Archive for the ‘VILLA LIFE’ Category

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A Mistake That Was Meant to Be

August 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Babysitting the Dog – Masuk Anjing?

June 30, 2010

I have felt like a single parent for the last week. My friend Sandy ‘volunteered’ me to look after her dog Bindi while she nipped back for a quick visit to The Great Southern Land.  I know this dog well; we go back a long way. The problem is, I haven’t had much contact with Bindi for a few years. And during that time, she has become older, developed a few medical problems, and has even become a bit senile. But she has been a great dog for fourteen years, and Sandy has spoiled her rotten during this time.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the beast. In fact, her elderly status, deafness, semi-blindness, incipient Alzheimer’s, stubborn independence and total self-absorption makes me feel quite an affinity for her. We could almost be from the same litter. And so I agreed to minister to the little Jack Russell’s needs for a week. I mean, how hard could it be?

Sandy then delightedly gave me detailed instructions for Bindi’s care, feeding, medication, exercise, companionship requirements and sleeping arrangements. “Wait”, I said – “are we talking about your dog or an elderly relative that you are palming off on me?”.  “No, she’s my baby”, was the response. “But she needs looking after”.  I subsequently found out  what ‘looking after’ really meant. The unspoken message was that if anything happened to that dog, my life as I knew it was basically over.

So on the morning of the first day, Bindi greets me as I open my bedroom door. Contrary to specific instructions, I did not let her sleep in the bed with me. She’s a dog, a nice dog, but belongs on the fancy dog mat her owner insisted I bring here, not in my bedroom. I mean, I don’t even do the relationship thing with people. So she walks in, miffed at spending the night alone, investigates the bedroom and promptly exits via the large sliding doors at the other end. Unfortunately, her cataract problem causes her to walk straight into the swimming pool, which must have looked to her like an inviting aqua carpet. The filter isn’t on yet, so there are no ripples on the surface to indicate that it is, in fact, water. She looks astonished, but pretends that she meant to go in, then swims a length, executes a tumble turn and swims back. She’s too small to get out unassisted, so yours truly gets drenched in the rescue. Then she runs round the villa shaking vigorously. Dogs soak up a lot of water.

The next day, it’s time to give her the bi-weekly tablet which keeps her Cushing’s Syndrome at bay. The instructions say “Do NOT touch tablet with hands. Use gloves”. If the tablet is going to kill me, what will it do to her? Nevertheless, I wrap the tablet in some ham and give it to her. She spits it out. I put it between two pieces of Schmakos, which she adores, but she spits it out. I make an incision in a piece of chicken, insert the tablet and give it to her. She spits it out. By this stage, I don’t care if I die; I pick the tablet up with my fingers, put it down the back of her throat and hold her muzzle until she swallows. She gives me a hint of a senile snarl, but at least she is dosed.

I also have explicit instructions to exercise Bindi at the beach. Being a softie at heart, I make a dog carrier for the motorbike out of a foam and fabric doggie bed. Ensconced in this cocoon, Bindi rides to the beach with me, but we get caught in a mammoth traffic jam in a narrow street. The belching exhaust of the huge Jeep ahead, which is actually causing the jam, fill Bindi’s nostrils with diesel fumes. By the time we arrive at the beach, she is so gassed that she can’t walk. Further, my dog-carrying contraption is too snug, so she now has heat-stroke. I give her water, but she lies on the beach panting while I throw a tennis ball, which she completely ignores. People stare. I give up and take her home.

I desperately need some dogless time, so go out for coffee. When I return, Bindi hears the gate open, but because of her hearing problem, she can’t tell where the sound is coming from. I walk through the gate and see her looking intently, not at me, but at my naked lady statue which happens to be on the other side of the pool. Bindi decides that the stone figure is her beloved mistress, and bounds towards it, yapping joyfully. Naturally, she falls straight into the pool. I get drenched getting her out, she shakes water all over the villa again. When I dry her off, she goes to the pool edge again,  staring at the statue. As her muscles tense for another leap, I grab her. I spend the next hour building a rope fence for the pool.

