Posts Tagged ‘Indonesian food’

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Attracting The Elderly Tourist

July 12, 2012

Bali’s grand plan for tourism seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It doesn’t really seem to be a plan as such – it’s more a series of somewhat reactive slogans that sound plausible until they need to actually be implemented.

For years, the driving principle seemed to be ‘let’s encourage more and more to come – but we won’t even think about improving the infrastructure to support the increase. Then, when it became apparent that tourists were staying for shorter periods and spending less, it became ‘there are too many stingy tourists – let’s go for quality instead’. Still no mention of improving infrastructure to attract those elusive ‘quality’ tourists though.

Now, it seems that a new target market that fulfils the desired ‘quality’ demographic is in the cross-hairs. Ida Bagus Kade Subikshu, head of Bali’s tourism agency, wants to encourage older visitors. He is quoted as enthusiastically saying, “The prospect for elderly tourism is huge.” He speaks of promoting activities, destinations and cultural experiences for the mature set, which is laudable, but says little about – you guessed it – viable infrastructure that would make it possible.

So I contemplate his suggestion while gazing around me. I see the uneven, dangerous footpaths, open pits and loose, pivoting manhole covers – and think of fragile, low-density bones just waiting to snap, crackle and pop as well as any breakfast cereal. I see the unpredictable traffic that demands astonishing agility by pedestrians just to survive a simple road crossing.

I see hotels with a multitude of levels, few lifts, and bathrooms with showers over slippery, high-walled baths. I see the potential for a tropical environment exacerbating age-related illness, and the impossibility of getting fast-response trauma care through the grid-locked streets. I see the heat, humidity, dust and exhaust fumes sapping the strength of young, healthy tourists and wonder just how the elderly would cope.

And just as I am ready to dismiss Kade’s idea as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream, I read – with no small degree of  shock – that he defines his ‘elderly’ target group as those over 55 years old. I’m already more than 10 years past his cut-off point! I’m not elderly dammit! I’m … well, mature, but I still manage to live happily in Bali without breaking a hip, or needing someone to hand me my Zimmer frame when I get off my motorbike.

So I decide that ‘elderly’ is a relative term. My 90 year-old mother is elderly, not me. Mind you, I thought she was elderly when I was 30, and I’m sure my own kids, being in the prime of their lives, regard me as a broken-down old crock.

With that epiphany, I look around again with fresh eyes. And suddenly my focus is on the teeming throngs of people, not on the obstacle course that they are negotiating. A good proportion of them are over 55 – and they are all managing splendidly. They happily go on tours all over the island, they walk the broken streets with confidence, explore rickety stairs, ride motorbikes,  and generally seem to thrive on the anarchic bedlam that is Bali.

And that could well be the secret. My own contemporaries love Bali, because it provides an escape from the cloying strictures of Australia’s over-regulated nanny-state. They enjoy a place  where a righteous army of do-gooders doesn’t choke their spirit. They thrive in a place that, despite having many risks to life and limb,  allows them to take personal responsibility for their own safety and well-being, instead of being treated like extraordinarily dense sheep.

So go for it Kade. Encourage the oldies. For a start, the SKIers (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) crowd are not as impecunious as the youngsters and they are far less likely to get blind drunk and abusive. You also solve at least part of your problem with the late-night club scene, because they’re all in bed by the time the clubs open.

By all means fix the garbage problem and the dirty beaches – that’s for the benefit of the whole society here. But don’t try to lure oldies with the promise of vastly improved infrastructure. Not only can Bali not afford the broad boulevards, wide footpaths, parks and proliferating malls of places like Singapore, those free-spirited older tourists who come to Bali probably don’t really want them anyway. Some might even be making up for missing the hippy trail experience in their youth, and are making up for it now.

Bali is still a frontier in a way – a place where you can survive on your wits, enjoy the local culture, learn the rudiments of a different language, interact with a wide variety of interesting characters, dodge traffic and just go with the chaotic flow of life here.

And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple. Send them to Singapore.

I’ll bet they come back.

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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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There’s Something Disturbing About Food That Looks Back At You

November 3, 2011

One thing I’ve learned about living in Indonesia is never to make assumptions about the nature of the food available here. It may, or may not be what you expect. I have been known to be both adventurous and cautious about what I eat, and this has naturally resulted in some novel gustatory discoveries. Some of these have been sublime, while others have been less than salubrious. In Indonesia, one’s culinary horizons are sure to be expanded, sometimes way too far.

