Archive for the ‘QUIRKY BALI’ Category

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The Marquee Job – A Metaphor For The Planning Process In Bali?

May 1, 2013

Bali has many attractions to tempt visitors. Its culture is alluring, the scenery is stunning – once you get away from the The Great Southern Urban Blight – and the opportunities to relax are boundless. With proper planning,  sustainable policies and infrastructure that matches its population, it could be fabulous.

Good planning would mean that hotel and condominium permits are curtailed to match demand. Instead, permits are issued at the whim of Regents who can not see beyond the windfall of the ‘special fees’ that such permits deliver. The resulting oversupply of beds means that competition for guests is fierce.

But instead of competition driving down the high room tariffs, hoteliers have been told by the government that a ‘fixed price’ regimen is to be implemented for accommodation. Ostensibly to maintain the perception of ‘quality’, the real reason is obvious. Lower room tariffs mean a reduction in the government tax take. Hoteliers are now being threatened with loss of their star rating if they reduce prices in line with the normal rules of supply and demand. A modicum of long-term planning could have avoided this ridiculous situation.

Good planning would also mean that supplies of electricity and water were sufficient for both the existing and the projected population. It would also involve introducing methods of conserving and recycling both water and energy. Proper planning would avoid the situation we see regularly here – load-shedding power blackouts, a poor water supply and distribution system, and salt-water contamination of ground wells. But there is little evidence of any such planning.

Good planning would mean that purchasers of cars here would have to demonstrate that they actually have somewhere to park the things, instead of clogging up every narrow road and gang outside their garage-less dwellings. Pro-active registration policies could reduce the increasing numbers of over-sized private cars, bought for status – and invariably on credit – which try to squeeze into narrow streets, causing monumental traffic jams.

Good planning, and proper information channels, would mean that owners of restaurants, stalls and other businesses would know in advance when visitor peaks are expected. Right now, the owners of hundreds of businesses are staring glumly out into the streets, wondering where their customers are. They are oblivious to the dates of school holidays and other tourism-drivers, because no-one has told them and they haven’t bothered to find out.  So they let their staff go, without pay, until suddenly the tourists are back and everyone is under-staffed and under-stocked. There is no planning for peaks and troughs, and so the mad oscillations continue.

I fear that planning, at any level, is not one of Bali’s strengths. The government seems to show little evidence of strategic long-term planning, and individuals seem to show little tactical planning ability. When action is taken, it tends to be reactive, and there seems to be little understanding of the consequences of those actions. Maybe that’s why there is so much back-flipping on policies, so many abandoned projects and so much confusion here.

Sitting and watching preparations for a wedding at a little beach restaurant in Petitenget, I witness a  perfect example of the ‘no planning’ mindset that seems to afflict Bali. In this microcosm of what is happening here on a larger scale every day, I watch a group of industrious lads meticulously setting up a marquee and table on the beach sand. They have been doing this for the last 90 minutes, perhaps ten metres from the water. The tide is coming in.

Planning Ahead - Setting Up The Marquee

Planning Ahead – Time And Tide Wait For No Marquee

One of the wedding planners wanders over from the restaurant, speaks to the workers and gestures at the incoming waves. The lads stare out to sea for 5 minutes, verify that they are indeed waves out there, then shrug and continue working.

The next wave swamps the marquee and table and saturates the carefully arranged tablecloth. The boys, bemused, move the whole outfit 3 metres back and start re-setting the decorations and replacing the wet stuff. The tide is, not surprisingly, still coming in. In fact, the high-tide mark, clearly visible, is a good 20 metres shoreward, but this does not seem to register with them or affect their endeavours.

Ten minutes later, as I am leaving, the water is again lapping at the legs of the marquee. The boys, Canute-like, stare out to sea and will the tide to retreat. Inexplicably, it doesn’t, and they painstakingly shift the whole edifice back another 3 metres.

I don’t know how many iterations of this little drama occurred, because I left, unable to watch the inevitable. But I’m willing to bet it was at least three more …

I wonder if education might help. If schools and colleges encouraged their students to plan ahead, use logic, understand consequences, and gave them the tools to do this, would this change the paradigm? Would this result in a new generation better able to plan for Bali’s growth?

Or is what I keep seeing here just “The Bali Way”, and therefore unchangeable?

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The Tangled Skein of Bali’s Rubber Time

April 12, 2013

They say things happen in threes. In Bali, long periods of peaceful inactivity tend to be punctuated by bursts of craziness when everything seems to happen at once. And when they do, it’s usually not in threes –  five or more minor crises can manifest themselves at a time here.

Much of this is caused by Indonesia’s penchant for jam karet – rubber time – where appointment times are adhered to, but with several days’ margin of variation. But knowing that foreigners are likely to get severely bent out of shape when agreed meeting times are unilaterally ignored, many locals have taken to adopting the common courtesies of at least messaging a change of plan, although this is often done an hour after a scheduled appointment.

I have a number of local acquaintances here who occasionally seek advice or assistance on various matters such as business ideas, overseas contacts, computer or web skills – in fact anything which is a little outside the ambit of available help here. When I have time, I am happy to help if I can, as long as it doesn’t involve my dipping my hand into my pocket. For people I know, any topic is fair game, as long as it is scheduled between items in my own onerous schedule of sleep, eating, naps, writing, blobbing, or compulsively going out for my afternoon coffee. I seem to average a meeting of this type perhaps once a fortnight, but this week was the one that broke the mould.

On Sunday night, I get a message from Person A: “Can I see you about … ?”
“Sure”, I reply, “When?”
“Now?”

After we establish that ‘now’ is a tad late, and that I’m busy anyway, we finally settle on Monday at 1pm. On Monday morning, I get a call from Person B. “Can I see you about … ?” Turns out that the only time Person B seems to have available is … 1pm. I suggest an alternate time of Tuesday at 1pm. Agreement is reached, and I pencil in the time.

At 1:30pm on Monday, half an hour after the scheduled appointment, Person A messages me: “I can’t come at 1pm today.” Yes, I guessed that. “I will come tomorrow at 1pm”. I explain that I will be busy at that time, and am met with stunned disbelief. A time for Wednesday is set.

Late on Monday afternoon, Person C sends me a message: “I am coming to see you now.” I explain that that is not possible, because the only thing that will drag me away from my afternoon coffee is for a major lottery win, and even then only if they actually have the money with them. An attempt is made to get me to agree to a dinner ‘meeting’ that night. I decline; the only thing worse than a ‘business dinner’ is that modern abomination, the ‘business breakfast’. Besides, I already know who will be stung for the bill. We negotiate a mutually convenient time for Thursday.

Tuesday dawns bright and clear. I do a little preparatory work in anticipation of my 1pm meeting with Person B, regretfully turning down a social lunch meeting for that day with a visitor from Australia. Person B is a no-show. At 3pm I get a message saying that he can’t make the 1pm meeting. Yep, I’d figured that out all by myself. “But I will be there tomorrow at 1pm.” Well no, Person A is coming on Wednesday … We sort that out and re-schedule for Friday.

On Wednesday, Person A, already re-scheduled from Monday, fails to either show up or leave a message. Strangely, I somehow expected this, so I get on with a well-deserved siesta, which is interrupted by Person D, who really, really needs to see me on Thursday. I don’t even try to make an appointment, but tell him to call me next week.

On Thursday, Person C calls and wants to come on Friday instead. She gets the “call me next week” treatment as well; I am becoming somewhat jaded and more than a little terse.

On Friday, Person B misses their re-scheduled time as well. That means that I have not had a single person turn up this week at the time arranged. That’s OK, I have no expectations anyway. I meander off for my caffeine fix and ponder the mutability of time in Bali. I realise that there is no point in making appointments here. If all my people had just materialised at my house when the whim struck them, I probably could have attended to them all without a single clash or overlap. Time consciousness is probably just a Western affectation anyway.

Then, while I am having my coffee, I get four separate messages in the space of ten minutes, from each of A, B, C and D, all basically saying the same thing:

“Where are you? I am waiting outside your house, and you are not here! … and who are all these other people?”

I smile and continue with my coffee, then wander off to dinner. I might reply in an hour or two. If I feel like it.

Isn’t karma a real bitch sometimes?

 

 

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Does ‘OHS’ in Bali Mean ‘Ostrich Heads In Sand’?

April 11, 2013

It’s always entertaining having a coffee while watching local riggers putting up the steel framework for one of the endless new hotels here. There are no hard-hats, no safety harnesses, no goggles for the sparking oxy-acetylene gear, and no protective clothing. There also seems to a complete absence of fear as the workers scamper along narrow I-beams, which may be two or three storeys above the unforgiving, rubble-strewn ground below.

The thought of death, or serious injury – even though it is only one missed step away – never seems to enter their minds, which is probably just as well.

Workers preparing girders at yet another hotel

Workers preparing girders at yet another hotel

I watched the chaps here hoist the steel beam (highlighted in yellow) from ground-level using only old ropes and muscle power. Then, by walking along two widely-separated beams, they carried it across to its intended position and put it on its side. I spilt part of my first coffee when one of them slipped during this manoeuvre, fortunately recovering before plunging to the ground.

As far as I could see, their safety gear consisted of baseball caps and thongs. That’s flip-flops to those of you whose culture may have led you to believe that I meant buttock-exposing underwear. They may have had steel toecaps, but I was too far away to see.

