The Value of Free

A man wanted to retire on a specific beach. He worked for most of his life, saved as much money as he could. Finally, he retired and bought a house by the beach. Soon after, he saw a young man sitting in the sand, enjoying the same beach as he did. He realized that unlike himself, who had worked most of his life to get there, the young man just showed up. They had taken two very different paths, but arrived at the same beach.

This story brings to mind my recent experience in Langkawi, Malaysia. During Chinese New Year, my boyfriend and I went to Kuala Lumpur to see his parents. We decided that while we were there, we would make a trip to Langkawi as it was a short and cheap plane ride away, also it’s a duty free island. Our friend recommended a place for us to stay. I went online to go book a room, but to my surprise it wasn’t listed on any of the usual sites. I found their facebook page and sent them a message to inquire about a room. They told me, just come, it’s free.

This made me suspicious. How could it be free? There had to be a catch, or this place was so horrible that no one would pay to stay. Still, our friends glowing review convinced us to go.

We arrived in Langkawi and promptly went to the wrong place. Stranded on a small residential street, we called our host, who had the foresight to give me his number, slightly concerned.

“No problem, we’ll come pick you up.”

When we got there, our worries were put to rest. The people there had transformed two kampong houses into a cafe, artist space and hostel all free of charge. It wasn’t a Hilton, but it was a comfortable, inviting place with a soul of its own.

The cafe walls were lined with books. It had all the supplies available for people to make their own coffee or tea. Usually, there was a big pot of food for anyone to eat. They made their own chairs and furniture, some of their art adorned the walls.

The artists spaces include 2 large rooms, one white and the other black. The black room has a stage, while the white room is intentionally left blank. Local and out of town artists conduct exhibitions, classes and performances in these spaces. These events are open for the local community to experience.

The black room also includes a communal kitchen and bathroom. People take turns cooking the shared meals.

Upstairs, there are bedrooms in one of which we stayed. The bedrooms were simple, there was no air con, but the fan and sea breeze was plenty to stay cool by.

Everything was free and no one seemed to be working too hard, we wondered how it was possible. I found out that it was really quite simple, apart from all this, they also own a tiny bar shack on the beach. A few of them work there at night, the revenue from the bar funds the cafe and art space, while also providing them with enough income to live by. They are also in the process of expanding, they’re building a gallery on the beach. Others who live there have various jobs around the island. From what we could tell, no one was feeling overworked and seemed to be enjoying what they did. One of the residents told us about getting to see the most beautiful sunsets off the sailboat where she works.

So how did these people come to have such great lives? I asked them about their lives before coming to Langkawi.The founder, an artist himself, moved to Langkawi because he saw a need for artists to have a place where time and money didn’t get in the way of their creative pursuits, as it often does. As well, he wanted to create a space for the local community. He moved to Langkawi, found a cheap place to rent and transformed it into what it is today. The other people who lived there, all had their own stories of how they got there. The ones that particularly resonated with me were the ones who left their full time jobs to come live a new life in Langkawi.

They talked about how liberated they felt from their old lives, they were living the way they wanted.

Living in their world for a few days made me feel like that old man watching the young man on the beach. We struggle and work so hard in Singapore all in the name of creating a better life for ourselves. Meanwhile, these people arrived in paradise and figured it out.

I wonder if I could do what they did. But then I think about all the things I’d have to give up like earning a salary in Singapore dollar, living in a metropolitan city where career opportunities are much more abundant. What if I failed and ran out of money? Would I really be better off?

But how many of these concerns are actually valid? How many of them are worries that have just been built inside my head as a result of living here? I keep thinking that there will be a price to pay, but maybe it’s just an illusion, maybe we can just be free.

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