Posts Tagged ‘motorbike’

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Why Your Choice Not To Wear A Helmet Is My Business

July 28, 2014

“I never wear a helmet”, brags the expat on one of the more combative Bali forums. Let’s call him Bazza. “Nobody can tell me what to do. It’s my bloody choice if I wear one or not.” Some Indonesian participants agree. “We only wear helmets on long trips. No need around town in
Bali.” Others, perhaps of a more practical bent, chime in with warnings about the huge cost of medical treatment, the fact that insurance won’t pay, the police stings, the enormous risk to him, and … well, you’ve heard all those reasons before.

But Bazza is intractable. “If I get hurt, that’s my business. I’ll pay for my own hospital treatment.” He admits that he has no medical insurance. And he forcefully says that, no, he doesn’t expect anyone to hold fund-raisers for him, or help out if he is incapacitated, or to donate towards medical evacuation costs – or anything, really.

“I take responsibility for myself”, he keeps repeating. “I hate helmets – they’re restrictive and uncomfortable.” Like road safety rules, I suppose. He goes on to say, “I like the wind in my hair. It’s no-one’s business what I do, and all you do-gooders can just shut up.” He finishes with, “Don’t tell me how to live my life. If I don’t wear a helmet, it doesn’t affect you one bit, except to give you something to whinge about in your shallow, boring lives.”

I can understand his ire, if not his lack of diplomacy. I’m not much one for do-gooder rules myself. But as I ponder on his attitude, I am struck by the realisation that his ‘right’ to ride in helmet-less freedom, and his belief that it does not affect me “one bit”, is just plain wrong. It actually affects me a lot.

But what if this freedom-loving, rule-breaking, self-centred, independent legend was to have a serious spill one day? What if his unprotected head was to smash into the road as he comes off, peeling back his scalp, fracturing his skull and coating the surface of his exposed brain with the dirt and bacteria of Bali’s roads? And don’t say it’s unlikely; this happens every single day here in Bali.

And what if, at the same time, I am riding too, and I have an accident where my helmeted head suffers a ferocious blow which leaves me semi-conscious with a severe concussion?

In both cases, passers-by would no doubt call for an ambulance to take each of us to hospital. But this is Bali – there are few ambulances, many accidents and emergencies, and permanently choked roads that slow thinly-stretched emergency-response vehicles to a crawl.

So the dispatchers, having heard the sitrep from both accidents, will inevitably triage the two of us, and give priority to – guess who? – Bazza. After all, he is the one who is unconscious, covered with copious amounts of blood from his scalp lacerations, and the one whose brains
are leaking out of his cranium. High priority.

By comparison, I am merely groggy and disoriented and with only superficial grazes. As from inside a deep well I hear “Yes sir, he was wearing a helmet, and yes, he is sort of conscious”, as someone phones for an ambulance, so of course, I end up as a low priority job. They will
send their first available ambulance for Bazza. He’s the one in most need, at least in their professional judgement.

So I get to wait for the next available patient transport, while, unknown to me or anyone else, the brain bleed in my skull that began when I crashed goes unrecognised and untreated. I will die within two hours unless I get immediate medical intervention to relieve my intra-cranial bleed.

But let’s say I do manage to get to the hospital before I actually expire on the road. I will most likely languish in the emergency room, gradually losing consciousness, while the only qualified head trauma surgeon on duty is busy trying to stabilise Bazza.

By this stage, I have about twenty minutes left to live. By the time the surgeon slaps on enough dacron patches to glue Bazza’s stupid head together, checks his vitals and hands over to his assistant to do the closure, stitching and bandaging, it is nearly too late for me and my undiagnosed subdural haematoma.

That’s because my skull totally encloses my brain, which is getting gradually compressed by leaking blood. Oxygen-rich blood can no longer flow to my brain tissue. The reduced oxygen causes my neurons to die and my brain to swell even further. All this combines to force my brain down through the foramen magnum – a small hole at the base of my skull. Those brain parts that come in contact with the hard bone around this opening get so compressed that they stop
working altogether.

The surgeon, finally freed of his responsibilities to the idiot Bazza (who no doubt still insists that his choice of not wearing a helmet affects no-one but him) finally arrives just in time to see me go into convulsions. Those areas of my brain which are being crushed actually control my breathing
and heart rate. I already have brain damage from anoxia, but that is nothing compared to what will happen next unless the surgeon immediately drills a hole in my skull to relieve the pressure. Quite simply, without help, I will die.

But somehow I survive. I don’t remember much. I have months of rehabilitation ahead. I can’t really understand all the words in books now, so I don’t read much. I don’t recognise people who claim they’re my friends. Sometimes I have lucid moments where some of my old mental acuity returns, and I think about things like cause and effect, actions and consequences. I vaguely remember using the internet a long time ago, and arguing with a guy called Bazza, who insisted on having the freedom to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, because no do-gooder
had the right to tell him what to do.

And I frown, vaguely remembering that I really disagreed with his attitude once, but for the life of me I don’t know why. The doctors keep giving me pills to make me better, they say, but I just flush them down the toilet. I think Bazza was probably right about people telling you what to do all the
time, so I will just ignore them, just like he did.

I see a guy on a gurney, head bandaged, connected to drips, being wheeled out of the hospital towards a Medevac ambulance. His friends look pale and stressed, and I hear them talking about how they had to take out mortgages to pay for his operations and to fly him home. One says, “You’ll be right, Bazza.” His name rings a bell, but I can’t remember why. I feel emotional seeing people look after their friends when something bad happens.

But most of the time I feel confused and angry and rebellious, and I want to go out riding fast, bare-chested and with the wind in my hair, enjoying my freedom, but they say I can’t. I don’t see why not. It’s my choice, not theirs.

But they say not to do it, because my brain is a bit like Bazza’s now and I’m unable to understand ‘consequences’, whatever they are. I don’t really know, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m the boss of me, and those do-gooders can just shut up.

Besides, it won’t affect anyone but me.

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The Changing Of Lovina

April 18, 2013

Every so often one needs what my avian friend Hector refers to as a Short Essential Break.  These SEBs serve to reset perceptions, decompress from the daily chaos of South Bali, and just do some inspired blobbing.

My most recent sojourn was to Kalibukbuk, known to most as the central hub of Lovina – the generic name for a ten kilometre stretch of closely-spaced villages west of Singaraja. It’s a low-key place – which for me is its attraction – and it’s different enough from South Bali to make it either a pleasant stop-over or a destination in its own right.

Since my last trip there, things have changed a little. The sleepy little strip, with its super-low meal prices, its laid-back sellers of knick-knacks,  and its providers of friendly service at approachable prices seems to be starting to develop a ‘down-south’ mentality. Of course, I would expect prices to be higher than last time. After all, Lovina is not immune to the cost increases experienced by the rest of Bali. But the cancer of opportunistic greed seems to be creeping in here slowly and surely.

Local friends here blame the new North Bali airport – a pipe dream that will take a long time to be realised. Even the concept itself  is still in the dreaming phase, much less the realities of infrastructure development or transportation logistics. Yet the mere possibility of its future existence seems to have driven land prices through the roof, and created unreal expectations of a tourist bonanza (and its attendant opportunities for charging high prices) decades before the first tourist plane touches wheels to tarmac.

This attitude seems to have permeated the low-level hawker industry too. As I stroll around, an optimistic purveyor of coral gewgaws tries to sell me some trinkets, worth maybe fifteen thousand rupiah each, insisting that he never bargains, but sells only for fixed price. He tells me, “I will only sell for thirty, no less.” After bargaining for some time with ‘he-who-never-bargains’, the price drops to twenty each for five items. Still too high, so I start leaving. “Twenty each”, he insists, “but you can have one more for free.” I weaken, agree, he bags the merchandise and I pull out the negotiated 100,000 rupiah.

He looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and horror. “Where is the rest?”  I tell him that’s it. “What?” he says with just a hint of fake anger. “You agreed! $20 each for five!”  After I stop laughing, during which his stern facade slips only a little, I thank him for the entertainment and start leaving. He only lets me get a few metres before he acquiesces, grumbling, to the negotiated price – in rupiah. “Pelit”, he mutters as I leave. Yes, stingy I might be, but not yet that completely stupid as to fall for a bait-and-switch scam.

Kuta-style hawkers aside, the place has a relaxing ambience not found in the Deep South. That evening, I savour the quiet at my hotel’s beach-side bar, sipping a wee scotch and gazing over a sea, smooth as trowelled ant’s piss in the lambent evening light. No surf, no surfers – just a few fishermen knee-deep in the shallow waters two hundred metres from shore, bamboo rods held with casual patience. Glorious.

Next day, needing to rent a scooter to visit friends three or four kilometres away (and way too far to walk in my current state of sloth) I find a bike rental place, and discover that the previous day’s hopeful vendor is not an anomaly. After negotiating a ridiculously high price for a day’s rental down to something merely over-priced, I pay and get the keys. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning. “We close at 8pm. Please bring the bike back before then”, says the proprietor.

I explain that, no, I will bring it back at 11am the following day, because I rented it for a day. “Ahh”, says the nice lady, “You are from Legian.” I am nonplussed by the non-sequiteur. Seeing my confusion, she explains, “In Legian, a one day rental is for 24 hours. In Lovina, one day is 12 hours. So I leave, she calls me back, and grudgingly allows that, just for me, she will arrange for the earth’s rotation to be shifted back to a 24-hour cycle, but just this once.

Before she can change her mind about re-writing celestial mechanics, I take off, and immediately marvel at the handling of this little bike compared to my own. It feels as if the road consists of  a bed of lubricated ball-bearings. The steering responds like a startled cat on shabu-shabu, and the brakes are … well, hesitant. I stop and check the tyre pressures, which are unfortunately OK, which means the problem is more deep-seated. Never mind,  it adds a frisson of excitement to an otherwise quiet day, even though I feel like a rhinoceros strapped to an office chair that has been suddenly catapulted out into traffic. At least I have a helmet …

That night, I talk to some locals and expats, and discover that ‘Joger-style’ village greed has surfaced here too. (In the South, the Joger company chose to close down one of its outlets rather than bow to the endless and increasingly rapacious demands for money from nearby villages.)

Here in Lovina, the story goes that a developer in the final stages of construction of a high-class 8-villa complex has just been hit with an economic body blow. Just before its official launch, the local village has apparently demanded ‘village fees’ of 30 million per villa, per month, regardless of occupancy.  Interesting to see how that pans out – if true, 2.88 billion rupiah per annum would be a nice little windfall for the village – if the owner can avoid bankruptcy, that is.

I really hope that this bit of news is not true. Let’s hope it’s one of those legendary ‘misunderstandings’ which are so common here. It would be a shame for Lovina, and its future, if what appears to be an emerging hardness of spirit and Kuta-style opportunism kills the friendly and laid-back character of the place.

One wonders though, if it is the impending, though distant prospect of a North Bali airport that is causing this sea-change, or whether it is something deeper and more pervasive that is happening in Bali. I guess only time will tell.

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The Collateral Damage From The Van Der Speck Sting

April 16, 2013

A recent video uploaded by Mr. Van Der Speck, the Dutch ‘journalist’ posing as a tourist to ‘expose’ so-called corruption and extortion practices of the Bali police, went viral, as its maker had hoped. It showed the well-known practice of paying police a small fee when caught in a traffic infringement.

Equipped with a hidden camera, plus an accomplice with a second camera close by, he rode past a police post, sans helmet, waiting to be pulled over. Following the best practices of journalistic entrapment, he effectively offered an inducement to the police officer to avoid ‘going to court’. Readily agreeing to a fairly high pay-off fee, he then intimated that he would love a beer, whereupon the unfortunate cop, perhaps motivated by guilt for accepting such a relatively high payment from a ‘nice guy’, scurried off and bought him a a few beers with the proceeds – which they then both enjoyed.

Reactions to this sting followed the predictable pattern of those who come from a different culture, where all corruption is considered wrong. Ignoring the distinction between ‘minor’ corruption here, and the unacceptable ‘major’ corruption which is endemic amongst Indonesia’s officials, the media, in a fit of unseemly glee, went bat-shit over the issue. No point in explaining to people that ‘minor’ corruption plays an important role in the complex economic and social fabric here, and is actually beneficial given the subsistence salaries that are the norm.

No, uninformed moralists of all persuasions, holding firmly to their belief that ALL payola is wrong no matter what the circumstances, expressed their condemnation with the usual Bali-bashing. This, of course, caused Bali’s authorities to lose face and crack down on a practice that is both complex and necessary, at least under the present system of dealing with traffic violations. The police involved were disciplined as well – a scapegoat was necessary.

And this opportunistic little set-up is now having very expensive repercussions for locals.

A friend – a local person – was pinged by traffic police in Kuta/Legian tonight for riding without a helmet. Yes, it was a silly and dangerous oversight. Normally, in return for a small fee (for locals) of 20,000-30,000, it would incur a safety lecture and an exhortation to stay safe. Most people I know learn from such an experience and remember to wear their helmet – at least for a couple of months anyway.

But this time, the cop apologised for not being able to accept the usual ‘fee’, and said his hands were tied as his supervisor was watching closely. He kept glancing around as if to find a hidden camera. He then proceeded to write out the first traffic ticket I have ever seen in Bali, saying that all police were being watched like hawks since the Lio Square sting by Van Der Speck.

My friend now has to go to the police station in the morning and pay the official fine, which according to the vaguely-worded citation, will be either 100,000, or 250,000, or 500,000 rupiah. Even the cop didn’t know.  That’s a lot of money for a local person. The printed citation form doesn’t even provide an address at which to pay the fine, undoubtedly because this method is so rarely used here that the kinks in the system haven’t even been discovered yet.

I wonder if the holier-than-thou ‘journalist’ ever considered that his actions would have such repercussions? A fine of up to two week’s salary for a local is savage. Loss of discretionary income for a police officer – who has already paid 100 million plus for a place in the police academy, and a further few million a month to ‘buy a franchise’ for a spot on a lucrative ‘fine’ corner will seriously affect his family.

Am I ‘for’ corruption? No. But the system under which the traffic police have operated for years is finely tuned to the society here, and the ‘fees’ paid for vehicular transgressions go straight to the officer to supplement his meagre salary. In developed countries, without a culture of, er,  personal fee-for-service, the money paid in fines goes to Consolidated Revenue for the government to totally waste on airy-fairy social experiments. I know which one I think is the more equitable system. I don’t even see it as ‘corruption’, rather, it is an equitable re-distribution of wealth.

Will this new system last? I don’t know. I do know the police on the street are not in favour of it because of the loss of their income. Their bosses may be of a different mind, suddenly realising that a hitherto-unrealised revenue stream is there for the taking. I know the average local is horrified that they will have to pay up to ten times the amount they are used to.

But I suspect that when the fuss dies down, Bali’s traffic regulation enforcement methods will quietly revert to their time-honoured state, where there is a social benefit for all who get trapped by their vehicular misdemeanours.

And, despite the arguments for and against the existing system here, the fact remains that no-one needs to pay anything to the police or the Traffic Department. Ever.

All you have to do is wear a helmet, a shirt, keep your headlights on during the day, stop before the white line at traffic lights, and carry a valid licence and registration documents. No-one will book you.

