Ubud is the spiritual center of Bali. Tucked inland and uphill from the beach bars that advertise dollar beers and cocktails served in plastic cups, and surrounded by idyllic rainforests and rice paddies, Ubud hosts a more enlightened traveler. You can tell because of the signs, advertisements, and fliers around the city with notices of spiritual healers, yoga retreats, a Freedom from the Ego three-day intensive seminar (5.3 million rupee, in case you're interested), aura cleansings, not to mention the cold-pressed juice and raw vegan gelato shops.
It's not really a surprise that spirituality has been commodified, or that it's been turned from something you used to renounce all personal property for and spend your life pursuing into something you can do for ten days before you go back to your job as an accounts manager. But what is a surprise is how quickly Ubud was transformed from a small, artsy town in south-central Bali to a unifier of all the yoga demographics, with its white-lady run studios and tech shared work spaces and artisanal taco stands and sacred forest where you can watch with amusement as monkeys bite Westerners who try to coerce them into their selfies.
Bali's beaches have long been the preferred destination of Australians looking for a place to get drunk and high and fucked, but Ubud has always been more of a cultural center, a place where artists around the world would learn from Indonesian artisans, work, and find a little peace amid the stunningly beautiful setting. Then, in 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love brought Ubud into the mainstream as a spiritual hotspot for finding yourself after a failed relationship, and what followed was a surge of development. She accelerated a process already in motion, but her descriptions of Ubud as a place of healing and awakening sparked countless pilgrimages. People started to come to Bali not just for a sunny retreat, but to live the good life.
In 2014, the BBC reported on the influx of Western tech workers into Bali, there for the beautiful landscapes, the cheap cost of living, and vague ideas about how mindfulness and meditation can increase corporate productivity. Designers, consultants, app developers, writers, artists, and other entrepreneurs increasingly unleashed from geographic work centers are free to live wherever they please. They cluster, then, in cheap places of great beauty (Bali, Costa Rica) or cultural centers (Barcelona, Berlin).
As someone who has lived this cosmopolitan life, dragging my laptop and suitcase around the world as I rented apartments in and worked from Berlin, Bucharest, Kolkata, and others, I have experienced the logistical and administrative fatigue that accompanies it: scoping apartment listings in languages you don't understand, trying to make your way around town with mystifying public transit systems, recreating social circles from scratch at every new place.
I have experienced the logistical and administrative fatigue that accompanies living a cosmopolitan life.
Start-ups and apps have been developed to profit off this growing population, with AirBnB and Roomorama for housing, Uber for transport, and Squad and Tinder Social for community, and many of them have been followed by local political chaos; accusations of causing housing shortages, gentrification, and labor exploitation; and horror stories by users and contractors alike. It also creates a chaotic experience for the travelers, needing to check twenty different apps to see which service has made its way to Italy, which ones have more than three users in Buenos Aires. It seemed likely that a start-up would eventually appear to service every need by the contemporary cosmopolitan client, providing housing, social, and entertainment needs for the weary wanderer worldwide.
Enter Roam. It’s not only a local co-living and co-working space centrally located in Ubud between a vegetarian restaurant and a luxury spa; Roam is a whole lifestyle. Pay your weekly rent of $500 to stay in one of the property’s 24 rooms and one of the 27 staff members will orchestrate an entire wanderlust experience for you, from dropping you into a ready-made community of likeminded cosmopolitans to getting you settled with groceries and transportation. The Ubud Roam, which is located in a former boutique hotel that looks like a workaday apartment complex, is not a standalone, it's one of a network of properties – the others can be found in Miami, Tokyo, and London, with San Francisco and several other cities in development. Roam members are encouraged to pay an amount of rent that also serves as a kind of membership fee and wander from city to city — “come and go as you please” as the website says — taking up residence wherever Roam has a space.