One would think that the beam would have been measured, pre-cut to the correct length, and pre-drilled on the ground, ready for fixing into place.  But no, not here. As it was about a metre longer than was needed, they decided to cut off the excess length once they manhandled it up there.

So the character sitting astride the main beam proceeded to cut through the yellow beam with a torch, cleverly leaving a mere nubbin of metal to holding the unwanted excess length. There were no gloves being worn either, which caused a minor problem. After the oxy-cutting job, the first thing he did was grab the cut joint with his bare hands to see how secure it was, which resulted in a fairly rapid heat transfer to his fingers. However, a bit of frantic hand-flapping seemed to alleviate the pain somewhat – until he did exactly the same thing  three minutes later. More hand flapping ensued, accompanied by what sounded suspiciously like fruity Indonesian curses.

That’s when the real fun started.

Our intrepid workman wrapped a few turns of thick poly rope around the short end – which looked like it weighed about 80 kg – and tied it off. Inexplicably leaving a 2 metre loop dangling in space, he then wrapped the other end several times around his forearm. The intention was obviously to
catch the piece of girder when it fell – yet the method he employed betrayed no knowledge of the behaviour of falling masses, inertia, momentum, kinetic energy, or any other fundamental law of physics.

Thus prepared, he hit the end with a large hammer, the girder broke off as intended and 80 kilograms of steel accelerated towards the ground at 9.8 metres per second per second. The rope snapped taut, his arm jerked, and he was a split-second away from following the whole ill-thought-out contraption to the ground, when his personal gods must have intervened to save him.

The cut end of the beam slipped through the badly-tied knot and fell to the ground with a mighty crash as it hit some equipment below, reducing it to scrap. Naturally, I spilt most of the rest of my coffee at this point. Leaning precariously, he teetered on the beam for a few seconds, but somehow – I really don’t know how – managed to recover his balance and climb back on.

Despite having had a reduced amount of coffee during this episode, although more than enough adrenaline, I left, unable to watch any more imminent-death scenes. He, after rubbing the rope burns on his arm for a while, just went on with his work as if nothing unusual had happened.

Bali is nothing if not entertaining.

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Attracting The Elderly Tourist

July 12, 2012

Bali’s grand plan for tourism seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It doesn’t really seem to be a plan as such – it’s more a series of somewhat reactive slogans that sound plausible until they need to actually be implemented.

For years, the driving principle seemed to be ‘let’s encourage more and more to come – but we won’t even think about improving the infrastructure to support the increase. Then, when it became apparent that tourists were staying for shorter periods and spending less, it became ‘there are too many stingy tourists – let’s go for quality instead’. Still no mention of improving infrastructure to attract those elusive ‘quality’ tourists though.

Now, it seems that a new target market that fulfils the desired ‘quality’ demographic is in the cross-hairs. Ida Bagus Kade Subikshu, head of Bali’s tourism agency, wants to encourage older visitors. He is quoted as enthusiastically saying, “The prospect for elderly tourism is huge.” He speaks of promoting activities, destinations and cultural experiences for the mature set, which is laudable, but says little about – you guessed it – viable infrastructure that would make it possible.

So I contemplate his suggestion while gazing around me. I see the uneven, dangerous footpaths, open pits and loose, pivoting manhole covers – and think of fragile, low-density bones just waiting to snap, crackle and pop as well as any breakfast cereal. I see the unpredictable traffic that demands astonishing agility by pedestrians just to survive a simple road crossing.

I see hotels with a multitude of levels, few lifts, and bathrooms with showers over slippery, high-walled baths. I see the potential for a tropical environment exacerbating age-related illness, and the impossibility of getting fast-response trauma care through the grid-locked streets. I see the heat, humidity, dust and exhaust fumes sapping the strength of young, healthy tourists and wonder just how the elderly would cope.

And just as I am ready to dismiss Kade’s idea as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream, I read – with no small degree of  shock – that he defines his ‘elderly’ target group as those over 55 years old. I’m already more than 10 years past his cut-off point! I’m not elderly dammit! I’m … well, mature, but I still manage to live happily in Bali without breaking a hip, or needing someone to hand me my Zimmer frame when I get off my motorbike.

So I decide that ‘elderly’ is a relative term. My 90 year-old mother is elderly, not me. Mind you, I thought she was elderly when I was 30, and I’m sure my own kids, being in the prime of their lives, regard me as a broken-down old crock.

With that epiphany, I look around again with fresh eyes. And suddenly my focus is on the teeming throngs of people, not on the obstacle course that they are negotiating. A good proportion of them are over 55 – and they are all managing splendidly. They happily go on tours all over the island, they walk the broken streets with confidence, explore rickety stairs, ride motorbikes,  and generally seem to thrive on the anarchic bedlam that is Bali.

And that could well be the secret. My own contemporaries love Bali, because it provides an escape from the cloying strictures of Australia’s over-regulated nanny-state. They enjoy a place  where a righteous army of do-gooders doesn’t choke their spirit. They thrive in a place that, despite having many risks to life and limb,  allows them to take personal responsibility for their own safety and well-being, instead of being treated like extraordinarily dense sheep.

So go for it Kade. Encourage the oldies. For a start, the SKIers (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) crowd are not as impecunious as the youngsters and they are far less likely to get blind drunk and abusive. You also solve at least part of your problem with the late-night club scene, because they’re all in bed by the time the clubs open.

By all means fix the garbage problem and the dirty beaches – that’s for the benefit of the whole society here. But don’t try to lure oldies with the promise of vastly improved infrastructure. Not only can Bali not afford the broad boulevards, wide footpaths, parks and proliferating malls of places like Singapore, those free-spirited older tourists who come to Bali probably don’t really want them anyway. Some might even be making up for missing the hippy trail experience in their youth, and are making up for it now.

Bali is still a frontier in a way – a place where you can survive on your wits, enjoy the local culture, learn the rudiments of a different language, interact with a wide variety of interesting characters, dodge traffic and just go with the chaotic flow of life here.

And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple. Send them to Singapore.

I’ll bet they come back.

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A Bali Urchin’s Early Start To Unreal Expectations

May 6, 2012

The Tourist wheels into the coffee shop at a pace faster than is customary in Bali. His face, though kindly,  is flushed with a tinge of annoyance and a hint of  desperation as he takes his seat. Two steps behind him is a street urchin, stridently yelling,  face contorted and streaked with tears of pure rage and frustration. He stands with his hand outstretched, not in the usual beggar’s posture of supplication, but jabbing it repeatedly in the bemused tourist’s face while demanding, “You give me coin! You give me COIN!”

I have seen countless little Artful Dodgers here, but none so enraged or persistent as this one. He stamps his little foot repeatedly and keeps screaming, “You give me coin NOW!” Always ready to soak up the street drama in Bali, I turn in my chair to watch the theatrics. The Tourist, clearly in the wilds of Legian for the first time, is distressed, but reasonably calm. He keeps saying, “Sorry, I have no more coins”, but the agitated little fellow is convinced that he is being lied to.

The Urchin thumps the table and kicks the leg of the chair. Coffee shop staff start drifting over, ready to put a stop to the escalating crisis. Some of the local thugs that hang around the shop all day move in to see if there might be something in this dispute for them too. The Tourist doesn’t help by attempting to argue reasonably with the child, not understanding that he just needs to completely ignore stuff like this until the problem goes away of its own accord. To engage in any rational argument with anyone who unreasonably demands your time or money here is pointless. To try it with an eight-year-old is insanity.

By now The Tourist is looking decidedly uncomfortable, so I decide to help him out. Mustering all of my considerable gravitas, I interpose myself between The Urchin and The Tourist and with all the authority conferred on me by my age and size, firmly say to the kid, “Be quiet and WAIT!” The Urchin makes the barest flicker of eye-contact, during which he dismisses me as completely irrelevant, and instantly re-inserts himself in his previous position. It is a move more suited to a Fifth Dan black belt Aikido master than a snotty-nosed kid, and I am momentarily taken aback.

So to the accompaniment of the incessant shrill yells of The Urchin, I find out the cause of this uproar. It appears that two kilometres up the road, our hapless visitor was accosted by two bedraggled beggars of about the same age, both of them demanding “gold coins”. Australian $1 and $2 coins seem to hold a peculiar fascination for the under-classes here, probably because they can be melted down to make bracelets for sale at vastly inflated prices. The unfortunate visitor, only having a single $2 coin,  gave it to one of the pair (perhaps unwisely), with the injunction they they both should share it.

Naturally, the recipient of his largesse immediately grabbed the coin and fled at high speed, leaving his erstwhile ‘partner’ with nothing. Here’s where the unfathomable local psyche kicked in – instead of chasing his companion to recover his rightful share of the loot, The Urchin blamed the bule for his misfortune, loudly berating him for the entire two kilometres as he made his getaway.

By now The Urchin is incensed enough to parrot the words of the Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board, albeit with some colourful embellishments. “Give me COIN! You stingy! You fucking STINGY!”

It starts early, doesn’t it? Sadly, the ‘you have it, I want it’ mindset is already entrenched in the very young. A staff member finally comes over and gently takes the boy by the shoulders, but he violently shrugs off the contact and elbows him in the ribs. He continues to demand ‘his’ coin – a coin that The Tourist simply does not have.

