Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

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How Hot Should The Fire Be To Burn Witches?

May 8, 2013

Indonesia seems determined to make itself a laughing stock in Europe.

After toiling over a draft of  a new set of Criminal Code Procedures, thirty lawmakers, accompanied by the usual retinue of free-loaders, are setting off on a $667,000 junket to Europe to ‘study’ how the criminal codes there might apply to the proposed new Indonesian criminal code.

The only problem is, in their zeal, lawmakers want to criminalise just about everything with the  new code. They want singles caught engaging in premarital sex to be sentenced to five years in jail.  They want adulterers to suffer the same penalty. They want to criminalise the act of sharing a hotel room by two people who are not married. To each other, that is. They want to make it illegal for hotels to accept bookings from guests who fail to produce a marriage certificate. In fact, any unmarried cohabitation will be made illegal.

The draft code criminalises homosexuality. It wants to continue to prohibit membership of any religion that is not one of the 6 permitted by the government.  It continues the existing criminal sanctions against atheists. One, Alex Aan, merely said “There is no god” on a Facebook page, and is currently serving two and a half years in prison for the ‘crime’ of atheism.

Witchcraft, ‘black magic’ and ‘white magic’ are on the blacklist too, although the definitions of what constitutes these occult practices, to me seem indistinguishable from what others might call ‘religion’.

Despite heavy criticism of this ‘study tour’, on the basis that laws designed for Europe will be incompatible with Indonesian  society, the lawmakers appear determined to press on with their taxpayer-funded trip. A more cynical person than I would be tempted to conclude that a free holiday jaunt to the fleshly pleasures of Europe – and the boundless shopping opportunities to be found there – are actually the prime motivators for the trip. That thought had never crossed my mind.

But let’s assume that the 30 stalwart legislators are actually going there to learn how Europeans deal with those issues of  ‘criminality’ that seem to preoccupy and vex the Indonesian government. They will no doubt ask serious questions. But will they get serious answers – or just bewildered looks, a few shrugs, and a dawning realisation of the size of the cultural chasm separating Indonesia from Europe?

I would give anything to see the faces of their European counterparts when the visiting lawmakers ask, “What laws do you have to prevent consenting couples from having sex?”

Or, “What is the best way to punish gay people?”

Or, “What penalties do you impose for being a member of a non-approved religion?”

Or, “For how long do you think atheists should be incarcerated?”

Or, “What is an appropriate temperature for a fire to be used to burn witches?”

And I want to see the shock on the faces of the Indonesian delegation when they discover that lawless vigilante thugs pretending to  ‘defend’ their religion because they have the tacit approval of their government would be heavily penalised under the criminal codes of Europe.  I want to see their reaction when they find out that those who burn churches in Europe, or assault and kill those who are not of their religion, are treated as violent criminals and incarcerated for long periods.

And yet, strangely, the proposed Indonesian criminal code seems to make no mention of religious persecution, forced religious conversion of children, and no changes in the law that states that any convicted criminal is free to become a lawmaker or high government official, as long as he has been sentenced to less than 5 years.

Luckily for many in Indonesia, the new code also seems to have inexplicably left out corruption as a serious criminal activity. Otherwise, once the new code is implemented, it would be difficult to find 3 lawmakers, much less 30, to take these ridiculous overseas trips, because all of the rest of them would be in jail.

But we all know that won’t happen. In the meantime, you guys enjoy your shopping and sightseeing. I look forward to reading your report of what you learned in Europe, and how you will justify using none of it.

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Tap, Sniff, Shake And Squeeze – The Durian Ritual

February 7, 2012

I lean the bike around a bend on a relatively quiet Bali evening, expertly adjusting my line to avoid the many potholes, ridges and other obstacles. As ever, the night is redolent with the usual mixed aromas of musty drains, incense, tropical flowers, spicy foods and raw sewage.

But suddenly, the air is thick with a new scent that defies description, a smell that shocks my olfactory system to such an extent that it throws the rational, thinking part of my brain completely out of circuit and induces a zombie-like state. At the same time, I hear my name yelled, and see a friend waving madly from a temporary roadside stall on the other side of the road. This total sensory overload causes me to ride straight into the deepest pothole available and be thrown across into oncoming traffic. Ignoring common sense, I broadside into a barely-controlled U-turn and come to a stop next to my friend.

