Archive for the ‘OFF THE ISLAND’ Category


The Great Nyepi Escape

April 29, 2013

I usually enjoy Nyepi Day, Bali’s annual Day of Silence, when all are confined to their domiciles for 24 hours and no noise, work, fun, or illumination is permitted. It is an opportunity to reflect and allow the stillness to enter you.

Despite having honoured this day for the last  four years,  sequestered alone in my dwelling, this year the prospect was a little more daunting. A few minor technical hitches – such as a broken stove, a malfunctioning DVD player and no hot water – would have made the enforced isolation more unpleasant. OK, OK – I’m a wimp.

My brilliant solution of checking into a hotel with expansive grounds, where guests can wander around freely during Nyepi, came to naught. Bali’s hotel prices are just too high for me now. Expansive grounds come with an expensive tariff, and of course the Nyepi lock-down means you have to book two nights. As it turned out, going off the island – to Kuala Lumpur – ended up being cheaper for four nights at a hotel, including airfares, than staying in Bali.

So here I am in Malaysia. Ten minutes to get through the immigration formalities, an automatic, free visitors’ visa, luggage waiting for me on the carousel. A train station right in the terminal, and a 25 minute, 57 kilometre trip to KL Sentral on the KLIA express.

The KL traffic is busy, but free-flowing, with amazingly disciplined and courteous drivers. Drivers stop for pedestrians on crossings, they stop for red lights, they wait for traffic to clear before pulling out from the left, and they park properly. The streets are wide and clean and clearly signposted. I don’t see a single piece of trash on the footpaths.

It’s weird being in a place where everything just … works. The electricity stays on, water quality is good, places are open at their designated hours, and everything in my little hotel is as it should be. Well, most of it – my room’s air-conditioner control panel appears to be connected to a Bali-style ‘Wishful Thinking’ module, which in turn is connected to nothing. Like governments, I suspect it is there purely to give us all an illusion of control.

But no-one controls the weather, and at this time of year, there is rain. Lots of it. Regular as clockwork, the customary 4pm thunderstorm hits the city, often violently. Today’s is massive, with lightning striking every building around me every few seconds. I notice that all the smart birds are diving from the tops of tall buildings and taking refuge at street level. They don’t look happy, and they’re not smiling – but how can one tell? I mean, they have no lips …

I witness two hippy types, presumably with an IQ far lower than that of most of the birds, dancing in the rain on an 8th floor roof across the street. Faces upturned towards the continuous bolts of lightning, they wave their arms towards the raging skies as if in supplication to their gods. They are far closer to heaven than they ever imagine. But someone is looking after these dolts, and they fail to be vapourised in an incandescent ball of energy. I confess to feeling faintly disappointed.

While Bali is dark and silent for Nyepi, Kuala Lumpur is pumping. Checking out the restaurants, I find one called the White Raja. Ah, OK, Indian food. Then I look closer and notice that it’s actually called the White Raja – Borneo. Right, it appears that we have Kalimantan food with an Indian influence. Possibly with some traditional Dyak fare? Interesting. So I check the menu. It’s Italian.

Never mind. I find a basement under one of the plazas which is crammed with every imaginable type of food stall, each one serving delicious food. While English is widely spoken in KL, the locally-patronised food stand owners tend to stick to Bahasa Melayu – or Chinese, or dialects from the Middle East. Fortunately, even though they struggle to understand my Bahasa Indonesia (which is no surprise; people in Indonesia have the same problem) I can make myself understood.

I think I’ve worked out the secret. If I Anglicise every 5th word, add “lah” to every 3rd word and excitedly finish every sentence with “!”, they seem to understand me better. Or I could just stop torturing them and speak English …

After dinner, I find a footpath bar close to my hotel, and kick back with a wee drink while watching the passing parade. Suddenly, my ears are assailed with a strange, eclectic mix of Euro-Arabic-Latino-style music. Shortly thereafter, a figure materialises in the gloom of a doorway to one side. I see a hint of sinuous dance movements, a silhouette promising sensual delights, and a tantalising glimpse of a deep décolletage. And then the lighting improves, and an … apparition becomes visible.

He, because it definitely was a he, is about 190 cm tall and is dressed in a frilly, black, deeply low-cut top revealing astonishingly profuse chest hair, black leggings and a strange sort of fringed tutu. His dancing is a cross between belly dancing, erotic salsa, and pole dancing. Pelvic thrusts of an energy and amplitude that suggest a serious future back problem seem to hypnotise the rapt female patrons of the bar. The first unexpected thrust makes me inadvertently swallow one of the ice-cubes in my drink.