This dog is so spoiled that it is impossible to feed her normal dog food.  I don’t believe in any of this pampering rubbish, so there was no way I’m going to let her sit at my table in a restaurant, or whatever her owner does to get her to eat. But after a day of food refusal, I weakened. I almost never cook for myself, but over the last week I have prepared so many cooked dishes for this animal that I could work at a restaurant. I hope she appreciates it.

Bindi has been amusing, albeit demanding, company. But she has made it abundantly clear that I am merely a temporary replacement for her real owner, who looks after her in pampered splendour, far better than I ever could. At least I now know where I want to go in the afterlife. I am definitely coming back as one of Sandy’s dogs.

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Close Encounters of the Snake Kind

June 29, 2010

My arrival home after a night out at a restaurant involves a simple and familiar ritual – a ride back to my villa down a small street and into an even smaller lane. Then I wheel the bike into a tight turn to face my villa, put the bike on the stand and walk two steps in the dark to unlock the gate – more by feel than by sight. That’s because as soon as my bike is on its stand, the engine stops and the lights go out. Last night’s ritual was a little … different.

As I kill the engine, I catch a fleeting glimpse of something moving on the ground in front of the gate. Must be one of the local rodents, I think, or a frog cavorting in the lane – but something about the quality of the movement doesn’t seem right.

So, curious, I fire up the bike again. The lights flash on – and there, right where I usually stand while fumbling in the dark with the gate lock, is a snake. Its body is fairly thick, and it’s perhaps 1.2 metres long. The skin is pale brownish-green with slightly darker markings which glisten wetly as its scales catch the light. I don’t mind snakes, as long as they are at a respectable distance. This one isn’t – it is less than a metre in front of me, moving from left to right, but not making a great deal of progress. My lane is paved, but has a light sprinkling of fine gravel preventing good purchase for belly scales. The reptile in question is making all the right sinuous movements, but not unlike governments, its efforts don’t produce much forward motion.

I am thinking that if I was that snake, I would be getting a little peeved by now. Oh no! What if  it gets the same idea – that turning might be a better proposition than continuing its slow progress forward? If it turns left, it will go under my gate and into the villa. Not good, I muse. But if it turns right, then I will have an annoyed snake slithering over my sandalled feet. By sheer force of will, I telepathically encourage the thing to keep going. Luckily, it does, and I watch as it struggles another two metres, gives up, and turns left into the neighbouring villa. Whew!

I scan the surroundings. Does it have companions? A change to my usual villa entry strategy is called for here, so I unlock the gate by bringing the bike right up to it, then stand on the foot-board while riding forward and sliding the gate open. Awkward, but effective, because my feet stay off the ground. I mean, I do contain some testosterone, which means I’m really brave and stuff – but what if it came back? What if I was bitten? Who would feed the dog? It’s a cool Bali night, but I sweat a little.

I suddenly recall a friend in Seminyak telling me that she was woken by her dog barking in the second floor bedroom. On turning on the light, she discovered that a large snake had fallen out of her roof and was wriggling on the floor. It apparently took some fancy moves with a long-handled garden hoe (that she just happened to have on her balcony) to dispose of the beast. She left for Spain shortly afterwards, where uninvited snakes presumably stay out of the boudoir.

So I spend the next hour in the villa cautiously scrutinising every possible hiding place – just to be sure, you understand. And yes, I did check the ceiling of my bedroom very carefully. I also checked all the rooms and wardrobes, kitchen cabinets, pantries, storage areas, and balconies. You never know what might be in there.

The rest of the night I spend with Uncle Google, who informs me that Bali has quite a few snakes, many of them venomous. I discover that beautiful Bali is home to King Cobras, Black Spitting Cobras, Malayan Kraits, Banded Kraits, Malayan Pit Vipers, Green Pit Vipers, Blue Temple Vipers, Oriental Whip Snakes and Coral Snakes. And they are just the dangerous ones. The ones that aren’t venomous, like the pythons, make up for it by being astonishingly huge. I recently saw one about ten metres long in Batu Belig – probably a Reticulated Python. One report from Curugsewu in Java claimed that villagers there caught a specimen that was 15 metres long and weighed 450 kilograms.

