As a co-living company operating spaces all over the world, one thing that we aim to do — but will never be perfect at — is try to foster an integrated sense of community. That means bringing locals and Roam members from elsewhere into a different kind of cultural exchange that is distinct from what’d you experience as a short-term traveler.
To reiterate, we will never get this completely right. That’s because it is a continually evolving process, not a fixed or permanent outcome.
But when we set up our first space in Bali, Indonesia, we tried to do a number of things to establish a certain tone.
Bali has undergone an enormous economic and cultural transition over the last generation from a primarily subsistence agricultural economy to a more services-centric and tourism-based one. That has pulled the younger generation out of farming and arts and crafts into low-wage service labor.
It has also resulted in the rapid depletion of agricultural land, as ricefields are transformed into villas for foreigners. There are certainly benefits to this, as Bali has become wealthier and full with economic opportunity in a way that poorer Indonesian islands to the East have not. Still, it’s important to be mindful of the costs — because some of them are irreparable.
Ubud, where our first space is located, has attracted artists and creatives abroad for more than a century. Painters like Walter Spies and writers like Miguel Covarrubias catalogued and popularized Balinese dance and culture to Western audiences beginning in the 1930s and 40s.
But in recent years through events like the Bali Spirit Festival and mainstream books and movies like, “Eat, Pray, Love,” thousands of foreigners have moved into Ubud at an unprecedented rate. Much of the spiritual scene in Ubud appears to have absolutely nothing to do with traditional Balinese spiritual practices.
Graeme MacRae, an Australian anthropologist who has been studying the island since the late 1970s, said a kind of budaya tembok, or “a culture of walls” is emerging in the new Bali.
First, they come because they like Bali. Then, they buy a ricefield and build a villa on it. Then they need a swimming pool, so they buy another ricefield for that. Then they are worried because people can see them swimming, so they build a tembok (wall), then another even higher one, because now there is another villa on the other side. Then they complain because there is not enough water and all the ricefields are gone and there is nothing but tembok everywhere.
MacRae says this can be traced to the popularization of the freestanding villa. Before villas started popping up all over the island, foreigners had few options except for staying with families in their compounds and they had to learn the local language in order to communicate.
In e-mails he traded with us, MacRae told us, “Bali seems to be heading into a multi-faceted crisis — environmental, economic and socio-political. The digital nomad explosion is not really the problem, but neither are they the solution — more like a symptom.”
In building Roam, we’re definitely aware that we could be part of this trend. But we can also work in ways that mitigate it.
In Ubud, we took a newly-opened hotel, and adapted it from an extremely itinerant place where tourists move in and out for a few days at a time, and made it into a more durable space where people live for longer periods or month-to-month.
We’ve tried to alter the normal service relationship in a hotel in a number of ways. We encourage local families and staff to teach Roam members about local culture and crafts from making offerings to running classes on dance and painting. It’s also a way for them to earn extra income.
One the first night that new members came in this month, they went with a handful of Balinese families to an odalan ceremony, which celebrates the anniversary of a local temple.
“Au temple, ce soir. Une rencontre magique. Je lui ai parlé de femme à femme, puis j’ai appris qu’elle avait 16 ans. Je…www.instagram.com
Then, when the island’s annual Day of Silence, Nyepi, came up, we had a sit-down with everyone staying with us so that some of our younger Balinese friends and partners could explain the meaning, history and etiquette around the holiday.
When we held speaker nights, we tried to encourage a mix of both local and foreign speakers. At one of our last pecha kucha nights, one of our members, Dave Cornthwaite, invited two teenage, half-Balinese girls, Melati and Isabel, to speak about their island-wide campaign to end the use of plastic bags, as Bali is somewhat infamous for its lack of waste management strategies.
The problem though with a ‘TED Talk’-like format is that it can be very intimidating for local Balinese, even though their culture is actually very theatrical.
In local banjars, there are performances throughout the year where community members memorize and perform roles from stories or tales that are centuries old. But being asked to speak in front of a crowd of foreigners in a language that isn’t your native tongue is daunting. So even though we’ve invited lots of locals, we’ve had lots of Balinese friends of Roam shy away from even being spectators.
Basically, the best way to run an integrated event is to have someone Indonesian or more specifically, Balinese, run it. Finding the local community leaders who can attract big, mixed crowds of foreigners and Indonesians and Balinese isn’t easy. But it’s certainly possible.
A Javanese capoeira and yoga teacher, Sugeng Madeira, has held enormous rodas on our roof, and he’s able to attract a crowd that is about fifty-fifty local and foreigner. (Obviously, capoeira is not traditionally Indonesian or Balinese, but cultural exchange and appropriation goes in many directions.)
Lastly, we’ve also acquired some learnings. We’d love to encourage service and volunteerism among our members. But visa regulations appear to be a risk for members who are on tourist visas.
For example, we expect to attract lots of knowledge workers with software skills through Roam — some of them will be your prototypical digital nomads. But if we want to set up a relationship where they can teach or skill-share with locals, we need to ensure they have the right visas.
We’ve had local non-profits tells us that even for basic tutoring, we’d be putting members at risk if they’re not on an appropriate social visa. We need to figure out a better solution for this in the future.
If you were living in a different part of the world, or alternately, if we were to open a Roam location in your hometown, what would you want to see in it?
We’re always looking to be challenged to do more.