I have a set of emotional preconceptions which mean that some foods will always be off my menu. When I strolled into one warung in Batu Belig, I happened to have a friend’s small dog in tow. “Dog OK?” I enquired before entering, ever-sensitive to the potential aversion shown by some Indonesians towards canines. “Ooh ya, but not on menu today”, said the helpful proprietor. When she started appraising the little Jack Russell at my feet with the discerning eye of a master chef, I decided not to linger. Dog sate is off my personal menu simply because dogs evoke feelings of attachment and affection in me. I don’t care much for rats or cats, but they too are in the realm of forbidden victuals. Mind you, I have no issue with sampling various reptiles, as long as they don’t resemble their original living form too much when on the plate.

As regards the eating of plants, before coming to Bali I believed that anything that looked like a vegetable – in fact any stuff that grew in soil – already had two strikes against it. I would tolerate tomatoes, onions and a limited range of green salady things – and that was about it. Potatoes, of course, were an exception , because any man will tell you that they are only called ‘vegetables’ by some accident of terminology. In fact, they constitute one of the most important, and delicious, food groups on the planet. But I firmly believed that truly inedible stuff like artichokes, Brussels sprouts or eggplant would never pass my lips, to say nothing of some of the more esoteric plants that people insist on serving as human food.

Well, since coming here, I must have inadvertently ingested dozens of different types of vegetable – most of which I can’t even name – and found almost all of them not only edible, but delicious. Consumption of rice was an annual event; now it’s daily fare. Eating chillies, once utterly inconceivable, is now mandatory with everything except coffee and chocolate. My preferred sambal sauce now must be blended with napalm before I am satisfied with its tongue-flaying properties. I have even eaten raw kemiri nuts (admittedly a mistake) and lived. Some soggy-looking green sludge from a warung was delectable – even after I found out later that it was actually made from fern leaf shoots.

I’m not convinced about kopi luwak though. Incredibly expensive, this is coffee made from beans that have first been eaten by a type of civet cat in Sumatra, Java or Sulawesi, and then, er, eliminated.  The partially-digested beans are recovered, washed (please tell me they wash them properly) and sold to the coffee-sipping cognoscenti. I obviously don’t fall into that category as I really can’t tell the difference between café ordinaire and café merde.

Durian is another delicacy that is not yet on the menu for me. A fruit whose yellow pulp resembles brains in both shape and consistency, it is said to have a sublime flavour. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to even try it because of its aroma, described by many as a combination of rotting corpses, old unwashed gym socks and raw sewage. Not surprisingly, it is banned from many public places. The locals seem to love it.

As for meat-based dishes, there are plenty to choose from throughout the archipelago. Goat is common everywhere, but for something really exotic, you can try smoked bats from Jogjakarta. These little creatures are only about 8cm long and look like mummified brown mice. I’m told they taste like beef jerky. Doesn’t appeal? How about deep-fried monkey toes? Apparently aficionados just gnaw the flesh straight off the bone. I must confess, neither of these are treats are ones whose flavours I am ever likely to be able to confirm.

And so to my latest culinary discovery. I’m sitting chatting to an Indonesian friend who has dropped in to the villa to borrow something, and of course I do the hospitable thing and offer the customary drink of water. Then I remember that I have a bag of nibblies somewhere – oleh-oleh brought back from Java recently by a friend. The snacks look like krupuk, those ubiquitous deep fried crackers available everywhere, except that these are quite long. They also seem to have a dark thing inside that looks a bit like a string bean. The taste is a little unexpected, partly meaty, partly fishy, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

So we’re munching and chatting, and I happen to look down at the morsel in my hand. The deep-fried batter crumbles away from the very end, and I’m looking at a little black head. It’s like a tiny snake, with two eyes looking reproachfully back at me. I freeze. My companion sees me staring and says, “Belut. Nice!” Totally unable to think of any intelligent rejoiner, I make do with “Umm …” Sensing my consternation, she says, “Belut. Like snake.” Oh Jesus. Well, after desperately diving into Google, it turns out that it’s not a snake. It’s a baby eel that lives in rice paddies, and is commonly sold in most of the local markets. This one just happened to be cocooned in batter and sold as snack food instead of wriggling in a bowl.

