Posts Tagged ‘buying’

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Tap, Sniff, Shake And Squeeze – The Durian Ritual

February 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thinks for a bit and then smiles sheepishly.

“Umm, about twenty minutes …”

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Puzzling Packaging Of Pies And Other Palatable Products

November 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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The Bali Incendiary Wallet

October 19, 2010

Sitting close to the street in any of Bali’s open-air restaurants lets you experience the endless variety of the personal retailing brigade at work. Want LED flashing eye-glasses? They will arrive. Want some of that snake-oil liniment to rub over yourself or your loved ones? A customer service representative will be with you momentarily. Need CDs, or DVDs, or hip flasks, or plastic cars, or soft toys that shriek annoyingly in your face? Rest assured – a vendor will materialise to talk you into buying something you don’t need. You will even get regular doses of carefully crafted pathos from tiny children selling pieces of plaited leather (the purpose of which utterly escapes me) and “mothers” begging for alms for their rent-a-baby props. All this during a single course too.

So one night, after numerous encounters with purveyors of fine rubbish, I see this guy come in waving a wallet. He has a shoulder bag with many more. As his target table of diners looks away to discourage him, he flips open his demo wallet, which spews forth a huge ball of fire. “Magic wallet!” he cries to the recoiling throng. “Amaze your friends!” The newly-galvanised customers (mainly the guys) are now intensely interested. I am too, (maybe it’s a boy thing) but I resist going over to find out how this thinly-disguised instrument of warfare actually works. I don’t actually want one – I can quite easily burn through my cash here without benefit of a fire-starter in my wallet.

The fireball it produces is brief, but hot enough to singe nasal hairs, eyelashes and eyebrows completely off the unwary. And it’s big enough to do damage to one’s forelock, if repeated tugging while toadying up to Immigration officials to get your KITAS renewed hasn’t permanently dislodged it. I get to thinking – if the guy is selling ordinary wallets, he has hit on a great promotional gimmick to attract the attention of his customers. Some – those without collateral third degree burns – might even buy one.

But if these things are actually designed as flame-throwing wallets – with gas, or lighter fluid, or even napalm as the fuel, then we have a small problem on our hands. They might be useful as mugger deterrent devices, but I think of small children, bored with mere matches, playing with far more dangerous flaming devices. I think of inebriated bogans lighting the faces of their friends for a lark. “Ooh, sorry mate. Didn’t mean to coagulate your eyeballs.”

But most of all, I think of a ‘harmless’ incendiary wallet which would probably not even attract a second glance from the same airport security people who confiscate our nail clippers. And I think of the subsequent fireballs in the inflammable confines of a crowded plane at 36,000 feet. Or the possibility of accidental ignition while in one’s hip pocket.

OK, I have an over-active imagination. But could someone please reassure me that these are just ordinary wallets being sold by frustrated fire-eating circus performers, and not the real thing?

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Balloons, Broken Broadband and Bill Payments in Bali

August 14, 2010

So here I am – back into the swing of Bali life after swanning around Lithuania for several weeks. Set against a broader world canvas, the parking insanity here suddenly seems almost normal. Lithuanians park wherever they want to – sometimes in the middle of a road – simply because they can. In some ways, Bali seems more organised and less of a frontier country. Here, I haven’t seen as many incidents of restaurant fire-bombings by competitors aggrieved by the success of others. Or of people building houses on someone else’s land, then shrieking about their self-granted squatters’ rights. Nevertheless, like Bali, Lithuania is beautiful and the people are friendly and hospitable.

It takes maybe a week to adjust to the 4pm gridlock in Jl. Double Six – and everywhere else – because of fools parking their 4WD behemoths on both sides of the road, and motorcyclists with the IQs of dog biscuits then double-parking on the outside of the aforementioned fools. When the inevitable truck arrives, the resulting infarction lasts for hours.

It then takes me another week to realise that my already woefully slow internet connection has been drastically degraded even more since I left. Yes – it’s the same lunatic, censorship-obsessed fringe element that we already have in China (and soon, Australia) – technically inept buffoons who think nothing of reducing the effectiveness of an entire county’s IT infrastructure in order to impose their own view of ‘morality’. I am saddened by the erosion of pancasila by extremists, but I guess that they feel that prevention of accidental erections is worth it.

But the real indicator that I am truly back in Bali is my re-connection with the quirky business practices here. My Indonesian friends, in the process of opening up a new shop, decide that some printed balloons might be a good promotional idea. I offer to source these. Silly me. I find a balloon shop. “No, we cannot print on balloons, we just sell them”. So I find a printer who tells me: “No problem, we can supply and print balloons.” I tell him that I will take fifty. “OK – you go out to buy balloons now?” he says. It’s not worth arguing about the logical disconnects in this conversation, so I go back to the first shop to actually buy the balloons, then come back to the printer. He scrutinises each balloon minutely and pronounces them suitable. He tells me to come back in three days and ushers me out of the shop. “Don’t you want to know what to print?”, I ask. He reluctantly agrees to record this, even though I can see that he regards this as useless information. As it turned out, it was.

