Posts Tagged ‘accidents’

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Why Do Parents Insist On Killing Their Kids In Bali?

July 19, 2013

I don’t really understand why some Balinese parents are so hell-bent on killing their kids here. Oh, they don’t do it deliberately – in many ways they care for their children in a way that far surpasses child-raising practices in westernised countries.

But they allow them to ride motorbikes from a very young age – an age when common sense has not yet begun to develop, when risk-awareness is non-existent and understanding of consequences is totally absent. And ‘road rules’? Well, I doubt that many of the parents who allow their kids on the road have any idea themselves.

So I’m on the road, on the way to brunch, and the road is full of kids on bikes. Many are in elementary school uniforms, all look to be between 7 and 10 years old. They are skittish and impulsive, weaving all over the road, impulsively accelerating and braking without a thought for any other road users. They are dangerous, and unaware of anyone but themselves. I ride defensively, because they show the same the attributes of caution as a cat caught in the middle of a busy road. At least a cat has the sense to be scared; these kids show no fear.

Suddenly, on a bend in the road, a child on a bike – way too big and heavy for him – comes straight at me on my side of the road. He looks to be about 6 years old. He is not wearing a helmet. It’s a blind corner, but he is taking a racing line, cutting the corner at speed, oblivious to the possibility of on-coming traffic. He sees me, but takes no evasive action. Maybe that’s because he has a phone firmly clutched in his left hand and has not yet mastered swerves using only one hand.

I brake hard – tricky on a bend – and manage to get far enough onto the left shoulder to avoid a head-on crash. He deviates not one centimetre from his line on the wrong side of the road. As he passes, he glares at me, his face twisted with anger. How dare I, as a bule, occupy a part of the road where he wants to be? How arrogant of me.

Worse, as he flashes past, his passenger – a little girl of perhaps 4 or 5, who is also helmet-less, just looks at me with that Balinese direct opaque stare, without a trace of fear, or a skerrick of understanding that she was seconds away from death or a horrible maiming.

In the next ten minutes, I see dozens of small children on motorbikes, riding three abreast, chatting to each other and ignoring oncoming cars that have to brake and swerve. I see others cutting corners, stopping without warning, turning right from the left lane without indicating, and entering heavy traffic streams from the left without looking. Just like their elders.

I ride as carefully as I can to avoid them all, because I know that in Bali, if any local crashes into my bike because of their ineptness, inexperience or stupidity, it will be my fault. I am the foreigner; if I had had the sense to stay in my own country instead of coming here, the accident never would have happened. Ergo, it’s my fault. Balinese logic.

And if I do have an accident where a local is hurt, at best I will be expected to pay for all hospital bills, repairs to their bike, ‘compensation’ to the family and a gratuity to the police to avoid further unpleasantness. At worst, I will be beaten or killed by an enraged roadside mob.

So why do Balinese parents allow their under-aged, inexperienced, unlicensed kids to ride the family bike? They know the danger. They know that three people a day are killed on bikes in Bali alone, and that countless others are badly injured. They know that children are more at risk than adults, and they know that children will always promise to be ‘careful’ despite not having the slightest understanding of what ‘careful’ even means.

My feeling is that it’s sheer, uncaring laziness. Or a pervasive fatalism. I was with one family as their very young son jumped on the family bike and rode off to school.
“Why don’t you give him a lift?” I asked the father.
“Oh, I’m too busy”, was the reply.
I tried a different tack: “But he doesn’t have a licence …”
I got a pitying look. “Of course not. He can’t get a licence until he’s 16″. (Unspoken: “You idiot.”)
I thought I’d give it another try: “But it’s dangerous …”
“No. He knows how to ride the bike. He has been practising in the gang outside for two weeks now.”
I have no answer to that.

Finally, I asked the question that I had been avoiding, as I didn’t want to bring bad luck.
“Does he know what to do if he has an accident?”
“Oh, yes”, he laughed. “I’ve told him. Get out of there as fast as you can!”

