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.