Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

h1

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.

h1

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.

h1

A Mistake That Was Meant to Be

August 1, 2010

I’m back in Bali after nearly four weeks away in sub-polar Lithuania – and it’s cold back here. I expected a mild European summer, but it was 39°C for most of the time. And after bragging about the delightful Bali climate all year round to any Lithuanian who would listen, I came home to 24°C and a chilly drizzle. The rainy season continues apace, with no regard for a calendar that insists it should have been over in March.

My trip was somewhat tinged with sadness, as it was primarily to lay my dad’s ashes to rest in his home country, honouring a promise made to him  some time ago. So early in July I left Bali, leaving my barely pregnant pembantu to look after the villa. She seemed in good humour when I left, apart from being mildly discomfited by bouts of morning sickness over the preceding six weeks, but she assured me that all would be well.

But on my return, she seemed a little different. She was stressed, anxious and avoided strenuous exertion. This was unusual for her, as she thinks nothing of hoisting a 20kg water bottle up to head height on to the dispenser. She normally does this with fluid grace and never spills a drop. By comparison I grunt, groan, stagger and splash around veritable lakes while performing the same task.

Concerned, I asked her if her pregnancy was progressing well – and she all but broke down. Even though she was close to the end of the first trimester, her morning sickness was much worse, lasting well into late morning. For me ‘late morning’ is about an hour after I get up, but with her day starting at dawn, the morning nausea had now become a five hour ordeal. Then she told me what was really worrying her.

“My weight”, she said, lip trembling. “Before you leave, 49kg. Now, 39kg”. She was understandably concerned about a 10kg loss in two and a half months, having been told by her mother, sister, aunts and in fact, probably the entire female complement of the village that she should expect a gain of about 2kg during this time. “What about your doctor?”, I asked. “I can not go yet – she told me to come back again in three months, so I can only go next month.” It’s amazing that patients invest such authority in their medicos – to the extent that they dare not question a pronouncement, even when they feel that something is wrong.

As a male, I have always felt it prudent to let womenfolk handle the complex logistics of their pregnancies and the burden of childbirth. Being vastly under-qualified in obstetrics also meant that I was reluctant to reassure my pembantu that everything was fine – when it may not have been. Steeling myself to insist that she see a specialist, I was tremendously relieved when she accepted my offer to arrange a visit to the obstetrics clinic at Kasih Ibu hospital and to pay for the consultation. Given that she is one of those rare types here who asks for nothing and is reluctant to accept gifts, I was surprised, but gratified.

A few phone calls later, I confirmed that she could attend the clinic and charge it to my account, and her appointment was duly set up for that evening. I was just about to order dinner when a call from the hospital informed me that I would have to attend personally as well, “to pay”. “But you confirmed that she could charge my account”, I said, looking at my menu forlornly. “You were misinformed”, said the mildly amused receptionist.

Leaving my bemused waitress, I promptly jump on my bike for an adrenaline-charged Top Gun ride along Jl. Imam Bonjol (Avenue of a Thousand Frights), dodging other two-wheeled projectiles, cars driven by people who believe they are immortal, and monstrous trucks, each reminiscent of a speeding Mt. Agung. I am ready for hospital admission myself when I arrive, preferably one with a psych ward.

We sit in the waiting room for an hour or so, my nervous pembantu cracking her knuckles endlessly, as she does when stressed. Her husband sits beside her, equally nervous – a fish in an unfamiliar ocean. Consultation over, they come back to join me, her staring fixedly at some documents in her hand. She appears stricken, and I fear the worst. But she is holding a sonogram – an image of the foetus growing in her womb. And it is not fear I see on her face, it is wonder, and a dawning understanding that this miracle is real. Here is a new life, and she is the mother. To her, it is not a foetus she sees, but her baby.

I hesitate to spoil the moment and ask: “Ah … and about your weight?” but I do anyway. “Oh”, she says beaming like a lighthouse. “Everything is fine. Doctor weighed me – 49kg. She said my scales at home must be broken! I am so happy now!” Her transformation is complete. From being a nervous wreck to being radiantly happy took a day.

