Posts Tagged ‘customs’

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One Day, Will We Commemorate Nyepi Day With A Minute’s Silence?

March 18, 2012

Nyepi Day – the “Day of Silence” – marks the Balinese New Year. It is both a cultural imperative and an iconic event of powerful significance, and it literally stops all activity on the island for one full day of the year. The airport and all transportation hubs are closed and everyone is confined indoors. Working is not permitted. No-one, except for the black-clad pecalang, the traditional keepers of village order, is permitted on the streets. Apart from emergency vehicles, no traffic is allowed.

Silence rules the day. Noise, TV and music is strongly discouraged. No fires can be lit, and at night, lights – if used at all – must be kept low and not be visible from outside a residence. Entertainment and bodily pleasures are prohibited, as is  travelling. Some communities may fast, others may ban talking altogether, while still others may even disconnect the electricity supply to whole villages.

The twenty four hour period is dedicated to introspection and reflection, and the day’s restrictions are designed to eliminate all barriers to achieving that aim. Mythologically, it is a time when evil spirits emerge from the sea to fly over the island, looking for signs of human activity that might provide a receptacle for their evil. With no lights, no noise and no activity to be seen, there is nothing to pique their interest and encourage them to linger. In this way Bali remains free of the forces of darkness for another year.

Although primarily a Balinese Hindu occasion, non-Hindu residents of Bali have always honoured the tradition as well. Perhaps not to the same extent as the Balinese in terms of fasting, not watching TV and engaging in reflective practice, but they have always arranged their activities to avoid being out in the streets, and in keeping residential noise and light emissions to undetectable levels. Tourists get more leeway, as long as they confine themselves to activities within hotel grounds. Even so, no-one has traditionally been allowed on the streets or beaches, with alert pecalang keeping a careful lookout for transgressors who may be counselled, disciplined or fined.

Some of my foreign acquaintances, both tourists and residents,  choose to leave Bali during Nyepi, or to check into a hotel with spacious grounds to give themselves a little more personal freedom. I can understand this, especially if they have kids.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep them quiet for 24 hours without the stimulation of activities, the soporific effect of TV, or the comfort of air-conditioning.

However for me, Nyepi is a highlight. It always has been during the time I have been living in Bali. I enjoy the quiet, the lack of chaos and the sense of complete spiritual peace that descends on the place. I don’t mind being sequestered in my villa for a day and a night. I welcome the time for thinking, for reading and for reflection. I don’t see the restrictions as an impost, I see them as an opportunity. My great fortune is that I cannot remember ever having been bored, and this stands me in good stead on Nyepi Day. A rich internal world is truly a blessing.

Government authorities here generally use sanctions to encourage the observance of the day’s restrictions for everyone, even to the extent of sometimes going too far to ensure this. This year, their call for cable TV providers to shut down all transmission for 24 hours was well-meant, but not particularly well thought-out. It’s not just Bali’s Hindus that would be affected by such a shut-down – it would also be the  patrons of hotels, which are already allowed to provide some reprieve from Nyepi restrictions  for foreigners. After all, surely devout Hindus can simply choose not to watch cable TV?

So given the purported strength of the Bali government’s conviction about the sanctity of Nyepi Day, why are we starting to see an erosion of restrictions? Why is a day that is central to Balinese core cultural beliefs being gradually changed to accommodate special interests? Already reports are coming in that, despite beaches always having been off-limits on this day, an exception is now being made for surfers, who will not have to abide by Nyepi restrictions, on Bali’s far west coast.

Now, in the interests of “religious harmony” – or maybe pressure from elsewhere in the archipelago – Bali’s Governor has announced that Muslims will be permitted to use the streets to attend Friday prayers. Mosques have been “requested” not to use amplified calls to prayer, or amplified sermons on the day. However, it seems that no actual prohibition has been put in place to ensure silence in the surrounding community. Interestingly, there appears to be no corresponding relaxation of Nyepi restrictions for members of any other religious faiths to attend services.

I spoke to a Muslim acquaintance about this, because I was curious as to why it was necessary to physically attend a place of worship on the one day of the year where such attendance might conflict with a different set of religious and cultural imperatives, especially in a Hindu-majority region. His response was one of disbelief. “But we must go to prayers”, he said, “this is our religion.” I assured him that I understood, and gently pointed out that, for the Balinese, Nyepi Day and its attendant prohibitions concerning silence – and not using the streets – were also an integral part of their religion and culture.

