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Interview with Expat Family Living in Bali During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Back in November 2019, we spoke to the Zubak family  about their preparations on moving to Bali.


On the 16 December 2019, after all their hard work and planning, they finally made their dreams came true and moved to Bali!


So now it is coming up to 5 months living in Bali and there is so much to talk about! There have been lots of little challenges along the way, but they have settled in so nicely and are loving their new life.


Of course, one of the biggest challenges has come in the form of the worldwide pandemic, Coronavirus or COVID-19. Living overseas during these times can be unsettling, especially for new-time expats.


This is a special catch up with Rachel who will share how she and her family have settled in and what it is like to live in Bali during COVID-19.


What was a typical day for you in Bali prior to COVID-19?

This question fills me with much sadness! As we were in temporary short-term accommodation for the first 2 months, whilst we looked for our villa, we actually just felt like we were finding our Bali flow; that the ‘settling in’ tasks were almost complete and we were finding our new ‘normal’ as expats in Bali. We had this flow for around only 4 weeks and then, sadly, it all changed without warning.


However, a typical weekday before COVID-19 would start with school drop off at 8.10am. I would then ride to gym in Petetinget to train and work out for an hour or so, a trip of around 15 minutes on my motor scooter from school and home.


Depending if Chris was home or away for work, the remainder of the day varied somewhat for us both, however. It would be spent doing various leisure activities or home tasks; often a coffee date or lunch with new friends or a phone coffee date with friends or family from Australia.


As we were still in the early days of settling in though, there were often things we were needing to buy, do or set up for our home, so shopping or investigative trips and bank and real estate visits were still frequent.


Achieving such simple tasks just seem to take all day in Bali! It would not be unusual for me to wait in a queue at the bank for an hour just to withdraw large down payments for our villa for example… ‘Bali Time’ is real!


If Chris was home, we might have gone out for lunch and enjoy some quality time together on a ‘date day’ now and then.

The Zubak Family, Rachel and Chris, enjoying a Balinese lunch-date.
Lunch date at Silk Road Whole Foods

I had enrolled into Bahasa lessons at the school and so once a week I would also be ‘in school’! With more time on my hands, I had also just launched a new website and blog, Little.Miss.IBU and I had hopes of frequently writing and posting about our travels and life as expats.


We would almost always go to the beach on a Friday afternoon to swim, kick a soccer ball, chill out, take in the world, and watch those dreamy sunsets! Often this would roll into an easy dinner out on the way home… we all loved this weekly event!

The Zubak family at the beach watching a Bali sunset.
Our favourite time of the day – watching a Bali sunset!

On weekends, we would look for different family events that may be happening like markets and kids’ activities often held at various venues. We would usually always have a beach outing on weekends and Seminyak beach is our favourite hang.


Sundays were often spent as a day out exploring, if not a beach day it was a ‘Sunday drive’ on scooters… a swim, a walk, exploring a new village or enjoying a new beach club.


I am sure living in a foreign country during COVID-19 has been stressful, how have all you managed it?

It got to a point where I did not want to read any social media posts as the future for Bali seemed completely doomed and Bali is always presented in Australian media in this dim light.


So, instead, I chose to best arm myself with proactive information to best assist my family in case one of us did contract the disease. I joined local social media groups whose focus was on group action in support of Bali and its people, combined with supportive information for expats.


It has been and is still quite an obscure situation in Bali and many question the real statistics of the Coronavirus, which are very low, and the government’s position in being honest and transparent in sharing information… however, in other ways the action of the government and in particular the local Banjar is quite strong in implementing preventative spread measures.


In a nutshell, we try to arm ourselves by remaining informed, but our best defense is simply by staying home (which we are 90% of the week) and avoiding being close to others, in enclosed areas especially. We continue to pay our staff salary, however, we discussed with our beautiful house keeper, Komang, for her safety and ours, that she should not work for the time being until the situation changes.


A selfie of Rachel Zubak in a Balinese street, wearing her facemask during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
My morning walk in my neighbourhood during COVID19

We all wear masks whenever we are outdoors, as it is a mandatory requirement in Bali, have increased our personal hygiene procedures on returning home from outings and are liberal with sanitiser when out in public.


How are the Balinese coping with the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you have any concerns for their welfare?