I come back after the agreed period and he hands me my bag of unprinted balloons. “Can not print”, he says, “Balloons not flat. Stick in machine”. So I go back to the balloon shop, where they don’t want to take the balloons back. “Used”, says the man laconically. That’s OK, I think – everyone needs a bag of balloons.  I might accidentally stumble on a party somewhere. I ask him for a business card, just in case I am crazy enough to buy more balloons in the future. The card is double-sided, and one side says “Latex Balloons Printed Here”. I raise my eyebrows at him in a mute question. “Yes”, he offers. “We print balloons”. I breathe deeply and tell him I’ll take fifty. “You want 50 more?” he says, scenting another sale. “No, I want 50 printed“, I say, my voice rising a notch.  He looks genuinely remorseful. “Ahh, sorry. We cannot print on balloons, we just sell them”.

I recognise a Ground-Hog Day when I see one, so I  quietly capitulate and go off to do something inspiring, pleasant and straightforward, such as paying the water bill. The nice man at the office looks at my previous bill, smiles and says that no water bills can be paid after 2pm. It is 2:01pm. My pleading leaves him unmoved. The next day, the same nice man says that, despite my having paid the bill there each month for the last four months, I now have to pay this one way out in North Denpasar somewhere. Bemused, I ask why. “Because it is overdue. Cannot accept here now.” He then adds helpfully that it was due yesterday. I stare at him. He smiles at me, and kindly writes down the address I should go to – a Jalan Bedahulu. My street directory shows me that there are about twenty-five streets of that name, all in one large block in Denpasar. The place is nearly half-way to Bedugul.  It would have taken about two hours to ride there in heavy traffic, so I do the right thing and go and have three Bintangs instead. I don’t care – let them chase me for the money, or cut off my water, or deport me – I will just go with the flow.

Strangely, despite the culture shock of transitioning back to Bali from Europe, I feel at peace being back. After all, it was partly the anarchy, the freedom and the lack of logic that brought me here from over-regulated Australia in the first place. And after today’s adventures, I really feel that I am truly back in Bali.

But I still wouldn’t mind getting my old, unthrottled, unfiltered excuse for broadband internet back. Maybe I will if sanity prevails once more amongst those who impose their personal and religious mores on the rest of us.

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Shopping, Memory Loss and Mice

April 25, 2010

It’s official – Bali is changing me. Slowly, insidiously, I am adopting a lifestyle which involves succumbing to impulse and forgetting about planning, follow-through and … you know, other stuff. See, I’m even forgetting the words for whatever it was that used to be important in my pre-Bali life. Living in Bali, especially in an area which seems to be reserved for the terminally bewildered, can do that to you.

The other day, I set out to get some shopping done. Still labouring under some crazy delusion that I can remember things, I didn’t bother to write a shopping list. I mean – lists are only for forgetful people, right? And I probably would have remembered to buy most of the things I needed, except I forgot to go shopping. You see, while riding past one of my favourite massage salons, I was seized with an irresistable impulse to be pampered, so in I went. After a delicious hour of sensual, albeit comatose pleasure, I wandered off to find my bike and get on with the day. That took a while, because I had forgotten where I parked it.

Still in that lovely post-massage torpor, I decided that a coffee would be nice, so another pleasant 40 minutes were spent reading, daydreaming and re-caffeinating before I rode home. Then I remembered that I had forgotten to shop. Right, back on the bike for the five-minute trip to the supermarket, where I wandered around wondering what it was I needed. Maybe it was memory pills? So I asked myself : “What would have been on my list if I had made a list?” Lo and behold, it jogged my failing memory enough to spend 400,000 rupiah on a trolley full of stuff.

As it turned out, it was obviously a false memory, because after getting home, not one of the things I had originally planned to buy were actually in my shopping bags. Back in the old days, this scenario would have worried me senseless. I would have thought that there was something seriously wrong with me, and rushed off to schedule an immediate brain scan. Not anymore. I just accept this fugue state as a natural part of Bali life, and if I have a pantry full of stuff that I don’t need, well, so be it. There’s always tomorrow.

Minutes later, I caught a furtive movement out of the corner of my eye. If I hadn’t actually seen it, my pembantu’s shriek would have told me what it was anyway. A mouse! It was marching purposefully from the garden towards the pantry, on a trajectory that was about to intersect my right foot. Being a man of decisive action, I stamped my foot directly in front of the beast to scare it away. Petulant, I know, but for most mice of my acquaintance, this alpha male type of aggression causes immediate, squeaking flight in the opposite direction.

Not so with the mouse of steel. The thing stopped, glared at me and just kept coming. My pembantu, always one to recognise a fearless predator,  immediately fled up the stairs. Without my wingman, it was left to me to confront this animal, one which was obviously unaware of its place in the grand scheme of things. With a dexterous sweep of my foot, I tumbled it back towards the garden, It still didn’t run. In fact, it stood up, glared at me, bared its tiny teeth and growled.

