Posts Tagged ‘villa’


Your Call Is Important To Me

June 9, 2013

Your call is important to me, and that’s why I won’t answer it. I get voice calls on my hand-phone all the time. I ignore them, not because I’m a curmudgeonly old fart (which I am), but because it doesn’t make any sense for me to answer your call. And it’s not because I wish to emulate those execrable call centres who tell you in unctuous tones: “Your call is important to us”, and then leave you on hold for the ninety minutes it takes for some earnest character, for whom English is a fifth language, to pick up and tell you why he can’t help you.

My voice call avoidance behaviour is partly a matter of motivation. At least 70% of my voice calls are from people I don’t know, and who are trying to sell me something. Regardless of the pervasive ambient noise problem here, I won’t answer calls from unknown numbers, or from those whose caller IDs are blocked. Life is too short to waste on dreamers who believe that I want to give them money, or that buying their insurance policy will somehow enrich my life. How will it do this when I have to die to get a payout?

No, I don’t answer because my phone usually rings when I am riding my bike, and I am way too busy avoiding other riders who are texting and talking because they have answered their phones. Just because they are dangerous lunatics who can’t concentrate on actually driving while talking doesn’t mean that I should become one too. So while you fume at the manifest unfairness of your call going unanswered, I am occupied in staying alive and relatively un-maimed.

And when I have parked my bike and I am sitting in some restaurant or bar, I don’t answer my phone either, simply because there are probably only two venues in the whole of Bali that are quiet enough to hear you, and I’m rarely in either of them. I’m so deaf now that I wouldn’t understand most of what you say even if I did pick up in such noisy environments. Do you really want a conversation that goes:

You: “Hi, Wayan here, apa kabar?”
Me: “Um, no this is not Wayan, it’s Vyt, and yes, I’m in a bar. Who’s calling?”
You: “Wayan!”
Me: “Why? Because I want to know who I’m talking to!”
You: (Gnashing teeth) ” No, it’s … doesn’t matter. You free there tonight?”
Me: “No, not three, I’m here alone …”

And so it goes. Any conversation under those circumstances will end in either tears or homicide.

Once I am actually at home, where it is comparatively quiet, the situation theoretically should be better, but in practical terms rarely is. The rushing sound of water from my pool produces white noise which is perfect for masking critical mid-range vocal frequencies. The dog next door is psychic, and with devilish cunning, only barks during critical words in conversations, rendering the meaning of sentences unintelligible. Bali’s air traffic controllers only schedule aircraft to fly overhead when I get a phone call. The ringing of my phone immediately triggers a need by some locals in my lane to rev the shit out of their motorbikes just outside my gate, or some clown to begin fogging the place, and all of these sonic distractions serve to destroy any chance of meaningful conversations. But that’s not why I don’t answer my phone at home.

It’s because Telkomsel, my lovely provider, has somehow managed its tower coverage so that their normal 4-5 bar signal everywhere else in Legian drops to 1-2 bars in my house. Voice calls drop out, or they are so broken up as to become auditory garbage. Sure, if I stand on tip-toe on the edge of the south-east corner of my pool and connect an earth wire to my left foot, I get a reasonable signal, but only if I hold my mouth right. That’s why I don’t answer my phone at home.

My eyes still work – not very well, but they are good enough to read SMS messages, as long as I take my glasses off and squint a bit. The trouble is, no-one who rings me, and gets no answer,  seems to consider the possibility that sending me an SMS might actually be more productive. I used to reply to missed calls with an SMS explaining that I can’t hear voice calls, but inevitably this would trigger yet another voice call. Sigh. I don’t do that any more.

Now all I have to do is to work out how the hell to clear my phone log of 1,679 missed calls. Last time I tried, I deleted all my contacts by mistake. Actually, that might not be such a bad thing …


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.


The Tangled Skein of Bali’s Rubber Time

April 12, 2013

They say things happen in threes. In Bali, long periods of peaceful inactivity tend to be punctuated by bursts of craziness when everything seems to happen at once. And when they do, it’s usually not in threes –  five or more minor crises can manifest themselves at a time here.

