Bali is full of little pitfalls for the unwary. From the weapons-grade sambal that will flay the skin from your mouth and dissolve a substantial part of your digestive tract, to motorbikes that charge unexpectedly out of shop doorways, this place has something to trap everyone. I’ve learned to avoid many of this island’s idiosyncrasies over the last few years, but a new one just snared me.
So there I am, lounging in a luxury villa near the Canggu Club where friends have ensconced themselves after arriving in Bali for their first visit. I’m there partly to do the ‘Welcome to Bali’ thing, and partly because they think that I might be able to give them the inside scoop on how things work here. If they thought that I would be able to steer them away from falling foul of the more dangerous aspects of Bali, I am ashamed to say they were sadly mistaken. I am unfortunately blessed with an overweening arrogance about my ability to navigate all of Bali’s little surprises, so my hubris occasionally results in less than fortuitous outcomes.
One of the party had thoughtfully picked up a few nibblies from the deli across the road, and as we chatted, he produced a sealed packet of nuts. “What are these?” he asked. “I’ve never seen these before.” A quick glance was enough for me to quickly identify them as macadamias, although the price seemed uncharacteristically low. “But is says here on the label that they’re …” I cut him off with a dismissive wave. “Ah, that will just be the local name for them”, I airily inform him. I’d forgotten that a ’quick glance’ is not a wise strategy to employ in identifying any food in Bali.
So we sit around for a while, munching on the occasional macadamia and talking about all kinds of Bali stuff as one is wont to do in these circumstances. The nuts are pleasant enough, but they feel a little oily and ever so slightly bitter. They also don’t quite have the creamy texture that I remember from the last time I could afford macadamias. It’s just Bali, I think to myself – they’ve probably been sitting on the shelf for a few months. Five or six nuts later, it’s time for me to head off.
As I dodge suicidal drivers on the twenty minute ride home, I feel the first stirrings of that unmistakable Bali ‘uh-oh’ feeling. Sharp fingers of discomfort begin to coil like snakes through my gut, turning quickly to serrated knives which seem to be carving my intestine into small chunks. My whole alimentary canal also appears to have liquefied and turned icy-cold, while my skin burns and starts sweating. I need to get home, right now. I suddenly morph into a typical Bali rider, dealing with the usual traffic jam outside Bintang Supermarket by dodging between cars like a lunatic, overtaking everything, mounting the footpath, scattering pedestrians and generally being one of those riders I so love to criticise. My vision blurs at the edges, leaving one clear image of a toilet at the centre, which has become my sole focus in life.
Fortunately, the only muscle in my body that still has any tone left after two years of sloth and gluttony is my sphincter, and I just manage to make it home without a catastrophic accident. And I’m not talking about road crashes either. After the traditional Bali palliatives of Entero-Stop and charcoal tablets have worked their magic, I’m back to semi-normal after a few hours. Then I get a call from my friends. “Are you OK?” they enquire. “Nearly all of us got bad Bali Belly after you left, and the only thing we had in common was eating those nuts …” Aha! I think. Obviously bad hygiene practices at the nut packing plant. It must be E. coli, or salmonella, or some other rotten Bali bug.
Well, it wasn’t. It was my stupid assumption that we were eating macadamias. So I consult a Bali food oracle – my Domestic Infrastructure Support Manager (she doesn’t like the term ‘pembantu’). I describe the offending nuts and ask her if she has heard anything negative about them. She seems puzzled. “No, they are not macadamia, they are kemiri – really good for making sambal.” I tell her that we were less than impressed with the ones we ate at lunchtime.
She looks horrified. “No, no! You must cook first! Cannot eat from packet – they are poison!” Belated research reveals that when raw, they contain saponin, phorbol and other mildly toxic purgatives. I can personally vouch for the truth of that. I discover that you can mash them up and use them as soap. They also are rich in heavy oils, to the extent that people apparently string them together, light them and use them as candles. One would think that the name ‘candle-nuts’ on the packet should have given me some sort of clue. One would be wrong. In Hawaii, they were also used to make varnish, and even canoe paint. Needless to say, you do not eat them raw. I feel sick all over again.
It’s not the only mistake I’ve made here, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. What’s next? A bag of stuff that looks like peanuts, but are actually layer pellets? I know petrol is sold in vodka bottles here, but at least it doesn’t look like vodka. But what if I ever find kerosene being sold in gin bottles? I may not live through the experience.
If you are coming to Bali, by all means ask me for advice. But if you value your health and safety, I suggest you don’t trust anything I have say about any food or beverage here.