The Sate Was Flaming GoodMay 15, 2011
A large part of Bali humour tends towards the physical, sometimes bordering on slapstick. If someone gets slightly hurt, or at least discomfited, it’s even better. Any event that causes someone to be brought down a peg or two triggers an unseemly display of mirth from the locals. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether the butt of the joke is a local or a bule – everyone is fair game.
Ever tripped on one of those lethal Bali footpath bumps and sprawled in a painfully undignified heap into a nest of parked motorbikes? The rapidly glued-on masks of concern will be replaced by barely muffled chortling and streaming eyes as soon as your back is turned.
Ever ridden your bike through an innocent-looking puddle during a rainstorm? You know the ones – the mantraps that conceal half-metre deep sink-holes into which you and your steed suddenly plunge. You get thoroughly soaked if you’re lucky, and moderately contused if you’re not. If you have the presence of mind to look around after the event, chances are you will observe that you have become the object of borderline-enuretic peals of laughter from spectating locals. They even drag benches to the best viewing spots to ensure that not a single dunking is missed.
And so it happened that I was sitting on the porch of a little bar in Legian Street one evening. On the other side of the street was an alcove of sorts, containing some tiny shops and an open-air stall manned by a purveyor of fine sates. A steady stream of locals was arriving and ordering their food. The sates were being cooked over a charcoal brazier, which required a careful monitoring and maintenance regimen to get the flames exactly right. The young gentleman involved in this process was attired in the usual Bali youth garb – an oversized tee-shirt and a huge pair of mid-calf pants of a style that only starts moving forward after their inhabitant has taken several steps.
As he was engaged in vigorous fanning of the coals with a large piece of cardboard, his attention was momentarily distracted by a customer who began pointing behind him and obviously asking a series of complicated questions. As he looked away from the flames to answer, for some reason the frequency and amplitude of his cardboard oscillations increased. This caused his tee-shirt to billow like a skirt on a motorbike and the flames to shoot higher. Naturally, he promptly caught fire.
The waiting customers, of course, collapsed in gales of laughter as the bottom of his shirt flared, watching him beat at the flames with his bare hands. Only one had the presence of mind to grab a bottle of water from the wares he had for sale, and pour it on his shirt. The others, on the ground by now, convulsing in fits of shrieking joy, just ribbed him mercilessly. And me? Mr. Compassion? I watched all this from across the street, laughing like a drain and thinking it was better than any sinetron I’ve seen in Bali.
So maybe I’ve been here for too long. Maybe my erstwhile caring demeanour is being replaced by a Bali-like appreciation of farce, slapstick and physical humour. I now find things like this quite funny – as long as they don’t happen to me, of course.
The sting in this little tale? As I was leaving the scene, still chuckling, the sate vendor was engaged in an argument with the guy who saved him from self-immolation. Apparently he was insisting that the Good Samaritan pay for the bottle of water he used to douse the sizzling sate man …