“You don’t understand”, he said. “It is our religion and we must pray. For Bali people, it doesn’t matter. It is just a ceremony.” He’s right; I don’t understand. Not being an adherent of any faith, I guess I hold the mistaken belief that a person’s communication with their god occurs in their heart, and not necessarily in a specific geographical location.

And before people start moaning and shrieking that I am picking on a specific religion, relax.  My point is not about religion, it is about Nyepi Day and its observance in Balinese culture. It is a precious and rare event, the importance of which should not be eroded by surfers, or prayer-attendees, or anyone else who decides that their personal wishes should trump the observance of this day.

What’s next? I fear that as more vocal groups start demanding that they be allowed to go where they want, and do what they want on Nyepi Day, its significance will continue to erode in the same way that Bali’s cultural landscape is already eroding. What will be left of this day in ten years? Just another public holiday with a mandatory one minute’s silence to commemorate the ghost of Nyepi?

I hope not. I really hope not.


FOLLOW UP POST: Post-Nyepi Reflections – where it all went wrong


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Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”

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For Balinese, Soon There May Be No Time Left For Work

January 9, 2012

Anyone who has visited Bali is struck by the number of ceremonies performed every day. From the thrice-daily canang sari – small baskets of rice, flowers and incense offered to the gods in gratitude for the richness of life, to full-scale temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations. It is an inescapable part of Balinese culture, woven into the very fabric of society, and of Bali life itself.

Those who live in Bali – and who employ Balinese staff – will also know that these essential rituals take priority over almost all other day-to-day activities, including work. Some house staff and employees have developed enough of a work ethic to give their employers at least some notice of forthcoming absences. However, many don’t, either not showing up for work at all, or calling two minutes before the work day starts with the catch-all excuse, “Sorry, family ceremony today.” Or, “Can not work today, grandmother cremation …”

Sometimes it’s even true. But even if one possesses the gullibility of a brand-new tourist and the compassion of Mother Teresa, it’s still hard to remain a bastion of understanding when a ‘bereaved’ staff member’s mother has supposedly died for the third time since they started working for you.

But discounting the inevitable opportunistic days off, the legitimate ceremonies which place constant demands on the Balinese are frequent, time-consuming and expensive. A recent report from Al Jazeera claimed that Balinese were now spending one third of their income on ceremonies. In a video clip about this trend, Bali’s Governor Made Mangku Pastika expressed concern about the financial load on families who were already close to the minimum wage.

As reported in The Jakarta Post, Pastika went even further in an address to a Balinese Hindu organisation on Christmas Day, claiming that, unlike some other religions whose actions concentrated on “helping the poor, improving education and providing healthcare to the disadvantaged”, Balinese Hindus spent most of their energy on the ritualistic elements of their religion. He is reported to have said that they were so fixated on offerings to the gods and to natural forces that they were neglecting their fellow human beings.

Strong words. Without entering into a debate about the expression of any particular religion, it is clear that these ceremonies do take up a lot of participants’ time and money, and that they do tend to take priority over mundane aspects such as work. The impact on family finances, on their workplace’s profitability, and therefore on the broader Bali economy are undeniable.

Given Governor Pastika’s views, it was somewhat of a shock to read in the paper that he has just signed off on eighteen new religious holidays for Bali. These new local holidays are “to allow Hindus to perform their various religious activities,” according to I Ketut Teneng, a spokesman for the provincial government. These are in addition to the thirteen existing regional holidays and the five official joint leave days. So the Bali workforce now has 36 official days off – twice that existed previously. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many additional ceremonies that are not on the official calendar, but equally important. Many Balinese homes feature a small temple – and each temple has an Odalan ceremony which is held on the anniversary of its consecration. An ‘anniversary’ in Bali is not necessarily held annually. The Wuku calendar system here may well mean a celebration occurs every 210 days. In addition, local villages and community areas have their own temples as well, and obligations exist to honour festivals for these too. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, each festival can continue for between one and eleven days.

And that’s not all. There are about a dozen life and death rites to be performed for every individual during their allotted span on earth, some of which start even before birth. Some rituals are relatively quick, but others, like the Three Month Ceremony, which marks the the occasion when a baby touches the ground for the first time, can be protracted affairs with many celebrants. Puberty rites and tooth filings are still carried out by some castes, and of course weddings and funerals involve lengthy celebrations. Then, every 35 days, there may be ‘honour days’ for things made of metal, fruit trees, domestic animals, shadow puppets, dance paraphernalia and literature.

