Posts Tagged ‘Bintang’


The Collateral Damage From The Van Der Speck Sting

April 16, 2013

A recent video uploaded by Mr. Van Der Speck, the Dutch ‘journalist’ posing as a tourist to ‘expose’ so-called corruption and extortion practices of the Bali police, went viral, as its maker had hoped. It showed the well-known practice of paying police a small fee when caught in a traffic infringement.

Equipped with a hidden camera, plus an accomplice with a second camera close by, he rode past a police post, sans helmet, waiting to be pulled over. Following the best practices of journalistic entrapment, he effectively offered an inducement to the police officer to avoid ‘going to court’. Readily agreeing to a fairly high pay-off fee, he then intimated that he would love a beer, whereupon the unfortunate cop, perhaps motivated by guilt for accepting such a relatively high payment from a ‘nice guy’, scurried off and bought him a a few beers with the proceeds – which they then both enjoyed.

Reactions to this sting followed the predictable pattern of those who come from a different culture, where all corruption is considered wrong. Ignoring the distinction between ‘minor’ corruption here, and the unacceptable ‘major’ corruption which is endemic amongst Indonesia’s officials, the media, in a fit of unseemly glee, went bat-shit over the issue. No point in explaining to people that ‘minor’ corruption plays an important role in the complex economic and social fabric here, and is actually beneficial given the subsistence salaries that are the norm.

No, uninformed moralists of all persuasions, holding firmly to their belief that ALL payola is wrong no matter what the circumstances, expressed their condemnation with the usual Bali-bashing. This, of course, caused Bali’s authorities to lose face and crack down on a practice that is both complex and necessary, at least under the present system of dealing with traffic violations. The police involved were disciplined as well – a scapegoat was necessary.

And this opportunistic little set-up is now having very expensive repercussions for locals.

A friend – a local person – was pinged by traffic police in Kuta/Legian tonight for riding without a helmet. Yes, it was a silly and dangerous oversight. Normally, in return for a small fee (for locals) of 20,000-30,000, it would incur a safety lecture and an exhortation to stay safe. Most people I know learn from such an experience and remember to wear their helmet – at least for a couple of months anyway.

But this time, the cop apologised for not being able to accept the usual ‘fee’, and said his hands were tied as his supervisor was watching closely. He kept glancing around as if to find a hidden camera. He then proceeded to write out the first traffic ticket I have ever seen in Bali, saying that all police were being watched like hawks since the Lio Square sting by Van Der Speck.

My friend now has to go to the police station in the morning and pay the official fine, which according to the vaguely-worded citation, will be either 100,000, or 250,000, or 500,000 rupiah. Even the cop didn’t know.  That’s a lot of money for a local person. The printed citation form doesn’t even provide an address at which to pay the fine, undoubtedly because this method is so rarely used here that the kinks in the system haven’t even been discovered yet.

I wonder if the holier-than-thou ‘journalist’ ever considered that his actions would have such repercussions? A fine of up to two week’s salary for a local is savage. Loss of discretionary income for a police officer – who has already paid 100 million plus for a place in the police academy, and a further few million a month to ‘buy a franchise’ for a spot on a lucrative ‘fine’ corner will seriously affect his family.

Am I ‘for’ corruption? No. But the system under which the traffic police have operated for years is finely tuned to the society here, and the ‘fees’ paid for vehicular transgressions go straight to the officer to supplement his meagre salary. In developed countries, without a culture of, er,  personal fee-for-service, the money paid in fines goes to Consolidated Revenue for the government to totally waste on airy-fairy social experiments. I know which one I think is the more equitable system. I don’t even see it as ‘corruption’, rather, it is an equitable re-distribution of wealth.

Will this new system last? I don’t know. I do know the police on the street are not in favour of it because of the loss of their income. Their bosses may be of a different mind, suddenly realising that a hitherto-unrealised revenue stream is there for the taking. I know the average local is horrified that they will have to pay up to ten times the amount they are used to.