And Mr. Van Der Speck – next time you come blundering into a foreign country, ignorant of its culture and social mores, and deliberately break its laws in order to entrap someone – for the sake of journalism – stop and think. You might be happily back in Holland, but the damage your stupid journalism has inflicted remains.

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The Anxiety Of Being Untethered

April 6, 2013

It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon; my energy is low and my body craves caffeine. I can’t think straight, and the demands of dealing with with writing, social media and lazing by the pool have become overwhelming. Within five minutes I have thrown together my essential leaving-the-villa survival kit and launched my favourite motorbike towards the coffee shop. Well OK, it’s my only bike, and it’s actually a scooter – but that’s beside the point.

But only a few minutes into the caffeine experience, I experience a crisis. I feel suddenly exposed, like in those crazy dreams where you’re on a bus on the way to work and suddenly realise that you are naked. Totally naked. Everyone is dressed except you, and even though no-one seems to notice, you just know that within minutes, the whole bus will be pointing and giggling at the idiot who forgot his clothes in the morning rush.

But it’s not one of those dreams, even though the feelings are the same. My discomfiture morphs into a horrifying realisation that I am truly alone. I am blind and deaf, shut off from the world around me, unable to communicate, to listen to others, or to contribute to their debates. I can’t even lurk on the periphery of life’s countless conversations and vicariously enjoy the swirling currents of existence around me. My brain no longer functions, and my surroundings blur into a surrealistic cage, leaving me incommunicado.

I feel as if I have entered some sort of dissociative fugue state, alive but cut off from my normal sensorium, and as a result, isolating me from my network of friends and family. I have lost a big piece of my identity and this generates enormous anxiety. Is this what a Transient Ischaemic Event feels like? Or a sudden onset of dementia?

But, even with my depleted sense of identity, I still understand that I don’t need medical or psychiatric intervention. I know, at the deep core of my mind which still works, that my mental and emotional state is purely due to my forgetfulness. It is a self-created problem which is fairly easily fixed.

You see, I have left my smartphone at home. My god! No Twitter with my coffee. No email. No Jakarta Globe on which to leave pungent rants in the comments section. No Facebook to let me engage with endless pictures of cats. No Messenger to answer important questions like, “What are you doing?” No Google. No Google Translate – how will I converse? Rely on my memory? Ha!  No news. No … life.

Fortunately, just as I am about to leave my coffee half-finished and ride desperately home to retrieve my missing life-line to the world, I remember that I still have some ageing technology with me. It might be ancient, but it still has the capacity to connect me to the world, and to the Universe beyond. It’s modern enough to have random-access storage, and its display, while not back-lit, is adequate for ambient light. People might look at me askance while I’m using it, but at least I don’t have to worry about being caught with a low battery, because it doesn’t have one.

So within minutes of using my old-fashioned portal to other realities, I am immersed in the imagination-expanding richness of the old-style information stored on my portable, albeit retro, Bound Offerings Of Knowledge unit, a Caxton product from a past era, which surprisingly, is still available on-line today. I promptly forget all about my smartphone and stop stressing.

I highly recommend this technology – and not only for those occasions where you forget your phone or tablet either. You have probably heard of it by its more commonly-used acronym, “BOOK”.

Try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Stingy Tourists? Or Stingy Government?

April 29, 2012

The Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board,  Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, opened his mouth wide last Wednesday, and firmly inserted his foot. Annoyed that, despite the rise in total tourist numbers to Bali, visitors are now staying for only an average of three or four days instead of the seven days which was the norm ten years ago, and spend only $100 per day instead of $300, he blamed the tourists.

“Stingy tourists” are overcrowding Bali, he whinged. “When they come we have serious problems of traffic and waste. The island becomes dirty”, he said – falling headlong into the time-honoured local practice of blaming everyone else except yourself. It’s a little shocking to see officials – whose job it is to attract tourists – turn on their target market and accuse them of not being good little visitors by staying longer and spending more. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a high-profile public official actually exhibit the same cargo-cult mentality that pervades many less sophisticated villagers here. In effect, he is saying: “You have it. We want it. Give it to us. If you don’t, you are a stingy bule.”

Well, Ngurah, you might think that, but as the voice of Bali tourism, you are not supposed to say it, because the backlash from tourists as a result of your rudeness will only result in a wider public discussion as to the real reasons that people are deserting Bali. I too was a tourist for twelve years before coming here to live. Now, as a resident for over three years, I have constant contact with ‘stingy’ tourists, and as a result of their feedback,  I am happy to summarise for you just why this trend is developing.

Look around you, Ngurah – not with the rose-coloured glasses of a local, but through the eyes of someone arriving in Bali after a long, tiring flight. What do you see?

You will see tourists paying $25 USD each for a 30-day visa-on-arrival to enter the country, and then another $16 USD each to leave. Family of four coming for only 5 days? That’s $164 USD out of the spending budget already, and no way to save money on a one-week visa, because officialdom has withdrawn the short-stay visa facility. Visiting Bali on a cruise lay-over for 6 hours? That’s $25 USD per person thanks.

You will see chaos, delays and inefficiency in a hot, overcrowded arrivals hall, with insufficient staff to handle the passenger load and a confusing queuing system.

You will see tired visitors being pounced on by “porters” at the baggage carousel and cajoled into letting them wheel their bags twenty metres to the customs desk, then stridently demanding $10 for each bag before running off to scam their next victim, as airport ‘security’ personnel stand by and grin.

You will see the monopolistic taxi counter ‘mistakenly’ ask for a rate higher than the official published rates displayed, then see their drivers try to con their passengers out of another 40,000 on arrival at their hotels and villas with a pathetic sob story, or an insistence that “this is the rule!” You will see arriving visitors quail as they face the long, long, crowded walk to their car during the chaotic and visitor-unfriendly airport reconstruction.

You will see tourists arrive at what are now grossly-overpriced and over-starred hotels, which no longer offer the ‘book 7, get 10″ incentive packages of past years, only to be told, “Sorry, your room is not ready.” Even Singapore hotels are now cheaper than those in Bali, which is no longer competitive.

You will see a proliferation of Mini-Marts in garish colours selling monstrously-overpriced items to the hapless tourist. Buy a local magazine there, published in Bahasa Indonesia, with a printed price of 25,000 rupiah on the cover, and you will be charged 55,000 when it is scanned. Shrug from the cashier. “Boss’s rules”.

You will see tourists being accosted by rude touts, women being physically man-handled by sellers who refuse to accept a polite refusal to buy their wares, stall-holders muttering thinly-veiled abuse at tourists who won’t pay four times the going rate in Bali (and twice the price in their home country) for their shoddy goods. You will see criminal money-changers short-changing gullible tourists every day, and the arrogant taxi mafia (the non-Bluebird companies) over-charging customers and threatening real taxi drivers with violence.

You will see tourists stuck in traffic for hours on Bali’s poorly-maintained roads, because no-one even considers the grid-locking consequences of allowing local drivers to park wherever they feel like. You will see suicidal motorbike riders come close to killing pedestrians with their brainless antics and causing accidents with cars, after which they shrilly demand compensation for their own stupidity.

You will see visitors to Bali try to negotiate the open drains with lids which masquerade as  ‘footpaths’ here, and injure themselves when brittle manholes collapse beneath them. You will see tourists with infants in strollers being forced to risk death by having to share the narrow roads with texting drivers and motorcyclists.