But that isn’t all. Every half-minute or so, he emits a shrieking ululation of a frequency and volume high enough to coagulate eyeballs for a one kilometre radius, as well as instantly kill any birds that have survived the earlier lightning storm. The first of these lifts me  completely of my chair, and I spill my drink. I discover later that this is a Zaghrouta – a traditional Iraqui cry of great joy.

My own joy is tempered somewhat when I try to go to sleep in my room later, only to discover that not only is his performance continuing, but the walls of the hotel are completely transparent to the sonic barrage. As I watch my bedroom walls tremble, their paint flaking off, and my bathroom fixtures fracture into shards of porcelain, I am struck with the thought that George Bush was looking for the wrong Weapons of Mass Destruction. The real ones were larynx-based, completely hidden and totally transportable all this time.

Zaghrouta aside, KL was a great short break from Bali. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare the quality of infrastructure with that found in Indonesia, as the circumstances and mindsets are so different. It is amazing what a genuine pursuit of excellence can achieve – and of course, the will to improve things. It is a shame that some of those in power in Indonesia are so consumed with antipathy towards Malaysia. They could learn so much.

Will I come back for next Nyepi? Probably not. I sort of missed the silence.


Insensitivity, Victimisation and Compassion

April 24, 2013

This is a story of blind bigotry, injustice, denial, and a culture of blaming victims.  It is also a story of  wonderful compassion and tolerance.

In September of 2012, a 14-year-old schoolgirl made an error of judgement that changed her life. She befriended a young man on Facebook, one whose carefully selected ‘identity’ was superficially charming and solicitous. As young girls sometimes tend to do, she responded to his wiles, mistakenly believing that his friendship was genuine, that he was a decent person, and that he was truly interested in her.

Well he was, but not in the way that she thought. The man, identified in the press as being Den Gilang, a.k.a. ‘Yugi’, was apparently in the habit of lurking on social media specifically for the purpose of verbally seducing and meeting naive under-aged girls. He convinced her to meet him at a department store – a place that most people would think would be safe.

But of course it wasn’t. Her new ‘friend’, a predator of the worst kind, lured her into a public minivan, where more of his predator friends were waiting, and they drove her to a house in Parung, Bogor. There, she was imprisoned with  several other young girls who had been similarly duped.

Over the following week, ‘Yugi’ allegedly raped her, threatened her with death if she disobeyed him, and forced her to have sex with numerous other men. The plan, as she understood it, was that she was to be ‘sold’ to someone in Batam,  Riau Islands when he tired of her. During the time that she was missing, her frantic family and friends had widely distributed flyers to try and find her. The media had also picked up on the story, so to her captors, she suddenly became a liability. They dumped her at a bus terminal, where local residents recognised her and took her home.

Now the story took a bizarre turn. After spending a month to recover sufficiently, this brave girl wanted to pick up the broken threads of her life, return to her studies at Budi Utomo Junior High School – a private school in Depok – and put her ordeal behind her.

But when she returned in October 2012, she was publicly humiliated in front of the whole school at a flag-raising ceremony, where she was told that she had “tarnished the school’s image”. She was summarily expelled, and prohibited from sitting for her mid-semester examination. As so often happens to women in Indonesia, this teenager – a victim – was treated as a perpetrator.

The principal refused to meet with the girl’s parents. Journalists were fobbed off without explanation. Officers from the school’s foundation refused to comment, apart from denying, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that she had been expelled.

Following a great deal of public ire and media publicity, the school reversed its stance, saying those all-too-common words, “It was all a misunderstanding”. Mediation was agreed to, and it was reluctantly agreed that the girl could return to school. No apology was offered, and no attempt was made to rehabilitate her good name. The feelings of the girl, and her family, can only be imagined.

I spoke to a friend in Jakarta about this episode, and I must say I didn’t try and hide my feelings about the lack of compassion shown by some Indonesians towards girls and women who have been sexually abused. And while I was in mid-flight, she stopped me and said, “I agree with everything you say. But you need to know something else about this case.” What she told me provided an interesting and illuminating new perspective on Indonesian society.

During the time that the girl was missing, the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood where the girl’s family live were incredibly supportive, keeping the family calm, promoting positivity, and helping to distribute flyers. Then, after she was found, her recuperation was helped by the many caring, supportive neighbourhood visitors who brought food, money, and most of all, the gift of their time and love.

They didn’t stop with that. They started – and completed – a major fund-raising drive to enable her to finish her education privately, away from the school that had besmirched her name and honour, and treated her with such vile insensitivity. They also found her an excellent, well-qualified teacher who was also a counsellor familiar with the needs of traumatised young girls to guide her education.