So the ‘weight loss’ was just an equipment malfunction, and her clinic visit was unnecessary. But was it really? Without the concern about weight that led to the visit, there would have been no doctor’s reassurance, and no sonogram. Without the sonogram, there would have been continued anxiety and little chance of that magic connection suddenly materialising between mother and child. Yes, the visit was worth it, if only to see the expression on her face.

Three weeks ago, I left Bali to deal with a sad homecoming for my father – an ending of sorts. I returned, privileged to play a small part in a joyful beginning. The cycle somehow feels complete now.

h1

The Other Bali – Life Outside Greater Kuta

July 4, 2010

The tourist sitting on the next bar stool, leafing through brochures,  discovers that I live here. His eyes light up and he says:  “What’s this Bedugul place like? Or Lovina – we’re thinking of going up for a few days”. “Umm …” I reply, “I’ve never actually been there. I, er, sort of hang around Legian and Seminyak. I haven’t gone much past Umalas really …” I trail off, embarrassed.  “How long have you lived in Bali?” he asks. I tell him a year. He leans back on the stool and looks at me as I was a new species of mildly toxic toad. “Soooo … you’re not interested in seeing more of Bali apart from just the South?”

I am stung. I am interested, but the terrible twins, Procrastination and Sloth, have conspired to prevent me from ever making the effort. I have all the excuses – the roads are terrible, the traffic is a nightmare, it will take too long … I mean, how many rice paddies do I want to see in one day? But as it turns out, like many preconceptions, these were utterly wrong. Having had my wake-up call from the barfly (thanks mate!) and even more encouragement from friends, I hit the road, and discover what a treasure I have been missing.

A mere 50 kilometres north of my usual stamping ground, I see Bedugul for the first time. It’s cool – the place is 1500 metres above sea level. The markets look interesting, so I bargain hard, my negotiating skills honed on the demanding strop of Kuta, and force a vendor to reduce a bag of cashews to a mere 35,000 rupiah. “Small bag”, says my Balinese driver, trying to keep a straight face. “You want I get more? Cheap?” Naturally, I humour him. He comes back with a bag four times the volume. “15,000”, he informs me laconically. He has the grace not to smirk. Harga bule; harga lokal.

Then he takes me to Kebun Raya Eka Karya – the Bedugul Botanical Gardens, established over 50 years ago. Inside the 120 hectare site (that’s 297 acres!) is a veritable wonderland of vegetation. 650 species of trees, 500 types of orchids. If you teleported a person in here, they could be forgiven for thinking they were in New Zealand, or South America, or even the famous Botanical Gardens of Palanga, Lithuania. The only thing that is familiar there is a traditional Balinese house hidden in the grounds, which accommodates 12 people . And you can rent it! Where else but Bali?

Heading North again, we see spectacular lakes – Bratan (with its 11-tiered water temple), Buyan and Tamblingan, while passing terraced rice paddies of the most brilliant shade of irridescent green I have yet seen in Bali. The road, which is surprisingly good, winds in savage switchbacks through the 1220 metre mountain pass. Motorcyclists, just as crazy as in the South, overtake blithely on blind corners, swaddled in parkas, coats and scarves. For me, it’s a pleasant 22 degrees outside, for them, it must seem like Mawson on a motorbike.

Descending to sea level again we head towards Lovina. Another surprise. It’s not a ‘town’ as such – more a series of villages that have coalesced into a picturesque 12 kilometre strip. But it’s laid-back and friendly and the coastal scenery is impressive. Restaurant prices are half that of Legian and the food is excellent. The vendors are astonishingly relaxed too. “I have sarong. You buy?” I politely decline. “OK, no problem”, she says. What? No badgering? No pressure? I like this place already. Accommodation is nice and cheap too.

I briefly consider observing some dolphins. The operator informs me that his boat departs at 6am, which means having to get up at 5am. I don’t do mornings at the best of times, and that time is ridiculous. The dolphins miss out on seeing me. Tidak cetaceans this time.