It is not reassuring bedtime reading, particularly after a seeing a photograph which looks very much like the snake I saw earlier. The caption reads: Baby King Cobra. Oh Lord …
I check the distribution of snakes in Bali, and find the answer: “Anywhere where there is vegetation, water, rats & frogs.” Oh great. That narrows it down.

I go to bed, but first check under the bed and behind all the bedroom furniture. I even whip back the bed-covers, which might seem a little paranoid. But don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same thing. I sleep, but to my relief, don’t dream of snakes. But I think that, like snakes themselves, my future snake dream will manifest itself when I least expect it.

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Great Balls of Fire! The Gas Bottle Regulator Scam

June 27, 2010

It’s lunchtime, and just before Rini, my pembantu, leaves for the day, the doorbell rings. Two gentlemen, their uniforms bearing corporate insignia and carrying the ubiquitous clipboard and shoulder bag, politely request admittance. They say they speak no English, so it is fortunate that my Indonesian helper is still there. Responding to that unmistakable sign of ‘authority’, The Clipboard, she invites them in and explains to me that they are there “to check my gas”.  I repress a grin, and refrain from making a flippant, flatus-oriented retort.

We eyeball one other. I see that their uniforms are those of a Denpasar gas equipment supplier. They see that I see this, and switch their attention to Rini, who is treating them with the deference normally shown to government officials. A convoluted exchange follows and Rini (who is not quite up to U.N. translator standards) tries to explain to me that they are ‘safety inspectors’ who need to examine my gas stove. I’m curious. “May I see your ID?” I enquire innocently. Consternation. “Why do you want to see my ID?” says one of the ‘officials’, miraculously discovering this expression in his hitherto barren English lexicon. I don’t get to see ID.

So I show them my gas stove and the gas bottle. The smooth one (there’s always a smooth one in every pair of travelling entrepreneurs) claps eyes on the cylinder’s regulator and says: “Oh no!” in well-practised, lugubrious tones. I play along, raising an eyebrow. “Big problem”, he continues, “Regulator not standard”. Strange, I think – it was standard when it was installed a year ago. But this is Bali, so perhaps it has spontaneously become non-standard in the last twelve months. I say nothing.

He looks at me expectantly, and perhaps divining that my lack of response indicates that I am not entirely convinced,  says: “I show you.” Fast as a krait, he whips the cylinder out of its enclosure, removes the regulator and hose and peels back the protective metal hose wrapping. “See?” he says triumphantly. “Rubber is perished! Must buy new!” His English, while not perfect, is getting better all the time. I look at the near-new, flawless hose rubber and tell him that it looks pretty good to me. He scrutinises the hose minutely, and says in a voice of ineffable surprise: “Yes. Is good. My eyes maybe not good”. I agree with him and he gives me a Look.

He shifts his focus back to the ‘non-standard’ regulator. “Very dangerous”, he intones. And proceeds to ‘prove’ it by putting it back on the cylinder to pressurise it while keeping his finger on the hose outlet. Then he takes it off the gas bottle and flicks a lighter while brandishing the regulator in the air. When he releases his finger, the gas rushes out and a ball of fire leaps into the air, singeing his eyebrows and causing Rini to shriek and leap backwards into a chair.

“Yes”, I say solemnly, “that can happen when you fill it up with gas and light it”. He agrees happily, loudly saying “Dangerous! Hati hati!  Regulator no good!” I tell him that, on the contrary, the regulator must be in good shape it it can hold the gas he forced into it without leaking. He inexplicably forgets that he knows English and turns to Rini. I think he is explaining to her that unless her stupid boss understands the ‘danger’ and buys a new regulator, she will be incinerated the next time she lights the stove. Rini looks at me imploringly, but I am unmoved.

In desperation, he takes my now unregulated gas cylinder, cracks the main valve with a screwdriver, and lights it. The resulting flame shoots out a metre and a half, nearly giving his side-kick an unwanted Brazilian. Then something goes wrong and he can’t stop the conflagration, so he tips the whole bottle on its side. I have slow reflexes, so I have no time to jump in the pool to avoid the explosion; I just stand there frozen. He interprets my paralysis as evidence that his demonstration has not impressed me and his shoulders slump dejectedly. “You not frightened”, he says. “No” I croak, while waiting for my heart rate to slow to below two hundred.