Oh. I guess that’s OK then.

With growing impatience at my obviously retarded intellect, he also indicates that the young boy had been riding as a pillion passenger practically since he was born, “so he knows the rules”. Presumably by some variant of osmosis. Or worse, by watching his parents, both of whom scare me to death when I see their abysmal lack of road-craft when riding.

Later, as I was writing this piece, I spoke about this problem to a couple of my local friends, who gave me an ever-so-gentle spray. They politely implied that I don’t understand Balinese customs, that “this is what we do”, and that I should not bring my Western preconceptions to Bali. At least this time I didn’t get the time-honoured response of : “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” But I’m also sure that one will come from the affronted after they read this.

Well, maybe I don’t understand. Maybe I believe that all parents have a responsibility to keep their children from harm, and this includes not allowing them to have control of a lethal weapon  such as a car or motorbike before they are old enough to do so responsibly. Maybe I don’t want to be killed or injured by a child on a bike, or see children badly hurt even if their parents don’t seem to care.

But hey, what do I know? I’m just a bule here.

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More Than A Pat On The Head

April 20, 2013

I saw a heart-warming sight on Double-Six beach in Bali a few weeks ago. Amongst the dogs joyfully frolicking on the sand was one that seemed not to be participating. From quite a distance, it looked happy enough, but there seemed to be something different about the way it was standing. It was not until I drew much closer that I realised what that was.

I discovered that a French couple had found themselves ‘adopted’ by a dog lying on their doorstep. It didn’t seem particularly distressed, but its hindquarters were completely paralysed. Not even its tail could manage a single twitch, much less a wag. No-one knew how it got there, or what had happened to it. Some dogs, of course, have a hard life in Bali. I have seen them hit, kicked, and run over by motorbikes and cars. Whatever the cause in this dog’s case, it was obviously serious. A traumatic injury such as this to a dog in Bali generally means that it has no chance of survival. It would be left to die slowly, or be put down.

But this couple, showing compassion above and beyond the call of mere duty, took the dog in. They fed it, gave it medical attention, and tried to make its life as comfortable as possible. The dog, immobilised, was understandably depressed, and showed little sign of recovering from its debilitating paralysis. They tried massage, pharmaceuticals and traditional medicine – all with minimal effect.

Then they went that one step further, getting a custom made trailer/wheelchair made overseas to support the dog’s hindquarters. It was delivered and fitted, and a wonderful transformation began.

There on Double Six beach, I saw the results of that kindness – a dog happily romping on the sand with his canine mates, towing his hind legs behind him, and wagging his previously inactive tail with the sheer joy of mobility.

Custom Dog Wheelchair

Custom Dog Wheelchair

Even his back legs show signs of movement now, and his new owners say that they are even making jerky running movements when he dreams. You could, of course, attribute the improvement to medicine, to regular meals, and to the contraption supporting his back end.

But I think this dog is recovering mainly because of the genuine care and love shown by two strangers who could have abandoned him – and chose not to. They made him part of their pack instead, and for a dog, this is the most important thing in the world.

Aren’t some people wonderful?

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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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How My e-Cigarette Made Me Wet My Pants

January 21, 2012

Breakfast complete, I lean back in my chair at the new cafe I’m trying out and puff contentedly on my cigarette. The couple at the next table glance at me disapprovingly, despite the fact that I’m sitting in an open area, well downwind from them. One of the pair wrinkles his nose and ostentatiously fans the air in front of his frowning face, as if to signal that my smoke is destroying his sensitive olfactory system. “You smokers are so bloody selfish”, he yells. For reasons that will become clear, I find his reaction a little surprising, and decide to rev him up even more.

So I take a deep drag, watching the tip of my cigarette glow cherry red as his face assumes the same hue, presumably due to his climbing blood pressure. Then, pretending that I have just noticed his negative reaction, I wave an apology, and stub the cigarette out in my right eye. I am supremely gratified as he knocks over a glass of water in shock. I take another quick puff and drop the apparently burning butt into my shirt pocket.