The next day, we swing through Singaraja on the way to Lake Batur. I don’t see much of the place, but what I do see is clean. No rubbish bags, no litter. We need to kidnap some of the people responsible and bring them back to South Bali to teach us how it should be done. I’m impressed. But when we get to Kintamani, I am less than impressed. Oh, the scenic vista of Lake Batur and the volcano is wonderful, but some of the people make me feel as if I am back in Kuta Square. The place is packed with tour buses, restaurants with a view are way overpriced for the unappetising kludge they serve, and the vendors are intrusive, persistent, whiny and aggressive. And there are scam artists, who ‘repair’ vehicles they themselves damage.

I come back to the car unexpectedly, and there are a pair of seedy-looking gents crouched beside the back wheels. “What are you doing?”, I enquire. “Ahh, just checking your tyres, boss”, says one. “And your friend on the other side?”, I persist. The other entrepreneur sheepishly approaches, putting something shiny and sharp back into his pocket. “Tyres OK?” I ask, simultaneously shocking them by treating the pair to a quick photo opportunity. “Yes, yes”, they say in unison, backing away. “They will stay OK, ya?” I say firmly. It’s not a question, and they know it.

It was a very short trip, but it got me out of the ghetto. It gave me a tiny glimpse of the richness and diversity of Bali the Island, rather than my narrow picture of Bali, the tourist enclave. I know there is much, much more to see and learn. And I’m really looking forward to doing just that before too long.

h1

Strange language experiences

August 21, 2009

Every so often, one needs to go off-island – to explore, reconnect with the rest of the world, reflect and rejuvenate. I’m back in Bali after a two-week sojourn to Lithuania – the land of my parents. It was more of a pilgrimage really. I wasn’t born there – I was sort of  dropped in transit through Germany on the way to Australia more years ago than I care to admit.

Lithuania is about 11 times the size of Bali, but with the same population. As in Bali, the people are fun-loving and friendly, the beer is excellent and the women are beautiful. Did I mention the beer is excellent? There are over 40 varieties of local beer and all of them sell extremely well. Also as in Bali, there is a rich cultural heritage that spiritually sustains the inhabitants. Particularly in rural villages, there is a banjar-like culture that provides support and security.

Despite being at a lattitude where the sun rises at 4:30am and sets at 10:30pm, even  near the end of  summer, it was still surprisingly warm in August. Mind you, everything is relative – the locals were gasping in the 27 degree ‘heatwave’ and looking at me as if I had lost my mind when I put on my jacket for the ‘cool’ 17 degree evenings. When you are used to Winters of minus 30 degrees, I guess anything above freezing seems warm …

Luckily, my Lithuanian is fluent, unlike the crimes I commit against Bahasa in Bali. (My latest linguistic transgression at a restaurant here – “Saya mau banjar” instead of  “Saya mau bayar” ).  Asking for a village instead of the bill is guaranteed to get you strange looks. And that was only a day after asking for an “es kepala”. I still reckon ‘iced cranium’ sounds like ‘iced coconut’ in Indonesian …

Anyway, language fluency, like temperature, is a relative term as well – I learned my Lithuanian from my parents, who left the old country a long time ago. People thought I was a local until I dropped words into the conversation that have not been in use for 60 years. “Have you come here in a time machine?” was one response to my witty repartee …

At a restaurant I tried all five words I know for ‘toilet’ without the waiter showing a glimmer of comprehension. After an embarrassing pantomime act (please don’t ask me to demonstrate), he asked, in perfect English, “oh, do you need to use the toilet?”  A perfect example of how even one of the oldest languages in the world – not dissimilar to Sanskrit – grows, borrows and evolves in response to globalisation.

More language difficulties also cropped up in Germany on the way back. The immigration officer scrutinising my passport and noticing that I was born in Germany, commenced a rapid-fire interrogation in German (which I do not speak).
Me: Sorry??
Officer: Sprechen sie Deutch?
Me: Nein
Officer: (accusingly) You chust did!
To my consternation, the grilling continued in German until he finally muttered something about my disrespectful refusal to speak the language. I knew I shouldn’t have fuelled his suspicions by departing with a polite “danke schon”, but I just couldn’t help myself.

So after nearly three weeks of speaking practically nothing but Lithuanian, I’m back in Bali – and guess what? I’ve forgotten most of the pitiful amount of Bahasa accumulated in the previous two months! Never mind, I’ll just have to go out and order a refreshing iced cranium and ask for the village at the end.

At least I can still say Bintang …