One of the watching thugs, having witnessed the whole circus, comes up to the railing next to the table. “You give him coin!” he demands. This is getting out of hand. I tell him to mind his own business and get the hell out of there. This time, my self-assumed authority seems to work, and he backs off, grumbling. The Tourist makes another unwise choice, again attempting to reason with The Urchin. “Look, here’s 10,000. It’s worth the same as a $1 gold coin. Take it and go.”

No way. The Urchin is on a roll. He slaps the money from his benefactor’s hand so it falls to the floor and screams even louder.”Coin! I want COIN!” Finally, The Tourist’s patience snaps. “OK, you don’t want the money, fine. Go. You get nothing”, and he bends down to retrieve the note.

The Urchin experiences an epiphany. A spit-second decision ensues – shall I take the 10,000, or shall I get nothing? Quick as a striking cobra, he grabs the note from the floor and bolts. Not a word of thanks , not a hint of an apology. Just a brief pause in the street for a final over-the-shoulder furious snarl, “You FUCKING STINGY!”

I turn back to the target of this juvenile vitriol to … what?  Apologise for Bali? To explain that it’s not always like this? Maybe to help educate him about Bali’s begging industry and how it marginalises women and children, and creates a cargo cult mentality that becomes enshrined in the local culture? Suggest that he be more hard-hearted when it comes to the endless requests for hand-outs?

But it’s too late. He’s paying the bill for his unfinished coffee. “I’m out of here”, he says. “Back to your hotel?”, I enquire. “No”, he says grimly. “Back home. I’ve had enough – it’s been like this for the last five days. The government calls us stingy, the kids call us stingy … bah. You can have your Bali.”

I guess he won’t be back. Sure, he could toughen up. All of us who live here have, because the constant pestering for money is part of the social landscape here in the deep South. His problem was not that he was stingy, he was too generous. And ill-equipped as he was for the realities of Bali’s street life, it still makes me sad to see a newbie depart for good.

Maybe the lesson for Bali’s authorities is that if you want quality tourists, you actually need to provide a quality destination.

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Stingy Tourists? Or Stingy Government?

April 29, 2012

The Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board,  Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, opened his mouth wide last Wednesday, and firmly inserted his foot. Annoyed that, despite the rise in total tourist numbers to Bali, visitors are now staying for only an average of three or four days instead of the seven days which was the norm ten years ago, and spend only $100 per day instead of $300, he blamed the tourists.

“Stingy tourists” are overcrowding Bali, he whinged. “When they come we have serious problems of traffic and waste. The island becomes dirty”, he said – falling headlong into the time-honoured local practice of blaming everyone else except yourself. It’s a little shocking to see officials – whose job it is to attract tourists – turn on their target market and accuse them of not being good little visitors by staying longer and spending more. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a high-profile public official actually exhibit the same cargo-cult mentality that pervades many less sophisticated villagers here. In effect, he is saying: “You have it. We want it. Give it to us. If you don’t, you are a stingy bule.”

Well, Ngurah, you might think that, but as the voice of Bali tourism, you are not supposed to say it, because the backlash from tourists as a result of your rudeness will only result in a wider public discussion as to the real reasons that people are deserting Bali. I too was a tourist for twelve years before coming here to live. Now, as a resident for over three years, I have constant contact with ‘stingy’ tourists, and as a result of their feedback,  I am happy to summarise for you just why this trend is developing.

Look around you, Ngurah – not with the rose-coloured glasses of a local, but through the eyes of someone arriving in Bali after a long, tiring flight. What do you see?

You will see tourists paying $25 USD each for a 30-day visa-on-arrival to enter the country, and then another $16 USD each to leave. Family of four coming for only 5 days? That’s $164 USD out of the spending budget already, and no way to save money on a one-week visa, because officialdom has withdrawn the short-stay visa facility. Visiting Bali on a cruise lay-over for 6 hours? That’s $25 USD per person thanks.

You will see chaos, delays and inefficiency in a hot, overcrowded arrivals hall, with insufficient staff to handle the passenger load and a confusing queuing system.

You will see tired visitors being pounced on by “porters” at the baggage carousel and cajoled into letting them wheel their bags twenty metres to the customs desk, then stridently demanding $10 for each bag before running off to scam their next victim, as airport ‘security’ personnel stand by and grin.

You will see the monopolistic taxi counter ‘mistakenly’ ask for a rate higher than the official published rates displayed, then see their drivers try to con their passengers out of another 40,000 on arrival at their hotels and villas with a pathetic sob story, or an insistence that “this is the rule!” You will see arriving visitors quail as they face the long, long, crowded walk to their car during the chaotic and visitor-unfriendly airport reconstruction.

You will see tourists arrive at what are now grossly-overpriced and over-starred hotels, which no longer offer the ‘book 7, get 10″ incentive packages of past years, only to be told, “Sorry, your room is not ready.” Even Singapore hotels are now cheaper than those in Bali, which is no longer competitive.

You will see a proliferation of Mini-Marts in garish colours selling monstrously-overpriced items to the hapless tourist. Buy a local magazine there, published in Bahasa Indonesia, with a printed price of 25,000 rupiah on the cover, and you will be charged 55,000 when it is scanned. Shrug from the cashier. “Boss’s rules”.

You will see tourists being accosted by rude touts, women being physically man-handled by sellers who refuse to accept a polite refusal to buy their wares, stall-holders muttering thinly-veiled abuse at tourists who won’t pay four times the going rate in Bali (and twice the price in their home country) for their shoddy goods. You will see criminal money-changers short-changing gullible tourists every day, and the arrogant taxi mafia (the non-Bluebird companies) over-charging customers and threatening real taxi drivers with violence.

You will see tourists stuck in traffic for hours on Bali’s poorly-maintained roads, because no-one even considers the grid-locking consequences of allowing local drivers to park wherever they feel like. You will see suicidal motorbike riders come close to killing pedestrians with their brainless antics and causing accidents with cars, after which they shrilly demand compensation for their own stupidity.

You will see visitors to Bali try to negotiate the open drains with lids which masquerade as  ‘footpaths’ here, and injure themselves when brittle manholes collapse beneath them. You will see tourists with infants in strollers being forced to risk death by having to share the narrow roads with texting drivers and motorcyclists.

You will see tourists now being expected to pay the same prices as at home for mediocre western-style meals, and absolutely exorbitant rates for imported wine, spirits and food. Spirits in bars are frequently counterfeit local replacements and deliberate half-shots in mixed drinks are common. Despite smokers being banned in all restaurants, bars and clubs from the first of June this year, tourists can expect no relief from the constant burning of toxic plastic waste all over Bali, the carcinogenic mosquito fogging smoke and noise, or from the stinking emissions of the ubiquitous buses, trucks and illegal 2-stroke motorbikes.

You will see tourists give up on visiting the ‘cultural epicentre’ of Ubud because of traffic jams and the hundreds of huge buses clogging the town. You will see them give up on visiting far-flung temples and seeing the ‘real’ Bali, because it’s all too hard, and now too expensive. Eventually, you will see them avoiding the immense, noisy, polluted construction zone that is South Bali altogether.

You will see tourists recoil from the stinking piles of garbage on the beaches, on the streets and in the ‘rivers’. Where garbage is collected, it ends up in make-shift tips anywhere the collectors choose to dump it. Just have a look at the huge rat and snake-infested mountain of refuse dumped opposite villa developments in Legian, just off Jalan Nakula; have a look at the environmentally-disastrous heap of rubbish at the entrance to the Mangrove Park.

You will see tourists cautious of potentially rabies-infected dogs, scared of contracting Dengue fever from the incessant mosquitoes, wary of getting Legionnaires disease from poorly-maintained air-conditioners, and amazed that nothing is being done about electricity outages and Bali’s looming water shortage. They are worried about increasing crime and a police force that does nothing without money up-front.

And what does the Tourism Board do to make Bali a more attractive destination for visitors? Nothing. It blames the “stingy tourists”. Wow. What diplomacy, what amazing sensitivity. What a truly stupid, irresponsible thing to say.

Well, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, I have news for you. Tourists have been coming to Bali for decades because it has a special sort of magic. The magic is still there, but it is now being countered by a not-so-special sort of opportunism and greed, over-development, collapsing infrastructure, and an arrogant belief that tourists will keep coming, no matter what.

They won’t. They have already stopped coming; and those who do still come, are spending less. Tourists are changing the Bali paradigm, not because they are “stingy”, but because they are driven by the concept of value for money. And frankly, Bali simply does not provide value for money any more.

The question for you, sir, is what will you and your cohorts in government do to change this?

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Suffering In Silence Behind The Smile

March 26, 2012

Her smile is radiant, her posture positive and her voice is warm and friendly. A true professional at her job, she always has a kind word for customers, even those who think that wait staff are little more than an invisible underclass in Bali.

“How are you, Ari?” I ask her – not her real name, but it will do for the purposes of this narrative. “Good, good”, she says brightly, but the tiny tear glistening in the corner of her eye belies the words. Despite the drops I have just seen her instil at the back of the restaurant, her eyes remain red from recent weeping. I nod, and don’t pursue the obvious question. I already know the answer through our fragmentary conversations over the last six months. Bit by painful bit, her story has emerged, a jigsaw of interlocking disappointments that I have discovered is painfully common in Bali, especially for daughters.