You will see tourists now being expected to pay the same prices as at home for mediocre western-style meals, and absolutely exorbitant rates for imported wine, spirits and food. Spirits in bars are frequently counterfeit local replacements and deliberate half-shots in mixed drinks are common. Despite smokers being banned in all restaurants, bars and clubs from the first of June this year, tourists can expect no relief from the constant burning of toxic plastic waste all over Bali, the carcinogenic mosquito fogging smoke and noise, or from the stinking emissions of the ubiquitous buses, trucks and illegal 2-stroke motorbikes.

You will see tourists give up on visiting the ‘cultural epicentre’ of Ubud because of traffic jams and the hundreds of huge buses clogging the town. You will see them give up on visiting far-flung temples and seeing the ‘real’ Bali, because it’s all too hard, and now too expensive. Eventually, you will see them avoiding the immense, noisy, polluted construction zone that is South Bali altogether.

You will see tourists recoil from the stinking piles of garbage on the beaches, on the streets and in the ‘rivers’. Where garbage is collected, it ends up in make-shift tips anywhere the collectors choose to dump it. Just have a look at the huge rat and snake-infested mountain of refuse dumped opposite villa developments in Legian, just off Jalan Nakula; have a look at the environmentally-disastrous heap of rubbish at the entrance to the Mangrove Park.

You will see tourists cautious of potentially rabies-infected dogs, scared of contracting Dengue fever from the incessant mosquitoes, wary of getting Legionnaires disease from poorly-maintained air-conditioners, and amazed that nothing is being done about electricity outages and Bali’s looming water shortage. They are worried about increasing crime and a police force that does nothing without money up-front.

And what does the Tourism Board do to make Bali a more attractive destination for visitors? Nothing. It blames the “stingy tourists”. Wow. What diplomacy, what amazing sensitivity. What a truly stupid, irresponsible thing to say.

Well, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, I have news for you. Tourists have been coming to Bali for decades because it has a special sort of magic. The magic is still there, but it is now being countered by a not-so-special sort of opportunism and greed, over-development, collapsing infrastructure, and an arrogant belief that tourists will keep coming, no matter what.

They won’t. They have already stopped coming; and those who do still come, are spending less. Tourists are changing the Bali paradigm, not because they are “stingy”, but because they are driven by the concept of value for money. And frankly, Bali simply does not provide value for money any more.

The question for you, sir, is what will you and your cohorts in government do to change this?

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When Security Sanctions Sabotage Smooth Sending

April 14, 2012

My guests have left;  the last minute rush to collect belongings before they head off to the airport is over, and peace once more descends upon the villa. All nooks and crannies where overlooked items might lurk have been reluctantly scrutinised by the temporarily-resident Teenager (as requested by his mother) and declared, “like, totally empty” by the exasperated youth, who appears to find the whole notion of double-checking to be completely redundant

“Are you sure you’ve checked that you have everything?” his mum asks, which is the trigger for the obligatory teenage eye-roll and an expressive and prolonged “Maaah-a-um!!!”, a wail which first descends, then rises in pitch. This is apparently teenage verbal shorthand for “I just can’t believe that I am fourteen years old and you still don’t trust me to do the right thing and you’re implying that I’m a moron who can’t do anything right and I can’t BELIEVE you’re picking on me like this!”

So it’s half an hour before my guests are due to fly out, and I’m quietly relaxing in the villa when the phone rings. Not my phone, mind you – The Teenager’s phone. It’s sitting on the table, vibrating and emitting all kinds of bright colours and complex sounds, as expensive smartphones are wont to do. “Yeah, I know, I left my phone. My bad. Anyway, it’s not my fault; it’s the same colour as your table.” Having established that the responsibility for his misplaced phone is purely mine because of my inconsiderate choice of furniture, he calmly requests that I nip over to the airport and return it.

My bemused explanation that he has already passed through passport control, and is actually in the departure lounge, and that his plane leaves in twenty minutes, and that it will take me thirty minutes to even get to the airport is met with disbelieving silence. He is massively disgruntled. I am philosophical – to me it’s just a phone; to him, it’s a digital lifeline to his friends. “And it has all my contacts!” he moans.

Next morning, I discover that his idea of ‘scrutinising’ his room at the villa does not extend to checking power-points, where the power supply for his mum’s computer is still plugged in. He apparently ‘borrowed’  it for a late-night Facebook session and ‘forgot’ to put it back. Sigh.

I stay philosophical. I would have been happy to eventually send the phone to him (after a suitable delay in the interests of a good dose of Adlerian consequential punishment), but I can’t leave his mother with a rapidly-depleting battery for her work laptop. I call DHL, the international courier service, who tell me to package the items securely and bring the parcel to their office. Fortunately, their branch office is only minutes away.

An hour later, after modifying a cardboard box, wrapping the bits and pieces in bubble-wrap, securing the box with gaffer tape, wrapping the whole shebang in brown paper and vast quantities of sticky tape, I present myself at the Legian DHL office.

“You have wrapped the parcel”, says the chap on the counter, frowning. I agree, I have wrapped the parcel. “You must open it now so we can see what is inside.” I stare at him. “But you told me to package it securely!” I protest. “Yes. Easier for you to carry”, is his response.

Fortunately, I don’t open it before telling him it contains a phone and power supply, which turn out to be items apparently equivalent to the devil’s spawn, and which can not be accepted by them under any circumstances. He explains that it has to be taken to their head office, for an exorcism, or “security checks”, or some-such nonsense. Head office happens to be located at the airport, in the cargo road side street off the main terminal road. I am rapidly losing my calm, philosophical demeanour.

Forty minutes later, having fought my way through traffic, I arrive at the aforementioned cargo road. But it is no longer open, being blocked off by a large set of  corrugated iron gates and various ominous-looking notices. Feeling a tad snarly, I ride into the forbidden area anyway, to be immediately surrounded by a phalanx of security guards who eye my little brown paper parcel with deep suspicion. I explain my mission, but they insist that I can not enter this area, even though my ultimate destination is only one hundred metres up the street, which is ‘closed’ despite being visibly open.

The guards wave me back the way I came. I request explicit directions to the DHL office, and their response is more arm-waving and an elliptical “follow the road”. Thanks guys, I’d figured that part out for myself. I am nothing if not resourceful.

So I follow the road and end up at the entrance to the airport itself, where an amused security chap tells me that I have missed a small gang off the main airport drive, which leads to the cargo road I am seeking. I tell him that I didn’t see any signs. “No, no – there are no signs!” he laughs. I feel like assuming a foetal position on my bike, rocking gently and sucking my thumb, but I resist the urge to be immature about this.

“How do people find businesses on the cargo road if there are no signs? I want DHL, but that’s where the main Immigration Office, all the cargo shippers and the police station are as well”, I whinge plaintively. He laughs again. “They don’t!” he says with a cackle. “They all end up here!” He then informs me that to get back to the invisible lane, I have to go back through Tuban and circle around for another attempt. I calculate that will take about twenty minutes, or forty if I miss the damn thing again. I go home instead.

On the way, I fulminate about the madness of an airport reconstruction project that is so chaotic and badly-planned that not only do people have to spend extra time navigating an incomprehensible, unsignposted traffic layout just to make their flights, but that makes surrounding businesses become almost inaccessible. I grizzle to myself about visitors who leave things behind in a place where simple problems morph into bigger problems while one is trying to fix them.

I conclude, bad-tempered, nasty person that I am, that I don’t really care that someone needs their phone or computer urgently, and resolve to send the forgotten bits in my own time, and only when I am good and ready. Besides, people are way too reliant on their computers anyway – let them suffer; why should I put myself out anyway?

So after a total of two hours in hot traffic, I finally get home – only to find that my laptop battery has inexplicably died, and my power supply is overheating. Oh no! My laptop! My life!

Karma can be a real bitch sometimes.

