Posts Tagged ‘maid’

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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 Heat Is On, And The Animals Are Attacking

October 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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One Person’s Normal Is Another’s Neurosis

September 16, 2011

Back in our home country, our life-styles can feel comfortable and secure, simply because we know the rules of social intercourse – whether we choose to adhere to them or not. Bali feels exotic to us, not just because of the climate,  the scenery and the look of the people, but because everything is done slightly differently here. There is a delightful ‘openness’ here that seems to characterise human interactions. For some visitors, this is a refreshing change from the suspicious and reserved insularity of some of our larger western-style communities. It is a difference that can be seductive and compelling, and one which encourages many to return time and time again.

Other visitors say it feels invasive – at least at first. The natural tendency of local people to be be friendly and curious about the lives of guests on their island can cause consternation, or even offence. A friend on her first visit here came back to the safety of her hotel, exhausted and perturbed.

“One of the locals stopped me in the street”, she related breathlessly. “He asked me where I was going!” She thought about this amazing encounter for a moment. “Then he wanted to know where I’d been!” She shook her head in wonder. “And then, he asked me if I was married! And when I told him no, he actually said, “Why not? The cheek of it! ”

She was upset about ‘being interrogated’ as she described it. It took quite a while to explain that, by Bali standards, this was perfectly normal – an acceptable social curiosity fuelled by genuine interest. I tentatively suggested that a response of “Not yet” to the question about her marital status might have been met with a sympathetic smile instead of an incredulous query. As a single, successful and independent woman, she didn’t really like that, and told me so emphatically. But, a week later, she said,  “I get it now. They value marriage and family so highly, don’t they?” They do indeed.

The more I stay here, the more I like the little differences in cultural mores. They get me into trouble occasionally, but they do keep me on my toes. At first, I was a little put out at finding someone perched on my bike when I came back to it. I used to think, “Hey! That’s my property!” – without actually saying anything, of course.   Now it’s “Hello, how are you?”, followed by smiles all round and sometimes an interesting conversation before I’m on my way. It’s no big deal. Bali sometimes feels like one big shared space, and I’m told it’s good to share.

The role of religion is different here too – it’s a big part of life in Bali. Most of the predominantly Hindu population is quite devout, yet they have no issues with people having other belief systems. Unlike some of the fundamentalist-influenced communities elsewhere in Indonesia, the spirit of religious tolerance flourishes here in deed, not just in word. However, it is still unwise to declare yourself an atheist or agnostic – that will get you some really strange looks. I did once, and the genuinely concerned response was, “Oh, you poor man – I will pray for you.” Even government forms here require you to choose an established religion. Leaving that section blank is not an option.

On a more secular note, I like the way the girls smile and flirt, make direct eye contact, and touch your arm in the course of normal conversation. Here, it’s a customary social activity that has nothing remotely to do with any sexual come-on. The local girls seem to be slightly shocked if anyone takes it as such, because most are quite shy. I just wish that some visitors to Bali would understand that before taking friendliness as an open invitation to proposition and grope. Things can appear quite distorted in the mirror of one’s own culture.

But the social norm thing works in reverse too. I must confess that for all my worldliness (ha!) I am still somewhat startled when I ask a shy and demure local how they are, and they forthrightly say, “Not good. I have my menstruation today. Too much blood!” Yikes! Actually, too much information! Unfortunately, when that happened with one of my domestic helpers,  I seized on it as a great opportunity to demonstrate that I too was an über-cool person who was unfazed by open discussion of natural bodily functions. So I pointed out the cupboard where I keep an emergency supply of feminine hygiene items for villa guests in case she needed anything. She promptly went bright crimson – an astonishing feat for someone with her complexion. The next ten minutes were spent in shared giggles and whispered conversations with her sister, who happened to be visiting at the time. I guess you can’t win them all.

Then there’s the language. Many locals translate fairly literally when using English, which can lead to misunderstandings. I had some business dealings with an agent whose office was a long way away from my home. An attractive woman, she said that she would happily deliver some crucial documents once they had been stamped by relevant authorities.  A week later, when they were ready, she sent me a text message saying: “Is it OK if I come and play at your villa now?” Ye Gods! Do I say I’m busy? Do I break out the champagne and get fresh pool towels? Luckily, my Bahasa-literate friend laughingly explained that the Indonesian word for ‘play’ and the word for ‘visit’ were one and the same. I think I missed an embarrassing encounter by that much.