Much of this is caused by Indonesia’s penchant for jam karet – rubber time – where appointment times are adhered to, but with several days’ margin of variation. But knowing that foreigners are likely to get severely bent out of shape when agreed meeting times are unilaterally ignored, many locals have taken to adopting the common courtesies of at least messaging a change of plan, although this is often done an hour after a scheduled appointment.

I have a number of local acquaintances here who occasionally seek advice or assistance on various matters such as business ideas, overseas contacts, computer or web skills – in fact anything which is a little outside the ambit of available help here. When I have time, I am happy to help if I can, as long as it doesn’t involve my dipping my hand into my pocket. For people I know, any topic is fair game, as long as it is scheduled between items in my own onerous schedule of sleep, eating, naps, writing, blobbing, or compulsively going out for my afternoon coffee. I seem to average a meeting of this type perhaps once a fortnight, but this week was the one that broke the mould.

On Sunday night, I get a message from Person A: “Can I see you about … ?”
“Sure”, I reply, “When?”

After we establish that ‘now’ is a tad late, and that I’m busy anyway, we finally settle on Monday at 1pm. On Monday morning, I get a call from Person B. “Can I see you about … ?” Turns out that the only time Person B seems to have available is … 1pm. I suggest an alternate time of Tuesday at 1pm. Agreement is reached, and I pencil in the time.

At 1:30pm on Monday, half an hour after the scheduled appointment, Person A messages me: “I can’t come at 1pm today.” Yes, I guessed that. “I will come tomorrow at 1pm”. I explain that I will be busy at that time, and am met with stunned disbelief. A time for Wednesday is set.

Late on Monday afternoon, Person C sends me a message: “I am coming to see you now.” I explain that that is not possible, because the only thing that will drag me away from my afternoon coffee is for a major lottery win, and even then only if they actually have the money with them. An attempt is made to get me to agree to a dinner ‘meeting’ that night. I decline; the only thing worse than a ‘business dinner’ is that modern abomination, the ‘business breakfast’. Besides, I already know who will be stung for the bill. We negotiate a mutually convenient time for Thursday.

Tuesday dawns bright and clear. I do a little preparatory work in anticipation of my 1pm meeting with Person B, regretfully turning down a social lunch meeting for that day with a visitor from Australia. Person B is a no-show. At 3pm I get a message saying that he can’t make the 1pm meeting. Yep, I’d figured that out all by myself. “But I will be there tomorrow at 1pm.” Well no, Person A is coming on Wednesday … We sort that out and re-schedule for Friday.

On Wednesday, Person A, already re-scheduled from Monday, fails to either show up or leave a message. Strangely, I somehow expected this, so I get on with a well-deserved siesta, which is interrupted by Person D, who really, really needs to see me on Thursday. I don’t even try to make an appointment, but tell him to call me next week.

On Thursday, Person C calls and wants to come on Friday instead. She gets the “call me next week” treatment as well; I am becoming somewhat jaded and more than a little terse.

On Friday, Person B misses their re-scheduled time as well. That means that I have not had a single person turn up this week at the time arranged. That’s OK, I have no expectations anyway. I meander off for my caffeine fix and ponder the mutability of time in Bali. I realise that there is no point in making appointments here. If all my people had just materialised at my house when the whim struck them, I probably could have attended to them all without a single clash or overlap. Time consciousness is probably just a Western affectation anyway.

Then, while I am having my coffee, I get four separate messages in the space of ten minutes, from each of A, B, C and D, all basically saying the same thing:

“Where are you? I am waiting outside your house, and you are not here! … and who are all these other people?”

I smile and continue with my coffee, then wander off to dinner. I might reply in an hour or two. If I feel like it.

Isn’t karma a real bitch sometimes?




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.



Fire – But What Happens After The Inferno?