In total, ‘non-working’ days in Bali now probably number close to two months of the year, if not more. I am starting to wonder if the Bali economy can afford it. While it is easy for politicians to double the number of official holidays with the stroke of a pen, the question of how employers will be affected seems to have been ignored.

If you are a foreigner with staff, either domestic or business, the answer is simple. You will, as always, be expected to pay normal wages despite another 18 days’ loss of productivity. After all, who in their right mind would refuse to allow time off for Balinese religious and cultural imperatives? The problem is, some of the expat rumblings I have heard suggest that the simplest solution is to dispense with the services of Balinese altogether and employ locals from elsewhere in the archipelago. This, naturally, would not be good for Bali, but it could well be be a logical consequence of arbitrarily doubling the number of holidays.

Then, of course, there is the local employer reaction, which tends to be a lot more pragmatic. One Balinese restaurant owner, when asked how the new holidays would affect his business, was quite blunt. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “My staff aren’t getting them. I can’t afford it.”

There you go. It will be interesting how this one plays out.

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The Secret Language Of Survival On Bali Roads

December 5, 2011

Bahasa Indonesia is not the only language that Bali visitors must learn – especially if you drive or ride on our roads. There is a separate, informal language for road users that, although it has no words or grammar, has its own peculiar syntax.

It is more akin to the body language used by dogs, which lets them identify strangers, assert their right of way, recognise alpha dogs, resolve territorial disputes and generally smooth the path of social interaction. Motorists and bike riders here, at least those who are still alive and uninjured, have not only learned this non-verbal language but use it fluently every day.

The first and most important rule is that size matters. Visitors from more regulated places might expect that every road user will follow the same set of guidelines, whether they are driving a bus or riding a moped. Not in Bali. Here, one’s ability to dominate a traffic situation is directly proportional to the physical size of your vehicle. It’s the Bigger Is Better Rule. So trucks give way to buses, cars give way to trucks, scooters give way to big motorbikes, and pedestrians are meant to give way to scooters. To add a little uncertainty to the system, cabs will often ignore this hierarchical structure. The magnitude  and frequency of these lapses in protocol will depend on the taxi company involved  and whether the driver is at the beginning or the end of his typically long shift.

Basically, you give way to the might, and a lack of understanding of this prime aspect of Bali traffic dialogue by newbies causes quite a few problems, many ruffled feathers, and even the occasional injury.

Visiting pedestrians are particularly vulnerable here, believing as they do that because the streets here are so narrow, they automatically qualify as footpaths. Those who wander along carriageways, three abreast in a bovine stupor, will soon get their elbows clipped by a passing motorbike mirror.  Few realise that this is in fact a practical lesson in the finer points of ‘Bali Road Language’ being administered by a fed-up motorist. The exception is, of course, for locals. Within their own village precincts, Balinese reign supreme. They may strike up conversations in the middle of the road, suddenly stop their bikes anywhere on a whim, or even close an entire main road for a ceremony. Relax, that’s normal, but don’t try it yourself.

The second rule of the secret traffic language is to do with the judicious use of lights. I don’t mean indicators, which when used at all, only serve as a visual clue that the driver or rider has made a turn some time during that day, or might be thinking about turning at some stage in the future. Or just has a fondness for flashing lights. Hazard flashers, however, are used to indicate that a car is continuing through an intersection without turning. They are never used to indicate that a car has stopped in a dangerous spot. In Bali, there is no need for this; you can safely assume that every parked car has been left in a dangerous spot.

No, the real light signal communication here  is through the use of headlights. The ‘high-beam flash’ is used in conjunction with the Bigger Is Better Rule, but it’s the driver who flashes first who gets precedence. If you are proceeding up a narrow street and an oncoming taxi is stymied by a parked car, it will generally not stop until you have safely passed the chicane, but execute The Double Flash. This is the universal Bali GOOMW (Get Out Of My Way) signal. A especially tetchy driver will triple-flash you, which is more of a GOOMFW signal, and should not be ignored. Police and other authority figures may occasionally use the Multiple Repeated Flash, also known as the GOOMFW,YI. The correct response is to stop, or move over to the left as far as you can even if it means knocking over several parked bikes and creaming the odd pedestrian to let the oncoming vehicle through.