But walking around the neighborhood outside of Roam’s Ubud property, one sees almost exclusively white people. White people in big straw hats and sunglasses, wearing sarongs and carrying yoga mats. I am absolutely one of these white people, here for a few days of calm during a stressful time, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many people who look like me. The Balinese I do see are mostly making the white people their coffee, driving our taxis, hollering at us from the street corner asking if we need a tour guide. The effects mass tourism has on a location have long been discussed, from the cruise-ships full of tourists who descend on Venice every day, leading to environmental degradation and a dwindling population of actual Venetians, or the small Mexican coastal villages that have been transformed into bloated resort towns in just a few years. But the effects here in Ubud are different, as long-term residents who come to Roam don't just stay for 48 hours, take a lot of pictures, eat too much and drink too much, puke into a canal, and then never return.
One could live for years at Roam without actually putting down roots in Bali. With all of your logistical needs taken care of for you, you could go months without even needing to step inside a grocery store, or have a stilted conversation in a foreign language. With a cafe, work spaces, and yoga classes all in house, one struggles to find a reason to step outside, It makes sense these places are for the most part originating from Silicon Valley. It's a bit how Silicon Valley bros live in the Bay Area, with their tinted window Google buses and their apps that outsource their grocery and laundry runs and meal preparation and so on. But in Bali, that way of life is available only to the Westerners, and the people who make that possible are the Balinese service workers. These co-living spaces allow their residents to live in bubbles — one Roam client compared the service to like “being on a spaceship” — where they have a direct impact on Bali, but Bali is not able to have a direct impact on them.
Roam and other services like it — Hubud and Livit are two such competitors in Ubud — are obviously providing valuable infrastructure to a growing population of wandering cosmopolitans, but the inevitable questions arise: how much of that is at the expense of those who were there before? And what obligations do you have to the place where you are living if you aren’t really living there at all?
The first time I met Bruno Haid, the founder and CEO of Roam Co-Living, he came prepared. Between my initial emailed interview request and his answer a few days later he had read one of my books and had scoped me out. He was in New York looking at potential properties, and he suggested we meet for breakfast.
Haid is tall and slender with both a head- and beard-bun. He has a mild Austrian accent and with it he asks penetrating questions about the logistics of my travel experiences and how Roam could have assisted me, and talks eloquently on issues of gentrification, urbanization, labor organization, and the future of work.
His vision is of opening enough properties around the world that one could live entirely within the Roam network. For now the goal is for ten to twelve cities in the near future, including both retreat locations like Bali and more central cities like New York and London. The loneliness of travel, the administrative work of it, he said, could be eliminated. One could move around the world with ease.
That was on full display on the tour of the Ubud facility, given by a young Balinese woman named Fenny Wilriani. Wilriani, who is Roam’s “community ambassador,” used to live in a nearby town but recently moved into Roam herself. As we talk, several residents come over for a friendly chat or to tell her hello. “We want to be part of the community of the neighborhood,” she tells me, explaining the sign that hangs outside advertising a screening of Labyrinth. Anyone is free to come in and join the regular activities scheduled here, from films to workshops.
The place is very appealing. Much of it is open to the elements, and Bali's sticky heat is relieved by the constant breeze. There is a pool, lush greenery, and a stunning view into the hills that surround the city. The residents — mostly American and Canadian judging from the accents — wander between the communal kitchen, the co-working space with its long, glossy communal hardwood tables, and the bar and restaurant. With the size and look of a boutique hotel, the rooms have that same sterility of bleached white sheets and mass produced furniture, but each has a bathtub large enough to keep a dolphin in. It makes my own lodgings on the outskirts of town, a room in a family compound with a bed shrouded in mosquito netting and a tiny kitchen constantly invaded by lizards and ants, look a little sad. One sees the appeal.
There's nothing radically new about Roam; in fact, the set up is a little old-fashioned. Following the Civil War, what were then called apartment hotels popped up in many large cities across America. It was a time of economic instability, and men and women were leaving their rural settings and small towns to seek work in the city. The apartment hotels were set up much like Roam. There were private living quarters with public social and dining areas, and domestic services were shared among the guests. They were stepping stones into life in the city, there to provide an affordable living situation to workers who could not yet afford to set up a house of their own.
But this type of co-living goes even further back than that, to the Medieval era, when Beguine communities created cities-within-cities all over Northern Europe. Up until the 19th century, they housed women who left the countryside to work in new textile mills, creating a friendly living environment for women separated from their families but either not yet married or trying to avoid it altogether. Since industrialization, there have been rootless workers separated from their traditional communities and in need of unique housing set ups.