With regards to Balinese contracting and being vigilant against the virus, it is difficult to tell. I think the message has started to get through as everyone is wearing masks thanks to the enforcement of local Banjar. Group gatherings are banned in many common community areas and beaches are all closed. There is local information in the media and COVID-19 preventative signage line the streets everywhere.

However, I do not think that they understand the full context that this virus is extremely contagious and can kill! That staying home and being distanced from others is vital to avoid its spread. The Balinese have not completely grasped the concept of social distancing, as we often observe them going about their days as usual, sitting in groups in shop fronts or around the Bakso carts eating, crammed tight in traffic at traffic lights and some families live in communal style living arrangements. Just this morning, I passed around 25 local men all sitting working to prepare woven wares for a religious ceremony being held tomorrow! No masks and certainly no distance between them!


However, the biggest impact on the local community is the enormous loss of jobs and families are now already struggling to feed themselves. With a reported 80% of income generated by tourism, the on-flow effect of Bali being “closed” is so big on the Balinese community and I fear most that the timeframe that people will be without jobs is more than what they can survive.

A handwashing station outside of a Balinese supermarket featuring warnings and recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Hand washing station outside my supermarket to help locals fight the Coronavirus

What do you think will happen to Bali when life goes back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19?

Hopefully Bali can recover back to its former vibrant self, with tourism booming again after the Island has had such a long break from hordes of visitors. But I am not confident that this will happen in the near future. I think it will take many, many months and much time to slowly return to any form of normal, especially in tourist hotspot areas.


I have no doubt that large hotels, resorts and airlines will run attractive deals to entice visitors and perhaps many of the large chains will stagger accommodation properties and not open all locations at once until momentum becomes more stable for tourism.

A near empty Jungle Bali Pool Club, with only a single swimmer.
No crowds at the once popular Jungle Bali Pool Club

A recent article I read advised that the Indonesian Tourism Minister had a forecast plan that included a more immediate focus on local tourism within the coming months, as soon as June. However, for international tourism, such as from Australia, this may not return or become a focus until 2021.


Currently, however, in a bid to stop the huge annual exodus of the Muslim community traveling back to their local villages and family celebrations during Ramadan, all local and international travel within Indonesia is banned, via sea, road or airplanes, until 1st June.

What is the vibe at the moment in Bali? It must be very strange to see such a busy tourist destination so quiet.

The prime tourist areas of Legian, Kuta, Seminyak and Nusa Dua are like ghost towns and it is very sad to see the extreme contrast in these areas. Large hotels, resorts and tourist operators, restaurants, local markets, money changers… everything is all closed and the streets are eerily silent without hardly any traffic or people.


In areas where people reside and live, there is a definite reduction in motor scooters and traffic, life has certainly changed, however it is still very much ongoing. Trading hours of shops and cafes has reduced with most cafes and restaurants, if they are still open, are operating under strict COVID-19 protocol for dining in or are solely trading on take away only. Many shops and retail, however, are simply closed.

A previously bustling street in Seminyak, Bali, is now empty of traffic or pedestrians due to the COVID-19 Restrictions.
Once bustling street in Seminyak is now a ghost town during the Coronavirus

The protocol to enter shops or businesses has changed dramatically as it is now common practice to have your temperature taken, be sprayed with hand sanitiser or hands washed and encouraged to keep masks on to gain entry. My weekly supermarket has even gone to the extreme of having shoppers walk through a ‘disinfectant spay station’ on entry!


We have been encouraged to ‘stay at home’ for around 4 weeks now and, just in the last week, we have noticed that slowly many popular restaurants and shops that were closed, are now opening again albeit under restricted operations.


Local village Banjar presence is frequent, patrolling and checking on retail shops, stopping traffic at intersections with non-maskers being advised to follow the mandatory rule. Initially some Police and Banjar were supportive by handing out masks, but a recent social media post saw Banjar ‘fining’ people who were not wearing masks by having to pay with bags of rice and also by having to do push-ups on the street!

All beaches, parks and community areas are closed, which is very frustrating, as it leaves nowhere for people to get outside, in the open, away from others to exercise, swim or surf.