 

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Suffering In Silence Behind The Smile

March 26, 2012

Her smile is radiant, her posture positive and her voice is warm and friendly. A true professional at her job, she always has a kind word for customers, even those who think that wait staff are little more than an invisible underclass in Bali.

“How are you, Ari?” I ask her – not her real name, but it will do for the purposes of this narrative. “Good, good”, she says brightly, but the tiny tear glistening in the corner of her eye belies the words. Despite the drops I have just seen her instil at the back of the restaurant, her eyes remain red from recent weeping. I nod, and don’t pursue the obvious question. I already know the answer through our fragmentary conversations over the last six months. Bit by painful bit, her story has emerged, a jigsaw of interlocking disappointments that I have discovered is painfully common in Bali, especially for daughters.

Ari is a young woman who doesn’t usually complain, having one of those blessed personalities which are geared towards helping others, always putting a positive spin on events, and calmly accepting what the universe dishes out. There is not a trace of Pollyanna-like artificial cheer – what she has is utterly natural. What unfortunately, is also natural, is that some people can’t help but take advantage of pleasant dispositions like hers.

The well-spring of her sadness stems from the very people who are supposed to preserve her emotional well-being – her own family. She began work over four years ago. As in all Balinese families, all members are expected to contribute to the house-hold expenses, and she has done so unstintingly for all this time. That’s the tradition here – those who can, contribute. Those who can’t – through ill-health, age or misfortune – are supported by those who have been more lucky in the wealth-creation lottery of life.

But in her family, the checks and balances of this social survival system have collapsed into something toxic. Her father, a sturdy and healthy man, works when he feels like it, which is apparently not very much at all. The little money he makes evaporates before it reaches any bank accounts which might conceivably be used to pay for family expenses. Her mother doesn’t work. Her sister works, but has a school-aged son with all the attendant extra expenses that bedevil parents of students in Bali’s broken, ostensibly ‘free’ education system. Of the money supposedly sent by Indonesia’s central government to provide ‘free’ education, only 20% actually makes it to the schools. The rest disappears in the country’s vortex of corruption – meaning that parents either pay for everything, or their child is summarily expelled.

The family has two motorbikes – both bought on credit in Ari’s name – and she has somehow become responsible for both monthly payments. She can not therefore afford a bike of her own, so she either walks to work or cadges lifts from her friends. Her sister’s son, after approaching the father for help with purchasing compulsory text books (which his mother could not afford) was told, “Go away. I have no money. Ask Ari – she works.”

The demands on her for money are incessant. She has almost nothing of her own, and every rupiah she earns goes to support the endless needs of her financially dysfunctional family. She works double shifts to fulfil her ‘duty’ as the resident cash cow, and is slowly unravelling – a deeply saddening thing to see.

The final indignity that drove a wedge between her and her family occurred a few months ago. After a particularly harrowing month at work, where her boss made it worse by reducing everyone’s salary, she finally scraped together enough for the monthly payment on the family’s two bikes, and gave it to her father to pay. A week later, she received a call from the bank. “Where’s the money? Why did you only pay half this month?” Shocked, she confronted the father. He just shrugged. “I needed the money”, he said. She hit the roof and told him that she could not continue  like this. She asked him what he thought would happen when she eventually leaves the family home to get married.

His response was one which no daughter should hear. “You are not to get married. Your place is here, supporting your family.” And with exquisite cruelty, he didn’t stop there. “I will not pay for your wedding. If you desert us, you will pay for it yourself.” Of course, he has now screwed her credit rating to such an extent that she couldn’t now get a loan from the bank if she tried. Forget a wedding loan, or a bike of her own – she couldn’t even buy a Blackberry for herself on credit now.

Unsurprisingly, she left the family home the next day, and is now living with a relative. Although estranged from her father, she still feels duty bound to keep supporting her family, despite barely being able to support herself with what’s left. And her sister, fully aware of the situation in which Ari is trapped, is still using emotional blackmail to extort money. “You must give me 1.8 million for my son’s test at school! He will be thrown out if you don’t! Please, please, only you can help …”

No wonder Ari comes to work with the occasional tear in her eye. Knowing her story, I am enraged at a patriarchal system that allows the nominal ‘head’ of the family to treat his daughter like an indentured slave. I am incensed at the man himself for letting his greed and laziness nearly destroy his own flesh and blood. I look with despair at people like her sister, who are so artless as to believe that someone else has the responsibility to fix problems arising from their own inability to manage money.

And I look with wonder at Ari herself, a woman who, despite an occasional, but totally understandable tear or two, still manages to smile and stay proud, positive, strong and independent.  I couldn’t do that. Under the same circumstances, I would have turned into a screaming homicidal lunatic, trashed the entire house, burned the father’s armchair, taken both motorbikes and thundered off into the sunset. And to hell with my dysfunctional excuse for a family.

I saw one of those ‘inspirational’ quotes today – the ones that normally drive me spare with their facile, saccharin-filled self-evident pap. But for once, this one both resonated with the core of this story and helped me to understand what motivates Ari to keep smiling. It said:

Just because I laugh a lot
doesn’t mean my life is easy.
Just because I have a smile on my face every day
doesn’t mean that something is not bothering me.
I just choose to move on, and not dwell
on all the negatives in my life.
Every moment gives me the chance to renew anew.
I choose to do that.

Ari embodies the sentiments in that little bit of doggerel. I just don’t know how she does it. But I have a boundless admiration for the innate strength of character that lets her do it. And I am beginning to realise that in Bali, it is a necessary quality needed for survival.

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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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Will It Always Be Life In The Trenches, Or Do We Start Building The Future?

January 15, 2012

The rain is so heavy that there is almost no room between drops. What little space is there is saturated with a fine mist. My poncho flaps and drums in the deluge, my bike is teetering on the edge of stability in the atrocious conditions, and my rider-survival tactics have been ratcheted up to Special Forces level. That’s because I’m on Jalan Nakula, between the river and Jalan Legian, and this stretch of ‘road’ has become terrifyingly dangerous in the last few months.

Not the best of thoroughfares even in good weather, it is now covered with a centimetre of water at its crown, and much deeper next to the high kerbs. While these are normal conditions for other parts of Bali during the monsoon season, Nakula hides an unexpected hazard for riders not familiar with this area of Legian.

The rider ten metres in front of me is proceeding at a sensible pace, but as an oncoming van swerves into the middle of the road to avoid one of the many huge potholes on the north side, it forces him to pull well to the left. I know what’s coming, because I know what lurks under the water. His bike suddenly drops and jolts him savagely as he nearly collides with the kerb. As he wrestles the machine back to the right, the handlebars are ripped from his fingers and he crashes heavily. When I reach him, he has already managed to get the bike upright, but understandably, is not in the greatest of moods. He makes no attempt to blame me – a refreshing change for Bali – but gestures angrily downwards. “Bad road”, he says, “bad, bad road.”

He’s right. About a month ago, contractors installed underground cabling along the south side of this stretch of road. They used bitumen saws to cut through the road surface and created a 40 centimetre-wide trench next to the kerb. During the construction phase, traffic was naturally chaotic because this busy road was reduced to a single lane. The trench was duly back-filled with loose gravel, and the workers disappeared, never to be seen again.

The Troublesome Trench

Naturally, the gravel settled within days. Now the road surface in Jalan Nakula drops a sheer 5 centimetres into a subsiding trench, which has made the left edge of the road completely unusable by bikes needing to filter past the long line of cars stymied by the Legian Street intersection. Anyone who drops their bike into the trench won’t get it back out onto the road easily, or without damaging the rims, even in the dry. As my bruised and soaked fellow rider found out, in the wet, when you can’t see the road surface beneath the water, it is a death trap.