December 9, 2011

The heat is sapping at just past mid-day, and I’m finding it hard to focus on work. The pool beckons, and it’s a toss-up between a cooling dip and just drifting off for an early siesta. A waft of smoke blows into the villa, its mixed aromas of burning leaves, wood and plastic creating a surge of annoyance. I snarl. The neighbours are burning garbage again. How inconsiderate.

But it’s not a rubbish fire at all. The smoke intensifies, and from my distant past as a volunteer fire-fighter comes an olfactory memory I prefer to forget. I recognise the unmistakably acrid smell of a dwelling on fire. By this stage, there is panicked shouting, and by the time I throw some clothes on and get outside, the air is thick with smoke. My lane is only fifty metres long, but I can’t see more than ten metres in front of me. Last June a neighbouring villa caught fire, but swift action by locals, who rushed selflessly to help, prevented a calamity.

This time, there is no chance of that. Eyes streaming and handkerchief pressed over my nose, I struggle to the end of the lane and see that the little warung on the corner is well alight. No-one can get close because of the radiant heat, collapsing roof timbers and explosions of flammables. The people in the villa behind the burning warung are mobilising with garden hoses, but this seems like such a puny defence. I am hoping fervently that no-one is trapped inside, because survival would be impossible.

Once around the corner, I get a clearer view and am shocked to see that not one, but all seven shops in the small block between my lane and the next are well ablaze. Shop owners are desperately trying to salvage valuables and stock. They seem to be risking their lives for mere goods – but the reality is that it’s not just things they are trying to save, it is their livelihood. As the toxic fumes thicken and swirl and I start to feel faint, I belatedly remember the dangers of smoke inhalation . After a sudden whomp! as a gas bottle explodes, spraying bits of shrapnel and belching great gouts of flame, I beat an undignified but sensible retreat to safety.

Miraculously, the fire brigade arrives within ten minutes and the scene transforms from chaotic panic into a well-organised drill. The Bali fireys are great, quickly assessing the fireground, checking for anyone trapped, rolling out the hoses and wasting no time in getting water on the fire. They are efficient, calm and relaxed.

They haven’t lost their sense of humour either. One of them has a momentary problem with the water cannon perched on top of his fire truck, accidentally swivelling it down as he struggles with a control to start the flow. As the valve snaps open, the sudden water blast from the misdirected nozzle scores a direct hit between the shoulder blades of his commander standing on the road in front. He is the first to burst out laughing at this unexpected incident. Maybe that’s why he’s called an incident commander. But I’m glad no-one takes a photo – the sight of firemen cackling uncontrollably while fighting a serious blaze would no doubt have been gleefully seized on by certain sections of the Australian anti-Bali media.

A little white car, which I have often seen parked in an awkward position at the entrance to the lane, is blocking access to the extra appliances that are now arriving. It’s also in danger of either catching fire itself, or being crushed should the wall of the building collapse. After unsuccessful attempts to locate the owner, the police, who are now in attendance, decide to shift the car. I am expecting use of a cunning, ‘police-only’ method of quickly breaking in to the locked vehicle. But no, they elect to use a ‘master key’ instead. A Bali master key apparently consists of an enthusiastically-wielded axe, which makes short work of the laminated side window, and the car is quickly pushed out of the way.

Frankly, if this approach was used on all badly-parked cars in Bali, the entire parking chaos problem would be solved overnight.

Finally, after an hour, the main fire is out. The crew is on mop-up duties and the police are sealing off the scene with yellow tape. Neighbours and shop owners are standing silently by the side of the road, staring in shock at the devastation. Fire-blackened, saturated goods lie in dismal piles on what is left of shop floors. Warped and melted roller shutters form grotesque sculptures; sad monuments to lost livelihoods. A cell-phone shop owner clutches the few boxes she has managed to save and stares fixedly into the ashes of her dreams.

At night, the scene is even more surreal. As I return from dinner, I ride past fifty or so people sitting silently on the opposite footpath, staring into the still-smoking ruins. I recognise some of the local shop owners, but no-one is in the mood for conversation. Apart from a small police presence, the rest of the onlookers seem to be family or friends. Perhaps they are there to give moral support, maintain some sort of vigil or pray. Maybe they’re just there to ensure that the wreckage of their lives is not made worse by overnight looting.