Now, mice don’t growl. They use ultrasonic communication, audible squeaks and occasionally emit rapid clicks. Maybe it was bruxing – but I swear this thing actually growled at me. Yes, it was faint and somewhat pathetic, but it was clearly a growl. It took quite a few deft soccer passes to get the thing back to the garden – growling all the way – until it reluctantly went off, looking over its shoulder at me all the way. I didn’t even know mice had shoulders.

Well, what with the massage, the coffee, the shopping and the mouse that thought it was a Bali tiger, it just about filled out my daylight hours. But I did need to go shopping again. This time, I did make a list containing all the items I had forgotten the first time, including – you guessed it – mousetraps. That mouse was obviously sent by a higher force.

You see, that’s how Bali works – apparently unrelated events can conspire to bring one’s life back into balance, correct mistakes and iron out the effects of temporary amnesia. That’s one of the reasons I like it here.

Except that on the way to the supermarket, I saw this really nice-looking massage salon …

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Department stores blues – with tinsel

December 21, 2009

The festive season in December brings on a lightness of spirit for many people. Me, I’m more the bah humbug type. All this ‘joy to the world’ stuff  going on makes me squirm. Morbidly obese guys with red cheeks (how’s the blood pressure, Santa?), wearing boots, fur-lined suits and standing in fake snow don’t do it for me in tropical climes. Oh, I like the sentiments of the season and I love the opportunity to see my sadly neglected family. I’m not that much of a hopeless scrooge. It’s the trappings that irk me – the contrived, relentlessly cheerful commercial environments that are so at odds with my inner grump.

Take hotels, for example. Two weeks before Christmas, I was staying in a Kuala Lumpur hotel. Except for my room, the entire building was suffused with the most atrocious, musak-style renditions of Christmas carols ever recorded. The lobby, the lifts, the restaurants – every space, alcove and corridor was filled with this aural Valium. The big shopping malls were the same, except the music was louder and more obnoxious. I wasn’t expecting to hear this stuff in a city which seems (to my untutored eye) to be predominantly Muslim. Even more unexpected was to see shop assistants in red tights, short, white-trimmed red skirts and jackets – and traditional Muslim head-scarves. It’s an interesting and tolerant world. Or maybe it’s just that a religiously eclectic approach to retailing generates more sales.

Luckily, the season’s excesses don’t seem quite as bad in Bali. Some stores seem to have a few Christmas decorations, which I grudgingly confess is mildly uplifting. But the in-store shopping experience for customers continues to be unaffected by logic, product knowledge or common sense. It remains as strange as it is during the rest of the year, except now it has tinsel. Shopping in a Bali department store is an experience that requires throwing away all expectations and embracing frustration like a old friend.

So there I was, buying a replacement wall clip for a hand-held shower because I had accidentally snapped the flimsy plastic of the old one, allegedly after imbibing too much Christmas spirit. The assistant eagerly showed me a shower head, complete with flexible pipe, fittings and assorted incomprehensible hardware.
Me: “No, I just want this bit” (indicating the wall clip)
Assistant: (Regretfully) “Oh no, sorry, I do not have – only whole shower”.
So I walk two steps and find a little plastic packet containing – you guessed it – a wall clip.
Me: “Oh look, you do have one here!” 
Assistant: “No”.
Me: (confused) “No?”
Assistant: “Not mine. This shelf belongs to Putu. I not do his shelf”
So it transpires that Putu is not at work today, but fortunately I can still take the item from ‘Putu’s shelf’ to the checkout. It’s just that the assistant on duty couldn’t actually sell it to me. Or even tell me it was there, evidently.

I also needed a plug-in mosquito killer heater thingy that vapourises a liquid, which in turn comes in a little bottle that you push into the base of the heater. Except I couldn’t find the liquid. “Maybe it’s on Putu’s shelf?” I enquired innocently. “No, no – we sell only the unit, not the liquid”. Bali’s answer to global warming? No. In Bali, there seems to be a disconnect between the concept of selling hardware and the concept of supplying consumables for that hardware. Lesson: if you actually find consumables for stuff you own, buy heaps. In fact, if you find anything you like, buy it on the spot. Nothing seems to be kept in stock – it’s all on the shelves. Don’t come back later – the item you saw before is unlikely to still be there.

Then there’s the undies problem. I just don’t have any luck with buying unmentionables in Bali. I know my size, but the problem is that the size on the smalls bears no resemblance to the size of the smalls. I suspect that the size tags are made in a different factory to the garments themselves, then sewn on randomly by poorly-trained Uluwatu monkeys. I now have ten pairs of undies that would be too tight on a Kintamani dog, but even BAWA doesn’t want them for the puppies. And don’t start me on other garments sold in department stores. Everything is laid out by brand, so even if do you find some shirts, they will all be from one maker. Then you have to traipse over to the other side of the store to find some other brand of shirt, and somewhere else if you don’t like those … no wonder I avoid shopping here.

The final straw in my shopping extravaganza came while looking for laser printer labels. After earnest assurances from staff that they do not not stock them, and in fact have never even heard of them, I found some. In the tools and hardware section. They were labelled “Paper Sticker – for all stick design”. Silly me.

In future, maybe I should just do all my Christmas shopping in Kuala Lumpur. After all, I can always wear earplugs to drown out the Christmas carols.