I don’t normally ride like that, but then again, it is not every day that I ride into a noxious cloud of durian vapours that not only shut down your brain, but would probably liquefy your eyeballs if you didn’t reflexively protect them behind slitted eyelids. These emanations are gases from a fruit that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention – but Indonesians seem to love them. I find myself stopped next to a beaten-up pick-up truck loaded with a pile of spiky green durians. The smell has intensified to the point where I am ready to faint, but the scene around the truck is so riveting that, against my better judgement, I decide to stay conscious.

As well as my crazy friend, who actually seems to enjoy breathing this miasma, there are perhaps ten others engaged in what seems to be an arcane ritual. “What are they doing?” I croak, my throat constricting. “Buying durian, of course!” is the reply. It’s not like any purchase of fruit that I have ever seen before. I mean, when I buy produce, I glance at my potential purchase, pick it up and perhaps give it a squeeze, then take it home to do whatever one does with fruit and vegetables. That’s the extent of my relationship with stuff that isn’t meat – but then again, I am not noted for being good at relationships.

But what is happening here is totally different. I watch the buyers stand around and just … stare at the heaps of durian with what looks like reverence. They seem to be  evaluating size and shape, colour and texture, as if they were choosing diamonds. Durians don’t even look like anything edible – think green grenades, or miniature sea mines – and there is no way that they smell even faintly edible. They are banned from buses, aircraft and many hotels, apparently to prevent episodes of projectile vomiting by those who are not aficionados.

Food writer Richard Sterling is reputed to have said, “Its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”. I agree, but would add that the gym socks in question have obviously been worn for at least a month without being washed. And as for the taste, Anthony Burgess, an English literary luminary, compared it (unfavourably) to eating vanilla custard in a latrine. Obviously, millions of Indonesians, Malays and Thais would not agree.

Once the careful examination phase is over, the rapt purchasers start picking up their selected fruits and, well, fondling them. They caress the spines softly, sensuously cupping them in their palms and gently moving them up and down as if weighing them. The little stalk on each durian gets almost erotic attention, getting slowly bent and twisted, and even finger-flicked from side to side. A sniffing rite follows, during which each durian is lifted and its various parts carefully inhaled, while eyes are closed in rapture. I get a sudden image of small green echidnas having their nappies (that’s ‘diapers’ for you Americans) checked for intestinal accidents by their doting parents. I dismiss this thought as a hallucination brought on by the odour.

“How can they stand the smell?”, I think to myself. Then I realise with a shock that after ten minutes’ exposure to these fumes, they no longer seem so bad. They’re still unbelievably strange, but the pungent and sulphurously toxic kick seems to have dissipated. A distant memory surfaces – a chemistry teacher from an aeons-past school warning us that if the horrible smell of hydrogen sulphide (rotten-egg gas) starts to become sweet and pleasant, it means that we have inhaled a toxic dose and need to get fresh air immediately. I look around, hoping to find an oxygen bottle, because there is definitely no fresh air anywhere.

The durian acolytes continue their ceremony, tapping the fruit with the flats of handy machetes, or banging it gently against their bike helmets. The final act in their performance is to shake it close to their ears, listening to the noises it makes as if it is music from heaven itself. Having chosen their prizes, they pay the vendor, who wraps a sisal rope around three or four fruit in a deceptively simple but secure carrying cradle ready to hang on a bike. It makes sense; no mere plastic bag could contain those spiked monsters without tearing . The whole process of selection takes about twenty minutes, and is one of the most complex rituals I have yet seen in Bali.

Later, still amazed and intrigued, I talk to a well-travelled Indonesian friend about the intricacy and skill of what I have just witnessed. He is sceptical. “Ah, rubbish, you don’t do all that when you buy a durian”, he scoffs. “You just go in, check it out and buy it. No time at all!”

Oh damn, I think – I’ve just been given a special ‘gullible bule’ performance in the street. Must be that Bali humour again. But I persist. “So what sort of things do you check when you buy one?”, I ask him.

“Oh, you know,” he says, ” I just look at for a while to check for worm-holes. Then I just squeeze it a bit to see if it’s soft or hard, and to see if the thorns are sharp or blunt. Then I tap it to see if the sound is OK. Oh, and the smell has to be just right too. Then I shake it a little to make sure it has the right sloshing sound … anyway, it’s easy. Been doing it since I was a kid.”

“So, how long does it take you to do all this?” I ask him innocently.

He thinks for a bit and then smiles sheepishly.