Ari is a young woman who doesn’t usually complain, having one of those blessed personalities which are geared towards helping others, always putting a positive spin on events, and calmly accepting what the universe dishes out. There is not a trace of Pollyanna-like artificial cheer – what she has is utterly natural. What unfortunately, is also natural, is that some people can’t help but take advantage of pleasant dispositions like hers.

The well-spring of her sadness stems from the very people who are supposed to preserve her emotional well-being – her own family. She began work over four years ago. As in all Balinese families, all members are expected to contribute to the house-hold expenses, and she has done so unstintingly for all this time. That’s the tradition here – those who can, contribute. Those who can’t – through ill-health, age or misfortune – are supported by those who have been more lucky in the wealth-creation lottery of life.

But in her family, the checks and balances of this social survival system have collapsed into something toxic. Her father, a sturdy and healthy man, works when he feels like it, which is apparently not very much at all. The little money he makes evaporates before it reaches any bank accounts which might conceivably be used to pay for family expenses. Her mother doesn’t work. Her sister works, but has a school-aged son with all the attendant extra expenses that bedevil parents of students in Bali’s broken, ostensibly ‘free’ education system. Of the money supposedly sent by Indonesia’s central government to provide ‘free’ education, only 20% actually makes it to the schools. The rest disappears in the country’s vortex of corruption – meaning that parents either pay for everything, or their child is summarily expelled.

The family has two motorbikes – both bought on credit in Ari’s name – and she has somehow become responsible for both monthly payments. She can not therefore afford a bike of her own, so she either walks to work or cadges lifts from her friends. Her sister’s son, after approaching the father for help with purchasing compulsory text books (which his mother could not afford) was told, “Go away. I have no money. Ask Ari – she works.”

The demands on her for money are incessant. She has almost nothing of her own, and every rupiah she earns goes to support the endless needs of her financially dysfunctional family. She works double shifts to fulfil her ‘duty’ as the resident cash cow, and is slowly unravelling – a deeply saddening thing to see.

The final indignity that drove a wedge between her and her family occurred a few months ago. After a particularly harrowing month at work, where her boss made it worse by reducing everyone’s salary, she finally scraped together enough for the monthly payment on the family’s two bikes, and gave it to her father to pay. A week later, she received a call from the bank. “Where’s the money? Why did you only pay half this month?” Shocked, she confronted the father. He just shrugged. “I needed the money”, he said. She hit the roof and told him that she could not continue  like this. She asked him what he thought would happen when she eventually leaves the family home to get married.

His response was one which no daughter should hear. “You are not to get married. Your place is here, supporting your family.” And with exquisite cruelty, he didn’t stop there. “I will not pay for your wedding. If you desert us, you will pay for it yourself.” Of course, he has now screwed her credit rating to such an extent that she couldn’t now get a loan from the bank if she tried. Forget a wedding loan, or a bike of her own – she couldn’t even buy a Blackberry for herself on credit now.

Unsurprisingly, she left the family home the next day, and is now living with a relative. Although estranged from her father, she still feels duty bound to keep supporting her family, despite barely being able to support herself with what’s left. And her sister, fully aware of the situation in which Ari is trapped, is still using emotional blackmail to extort money. “You must give me 1.8 million for my son’s test at school! He will be thrown out if you don’t! Please, please, only you can help …”

No wonder Ari comes to work with the occasional tear in her eye. Knowing her story, I am enraged at a patriarchal system that allows the nominal ‘head’ of the family to treat his daughter like an indentured slave. I am incensed at the man himself for letting his greed and laziness nearly destroy his own flesh and blood. I look with despair at people like her sister, who are so artless as to believe that someone else has the responsibility to fix problems arising from their own inability to manage money.

And I look with wonder at Ari herself, a woman who, despite an occasional, but totally understandable tear or two, still manages to smile and stay proud, positive, strong and independent.  I couldn’t do that. Under the same circumstances, I would have turned into a screaming homicidal lunatic, trashed the entire house, burned the father’s armchair, taken both motorbikes and thundered off into the sunset. And to hell with my dysfunctional excuse for a family.

I saw one of those ‘inspirational’ quotes today – the ones that normally drive me spare with their facile, saccharin-filled self-evident pap. But for once, this one both resonated with the core of this story and helped me to understand what motivates Ari to keep smiling. It said:

Just because I laugh a lot
doesn’t mean my life is easy.
Just because I have a smile on my face every day
doesn’t mean that something is not bothering me.
I just choose to move on, and not dwell
on all the negatives in my life.
Every moment gives me the chance to renew anew.
I choose to do that.

Ari embodies the sentiments in that little bit of doggerel. I just don’t know how she does it. But I have a boundless admiration for the innate strength of character that lets her do it. And I am beginning to realise that in Bali, it is a necessary quality needed for survival.

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Cruise Customers Climb, But Venal VOA Vexes Visitors

March 12, 2012

Bali’s cruise tourism market is showing signs of significant growth in the last decade. In 2002, the number of cruise ships arriving in Bali was 20. This year, it has hit 90 and rising. As usual, the hype surrounding this sector of the tourism market is relentlessly upbeat, focusing as it does on the expected flood of money into Bali, based on projections assuming untold thousands of free-spending passengers deliriously spending vast amounts of cash.

It would be wonderful if this was to actually happen, but the combination of appallingly bad planning, sub-standard construction, lack of proper cruise industry infrastructure, and the venality of the central government could well turn the hoped-for cruise bonanza into a pipe-dream. Another triumph of greed over practicality.

The much-vaunted Tanah Ampo International Cruise Terminal in Karangasem, East Bali has proved to be a massive embarrassment. Apart from being situated so far from the main tourist and shopping precinct in South Bali that a shopping trip is impossible during a 12-hour layover, it was not even designed or constructed properly. No-one seems to know why the pier, originally planned to be 308 metres long, mysteriously shrank to only 154 metres during the final construction phases – way too short to accommodate most cruise ships. And the attached passenger pontoon was of such shoddy construction that it disintegrated a few weeks after being built. One consequence was that in 2011, the Sun Princess, carrying 1,950 passengers, had to divert to Benoa because of the potentially dangerous disembarkation situation.

In February of this year, the  MV Aurora, carrying 2,800 passengers and crew, could not pick up its passengers after their day visit because the new, improved, ‘re-built’ pontoon collapsed again. Passengers were stranded on the pier for over 6 hours. The ‘International’ cruise terminal was not equipped to provide any food, water or shelter while an inevitable rainy-season storm drenched the unhappy passengers. This is not good PR, and needless to say, many visitors left with a very negative image of Bali.

But let’s assume that all these problems are miraculously fixed, and that cruise ship passengers are somehow presented with a truly professional experience at both of Bali’s main cruise ports of Tanah Ampo and Benoa. Would the expected economic benefits then manifest themselves? Will 2,000-odd passengers disembark in the morning and go on a massive spending spree for 8 hours before returning to ship-board life?

It doesn’t look like it. The data from the Benoa Port Office show that only 20% of passengers disembark for a typical one-day stop, and that they spend an average of $45 USD each. That’s not what you call big money. By comparison, Wellington, New Zealand, reports an average daily spend of $141 per day per passenger when in port, and a lot more people. Even Jamaica claims $90 USD. Of course, with cruise lines promoting a self-contained experience on-board, nobody expects all passengers to take the opportunity to make landfall, yet the number actually getting off the ship here, and their daily spend, seems very low.

I spent a day recently with a cruise ship passenger who arrived at Benoa at 6.30am. Because the Benoa pier is another one that is too short for major liners, passengers are brought to shore by ship’s tender, a process requiring advance booking and a lot of waiting. They are dropped off in an area which is confusing for first-time visitors, who are immediately surrounded by hordes of insistent taxi touts demanding outrageous fares for the relatively short trip to the shopping hot-spots. I had sent a driver to pick her up, but even so, pre-booked drivers were restricted to waving their signs from behind a high fence. From her description, the chaos in the port arrivals area made Denpasar airport look like Changi by comparison.

She said that few of her fellow passengers opted to come ashore, many baulking at paying the $25 USD Visa On Arrival fee. For 6 or 7 hours in Bali, it’s simply not worth it. The standard VOA is valid for 30 days. You can enter Bali for half-an-hour if you like, but you will pay the inflexible, one-size-fits-all visa fee of $25 USD. Why? Well, just look at the revenues. In the first nine months of last year, VOA fees for entry to Bali (mainly through the airport) amounted to more than $42 million USD. How much of that stays in Bali, to provide for tourism infrastructure? None of it. It all goes straight to Jakarta. Don’t expect cheap one-day cruise ship visas any time soon – I don’t believe Jakarta officials would sacrifice a single dollar of their VOA revenue to grow this sector of Bali’s tourism industry,  because there would be nothing in it for them.

Another passenger reports that on arriving back at the port for departure , a helpful chap offered to help him find his way back to the correct tender – for free! Naturally, he was delighted, until he was led to a small shack where yet another helpful chap (no doubt a cousin) relieved him of 150,000 rupiah ‘Departure Tax’ and took him to his boat. Only later did he realise that there is no ‘departure tax’ payable at ports …

Of course, back at the airport, the VOA scams are still alive and well. The officials who embezzled over $300,000 USD by misreporting $25, 30-day visa fees as $10, 10-day visas (and pocketing the difference) were rapped on the knuckles and sent back to work. The government’s solution to their corrupt behaviour was to charge us all $25 now, regardless of length of stay. Now reports are coming in of a new wrinkle, where tired passengers arriving after long-haul flight are told, “You are from Europe. You must pay 25 Euro.” Those who protest that it should be $25 USD are told, “That is only for Americans.”