I say ‘apparently burning’, because I am using an electronic cigarette, a rechargeable device with a red LED on its end that glows brightly when you draw on it. It has a cartridge containing ethylene glycol and some additives which are vaporised by a tiny heating element. The ‘smoke’ produced is not smoke at all, but water vapour. It has no odour and dissipates almost instantly. Its operating principle is the same as that in the nebulisers used by asthmatics. But it looks like a real cigarette and satisfies the behavioural addiction inherent in smoking without its downsides.

In response to my cheap trick, the disapproving patron recoils and mutters darkly to his companion while giving me the fish eye. Obviously a person who takes great pleasure in being annoyed by everything, he switches the focus of his ire from my ‘smoking’ to me personally, snarling, “Bloody wanker!” at me as he leaves. Uncalled for, even if true.

I am consumed with immature glee at having pricked his pomposity and making him lose face. To stifle my  guffaws, I put my face in my hands and my elbows on the table’s edge. Unfortunately, I’m seated at a round table mounted on a pedestal – one of those awful designs with only three legs. My position midway between two of these legs gives my elbows perfect leverage to instantly tip the table towards me. Naturally, my glass of pineapple juice slides towards me and falls into my lap, saturating my crotch with yellow liquid.

That’s right – I’m in Bali. I’d forgotten that karmic payback here can be immediate. Embarrassing that non-smoker chappie may not have been such a great idea after all. Now everybody who sees me in the next hour will shake their heads at the poor old duffer who has obviously forgotten to wear his incontinence pads. Maybe I could just sneak out with a newspaper over my lap …?

No such luck. A local acquaintance promptly walks in and greets me with a sunny Balinese smile. This gets even wider when he sees my saturated pants. To distract his attention before he makes the obvious coarse comment, I show him my electronic cigarettes. It seems to work, as he loses all interest in my wet lap. However,  this also proves to be a massive tactical blunder, because he is utterly fascinated by the e-cigarettes. And as with many locals, fascination with a new consumer item leads to desire, and desire inevitably leads to an unabashed request, which I, as a bule, am expected to immediately fulfil.

“You give me one electronic cigarette, ya?” he says eagerly. “You have two.”
“No, I need two because one gets charged while I’m using the other”, I explain.
“That’s OK, you only need one. Smoke first, then charge. So I can have one too”, he persists.
I change tack. “It charges from a USB port on a computer”, I tell him.
“Yes, yes, I know USB”, he says.
“But do you have a computer?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “but my cousin does, and I see him every month.”

I try to discourage him by pointing out that you have to charge the things several times a day, but he won’t have a bar of it.  I unscrew the end of one and show him the cartridge, explaining that once it loses its ability to generate the vapour, it has to be replaced. He is unimpressed.

“No worries. You give me one cigarette and one hundred cartridges”, is his solution to the unexpected problem of having to replace consumables.
“Well, no, I won’t do that, because I only have ten cartridges.” I say, trying to keep my cool.
Ever creative, he says, “But you can just buy some more and give them to me.”

This is getting nowhere. So I spend a little time on a basic lesson about the difference between consumer items, which might be relatively cheap, and the consumables that they need to keep running, which in the long run can end up hellishly expensive. I go through all the arguments as to why it would be thoroughly impractical for me to give him one of my electronic cigarettes, stressing that he has no way of charging the thing anyway, and would have no source of consumables or spare parts.

I leave out some other, equally pertinent reasons for not wanting to accommodate his request, such as the fact that I hardly know him and my general ire about always being asked to buy things for people in Bali. But the main reason is that I just want to get out of here and change my pants. He looks at me and nods solemnly, and tells me that he understands completely. I am relieved – I have managed to convince him with the sheer weight of my logical arguments and my forceful and persuasive personality.