“Umm, about twenty minutes …”

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Puzzling Packaging Of Pies And Other Palatable Products

November 20, 2011

Buying food in Bali is an adventure. I’m not talking about those imported food and beverage items that are now subject to usurious taxes and duties imposed by the perennially greedy and terminally  myopic dunderheads in Jakarta. I can’t afford those now anyway. And even if I could, I would still flatly refuse to buy them, simply to prevent the government from gouging us for every single rupiah they can get their greedy paws on.

No, I’m talking about local supermarket products, the stuff that is produced or packaged locally, doesn’t attract the horrifically business-unfriendly government imposts, and is therefore relatively affordable. The trouble is, the way these things are packaged is quirky at best, often misleading, and downright hostile to the consumer at worst.

A high-end Deli in Seminyak sells a good quality ice-cream in fairly small tubs. The size is perfect for those of us who like to fool ourselves that not buying a two-litre container will force us to reduce our portion size, thereby slowing down the process of waist expansion. The strategy works, but not for the reason you might think. It works because you can’t get the lid off. Because of either appallingly bad design, or because Weight Watchers have paid the company to do so, the lid has no known method of removal. It can not be twisted off. It can not be pried off. It has no tear-off strips which might free some obscure mechanism to unlock it.

I tried screwdrivers, pliers and chisels to no avail. I tried clamping the lid while exerting maximum torsional force of the body of the thing. I tried running hot water over the lid to free a possible frozen thread, which turned out not to exist anyway. In desperation, I cut the lid off with a Stanley knife, thereby rendering it useless for resealing. I couldn’t even eat the contents, because by the time I had finished opening it, the damned ice-cream had all melted.

And have you noticed that toilet paper rolls have shrunk in overall size in the past year? Not only that, they are now wound on cardboard cores of much larger diameter. The formulation of the glue that sticks the first layer to the roll has changed too. It’s now a watery goop that penetrates twenty layers into the roll, making the first few metres useless. To hell with it – I’m going native. Stay away from my left hand.

Free SalmonellaDon’t worry about catching any disease from me though. You can get those for nothing from local eggs, the packaging for which has been obviously designed by someone whose native language isn’t English. Emblazoned on the carton is a marketing slogan, proudly stating, “Free Salmonella!” “Free E.coli!”
At least we don’t have to pay for the bacteria here.

More strife results from local tins of sardines not having a pull tab. Inconvenient, but not really a problem if you have a can opener. You have to understand that locally-made can openers have cutting components with the tensile strength of mie goreng, but that’s not the real problem. The cans you want to open often have a top rim which is higher than the depth of the cutter, so it doesn’t reach the lid anyway. I am so sick of chewing cans open that I have given up sardines.

Here’s a pro tip for you. Local packets of frozen bakso balls need care in defrosting if you are in the habit of using a microwave. Nestling amongst the meatballs – and hidden inside the opaque plastic packaging – are several sealed plastic sachets of sauces. Unfortunately there are also two foil packets of dried spices. Foil isn’t exactly microwave-friendly. Not only do the sauce sachets explode, but the hidden foil packets create a pyrotechnic display inside the oven that would be quite spectacular if it wasn’t so scary, especially at night.

Then there is the packaging of local pies. My inner bogan sometimes requires to be fed a pie. Not those awful designer pies that have replaced the real thing, but a good old-fashioned Four’n’Twenty-style Aussie pie. I don’t care if they aren’t nutritious, or are out of style – I sometimes just want a pie. Recently, I discovered that my favorite coffee shop, (which has inexplicably re-named itself after a mixture of beer and lemonade) stocks Aussie pies. I was in heaven, particularly when the owner said he was willing to sell me some of his frozen stock.

So here I am, sitting at home on a Saturday night. Mouse in hand, my eyes are glued to the computer screen. Outside in the real world, hordes of socially-addicted Bali glitterati swan around the bars, restaurants and clubs while the entourages of the visiting elites speed down temporarily empty streets. The peasants, of course, gridlocked and muttering, are forced to wait out of sight and out of mind. Inside my comfortable villa oasis, which some unkindly refer to as my “rut”, my writing binge has made me feel peckish. Inexorably, I am drawn by the siren song of the pie waiting in my freezer.

It sits in its plastic wrapper, beckoning. The bold legend  says “Aussie Meat Pie – Original Taste”. Smaller type betrays its origins as a local product, but no matter. I reverently put it in the microwave, ignoring the warning  that says: “Remove from packaging before heating”. Ha! I’m not stupid. As an experienced pie-warmer, I know that you always leave a pie in its bag for heating. You can’t fool me.

