Expatriation, Art, and Spirit

Standing on the edge of the highway I held a sign that said “London”. It was cold, early spring, and I was hitching from Newcastle. I was nineteen, and the year, nineteen sixty-four. At a pub that evening a Canadian guy told me, “You know, once it starts it never stops.” He was right and I knew it even then.

Expatriation is an inevitability for certain people. People with prolonged expatriate experiences due to work move through well-known stages of adaption: the honeymoon of excitement at a new place, the disappointment as the downside is revealed, and the final accommodation to it all. Eventually, surely, they go home. And what happens then? Most just carry on where they left off in their communities but others have a hard time readjusting.

We all know about “roots” and what that means in a personal way to each of us. Back then, at age nineteen, I shook up those roots, and if they were not yet dislodged, they also never returned to their original condition.

Restlessness attends the expatriate personality. What else could make a person leave for a strange place without friends and without knowing the language or the culture? That same drive sent Leif Erikson, Christopher Columbus and many others on their way into the unknown. It is in the human personality to want to know what is over the next hill but some people experience that tendency as a deep need.

Tetuan Dreaming - Ricker Winsor
Tetuan Dreaming by Ricker Winsor

I don’t even like traveling and I never had an interest in being a tourist. Yet here I am, having lived all over the world and now settling in Indonesia. I returned to my home in the northeast of the USA more times than I can count and every time I left again, not because I didn’t like it but because all my other foreign experience tugged at my heart and called me into action almost in spite of myself. It just seems so much more interesting “out there” wherever that may be.

Someone back home said, “Oh, I would never move somewhere I didn’t have friends”. But the expat knows that there are good people everywhere and new friends waiting for you. They may not be the old friends that are so precious but they are good friends and could be even better friends if you would only hang around, something that is always a question mark both for you and for them.

And up comes the down side. After yanking on those roots hard and long, they wither and die. You find yourself “out there” on your own. Back home the friends are huddled together around a fire of communal warmth and you are like the wolf circling from the bushes, wishing you could get closer. You are different and everyone knows it. And when you are with them they talk about their normal lives without much interest in hearing your foreign stories. And why? Because your stories have no connection with their lives or their experience.

Loneliness is a part of the expatriate condition and it is part of the artist condition. My leaving home had everything to do with two things: wanting to know myself better and wanting to know how I would meet the world and react to it. Those two ideas are central to the artist personality, the artist mind and character. When you are home with the people you have known your whole life and with the burden of their expectations, no matter how benign, you are in a box. An artist wants out of the box.

At first, I didn’t know what kind of an artist I wanted to be or even what that meant. I had the impulse and I had a few notions. I thought I might want to be a writer and doesn’t a writer need something to write about? That was part of it. What I did not know then was that I had plenty to write about even if I went nowhere and that the endless rambling and questing for new experience could actually be a distraction from that. But those ideas are distant from youth; they become clear with age.

Becoming an artist is a process and becoming an expatriate is a process; both can have a great deal in common. It is important to distinguish between the working expat who always has home in mind and the expat who can’t go home and knows it, the one who has accepted that as a fact. And there is a distinction too between the person who enjoys art of one kind or another as a hobby and the artist who builds his life around it and makes it the priority.

Recently a friend, who is a writer and a painter like me, published yet another book. They are good books but without getting the readership they deserve which is typical of the artist plight. In his book he tried to steer aspiring artists from that path with advice about a “practical major” in college so that they might have a “ practical career”. As a younger man I might have seen this as a betrayal of the artist quest and calling but as an older man I sympathize completely. The artist life is very tough, its rewards measured against poverty and loneliness, two heavyweight enemies.

Expatriation also cuts out its pound of flesh when you leave your friends for the third or fourth time, friends who depend on you for friendship, company, leadership, many things. They tire of your inconstancy and turn their backs. And who can blame them? This is the steep price paid for the expat’s new experiences and for a deepening or one’s artist life. And yet, for me, there was never much of a choice and I am sure that is true for many others like me.

I grew up with a lot of privilege and luxury and all it did was bore me and make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. For me there was no comfort in materialism. And if poverty has been a burden, at least it has finally made me appreciate what I do have which was not the case earlier on.

These lives, the artist life and the expatriate life, are ways beyond the metaphoric box in which most of us live. They point in a spiritual direction toward spiritual goals, and they are part of what ultimately is a spiritual path. To accept oneself as an artist, to accept oneself as a true citizen of the world, requires a deep exhalation, an acceptance, a letting go. When the supports of a “normal” life are taken away, humility, surrender, and trust fall on you whether you want them or not. Trust? What if you refuse to trust, just cannot? Then come the plagues of panic, terror, and depression.

