The Trouble With Onions, And How Carolyn Webb’s Terrible Touts Saved The DayOctober 27, 2011
Finally, I reach the end of the long check-out queue at Bintang Supermarket. My purchases are scanned, and only about one-third of them need manual input because of the inevitable crumpled bar-code labels – apparently a specialty of this place. Then I’m only delayed for a further five minutes while the cashier looks at me with silent censure and sends an assistant to wander off to weigh my pre-packed bag of onions. I’m looking at my pre-packed, bar-coded bag of potatoes and thinking, “Why should onions be different?” but I hold my tongue.
After four minutes of waiting, I’m ready to tell the cashier to forget the onions, but just then I spy the assistant slowly ambling back and bite my tongue again. The bar-code won’t scan properly, of course, so there’s more pecking of cash register keys until the display grudgingly admits that I have bought onions and not tomatoes as it insists at first. I should have recognised that all this nonsense was a sign from above that I should have just left the onions, paid and gone home.
Eschewing the dreaded plastic bags, I load up my two venerable recyclable bags with a ridiculously heavy load, stuffing all of my shopping into one shoulder bag and one smaller bag. The cashier looks at my shoulder bag with a practised eye, says “too heavy!” and offers me a plastic bag. I piously refuse. As I stagger to my bike, listing well to the right to counterbalance the load, I’m thinking that maybe the cashier was right. But, you know, it would be unmanly to go back and ask for another bag now, so I persevere. Besides, once I’m on the bike, I can just rest the weight of the bag on the pillion and everything should be fine. I’m such an optimist.
So there I am, negotiating the left-hand turn from Jl. Legian into Jl. Nakula, grinning a greeting at the local touts outside the MiniMart. I skilfully manoeuvre through the deep pothole on the corner – the one that has been cleverly patched with concrete and immediately opened to traffic before it has set. It is a maze of trenches, ridges and wheel ruts which jolt my bike and rattle my teeth. Obviously I’m not skilful enough through this obstacle, because I feel a little warning snap of releasing stitches at my shoulder. But before I have time to react, the strap breaks completely and my precious bag falls off the pillion and into the middle of the road with a great thump.
Oh no! I hear the Bali traffic bearing relentlessly down on it while I try to park the bike at the side of the busy road. My coffee jar! My chilli sauce! Visions of exploding Rinso packets mixing with all the gooey stuff as fat tyres crush my shopping fill my mind. There is another thump as my other bag slips off its bike hook and bounces to the kerb. I stare at it, see that it’s not going to fall any further, spin around to see what has become of the first bag – and stop dead.
One of Carolyn Webb’s much-maligned touts has stopped traffic for me. Drivers are grinning and waiting patiently as I run back to retrieve my goodies, helped by another of the tout’s allegedly terrible cronies. An ojek driver – obviously taking time out from ferrying prostitutes, if you are to believe Ms. Webb – stops his bike and pushes mine to a safer place on to the footpath. He retrieves dropped bag number two and puts it back on the hook. It takes less than a minute to clear the road and have me on my way. I thank the guys profusely, but they wave it off with a grin and a “no problem!” They think that the whole debacle is funny – they’re big on physical humour here.
I like the so-called touts in Bali. After nearly three years here, many of them recognise me, wave hello and then leave me alone, seeking more bountiful prospects elsewhere amongst the visiting hordes. But even when I first arrived, I didn’t have a problem with them. I would tell them “No thanks, I can’t”. When pressed for an explanation, I would tell them, with a completely straight face, that I am incredibly stingy, but I wish them well and hope they find a Japanese tourist soon. We get along fine, and I like talking to them. They are human beings doing an incredibly difficult job to feed their families, and I have a great deal of respect for them. I don’t mind in the least when they greet me cheerfully as Pak Pelit – it’s almost a compliment to be called Mr. Stingy.
You’ve got to love Bali. Where else would you have people jumping unselfishly to help you when you get yourself into trouble? Because of them, my shopping, luckily undamaged in its plunge from the bike, remained uncrushed by traffic.
But I can’t help feeling that if I had only left the damned onions in the supermarket, the extra weight wouldn’t have snapped my bag strap. But then again, I wouldn’t have had the chance to show that Carolyn Webb’s perception of Bali was deeply flawed either.