This combined with the reduction in local road traffic however has seen a resurgence in walkers, joggers and cyclists in village streets, which is a very rare sight, but quite lovely to see!

A water drum with signs in English and Bahasa advising locals to wash hands before and after shopping.
These are outside literally every Warung (local eatery)

Tell us about some of the early challenges you faced once you arrived in Bali? It even started on your flight over!

YES! Our departure flight from Brisbane was cancelled after around 11 hours of us waiting at the airport from 4am. After checking in, we watched our flight boarding time constantly change by half hour increments, which was extremely challenging with 2 active boys in tow!


Our flight was rescheduled the next day, however it was now via Sydney and so not the easy direct flight we had originally booked.

The Zubak family’s two sons, Hudson and Baxter, ready for their flight to Bali.
4am kick off and all smiles – little did we know what delays were about to happen!

With regards to our move, once in Bali it was lots of little things that made life trying after we arrived.


SIM Cards and Phones in Bali

Getting a local SIM card is easy enough and very cheap but understanding how it works is another thing, with the app and information, text, details all in Bahasa and it’s quite a different system to utilise than what is known and familiar.

Balinese Bank Accounts

Setting up local banking accounts was, again, easy enough, however it is extremely frustrating and stressful to make changes to any of your Australian/home country banking accounts, or any utilities for that matter, when security verification codes are sent to your former (AUS) mobile number which you no longer have access to!

Was it hard to find a Villa in Bali?

Finding a villa was probably one of the most frustrating and disappointing tasks of moving to Bali! Talking with new friends, it is well understood that finding the right villa, in the right location, at the right price was almost impossible and was the most time-consuming chore.


Sadly, many villas are often not as they present online in reality! This is very annoying and deceiving. Sometimes they have been vacant for a while and so are completely dirty with obvious wear, and have been let go with over grown gardens… yet prices are still set at a premium, without much flexibility to negotiate by owners.


What about the Villa itself? Any Challenges?

Another obstacle in finding long-term villa’s is the floor plan layout, as it is common for many Bali homes to be built as separate wings around a common area, like a swimming pool. This is not practical for many families, as the kid’s bedrooms are separate from the main house and/or are often not close to the parents’ bedroom. The home is not all under the one roof line like we are accustomed to!


There is also the open plan versus closed living arrangements as, again, it’s common for Balinese homes to be all open living, without the ability to close up living areas, so kitchens and lounge areas are all open to the elements. Only the bedrooms are locked by doors and air conditioned. For many expats this is a security and comfort risk that they are not willing to compromise on!


At the end of the day, I commonly hear that one of two things frequently happen when expats are looking for villas: they either pay higher prices than they had budgeted on and hoped for to gain their villa ‘must haves’ or this ‘wish list’ is compromised to gain a home within a set budget.

The boys are going to the Canggu Community School. How are they liking it and are you happy with Balinese education?

We could not be happier with our commencement at CCS! Both boys were very enthusiastic to start and as parents you worry how that settling in of a new school environment, making new friendships and a change in curriculum will go.


From day one we all had nothing but positive and welcoming vibes, it was so lovely! There were actually about 40 new kids starting in January with the new year and the school was buzzing with excitement after the school Christmas holidays.


Both Hudson (Year 5) and Baxter (Year 4) love their new school and class teachers; it offers them new subjects and extra-curricular opportunities, a different, more relaxed style of learning, they both made new friends very quickly and still enjoy being a part of this school community.


With regards to the level of education, I would say that both Hudson and Baxter have been placed well in their year levels. They are actually 6 months ahead of the level which they would be currently in Australia, as CCS follows the British curriculum. Therefore, there does seem to be a few gaps and differences in their knowledge and education skill set.


Hudson & Baxter are both challenged by the work level and I feel they are definitely not repeating foundation skills and knowledge, however they are coping well and really enjoying the education at a class level.

What has been your favourite things so far living in Bali?

Just experiencing Bali as life and not a holiday destination has been such a great mind shift, as well as feeling part of an international community. Bali life also just feels more free, relaxed and fun!


It is the little things that bring me the most joy though, like exploring new villages, driving through the green terraced landscapes and witnessing colourful Balinese cultural ceremonies that occur constantly around you that really make me smile!