He pauses for a few seconds, looks straight into my eyes, and says, “So, can I have the cigarette then?”

I close my eyes and shake my head, both to indicate that no, he can’t have the damn cigarette, and in despair at the damage that we, as Westerners have inflicted on the locals with our pervasive toxic consumerism that just does not fit in here.

“Oh”, he says with downcast eyes, the single syllable clearly conveying that he thinks I’m a hopelessly stingy bule. He pauses for perhaps five seconds, then meets my gaze, the better to deliver a dose of classic Balinese passive-aggression:

“Why did you piss in your pants?” he asks.

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Will It Always Be Life In The Trenches, Or Do We Start Building The Future?

January 15, 2012

The rain is so heavy that there is almost no room between drops. What little space is there is saturated with a fine mist. My poncho flaps and drums in the deluge, my bike is teetering on the edge of stability in the atrocious conditions, and my rider-survival tactics have been ratcheted up to Special Forces level. That’s because I’m on Jalan Nakula, between the river and Jalan Legian, and this stretch of ‘road’ has become terrifyingly dangerous in the last few months.

Not the best of thoroughfares even in good weather, it is now covered with a centimetre of water at its crown, and much deeper next to the high kerbs. While these are normal conditions for other parts of Bali during the monsoon season, Nakula hides an unexpected hazard for riders not familiar with this area of Legian.

The rider ten metres in front of me is proceeding at a sensible pace, but as an oncoming van swerves into the middle of the road to avoid one of the many huge potholes on the north side, it forces him to pull well to the left. I know what’s coming, because I know what lurks under the water. His bike suddenly drops and jolts him savagely as he nearly collides with the kerb. As he wrestles the machine back to the right, the handlebars are ripped from his fingers and he crashes heavily. When I reach him, he has already managed to get the bike upright, but understandably, is not in the greatest of moods. He makes no attempt to blame me – a refreshing change for Bali – but gestures angrily downwards. “Bad road”, he says, “bad, bad road.”

He’s right. About a month ago, contractors installed underground cabling along the south side of this stretch of road. They used bitumen saws to cut through the road surface and created a 40 centimetre-wide trench next to the kerb. During the construction phase, traffic was naturally chaotic because this busy road was reduced to a single lane. The trench was duly back-filled with loose gravel, and the workers disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Troublesome Trench

Naturally, the gravel settled within days. Now the road surface in Jalan Nakula drops a sheer 5 centimetres into a subsiding trench, which has made the left edge of the road completely unusable by bikes needing to filter past the long line of cars stymied by the Legian Street intersection. Anyone who drops their bike into the trench won’t get it back out onto the road easily, or without damaging the rims, even in the dry. As my bruised and soaked fellow rider found out, in the wet, when you can’t see the road surface beneath the water, it is a death trap.

Here’s a question for Bali road construction authorities: why wasn’t the back-filling in the trench compacted and the bitumen restored to finish the job? Surely it wasn’t to save money, because the heavy traffic has now caused the cut and unballasted bitumen edge to collapse and the entire road-bed to fracture in several places.

The Collapsing Road Edge

This was not hard to foresee, but nobody seems to have done that. To fix the road properly will now require a much larger expenditure, not to mention more delays as road-works shut down the street yet again.

And that, as far as I can see, is a huge problem throughout Bali. The standard of road construction appears to be very low and the materials used seem to be inappropriate for both the vehicle loads and traffic speed and volume. No provision ever seems to be made for high-stress areas such as braking areas and acceleration zones. Foundations and road beds are often insufficient, and soil testing rarely seems to be done, resulting in uneven subsidence or even total collapse into sink-holes. The actual road toppings  erode quickly, are ‘repaired’ with materials that are clearly not up to the task, and promptly disintegrate again.