The whole Muslim community in her neighbourhood rallied to help someone who was in trouble and desperately needed their help. To me, this is one of the untold stories of true, genuine compassion in Indonesia that might well be common, but largely remains un-trumpeted. Maybe this is because compassion carries its own quiet rewards.

Oh, and I nearly forgot – the girl and her family are Christians. To their wonderful, caring Muslim neighbours, that fact was, as it should be, completely irrelevant. I salute you.


The Island Where Air Means Water

August 29, 2011

It’s remarkable how people scoff when I say that I want to take a holiday away from Bali every so often. “Your life is already a permanent holiday!” they say disbelievingly. Or my brother’s gentle dig: “Oh yeah, I’m sure you need the break from your stressful life …”

Well actually, I do. For visitors, Bali is a stockpot of dreams that simmer gently for a few weeks to provide an unrealistic, albeit nourishing soup of experiences. But for long-term Western residents here, day-to-day demands intrude on the idyllic existence. The Bali dream is still there of course, but it becomes a pleasant backdrop; mere scenery in front of which the administrivia of bills, shopping, getting stuff fixed and generally managing one’s life takes place. A break in routine is often called for. Mine involved a few relaxing days on a quiet, peaceful island.

So it is that I find myself on a ‘fast boat’ on the way to Gili Air, just off the coast of Lombok. It’s certainly fast – the four huge outboards are running at full military power, and we are literally flying at times. The Lombok Strait has graciously provided us with a two metre swell on the starboard beam, and the fresh wind creates an unpredictable chop so that the sea looks like it is boiling. As the boat crashes jarringly into a trough every few seconds, the intrepid captain’s chair on its hydraulic mount smoothly absorbs the shocks. On my hard seat, my spine attempts to do the same. I guess it works, because I am five centimetres shorter by the time I arrive at our destination three hours later.

Within minutes, I see that Gili Air is very different to Bali – a lot hotter too. As you would expect, the vegetation is quite different on the far side of the Wallace Line. There are coconut trees and other tropical plants in abundance of course, but it’s a surprise to see conifers and other plants more often sighted in Australia. The island itself is tiny – just over a kilometre or so across, so walking everywhere tends to be the preferred option. Cars and motorbikes are banned, but for those with flagging energy levels, there are the ubiquitous cidomos – traditional horse-drawn carts that serve as the somewhat expensive taxis here. Of course, bicycles are readily available too, but with the depth of sand on most of the tracks, pedalling is heavy going.

I need to stretch my back after its pounding on the boat, so I opt to walk to my hotel along the sandy track that circles the island. It’s so peaceful that I forget that Gili Air ‘roads’ can be just as dangerous as those of Bali. I hear a jingling of tiny bells somewhere in the distance and think, how sweet; it must be Christmas. Two seconds later, a stealthy, but frighteningly rapid horse brushes past my shoulder. With extraordinary presence of mind, I realise instantly that the cart it is pulling is wider than the animal itself and leap dexterously to one side to avoid being crushed by the wheels. Well, actually, I sort of fall over in a heap, bags and all, but it is a fairly graceful sprawl, and almost painless considering the alternative of becoming Gili Air’s first recorded road kill.

These cidomos are equipped with little air-bulb trumpets not unlike those employed by clowns for comedic effect. Strangely, they are apparently only used to attract the attention of a potential fare when the cart is empty. The idea of using it to actually warn day-dreaming pedestrians of impending death by chariot obviously hasn’t caught on yet. I resolve to register my disgruntlement by walking everywhere for the rest of my stay. But I do listen for those tinkling bells a little more carefully. I even circumnavigate the island in less than two hours – not including the three mandatory pit stops to re-hydrate of course – and only have five near-misses.

In fact, despite spending so much time walking, for two days I don’t realise that the roads consist primarily of sharp coral sand which, when scrunched between sandals and soles, causes massive abrasion. By the time I’ve worked this out, my feet look like I have been given a pedicure with a chainsaw. Next time, it’s closed shoes for me. Or (shudder) sandals and socks. Walking at night is fun too. Gili Air only appears to have mains power for a few hours a day, which makes PLN in Bali seem fantastic by comparison. Long stretches of road are pitch dark, which makes carrying a torch mandatory. After blundering into bushes while avoiding the unlit horse carts, nearly falling into the sea, and stepping in countless piles of horse dung, I will know to bring a flash-light next time.