But I suspect that when the fuss dies down, Bali’s traffic regulation enforcement methods will quietly revert to their time-honoured state, where there is a social benefit for all who get trapped by their vehicular misdemeanours.

And, despite the arguments for and against the existing system here, the fact remains that no-one needs to pay anything to the police or the Traffic Department. Ever.

All you have to do is wear a helmet, a shirt, keep your headlights on during the day, stop before the white line at traffic lights, and carry a valid licence and registration documents. No-one will book you.

And Mr. Van Der Speck – next time you come blundering into a foreign country, ignorant of its culture and social mores, and deliberately break its laws in order to entrap someone – for the sake of journalism – stop and think. You might be happily back in Holland, but the damage your stupid journalism has inflicted remains.


The Trouble With Onions, And How Carolyn Webb’s Terrible Touts Saved The Day

October 27, 2011

Finally, I reach the end of the long check-out queue at Bintang Supermarket. My purchases are scanned, and only about one-third of them need manual input because of the inevitable crumpled bar-code labels – apparently a specialty of this place.  Then I’m only delayed for a further five minutes while the cashier looks at me with silent censure and sends an assistant to wander off to weigh my pre-packed bag of onions. I’m looking at my pre-packed, bar-coded bag of potatoes and thinking, “Why should onions be different?” but I hold my tongue.

After four minutes of waiting, I’m ready to tell the cashier to forget the onions, but just then I spy the assistant slowly ambling back and bite my tongue again. The bar-code won’t scan properly, of course, so there’s more pecking of cash register keys until the display grudgingly admits that I have bought onions and not tomatoes as it insists at first. I should have recognised that all this nonsense was a sign from above that I should have just left the onions, paid and gone home.

Eschewing the dreaded plastic bags, I load up my two venerable recyclable bags with a ridiculously heavy load, stuffing all of my shopping into one shoulder bag and one smaller bag. The cashier looks at my shoulder bag with a practised eye, says “too heavy!” and offers me a plastic bag. I piously refuse. As I stagger to my bike, listing well to the right to counterbalance the load, I’m thinking that maybe the cashier was right. But, you know, it would be unmanly to go back and ask for another bag now, so I persevere. Besides, once I’m on the bike, I can just rest the weight of the bag on the pillion and everything should be fine. I’m such an optimist.

So there I am, negotiating the left-hand turn from Jl. Legian into Jl. Nakula, grinning a greeting at the local touts outside the MiniMart.  I skilfully manoeuvre through the deep pothole on the corner – the one that has been cleverly patched with concrete and immediately opened to traffic before it has set. It is a maze of trenches, ridges and wheel ruts which jolt my bike and rattle my teeth. Obviously I’m not skilful enough through this obstacle, because I feel a little warning snap of releasing stitches at my shoulder. But before I have time to react, the strap breaks completely and my precious bag falls off the pillion and into the middle of the road with a great thump.

Oh no! I hear the Bali traffic bearing relentlessly down on it while I try to park the bike at the side of the busy road. My coffee jar! My chilli sauce! Visions of exploding Rinso packets mixing with all the gooey stuff as fat tyres crush my shopping fill my mind. There is another thump as my other bag slips off its bike hook and bounces to the kerb. I stare at it, see that it’s not going to fall any further, spin around to see what has become of the first bag – and stop dead.

One of Carolyn Webb’s much-maligned touts has stopped traffic for me. Drivers are grinning and waiting patiently as I run back to retrieve my goodies, helped by another of the tout’s allegedly terrible cronies. An ojek driver – obviously taking time out from ferrying prostitutes, if you are to believe Ms. Webb – stops his bike and pushes mine to a safer place on to the footpath. He retrieves dropped bag number two and puts it back on the hook. It takes less than a minute to clear the road and have me on my way. I thank the guys profusely, but they wave it off with a grin and a “no problem!” They think that the whole debacle is funny – they’re big on physical humour here.