The next day I ring to thank the ‘friend’ who had so kindly presented me with the bag of eels. I tell him that I am now considering buying a defibrillator as a direct result of eating his gift without checking what it was. Naturally, he laughs like a drain and tells me that he has been waiting for my call for a week, gleefully anticipating my reaction. Indonesian humorists – scratch another one off my Christmas card list.

But really, the joke’s on him. Startling as it was to see my food looking back at me, those crunchy eels were actually quite delicious. I must be acclimatising. Maybe one day I’ll even try a smoked bat. Anything has to be better than an artichoke.

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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.

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Like a Candle in the Ear

January 10, 2010

I’m officially classified as deaf. Well in one ear anyway, which is about 90dB down from normal. That’s a lot. All I ‘hear’ from my left side is a high pitched hissing shriek that I have learned to ignore. Well, most of the time anyway. Two functioning ears are good, because they allow one to tell where sounds are coming from. I am an endless source of amusement for people who call to me from my left, because I hear their voice bouncing off walls to my right and I turn that way to look at … nothing. Warnings from homicidal motorcyclists blasting their horns are wasted on me, because the threat could be coming from any direction.    

Worse, the brain distinguishes important sounds from background noise by processing input from two ears and discarding the clutter. I get it all, unfiltered and confusing. It means I can hear, but not understand. To those of you with two working ears, think of an ink drawing, the patterns exquisitely detailed, the colours and textures vibrant and alive – that’s normal hearing. Now think of it being left in the rain, with the details smearing until only a muddy shadow of the original meaning remains. That’s what I hear. Once I could not only hear a sparrow fart at 500 metres, but I could have told you what it had for breakfast. Those days are over – I turn around at squeaky motorbike brakes thinking someone is calling my name. And ignore those who do call me because I think they are motorbikes.

Learning Bahasa is torture as I try to hear, then duplicate the subtle schwas and soft k’s of the spoken language. Even English is getting to be beyond me, and is now getting me into dangerous situations. I was inspecting a rental villa recently, one still full of holidaying guests.
Me: (To one of the guests) “Enjoying yourself in Bali?”
Her: “Oh yes, the group here is great. We’re old women here, you know”
Me: (Thinking that they look pretty young to me) “You’re old?”
Her: (Aggrieved) “Old? Old? Who are you calling old?!”
Me: “Er, you said …”
Her: “I said, we’re all women here”

Some smoothing of ruffled feathers was required. I’m such a diplomat, but you have to be when you’re deaf …

Hearing loss can drive one into self-imposed social isolation. Perhaps that’s why, in a misguided attempt to do something positive, I did something really silly instead. I tried Ear Candling. This is a procedure offered at salons everywhere, and it claims to clean the ears of wax residue by, wait for it – sticking a hollow, burning candle into one’s ear. Supposedly the candle creates a suction which somehow vacuums the crud out of one’s ear. If I did this, maybe my hearing would improve, even a little? Naturally, being a tad skeptical, I researched the procedure thoroughly by consulting with Dr. Google. Unfortunately, I did the research after having the procedure done, which in hindsight, was a tad stupid.

So there I was, lying on my side, with a burning candle stuck in my ear, looking like a birthday cake for a one-year-old who had asked mum to bake a full-scale replica of a walrus. It was quiet and peaceful, (but of course, it was my dead ear) and despite knowing that I looked ludicrous, I was relaxed. I could feel a few warm drops trickling in my ear. Aha! It’s the ear wax dissolving, I thought. In fact, I found out later that it was the candle wax dripping in. Medically, that is considered to be a Bad Thing.

Then I turned over, and the process was repeated on my ‘good’ ear. Ye gods! The noise of cracking flames nearly made me jump off the table. In retrospect, I should have. The only time that you normally hear flames that loud is when your hair is on fire. My nose worked overtime to detect the aroma of singed hair – but nothing. I lay there tensely waiting to burst into flames, but fortunately cranial combustion did not occur.

Afterwards, the helpful staff showed me the remnants of the candle stubs, filled with a hideous waxy detritus which they claimed were the contents of my ‘contaminated’ ears, now supposedly sparkling clean. I left bemused, but relatively calm – until I did the research I should have done before. Apparently a lit, hollow candle doesn’t develop any suction, and can’t remove ear wax.  Apparently the residue you are shown comes from the candle itself, not from your ears. Apparently, accidents where boiling wax runs down the candle into one’s ear canal are common, and there are even cases of eardrums being burnt completely through. The lessons here for me? I will research stuff before I commit to what could be a dangerous procedure. I will accept my disabilities and frailties and not look for whacko solutions, because there are no easy fixes – not for hearing loss anyway.