All this exercise tends to work up an appetite, and fortunately there is an abundance of fresh seafood on the island. At night, eateries everywhere lay out the catch of the day in readiness for their nightly barbeque. At one beach-front place, I choose a delectable red snapper, which, cooked to perfection,  is brought to my table with an assortment of side dishes. Unfortunately, the meal also seems to come with free cats. Four of these persistent creatures stalk my fish dish from all sides, climbing on me, scaling adjacent chairs and even jumping on the table. No amount of shooing, cuffing them over the head, or physically hurling them off the seawall makes any difference. They just won’t go away, to the vast amusement of fellow diners. I finish my meal hunched over my plate, elbows flailing at hungry felines. Not the most relaxing meal, but delicious nonetheless.

Apart from these minor inconveniences, don’t let me put you off a visit here. It’s peaceful – but with a mild party/pub scene if you want it – and the views to Lombok are spectacular. The locals are friendly, there are no crowds anywhere, and no-one tries to flog you stuff. In many ways, it is a step back in time, and a very healing place to be.

Just take care when you hear those jingling bells …


[… and here’s some real information about Gili Air from the Travelfish team]


Australia Is So Like Bali Now

July 30, 2011

There was a time, not so long ago, where one looked forward to a short break away from Bali. Re-visiting Australia was once an opportunity to get away from the endemic chaos here, to experience first-world efficiencies, punctuality, reliability and good service. After a harrowing ten day trip to Melbourne, I’m here to tell you that those days are rapidly disappearing.

Apart from the freezing Winter weather, unbelievable prices and astonishing displays of road rage, Australia is becoming more like Bali every day. Well, not quite – in Australia, there is a surfeit of do-gooder-inspired over-regulation that assumes everyone is a complete imbecile in need of protection. That’s not a feature of Bali life. Yet.

The street signage is well up to the usual in absentia Bali standards. However, the authorities make up for it by providing thousands of speed limit signs, including those for ‘school zones’, which display a confusing mess of times and vague dates when the limit actually applies. Nobody but an airline pilot has the multi-tasking ability to decipher the damn things while driving, or the reflexes to avoid running over some errant kid while doing so.

Bureaucracies, both corporate and government, have become bloated and unresponsive, rarely getting things right the first time. Businesses, formerly bastions of efficiency, are happily following suit. Maybe that’s because everyone is too busy complying with Occupational Health and Safety directives to actually do any core business. Answering the phone too often might cause work-induced hearing loss. Or maybe no-one cares about pursuit of excellence any more. Either way, just like in Bali, it’s unusual now for things to run smoothly.

So, after failing to get a direct flight to Melbourne, I start my trip by boarding a midnight plane in Bali, which naturally leaves late. It’s not a cheap flight, costing nearly twice as much as the usual discount deals – yet there is not so much as a bottle of water on offer from the cabin crew. No breakfast either. It’s OK, I’ve heard that dehydration and hunger are good for the soul. I transit through Brisbane, where I have to lug my bags through customs, then make my bone-weary way to the domestic terminal. They do give me a train ticket to get there though. I’d hate to travel by low-cost carrier … oh wait, I did.

Once in Melbourne, the fun of helping my 89 year old mum through the rigours of a major house relocation begins. A mere 20 minutes on hold to the phone company gets me a nice chap who arranges the old phone to be cut off in six days time and reconnected at the new place. He assures me that everything is set. Two hours later, the phone gets disconnected, making it impossible to arrange all the other pressing details. It takes until mid-morning the next day before we get an active line again. I am reminded of Bali business practices.

The mail redirection goes just as smoothly. “Ooh, sorry, you need to give at least three business days notice …” We fix that problem through a convoluted ‘stop mail’ arrangement that apparently doesn’t need three business days notice.

We order a skip for the inevitable rubbish that has accumulated over fifty-five years of continuous home occupancy. “Ooh, sorry, you can’t put mattresses in there – they’re a health risk.” A health risk? No-one will be sleeping on them at the tip, for crying out loud! I call the local tip. “Yes, we take mattresses.” Great! “But there will be a $67 surcharge for each mattress. They’re a health risk”. I ask: “So how does paying this charge reduce the health risk?” Silence on the phone. I guess it must be like a carbon tax or something. That does nothing useful either. I think of Bali with nostalgia. Here, we just throw old mattresses in the river, and nobody gives a hoot.

To my dismay, I discover that Bali has exported the much-loved philosophy of jam karet (rubber time) to Australia. Companies promise to do something “between 8am and 2pm – barring unforeseen circumstances of course.” The rubbish skip, which would otherwise block access to the removalists’ truck, is meant to be taken away two full days before the move. It is finally collected, after numerous phone calls, 20 minutes before our enormous truck arrives. That’s cutting it fine.