I like the so-called touts in Bali. After nearly three years here, many of them recognise me, wave hello and then leave me alone, seeking more bountiful prospects elsewhere amongst the visiting hordes. But even when I first arrived, I didn’t have a problem with them. I would tell them “No thanks, I can’t”. When pressed for an explanation, I would tell them, with a completely straight face, that I am incredibly stingy, but I wish them well and hope they find a Japanese tourist soon. We get along fine, and I like talking to them. They are human beings doing an incredibly difficult job to feed their families, and I have a great deal of respect for them. I don’t mind in the least when they greet me cheerfully as Pak Pelit – it’s almost a compliment to be called Mr. Stingy.

You’ve got to love Bali. Where else would you have people jumping unselfishly to help you when you get yourself into trouble? Because of them, my shopping, luckily undamaged in its plunge from the bike, remained uncrushed by traffic.

But I can’t help feeling that if I had only left the damned onions in the supermarket, the extra weight wouldn’t have snapped my bag strap. But then again, I wouldn’t have had the chance to show that Carolyn Webb’s perception of Bali was deeply flawed either.


The Heat Is On, And The Animals Are Attacking

October 23, 2011

The season has turned in Bali. The long, relatively cool dry spell has snapped virtually overnight into the hot and humid interregnum that precedes the rainy season. It’s 33 degrees and the humidity is hovering around 80%. Life, never running at a cracking pace here, has slowed down to a crawl.

People snooze during the day to conserve energy in the sapping heat. Walk into a market stall and you will find the owner asleep on the floor. Go into any office to pay a bill or attend to some incomprehensible Bali-style documentation, and you will find at least five people slumped at their desks, too tired even to log into Facebook, which in cooler times appears to be an activity mandated in their job description. Three more, totally catatonic, will be staring sightlessly at a television, while four others will be in a back room on a ‘break’. A break from what? And one, exuding an air of patient resentment, will be on the front counter, attending to a huge queue of sleepy, resigned customers. Only bules complain, and they are politely ignored while they sweat and fidget in the oppressive conditions.

The heat, during the few weeks before the rains come, is a time of watching tourists’ children wail with frustration as their melting Magnums fall off their sticks and dribble ice-cream and chocolate on those just-purchased tee-shirts that will forever retain the stains. It is a time of beer becoming too warm to drink before a small bottle is empty – even for Australians, normally astonishingly rapid imbibers who can make a bottle vanish in less than three minutes. It is a time when motorbike seats feel like barbeque griddles, capable of frying a couple of eggs and a sausage in five seconds for the unwary. Fortunately, it is also a time when one’s pool has finally heated up enough to allow a refreshing dip without shrinkage, full body goose-bumps and a reflexive gasping for air.

But while the seasonal warmth causes people to slow to the speed of three-toed sloths, it seems to be causing a surge in animal activity. My villa has become a veritable nature reserve, with strange beasts manifesting themselves unexpectedly from the strangest places. My Domestic Infrastructure and Support Manager (formerly known as my pembantu before she discovered Bali’s version of Political Correctness) is ready to find a less stressful job. In the last week alone, she has been startled by bats, mice, monitor lizards and giant red dragonflies. Each time, she emits a shriek followed by a voluble stream of something that sounds suspiciously like cursing in Bahasa Batak.

It’s late at night, one week  ago, and I’m sitting at my computer engaged in some serious political research. Well, OK, I’m on Facebook, but I’m planning to do some research later. The garden and pool are in darkness and I’m engrossed in my labours. Suddenly, I hear the slithering of  something in the bushes near the pool. I hear rustling leaves, crackling twigs and the eerie sound of scales rasping on the stone coping of the pool. Spooked, I turn on the lights. Nothing. I have a good look around. Still nothing.

So the lights go off again, and it’s back to work, albeit with some disquiet. Then, without warning, there is the unmistakable sound of a large tongue lapping the pool water, accompanied by lots of slurping and soft grunting. Eyes fixed on the source of the noise, I reach across and snap on the outside lights, ready to catch the damn Komodo dragon, or whatever it is, in the act. Nothing. I cautiously circle around the pool with more bravado than sense, brushing past some shrubbery. Instantly, a swarm of what appear to be Special Forces paratrooper ants descend on me and start stinging mercilessly. Brushing them off doesn’t work, so I jump in the pool.