Oh yes, there is the transit mess as well. If you think you are ‘transiting’ through Bali, say from Darwin to Kuala Lumpur, make sure that you have a ‘fly-through’ ticket. If you travel on a cheap point-to-point carrier, you actually have two journeys. On arrival at Bali, you will have to purchase a $25 VOA for your proposed one-hour stay in Bali, clear immigration, collect your bags, clear customs, exit the airport and walk 200 metres to the departures area, where you will have to check in, pay 150,000 departure tax, clear immigration and board your connecting flight. That’s if it hasn’t left during this lengthy process. That’s because you are not ‘transiting’, you are ‘transferring’, which involves a world of pain.

If you are genuinely ‘transiting’ – that is, your bags are checked through and you have a boarding pass for the second leg, you should be right. Just get off the plane and go to the transit lounge to wait for the connecting flight. However, rumour has it (unsubstantiated, I hasten to add) that the Bali transit lounge has been closed during airport renovations. If this is true, you will need to purchase a $25 VOA … get the picture? Just skip back one paragraph for the full saga if you need to be reminded.

Anyway, that’s the airport. We all know what a disaster area that is. But back to my main thread about the way cruise visitors are being treated – which is with an incredible lack of vision for the future. It is without a doubt, a potentially lucrative sector of the tourist industry for Bali. So why are the local authorities being so completely amateurish about growing it? Why didn’t they build a proper, professional-standard cruise terminal in East Bali? Why are they not lobbying Jakarta for the immediate introduction of a cheap one-day entry permit for cruise passengers?

Why do I even hope that things will ever change in the torturous labyrinth of Indonesian officialdom?

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Security Strictly By The Book At Denpasar Departures

March 3, 2012

Departing from Ngurah Rai, Bali’s International Airport, is always a quirky experience. Even more so now, with the passenger drop-off point having been shifted to a point five kilometres from the terminal. Well, it feels like it anyway. It’s now right in the middle of the gigantic and thoroughly disorganised car park. A long walk through jostling crowds brings me to the crowded international arrivals area, whereupon I have to walk another 200 metres to the departures section …

Never mind, I’m there now, and it’s only taken me 15 minutes to go through the congested first security screening post, fight some inebriated turkey for my carry-on bag (because he’s convinced it’s his), put my belt and shoes back on, and line up at the Garuda check-in counter.

A security person scrutinises my bags. “Any lighters in your suitcase?” he asks suspiciously.
“No”, I answer truthfully, because my lighter is in my hand luggage. He neglects to ask me about explosives, knives, guns, box cutters or tasers. That’s fine; I didn’t bring any on this trip anyway.

I pay my Departure Tax and start filling out my Indonesian Departure card. An Immigration official zeros in on me. “Wrong card to go back to Australia”, he declares. I explain that I am a KITAS holder, and that I do, in fact, need to fill out this card. He looks at me askance, then pounces on my passport and minutely examines my KITAS expiry date. It is in order. Then, he finds the separate Multiple Entry/Exit stamp and his face falls. “Ahh, it’s still OK”, he mutters. Still OK? Of course it’s still OK – it expires at the same time as my KITAS, doesn’t it? Wrong. I discover that the essential multiple entry stamp actually expires one month before my KITAS expires!

I have no idea why that is, and my puzzlement must be apparent. “Many people get caught!” says the officer. “But no problem – only small fee to fix …” Ahh, now I understand his zeal. I resolve to check my expiry dates more carefully during my next renewal. I also need to find out why the two supposedly linked permits are not date-synchronised. Another little trap uncovered.

As boarding time approaches, I head off to Gate 6, the designated departure gate for my Garuda flight. It’s completely deserted. Uh oh. There are no status boards and there have been no gate-change announcements either. A few anxious moments later, I am directed to Gate 8, where another bag scan takes place. Then, further on, another security checkpoint officer physically checks my carry-on bag. “Do you have a lighter in your bag?” he asks. “Yes, I do – I’ll put it in my pocket”, I say. See, I’ve done this before. I know that in Bali, you can’t take a lighter in your hand luggage. You are always told, “Put it in your pocket”, for some completely incomprehensible reason. Perhaps airlines think that burning a hole in your own lap is preferable to scorching their overhead lockers, although I have never heard of a lighter spontaneously igniting in either location.

But not this time. “No, you can not take your lighter. Not in handbag, not in pocket. New rules say that we must confiscate all lighters.” I reluctantly put my brand-new lighter in the proferred plastic bag which already contains perhaps a hundred lighters. No doubt they will be re-sold at the nearest warung.

So I wander off to the departure gate – and stop dead. The illuminated sign says Gate 8: Jetstar Flight JQ36. It is now five minutes to my scheduled boarding time, but the plane firmly glued to the aero-bridge is Jetstar’s, not Garuda’s. The first tendrils of panic start to curl through my intestines. “Umm, where is the Garuda flight?” I enquire. “Here”, says the gatekeeper, waving his hand towards the Jetstar plane. OK, it’s midnight, my brain isn’t working and I’m tired, but I can still tell the difference between aircraft livery, even at night.

The gate person looks at my baffled visage and relents. “Here, but later. In one hour. Jetstar flight is delayed. Blocking gate, so Garuda plane has to wait. Sorry.” Damn. I am specifically flying Garuda this time after my last rage-inducing experience with Jetstar, because it’s cheaper, cleaner, more comfortable and the service is light-years ahead of Jetstar. And here I am, still unable to get away from their operational problems even when flying with a different airline! I feel like I am being haunted.

Luckily, there is a smoking room in the departure area for addicts like me, and I head off for a consoling puff. Of course, I have no lighter. There is only one traveller – from Aceh – who has one, and he charitably allows everyone in the room to use his. I start thinking that maybe if I spin some pathetic yarn, I can somehow borrow my lighter back from the security checkpoint. I will even do it under armed guard if necessary. So I head back to the place where all the lighters have been confiscated. I am not overly optimistic, because, you know, security is security, but I’m willing to give it a go.

Explaining the flight delay, my desire for a cigarette and my need to borrow a lighter is easier than I anticipate. Without even blinking, the security man hands me my lighter and smiles. I think to myself, ‘but what about the new rules?’ He apparently reads my mind. “Rules say we must confiscate all lighters.” He grins. “But no rule about giving them back!”

I return to the smoking room. The Aceh man has disappeared. In the absence of Boy Scouts, desperate would-be smokers are rubbing sate sticks together to try to make fire. I brandish my lighter triumphantly, and explain how I got it. Five minutes later, every smoker in the departure lounge has their lighter back.

Ah, Bali – I just love your quirky rules!

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Tap, Sniff, Shake And Squeeze – The Durian Ritual

February 7, 2012

I lean the bike around a bend on a relatively quiet Bali evening, expertly adjusting my line to avoid the many potholes, ridges and other obstacles. As ever, the night is redolent with the usual mixed aromas of musty drains, incense, tropical flowers, spicy foods and raw sewage.

But suddenly, the air is thick with a new scent that defies description, a smell that shocks my olfactory system to such an extent that it throws the rational, thinking part of my brain completely out of circuit and induces a zombie-like state. At the same time, I hear my name yelled, and see a friend waving madly from a temporary roadside stall on the other side of the road. This total sensory overload causes me to ride straight into the deepest pothole available and be thrown across into oncoming traffic. Ignoring common sense, I broadside into a barely-controlled U-turn and come to a stop next to my friend.

I don’t normally ride like that, but then again, it is not every day that I ride into a noxious cloud of durian vapours that not only shut down your brain, but would probably liquefy your eyeballs if you didn’t reflexively protect them behind slitted eyelids. These emanations are gases from a fruit that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention – but Indonesians seem to love them. I find myself stopped next to a beaten-up pick-up truck loaded with a pile of spiky green durians. The smell has intensified to the point where I am ready to faint, but the scene around the truck is so riveting that, against my better judgement, I decide to stay conscious.

As well as my crazy friend, who actually seems to enjoy breathing this miasma, there are perhaps ten others engaged in what seems to be an arcane ritual. “What are they doing?” I croak, my throat constricting. “Buying durian, of course!” is the reply. It’s not like any purchase of fruit that I have ever seen before. I mean, when I buy produce, I glance at my potential purchase, pick it up and perhaps give it a squeeze, then take it home to do whatever one does with fruit and vegetables. That’s the extent of my relationship with stuff that isn’t meat – but then again, I am not noted for being good at relationships.

But what is happening here is totally different. I watch the buyers stand around and just … stare at the heaps of durian with what looks like reverence. They seem to be  evaluating size and shape, colour and texture, as if they were choosing diamonds. Durians don’t even look like anything edible – think green grenades, or miniature sea mines – and there is no way that they smell even faintly edible. They are banned from buses, aircraft and many hotels, apparently to prevent episodes of projectile vomiting by those who are not aficionados.

