Bali is a popular travel destination, aptly named Island of the Gods. It’s the top tourist destination in Indonesia, and people seek luxury and decadence with beaches, food, massage, surfing, scuba diving and yoga. Locals are incredibly kind, gentle and welcoming; and foreigners frequently remark they have landed in paradise. Like me, many tourists come to Bali on vacation and quickly decide to move here, relishing our sublime existence on this island.
However, paradise is relative and many Balinese still live without access to clean water, electricity or flush toilets. The average income is $1,569 per year. Eighty percent of Bali’s revenue is dependent on tourism, which also means the cost of living for locals is rapidly rising.
In the past 20 years, the number of orphanages in Bali has doubled with over 70 orphanages housing thousands of children. Most of the children have a living parent, but are too poor to care for their family. Parents want the best for their children, and orphanages provide a free education (school fees, uniforms and books are often too expensive for poor families), meals and accommodation.
I recently visited a Muslim orphanage, Panti Asuhan Yappenatim, unique since Bali is 93 percent Hindu. A friend arranged the visit, bringing donations she had raised at her birthday. The orphanage was founded in 1985 and expanded over the years to include an on-site school and is now home to 150 children, ages 6 to 19. The government provides .25 per child per day (about $100/year), and only for 30 children, so they raise donations for the balance.
Children immediately swarm us and many girls greet us with the respectful greeting from children to adults, grasping my hand and raising it to their forehead with their heads slightly bowed. This simple gesture immediately touches to me.
One of the older students asks to accompany us and be our tour guide. Fahri is 17 years old and from a neighboring island, Lombok. A few years ago, he accompanied his father to Bali seeking work, and moved into the orphanage after his father returned home. Most students see their families once a year for a Muslim holiday, but when I ask if he goes home (assuming he doesn’t due to the travel expense), he stretches out his arms at the orphanage and replies, “This is my family now.”
The orphanage sent Fahri to Java for two months for intensive English language classes and it’s obvious he’s an ambitious young soul. I ask him about his plans for work, he gets a thoughtful look and says, “My dream is…” He takes a long pause and I’m contemplating his options, doctor, lawyer, scientist, silently pleading he doesn’t say housekeeper! … and he responds simply, “A teacher.” It’s the perfect answer. And then he asks me for my Facebook name.
We walk into the kitchen and inhale the delicious aromas. Fruit and vegetables are piled onto the floor and we discover they don’t have a refrigerator. We are astounded, 150 children and no refrigerator. The dishwashing station is a concrete vat blooming with mildew. But the kids are happy being stacked eight deep in their dorm rooms, staff relating they only recently upgraded from dirt floors to ceramic tiles.
After the tour, we sit down in the office to make our donation. We sign the log, marking our names, address and amount. In Bahasa Indonesian, the staff member acknowledges our donation, restating our names and addresses and formally accepts the gift. Then he switches to Arabic and for the next five minutes offers us prayers. I sit silently, overwhelmed by the entire experience. Letting his blessings wash over me and feeling grateful for another day in Bali.