Then I think – sweet Jesus! That Komodo thing might actually be in the pool! With me! Thoroughly rattled by now, I  exit the water like a breaching whale, regroup and try to continue working. I have a broom handle close at hand, ready to defend my territory. Ten minutes later, there’s that slurping sound again. This time, my weapon clutched in a nervous fist, I flick on the lights and catch the culprit red-handed. We look at each other and both pause for a long moment. With a flick of its bushy tail, the squirrel darts into the shrubbery, looking back only once, presumably to see if I am embarrassed. I am. Well, it sounded big and scaly …

The next morning, barely awake, I open my bedroom door and pad into the open-air lounge. A dead twig lies on the floor in my path and I am about to brush it aside with my foot. Except that it suddenly writhes and coils, rearing the upper part of its body high in the air and spreading its little hood. It’s only about forty centimetres long, but it’s angry, and strikes at me twice before I do an uncharacteristically fast tap-dance and retreat to safety. The potential squirrel-killer broom handle from last night is out of reach, so I pick up the only thing at hand – a feather duster. Yes, I know – don’t say it. I really don’t like killing things – not even snakes – but this little reptile is so aggressive that it’s too risky to do the nature show thing and pick it up for disposal outside. So I brain the poor thing with the handle of the duster. Sorry snake, but in this villa, nothing that gets between me and my morning coffee gets to live.

Probably because I have sadistic tendencies, I leave the body arranged neatly in a life-like pose on the front steps of the villa. Later that morning, when the Domestic Infrastructure and Support Manager arrives in her usually sleepy state and is fumbling for her key before looking down, I am rewarded with an immense shriek. That alone sort of made the whole episode worthwhile.

I blame Bali’s current spell of hot weather. People are more somnolent, animals are more active. Things jump and crawl out of bushes and out from under couches a lot faster. We tend not to react, or think as quickly. I guess the price of living in a warming paradise is eternal vigilance. I’m certainly a lot more cautious now. And I know that my pembantu is watching me now with even more suspicion than she shows for the other creepy-crawlies around here.


Making Nutty Assumptions Can Make You Sick

September 19, 2011

Bali is full of little pitfalls for the unwary. From the weapons-grade sambal that will flay the skin from your mouth and dissolve a substantial part of your digestive tract, to motorbikes that charge unexpectedly out of shop doorways, this place has something to trap everyone. I’ve learned to avoid many of this island’s idiosyncrasies over the last few years, but a new one just snared me.

So there I am, lounging in a luxury villa near the Canggu Club where friends have ensconced themselves after arriving in Bali for their first visit. I’m there partly to do the ‘Welcome to Bali’ thing, and partly because they think that I might be able to give them the inside scoop on how things work here. If they thought that I would be able to steer them away from falling foul of the more dangerous aspects of Bali, I am ashamed to say they were sadly mistaken.  I am unfortunately blessed with an overweening arrogance about my ability to navigate all of Bali’s little surprises, so my hubris occasionally results in less than fortuitous outcomes.

One of the party had thoughtfully picked up a few nibblies from the deli across the road, and as we chatted, he produced a sealed packet of nuts. “What are these?” he asked. “I’ve never seen these before.” A quick glance was enough for me to quickly identify them as macadamias, although the price seemed uncharacteristically low. “But is says here on the label that they’re …” I cut him off with a dismissive wave. “Ah, that will just be the local name for them”, I airily inform him. I’d forgotten that a  ‘quick glance’ is not a wise strategy to employ in identifying any food in Bali.

So we sit around for a while, munching on the occasional macadamia and talking about all kinds of Bali stuff as one is wont to do in these circumstances. The nuts are pleasant enough, but they feel a little oily and ever so slightly bitter. They also don’t quite have the creamy texture that I remember from the last time I could afford macadamias. It’s just Bali, I think to myself – they’ve probably been sitting on the shelf for a few months. Five or six nuts later, it’s time for me to head off.