Food writer Richard Sterling is reputed to have said, “Its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”. I agree, but would add that the gym socks in question have obviously been worn for at least a month without being washed. And as for the taste, Anthony Burgess, an English literary luminary, compared it (unfavourably) to eating vanilla custard in a latrine. Obviously, millions of Indonesians, Malays and Thais would not agree.

Once the careful examination phase is over, the rapt purchasers start picking up their selected fruits and, well, fondling them. They caress the spines softly, sensuously cupping them in their palms and gently moving them up and down as if weighing them. The little stalk on each durian gets almost erotic attention, getting slowly bent and twisted, and even finger-flicked from side to side. A sniffing rite follows, during which each durian is lifted and its various parts carefully inhaled, while eyes are closed in rapture. I get a sudden image of small green echidnas having their nappies (that’s ‘diapers’ for you Americans) checked for intestinal accidents by their doting parents. I dismiss this thought as a hallucination brought on by the odour.

“How can they stand the smell?”, I think to myself. Then I realise with a shock that after ten minutes’ exposure to these fumes, they no longer seem so bad. They’re still unbelievably strange, but the pungent and sulphurously toxic kick seems to have dissipated. A distant memory surfaces – a chemistry teacher from an aeons-past school warning us that if the horrible smell of hydrogen sulphide (rotten-egg gas) starts to become sweet and pleasant, it means that we have inhaled a toxic dose and need to get fresh air immediately. I look around, hoping to find an oxygen bottle, because there is definitely no fresh air anywhere.

The durian acolytes continue their ceremony, tapping the fruit with the flats of handy machetes, or banging it gently against their bike helmets. The final act in their performance is to shake it close to their ears, listening to the noises it makes as if it is music from heaven itself. Having chosen their prizes, they pay the vendor, who wraps a sisal rope around three or four fruit in a deceptively simple but secure carrying cradle ready to hang on a bike. It makes sense; no mere plastic bag could contain those spiked monsters without tearing . The whole process of selection takes about twenty minutes, and is one of the most complex rituals I have yet seen in Bali.

Later, still amazed and intrigued, I talk to a well-travelled Indonesian friend about the intricacy and skill of what I have just witnessed. He is sceptical. “Ah, rubbish, you don’t do all that when you buy a durian”, he scoffs. “You just go in, check it out and buy it. No time at all!”

Oh damn, I think – I’ve just been given a special ‘gullible bule’ performance in the street. Must be that Bali humour again. But I persist. “So what sort of things do you check when you buy one?”, I ask him.

“Oh, you know,” he says, ” I just look at for a while to check for worm-holes. Then I just squeeze it a bit to see if it’s soft or hard, and to see if the thorns are sharp or blunt. Then I tap it to see if the sound is OK. Oh, and the smell has to be just right too. Then I shake it a little to make sure it has the right sloshing sound … anyway, it’s easy. Been doing it since I was a kid.”

“So, how long does it take you to do all this?” I ask him innocently.

He thinks for a bit and then smiles sheepishly.

“Umm, about twenty minutes …”

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For Balinese, Soon There May Be No Time Left For Work

January 9, 2012

Anyone who has visited Bali is struck by the number of ceremonies performed every day. From the thrice-daily canang sari – small baskets of rice, flowers and incense offered to the gods in gratitude for the richness of life, to full-scale temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations. It is an inescapable part of Balinese culture, woven into the very fabric of society, and of Bali life itself.

Those who live in Bali – and who employ Balinese staff – will also know that these essential rituals take priority over almost all other day-to-day activities, including work. Some house staff and employees have developed enough of a work ethic to give their employers at least some notice of forthcoming absences. However, many don’t, either not showing up for work at all, or calling two minutes before the work day starts with the catch-all excuse, “Sorry, family ceremony today.” Or, “Can not work today, grandmother cremation …”

Sometimes it’s even true. But even if one possesses the gullibility of a brand-new tourist and the compassion of Mother Teresa, it’s still hard to remain a bastion of understanding when a ‘bereaved’ staff member’s mother has supposedly died for the third time since they started working for you.

But discounting the inevitable opportunistic days off, the legitimate ceremonies which place constant demands on the Balinese are frequent, time-consuming and expensive. A recent report from Al Jazeera claimed that Balinese were now spending one third of their income on ceremonies. In a video clip about this trend, Bali’s Governor Made Mangku Pastika expressed concern about the financial load on families who were already close to the minimum wage.

As reported in The Jakarta Post, Pastika went even further in an address to a Balinese Hindu organisation on Christmas Day, claiming that, unlike some other religions whose actions concentrated on “helping the poor, improving education and providing healthcare to the disadvantaged”, Balinese Hindus spent most of their energy on the ritualistic elements of their religion. He is reported to have said that they were so fixated on offerings to the gods and to natural forces that they were neglecting their fellow human beings.

Strong words. Without entering into a debate about the expression of any particular religion, it is clear that these ceremonies do take up a lot of participants’ time and money, and that they do tend to take priority over mundane aspects such as work. The impact on family finances, on their workplace’s profitability, and therefore on the broader Bali economy are undeniable.

Given Governor Pastika’s views, it was somewhat of a shock to read in the paper that he has just signed off on eighteen new religious holidays for Bali. These new local holidays are “to allow Hindus to perform their various religious activities,” according to I Ketut Teneng, a spokesman for the provincial government. These are in addition to the thirteen existing regional holidays and the five official joint leave days. So the Bali workforce now has 36 official days off – twice that existed previously. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many additional ceremonies that are not on the official calendar, but equally important. Many Balinese homes feature a small temple – and each temple has an Odalan ceremony which is held on the anniversary of its consecration. An ‘anniversary’ in Bali is not necessarily held annually. The Wuku calendar system here may well mean a celebration occurs every 210 days. In addition, local villages and community areas have their own temples as well, and obligations exist to honour festivals for these too. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, each festival can continue for between one and eleven days.

And that’s not all. There are about a dozen life and death rites to be performed for every individual during their allotted span on earth, some of which start even before birth. Some rituals are relatively quick, but others, like the Three Month Ceremony, which marks the the occasion when a baby touches the ground for the first time, can be protracted affairs with many celebrants. Puberty rites and tooth filings are still carried out by some castes, and of course weddings and funerals involve lengthy celebrations. Then, every 35 days, there may be ‘honour days’ for things made of metal, fruit trees, domestic animals, shadow puppets, dance paraphernalia and literature.

In total, ‘non-working’ days in Bali now probably number close to two months of the year, if not more. I am starting to wonder if the Bali economy can afford it. While it is easy for politicians to double the number of official holidays with the stroke of a pen, the question of how employers will be affected seems to have been ignored.

If you are a foreigner with staff, either domestic or business, the answer is simple. You will, as always, be expected to pay normal wages despite another 18 days’ loss of productivity. After all, who in their right mind would refuse to allow time off for Balinese religious and cultural imperatives? The problem is, some of the expat rumblings I have heard suggest that the simplest solution is to dispense with the services of Balinese altogether and employ locals from elsewhere in the archipelago. This, naturally, would not be good for Bali, but it could well be be a logical consequence of arbitrarily doubling the number of holidays.

Then, of course, there is the local employer reaction, which tends to be a lot more pragmatic. One Balinese restaurant owner, when asked how the new holidays would affect his business, was quite blunt. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “My staff aren’t getting them. I can’t afford it.”

There you go. It will be interesting how this one plays out.

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When Shockingly Shoddy Workmanship Can Kill

November 26, 2011

My pool light hasn’t worked for a while. Eventually, I pull out the globe to have a look. It looks normal, but just to be sure, I give it a quick continuity check with the multimeter. It’s fine. So I flick the switch a few times and notice that occasionally the lamp glimmers on for a second before lapsing into inactivity. A quick inspection of the switch wiring reveals nothing loose and nothing broken. Right, I think, the switch poles themselves have arced over one too many times. Time for a new switch.

The usual in-stock/out-of-stock lottery at Ace Hardware rewards me with a win – a Chinese-made outdoor switch assembly which looks perfect. Until I get it home, that is, because it’s a factory discard that has obviously been eagerly bought by the store because it’s cheap. It’s cheap because it has a manufacturing defect – the case has been meticulously welded shut after assembly. There is no known method of disassembling it in order to wire it into the circuit. I try to remember my mantra from my meditating days, without success.

My pool man, Dewa,  is aware of the problem and offers to have a look. He thinks it might be the wiring loom in the pool’s pump room, a chaotic mess of cables which acts as a sort of switchboard for the pool electrics. In true Bali fashion, there has been no reluctance on the part of the building contractors to mix water and electricity at my villa. I tell Dewa to be careful. Two minutes later, there is a yell from the pump room and Dewa staggers out with his hair standing up on end and scorch marks on his hand. We isolate the power and call an electrician.

I tell this worthy to replace the switch, install an earthing point, check all potentially dangerous wiring and make sure the pool light works. He does the universal Bali thing and asks for money for parts before he will start. So he finishes the job, asks for an exorbitant amount for labour and tries to get out of the door in record time. “Wait”, I say. “Is the switch working?” He assures me that it is, so I try it. The pool lamp stays dark. “It’s the globe”, he says, “I check – broken!” That’s funny, it wasn’t broken before. “Did you check the wiring where Dewa got a shock?” I ask. “Ya, ya – everything fixed. Just need new globe”. I’m busy with other stuff, so I don’t check immediately (silly me), and the electrician practically does a wheelie leaving the villa to spend his ill-gotten booty.