As I said, the rules are a little different here. I think I’ve survived by keeping an open mind, putting my preconceptions to one side and just riding the complex currents of this society while learning what works – and what doesn’t. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but hey – isn’t that best way to learn?

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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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Washing My Naked Aphrodite’s Bits

May 29, 2011

Sitting here at my desk at the Global Headquarters of Borborigmus in Bali, my attention drifts – as it frequently does – away from the computer screen, across the shimmering blue of the pool and comes to rest on one of my favourite girls. She is standing amongst the bushes, completely naked except for a sarong trailing from her left hand and concealing only her left calf . She stands unselfconsciously facing me; the weight of the urn balanced on her right shoulder resulting in a shapely cocking of her right hip. Despite the serenity and confidence of her pose, she keeps her eyes averted from mine and stands as still as a statue.

That’s because she is a statue. My very own Venus de Milo –  a life-sized girl of white stone, standing proudly in her arbour of contrasting dark-green tropical vegetation. Except she is far more attractive, is in much better shape and she actually has arms, which provide a pleasing balance to her form. In fact, she’s more the way I imagine an Aphrodite to be, rather than a Venus. The only thing is, she has developed a bit of a patina. Her once-white flawless surface is becoming marked with irregular blotches of algae and mould, which has begun to detract somewhat from the purity of her compound curves.

My pembantu, Delfi, a demure and highly moral woman who bustles industriously around my villa, scrubbing and polishing every hidden nook (and most of the crannies), has long become accustomed to Aphrodite’s nakedness.  She even recently, in her inimitable patois, referred to Aphrodite as “this girlfriend you, ya? Hee-hee!” But never once has she offered to give my ‘girlfriend’ a good scrubbing. I suspect that has been far less to do with her state of dishabille than Delfi’s absolute certainty that she will slip, fall into the pool and drown if she tries.

As I gaze across the pool at my tarnished stone maiden, I decide that it is time to restore her to the pristine condition of yesteryear. Wire brushes and other tools in hand, I enthusiastically commence the job. Delfi looks on approvingly as I scrub the carved stone tresses, the shoulders, the urn, the arms, the face and the throat. Encouraged by the newly-emerging, sparkling upper regions, I continue my ministrations downwards. But then, as I am about to start on the breasts, I become strongly aware of being watched. My pembantu has become very still and is just … staring. I look at the brush in my hand, then at Aphrodite’s torso, then back at Delfi. I give one stained stone breast a tentative swipe and watch Delfi’s body language to see whether I am breaking some local taboo here, but while her look is just a teeny bit shocked, it is not censorious. Not yet, anyway.

A little more relaxed now, I finish up in the bust department with excellent results. But I notice that Delfi is becoming progressively more, ah, concerned as I move downward to hips, belly and below. Then I see the problem. My Aphrodite’s groin area is sporting a light, but noticeable algal bloom. My cleaning job is just about to become the statuary equivalent of a Brazilian wax job. To complete the task properly, I am going to have to become a tad intimate with Aphrodite’s anatomy – and this while being watched like a hawk.

I tell myself that I am a mature man, that I am doing nothing unseemly, and that if outside observers choose to judge me on the basis of their own taboos and social mores, then that has nothing to do with me. I will not interrupt my labours to satisfy the mere concerns of others. I am rarely embarrassed, and I am not embarrassed now. I tell myself all this, but of course I don’t listen. So I tell Delfi that I am taking a break and will finish later. She seems inordinately relieved, and seems even more relieved when she finishes her shift and goes home at lunchtime.

Now freed from moral supervision, at least in my own mind, I tackle the job with renewed gusto. Hips, stomach and thighs yield their overgrowths easily to the brush, but the complexities of below-the-belly curvatures pose more of a problem. I try using an old toothbrush, but it still can’t get the stone crevices clean. Finally, I hit on the solution – an emery board, intended for manicures, is of the right size and shape, and has the appropriate abrasive qualities. It’s bright pink, but, hey, you can’t have everything.

So as I stand there, engrossed, head lowered to better see what I am doing,  scrabbling away with my arm gently around Aphrodite’s waist to prevent me from falling in the pool, I suddenly hear a woman’s voice: “Mister, I have some anti-nyamuk for…” Damn, I left the villa gate open. She stops dead, dropping some of those confounded sachets of useless anti-mosquito powder the locals keep bringing round to sell.  She stares at me, with my left arm embracing a naked statue, my right hand holding a pink thing which, I realise instantly, is in a somewhat compromising position. I spontaneously utter a word with religious connotations, which on reflection, is probably unwise. She mutters something like “ah, lain kali, ya?”, which I gather means something like ‘some other time, pervert’, and rapidly flees to her motorbike where she performs a flawless Le Mans start.