Few of the affected would have had insurance. For most of them, loss of their shops means complete loss of their livelihood. What little money these people have is tied up in stock. They subsist on their meagre revenues, which have now disappeared. What do they do now? Will their banjar offer financial support? Are there other sources of community assistance? Should I, as a neighbour, offer assistance? Is there a local disaster fund? If I donate money, or raise money from others who would like to help, how do I ensure that it gets to those affected without it vanishing into the pockets of ‘commission-takers’ or other opportunists?

It has taken an event like this to bring home to me how coddled I am as an expat. I take insurance cover for granted and I can afford smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. I understand the risks of unattended candles and incense, and I don’t have to use dangerous spirit stoves or dodgy gas bottles. But in my local community, I am probably in the minority.

And I am ashamed to realise that I have lived here for nearly three years and I still have not made the effort to learn how local communities cope in times of personal traumas like this. Sad, isn’t it?


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.


Making Nutty Assumptions Can Make You Sick

September 19, 2011

Bali is full of little pitfalls for the unwary. From the weapons-grade sambal that will flay the skin from your mouth and dissolve a substantial part of your digestive tract, to motorbikes that charge unexpectedly out of shop doorways, this place has something to trap everyone. I’ve learned to avoid many of this island’s idiosyncrasies over the last few years, but a new one just snared me.

So there I am, lounging in a luxury villa near the Canggu Club where friends have ensconced themselves after arriving in Bali for their first visit. I’m there partly to do the ‘Welcome to Bali’ thing, and partly because they think that I might be able to give them the inside scoop on how things work here. If they thought that I would be able to steer them away from falling foul of the more dangerous aspects of Bali, I am ashamed to say they were sadly mistaken.  I am unfortunately blessed with an overweening arrogance about my ability to navigate all of Bali’s little surprises, so my hubris occasionally results in less than fortuitous outcomes.

One of the party had thoughtfully picked up a few nibblies from the deli across the road, and as we chatted, he produced a sealed packet of nuts. “What are these?” he asked. “I’ve never seen these before.” A quick glance was enough for me to quickly identify them as macadamias, although the price seemed uncharacteristically low. “But is says here on the label that they’re …” I cut him off with a dismissive wave. “Ah, that will just be the local name for them”, I airily inform him. I’d forgotten that a  ‘quick glance’ is not a wise strategy to employ in identifying any food in Bali.

So we sit around for a while, munching on the occasional macadamia and talking about all kinds of Bali stuff as one is wont to do in these circumstances. The nuts are pleasant enough, but they feel a little oily and ever so slightly bitter. They also don’t quite have the creamy texture that I remember from the last time I could afford macadamias. It’s just Bali, I think to myself – they’ve probably been sitting on the shelf for a few months. Five or six nuts later, it’s time for me to head off.

As I dodge suicidal drivers on the twenty minute ride home, I feel the first stirrings of that unmistakable Bali ‘uh-oh’ feeling. Sharp fingers of discomfort begin to coil like snakes through my gut, turning quickly to serrated knives which seem to be carving my intestine into small chunks. My whole alimentary canal also appears to have liquefied and turned icy-cold, while my skin burns and starts sweating. I need to get home, right now. I suddenly morph into a typical Bali rider, dealing with the usual traffic jam outside Bintang Supermarket by dodging between cars like a lunatic, overtaking everything, mounting the footpath, scattering pedestrians and generally being one of those riders I so love to criticise. My vision blurs at the edges, leaving one clear image of a toilet at the centre, which has become my sole focus in life.

Fortunately, the only muscle in my body that still has any tone left after two years of sloth and gluttony is my sphincter, and I just manage to make it home without a catastrophic accident. And I’m not talking about road crashes either. After the traditional Bali palliatives of Entero-Stop and charcoal tablets have worked their magic, I’m back to semi-normal after a few hours. Then I get a call from my friends. “Are you OK?” they enquire. “Nearly all of us got bad Bali Belly after you left, and the only thing we had in common was eating those nuts …” Aha! I think. Obviously bad hygiene practices at the nut packing plant. It must be E. coli, or salmonella, or some other rotten Bali bug.