Next day, I check the globe and it is intact. Grrrr. Dewa arrives and climbs into the pump room to check the electrician’s work. There is a louder yell, a thump, and Dewa emerges, quivering and smoking slightly from the ears after yet another shock. After isolating all power again, I check the pump room myself and find that a transformer appears to be the culprit. We haul it out and carefully plug it into a power point in the kitchen, making sure that we touch no part of the case or its cable before switching on the power, carefully using an insulated screwdriver. We are only alive because we did that.

My trusty multimeter shows 220 volts on the transformer’s metal case, and 90 volts on most parts of the outer insulation of the power cord itself. I don’t know what rubbish the manufacturer used for the cord insulation, but he should be in jail. Dewa is alive only because he grasped the power cord, the dodgy insulation of which fortunately still had some resistance left. If he had touched the metal casing of the transformer while standing in five centimetres of water, he would not have survived.

My ‘electrician’ – a barely qualified amateur at best, and a lethally incompetent charlatan at worst – does not accept any responsibility. “I checked!” he screams on the phone. “No you didn’t”, I tell him. He is incensed. “You did not see me! You were on phone!” Oh, so I have to prove it to him now? “Not my fault!” he yells. No, it never is here, is it? Deny, lay blame, justify and invent a story – the four mainstays of the incompetent’s defence. Not a hint of an apology, or of accepting responsibility for his actions. I resolve never to use him again, but wonder uneasily how long it will be before he kills either himself or one of his customers.

I think of other times and other villas, where shocks are the norm and the quality of electrical work is abysmal. I ride past villas under construction and see bare electrical cable being laid in concrete slabs without the use of conduits, cabling with savage kinks being pulled tight in walls and roofs, and metal boxes with fragile wiring poking through roughly-drilled holes without the protection of tape, much less a grommet. I see rat’s nests of wiring on poles and main boards of shops and houses. I think of the number of fires here caused by electrical faults, and people risking their lives through contact with live wires.

I dismantle the jerry-built, lethal transformer and find bell-wire gauge conductors carrying mains voltage, their insulation perished, and rubbing up against sharp pieces of metal casing. A decomposing mains switch is not even properly insulated from the case. Bet it was cheap though.

And just as I reflect on how lucky Dewa and I were not to be killed, I hear the tragic news. A young man, trying to negotiate piles of construction material blocking the footpath in Legian Street, grabs a pole carrying a neon sign outside a cafe to steady himself. With his other hand, he grasps another metal pole in the footpath. It is the last thing he ever does; the casing of the neon sign is live. An electrical authority official says, “… the cable to the neon box was scraped”, meaning that bare wires were exposed. He said that wiring safety is the cafe’s responsibility.

The blame game starts immediately. The manager of the premises denies responsibility, saying that tourists were to blame. He was quoted as saying, “Most of night people got very drunk and he banged the sign,” he said. “Something broken inside of the sign.” Right. Not our fault. It’s those terrible bules again.

But you see, denying responsibility does nothing to bring back a life. Blaming others or justifying is futile after the event. When we are talking about electrical energy and its safe use, we aren’t just talking about typical Bali inconveniences. It’s a potentially lethal form of energy. The true responsibility for its safe use lies with governments and training institutions, who must insist on Grade A standards for everybody who has anything to do with electricity – and this includes component manufacturers and importers, electrical design engineers and all those who claim to be ‘electricians’.

As long as amateurs and incompetents are allowed to play at being ‘electricians’, people will continue to die. I was lucky. Dewa was lucky. An unfortunate young man who did nothing wrong except walk down a street today and touch a harmless-looking fixture, was not so lucky. And that is just not good enough.

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Puzzling Packaging Of Pies And Other Palatable Products

November 20, 2011

Buying food in Bali is an adventure. I’m not talking about those imported food and beverage items that are now subject to usurious taxes and duties imposed by the perennially greedy and terminally  myopic dunderheads in Jakarta. I can’t afford those now anyway. And even if I could, I would still flatly refuse to buy them, simply to prevent the government from gouging us for every single rupiah they can get their greedy paws on.

No, I’m talking about local supermarket products, the stuff that is produced or packaged locally, doesn’t attract the horrifically business-unfriendly government imposts, and is therefore relatively affordable. The trouble is, the way these things are packaged is quirky at best, often misleading, and downright hostile to the consumer at worst.

A high-end Deli in Seminyak sells a good quality ice-cream in fairly small tubs. The size is perfect for those of us who like to fool ourselves that not buying a two-litre container will force us to reduce our portion size, thereby slowing down the process of waist expansion. The strategy works, but not for the reason you might think. It works because you can’t get the lid off. Because of either appallingly bad design, or because Weight Watchers have paid the company to do so, the lid has no known method of removal. It can not be twisted off. It can not be pried off. It has no tear-off strips which might free some obscure mechanism to unlock it.

I tried screwdrivers, pliers and chisels to no avail. I tried clamping the lid while exerting maximum torsional force of the body of the thing. I tried running hot water over the lid to free a possible frozen thread, which turned out not to exist anyway. In desperation, I cut the lid off with a Stanley knife, thereby rendering it useless for resealing. I couldn’t even eat the contents, because by the time I had finished opening it, the damned ice-cream had all melted.

And have you noticed that toilet paper rolls have shrunk in overall size in the past year? Not only that, they are now wound on cardboard cores of much larger diameter. The formulation of the glue that sticks the first layer to the roll has changed too. It’s now a watery goop that penetrates twenty layers into the roll, making the first few metres useless. To hell with it – I’m going native. Stay away from my left hand.

Free SalmonellaDon’t worry about catching any disease from me though. You can get those for nothing from local eggs, the packaging for which has been obviously designed by someone whose native language isn’t English. Emblazoned on the carton is a marketing slogan, proudly stating, “Free Salmonella!” “Free E.coli!”
At least we don’t have to pay for the bacteria here.

More strife results from local tins of sardines not having a pull tab. Inconvenient, but not really a problem if you have a can opener. You have to understand that locally-made can openers have cutting components with the tensile strength of mie goreng, but that’s not the real problem. The cans you want to open often have a top rim which is higher than the depth of the cutter, so it doesn’t reach the lid anyway. I am so sick of chewing cans open that I have given up sardines.

Here’s a pro tip for you. Local packets of frozen bakso balls need care in defrosting if you are in the habit of using a microwave. Nestling amongst the meatballs – and hidden inside the opaque plastic packaging – are several sealed plastic sachets of sauces. Unfortunately there are also two foil packets of dried spices. Foil isn’t exactly microwave-friendly. Not only do the sauce sachets explode, but the hidden foil packets create a pyrotechnic display inside the oven that would be quite spectacular if it wasn’t so scary, especially at night.

Then there is the packaging of local pies. My inner bogan sometimes requires to be fed a pie. Not those awful designer pies that have replaced the real thing, but a good old-fashioned Four’n’Twenty-style Aussie pie. I don’t care if they aren’t nutritious, or are out of style – I sometimes just want a pie. Recently, I discovered that my favorite coffee shop, (which has inexplicably re-named itself after a mixture of beer and lemonade) stocks Aussie pies. I was in heaven, particularly when the owner said he was willing to sell me some of his frozen stock.

So here I am, sitting at home on a Saturday night. Mouse in hand, my eyes are glued to the computer screen. Outside in the real world, hordes of socially-addicted Bali glitterati swan around the bars, restaurants and clubs while the entourages of the visiting elites speed down temporarily empty streets. The peasants, of course, gridlocked and muttering, are forced to wait out of sight and out of mind. Inside my comfortable villa oasis, which some unkindly refer to as my “rut”, my writing binge has made me feel peckish. Inexorably, I am drawn by the siren song of the pie waiting in my freezer.

It sits in its plastic wrapper, beckoning. The bold legend  says “Aussie Meat Pie – Original Taste”. Smaller type betrays its origins as a local product, but no matter. I reverently put it in the microwave, ignoring the warning  that says: “Remove from packaging before heating”. Ha! I’m not stupid. As an experienced pie-warmer, I know that you always leave a pie in its bag for heating. You can’t fool me.

The oven dings, and I reach eagerly for my pie. It is no longer a pie. It turns out that I am stupid; unlike every other pie in known space, the packaging for a Bali pie is apparently made from shrink-wrap plastic which contracts to a third of its original size, but only along one axis. I am staring at a pulsating sausage, ready to explode and coat me with boiling beef shrapnel. With the studied focus of a bomb-disposal sapper, I extract the deformed thing from the oven and eventually manage to remove it without harm to myself or the banjar.

Then I discover that I have no tomato sauce. No tomato sauce! A pie without tomato sauce is like Legian street without traffic, a restaurant meal without a grimy urchin thrusting leather thongs at you, or a line of traffic without a suicidal local attempting to pass everyone on a blind corner. In other words, it’s utterly inconceivable. The chilli sauce I am forced to use is an extremely poor substitute.

But fortunately, because it takes me five minutes of frustration to work out how to get the weirdly-designed top off, it makes me completely forget about the shrinking pie bag fiasco. Doesn’t take much to keep me happy in Bali.