Then there is customer ‘service’. The man from Bigpond is supposed to come “between 12 and 5” to hook up the new broadband service, which of course means he arrives at 5pm. He seems a bit surly when he finds out that under-floor cable installation will not work out. He finds the task of going via the ceiling and down a cavity wall too onerous. He decides to drill through a wall in an adjacent room and curtly says: “Here’s enough cable to reach the computer. Will he at least tack it to the skirting board? “No, I don’t do that. But here are some nails.” Can he check the computer to ensure we are on-line? “It’ll work”, he says as he hurriedly leaves. It doesn’t. Even Bali provides better service.

Bali-style opportunism is not unknown in the Antipodes either. We buy a new digital TV. The nice salesman tells my mum that his friend can deliver it for $50 and “do all that complex set-up required” for a mere $150 extra. I tell him that’s too expensive, and maybe we’ll buy the TV from another store. He hurriedly offers to do the ‘complex set-up’ for only $50. I decline. After delivery, we unpack the set and switch it on. It automatically sets itself up and is ready to go. I begin to suspect that Aussie companies do their in-service training in Indonesia.

And it’s not over even when I’m ready to go back home to Bali. A service station sells me a blister pack of Duracell batteries for my calibrated, accurate luggage scales. When I open the pack later, they are corroded beyond recognition. Caveat emptor. I get new batteries elsewhere and weigh my suitcase. It is exactly 22.1 kilograms, and under my limit. The airport check-in counter scales insist my bag weighs 24 kilos and I am told I have to pay $15 excess baggage. I ask when the airline’s scales were last calibrated, and receive the non-sequitur answer that it will cost $15. After some affable banter, I am permitted to remove items from the bag. I extract my obviously faulty scales, which weigh 225 grams. The check-in scales now show 23 kilos. How much money do airlines make from these capricious instruments? They always seem to read high – does anyone ever check them?

Finally on the flight itself, I ask for a bottle of fruit juice and offer a $5 note. “Ooh, sorry, credit card payments only.” My card is in my checked luggage. I opt to dehydrate. The flight attendant shows unexpected compassion and gives me a bottle of water for free. Everyone else has to pay. It’s obviously my lucky day.

So now I’m back in Bali, and the arriving culture shock is nowhere near as great as it used to be. The laissez-faire attitudes to time are identical in Australia now, as is the lax approach to service and the rampant opportunism. And the two container-loads of furniture I helped shift can be seen on a single motorbike in Legian any day of the week.

But the weather sure is better.


The Great Bali Airport Bottleneck

August 8, 2010

My plane from Singapore touches down at Ngurah Rai International Airport and taxis up to the designated arrival gate. Good, I muse – it’s early afternoon and I can see that most of the aero-bridges are yawning forlornly at the tarmac. Ours seems to be the only plane that is about to discharge a horde of Bali-bound bodies, so I’m thinking that it should be an easy milk run getting through Immigration and Customs – particularly as I’ll be using the special section for locals and foreigners with a KITAS.

I mentally prepare myself for a quick sprint through the formalities and an early arrival at my villa. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. At Bali’s only airport, believing that things will be easy makes coping with the subsequent chaos of arrival formalities that much harder.

Naturally, our plane has stopped at the one gate which is furthest (as measured in tired footsteps) from the arrivals hall, necessitating a walk around practically the entire perimeter of the terminal building. That’s a long way on foot, and I feel mildly sorry for those elderly and incapacitated passengers that I am forced to elbow out of my way on the mad dash to immigration.

As our plane-load of  hopefuls decants into the arrivals area, I am shocked to see that a simmering cauldron of humanity is already there. Where did they come from? The hall is packed, the queues horrendous, the non-air-conditioned space steaming with angst, fatigue and resentment. Several tantrums are in progress, with lots of tears and pouty lips, but at least their children seem quite well-behaved. But of course, I get to by-pass all this, leaving the mess of confusing VOA pay counters, VOA receipt counters and the five out of seventeen open immigration desks behind me. I walk confidently past the right-hand side of the incipient riot and enter the Special Zone for the Blessed, set up for those who do not need a Visa on Arrival.

The good news is that most of the desks are open. The bad news is that all queues are already thirty deep. With an alacrity that belies my age, I leap to the end of the shortest line. I should know by now that this guarantees that someone ahead of me will have such amazing irregularities in their paperwork that the overworked immigration officer will disappear to confer endlessly with colleagues, supervisors and, for all I know, the President himself before returning. This of course, happens. Twice.

But during the time that our queue has no visible destination, more people arrive and flow down both sides of our previously single-file queue to its very head. A silent scrabble for power ensues, with the new arrivals viciously elbowing their way into non-existent gaps in the original line. Predominantly men, they refuse to respond, or even make eye-contact when challenged, maintaining unfocused stares into the distance while shoving both men and women aside. The queue etiquette there resembles forty hungry piglets on a twenty-teat sow, except the squealing is a little more muted.