Oh well. On the negative side, I’m waiting for a visit from the anti-pornography squad, and maybe, if she understood my startled exclamation, from the blasphemy police as well. On the positive side, I now have a clean statue, and even better, I doubt that anyone will be trying to sell me those sachets any time soon, if ever.

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Coffee Spills, Hungry Dogs And Serviettes In Bali

May 22, 2011

I must be hard to please. For me, Bali is a place where, no matter how good things get, they’re never 100% satisfactory. I feel like I’m getting short-changed at least 25% on every life experience.

If I roll up to my agent’s office armed with ten of the mandatory documents, letters and affidavits needed for my KITAS renewal, I will always need to go home and unearth two more obscure pieces of paper before the convoluted process can even start. If I am told that it will take ten weeks for the process, it always takes at least two weeks longer. When, after the inevitable delays, I am finally instructed to pick up my new KITAS, it won’t have a Multiple Entry/Exit stamp. “Oh no sir,” the ever-helpful man at Immigration will say, “that will take another two weeks.” Naturally, it’s not ready for another three weeks.

If I want to buy six stubby holders, there will be four in stock. If I absolutely, positively need my pembantu to work on a particular day, there will be a ceremony on that day. The computer at the office where I pay my electricity will go down only during the time I am there.  My hand-phone’s network works reasonably well for whole days at a time, then inexplicably overloads and fails only when I need to call a cab to the airport.

My obviously unrealistic expectations can’t even be met at restaurants. One of my regular places has good food and friendly staff and, most importantly, an abundance of serviettes for those messy senior moments. But its coffee tastes like crushed scarab beetle wings – and it only comes in small cups. On the other hand, my favourite coffee shop has the best coffee in Bali,  which they serve in big cups. But there are no serviettes.

Now this is a problem for me, because the classy cups at this place have tiny, ungrippable handles designed by someone with no concept of either the anatomy of the human hand or of the physics of levers. So for me, picking up a full cup usually means a spectacular downward rotation of the cup and consequent spillage into its saucer. Or on bad days, into the lap of a nearby patron. Crushing the handle laterally to the point of pulverising the porcelain might produce enough friction, but my hands are too weak for that. So my saucer fills up, and every time I lift the wet cup, coffee pours into my lap. Little as I care what people think of me, even I draw the line at looking as if I forgot my incontinence pads.

Of course, sometimes it’s not Bali at all. Sometimes there is no-one to blame but myself. There I am, full coffee cup by my right hand, sugar added and ready to stir. The obligatory cookie that comes with the coffee is not to my taste, so I generally save it to give to one of the local dogs, which, knowing my schedule, is there waiting for a hand-out when I arrive. Depending on how hungry it is, it sometimes even sings to me while waiting – a peculiar solo of whines, yips and howls which are eerily evocative in their yearning. It sits next to me, staring at me with soulful eyes which telegraph a message of love, faith and commitment. I just know this dog worships me, and would never leave me. Unless I run out of cookies of course, whereupon it is off without a backward glance. I reflect that this behaviour could almost be a metaphor for life amongst the locals, but charitably squash the thought.

So today, the cookie has been eaten, but just to keep my hairy friend around for a few minutes longer, I absently scratch and massage along its spine. Unfortunately, thinking I am a true multi-tasker, I also try to stir my coffee at the same time. You’ve all done that thing where you try to rub your stomach with one hand while patting your head with the other? OK, then you know what happens next. The lomi-lomi-like strokes of my dog-massaging left hand, together with the orbital motions of my coffee-stirring right hand promptly cause a massive failure of my neural system. Only Yogis and drummers can operate different limbs independently, and I am neither. Unfortunately, it is my coffee hand operating system that fails, causing a spasm that just about empties my cup over the table, my book, my phone, and yes, my lap. Damn.

And of course, there are no serviettes. Their presence might not have prevented my bout of neuro-muscular ineptness, but it sure would have helped in the clean-up. As I said, no matter how good things get, they’re never 100% satisfactory. But you know – that’s Bali.