Tell us about your experience with getting the right visa

Immigration and Visa’s were all very new to me and I do regret arranging Visa’s prior to leaving Australia as it was simply unnecessary and wasted us money!


A ‘rookie error’, which I did not understand fully at the time, was that it would take time for the boys Student Visa’s to be finalised, which is completed entirely by the school.


And I did not understand, at all, that we actually had to go to Singapore and collect them!


Upon moving, I arranged all 3 of us to arrive on Social Tourist Visa’s, where we could have just arrived on a paid VOA (Visa on Arrival) at the airport, which would have been a much cheaper option and have also seen us through to the required timeframe for travel to Singapore to collect the Student Visa’s… this fact of needing to leave Indonesia meant that I then also had to reapply for my Social Visa all over again to also collect in Singapore. Disappointingly, I had only just completed this process 8 weeks earlier in Australia!


It was planned that Chris would simply enter Bali on the Paid VOA each time, as his stays would not exceed the 60-day Immigration limit.

However, we decided to change this plan in February on recommendation of our Visa Agent, to avoid any suspicion or cause for denied entry at immigration!


A Business Visa was arranged, paid and lodged with immigration in Jakarta. The TELEX approval from Jakarta had just come through, requiring Chris’ travel for collection of the Visa in Singapore, however this has now very sadly been lost in the COVID-19 travel bans. TELEX’s have a 60-day expiry for collection at an embassy outside of Indonesia… Chris was not able to collect it in time!

What is it is like living as an expat in Bali?

One of the greatest benefits being expat is meeting new friends who are from countries all around the world! Both boys were surrounded by friends at school who seemed more worldly and almost more mature for their age, as they had many experiences to share of backgrounds from different parts of the world… sports, news, travel; new friends brought many new ideas and daily insights into a world outside of our own.


Secondly, living within a local village as an expat sees us embracing many changes from the norms of Australia. I currently love an early morning walk around Umalas and observing locals starting off their day. Watching farmers as they tend to rice fields and seeing the skills/operations of growing and harvesting rice crops. Watching ladies set up their warungs each morning as customers frequent to buy their morning goods. Buying my fresh fruit and vegetables from the local family run warung on the corner, practicing Bahasa with locals you pass each day, befriending neighbours who live around you, expat and Indonesian. Having knowledge and appreciation for new cultural differences as the ceremonies and religious customs are quite colourful and frequent and have now become part of your world!


Being an expat is quite exciting and very refreshing for your spirit!

What do you still miss back in Australia?

Family would be the biggest element that we all miss, as we now build regular family connections via online video calls, emails, messages and GIFs! Communication with immediate family is regular and in many ways we talk/communicate more frequently than when we lived 20 mins away! However, on significant events and milestones like birthdays the distance is definitely intensified.


We all also miss the availability of many favourite staple foods from Australia. However, to date, I have had a few ‘care packages’ brought via friends visiting Bali on holidays and so have not yet run out of these now luxury items!


One small thing that I do really miss however, is the simple joy of sitting with a coffee and reading the weekend paper!

What advice do you have for other families making the move to Bali?

Simply just to research thoroughly and reach out to any Bali expats to seek advice, as they are your best source of current knowledge and experience.

And really understand the visa and immigration requirements suitable for your family!


Also discuss as a family and know your “why”… why Bali and why are you moving?


Moving overseas is a very expensive exercise and there are always unexpected and unknown curve balls being an expat with situations arising that your research can not prepare you for. There may be bumpy roads ahead. Knowing and remembering your “why”, may help to smooth the road!


This move has totally not been the fairy tale that we had hoped for. We have been challenged immensely, by this virus especially, many opportunities and dreams have been lost and no one could predict or prepare for that!


The Batu Bolong Beach in Canggu, Bali.
Exploring Batu Bolong Beach, Canggu

Our future moving forward is sadly very uncertain and we currently take it day by day, week by week.


Remembering our ‘why’ helps me to feel grateful that we are here in Bali and ensures that we still make the most of our time here. To recognise the small positives of our new world like taking short family outings on our motor scooters, finding that elusive beach entrance that is still open and having fully stocked supermarket shelves without the chaos and panic buying of other countries… even during a global pandemic, as we now homeschool while continuing paying private school fees, there are things to be thankful for!


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