So watch out people, here I come. I’m the guy who will look the wrong way when called, and I will in all probability insult you because I didn’t really hear what you said. My conversations in crowded, noisy bars will be nonsensical. At least I’ll fit right in. And I will most likely run into you with my motorbike (yes, the girl’s bike) despite your loud and insistent beeping. You have been warned.

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Oh Telstra – please learn from Bali!

January 3, 2010

I’ve been spoilt by the ease of getting a local SIM card for my mobile phone in Bali. And in Beijing, and Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur – and even in Lithuania. So when a trip to the Great Southern Land for Christmas was planned, I just assumed that the process would be quick and painless there too. I was wrong. I don’t think I have ever seen such a manifestly inept display of bureaucratic administrivia as I experienced in Australia.

So there I was, at Melbourne Airport at 7 am, having arranged to call my family on arrival. I go searching for a purveyor of fine SIM cards and find a $30 starter pack from Telstra. Mind you, this involves filling out a huge form requiring heaps of ID and reading a page of fine print – a process that vastly annoys the huge queue behind me, most of whom merely want a paper. That done, I extract the SIM from its packaging (cunningly designed to thwart those without fingernails) and insert it in my phone. It remains lifeless, and steadfastly refuses to make calls.

OK, time to read the instruction booklet, which congratulates me on my wise purchase and informs me that I need to activate my card before using it. It also kindly provides me with a number to call to activate my phone. Which of course, I can’t do, because my phone is not yet activated. Eventually at 8 am, I try to activate my phone again using a landline. The instruction book makes it very clear that while I can ring if I really, really want to, activating online is far easier. I soon see what they mean – endless menu choices, the need to punch in all sorts of arcane numbers – the phone number, the SIM number, the serial number, a PIN – I finally give up, hang up and borrow a computer to activate online.

Telstra’s activation website tells me that I can’t do anything at all until I register to use their site. By this time, it’s 9.30am and I haven’t slept for 28 hours. I am becoming a tad irate, but nevertheless, I start the registration process by typing my user name, which the site informs me is my new phone number. The site, apparently designed by someone who failed Systems Logic 101, triumphantly tells me that my registration has failed, because the phone number I am using has not yet been activated. WTF? This is where I’m supposed to come to activate! My ire morphs into a low-grade, pervasive anger.

OK, back to activation by phone call. More menus, interminable inputs of multi-digit numbers and 15 minutes later I’m finished, waiting for the robot voice to tell me my phone is now active. No way. I end up connected to an operator in Sri Lanka, who proceeds to ask me for all of the  information that I have already punched in.

Me: (Incredulously) “I just put in all that stuff!”
Her: (Ennui suffusing her voice) “Sorry sir, our system doesn’t display that information”

So we go through the whole ritual again, and she tells me that the process is complete – and she has now put in a request for activation! I am nearly speechless, but manage to ask how long that will take. She blithely says 4 to 6 hours. My low-grade anger advances to high-grade anger, but with an effort, I stay polite. Hours later, I try to use my phone, and get a promotional message extolling the virtues of Telstra for perhaps 30 seconds. Then another voice tells me that my service is ‘not available’. By 4 pm, with the message playing every time I try to use the phone, I ring again. The operator is bemused.

Him: “My screen shows your phone was activated 2 hours ago.”
Me: “Maybe so, but I’m still getting your promotional message.”
Him: (After much testing and getting more incomprehensible numbers from me) “Try ringing someone now, and hold your phone up so I can hear what you are getting.”
I do, and we both sit through the whole message. This time there is no tag line about my service being unavailable, and the number I dialled starts ringing.

Him: (Elated) “See – you were connected to the number you dialled when the message finished!”
Me: (Incredulous) “I have to listen to your ad everytime I dial a number?!”
Him: (Patronisingly) “Well, that’s what you get with a prepaid service. Ha ha! Besides, the ad only runs for a week …”

My anger is now more of an incandescent rage, but I keep my voice level as I explain that I paid for a SIM card and phone service, not unsolicited ads, and that as a point of principle, I will never use Telstra again. Something must have worked, because two minutes later the ad was gone.

And so, back here in Bali, as I look at tourists walking into market stalls with their phones – and out again three minutes later with a fully-functioning local SIM card – I am tempted never, never to bag the telecommunications industry here again.