Leaving the city and living the dream is not at all like Instagram, writes our former Smile Editor
I have many heroes who did it before me — a close friend who left a magazine job in Manila to live in rural France, where her morning jog featured random wild bull sightings; a baby sister who put down roots and started a family in a part of Siargao that makes the island’s sleepy capital town feel hectic by comparison — so when the time came for my husband and I to bid the big city bye-bye, we packed our bags and our shared life with a bit more excitement than trepidation. We were trading in Singapore, a metropolis with night bus services and an internationally famous skyline, for a remote and sandy stretch of Bali.
But it was comforting to understand that we weren’t exactly bushwhacking. We knew so many people who had made the switch and never looked back. In this age of hyperconnectivity — when nearly every conceivable pocket of the world has been turned inside out, geotagged and displayed on Instagram — no place is too remote. We weren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, being original or inordinately brave.
Still, leaving all that was familiar — a full-time job, a cozy neighborhood dotted with restaurants and cafés, our circle of friends and a routine — felt like a running start to a cliff jump. We had closed on a temporary rental sight unseen before landing on our new island, and we couldn’t fully visualize what lay ahead. It took less than 10 days to Marie Kondo our home and pack eight years of accumulated stuff (seriously, who needs three printers?) into a couple of large suitcases that we would take to the next chapter of our lives. They contained only the essentials: clothes, a two-cup coffee press (his), a yoga mat (mine), 10 books (mine again), a corkscrew (ours). We gave away furniture, packed bed linen and artworks into boxes and sent them off to storage. We also didn’t expect that we would need leather shoes in our new life, so all of those went into the “Donate” bin. It was a brutal but quick and liberating cull.
The decision to move had taken longer, percolating over years. We’d always been charmed by the idea of somewhere new and had made a habit of asking each other, “Do you think you could live here?” in every new place we visited. More often than not, the answer was yes, and then no. There were always pros and cons that inevitably left us in a gridlock: nice and compact but too far from the coast, too cold, too hot, too crowded, too crazy, too overdeveloped. Ultimately we became more and more inclined to try something vastly different from what we were long accustomed to, somewhere with a much slower pace and “a bigger sky”, and realized we were craving the countryside.
We’d both lived in big cities for most of our lives — he in London, I in Manila, before we met, got married and shared a home in Singapore — and couldn’t imagine living without a neighborhood bar or an all-hours mini-mart. We’d therefore always thought of ourselves as urban people who had spent a lifetime refining the skills required for navigating large cities, but had perhaps not been wired correctly for wireless living. It’s not that we couldn’t think of starting a cooking fire by rubbing sticks, but what if there was no ATM? And what, for instance, would we do if we’d somehow run out of toilet paper in the middle of the night?
But these small conveniences that had drawn us to capital cities were also what made the idea of hypermodern societies a little unsettling for me. What did it mean, for example, that you could get a 12-pack of tonic water delivered to your doorstep without even getting up from the dinner table? How busy had our lives become, how pressing our minor needs (tonic water, really?), how short our patience, that I needed Amazon Prime and other on-demand services? How fragile was this network of everyday dependencies, and how little would it take for all of it to unravel?
There are small but significant waves of reverse migration swelling in dense urban sprawls like Manila and Tokyo, where a growing number of people experiencing urban fatigue are opting out of the frenetic hustle for the gentler ways of the country. In Japan, one in four Tokyoites harbors designs of leaving the ironically isolating effects of the crowded megalopolis for, among a range of options, the community vibe of farming towns in places like Hokkaido. Closer to home, case studies are more personal — at least two siblings, both younger than me, are all too happy to have escaped the grinding snarl of big-city traffic, with cars traded in for scooters in their new island home, where they feel they have more hours in a day and can be as productive as, well, Beyoncé. They haven’t owned or worn leather shoes for quite some time.
In the disorienting first weeks of our new life in a small village in Bali, where the change of pace, scenery and atmosphere had been so abrupt it was hard to sleep at night, I wore sneakers exactly once — to a baby-naming ceremony we’d been invited to in the next village — and flip-flops only on supermarket runs, which we’d needed to plot days in advance. The rest of the time, I was barefoot in a house that sat about 15 meters from the waterline of the black-sand beach, and could be accessed from the road through a tight, one-car dirt path cut through, of all things, a vineyard.
My role models might have made the switch look easy, but reality is different from Instagram. In the early mornings, the chirping of small birds got so loud it would wake us well before the alarm clock went off. I struggled to stay awake against the constant and rhythmic sound of crashing waves coupled with a salty breeze. I couldn’t reconcile things I’d normally associate with a holiday to regular programming. Everyday sights seemed to me downright bizarre: a raft of hundreds of ducks waddling obediently in a group as a lone farmer herded them down the beach in front of our house; a meter-long monitor lizard casually crossing our garden before coolly climbing up the wall and into the neighbor’s; a loud burping noise which I could only trace back to a thumb-sized, nearly translucent frog by my foot. Daylight hours felt long: at night we turned in at 9pm, four hours before our usual bedtime. Nights were deep, quiet and too slow for comfort. I had my doubts, and they made sleep elusive.
If I was any younger I would have chalked this all up to us being avowed cityfolk feeling unmoored in unfamiliar territory, dismissed the whole place as unfortunately not a fit and taken the next flight back to a city—any city, with a third-wave coffee spot and a mall (a mall!) with a Uniqlo and an IMAX theater. But in time, and with a new grounding routine in place — fresh dragon fruit juice first thing in the morning, a yoga session before it got too hot in the day, five hours of remote work in the shade after lunch, cocktails just as soon as the sun went down and the horizon turned a vibrant pink, dinner and a post-day analysis with the husband to the sound of crickets — the unfamiliar taught me how to be there. “Slowly,” it said, one day at a time.
Soon I recognized the rhythm of the village and followed it, and all of a sudden the fog cleared. It was exactly the place we needed and we thrived in it, just like the countryfolk we’d become, for the time being. I mean, in a concrete jungle I would never have been able to sit in a garden, drink in hand, to watch Mr Monitor Lizard on his daily walks at dusk. To borrow a phrase from Tony Bennett and tweak it a little bit, a place will teach you how to live in it if you live there long enough.
*Tara Sering has since moved from Bali to a new temporary home
*Illustrations by Kelly Ramos
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.