But trust in what? Something, something to discover for you alone. Carl Sagan, referring to “that pale blue dot” of our earth from space said, “Every saint and sinner who has ever lived has lived on that mote of dust in a sunbeam.” Carl Sagan did not have a particular religious affiliation but his perception of creation, of our planet, our life, speaks of humility and awe. Ernest Hemmingway, in his short Nobel laureate speech said this about being a writer, “for he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Ricker Winsor
May 2015
Bali, Indonesia

About Ricker Winsor

Ricker Winsor studied American and Russian Literature at Brown University and Painting and Drawing at Rhode Island School of Design where he received an MFA. His new book, The Painting of My Life, was just released by Mud Flat Press; his first book is Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. Both are available on Amazon. His essays and short fiction have been published at “Reflets du Temps” in France and at Empty Mirror Books. Ricker is an artist and writer living in Bali, Indonesia. Visit him at rickerwinsor.com, on Facebook and Twitter.

Wild Things in Our Indonesian Neighborhood

          We live in a Balinese neighborhood with Balinese people who have home temples, who make offerings every day. One can hear gamelan music and mantras, vendors, kids crying, laughing, playing, cats yeolling, motorbikes and piano lessons making their presence known all at the same time. It is a very rich fabric.

          And despite one house next to the other, there is a natural world that is also complicated and rich. In this part of the world, a small garden, even a few square meters of grass and plants, can be home to a variety of wild things. Adding to this is a system of drains on either side of the street, drains for household water if not sewage, drains to catch the monsoon rains. And these drains support a lot of life.

jalan kami_web

          Our maid, Tutus, found a snake skin shed which led to a snake hunt, which, unfortunately, led to a dead snake. I like snakes and might have been a herpetologist if things had worked out for me as a young naturalist. I don’t think I have ever killed a snake before, but the snake was in a hard-to-reach place and with 400 species thereabouts and me not knowing them all, and some of them, many actually, poisonous, and with cries of “kill,kill,kill” coming from my wife and Tutus, well I didn’t have much choice. The snake below is a garter snake since it was very similar to our visitors and since I haven’t been able to make a definitive identification yet.

garter snake

          This led to a Stygian effort by my wife, Jovita,  to close up any possible crack through which a snake might enter the house. I would say she might have overdone it but snakes scare her as they do many people in this part of the world where a lot of people die of snakebite. Worldwide the number of fatalities is about 100,00 so I heard on Nat. Geo Wild just yesterday. I think there are more than 50,000 in India alone as I remember, and I don’t know about Indonesia, which has spitting cobras, many, and king cobras too.

          So I was surprised to see a few days later, in the evening as we were closing up the house, another snake wriggling across the floor. By this time I had looked in my books and found that the snakes coming in were classified as “water snakes” of a certain species. They were like our garter snakes, which, by the way, swim very well and like to swim and also swim under water as I have seen myself. I thought I might deal with this snake without Jovita knowing, but she pays attention to everything so I knew that wouldn’t work. So I said there was a snake and for her to go in the other room since I didn’t want her to see it. It was about two feet long and had squirmed behind a trash can and was hiding there. The squirming and wriggling were caused by the fact of the smooth tile floor upon which a snake finds very little traction. It is an awkward situation for them who move so efficiently in their proper environment. Anyway, I put on a glove and quickly grabbed him and let him go in the garden.

          And then, as a tracker, I wanted to figure out how they got in, why they got in, and the first clue was that they were both found in the same area. Sure enough, at the end of the tile baseboard there was a gap just before it hit the door casing, a place you really cannot see, and sure enough there was a hole there. Underneath the house, in the crumbling slab upon which it was built, there must be a world of worms, frogs, toads, mice, rats and so forth and I expect the snakes followed a mouse trail since the hole most probably was created by a mouse or rat and those creatures use the same trails time after time, which is one of the things you need to know if you want to trap them. And then the snakes were stuck inside.

          In my house in Washington State years ago I found a similar rat hole. What amazed me at the time, and now again, was the location of the hole in exactly the only place where it would not be noticed. It had been there for a long time and so had this one. How do they figure that out? Do they scout and draw maps, have a meeting? Honestly, it is a mystery because there were not any  failed attempts in evidence, attempts from which they might have learned. I plastered up the hole.

          One more snake story and this is a special one. Last year not far from our house, where the huge Hyatt Hotel is being renovated on extensive grounds, a security guard was killed by a python early in the morning. That area has a lot of open land, open jungle would be a good description since you can walk through most of it, but there is plenty of habitat, hiding places. Snakes need a place to hide and something to eat. That is all. A snake big enough to kill a security guard is not eating mice. But there are uncountable street dogs having puppies all the time and also cats and kittens. I expect that accounts for a major portion of a big snake’s diet.