Fortunately, he doesn’t see Rini hyperventilating, so he continues the sales pitch with me. He insists that I need a new regulator – which he just happens to have in his shoulder bag. In fact, there are about twenty of the things in there. They seem identical to the one I already have. “How much?” I ask. He brightens, “Only 350,000!” he says. “Cheap!” Well no actually. I believe they are selling in Ace Hardware for 75,000. I tell him I’ll think about it and ask for his company’s business card. He suddenly goes all shifty and claims that he has run out. So I ask him for his company’s phone number and address. Surprise, surprise – he’s ‘forgotten’ both.

“Are you really a gas safety inspector?” I ask casually. He assures me he is. As I gently shoo him out, I ponder why, if he was, he didn’t see fit to mention that I am renting a villa where the gas bottle is in an enclosed, unventilated cupboard directly under the stove. Now that is dangerous, but I guess he’s not selling cylinder relocation services, just over-priced regulators.

But the worst thing is that, after his dramatic fire show, my poor pembantu can’t walk past the stove without her eyes sliding fearfully towards the lethal time-bomb of a gas regulator she believes is lurking inside, just waiting for its chance to immolate us all. Oh well, that’s Bali.

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When Your Pool Leaks, Admit Nothing

April 3, 2010

It rains heavily in Bali, which means that plants which are less than robust get quite a battering. Maybe one is supposed to leave them to collapse in some Darwinian version of tough love, but I find that hard to do. A particularly spindly specimen near the pump end of my pool had all but given up, leaning almost parallel to the ground. I could have ignored it, but on reflecting that it may not be all that long before I too am likely to need external support to stand up, I resolved to help it.

My horticultural skills are hopeless, but I can wield a hammer, so I found myself banging several long stakes into the soft Bali soil. I met resistance once or twice, but when one has a hammer, one tends to apply the philosophy of “if it won’t go in, hit it harder”. My plant was soon restored to approximate verticality, but as I had already used up my entire monthly quota of personal exertion on this task,  a quick segue to less taxing pursuits, like eating and drinking, was necessary for the rest of the evening.

The next morning, at a suitably civilised hour (I find that dawn +3 hours is acceptable), I awoke to the sight of the water in my fancy clean-edge pool gently lapping 30 cm below where it should have been. You have to understand that it takes me until noon to complete my personal start-up sequence, so I wasn’t thinking too straight. My first thought was that my pembantu (who likes the water, but finds my pool frighteningly deep) had bailed it out to a more manageable swimming level. OK, OK, a bit far-fetched. Then I suspected that the maybe the minor tremor we had last week had somehow cracked the pool, or broken the pipes … oh no, the pipes! With startling clarity, the memory of driving stakes into the ground suddenly surfaced, complete with the sensation of temporary resistance as the metal plunged into the earth … no doubt, I thought, straight through some critical pipe.

Fortunately, I am not only a consummate problem-solver, but a veritable dynamo when it comes to taking decisive action. So I called my pool guy, Dewa. He was somewhere on the East coast of Bali, but promised to come and see me within 2 days. Great. Meanwhile, my pool was quietly emptying itself despite my attempts to explore every permutation of the numerous tap and valve positions in the pump chamber. Without actually telling Dewa about my destructive gardening efforts (no sense in upsetting him), I casually asked him how much it would cost to repair a broken underground pool pipe. I could hear him screw up his face over the phone. “Ooh, big, big job.” My heart sank. “Must dig.” Yes, I had already figured that part out. “Fix pipe. Pressure test. Replace garden. New, trees, new grass”. Oh no. I had forgotten about those green things on top of the soil. My heart sank more. “Maybe 4, no 5, maybe 6 million”. My heart bottomed out. I could see my savings doing the same.

One discovers things about one’s own psyche when one is under stress. I had always believed I was honest, and willing to take responsibility for my actions. But this was different – this could cost me big money, so surely I was entitled to slightly modify my non-core beliefs? Perhaps even shade the truth a little? Maybe if I told my landlord about the earthquake, she would assume that was the cause, and pay for the repairs? Wait – what if I hid the ‘evidence’ by pulling out the stakes? But then the mental picture of a huge gusher in my yard, triggered by removal of the only thing stopping the flow from the hole, made me re-think that tactic.

