Multigenerational Living in Paradisecomments (1) December 24th, 2010 in Blogs
Bali has every shade of green on earth, soft air scented with jasmine and a landscape pulsing with slender, good-looking people in constant motion. That kinetic energy is most apparent in the towns but anywhere you travel on the island's snaky, two-lane mountain roads it's common to see families of four or five on a single motorcycle, arms and legs akimbo, threading their way among flatbed trucks loaded to the gunnels with bricks and bags of cement, farmers balanced on bicycles half-buried beneath bundles of thatch-grass, and knots of scruffy dun-colored dogs somehow not getting run over. The traffic made me white-knuckled but the Balinese navigated it gracefully, as if choreographed, with nary an unpleasant word or angry gesture. When traffic gets really scary, a belief in reincarnation probably comes in handy, too.
To be honest, I found the lack of road rage a little unsettling because I had no explanation for it. But after meeting that same easy-going spirit over and over-even when haggling in the market-I began to think that maybe these folks really were a different kind of human. With dazzling smiles. Surely they have their cares, but those smiles alone assured me that the Balinese are some of the happiest people on earth.
A peaceful gathering of 30 or 40 cousins
Thanks to mutual friends of my partner, Jean, we had an entrée into a local community and an invitation to a Christmas party. Our host, Billye, was a retired American who shared her big house on the edge of a rice field with a local builder, Legut, his wife Santi, and their three sons. Built in the lumbung style favored for granaries, the house has a thatched roof, large overhangs, an open floor plan-and an in-law unit on the ground floor.
By the time we got to the party, the joint was jumping. Tables sagged with platters of turkey and smoked pig, plates of exotic desserts and liter bottles of Bintang beer. Santa, stuffing Christmas stockings beneath the tree, was resplendent in red cap, green felt shoes and cutoff jeans. The highlight of the event, though, were 30 or 40 kids in high spirits, laughing and wrestling till the presents were handed out and afterwards swapping the contents of their stockings. They were very easy with each other-not a single tantrum or a protesting yowl the whole time-and my hunch that many of them were cousins was borne out a few days later when Legut took us for a tour of his family compound just down the road.
Family compounds and mutual help
Balinese compounds are modest affairs, typically walled, with individual dwellings constructed around a central courtyard. Most are built of cement block and stucco. Bali's principal religion is an animistic brand of Hindu, so every compound has a family shrine to honor one's ancestors and a number of other nooks where they leave daily offerings, such as the angkul-angkul or main gate. Mornings begin with prayers and offerings but they seem to recur throughout the day. One of the most endearing aspects of the Balinese is that while they are very devout, they are not rigid-so long as one is sincere in one's intent, getting the details perfect isn't as important. At one point we were invited to a new house purification-a very complex affair with a high priest-but as the ceremony proceeded it was OK to stand up and stretch your legs, pat your kids or share a quiet aside with a friend. This focus on intent rather than form also explains why a devoutly Hindu community could enjoy a Christmas party with such gusto.
But back to building. When it's time to add a new building-say, when a younger brother gets married and needs a kitchen-the work is invariably done by gotong royong (mutual help). As Legut explained it, 40 or 50 relatives show up over a period of days till the thing is done. For example, a 2.8 meter x 3.5 meter kitchen constructed for Legut and his new wife took 5 days to complete. In the spirit of gotong royong, there's no money involved, just two meals a day for everyone who helps. Pitching in to help others pervades many activities in the village. Since I've invoked kitchens twice, I should note that while each family within the compound has its own small kitchen, as a rule families don't eat together. The women typically prepare a rice meal in the morning and whenever someone is hungry during the day he just pops in and grabs a bowl of rice. Towards the back of a compound is a small garden plot or a fenced area where the compound collectively raises pigs, chickens and perhaps a cow.
Family compounds typically contain 4 or 5 family units (a couple and their kids), each living in two or three small rooms. In total, 25 or 30 people. This is in-law housing to a T, because everyone is actually related. Whereas the Western term "accessory dwelling units" is a poor fit because there's not a large main house with other dwellings accessory to it--because they're all the same size. These days, most compounds have city water and are modestly wired, primarily to enable a TV. Fresh produce is readily available at local open air markets, so few people need refrigerators.
A lifelong connection
This sketchy description of living arrangements, however, slights the living that goes on inside them: families are close, multi-generational, and intimately involved with each other's lives. One reason the Balinese are so content is that they are deeply connected, and in the context of family, at least, they know who they are. Two details of their culture are particularly telling. First, after a child is born, its placenta is buried under the stone that serves as the family's doorstep, so that an individual's soul can always find its way home. And second, a child's feet are not allowed to touch the ground until he or she is 105 days old. The reasons why are too complicated to go into here, but the net effect is that just about everyone in the banjar (village) will have a hand in holding and carrying that child till its feet first stand on earth.
Given that awareness of the interconnectedness of life, perhaps it was only natural that when Legut and Billye met and became fast friends, that Legut should help Billye find land near his banjar and help build her home and shortly after that--when he and Santi married and began raising a family--that all of them should live under the same roof. Do not all of us, after all, dwell under the same sky?
PS This trip took place two years ago, in 2008, and it was the first time I'd been off the North American land mass in three decades. Thanks to airlines' penchant for routing your flight all over creation when you cash in frequent-flier miles, the flight took 29 hours, with an 8-hour layover in Beijing, so I was punch-drunk with jet lag for quite a while. Finding an in-law-unit story in Bali was a complete delight, however, because I had just begun the research that lead to my writing a book on the subject.
Create Your Own In-Law!
If you're interested in second units, please check out my recent book, Outlaws and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes. The Library Journal named it one of the 10 Best Design Books for 2011. An e-book version is available on Apple's iTunes Store, or through the Taunton Press Store. You can also preview In-laws, Outlaws' lush professional photos at www.cozydigz.com
If you will be renovating your home (or perhaps creating an in-law suite), there's no better companion than Renovation 4th Edition, (November, 2012). Its 614 pages, 1,000 photos and 250 detailed illustrations cover home renovation from start to finish and contain lifetimes of practical, field-tested techniques that professional builders shared with me over a 40-year period.
© Michael Litchfield 2012
posted in: Blogs, in-law units, accessory dwelling units, multi-generational living
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