The oven dings, and I reach eagerly for my pie. It is no longer a pie. It turns out that I am stupid; unlike every other pie in known space, the packaging for a Bali pie is apparently made from shrink-wrap plastic which contracts to a third of its original size, but only along one axis. I am staring at a pulsating sausage, ready to explode and coat me with boiling beef shrapnel. With the studied focus of a bomb-disposal sapper, I extract the deformed thing from the oven and eventually manage to remove it without harm to myself or the banjar.

Then I discover that I have no tomato sauce. No tomato sauce! A pie without tomato sauce is like Legian street without traffic, a restaurant meal without a grimy urchin thrusting leather thongs at you, or a line of traffic without a suicidal local attempting to pass everyone on a blind corner. In other words, it’s utterly inconceivable. The chilli sauce I am forced to use is an extremely poor substitute.

But fortunately, because it takes me five minutes of frustration to work out how to get the weirdly-designed top off, it makes me completely forget about the shrinking pie bag fiasco. Doesn’t take much to keep me happy in Bali.

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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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Think Differently, Everyone Else Does Here

August 9, 2011

If ever I needed any reminders that Bali is a quirky place, these last few days have served to disabuse me of any notion that people here are reading from any conventional script, except maybe one of high farce. Every single day on the island provides vignettes of absurdity of course, but when these come in unexpectedly concentrated clumps, I feel even more like an actor in a Mr. Bean movie.

I finish breakfast, and am nicely full. But not quite having woken up properly, I am still a tad taciturn. It is, after all, not yet mid-day. I proffer a 50,000 rupiah note for a 35,000 rupiah bill. The cashier is aghast.
“You have no small money?”
“This is small money”, I reply.
“No, this is big money”, she says, her eyes big as if to emphasise the point.

I am tired of always being expected to have exact change for everyone from taxi drivers on down, so I tersely ask “Don’t you have a cash float?”
“No, I can’t swim”, she responds without batting an eyelid. Having zeroed in on the word ‘float’, she has instantly segued to a response to my perceived non-sequitur as if this was perfectly normal. I am impressed with her thought processes.

Temporarily baffled, I struggle to explain that a ‘cash float’ is what you start the day with in the till, so you can give change. I can see from her expression that is visualising a ‘cash float’ as some weird bule practice, presumably one involving a litre or two of water in the cash drawer with some banknotes floating on top.  She explains, as if to a child, that they don’t do this, because they can get enough small change from their first few customers. Ah, why didn’t I think of that?

Mesmerised by this exchange, I wander off to the local cushion-making specialist to order a mattress pad for my somewhat hard sun-lounge. We spend twenty minutes going through the specifications and measurements, and agree on a reasonable price. He wants to copy my specifications down on his order form, but I tell him to use the diagram I have prepared previously.

“But I have to draw this on the order form”, he wails.
I prefer him to use my sheet, because it clearly states that I want a complete mattress pad of specific dimensions. He is clearly distressed.
“Staple it to the page in your order form”, I suggest. I’m trying to avoid the frequent Bali transcription errors that have messed up more than one custom order. I also ask him whether, when ready, the completed mattress will fit on my motorbike.
“Oh yes, of course, easy!” he says, seemingly relieved to be handling a simple question. However, having seen what the locals happily cart around on their bikes, I have my reservations.

Two days later, I go back to pick up my order. A beautifully crafted mattress cover awaits me, made exactly to specifications, except that it’s empty. There is no foam pad inside. “Oh no!” is the horrified response to my obvious question. “You only ordered cover! Foam is extra!”

So I ask to see my order in his book to prove that I ordered a complete item, not just the cover. Guess what? My spec sheet is not there any more. He shrugs and insists that he quoted only on the cover – and proves it by showing me his copy, which contains the word ‘cover’. I check my carbon copy and it also says cover. Damn. Now I have to find somewhere in Bali that cuts foam to size; so much for one-stop shopping. At least he was right about it being easy to carry on my bike …

A fruitless two hours spent both on-line and browsing local directories reveals that apparently most businesses don’t bother advertising. Especially purveyors of fine foam. I mean, why spend the money? Everyone knows where they are, right?