As I dodge suicidal drivers on the twenty minute ride home, I feel the first stirrings of that unmistakable Bali ‘uh-oh’ feeling. Sharp fingers of discomfort begin to coil like snakes through my gut, turning quickly to serrated knives which seem to be carving my intestine into small chunks. My whole alimentary canal also appears to have liquefied and turned icy-cold, while my skin burns and starts sweating. I need to get home, right now. I suddenly morph into a typical Bali rider, dealing with the usual traffic jam outside Bintang Supermarket by dodging between cars like a lunatic, overtaking everything, mounting the footpath, scattering pedestrians and generally being one of those riders I so love to criticise. My vision blurs at the edges, leaving one clear image of a toilet at the centre, which has become my sole focus in life.

Fortunately, the only muscle in my body that still has any tone left after two years of sloth and gluttony is my sphincter, and I just manage to make it home without a catastrophic accident. And I’m not talking about road crashes either. After the traditional Bali palliatives of Entero-Stop and charcoal tablets have worked their magic, I’m back to semi-normal after a few hours. Then I get a call from my friends. “Are you OK?” they enquire. “Nearly all of us got bad Bali Belly after you left, and the only thing we had in common was eating those nuts …” Aha! I think. Obviously bad hygiene practices at the nut packing plant. It must be E. coli, or salmonella, or some other rotten Bali bug.

Well, it wasn’t. It was my stupid assumption that we were eating macadamias. So I consult a Bali food oracle – my Domestic Infrastructure Support Manager (she doesn’t like the term ‘pembantu’). I describe the offending nuts and ask her if she has heard anything negative about them. She seems puzzled. “No, they are not macadamia, they are kemiri – really good for making sambal.” I tell her that we were less than impressed with the ones we ate at lunchtime.

She looks horrified. “No, no! You must cook first! Cannot eat from packet – they are poison!” Belated research reveals that when raw, they contain saponin, phorbol and other mildly toxic purgatives. I can personally vouch for the truth of that. I discover that you can mash them up and use them as soap. They also are rich in heavy oils, to the extent that people apparently string them together, light them and use them as candles. One would think that the name ‘candle-nuts’ on the packet should have given me some sort of clue. One would be wrong. In Hawaii, they were also used to make varnish, and even canoe paint. Needless to say, you do not eat them raw. I feel sick all over again.

It’s not the only mistake I’ve made here, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. What’s next? A bag of stuff that looks like peanuts, but are actually layer pellets? I know petrol is sold in vodka bottles here, but at least it doesn’t look like vodka. But what if I ever find kerosene being sold in gin bottles? I may not live through the experience.

If you are coming to Bali, by all means ask me for advice. But if you value your health and safety, I suggest you don’t trust anything I have say about any food or beverage here.


So This Drunk Comes Into A Bar …

September 12, 2011

It’s six o’clock on Saturday and a beautiful evening in Bali. There is a sunset tonight that has the power to still most conversations, lift one’s jaded spirits and remind us all that nature, as always, trumps the banal scurryings of day-to-day human endeavour. I would have liked to have seen it, but I am in a pub instead.

It’s one of those rare occasions where I actually feel like supporting my somewhat-beleaguered football team in its elimination round final. That’s the Australian version of football, I hasten to add, not the very different round-ball game that excites the passions of a very different crowd of supporters. I am watching the big screen, comfortably ensconced by myself  at a table for four. However, tonight the pub has so few customers that I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about hogging this prime viewing real-estate.

I suspect it’s not the code of football that has resulted in tonight’s low attendance. It probably has more to do with the the group of five extremely inebriated patrons on the other side of the bar. Their ‘conversation’, if one could call it that, is amongst the loudest I have ever heard on the planet. They are all shouting and gesticulating simultaneously, a common, although ineffective strategy for winning arguments. Their strategy seems particularly misplaced, as there are at least five different fiery debates in play, meaning that each protagonist argues completely unopposed.