The Deadly Motorbike Trap

There appears to be an endless cycle of  pumping money and resources into building and maintaining a road infrastructure that is not, and will never be up to the challenges of the present, much less the future. The poor roads, together with the separate problem of haphazard – and often truly stupid – parking practices creates massive  collateral social damage. The congestion, delays and irritation translate into economic harm for Bali. Inappropriate road maintenance strategies are not only inefficient, but are one of the factors which divert funding away from much-needed regional development projects for the future.

But we know all this. The question is, how do Bali’s road management authorities stop this death spiral? I believe the answer is in outside assistance. I don’t mean foreign investment – not just in terms of money anyway. I’m talking about expertise. There are places not too far from Bali where the technical and engineering knowledge and understanding of the properties of road-building materials are well-developed. Much as it may disturb some Indonesians to accept outside assistance, I think the time is ripe to put aside parochial attitudes and look for solutions that could benefit Bali. And I believe that this could be done without creating social imbalances, or fostering dependent mind-sets which might lead to resentment towards outsiders.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert body – say, a ‘Bali Roads Authority’ – with expertise being drawn from both local engineers and international participants? Wouldn’t it be great to have qualified overseas mentors, experienced in quality road design, construction and repair working side by side with local road engineers? Wouldn’t it be great to actually develop strategic, island-wide plans for an exemplary road system that could be the envy of the archipelago?

But how can Bali afford these high-priced foreign experts? Well simply, we don’t have to. I have spoken to many frequent visitors and expats who have high-level skills in everything from national water-management to airport construction. Many have said that they would love to contribute their expertise – their way of saying ‘thank you’ for the pleasure that Bali has provided them over many years. But some have also said that their offers of assistance have been politely rebuffed. Maybe that should change.

There are many NGOs which have been inspired by the original Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), including those providing the expertise of engineers, architects, fire-fighters and teachers. Most people become involved without expecting the sort of remuneration to which they would otherwise be entitled. Why not use such a model here? We might even end up with roads that work – and keep working.

Besides, I’m sure that in the anarchic environment of Bali, independent-spirited overseas volunteers in such a project would relish becoming known as ‘highwaymen’ …

UPDATE:  Several days after I wrote this, a crew was busily blocking traffic again, digging up a section of the newly laid cable. Now, as well as a dangerous trench, there is a bloody great hole for bikes to fall into, exposed cables – and a completely blocked footpath.

Cable Dug Up Again - And Just Left

So far, there has been no sign of the new, very dangerous hole being filled in. It is invisible at night, and a small ‘warning’ sign has been left lying on the ground. I just hope that cable isn’t live – if the motorbike crash doesn’t get you, the electricity will.
UPDATE 23 Jan 2012: This particular hole has now been filled in. Thank you to whoever realised the danger and acted to reduce it.

 

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Fire – But What Happens After The Inferno?

December 9, 2011

The heat is sapping at just past mid-day, and I’m finding it hard to focus on work. The pool beckons, and it’s a toss-up between a cooling dip and just drifting off for an early siesta. A waft of smoke blows into the villa, its mixed aromas of burning leaves, wood and plastic creating a surge of annoyance. I snarl. The neighbours are burning garbage again. How inconsiderate.

But it’s not a rubbish fire at all. The smoke intensifies, and from my distant past as a volunteer fire-fighter comes an olfactory memory I prefer to forget. I recognise the unmistakably acrid smell of a dwelling on fire. By this stage, there is panicked shouting, and by the time I throw some clothes on and get outside, the air is thick with smoke. My lane is only fifty metres long, but I can’t see more than ten metres in front of me. Last June a neighbouring villa caught fire, but swift action by locals, who rushed selflessly to help, prevented a calamity.

This time, there is no chance of that. Eyes streaming and handkerchief pressed over my nose, I struggle to the end of the lane and see that the little warung on the corner is well alight. No-one can get close because of the radiant heat, collapsing roof timbers and explosions of flammables. The people in the villa behind the burning warung are mobilising with garden hoses, but this seems like such a puny defence. I am hoping fervently that no-one is trapped inside, because survival would be impossible.