The third rule has to do with the use of sound. A minor aspect of this is the actual engine note of a vehicle. Whatever the other complex rules say, if you hear a large truck coming at high speed, get out of the way immediately. Don’t get precious and listen for squealing brakes; most trucks here don’t have any. Get out of the way if you hear the characteristic sound of a Harley. You might theoretically have right of way, but its rider is likely to be bigger and tougher than you.

But discounting mechanical sounds, the most mellifluous part of the traffic’s  symphonic language is the horn section. Bikes will beep you as they overtake – not to hassle, but to politely warn. In terms of right of way,  it’s a He Who Beeps First, Wins Rule. If you are about to change lanes and someone beeps you, wait until they have overtaken. However, the reverse applies in some extremely narrow lanes where there are often blind corners leading to even narrower lanes, wide enough for only one bike. It is, of course, customary to beep as you approach. No audible response means you can continue, but an answering beep usually means stop until you see the other rider. So in these lanes it’s a He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule.

A few weeks back, this particular rule caused perhaps the most absurd situation to date during my time here. I often take short cuts through narrow lanes, and one in particular has a very tight turn. I approached, politely tooted, and immediately received an answering beep. So I waited. And waited. After a while, a repeat beep elicited another beeped response. Again, no sign of a bike. Edging carefully forward and craning my neck, I managed to peer up the lane. Nothing. Grrr. So I edged the bike around the corner, beeped twice in sheer frustration – and heard a loud beep-beep in my right ear. Nearly falling off, I snapped my head around to see an alcove leading to a Bali house. And sitting serenely in a bamboo cage was a nondescript brown bird. Beep-beep, it said again. It’s difficult to do when you have no lips, but I swear it grinned at me.

Anyway, that’s Bali. Needless to say, situations will arise where the Bigger Is Better Rule conflicts with the Double Flash Rule, and cannot be resolved by the He Who Beeps First, Wins or even the He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule. This can lead to some hairy situations, but most of these can be overcome by a judicious application of the Slow Motion Good-Natured Bullying Rule, which is normally used at all Bali intersections. This simply involves continuing in your intended direction at a slow creep until someone eventually gives way to you. However, remember that regardless of all the other rules, the Don’t Collide With Anyone Even If You Supposedly Have Right Of Way Rule always, always has precedence.

Got all that? Makes trying to learn Bahasa a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

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Indonesia’s Silent Majority Silent While Country Is Hijacked

October 10, 2011

Shattering events in a country don’t seem to stay in the mind for long. People watch, aghast, as world-changing circumstances unfold all over the globe. But inevitably, after a short period of engagement, they get bored and wander off to have a cup of tea and a good lie down. An epidemic of Attention-Deficit Disorder washes over whole nations – and the events, no matter how momentous, fade from the collective memory.

The inability of many to register the world’s turning-points in anything other than short-term memory means that opportunities to recognise history in the making are passed over, and the chance of learning from these is lost. Even Arnold Toynbee must have forgotten that in 1919 when he famously paraphrased George Santayana’s 1905 words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and presented them as his own.

At a local establishment last week, three TVs were showing motorcycle racing, rugby and a documentary on Hiroshima. The assembled patrons’ attention was evenly divided between the two sports. The scenes from Japan went unnoticed. When the thirty-something sports fan beside me finally glanced at the documentary channel, I asked him: “What do you think of that?” He looked at the rubble and melted bodies for a second and said, “Ah, I don’t like horror movies.” I replied that it was real and that we were watching actual atomic warfare and its consequences. He dismissed me with “Mate, I don’t like that First World War stuff either.” I don’t think history has taught him much.

And it wasn’t that long ago that we all watched vision from media cameras attached to bombs in their horrifying trajectories of death. Gripping at first, it soon became just another high-tech middle-eastern war; another night’s entertainment on the tube. And after a week, it was back to the soaps and sinetrons, banal crime shows and Big Brother.  We apparently preferred Reality Shows to reality. Memories fade, events become irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.  Secure in our non-caring, non-engaged stupor, we ignore what is actually happening and become part of the silent majority that just lets bad things keep happening.

And so it is with Indonesia today. This wonderful country, populated with vast numbers of friendly, tolerant people, is losing its identity, its culture and even its reputation in the world. It once prided itself on being a secular democracy protected by constitutional guarantees of religious tolerance and guided by the principles of Pancasila. Now, dragged down by the twin dead-weights of religious fundamentalism and endemic corruption, Indonesia is sliding into an abyss of graft and Middle Ages theocracy. Its economy is being shaken by the astonishing hubris of scandal-prone political ‘elites’ motivated by greed and self-interest, and foreign investor confidence is being rattled by the jingoistic demands of inexperienced and incompetent ministers.