Eventually a security officer arrives and insists that our queue transform itself into a single file. More elbow-flailing and shoulder-wedging achieves that directive, but our line triples in length and I effectively move thirty people backwards. My legendary sang-froid is finally deserting me as I prepare to smite a person behind me who is tapping me on the shoulder. But it is a young Indonesian woman, and she disarms me by saying: “You have incredible patience. Thank you. I would like to apologise for my countrymen. They have no respect and no manners”.

With excruciating slowness, I get to the head of the queue. It is now one hour and fifty five minutes since I de-planed. The immigration chap looks at me, flips through my passport, looks at his computer screen and says: “No good”. Not only my heart, but my liver, stomach and spleen sinks. “Problem”, he says. I think they train them at Immigration School to be laconic. He accompanies me to a hot little office with a big ‘No Smoking’ sign. The duty officer there stubs out his cigarette (oblivious to my longing look at the still-smoking butt) and examines my passport. I have visions of being deported. In excellent English, he informs me that he can see that my passport, KITAS renewal and Multiple Entry stamp are all in order. He continues: “But the trouble is, our computer system doesn’t know that. I think it never will. You will have this problem every time you leave or enter Indonesia”. My entrails sink lower. “But”, he says with a smile, “next time, don’t stand in the queue. Come straight to the office and we will clear immigration here for you”.

I can’t believe it. My documentation gets fouled up and I benefit? In Bali, that is like winning the lottery. After a two hour wait in the local queue, I am perhaps not as ecstatic as I should be.  I have just been through Singapore  and Frankfurt immigration controls, taking about 10 minutes each time – airports that have 7.5 times more passenger movements than Bali. But my improved mood does mean that I don’t bother snarling at the taxi booth man when he tries to overcharge me. I just hand him the correct fare and tap the banknotes twice with my finger. He gives me that Bali look, then acquiesces with a shrug.

Ah Bali – you’ve got to love it.


A Mistake That Was Meant to Be

August 1, 2010

I’m back in Bali after nearly four weeks away in sub-polar Lithuania – and it’s cold back here. I expected a mild European summer, but it was 39°C for most of the time. And after bragging about the delightful Bali climate all year round to any Lithuanian who would listen, I came home to 24°C and a chilly drizzle. The rainy season continues apace, with no regard for a calendar that insists it should have been over in March.

My trip was somewhat tinged with sadness, as it was primarily to lay my dad’s ashes to rest in his home country, honouring a promise made to him  some time ago. So early in July I left Bali, leaving my barely pregnant pembantu to look after the villa. She seemed in good humour when I left, apart from being mildly discomfited by bouts of morning sickness over the preceding six weeks, but she assured me that all would be well.

But on my return, she seemed a little different. She was stressed, anxious and avoided strenuous exertion. This was unusual for her, as she thinks nothing of hoisting a 20kg water bottle up to head height on to the dispenser. She normally does this with fluid grace and never spills a drop. By comparison I grunt, groan, stagger and splash around veritable lakes while performing the same task.

Concerned, I asked her if her pregnancy was progressing well – and she all but broke down. Even though she was close to the end of the first trimester, her morning sickness was much worse, lasting well into late morning. For me ‘late morning’ is about an hour after I get up, but with her day starting at dawn, the morning nausea had now become a five hour ordeal. Then she told me what was really worrying her.

“My weight”, she said, lip trembling. “Before you leave, 49kg. Now, 39kg”. She was understandably concerned about a 10kg loss in two and a half months, having been told by her mother, sister, aunts and in fact, probably the entire female complement of the village that she should expect a gain of about 2kg during this time. “What about your doctor?”, I asked. “I can not go yet – she told me to come back again in three months, so I can only go next month.” It’s amazing that patients invest such authority in their medicos – to the extent that they dare not question a pronouncement, even when they feel that something is wrong.

As a male, I have always felt it prudent to let womenfolk handle the complex logistics of their pregnancies and the burden of childbirth. Being vastly under-qualified in obstetrics also meant that I was reluctant to reassure my pembantu that everything was fine – when it may not have been. Steeling myself to insist that she see a specialist, I was tremendously relieved when she accepted my offer to arrange a visit to the obstetrics clinic at Kasih Ibu hospital and to pay for the consultation. Given that she is one of those rare types here who asks for nothing and is reluctant to accept gifts, I was surprised, but gratified.

A few phone calls later, I confirmed that she could attend the clinic and charge it to my account, and her appointment was duly set up for that evening. I was just about to order dinner when a call from the hospital informed me that I would have to attend personally as well, “to pay”. “But you confirmed that she could charge my account”, I said, looking at my menu forlornly. “You were misinformed”, said the mildly amused receptionist.