So while I waited for the pool guy, and watched the water level keep dropping further, I came up with a brilliant reason why I shouldn’t have to pay to fix this problem. But I’m not going to tell you what it was, because it would reflect badly on my integrity. And I might get into trouble. But most of all, I won’t tell you because there was no need to use any excuse at all.

You see, the pool guy finally arrived, took one look, jumped into the filter pit, unscrewed a small in-line valve and from its innards, pulled out … a twig. “Jammed open”, he said. “Water run out of pool to holding tank. Fixed now”. I couldn’t resist it and told him about my garden stake fears. I mean, I could afford to be honest now. He laughed. “No pipes there”, he said. “If you broke, yard would be full of water …”, which of course, it wasn’t.

So what have I learned? A few things: Pools are more complicated than I thought. Think before hammering things into the ground, because there might be stuff underneath. Don’t assume things. And never, never take responsibilty for things that you didn’t do, just because you feel guilty. It messes with your head when you do.

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How to Get Rid of Hornets Without Lifting a Finger

March 13, 2010

When one’s world gets out of kilter in Bali, instant action is not always called for. Given time, the universe will happily sort things out for you. And it will often do it in a way which is both natural and calls for no effort on your part. In fact, it may be far preferable to emulate the wonderful philosophy practised by dogs – conserve energy at all times and wait patiently for good things to happen. That is often preferable to stressing and looking for instant solutions.

And so it came to pass that a hornet problem arose in the villa. I don’t know the species, but they are big, bad-tempered and fast. This lot cunningly built their adobe abode in an alcove in one inaccessible corner of the lounge ceiling. However, they made a small miscalculation – the shortest flight path from their nest to the rice paddies outside takes most of them through the spinning disk of the ceiling fan. Much like the planes coming into Ngurah Rai airport, these insects are on Visual Flight Rules, so it is left up to each individual to navigate the hazard. This task, and the near-misses involved, so infuriates those who survive the blades that they seek release by immediately attacking any unsuspecting humans in the vicinity.

After several painful stings inflicted on the residents here, I gave up my reluctance to kill living things and sought a way to destroy these nasty impediments to my quiet, pacifist life in Bali. How easily one dispenses with one’s personal philosophies when it is too painful, or inconvenient, to adhere to them! I now better understand the words of my life coach, Mr. Marx, who said: “If you don’t like my principles – I have others”. Right on, Groucho.

So began the fruitless search for exterminators, insecticide bombs, sprays, even concussion grenades – in fact anything that would get rid of these unsettling, aggressive little terrors. After a week of searching without finding anything, it was time to take matters into my own hands. All I had was a can of household insecticide – which turned out to be great for mosquitoes, but without any fast-knockdown capability for hornets. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this at the time. So up the rickety ladder I go, teetering on the very top, pointing the nozzle towards the nest with shaking hands, mashing down the button for a long burst … and the spray nozzle breaks off.

Of course, the quarter-second burst of toxic spray was just enough to wake up every hornet in the nest, all of whom came charging out to investigate this unprovoked attack and responded by surrounding my head in a buzzing cloud in preparation for stinging me to death. My strategic retreat consisted of falling off the ladder in a series of ungraceful clanks, swinging like a gibbon in a failed attempt to minimise the damage. Luckily, the floor broke my fall, and even though stunned, I was able to take rapid, albeit undignified refuge in the pool.

By the next day, I had passed into a stage of reluctant acceptance, entering a new phase of uneasy hornet-human co-existence. I was sitting quietly having a beverage while an occasional hornet, (one who obviously recognised me), would suddenly dart in towards my face before peeling off, leaving me shaken but unstung. I swear they were actually giggling at my discomfort. But then a strange smell began to permeate the air. The industrious rice farmers behind the villa had apparently finished their harvest and were burning the stubble, creating dense clouds of aromatic white smoke which blanketed the villa. I escaped to a place by the beach, one with breathable air, thinking about what else could go wrong. Immersed in that most satisfying of feelings, self-pity, I finally made the trek back to the villa, now clear of its thick white pall.