A small minority of Islamic zealots, tacitly supported by some police of dubious morality, continue to attack adherents of other faiths, including Muslims belonging to sects other than their own. They persecute those of the Ahmadiyah faith, branding them heretics, despite a peaceful Ahmadiyah presence in Indonesia for decades before the arrival of Arab-influenced Wahhabi fundamentalists in this country. A biased judiciary hands out 5-month sentences to murderers of Ahmadis, while giving their victims twice that for ‘inciting the crime’. They’ve probably forgotten, or maybe don’t even know that an Ahmadi wrote the Indonesian National anthem. Incredibly, in direct contravention of the constitution, a ministerial decree has even been passed which prohibits Ahmadi activities. Elsewhere, low-level officials even defy Supreme Court orders to stop their harassment of Christians, keeping places of worship closed by force and herding worshippers away as if they were animals.

At many pesantren – Islamic boarding schools – Saudi and Pakistani-trained clerics continue their jihadist indoctrination of Indonesia’s youth under the guise of religious education. Illegal vigilante groups, such as the FPI, continue to oppose anything except a strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, creating fear and unrest in the communities that they, and their sponsors, relentlessly target. Even iconic Wayang theatre figures, for centuries a part of the culture of Java, have been targeted as heretical by fundamentalists determined to destroy the rich traditions of Indonesia and replace them with an Arabic culture. Meanwhile, on religious issues, the silent majority stays silent.

They also say nothing about their government, where the corruption blatantly exhibited by many politicians and government officials passes completely under their radar. Blatantly biased judgements by corrupt elements of the courts don’t attract more than a mutter of protest either. Religious bias – in favour of one flavour of Islam – elicits no opposition for fear of being denounced as a ‘bad Muslim’. Lowering of educational standards, decay of infrastructure and lack of community improvements caused by embezzlement and theft produces a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders.

About 70 million Indonesians don’t vote at all, so they don’t even use their voices for dissent. By embracing GOLPUT – the Indonesian way of expressing disenchantment with the political process by choosing not to vote – or by just being apathetic, they leave the field clear for political parties to continue to hold ‘gift-giving rallies’ in return for votes, thereby creating toxic, self-serving elites who end up doing whatever they want. If this is democracy, I don’t recognise it. Isn’t it better to stand up, speak up and be counted? What a waste of opportunities to change the process for the better!

And what of the ‘moderate Muslims’ In Indonesia – those who do not embrace the retrograde views of the increasingly powerful fundamentalist factions? Do they really see Wahhabi demands as relevant to a modern Indonesia? Do they want a nation that can take its place on the world stage, or a controlling theocracy, masquerading as a pseudo-democracy, that is incapable of separating Church from State? Do they really want the creeping implementation of Shariah Law to continue with the continuing enactment of more stealthy, unconstitutional by-laws?

The changes occurring in Indonesia now are not a series of dramatic events that polarise people’s views and have them openly rebelling. They are instead symptoms of an insidious, creeping malaise that, while it may disturb the silent majority of Indonesians, does not seem to marshal enough concern or engagement to incite open rebellion. It should, because they are a threat to the very fabric of Indonesia itself. But to act against a threat, people must first perceive it as a threat. Maybe that has not yet happened because of the slow and stealthy nature of the changes.

Indonesia is at the cross-roads. Apart from Bali, where religion is still the domain of the spirit and not a political weapon, where religious tolerance is the norm, and where Pancasila is observed in practice rather than as a polemic, Indonesia’s silent majority needs to rise up and speak with one voice.  It needs to tell its politicians, public servants and religious leaders that it has had enough of incompetence, cronyism, corruption and religious bigotry. It needs to re-visit those lessons of history that chronicle the submerging of peaceful and tolerant cultures by foreign ones which are dominating, violent and crave control.

Unless of course, the silent majority agrees with the death of integrity in politics, supports a savage rise in religious intolerance and looks forward to the imposition of an Arabian culture. In which case, keep saying and doing nothing. Your wishes will be granted.

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Oleh-Oleh – Obligation Or Obsession?