Leaving my bemused waitress, I promptly jump on my bike for an adrenaline-charged Top Gun ride along Jl. Imam Bonjol (Avenue of a Thousand Frights), dodging other two-wheeled projectiles, cars driven by people who believe they are immortal, and monstrous trucks, each reminiscent of a speeding Mt. Agung. I am ready for hospital admission myself when I arrive, preferably one with a psych ward.

We sit in the waiting room for an hour or so, my nervous pembantu cracking her knuckles endlessly, as she does when stressed. Her husband sits beside her, equally nervous – a fish in an unfamiliar ocean. Consultation over, they come back to join me, her staring fixedly at some documents in her hand. She appears stricken, and I fear the worst. But she is holding a sonogram – an image of the foetus growing in her womb. And it is not fear I see on her face, it is wonder, and a dawning understanding that this miracle is real. Here is a new life, and she is the mother. To her, it is not a foetus she sees, but her baby.

I hesitate to spoil the moment and ask: “Ah … and about your weight?” but I do anyway. “Oh”, she says beaming like a lighthouse. “Everything is fine. Doctor weighed me – 49kg. She said my scales at home must be broken! I am so happy now!” Her transformation is complete. From being a nervous wreck to being radiantly happy took a day.

So the ‘weight loss’ was just an equipment malfunction, and her clinic visit was unnecessary. But was it really? Without the concern about weight that led to the visit, there would have been no doctor’s reassurance, and no sonogram. Without the sonogram, there would have been continued anxiety and little chance of that magic connection suddenly materialising between mother and child. Yes, the visit was worth it, if only to see the expression on her face.

Three weeks ago, I left Bali to deal with a sad homecoming for my father – an ending of sorts. I returned, privileged to play a small part in a joyful beginning. The cycle somehow feels complete now.


Department stores blues – with tinsel

December 21, 2009

The festive season in December brings on a lightness of spirit for many people. Me, I’m more the bah humbug type. All this ‘joy to the world’ stuff  going on makes me squirm. Morbidly obese guys with red cheeks (how’s the blood pressure, Santa?), wearing boots, fur-lined suits and standing in fake snow don’t do it for me in tropical climes. Oh, I like the sentiments of the season and I love the opportunity to see my sadly neglected family. I’m not that much of a hopeless scrooge. It’s the trappings that irk me – the contrived, relentlessly cheerful commercial environments that are so at odds with my inner grump.

Take hotels, for example. Two weeks before Christmas, I was staying in a Kuala Lumpur hotel. Except for my room, the entire building was suffused with the most atrocious, musak-style renditions of Christmas carols ever recorded. The lobby, the lifts, the restaurants – every space, alcove and corridor was filled with this aural Valium. The big shopping malls were the same, except the music was louder and more obnoxious. I wasn’t expecting to hear this stuff in a city which seems (to my untutored eye) to be predominantly Muslim. Even more unexpected was to see shop assistants in red tights, short, white-trimmed red skirts and jackets – and traditional Muslim head-scarves. It’s an interesting and tolerant world. Or maybe it’s just that a religiously eclectic approach to retailing generates more sales.

Luckily, the season’s excesses don’t seem quite as bad in Bali. Some stores seem to have a few Christmas decorations, which I grudgingly confess is mildly uplifting. But the in-store shopping experience for customers continues to be unaffected by logic, product knowledge or common sense. It remains as strange as it is during the rest of the year, except now it has tinsel. Shopping in a Bali department store is an experience that requires throwing away all expectations and embracing frustration like a old friend.

So there I was, buying a replacement wall clip for a hand-held shower because I had accidentally snapped the flimsy plastic of the old one, allegedly after imbibing too much Christmas spirit. The assistant eagerly showed me a shower head, complete with flexible pipe, fittings and assorted incomprehensible hardware.
Me: “No, I just want this bit” (indicating the wall clip)
Assistant: (Regretfully) “Oh no, sorry, I do not have – only whole shower”.
So I walk two steps and find a little plastic packet containing – you guessed it – a wall clip.
Me: “Oh look, you do have one here!” 
Assistant: “No”.
Me: (confused) “No?”
Assistant: “Not mine. This shelf belongs to Putu. I not do his shelf”
So it transpires that Putu is not at work today, but fortunately I can still take the item from ‘Putu’s shelf’ to the checkout. It’s just that the assistant on duty couldn’t actually sell it to me. Or even tell me it was there, evidently.