There's nothing radically new about Roam.
While the Beguine communities were set up by religious institutions, today’s housing market is run by capitalists. While the Catholic Church was concerned the Medieval textile workers would have proper time for contemplation and service, modern day international migrants often live in housing provided by their employers, who are focused only on financial efficiency and profit. There are have been reports all over the world of migrants who came to places like the U.S. to work in agriculture or Dubai to work in construction and who are left in overcrowded, substandard housing, until they are worked often literally to death.
With Ubud Roam's $500 weekly rent, these co-living spaces are taken up less with the economically displaced and more with the entrepreneurial class. I asked Wilriani who the typical Roam client is, and she said it's mostly young people who can work remotely — “You know, app developers, web developers.”
More than 230 million people live in a different country from the one in which they were born, far more than at any other time in history. We come up with different words for the same experience, based on whether these people are undesirable (brown, poor, Muslim) or desirable (white, upper-middle class, European). The undesirables are migrants or refugees, the desirables are expats or cosmopolitans.
The difference is in the level of choice, whether the person is fleeing war or abject poverty, or simply boredom and Brooklyn. Western migrants are often portrayed as being desirable because they come with money, but they come with other baggage, too. If you place a large population of transient workers with a lot of disposable income in an urban area, that area will inevitably change. Businesses with English-speaking workers that cater to the affluent class, like boutiques and coffee shops and juice bars, will flourish while businesses that cater to long-term residents, like hardware stores and shoe repair shops, will be priced out and disappear as property values rise.
I asked Haid if he feels responsible at all to the neighborhoods he builds his properties in. He said he wants neighborhoods to retain their authentic nature and not become homogenized. “In a place like London,” he said, “we try to have partnerships with businesses that have been around for 25, 30 years and include them in our city guides. We have Paul the pie man, whose bakery has been around for a long time, he comes in once a month and he teaches pie making classes. So we try to integrate this. We try to give people a unique local experience.”
But when I ask if Roam takes into consideration the possibility of speeding up the gentrification process of the neighborhoods they build in, he says gentrification is an inevitable process. “[Gentrification] is not necessarily bad. There's a lot of places on the planet that would like to be gentrified,” he said. There is a difference between development and gentrification, as gentrification means the displacement of a local community by a more affluent outside demographic, rather than the influx of money to an already established community. There's also a difference between gentrifying your own country or city and the kind of colonial gentrification that takes place in the global South. Here colonialism is remixed, with money replacing guns as the method and things like an idyllic, exotic setting and local labor replacing rubber and copper as the resources to be stripped.
Haid's statement about the desirability of development is echoed by the Bali tourist guide and driver Dewa Alit. When I asked him if he was ambivalent about the influx of Westerners, he responded, “We are grateful for the money. We can send our children to better schools.” But it's only a certain segment of the population who will benefit from this cash infusion: the English-speaking, the city-dwelling, and those who work in the service industry.
Another driver I spoke to was also happy about the tourist money. “She got some things wrong about Bali,” he told me, meaning Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love's Bali chapter. The traditional mode of living, the intergenerational family compound, presented as the ideal set up in the book, is not beloved by all. “We want our privacy, too. Sometimes it is too much, someone is playing loud music, someone is in the bathroom all of the time,” he said. Tourist money allowed him and his wife to set up their own household separate from the compound, and he was shy about letting me use his name, sheepish about hurting anyone's feelings. It's not just Western money that is part of the colonial gentrification process, then, it is also the Western way of life.
And while many of these cosmopolitans may say they travel in order to meet new people, experience new cultures, and have new experiences, studies have found that these new global elite tend only to encounter other global elites. In a 2000 report issued by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, they found:
When abroad, many respondents tend to interact and socialize with other “globalizers.” … There is a sense in which they inhabit a socio-cultural bubble that is insulated from the harsher differences between national cultures… They are cosmopolitans to be sure, but in ways that are very limited and insular.
