Finding Love in Bali


Two Muslim women live on the beautiful island of Bali—one is there to get away from her family, while the other is there to raise hers. Patricea Chow-Capodieci chats with them.

Brenda and Tia are two Muslim women living in Bali. One was an exchange student with a pierced nose as a youngster, who is now a busy working mother. The other is a social butterfly who tore herself away from a society that still expects her to come back to the stifling cocoon she left behind.

Speaking to them separately, we find that even though Brenda and Tia come from different family backgrounds, they value their parents’ opinions highly. And given the challenges of modern living, it comes as no surprise that for both, more money will not go to waste—to improve both their own lives and the lives of others.

The Idealist

Tia Nirmala, 31-year-old manager of a shop with an outlet in Ubud and another in Nusa Dua. She sells custom-made furniture, high-end home accents, antiques and jewellery.

‘I want to be surrounded by the people that I love and who love me too,’ says Tia, holding the bouquet.

My parents were not very religious and I can still remember when my father referred to a book when he first learned to salat. My mother is also from Java; her Chinese father converted to Islam before marriage and he is co-founder of a Chinese Muslim association in Central Java. My mother used to win local Qur’an-reading competitions, but these days my father practises ‘better’ than my mother.

My 27-year-old brother graduated from university in 2009, and he now runs a small tour business. My parents aren’t entirely happy that their 30-plus year old daughter is still unmarried, and that their son doesn’t earn a regular income working for someone else. I guess their only hope is my 17-year old sister, who has just graduated from high school with flying colours.

One of the reasons I moved to Bali nine years ago is because my parents set too many rules. I couldn’t rent my own place or spend the night at a friend’s, and I had to go home immediately after work, even though it took me two hours in the Jakarta traffic to travel back. I have more freedom now.

I manage the shop’s two outlets from Tuesday to Saturday. Eventually, I want to have my own shop as I don’t want to work for others for the rest of my life. In my free time, I host travellers from Couch Surfing (CS), a non-profit hospitality exchange network, and I also attend their gatherings. It’s a great way to explore Bali. I like chilling out at a cafe with friends, getting a massage at the spa, and having a hearty dinner with drinks.

What I like about Bali is that no one judges you by what you wear, unlike in Jakarta where what you wear defines you. Here, you can have lunch with the general manager of a five-star hotel and a painter at the same time. However, I don’t like how some Balinese glare at local girls who hang out with foreign men, even if we are all just friends. I try to ignore those looks, but they still make me uncomfortable. Another not so positive thing about being here is that I have stopped fasting during Ramadhan, as I don’t feel pressured to do so. Back in Jakarta, although I didn’t salat regularly, I fasted during Ramadhan simply because my entire family did.

Sometimes I think I should just get married and give my parents the grandchildren that they want, because I am terrified that time is running out for them. However, I wish they would understand that I will only do that at the right time and with the right person. I try to be emotionally closer to my parents so we can talk openly about things, but this is something we are still unable to do.

I have seen that money alone doesn’t bring joy to people, so although I want to have enough money to live, shop and travel, more than that, I really want to be surrounded by the people I love and who love me too.

The Spiritualist

Brenda Lynn Ritchmond, 41-year-old owner of Bali Buddha cafe and director of Rumah Sehat Madani clinic.

I am from Minnesota, USA and was baptised as a Christian at birth. My parents still live in Minnesota and are active in their church. In Bali, I live with my 42-year-old husband Mardiono, or Meng; our five kids aged from two to 17 (including one from my previous marriage), as well as Cafe the cat and Shinji the golden labrador.

In 1986, I arrived in Java as an 11th-grade exchange student. When I lost my luggage upon arrival, I had to buy new clothes that covered more than what I was accustomed to. Wearing the modest clothing I had bought made me realise that what I used to wear had sent out the wrong message. This realisation actually made me uncomfortable. I also had a nose ring and short hair, which were uncommon, so people asked whether I was really female. A year later, I returned to the USA to begin my degree in social anthropology.

In 1989, I returned to Surabaya to chase my dream of becoming a dancer. That same year, I went to Bali for its traditional dances, but I ended up teaching English and meeting Meng through a mutual friend instead. It was definitely not love at first sight: I couldn’t stand him. But, I guess Allah had other plans because we got married and now I love him.

Meng is Muslim by birth, and I reverted to Islam after marriage—I believe that everyone is already Muslim in the womb. Some of us are born into another religion and if it is our luck, we will come back to Islam again. At that time, I wasn’t serious about Islam. It was only when Meng and I were having marital problems that I remember my mother telling me that a family who prays together, stays together. So I sought out a murobbi, a knowledgeable Muslim mentor, and began to regularly attend Islamic study groups.

Now, my husband says that I am a better Muslim than he is. My father was a little unsure about my reversion, as he had limited knowledge about Islam. But now, both my parents are very supportive. In fact they give presentations about Islam in their church, and are organising a fundraising drive for my medical centre, Rumah Sehat Mandini (RSM). I am fully devoted to compassionate and lotus birthing, both of which have caught on quite spectacularly in Bali and are the main focus of RSM.

I love to read, especially while waiting for a baby’s arrival, or before I go to sleep. I often read several books at once. I also love plants and putting them in decorative pots that match their energy.

The good thing about living in Bali is that there are many choices when it comes to getting halal food and worshipping. There are many mosques, although now it is more difficult to build new ones even though the Muslim population is growing here. If money was not an object, I would like to develop RSM into a hospital that combines Western medicine with alternative healthcare, concentrating on preventive care. I would also like to learn how to speak Bahasa Indonesia so that I can travel to schools across Indonesia advocating the importance of a healthy diet as a fundamental part of healthy spirituality. I am also passionate about simple and healthy food.

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