August 7, 2011

Within minutes of arriving back in Bali after a short trip overseas, I am greeted with an astonishing display of affection from Indonesian friends. Complete strangers too. This is nice, I think – until I realise that they are not saying “Hello!”, or “Welcome back”, or “I have missed you so much”, or any of the standard clichés. Faces aglow with expectation, they are all chanting the same mantra “Oleh-oleh? Oleh-oleh?”

This translates roughly into “Where’s my present?” The first time it happened, I was a little nonplussed. After all, with our Western sensibilities, it is only children who cut to the chase so directly. But in Indonesia, it is part of the culture that returning travellers bring home oleh-oleh –  small gifts for those returning from work or holidays in far-off places. It is almost an insult to come back empty-handed. The practice is not unique to Indonesia either, being well-established in some European cultures as well. The equivalent term in Lithuania is lauktuves, a word that translates loosely as ‘a gift bestowed on family and friends as a reward for waiting patiently for a traveller to return’.

But in Bali, this cultural obligation seems to have morphed over time. Once, the expectation was that oleh-oleh would be produce, such as fresh fruit, specialty cakes and biscuits which were not normally available locally. Sometimes exotic trinkets or souvenirs from abroad would achieve the same purpose. Now, the practice seems to turning into a mini cargo cult of biblical proportions.

One problem is the unshakeable conviction amongst locals that we bules have unlimited amounts of disposable income with which to buy gifts. Another is the belief that we have unrestricted time to shop while overseas. Yet another is that we have the power to influence customs and quarantine officials to waive regulations on transportation of food. The most recent article of faith is that we can blithely bring an extra suitcase, stuffed with all manner of oleh-oleh goodies, without incurring the wrath of the stern guardians of the luggage check-in counters at airports.

Even before I leave Bali, I am deluged with requests – and that’s just from my household help.
“You bring me oleh-oleh, ya?”
“Ya”, I reply non-committally. Apparently that’s not good enough. I am encouraged to be more specific as to both type of gift, its provenance, brand and quantity.
“You bring me nail polish?”
“OK”, I say. Oops. That opens the door to Pandora’s Request Box.
“Cutex. Red and blue. And polish-take-off thing.” I assume she means nail polish remover, not an aircraft from Warsaw.
“Ya, OK, but …”
“… and chocolate, and hair clips, and swimming things.” I ascertain she means those upper arm floatie things to prevent non-swimming children from drowning.

I manage to stop the tirade of ‘requests’ before they escalate to laptops, Blackberries and iPads, and explain that I will have limited opportunities for shopping and that I have about twelve other people who must also be looked after. I wriggle out of making a firm promise as to what I will bring back with me, reducing it to a ‘maybe yes, maybe no’. The reaction is  much like that of the USA when Standard & Poor’s downgrades them to an AA rating – disappointed and a little bit pouty.

So when I do get back, somehow having managed to pick up a few little gifts for acquaintances in between a hectic work schedule, I discover that the response from the many recipients of my largesse is a little underwhelming. One accepts a proffered gift casually and says, “Is that all?” Another, when told to select one item from a bag of similar gifts intended for others, paws through the lot and says, “I want five. I have three sisters and one brother.” I am tempted to point out that her parents’ fecundity is not really my concern, but I wisely refrain. Yet another complains about the block of chocolate on offer, plaintively asking, “Don’t you have Toblerone?”

The core of the problem seems to be that expectations have risen to unrealistic levels. No longer are a few biscuits and sweets the preferred currency of oleh-oleh. Now, at least amongst those of the female persuasion here, I am reliably informed that expected gifts include jewellery, duty-free perfume and items of intimate apparel. I wouldn’t even buy that stuff for a wife or intimate personal companion (which sheds some light on why I don’t have either, I guess), much less casual acquaintances and employed staff. And the men, once happy with a simple key fob, now look forlorn if they don’t get Swiss Army knives and power tools.

Even friends of friends flock around after one of my trips – people I don’t even know – and stare expectantly at me, waiting for manna to fall from heaven. It’s my fault of course; I let it slip that I will be travelling, and of course, that sets the scene for the hordes to gather on my return like Doctor fish around flaky ankles.

Next time, I will tell no-one I am going, especially not the cheerfully expectant staff at my local eateries, watering holes and beach warungs. I will tell my own staff that I am decompressing in Amed, or somewhere else local – anywhere without shops. When I return, if people ask where I’ve been, I will lie shamelessly and assert that I have been in hospital with Typhus, or Dengue Fever, or a particularly virulent strain of Bule ennui.