“It's a new area, having the whole world at your fingertips,” Haid admits. “This global migratory class that is responsible for a lot of economic development [in the world], just as it's responsible for Trump, as there's this backlash against them.” Haid seems flummoxed about the source of the backlash, other than “racism and nativism.” But there has for centuries been tension between this rootless cosmopolitan class who resists traditional societal structures (like the Beguine women who often worked to avoid getting married and start families, or the American cityfolk who buck the more conservative sexual morality of the rural dwellers) and the more firmly rooted.
That tension is not only about morality, but often merely who is allowed to profit from the new world order. During the Enlightenment, as capital overtook bloodlines to define your place in the societal hierarchy, perennial bitter outsider Rousseau ranted against the worldly elites. “Every restricted society, when it is small and closely unified, alienates itself from the greater whole... Beware of those cosmopolitans who go on distant bookish quests for the duties which they disdain to fulfil[l] in their own surroundings.” The same changes Rousseau saw happening in 18th-century French society are now overtaking much of the world, thanks to the spread of neoliberalism.
There has for centuries been tension between the cosmopolitan class and the more firmly rooted.
Development is accompanied by the breaking apart of traditional society, and that often leads to religious extremism and violent revolt by the vulnerable underclasses, as outlined in Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger: A History of the Present. “[M]ost human beings,” he writes, “temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment.” He continues, “The worldwide dissemination of an individualist [Western] culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite,” in George Santayana's words, “a 'lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence.'” Indeed, the 2002 bombings in Bali by Islamic fundamentalists targeted tourists and the American embassy, and they were conducted by residents of parts of Indonesia that the tourist money and economic development have disrupted more than benefited. More than 200 people died, almost half of them Australians. In 2005, another series of bombings took an additional 20 lives.
The tourist industry continues to put stress on Balinese society, as the island is facing a critical water shortage problem — there are hundreds of hotels and each occupied 4-star hotel room goes through 300 liters per day — and most of the tourist industry is run by international investors, including the proposed Trump International Hotel and Tower Bali. Much of the tourist money, then, does not even enter into the local economy, but is instead diverted toward the Australians and Americans who power the development projects. Even the Balinese dialect is dying out, as business is conducted in Indonesian and English.
During our interview, Haid asked me if I had been introduced to Roam residents while on my tour of the Ubud property. Yes, I said. Who were they? Well, I said, they were some guys working on apps. Haid groaned, saying they'd had a particularly tech-bro heavy month in March, but it was not a fair representation of who used their service. He promised to put me in touch with an artier member of their community.
I spoke with Philippa Donovan over Skype. Currently a resident of the London property, she was originally introduced to Roam while in Bali on holiday. She met with one of the founders while at an ecstatic dance party in Ubud, and she was excited by the idea, having lived a rootless existence for a decade at that point.
Donovan runs her own literary consultancy, helping to “explore options for authors,” as she puts it. Neither a publisher nor an agent, she instead works with writers to prepare their manuscripts for submission, or she can be hired by a writer to make introductions to agents and others in the business for a fee. Originally from Sydney, she found herself moving around to scout out new writers in places like Los Angeles or be near publishing centers like London.
It was exhausting, she told me, “having to reset every time I got to a city. There was so much administrative boredom,” like setting up sublets, finding a yoga studio, and — maybe the most difficult task — meeting new friends and fending off loneliness. With Roam, she said, “I was able to tap into readymade community.” She's only been renting a room at the Roam London property for three months, but she plans on being there for another three to four years, not only in London but also to “explore the world with them, see where they go.”
Haid spoke very eloquently about the power of travel to reshape a person and open them up to new possibilities. Travel was only something he started to explore as an adult. As a young man, he said, “I was never encouraged to go backpacking in Southeast Asia or go see all of Europe, I never had that. It's important to be close to different cultures and learn from them. If you approach it very openly and you're malleable enough to absorb the differences of other cultures, it's good.”That has certainly been my experience as well. Having grown up in a very insular rural town in Kansas, I had a conservative worldview until I actually started moving around in the world, proving myself wrong about other nations and cultures.
But it's easy to talk about what the world can offer to the traveler. A more difficult and tricky question is how much the traveler takes without giving back to the world, and perhaps what he or she should be doing with that debt. What Roam and other facilities like it should remember is how easy they can make it for their clients to forget that debt even exists.