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Fighting The Fear Factor – Phobias In Paradise

November 7, 2011

So I’m taking a short-cut home one night after a late dinner, and turn the bike into a somewhat dark lane in Seminyak . It’s around midnight, and my headlight illuminates a young woman standing stock-still in the centre of the road. She has long black hair covering most of her face, which is slightly averted, but I sense that she is staring straight at me. Her dress is of pure white and imbued with a dazzling intensity. It reaches down to the ground, seeming to blend seamlessly into the very cobblestones  of the lane.  Her garment shimmers and undulates like sunlight on the top of a cloud. Although she is clearly female, not a single detail of the contours of her body is visible.

Right, I think – another lost Eat, Pray, Love acolyte wandering the streets of Bali, looking for salvation, or enlightenment, or … something. Yet she doesn’t seem to have that New Age look about her, and she’s a hell of a long way from Ubud. In fact, in the two seconds it takes me to draw abreast of her, I decide that she’s quite creepy and I ride past without pausing. I feel an intense psychic pressure boring into the back of my skull and write it off as the effect of too many scotches at dinner.

“You are lucky you are not dead! It was a Kuntilanak!” says a shocked local friend the next day. Another one, the horror evident on her face, says, “A Pontianak! You met a Pontianak! She would have ripped out your belly if you had stopped!” It turns out that those who believe in Indonesian ghosts apparently have a overwhelming fear of these apparitions. Reputedly women who have died in childbirth and become ‘undead’, they terrorize villages as they seek revenge. Legend has it that they target passing men. Lucky she wasn’t on a motorbike.

Not being a believer in ghosts, I still think she was just a particularly scary Gilbertine. But the experience did serve to remind me that I’ve met many people here who have some pretty powerful fears and phobias. Some, like the fear of snakes, wasps or bees are understandable, related as they are to self-preservation and avoidance of pain or anaphylactic shock. Some are cultural, like the fear of dogs, or the reaction of small children to Ogoh-ogohs, those huge Balinese monsters of legend.

Likewise with the pervasive fear of the dark displayed by many locals. I had a live-in pembantu who kept her room light on all night. Any power outage would result in screams of fear until she found her flash-light to ward off the terrifying dark. My villa is a haven of relative silence – but the lack of community noise scares some locals who have told me, “I could not live here. It is too quiet – I would be afraid.” They must be glad Nyepi Day comes only once a year.

But other phobias are beyond my ken to grasp, although obviously very powerful for those so afflicted. I think spiders are cute, but I have a friend who lapses into a catatonic trance at the mere sight of one. It takes at least thirty minutes before he is even capable of speech. I love storms – the more lightning, the better – but I know people who cower in locked rooms at the first distant peal of thunder. I know a fearless and adventurous woman who is terrified of mice. A single rodent glimpsed in her peripheral vision will cause her to execute a leap on to a chair – from a standing start – that would be the envy of many Olympians. She flatly refuses to come down until the offending animal has died of old age.

The teenage daughter of a friend is a spectacularly confident young lady, über-cool and totally together – until a butterfly flies towards her. Then it’s bedlam of monumental proportions as she tries to to scale barbed-wire fences and run through masonry walls to put some distance between her and the attacking lepidopteran.

Yet another educated, confident and otherwise secure person of my acquaintance appears to be scared of nothing on the planet. She happily jumps off tall towers, only prevented from dashing her brains out on the ground by a large rubber band attached to her leg. She climbs ridiculously steep and rocky mountains in the dark, and can rappel like a commando. Most impressive of all, she can negotiate Jakarta traffic with equanimity. But the sight of a millipede, even one that has been dead for six months, will provoke a panic attack that only two hours of meditation and a cylinder of pure oxygen can assuage.

I do sympathise though, I really do. I know that aversions and phobias can be extremely uncomfortable, but I also know that repeated exposure to the offending stimulus can do much to habituate the sufferer. It worked for me – my aversion to Bintang singlets was so debilitating that I was actually forgetting to enjoy Bali. But continual exposure to these disturbing garments – impossible to avoid in much of South Bali – has de-sensitised me to the point where I can now see one without flinching. Much.

Who knows? The technique might work for ghosts, snakes, spiders, mice, millipedes and butterflies too. At least it would be nice to see my fearful friends relax a little.

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There’s Something Disturbing About Food That Looks Back At You

November 3, 2011

One thing I’ve learned about living in Indonesia is never to make assumptions about the nature of the food available here. It may, or may not be what you expect. I have been known to be both adventurous and cautious about what I eat, and this has naturally resulted in some novel gustatory discoveries. Some of these have been sublime, while others have been less than salubrious. In Indonesia, one’s culinary horizons are sure to be expanded, sometimes way too far.

I have a set of emotional preconceptions which mean that some foods will always be off my menu. When I strolled into one warung in Batu Belig, I happened to have a friend’s small dog in tow. “Dog OK?” I enquired before entering, ever-sensitive to the potential aversion shown by some Indonesians towards canines. “Ooh ya, but not on menu today”, said the helpful proprietor. When she started appraising the little Jack Russell at my feet with the discerning eye of a master chef, I decided not to linger. Dog sate is off my personal menu simply because dogs evoke feelings of attachment and affection in me. I don’t care much for rats or cats, but they too are in the realm of forbidden victuals. Mind you, I have no issue with sampling various reptiles, as long as they don’t resemble their original living form too much when on the plate.

As regards the eating of plants, before coming to Bali I believed that anything that looked like a vegetable – in fact any stuff that grew in soil – already had two strikes against it. I would tolerate tomatoes, onions and a limited range of green salady things – and that was about it. Potatoes, of course, were an exception , because any man will tell you that they are only called ‘vegetables’ by some accident of terminology. In fact, they constitute one of the most important, and delicious, food groups on the planet. But I firmly believed that truly inedible stuff like artichokes, Brussels sprouts or eggplant would never pass my lips, to say nothing of some of the more esoteric plants that people insist on serving as human food.

Well, since coming here, I must have inadvertently ingested dozens of different types of vegetable – most of which I can’t even name – and found almost all of them not only edible, but delicious. Consumption of rice was an annual event; now it’s daily fare. Eating chillies, once utterly inconceivable, is now mandatory with everything except coffee and chocolate. My preferred sambal sauce now must be blended with napalm before I am satisfied with its tongue-flaying properties. I have even eaten raw kemiri nuts (admittedly a mistake) and lived. Some soggy-looking green sludge from a warung was delectable – even after I found out later that it was actually made from fern leaf shoots.

I’m not convinced about kopi luwak though. Incredibly expensive, this is coffee made from beans that have first been eaten by a type of civet cat in Sumatra, Java or Sulawesi, and then, er, eliminated.  The partially-digested beans are recovered, washed (please tell me they wash them properly) and sold to the coffee-sipping cognoscenti. I obviously don’t fall into that category as I really can’t tell the difference between café ordinaire and café merde.

Durian is another delicacy that is not yet on the menu for me. A fruit whose yellow pulp resembles brains in both shape and consistency, it is said to have a sublime flavour. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to even try it because of its aroma, described by many as a combination of rotting corpses, old unwashed gym socks and raw sewage. Not surprisingly, it is banned from many public places. The locals seem to love it.

As for meat-based dishes, there are plenty to choose from throughout the archipelago. Goat is common everywhere, but for something really exotic, you can try smoked bats from Jogjakarta. These little creatures are only about 8cm long and look like mummified brown mice. I’m told they taste like beef jerky. Doesn’t appeal? How about deep-fried monkey toes? Apparently aficionados just gnaw the flesh straight off the bone. I must confess, neither of these are treats are ones whose flavours I am ever likely to be able to confirm.

And so to my latest culinary discovery. I’m sitting chatting to an Indonesian friend who has dropped in to the villa to borrow something, and of course I do the hospitable thing and offer the customary drink of water. Then I remember that I have a bag of nibblies somewhere – oleh-oleh brought back from Java recently by a friend. The snacks look like krupuk, those ubiquitous deep fried crackers available everywhere, except that these are quite long. They also seem to have a dark thing inside that looks a bit like a string bean. The taste is a little unexpected, partly meaty, partly fishy, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

So we’re munching and chatting, and I happen to look down at the morsel in my hand. The deep-fried batter crumbles away from the very end, and I’m looking at a little black head. It’s like a tiny snake, with two eyes looking reproachfully back at me. I freeze. My companion sees me staring and says, “Belut. Nice!” Totally unable to think of any intelligent rejoiner, I make do with “Umm …” Sensing my consternation, she says, “Belut. Like snake.” Oh Jesus. Well, after desperately diving into Google, it turns out that it’s not a snake. It’s a baby eel that lives in rice paddies, and is commonly sold in most of the local markets. This one just happened to be cocooned in batter and sold as snack food instead of wriggling in a bowl.

The next day I ring to thank the ‘friend’ who had so kindly presented me with the bag of eels. I tell him that I am now considering buying a defibrillator as a direct result of eating his gift without checking what it was. Naturally, he laughs like a drain and tells me that he has been waiting for my call for a week, gleefully anticipating my reaction. Indonesian humorists – scratch another one off my Christmas card list.

But really, the joke’s on him. Startling as it was to see my food looking back at me, those crunchy eels were actually quite delicious. I must be acclimatising. Maybe one day I’ll even try a smoked bat. Anything has to be better than an artichoke.