19 pandemic is unfolding, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

The blessings are obvious. We’re in a place that’s almost obnoxiously beautiful. The population is pretty spread out, so social distancing is relatively easy. The island produces an immense amount of food that would sustain it in the event of a supply chain collapse. And it’s a major destination for global airlines, offering quick access to a dozen major cities in at least as many countries in case we need to bug out.

On the other hand, it’s tough reading the headlines from back home. I thought that I’d gotten used to the constant nostalgic pang that comes with being a 7th-generation Bostonian (and hardcore Dot Rat) who has been called to live overseas, but this is a whole new level of angst. Knowing that my old stomping grounds in Savin Hill, Fields Corner, Neponset, and Adams Village are all but ghost towns pains me. I think of all of the businesses that have been forced to close, and all of the people who have suddenly found themselves out of work and/or isolated at home. Like most people, I don’t know what to do about it.

Of course, there’s really nothing to do except to practice social distancing to keep myself, my wife, and our neighbors safe. It’s the same the world over.

In a strange way, this global need for everyone to isolate themselves has the potential to be a unifying event like none other. Just as families on Sydney Street are all holed up in their houses, venturing out one at a time only to make supply runs, so are my friends in Sydney, Australia. My friends in Beijing and Shanghai, who are only now slowly coming out of their strict quarantines, are sharing tips with people in the US on how to get through what’s just beginning for them. Here in Bali, our social distancing is only now getting under way.

We’re all in this together. 

Community has never been more important yet so distant. One of the ways that I’ve been coping is by organizing a group chat with the community of China-based expats who found themselves stranded here when the virus got serious in China back in mid-January. We commiserate, share tips, and provide much-needed support to one another. Ironically, now that we’re all self-isolating, I’ve got as much contact with them as I do with people back in Boston.

I’m voraciously reading the news and writing a weekly newsletter for people who are living/stuck overseas. I’m engaging on Twitter with fellow OFDers and Boston transplants alike. It feels like as I withdraw inward, I’m reaching out ever further for contact.

In the end, I know that I’m very fortunate. I come from a great place that’s prepared me to live in a diverse world. I live a great life. I’ve got an incredible partner that I can share it with. But I’ve never felt the 10,000 miles between me and Dorchester more profoundly than I do now. And I’ve never felt more connected to it since I left in 2008.

We’re all in this together.

Mike Shaw is the Managing Editor of Migration Media and host of the Migratory Patterns podcast. Follow him on Twitter @zax2000.