As it turns out, I completely lose interest in their antics after the first quarter of the game, and I don’t see them leave. Engrossed in a tight third quarter, I don’t even notice that the noise level has dropped to its usual dull roar. As the quarter-time break commences, my peripheral vision catches a flailing flash of arms and legs, and I turn to see a truly astonishing display of human locomotion.

A young bloke has lurched to his feet from somewhere behind me and is in the process of navigating his way to the toilet, a path that will take him past my table. He is so thoroughly plastered, that I am staggered and amazed that he is still conscious. He makes the earlier party of noisy drunks look like Mother Teresa by comparison. Unfortunately, the pub’s floor, in typical Bali style, has a small ramp-like rise at one point where two different floor levels meet. The height difference is less than a centimetre, but it enough to completely unbalance the unfortunate chap.

As he falls, he spins, his body at an impossible forty-five degrees like a racing motorbike, arms wind-milling, one madly swinging leg up at shoulder height. But he doesn’t fall – a feat that betrays either a masterly level of athletic prowess, or is clear evidence of divine intervention. Instead, he performs an almost balletic one-eighty degree change of direction, and forgetting his original destination, staggers back to a table of strangers, where, uninvited, he sits down. I cringe a bit, but as it’s not my problem, I resume watching the game.

A few minutes later, apparently after being asked to leave, he has miraculously managed to make his way to my table and make himself my problem. I studiously avoid looking at him, subliminally sending psychic messages for him to piss off. I’m obviously transmitting on the wrong frequency, because he sits down and stares fixedly at the side of my head. When I don’t react, he does that arm-jabbing thing that drunks do to attract your attention. “Hooya-who ya followin’?” he slurs. I tell him. “Oh”, he intones sombrely. “Why ya follerin’ the wrong team?” he asks, looking puzzled. There is, of course, no correct answer to this penetrating question, so I just shrug.

But he’s already lost interest, his entire being now focused on one of the waitresses – a strikingly good-looking young lady who at that moment has her back to him while serving another table. His beer-fuelled mind fails to grasp that attractiveness of a stranger does not equate to a licence to accost them, and he is suddenly weaving over to her in a spasm of misplaced adoration. Demonstrating a remarkable lack of understanding of the subtleties of pick-up lines, he fumbles at her bra strap, though thankfully through her T-shirt.

Unversed in the niceties of western customer service methods of dissuading amorous drunks, she instantly lets fly with an barrage of perfectly-aimed cuffs and slaps to his face and body. Amazingly, she doesn’t even turn around, her marksmanship earning her a round of applause. Shocked, he retreats to the toilet. When he returns, wearing a dopey grin, he takes a few steps towards her again. She whirls, fixes him with a look that could melt tungsten and utters a short, inaudible sentence.

Shoulders drooping, the wannabe lothario returns to my table and collapses into a chair. I’m expecting some annoyance, if not downright anger.  I’m waiting to hear the usual drivel about how rotten women are, and steel myself for the bawled “And whadda you looking at anyway?” – that unanswerable challenge of so many drunks.

But instead, he looks shamefaced, and says quietly, “Geez, I’m an idiot.” He is still for a moment. “I don’t usually drink”, he mutters. Then, almost inaudibly, he says, “She was right. I’m sorry.” The watching patrons see another drunk place his unfinished beer on the table and vanish unsteadily into the deepening gloom. I see a man who has just learned something important, one who has decided belatedly to take responsibility for his actions.

One sees a lot of drunks in Bali. Many act as if it is their complete and utter right to be offensive. When challenged about their behaviour, many will deny, justify, lay blame, or just physically attack those who dare to question them. But from time to time, one sees people who don’t fit that mould; those for whom being drunk is something they do, not something that they are. And that is refreshing.

I wish that man well. But I would still love to know what that waitress said to him.