Here’s a question for Bali road construction authorities: why wasn’t the back-filling in the trench compacted and the bitumen restored to finish the job? Surely it wasn’t to save money, because the heavy traffic has now caused the cut and unballasted bitumen edge to collapse and the entire road-bed to fracture in several places.

The Collapsing Road Edge

This was not hard to foresee, but nobody seems to have done that. To fix the road properly will now require a much larger expenditure, not to mention more delays as road-works shut down the street yet again.

And that, as far as I can see, is a huge problem throughout Bali. The standard of road construction appears to be very low and the materials used seem to be inappropriate for both the vehicle loads and traffic speed and volume. No provision ever seems to be made for high-stress areas such as braking areas and acceleration zones. Foundations and road beds are often insufficient, and soil testing rarely seems to be done, resulting in uneven subsidence or even total collapse into sink-holes. The actual road toppings  erode quickly, are ‘repaired’ with materials that are clearly not up to the task, and promptly disintegrate again.

The Deadly Motorbike Trap

There appears to be an endless cycle of  pumping money and resources into building and maintaining a road infrastructure that is not, and will never be up to the challenges of the present, much less the future. The poor roads, together with the separate problem of haphazard – and often truly stupid – parking practices creates massive  collateral social damage. The congestion, delays and irritation translate into economic harm for Bali. Inappropriate road maintenance strategies are not only inefficient, but are one of the factors which divert funding away from much-needed regional development projects for the future.

But we know all this. The question is, how do Bali’s road management authorities stop this death spiral? I believe the answer is in outside assistance. I don’t mean foreign investment – not just in terms of money anyway. I’m talking about expertise. There are places not too far from Bali where the technical and engineering knowledge and understanding of the properties of road-building materials are well-developed. Much as it may disturb some Indonesians to accept outside assistance, I think the time is ripe to put aside parochial attitudes and look for solutions that could benefit Bali. And I believe that this could be done without creating social imbalances, or fostering dependent mind-sets which might lead to resentment towards outsiders.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert body – say, a ‘Bali Roads Authority’ – with expertise being drawn from both local engineers and international participants? Wouldn’t it be great to have qualified overseas mentors, experienced in quality road design, construction and repair working side by side with local road engineers? Wouldn’t it be great to actually develop strategic, island-wide plans for an exemplary road system that could be the envy of the archipelago?

But how can Bali afford these high-priced foreign experts? Well simply, we don’t have to. I have spoken to many frequent visitors and expats who have high-level skills in everything from national water-management to airport construction. Many have said that they would love to contribute their expertise – their way of saying ‘thank you’ for the pleasure that Bali has provided them over many years. But some have also said that their offers of assistance have been politely rebuffed. Maybe that should change.

There are many NGOs which have been inspired by the original Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), including those providing the expertise of engineers, architects, fire-fighters and teachers. Most people become involved without expecting the sort of remuneration to which they would otherwise be entitled. Why not use such a model here? We might even end up with roads that work – and keep working.

Besides, I’m sure that in the anarchic environment of Bali, independent-spirited overseas volunteers in such a project would relish becoming known as ‘highwaymen’ …

UPDATE:  Several days after I wrote this, a crew was busily blocking traffic again, digging up a section of the newly laid cable. Now, as well as a dangerous trench, there is a bloody great hole for bikes to fall into, exposed cables – and a completely blocked footpath.

Cable Dug Up Again - And Just Left

So far, there has been no sign of the new, very dangerous hole being filled in. It is invisible at night, and a small ‘warning’ sign has been left lying on the ground. I just hope that cable isn’t live – if the motorbike crash doesn’t get you, the electricity will.
UPDATE 23 Jan 2012: This particular hole has now been filled in. Thank you to whoever realised the danger and acted to reduce it.

 

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Bali Bogans Are Not Always Foreign Imports

December 11, 2011

The group of young men have been there for weeks now, at least since the Schoolies epidemic started. Hanging idly around the Circle K every afternoon, they behave badly, as drifters at a loose end tend to do everywhere in the world. Strewing their bikes haphazardly around the parking bay outside the door, they sullenly refuse to yield space to customers trying to enter the store, and stubbornly block access to delivery trucks. Their facial expressions are simultaneously vacant and sullen, and they seem to be attempting to cultivate an air of menace which sits uneasily on their youthful features.

They engage in sporadic conversation, if you can call desultory grunts ‘conversation’. They seem rootless, bored and lacking any sense of engagement with their surroundings – except to leer at passing skimpily-dressed female schoolies. As two young women, who look about seventeen, emerge from the store and pause to put away their purchases, one layabout detaches himself from his compatriots and swaggers over. Yes, he actually swaggers, despite this being a mode of locomotion normally employed by bad actors in made-for-television films.

He must be the alpha male, because the others watch with barely-concealed anticipation as the master makes his move. Standing a metre from his quarry, he stares, face set in an expression that could only have been learned from watching James Dean movies. The girls are aware of him of course, but pointedly ignore him. Young they might be, but they are not without experience in handling the unwanted advances of predatory males.

So he moves closer, intruding into their personal space. A flicker of eye-contact is enough to embolden him into emitting what he must believe is the ultimate in smooth pick-up lines. “How about some jiggy-jig?” he asks brusquely. Wow. No time-wasting here. His attempted sang-froid is spoiled somewhat by an unanticipated break in his voice, which he attempts to remedy by pitching his tone lower and repeating himself. It sounds worse this time – the transition from Dean to De Niro is somewhat lacking in its execution.

The girls might not know the term jiggy-jig, but they certainly pick up on its intent. They stare at him for two seconds, using that peculiar opaque look perfected by teenagers inappropriately accosted by older men. I mean, this guy is probably twenty-four. He is positively elderly. He doesn’t realise that he has lost the race before the starter’s gun even goes off. Without a word being spoken, the girls brush past him as if he was an insubstantial shadow, and walk off without a backwards glance.

Thwarted, the inept lothario skulks back to his bike, glaring at his acolytes as if daring them to make a comment on his loss of face. They understand the game though, and immediately blame the girls for being so unresponsive to their mate. To salvage a few shreds of what passes for self-respect, the group starts making insulting comments, which become increasingly loud and offensive. Reclining on their bikes, heads resting on handlebars and feet stretched out on pillions – presumably to project an air of unconcerned relaxation, they begin a loud series of hoots and catcalls aimed at the backs of the departing girls. When that elicits no response, they reach back and squeeze their horn buttons, creating a strident cacophony that continues for more than sixty seconds.

The psychological meaning of playing with their horns for stress relief escapes them, but the noise does annoy staff and customers in the convenience store, the adjacent coffee shop and the local spas where people are trying to relax. In fact, the racket intensely irritates everyone within a hundred metre radius. Several locals attempt to calm them down, but are treated with utter disdain. The only people who think their antics are amusing are the off-duty taxi drivers who also hang around the Circle K every afternoon, their street-blocking hoodle of parked cabs causing traffic chaos during the busiest time of day. The young men on their bikes posture and preen, playing to each other and to the cabbies, ignoring all requests to tone down their behaviour. They just don’t care.

They are genuine, card-carrying bogans. But these delinquents are not Schoolies, or crass young Australian tourists. They are local boys. And this seriously embarrasses the locals who work in the area. “They are not from here, they are from villages far away,” says one staff member dismissively. “They have no education, no jobs, and no money.” I point out that they have motorbikes. “Probably stolen,” snorts another local.

I ask whether there is anything that could be done for these young men to encourage them to be productive members of society. “No. We don’t want them here. They make visitors uneasy, and we can’t afford that,” says another local trader. “If they are here again tomorrow, we will call the local banjar office. They will take them back to their villages.” I suggest that they might be reluctant to go. “Then someone will beat them up until they agree,” laughs another. I can see that there is not much call for caring and sharing social workers here. Whether that is a good thing or not, I don’t know. Bali handles its problems in its own way.