Once around the corner, I get a clearer view and am shocked to see that not one, but all seven shops in the small block between my lane and the next are well ablaze. Shop owners are desperately trying to salvage valuables and stock. They seem to be risking their lives for mere goods – but the reality is that it’s not just things they are trying to save, it is their livelihood. As the toxic fumes thicken and swirl and I start to feel faint, I belatedly remember the dangers of smoke inhalation . After a sudden whomp! as a gas bottle explodes, spraying bits of shrapnel and belching great gouts of flame, I beat an undignified but sensible retreat to safety.

Miraculously, the fire brigade arrives within ten minutes and the scene transforms from chaotic panic into a well-organised drill. The Bali fireys are great, quickly assessing the fireground, checking for anyone trapped, rolling out the hoses and wasting no time in getting water on the fire. They are efficient, calm and relaxed.

They haven’t lost their sense of humour either. One of them has a momentary problem with the water cannon perched on top of his fire truck, accidentally swivelling it down as he struggles with a control to start the flow. As the valve snaps open, the sudden water blast from the misdirected nozzle scores a direct hit between the shoulder blades of his commander standing on the road in front. He is the first to burst out laughing at this unexpected incident. Maybe that’s why he’s called an incident commander. But I’m glad no-one takes a photo – the sight of firemen cackling uncontrollably while fighting a serious blaze would no doubt have been gleefully seized on by certain sections of the Australian anti-Bali media.

A little white car, which I have often seen parked in an awkward position at the entrance to the lane, is blocking access to the extra appliances that are now arriving. It’s also in danger of either catching fire itself, or being crushed should the wall of the building collapse. After unsuccessful attempts to locate the owner, the police, who are now in attendance, decide to shift the car. I am expecting use of a cunning, ‘police-only’ method of quickly breaking in to the locked vehicle. But no, they elect to use a ‘master key’ instead. A Bali master key apparently consists of an enthusiastically-wielded axe, which makes short work of the laminated side window, and the car is quickly pushed out of the way.

Frankly, if this approach was used on all badly-parked cars in Bali, the entire parking chaos problem would be solved overnight.

Finally, after an hour, the main fire is out. The crew is on mop-up duties and the police are sealing off the scene with yellow tape. Neighbours and shop owners are standing silently by the side of the road, staring in shock at the devastation. Fire-blackened, saturated goods lie in dismal piles on what is left of shop floors. Warped and melted roller shutters form grotesque sculptures; sad monuments to lost livelihoods. A cell-phone shop owner clutches the few boxes she has managed to save and stares fixedly into the ashes of her dreams.

At night, the scene is even more surreal. As I return from dinner, I ride past fifty or so people sitting silently on the opposite footpath, staring into the still-smoking ruins. I recognise some of the local shop owners, but no-one is in the mood for conversation. Apart from a small police presence, the rest of the onlookers seem to be family or friends. Perhaps they are there to give moral support, maintain some sort of vigil or pray. Maybe they’re just there to ensure that the wreckage of their lives is not made worse by overnight looting.

Few of the affected would have had insurance. For most of them, loss of their shops means complete loss of their livelihood. What little money these people have is tied up in stock. They subsist on their meagre revenues, which have now disappeared. What do they do now? Will their banjar offer financial support? Are there other sources of community assistance? Should I, as a neighbour, offer assistance? Is there a local disaster fund? If I donate money, or raise money from others who would like to help, how do I ensure that it gets to those affected without it vanishing into the pockets of ‘commission-takers’ or other opportunists?

It has taken an event like this to bring home to me how coddled I am as an expat. I take insurance cover for granted and I can afford smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. I understand the risks of unattended candles and incense, and I don’t have to use dangerous spirit stoves or dodgy gas bottles. But in my local community, I am probably in the minority.

And I am ashamed to realise that I have lived here for nearly three years and I still have not made the effort to learn how local communities cope in times of personal traumas like this. Sad, isn’t it?

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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.