Maybe they’ll feel sorry for me and buy me a present.

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The Great Bali Airport Bottleneck

August 8, 2010

My plane from Singapore touches down at Ngurah Rai International Airport and taxis up to the designated arrival gate. Good, I muse – it’s early afternoon and I can see that most of the aero-bridges are yawning forlornly at the tarmac. Ours seems to be the only plane that is about to discharge a horde of Bali-bound bodies, so I’m thinking that it should be an easy milk run getting through Immigration and Customs – particularly as I’ll be using the special section for locals and foreigners with a KITAS.

I mentally prepare myself for a quick sprint through the formalities and an early arrival at my villa. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. At Bali’s only airport, believing that things will be easy makes coping with the subsequent chaos of arrival formalities that much harder.

Naturally, our plane has stopped at the one gate which is furthest (as measured in tired footsteps) from the arrivals hall, necessitating a walk around practically the entire perimeter of the terminal building. That’s a long way on foot, and I feel mildly sorry for those elderly and incapacitated passengers that I am forced to elbow out of my way on the mad dash to immigration.

As our plane-load of  hopefuls decants into the arrivals area, I am shocked to see that a simmering cauldron of humanity is already there. Where did they come from? The hall is packed, the queues horrendous, the non-air-conditioned space steaming with angst, fatigue and resentment. Several tantrums are in progress, with lots of tears and pouty lips, but at least their children seem quite well-behaved. But of course, I get to by-pass all this, leaving the mess of confusing VOA pay counters, VOA receipt counters and the five out of seventeen open immigration desks behind me. I walk confidently past the right-hand side of the incipient riot and enter the Special Zone for the Blessed, set up for those who do not need a Visa on Arrival.

The good news is that most of the desks are open. The bad news is that all queues are already thirty deep. With an alacrity that belies my age, I leap to the end of the shortest line. I should know by now that this guarantees that someone ahead of me will have such amazing irregularities in their paperwork that the overworked immigration officer will disappear to confer endlessly with colleagues, supervisors and, for all I know, the President himself before returning. This of course, happens. Twice.

But during the time that our queue has no visible destination, more people arrive and flow down both sides of our previously single-file queue to its very head. A silent scrabble for power ensues, with the new arrivals viciously elbowing their way into non-existent gaps in the original line. Predominantly men, they refuse to respond, or even make eye-contact when challenged, maintaining unfocused stares into the distance while shoving both men and women aside. The queue etiquette there resembles forty hungry piglets on a twenty-teat sow, except the squealing is a little more muted.

Eventually a security officer arrives and insists that our queue transform itself into a single file. More elbow-flailing and shoulder-wedging achieves that directive, but our line triples in length and I effectively move thirty people backwards. My legendary sang-froid is finally deserting me as I prepare to smite a person behind me who is tapping me on the shoulder. But it is a young Indonesian woman, and she disarms me by saying: “You have incredible patience. Thank you. I would like to apologise for my countrymen. They have no respect and no manners”.

With excruciating slowness, I get to the head of the queue. It is now one hour and fifty five minutes since I de-planed. The immigration chap looks at me, flips through my passport, looks at his computer screen and says: “No good”. Not only my heart, but my liver, stomach and spleen sinks. “Problem”, he says. I think they train them at Immigration School to be laconic. He accompanies me to a hot little office with a big ‘No Smoking’ sign. The duty officer there stubs out his cigarette (oblivious to my longing look at the still-smoking butt) and examines my passport. I have visions of being deported. In excellent English, he informs me that he can see that my passport, KITAS renewal and Multiple Entry stamp are all in order. He continues: “But the trouble is, our computer system doesn’t know that. I think it never will. You will have this problem every time you leave or enter Indonesia”. My entrails sink lower. “But”, he says with a smile, “next time, don’t stand in the queue. Come straight to the office and we will clear immigration here for you”.

I can’t believe it. My documentation gets fouled up and I benefit? In Bali, that is like winning the lottery. After a two hour wait in the local queue, I am perhaps not as ecstatic as I should be.  I have just been through Singapore  and Frankfurt immigration controls, taking about 10 minutes each time – airports that have 7.5 times more passenger movements than Bali. But my improved mood does mean that I don’t bother snarling at the taxi booth man when he tries to overcharge me. I just hand him the correct fare and tap the banknotes twice with my finger. He gives me that Bali look, then acquiesces with a shrug.

Ah Bali – you’ve got to love it.