What I do know is that despite Bali’s frenetic tourist-driven pace of development, opportunities for locals to share in the spoils will always be limited to those with drive, initiative and education. Those who want to participate in civil society will be the winners. Those who choose to opt-out, or who are forced to do so through family circumstances, poverty or ignorance will be the losers. And when you are a loser, all that is left is to hang around convenience stores, letting off steam to relieve the frustration and the hopelessness of life. For these people, I see no brightness of the future.

And it’s interesting that the solution here is to identify the under-classes, and then ship them out. Out of sight, out of mind. Does it work to clear the tourist areas of undesirables? Most certainly, albeit temporarily, because there are always more to take their place. Does it address the underlying causes of the problem? Of course not. But isn’t it the same everywhere?

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The Secret Language Of Survival On Bali Roads

December 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schoolies In Bali Struggle Without Safety Net

November 23, 2011

So I’m sitting there on a torpid Tuesday afternoon, slurping down my caffeine fix and watching the endlessly fascinating passing parade in Jalan Padma Utara. Suddenly, there is an eruption of demented yells and a group of boys  zoom unsteadily into view on their rented motorbikes. Shirtless, barefoot and helmet-less, they weave between both kerbs, oblivious to the attempts of oncoming traffic to avoid them. Their age, about 17, their self-absorbed demeanour and their disrespectful attitude marks them as schoolies, a peculiar subset of Bali visitors that come here to unwind and wreak havoc at the end of each school year.

The first seven pass my vantage point and hurtle around the nearby right-hand bend, barely in control of their bikes. In their testosterone-fuelled exuberance, they ignore both basic road rules and standard rider courtesies. Naturally, they are completely unaware of their limitations as riders. Many of the boys have female companions riding pillion, almost as under-dressed as they are. Some are waving their arms about and twisting on the seat, throwing the bike into barely-controllable swerves. I think of debridement, permanent scarring and crippling injuries, and shudder. A bad outcome is inevitable.

The eighth rider, the least confident of the bunch, is trailing by twenty metres and seems desperate to catch up with his peer group. In a series of inept wobbles, tries to cut the blind corner. Inevitably, oncoming traffic stymies him and he tries to get back to the left side of the road. The trouble is, he has no idea how to turn a bike – or at least has not internalised the process enough to properly respond in an emergency – so he turns the handlebars to the left. Um, you don’t do that, mate. The bike already has a 30 degree lean to the right; so his reflexive attempt to counter-steer the wrong way slams the bike down hard on the pavement with an explosive bang. His right leg is trapped under the bike as it grinds to a halt, shredding both bike fairing and ankle tissue, and leaving a smear of wet red stuff mixed with shiny bike bits on the tarmac.

Dragging himself from under the bike, he re-mounts, foot oozing blood. By-standers offer help and ask him if he needs help. Looking embarrassed and angry, he snarls “Ah, fuck off!” at them. He doesn’t feel the pain yet, but at his age, he keenly feels the loss of face. The pain will come later. His little lapse does not deter the others in his group though – they continue to ride up and down the street for another 20 minutes, clowning around while hooting and yelling and generally causing chaos, until they finally vanish. Whether this is because of another accident, or just the onset of a bout of ADD is difficult to say.

Later, a friend who works at a bar nearby says, “Ah yes. Skuli. Very drunk. Very rude. Very loud. And very young.” He shrugs. “But they spend money.” Oh, that makes it all right then. I think about what it must be like to be 17 years old, full of piss and vinegar, having just burst out of the restrictive confines of regimented schooling and going to a foreign country to decompress. I can hardly remember being that young, but I do remember feeling invulnerable, immortal and rebellious – attitudes common to many at that age.

But if I put all disapproving, grumpy and somewhat envious thoughts aside, I realise that most of these kids are having fun. It helps no-one when the media in Australia runs sensationalistic ‘exposes’, with headlines screaming ‘What your kids are really up to’, and to selectively edit vision implying that Bali – that terrible den of iniquity and sleaze – is full of drunken, drug-addled, sex-crazed, motorbike-crashing and semi-naked under-age children. It might sell newspapers and boost the ratings, but the real casualty is the truth. They’re having fun.

As with any group, some will act up and some will thoroughly enjoy the experience without acting like dorks and risking their lives. There is no doubt that the antics of a few will result in injury, perhaps even death. Others will fall foul of Bali’s seamier side, contracting STDs and getting robbed, or just end up falling for the scams of those police in cahoots with drug peddlers, thereby spending a far longer time in Bali than they ever anticipated. It’s the oldest rule of life – maximum fun is often accompanied by maximum risk.

So how can we reduce the risks for these young people? Knowledge is power, and I suspect that schoolies have so little knowledge of Bali that they are powerless to survive an environment that can suddenly turn hostile on them. The real problem for them here is that they assume that the same parental, community, government and police protections are available to them here as at home. They are not. There is no safety net, and it’s time that one was provided.

Instead of being negative and sensationalistic about schoolies week, Australian media could provide useful survival guides – information that could help schoolies in Bali to manage an ostensibly ‘rule-less’ environment, but one that is in fact a veritable minefield for the inexperienced. Let schoolies know that coming here without travel/medical insurance is the epitome of craziness. Let their parents know that a medical evacuation will cost them up to $75,000 without insurance. Let them know that three motorcyclists die every day on Bali’s chaotic roads and that if you ride without a licence or helmet, a police fine is the least of your problems. Even if you survive, your medical insurance will be invalid.

Tell the kids what to do in case of emergency. Give them phone numbers for hospitals, but warn them that they won’t be treated, even in emergency situations, unless they pay in advance. Make them understand that there are no ’emergency numbers’ in Bali. You can’t just call for an ambulance, and even if you manage to get an expensive private ambulance from one of the clinics, it might take an hour or more to arrive through the choked traffic. Taxi drivers will flatly refuse to take you to hospital if you are bleeding. It messes up the seats.

Let them know where to call if they are arrested. Make sure they have their Embassy’s number. Explain about the culture of bribery, and the corruption that is necessary to get things done – but also warn them about being too blatant about offering bribes so that they don’t get charged for that as well. Consider setting up and publicising a government-sponsored emergency number – somebody to call when things go wrong, as they will. I’m sure there are many expats here would would be happy to be part of a volunteer network of non-judgemental call-takers to offer advice to young people in trouble.

The thing is, would schoolies listen to such advice or warnings? Would they use a safety net like this? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. Would I have listened at seventeen? Probably not. I knew it all then. It took quite a few decades before I realised I didn’t.

 

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The Trouble With Onions, And How Carolyn Webb’s Terrible Touts Saved The Day

October 27, 2011

Finally, I reach the end of the long check-out queue at Bintang Supermarket. My purchases are scanned, and only about one-third of them need manual input because of the inevitable crumpled bar-code labels – apparently a specialty of this place.  Then I’m only delayed for a further five minutes while the cashier looks at me with silent censure and sends an assistant to wander off to weigh my pre-packed bag of onions. I’m looking at my pre-packed, bar-coded bag of potatoes and thinking, “Why should onions be different?” but I hold my tongue.

After four minutes of waiting, I’m ready to tell the cashier to forget the onions, but just then I spy the assistant slowly ambling back and bite my tongue again. The bar-code won’t scan properly, of course, so there’s more pecking of cash register keys until the display grudgingly admits that I have bought onions and not tomatoes as it insists at first. I should have recognised that all this nonsense was a sign from above that I should have just left the onions, paid and gone home.