           They claimed the snake was about eighteen feet, but a ten foot python could kill a man. He tried to catch the snake; it had been seen before. People were around but didn’t know what to do, were scared. I learned as a young herpetologist that the key is the tail. It is the anchor and if you dislodge that the rest will follow. Nobody knew that. Few people do. Constrictors kill in an efficient way. When you exhale they tighten the grip until you can’t inhale any more. That can take a few iterations but not many. What they do is quite spectacular actually. Here is a link to the story which was covered worldwide. The snake escaped unharmed.


Another fabulous and unexpected reptile in the neighborhood defying all expectation is this:

water monitor

It’s a water monitor and they are a very serious lizard. We were driving home down our little street in mid afternoon when we saw one crossing in front of us. He went into the neighbors’ dooryard as if he were going to borrow a cup of sugar or a basket of rats. That would be more accurate. He was about two feet long, big enough but not like the one we saw swimming in a canal at Serangan Island near where we live, a place that is mostly undeveloped. When I saw that one I just saw the head and it was about the size of a beaver. I wasn’t sure what it was but we followed along in the car and then he decided to evade and clambered up the bank and into the underbrush making powerful striding movements, his big claws digging in. That animal was all of five feet long, maybe more. They kill anything they can overpower, a living dinosaur and very impressive.

          Dogs are everywhere in Bali. The Hindu Balinese love dogs but don’t take care of them. It is a generalization to say that, but it is mostly true. They let them roam without any control and after a while they are out in the world fending for themselves. Or they keep them in a cage all day not minding that they bark incessantly and are miserable. They have puppies and they dump the females in another neighborhood and keep the males. That is how we got our special dog- a real winner. She and her sister were abandoned that way and a man was about to throw them against a wall to kill them when our kind-hearted neighbor, Haney, rescued them. I think he and his wife now have about seven dogs at their house next door. Street dogs do quite well actually. Some are very impressive. The DNA is high test for the simple reason that if they are not smart and resourceful and tough too, they die.

          I took the picture below. The black one on the right is totally free, a man of the street. He is very impressive, strong, well-proportioned, and resourceful. He and his friends roam  late at night and go through the garbage making a big mess.

street dog

          Because of rabies, some years ago, thousands of dogs were eliminated by the government here in Bali. In Java it is not a problem. There are few dogs and no loose ones. Muslims don’t like dogs. There is something in the Koran about that. They like to eat them in some regions though, buying them in markets. This year there have already been ten human deaths from rabies and over a hundred dogs diagnosed, including puppies, and two diagnosed by our veterinarian who is my age and specializes in disease passed from animals to people. Another culprit is the fruit bat, probably because people eat them too. They fly overhead in the evening looking like a B52 bomber or a black kite that escaped.

Fruit Bat

          This fruit bat or “flying fox” is one of the coolest things you could ever see. I love them but they are blamed for being “reservoirs” for a number of diseases fatal to humans including Ebola, Hendra, Marburg and others.  The big ones, and  again there are numerous species of them, can have a wing span of five and a half feet and weigh three and a half pounds. Seeing one in flight at night is unforgettable.

          In the arthropod group , and finding their way into our bathrooms via the drains, are millipedes and centipedes. They are not dangerous but are  hard, tough, and a little scary. Centipedes can bite.

centipede millepede

          There is another character, my favorite of all, like the Chickadee for me in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, an animal that peps up your life and is a companion somehow. That is the gecko. Geckos come in all shapes and sizes. Around our neighborhood they are small, from tiny to about four or five inches. In the “country” I have seen them at  ten inches and weighing in at over a pound. I think I remember there are about one hundred species. They are in the house and especially in action outside when the garage light is on attracting flying insects. That is how they get most of their meals. They can walk the walls and the ceilings, everywhere. Scientists are studying how their feet and toes grip so well.  They look almost like people, some of them little homunculi, eyes, a head, little feet, hands. It is a pleasure to have them in your life.


          There is a lot more but I don’t want to go on indefinitely. What is so interesting to me is how much wildlife there is right in a densely populated city. This is important to me as my nature friends know. I am not deprived. And in Surabaya, where we have our new house, things will get even more interesting because of a lot of reasons. The one to mention now is that in Surabaya there is an extensive system of canals draining the giant flat plane of the city, moving water to the big river, the Mas, and into the sea at the port of Surabaya. Those canals, called kali, are prime habitat for a lot of life and are within walking distance of the house. 

Manyar House_web

Above, our new house- 2000 square feet of house inside plus garden,  3 bedrooms, 11 foot ceilings, and big painting studio…. We may have finally made it into the middle class due only to the power of prayer and the power of the almighty US dollar…..

Below, Lengkeng, or Longan. I have one started from seed doing well. Also, I have an artichoke growing. Lengkeng is candy on a tree…


Bougainvillea, the heart of the tropics, is everywhere and in every color imaginable and not imaginable..


The evenings in the tropics are special… rw

Sanur Beach_web