Well, it wasn’t. It was my stupid assumption that we were eating macadamias. So I consult a Bali food oracle – my Domestic Infrastructure Support Manager (she doesn’t like the term ‘pembantu’). I describe the offending nuts and ask her if she has heard anything negative about them. She seems puzzled. “No, they are not macadamia, they are kemiri – really good for making sambal.” I tell her that we were less than impressed with the ones we ate at lunchtime.

She looks horrified. “No, no! You must cook first! Cannot eat from packet – they are poison!” Belated research reveals that when raw, they contain saponin, phorbol and other mildly toxic purgatives. I can personally vouch for the truth of that. I discover that you can mash them up and use them as soap. They also are rich in heavy oils, to the extent that people apparently string them together, light them and use them as candles. One would think that the name ‘candle-nuts’ on the packet should have given me some sort of clue. One would be wrong. In Hawaii, they were also used to make varnish, and even canoe paint. Needless to say, you do not eat them raw. I feel sick all over again.

It’s not the only mistake I’ve made here, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. What’s next? A bag of stuff that looks like peanuts, but are actually layer pellets? I know petrol is sold in vodka bottles here, but at least it doesn’t look like vodka. But what if I ever find kerosene being sold in gin bottles? I may not live through the experience.

If you are coming to Bali, by all means ask me for advice. But if you value your health and safety, I suggest you don’t trust anything I have say about any food or beverage here.


One Person’s Normal Is Another’s Neurosis

September 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Fire! Unity in Adversity in Bali

June 19, 2011

I am the first to admit that some of my articles have been less than complimentary about certain local practices. Not because of any malicious intent, I hasten to add. It’s just that my bule eyes often see quirks, absurdities and inconsistencies that pique my ire, but seem perfectly normal to those in whose country we are guests. As John Milton nearly said about us foreigners: “We see Bali not as it is, but as we are”. Right on, John.

Yet other social imperatives here,  such as the sense of community spirit, are inspiring – partly because of their absence in the places we originally came from. We see people in Western cultures slowing down to gawk (but not stopping to help) at the scene of a car accident. We see them ignoring someone lying on the footpath in a diabetic coma, because, you know, they are ‘obviously’ drunk. We hear of people dying in their homes and being found weeks later, simply because minding your own business has become a matter of personal survival in the high-pressure societies many of us have left behind. The downside to this is that when we do start living in a selfish bubble, we lose some of our humanity.

Fortunately for a villa owner in my lane, the community spirit is alive and flourishing in Bali. A few days ago, while walking a departing guest out to the street, a commotion three doors up attracted my attention. A huge cloud of smoke began erupting from the front of a neighbourhood property, and large flames were already engulfing its carport roof. Two local residents were standing in the street, phones already in hand, while a third was struggling to open the villa gates. I know now that they were in fact the early-response team, rounding up help.

In the few seconds it took me to get to the scene, another thirty or so locals had arrived at a dead run. Without pausing, they rolled back the gates of the villa and dashed in to appraise the situation. The flames had reached the plastic roof of the carport, which was well ablaze, dripping fiery molten plastic onto the three motorbikes parked below. Without a thought for their own safety, the impromptu brigade manhandled the bikes out into the street. Garden hoses, already spouting water, magically appeared from surrounding houses to be passed quickly to those at the fire-front. Other people, seeing that some hoses were too short, conjured up connectors from thin air.

Cardboard boxes stacked high in the carport were well alight, the flames licking at the main structure’s window frames and threatening to ignite the entire house. The lads of this instant fire crew worked together as if they were a well-drilled team with years of experience, some pulling burning boxes down with their bare hands to get to the seat of the fire, others dousing scattered debris. They did all this while dodging the burning boxes toppling around them, avoiding cascades of hot polycarbonate streaming from the roof, and trying to keep the vicious eddies of glowing embers away from their eyes. Despite the frenetic activity, not once did they get in the way of each other, working flawlessly as a single unit.