Eschewing the dreaded plastic bags, I load up my two venerable recyclable bags with a ridiculously heavy load, stuffing all of my shopping into one shoulder bag and one smaller bag. The cashier looks at my shoulder bag with a practised eye, says “too heavy!” and offers me a plastic bag. I piously refuse. As I stagger to my bike, listing well to the right to counterbalance the load, I’m thinking that maybe the cashier was right. But, you know, it would be unmanly to go back and ask for another bag now, so I persevere. Besides, once I’m on the bike, I can just rest the weight of the bag on the pillion and everything should be fine. I’m such an optimist.

So there I am, negotiating the left-hand turn from Jl. Legian into Jl. Nakula, grinning a greeting at the local touts outside the MiniMart.  I skilfully manoeuvre through the deep pothole on the corner – the one that has been cleverly patched with concrete and immediately opened to traffic before it has set. It is a maze of trenches, ridges and wheel ruts which jolt my bike and rattle my teeth. Obviously I’m not skilful enough through this obstacle, because I feel a little warning snap of releasing stitches at my shoulder. But before I have time to react, the strap breaks completely and my precious bag falls off the pillion and into the middle of the road with a great thump.

Oh no! I hear the Bali traffic bearing relentlessly down on it while I try to park the bike at the side of the busy road. My coffee jar! My chilli sauce! Visions of exploding Rinso packets mixing with all the gooey stuff as fat tyres crush my shopping fill my mind. There is another thump as my other bag slips off its bike hook and bounces to the kerb. I stare at it, see that it’s not going to fall any further, spin around to see what has become of the first bag – and stop dead.

One of Carolyn Webb’s much-maligned touts has stopped traffic for me. Drivers are grinning and waiting patiently as I run back to retrieve my goodies, helped by another of the tout’s allegedly terrible cronies. An ojek driver – obviously taking time out from ferrying prostitutes, if you are to believe Ms. Webb – stops his bike and pushes mine to a safer place on to the footpath. He retrieves dropped bag number two and puts it back on the hook. It takes less than a minute to clear the road and have me on my way. I thank the guys profusely, but they wave it off with a grin and a “no problem!” They think that the whole debacle is funny – they’re big on physical humour here.

I like the so-called touts in Bali. After nearly three years here, many of them recognise me, wave hello and then leave me alone, seeking more bountiful prospects elsewhere amongst the visiting hordes. But even when I first arrived, I didn’t have a problem with them. I would tell them “No thanks, I can’t”. When pressed for an explanation, I would tell them, with a completely straight face, that I am incredibly stingy, but I wish them well and hope they find a Japanese tourist soon. We get along fine, and I like talking to them. They are human beings doing an incredibly difficult job to feed their families, and I have a great deal of respect for them. I don’t mind in the least when they greet me cheerfully as Pak Pelit – it’s almost a compliment to be called Mr. Stingy.

You’ve got to love Bali. Where else would you have people jumping unselfishly to help you when you get yourself into trouble? Because of them, my shopping, luckily undamaged in its plunge from the bike, remained uncrushed by traffic.

But I can’t help feeling that if I had only left the damned onions in the supermarket, the extra weight wouldn’t have snapped my bag strap. But then again, I wouldn’t have had the chance to show that Carolyn Webb’s perception of Bali was deeply flawed either.

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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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Shaken – And A Little Bit Stirred Too

October 15, 2011

So after a leisurely breakfast, I’m wending my way home on the motorbike, riding peacefully along Jl. Padma Utara, when all hell breaks free.  My bike joggles up and down as if it was on a cobbled road, and I’m shaken sideways with such force that I barely manage to hang on. The poor local ahead of me doesn’t. With his left hand off the handlebars while performing the ubiquitous Bali texting-while-riding trick, he wobbles mightily before crashing to the road.

For a few seconds, I don’t grasp what is happening. I think at first my front wheel has collapsed. Then I become aware of a sound like an approaching plane at low altitude and a loud clanging as if imprisoned demons were rattling the bars of their cages. The outlines of buildings look blurred, power lines are whipping backwards and forwards, and mortar dust is squirting and dribbling out of cracks in masonry. A new sound emerges from the chaos – people screaming in absolute terror.

A human wave bursts out of shops and restaurants, their faces contorted with fear, and rushes into the street, oblivious to vehicles bearing down on them. They are looking upwards, because the deep, frightening noise seems to come from above, and because plumes of dust are rising into the sky. I follow their gaze, looking for explanations. I briefly think that a plane has crashed nearby and we are feeling the after-effects of some vast concussive impact. As the realisation dawns that it’s actually an earthquake, self-preservation kicks in and I look overhead for anything nasty that might fall on me.

Hundreds of people don’t, standing in what they think is the safety of the road, but directly underneath the snaking power lines that are now arcing and crackling overhead. “Hati-hati!” I call out, pointing upwards. My public-spiritedness causes a fresh panic surge as the crowd sprints for a clear place of safety, trampling small dogs in their path. Oops, sorry about that …

Apart from a few fallen tiles, cracked walls and minimal debris, there doesn’t seem to be much damage where I am. But people elsewhere are not so lucky. Reports indicate that about sixty people were hospitalised, with three critically injured. This probably does not represent anywhere near the actual numbers hurt. On my way home, I see several locals resting by the roadside, makeshift blood-stained bandages variously covering knees, heads or shoulders. I ask one whether he needs to go to hospital.

“No, no!” he says, almost in panic. “I die in hospital; doctors do nothing if you have no money!” I don’t know whether that is true, but he certainly seems to believe it. And when the perception of the citizenry is that you won’t get medical treatment unless you pay first, people without money won’t seek treatment even if they desperately need it. Maybe Bali’s disaster management and emergency medical care strategies – and their socialisation – need to be overhauled.

Knots of locals are clustered together, still in shock. Their eyes are towards the sea, out of sight, but only a few hundred metres away. Having survived the shaking, a possible tsunami is uppermost in their minds. I try to reassure them that the tsunami warning sirens haven’t gone off. One looks at me with ill-concealed impatience. “Pfui. They don’t work”, he says simply. Later I find out that the coastal tsunami sensor buoys donated by the German government are all, save one, out of commission. Fishermen have been mooring their boats to them, damaging the hardware and sensitive electronics. Apparently the local government hasn’t even bothered to maintain them. They simply don’t do the job any more.

It’s true that land-based seismic sensors can provide data which warn of an impending tsunami, after which authorities are supposed to activate the beach-side sirens. But there seems to be a logical design flaw in the system. If the sirens activate with a continuous warning wail, all well and good. But if they don’t go off at all, is it because there is no risk of inundation? Or is it because the sirens themselves have failed? Everyone feels an earthquake, so everyone is primed to listen to a tsunami warning. If it is determined that there is no risk, why not sound the sirens with repeated short, sharp pulses to indicate an ‘all clear’? At least it would let the population know that things are working as they should.

Still later, I discover that most of the buildings that suffered considerable structural damage, or actually collapsed, were schools and government buildings. Many of the injured were children. If this is in fact the case, one has to ask the question: ‘Why are government buildings and schools more susceptible to earthquake damage in a region that is known for frequent tremblors?” Dare one even think that authorities would skimp on construction costs, and therefore safety, where children are concerned? I would hope not. But this being Bali, an investigation might be useful. It might save lives in the future.

I have been in Bali during a few quakes over the years. This one felt stronger than any of them. I understand that two simultaneous shocks occurred, one of magnitude 6.1 and the second of 6.8, which might explain the subjective severity of this particular series of jolts. But the real jolt this week was to our sense of security. One would also hope that the authorities are jolted into performing safety audits on buildings which house vulnerable children, into revising post-disaster procedures and into checking on the efficacy of tsunami warning systems.

If a big one hits here, as it did in Japan, just how ready are we?