And guess what? The lounge floor was littered with the bodies of hundreds of hornts. Not one had survived the effects of natural Bali rice-growing practices. I was relieved, yet a little saddened too. If I had behaved like a smart dog instead of a human, I would have conserved my energy and just let things flow – and my hornet problem would have solved itself. I could have preserved my precious illusion that I don’t engage in unnecessary killing, instead of learning that I am just another predator motivated by comfort and convenience. And I wouldn’t have fallen off the damned ladder either.

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Life Without Consequences

March 7, 2010

The concepts of consequences and responsibility seem deeply ingrained in village culture in Bali – especially in its ceremonial, spiritual and community aspects. Yet this awareness often seems to fail to make the transition to everyday, secular life. For foreigners at least, certain social norms here seem puzzling at best and downright annoying – even dangerous – at their worst.

People park their motorbikes on both sides of narrow gangs, completely blocking the passage of even the smallest car – then look surprised and slightly miffed when asked to shift them. Cars, trucks and motorcycles, their drivers oblivious to potentially deadly consequences, overtake on blind corners as a matter of course. Speeding school children on motorbikes, ignoring even the rudimentary road laws here, plough into other riders and pedestrians – then ride off without even offering basic assistance to the injured.

In commerce, suppliers take orders, and a deposit, for goods to be made by a certain date, then say: “Sorry, was too difficult to make, could not do” after you have travelled a long way to pick up the product. And then they want to keep the deposit for “administration”. Tradesmen make promises to come over and fix things, then don’t turn up. Not until you have gone, anyway …

Then there are the consequences of disorganisation, delay and outright dishonesty. One of my friends finds out, by accident, that her first Bali phone bill has been prepared by the  local carrier and is waiting to be paid at the neighbourhood office. Despite the fact that several of her staff know of this, no-one has seen fit to inform her until the last day before the bill must be paid before disconnection. So she gives her pembantu the money to pay the bill and asks her to return with the receipt and change. The maid duly returns without a receipt, or change, and a vague story about the payment having being made and everything being fine – no receipt needed. No change needed either, apparently. Further questioning results in the pembantu completely forgetting that she can speak English. 

Naturally, my friend’s phone is cut off the next day. By the time she realises she therefore has no internet and is not getting emails, she has missed a critical business communication that results in a loss of  a substantial amount of money. Then a bemused villa manager drops in to ask why the pembantu has just asked him to pay the phone bill with his credit card.  The phone eventually gets reconnected after a week of disrupted business. In the end, when it all gets sorted out, the pembantu admits that she has stolen the money, but doesn’t seem to understand that her actions have had consequences. Serious consequences. In fact, she is staggered by the mere suggestion that she should even return the money. After all, the problem is fixed now, isn’t it? And as a sad coda, a few days later, she actually has the effrontery to become angry that her monthly pay has been reduced by the amount that she has misappropriated.

While there was obviously a lack of understanding of consequences in these examples, I suspect that sometimes there is a very shrewd grasp of the concept, especially when it means there is money to be made. A expat family recently shipped a load of personal and household effects from Australia to Bali via Surabaya. The first communication from the freight forwarder demanded a huge amount in clearance fees, admin fees – you name it, it was there, some in duplicate. After being challenged, the amount dropped, but the family were warned that any delays in payment would incur a daily penalty rate for ‘storage’.  The next six weeks were a continuing saga of demands for paperwork – all of which had been correctly supplied at the beginning. There were conflicting demands for different types of visas, letters, documents and other administrivia – which when supplied, turned out to be unnecessary. The latest demand was for the family to send their original passports to an unknown recipient in Surabaya – “just for a few days”. They have to be kidding, right? So what happens during all these delaying tactics? The penalty storage charges just keep going up, and up …

So maybe I’m being too hasty in thinking that there is a lack of understanding of consequences here. Maybe I’m falling into the trap (yet again) of judging other cultures by my own cultural markers. But if it’s not a lack of forward-thinking, then what is it? The glib answer is that people do things here because they either willingly discount the consequences as irrelevant, or because they can profit in some way. And that’s a scary conclusion, because it’s just too similar to what was happening in Australia – and one of the reasons that I left to come here.