That evening provides more snapshots of life in Bali. I watch a local youth weaving dangerously down the road on his bike while texting. He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend: “Total Stability”.  I see a tourist riding pillion, covered with recently-healed scars on his forehead, ears, jaw, shoulder, knees, ankles and feet. My view of all these unmistakeable hallmarks of a bike incident is unimpeded, because he is wearing only shorts. No shirt, no helmet and no shoes. He looks relaxed as he drinks from a bottle of Bintang. Faith is a wonderful thing.

I consider dropping into a pub for a quiet one, but don’t stay. Everyone is yelling, apparently because they can’t converse at a normal levels, because everyone is yelling. Why don’t they just … never mind.

I ponder the logical circularity of this situation, as well as the absurdities of the last few days, as I ride home. As I get to my gate, I get an SMS. It says: “Your mattress cover is ready.”

Strangely enough, I don’t even blink. I mean, this is Bali, and it’s been a perfectly normal day.

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Oleh-Oleh – Obligation Or Obsession?

August 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shopping, Memory Loss and Mice

April 25, 2010

It’s official – Bali is changing me. Slowly, insidiously, I am adopting a lifestyle which involves succumbing to impulse and forgetting about planning, follow-through and … you know, other stuff. See, I’m even forgetting the words for whatever it was that used to be important in my pre-Bali life. Living in Bali, especially in an area which seems to be reserved for the terminally bewildered, can do that to you.

The other day, I set out to get some shopping done. Still labouring under some crazy delusion that I can remember things, I didn’t bother to write a shopping list. I mean – lists are only for forgetful people, right? And I probably would have remembered to buy most of the things I needed, except I forgot to go shopping. You see, while riding past one of my favourite massage salons, I was seized with an irresistable impulse to be pampered, so in I went. After a delicious hour of sensual, albeit comatose pleasure, I wandered off to find my bike and get on with the day. That took a while, because I had forgotten where I parked it.

Still in that lovely post-massage torpor, I decided that a coffee would be nice, so another pleasant 40 minutes were spent reading, daydreaming and re-caffeinating before I rode home. Then I remembered that I had forgotten to shop. Right, back on the bike for the five-minute trip to the supermarket, where I wandered around wondering what it was I needed. Maybe it was memory pills? So I asked myself : “What would have been on my list if I had made a list?” Lo and behold, it jogged my failing memory enough to spend 400,000 rupiah on a trolley full of stuff.

As it turned out, it was obviously a false memory, because after getting home, not one of the things I had originally planned to buy were actually in my shopping bags. Back in the old days, this scenario would have worried me senseless. I would have thought that there was something seriously wrong with me, and rushed off to schedule an immediate brain scan. Not anymore. I just accept this fugue state as a natural part of Bali life, and if I have a pantry full of stuff that I don’t need, well, so be it. There’s always tomorrow.

Minutes later, I caught a furtive movement out of the corner of my eye. If I hadn’t actually seen it, my pembantu’s shriek would have told me what it was anyway. A mouse! It was marching purposefully from the garden towards the pantry, on a trajectory that was about to intersect my right foot. Being a man of decisive action, I stamped my foot directly in front of the beast to scare it away. Petulant, I know, but for most mice of my acquaintance, this alpha male type of aggression causes immediate, squeaking flight in the opposite direction.

Not so with the mouse of steel. The thing stopped, glared at me and just kept coming. My pembantu, always one to recognise a fearless predator,  immediately fled up the stairs. Without my wingman, it was left to me to confront this animal, one which was obviously unaware of its place in the grand scheme of things. With a dexterous sweep of my foot, I tumbled it back towards the garden, It still didn’t run. In fact, it stood up, glared at me, bared its tiny teeth and growled.

Now, mice don’t growl. They use ultrasonic communication, audible squeaks and occasionally emit rapid clicks. Maybe it was bruxing – but I swear this thing actually growled at me. Yes, it was faint and somewhat pathetic, but it was clearly a growl. It took quite a few deft soccer passes to get the thing back to the garden – growling all the way – until it reluctantly went off, looking over its shoulder at me all the way. I didn’t even know mice had shoulders.

Well, what with the massage, the coffee, the shopping and the mouse that thought it was a Bali tiger, it just about filled out my daylight hours. But I did need to go shopping again. This time, I did make a list containing all the items I had forgotten the first time, including – you guessed it – mousetraps. That mouse was obviously sent by a higher force.

You see, that’s how Bali works – apparently unrelated events can conspire to bring one’s life back into balance, correct mistakes and iron out the effects of temporary amnesia. That’s one of the reasons I like it here.

Except that on the way to the supermarket, I saw this really nice-looking massage salon …