“Tat Tvam Asi” is taught to every Balinese child. “I am you, you are me,” or “Whatever I do to you, I do to me.” This philosophy has influenced Oka and his approach to every aspect of his life, including as a server at El Gaucho Seattle, since 2007.
Oka hails from a small village in Bali called Bitera, with a population somewhere between 500-600. The culture is Hindu influenced so there are four castes which determine one’s name and status. Oka’s real name is Anak Agung Geda Oka Indra, which broken down means “Son of the Great” (Anak Agung Geda), followed by the family name given (Oka Indra). The first name alone let’s others know to which status, village and family one belong. Oka is from the ruling family of Bitera, which has led to friendly jests about Oka’s status as a prince back home, which he humbly denies.
Oka’s father was a teacher, so he always felt pressure to be a good student. He started school around 7-years-old with limited books and resources (the village didn’t have electricity until the mid-80s). Always adventurous, curious and smart, his family wanted him to continue the family’s legacy and follow in his uncle’s footsteps to become a lawyer and work for the government. Oka started down that path, but that all changed when a family friend’s brother showed him photos of his adventures around the world. Oka was spellbound. He recalls, “There was a picture of him in the snow in the mountains, which I had never seen, and I asked him how he got to see all of those sights.” The answer was he worked for a cruise line, and from that point on, Oka knew that’s what he wanted to do.
The first requirement was learning English. Until then, Oka had picked up on the language from visiting tourists, but he couldn’t read or write English, so he pursued learning it on his own. Against his family’s wishes, Oka started applying to hospitality schools, and he was accepted to Bali Hospitality School.
While Oka was ecstatic, his family was not, and saw Oka’s actions as disrespectful. Through all of this, Oka followed his heart and left home for a 2-year program, which he ended up completing in one year. Oka was a stand-out student.
At the end of his schooling, when he was just 19 years old, Oka saw an advertisement that Holland America was hiring. The interview was in Jakarta which is a costly two hour flight away and Oka had no money to travel. But, as they say, when there’s a will, there’s a way and Oka’s determination kicked in. He begged his fellow classmate, who had family in Jakarta, to make the journey with him. It was the farthest away from home Oka had ever been and he didn’t want to go by himself. Without telling his family, they took a 6-hour bus ride to East Java to grab a cattle train – the cheapest way to travel to Jakarta. It was a 1.5-day trip.
Once there, he learned they needed 20 people, but over 1,000 applied. Oka was the youngest, which worried him, but he got a job offer. Training started a week later and he’d receive $10/week to start. His friend passed, too. He sent a telegram to his dad telling him the great news and he went home to see his family before he started the 3-month training process. It still wasn’t a guarantee that he would work – he had to prove himself in training.
“I was so excited and happy,” Okay explains. “I kept thinking about being able to see the world and travel and explore!” That kept him motivated and was his inspiration for training. In the end, Oka earned the top spot, and was summoned to a ship called “Wind Spirit” in Barbados.
They gave him a $10 bill (which Oka still has today) and a plane ticket and told to report to the ship. It was the first time he had been on a plane – and he cried. He thought he’d never see his family again.
Oka’s monthly pay was $310/month, which equates to about 10 times the average income in Bali. He signed his contract over to his family, so they would be sent his monthly salary. Oka lived on his tips and saved up enough money to buy his first CD – U2’s Joshua Tree – and a Movado watch for his uncle. He went on to save enough to buy property in the capital of Bali with cash, which he still owns.
Oka worked for Holland America for 10 years, in addition to fulfilling his dream to see all corners of the world (with the exception of Antarctica which he still intends to see some day). He also won the prestigious Holland America Employee of the Year award, learning about it while on a ship in the Caribbean. The company flew him home to see his family first to share his news, and then to their headquarters in Seattle, where he accepted the diamond pin and $1,000 award, as well as a promotion to assistant dining room manager, at the annual holiday party.
Instead of taking his next assignment, Oka asked if he could stay in Seattle. He fell in love with the city and wanted to stay longer. He applied for a job at Salty’s, where he met some of today’s Gaucho team – Director of Operations Cooper Mills, El Gaucho Bellevue General Manager Tony Capra, and El Gaucho Seattle hostess Pam Gilworth and Captain Jeffrey Young. His plan was to work for a little bit and go back to the cruise ship, but he loved everything that Seattle had to offer. Some of the highlights include snowboarding for the first time, attending his first major league baseball game, and meeting friends who became family.
In 2007, Oka applied to work at El Gaucho Seattle and says he was “intimidated” at first, because of the detailed service and the restaurant’s fine dining reputation. He felt he wasn’t qualified for the job. Clearly he was a natural fit with his legacy and philosophy of service.
Since his father’s passing five years ago, Oka is the heir to lead his native village, and although he acts as an advisor, his cousin has taken over most of the duties. Oka goes back at least once a year to visit and is treated like a member of the ruling family when he goes. “They treat me differently – it’s very formal.” He enjoys helping his family and friends when he goes home. “People smile at me when I help and they are genuinely happy that I have found success. They are truly happy FOR me.”
He admits he is a living example of the American dream: he owns a home in West Seattle, which he shares with his Burmese Mountain dog, Caley, and Bengal cat named Chipmunk. He loves to drink Guinness and dip crispy, fried bacon in it.
“I can’t ask for a better place to live and work,” he says. “Coming to work at El Gaucho is like coming home to family. I can hang out with everyone here. I go to Bali and everyone says, ‘welcome home.’ I come back here and everyone says, ‘welcome home.’ I am so lucky and privileged to be in this place,” Oka exclaims.
And we are privileged to call Oka a part of the Gaucho family. Come say hello to him at El Gaucho Seattle.