The 800 Pound Gorilla Behind Bali’s Beach Warungs

September 5, 2011

Bali beach warungs are perfect places to unwind at the end of a long day of work. At least it is for those so afflicted. For me, they are perfect places to relax after a long day of, well, doing not much at all really. They don’t even have a permanent structure, just a few beach umbrellas, some plastic chairs, and if you’re lucky, a tiny rickety table on which to place your drink. Several large coolers packed with ice hold copious amounts of Bintang beer and a range of soft drinks for those whose beverage preferences run to the non-alcoholic.

Watching the passing parade of locals who flock to the water’s edge at sunset is always entertaining. Family groups are in abundance, energetic types play beach tennis, couples canoodle – ever so discreetly – and family dogs frolic joyously in the relative cool of the evening. There are plenty of tourists too, but for these denizens, the raucous excesses of night-time are yet to make their presence felt. All seem suffused with the afterglow of the day, the magic of Bali itself, and the humbling spectacle of this island’s  stunning sunset displays. On the beach, the last hour of the day is a time of reflection, both physical and metaphorical. I love it.

And so it was the other night, no doubt influenced by this tranquillity, I decided that a Bintang was too crass a beverage to spoil the mood. I asked for a Teh Botol –  a bottled sweet black tea invented and produced in Indonesia. It is hugely popular with the locals, partly because it is formulated for Indonesian tastes, and partly because many of the locals prefer a non-alcoholic drink.

But in response, the warung proprietor looked uncomfortable. The other family members who were there helping pointedly looked away. I thought that I had unwittingly broken some taboo, and in some ways, I was to realise later, I had.

“Sorry, no Teh Botol”, said my host apologetically. “But we have Coke, and Sprite and Fanta.” Now one of the things that some locals find uncomfortable about us bules is our disturbing tendency to be too direct, at least according to Indonesian mores. Not wishing to discourage this stereotype, I felt compelled to ask, “Why not? Surely all your local customers would buy it?”

“Yes, many people ask for it, but … we can not.” More shuffling ensued. Finally, after persistent questioning, the real reason emerged. “We are not allowed. Coca Cola won’t let us. If we sell Teh Botol, Coca Cola will not supply us with their products, so we will have no Coke, no Sprite, no Fanta. Tourists want these, so we have to obey.”

It turns out that the family-owned Indonesian company Sosro, which started bottling tea in the 1970s, has been giving powerful international brands, such as Coca Cola, a real run for their money in the battle for drinkers’ palates, winning 70% of the non-carbonated drinks market in Indonesia. Coca Cola’s own entry into this sector, the Frestea brand, has had less than stellar sales. Simply put, Sosro would seem to be an unwelcome competitor.

So my little warung, and thousands like it who want to sell a competitor’s product are seen as a threat to the mighty Coca Cola Amatil empire? Come on! Bully-boy tactics, whether they originate at a company’s head office, or are simply a misguided application of muscle by local distributors are still unconscionable. Beach-side warungs are subsistence operations which barely make enough to pay their expenses. The little extra money that they could make by selling Teh Botol to their local customers, many of whom don’t even want sugary sodas, could make the difference between survival and going out of business. Many locals survive on a monthly income of around one million rupiah. That’s $110 AUD, or $117 USD. Warungs fall into this category.

Last year, Coca Cola Amatil Ltd brought in revenues of just under four and a half billion dollars, and posted a net after tax profit before significant items of over $506 million. And yet they feel compelled to monster the little family warungs in Bali to prevent them from selling a few bottles of tea, on pain of having their supplies cut off? Unbelievable.

One would hope there is more to this story than what I have heard to date. One would hope that there are not just penalties, but also incentives provided to warung owners to selectively sell one company’s product exclusively. And I’m not talking about getting a cheap, Coke- branded cooler either. One would hope that a huge multi-national corporation would show a little social responsibility towards its impecunious vendors in Bali.

Is one hoping in vain? Or is this just normal practice in beverage marketing by the big boys?