I also needed a plug-in mosquito killer heater thingy that vapourises a liquid, which in turn comes in a little bottle that you push into the base of the heater. Except I couldn’t find the liquid. “Maybe it’s on Putu’s shelf?” I enquired innocently. “No, no – we sell only the unit, not the liquid”. Bali’s answer to global warming? No. In Bali, there seems to be a disconnect between the concept of selling hardware and the concept of supplying consumables for that hardware. Lesson: if you actually find consumables for stuff you own, buy heaps. In fact, if you find anything you like, buy it on the spot. Nothing seems to be kept in stock – it’s all on the shelves. Don’t come back later – the item you saw before is unlikely to still be there.

Then there’s the undies problem. I just don’t have any luck with buying unmentionables in Bali. I know my size, but the problem is that the size on the smalls bears no resemblance to the size of the smalls. I suspect that the size tags are made in a different factory to the garments themselves, then sewn on randomly by poorly-trained Uluwatu monkeys. I now have ten pairs of undies that would be too tight on a Kintamani dog, but even BAWA doesn’t want them for the puppies. And don’t start me on other garments sold in department stores. Everything is laid out by brand, so even if do you find some shirts, they will all be from one maker. Then you have to traipse over to the other side of the store to find some other brand of shirt, and somewhere else if you don’t like those … no wonder I avoid shopping here.

The final straw in my shopping extravaganza came while looking for laser printer labels. After earnest assurances from staff that they do not not stock them, and in fact have never even heard of them, I found some. In the tools and hardware section. They were labelled “Paper Sticker – for all stick design”. Silly me.

In future, maybe I should just do all my Christmas shopping in Kuala Lumpur. After all, I can always wear earplugs to drown out the Christmas carols.


Strange language experiences

August 21, 2009

Every so often, one needs to go off-island – to explore, reconnect with the rest of the world, reflect and rejuvenate. I’m back in Bali after a two-week sojourn to Lithuania – the land of my parents. It was more of a pilgrimage really. I wasn’t born there – I was sort of  dropped in transit through Germany on the way to Australia more years ago than I care to admit.

Lithuania is about 11 times the size of Bali, but with the same population. As in Bali, the people are fun-loving and friendly, the beer is excellent and the women are beautiful. Did I mention the beer is excellent? There are over 40 varieties of local beer and all of them sell extremely well. Also as in Bali, there is a rich cultural heritage that spiritually sustains the inhabitants. Particularly in rural villages, there is a banjar-like culture that provides support and security.

Despite being at a lattitude where the sun rises at 4:30am and sets at 10:30pm, even  near the end of  summer, it was still surprisingly warm in August. Mind you, everything is relative – the locals were gasping in the 27 degree ‘heatwave’ and looking at me as if I had lost my mind when I put on my jacket for the ‘cool’ 17 degree evenings. When you are used to Winters of minus 30 degrees, I guess anything above freezing seems warm …

Luckily, my Lithuanian is fluent, unlike the crimes I commit against Bahasa in Bali. (My latest linguistic transgression at a restaurant here – “Saya mau banjar” instead of  “Saya mau bayar” ).  Asking for a village instead of the bill is guaranteed to get you strange looks. And that was only a day after asking for an “es kepala”. I still reckon ‘iced cranium’ sounds like ‘iced coconut’ in Indonesian …

Anyway, language fluency, like temperature, is a relative term as well – I learned my Lithuanian from my parents, who left the old country a long time ago. People thought I was a local until I dropped words into the conversation that have not been in use for 60 years. “Have you come here in a time machine?” was one response to my witty repartee …

At a restaurant I tried all five words I know for ‘toilet’ without the waiter showing a glimmer of comprehension. After an embarrassing pantomime act (please don’t ask me to demonstrate), he asked, in perfect English, “oh, do you need to use the toilet?”  A perfect example of how even one of the oldest languages in the world – not dissimilar to Sanskrit – grows, borrows and evolves in response to globalisation.

More language difficulties also cropped up in Germany on the way back. The immigration officer scrutinising my passport and noticing that I was born in Germany, commenced a rapid-fire interrogation in German (which I do not speak).
Me: Sorry??
Officer: Sprechen sie Deutch?
Me: Nein
Officer: (accusingly) You chust did!
To my consternation, the grilling continued in German until he finally muttered something about my disrespectful refusal to speak the language. I knew I shouldn’t have fuelled his suspicions by departing with a polite “danke schon”, but I just couldn’t help myself.

So after nearly three weeks of speaking practically nothing but Lithuanian, I’m back in Bali – and guess what? I’ve forgotten most of the pitiful amount of Bahasa accumulated in the previous two months! Never mind, I’ll just have to go out and order a refreshing iced cranium and ask for the village at the end.

At least I can still say Bintang …