Think Differently, Everyone Else Does Here

August 9, 2011

If ever I needed any reminders that Bali is a quirky place, these last few days have served to disabuse me of any notion that people here are reading from any conventional script, except maybe one of high farce. Every single day on the island provides vignettes of absurdity of course, but when these come in unexpectedly concentrated clumps, I feel even more like an actor in a Mr. Bean movie.

I finish breakfast, and am nicely full. But not quite having woken up properly, I am still a tad taciturn. It is, after all, not yet mid-day. I proffer a 50,000 rupiah note for a 35,000 rupiah bill. The cashier is aghast.
“You have no small money?”
“This is small money”, I reply.
“No, this is big money”, she says, her eyes big as if to emphasise the point.

I am tired of always being expected to have exact change for everyone from taxi drivers on down, so I tersely ask “Don’t you have a cash float?”
“No, I can’t swim”, she responds without batting an eyelid. Having zeroed in on the word ‘float’, she has instantly segued to a response to my perceived non-sequitur as if this was perfectly normal. I am impressed with her thought processes.

Temporarily baffled, I struggle to explain that a ‘cash float’ is what you start the day with in the till, so you can give change. I can see from her expression that is visualising a ‘cash float’ as some weird bule practice, presumably one involving a litre or two of water in the cash drawer with some banknotes floating on top.  She explains, as if to a child, that they don’t do this, because they can get enough small change from their first few customers. Ah, why didn’t I think of that?

Mesmerised by this exchange, I wander off to the local cushion-making specialist to order a mattress pad for my somewhat hard sun-lounge. We spend twenty minutes going through the specifications and measurements, and agree on a reasonable price. He wants to copy my specifications down on his order form, but I tell him to use the diagram I have prepared previously.

“But I have to draw this on the order form”, he wails.
I prefer him to use my sheet, because it clearly states that I want a complete mattress pad of specific dimensions. He is clearly distressed.
“Staple it to the page in your order form”, I suggest. I’m trying to avoid the frequent Bali transcription errors that have messed up more than one custom order. I also ask him whether, when ready, the completed mattress will fit on my motorbike.
“Oh yes, of course, easy!” he says, seemingly relieved to be handling a simple question. However, having seen what the locals happily cart around on their bikes, I have my reservations.

Two days later, I go back to pick up my order. A beautifully crafted mattress cover awaits me, made exactly to specifications, except that it’s empty. There is no foam pad inside. “Oh no!” is the horrified response to my obvious question. “You only ordered cover! Foam is extra!”

So I ask to see my order in his book to prove that I ordered a complete item, not just the cover. Guess what? My spec sheet is not there any more. He shrugs and insists that he quoted only on the cover – and proves it by showing me his copy, which contains the word ‘cover’. I check my carbon copy and it also says cover. Damn. Now I have to find somewhere in Bali that cuts foam to size; so much for one-stop shopping. At least he was right about it being easy to carry on my bike …

A fruitless two hours spent both on-line and browsing local directories reveals that apparently most businesses don’t bother advertising. Especially purveyors of fine foam. I mean, why spend the money? Everyone knows where they are, right?

That evening provides more snapshots of life in Bali. I watch a local youth weaving dangerously down the road on his bike while texting. He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend: “Total Stability”.  I see a tourist riding pillion, covered with recently-healed scars on his forehead, ears, jaw, shoulder, knees, ankles and feet. My view of all these unmistakeable hallmarks of a bike incident is unimpeded, because he is wearing only shorts. No shirt, no helmet and no shoes. He looks relaxed as he drinks from a bottle of Bintang. Faith is a wonderful thing.

I consider dropping into a pub for a quiet one, but don’t stay. Everyone is yelling, apparently because they can’t converse at a normal levels, because everyone is yelling. Why don’t they just … never mind.

I ponder the logical circularity of this situation, as well as the absurdities of the last few days, as I ride home. As I get to my gate, I get an SMS. It says: “Your mattress cover is ready.”

Strangely enough, I don’t even blink. I mean, this is Bali, and it’s been a perfectly normal day.