Fifteen minutes after it started, the fire was out and the team was concentrating on blacking out the hot-spots to ensure that the fire ground was safe. One hour later, the ‘real’ Fire Brigade arrived – or at least a shiny red patrol car did. The crew of that were still there a few hours later, poking and prodding the burnt remains, taking photographs and filling out forms. The other crew, the ones who actually put out the flames, were long gone – probably enjoying a well-deserved cool drink and telling each other tall stories.

As it happened, this was the very day that PLN (Bali’s sole provider of electrical energy) had selected our neighbourhood as the target of one of their regular six hour blackouts – its load-shedding ‘solution’ for their woefully inadequate capacity problem. As a result, the villa’s emergency electrical generator was running. Well, maybe not quite as its makers intended, because it caught fire. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen. Once the flammable materials stacked around it ignited, a potential disaster was in the making.

Fortunately, it was averted. The heroes of the day were just ordinary, local guys in the neighbourhood. It didn’t matter to them that the villa owner was a foreigner who was not in Bali at the time. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t their house. They responded automatically, saved three bikes and probably the villa too. They may even have saved the life of the pembantu in residence, who might well have been trapped by the conflagration blocking the only exit. Their quick and effective action may even have saved our entire row of six villas. Not one of them had a stitch of protective clothing – just a natural and unhesitating protectiveness towards others in their community, the desire and ability to act decisively, and heaps of raw courage.

Guys, I salute you. This what community spirit is all about, and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.



Washing My Naked Aphrodite’s Bits

May 29, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How To Go Clinically Insane Paying a Water Bill

January 13, 2011

Paying a water bill should be a short, simple process – right? Wrong. At least, not in Bali. The labyrinthine mechanics of local bureaucracy seem designed to obstruct and frustrate. Small wonder some of us expats are rendered clinically insane or become alcoholics after a year or so here.

Last month, two full days before my payment was due, I wander down to my local BPD office to pay my water bill. As far as I can tell, the BPD is some sort of bank branch that accepts various utilities payments. The gentleman who is usually behind the counter, a relentlessly cheerful chap, is there, smiling as usual. He scrutinises my account details carefully, smiles happily, and says “No”. To the best of my knowledge, that is the only word of English in his vocabulary. That, together with my rudimentary Bahasa, makes communication somewhat difficult. “No? Why not?” I ask. “Computer broken”, is the bland reply.

So I tell him I’ll come back later. “No” he says again. Apparently, despite the office being open until 5pm, he can only take water payments up to 2pm, and not a second later. “OK, I’ll come back tomorrow”, I offer. “No”, he says. “Holiday tomorrow.” I helpfully point out that the holiday is actually in two days, not tomorrow. “No”, he replies happily. “For me, holiday tomorrow”.

Through a diligent questioning process consisting of some Bahasa, lots of sign language and frequent use of the word “No”, I finally unearth the date on which the office will be open again, and tell him that I will come and pay then. Guess what? I get the big “No” again, because apparently once a payment deadline is missed, I have to pay at the head office in Denpasar somewhere. I say that I haven’t actually missed a payment, it’s more that they won’t take my payment. He says “No”. I tell him it’s a long way to go. “No”, he says. “Only 40 minutes on the bike, unless macet“. Unless? There’s always a traffic jam in Denpasar!

I grip my lip firmly to stop from screaming, but still can’t stop myself from emitting muted wails of anguish. I feel like a John Cleese clone trapped in an episode of Fawlty Towers, Bali. Back at home, I look up the address – a Jalan Bedahulu. Oh great – there are thirty-three Jalan Bedahulus in the one block! They seem to be numbered, but this being Bali, the numbering is completely random. One hour later, I am hopelessly lost in a maze of unnumbered streets and lanes, looking for an unsignposted building that probably doesn’t even exist. It feels like I have ridden half-way to Lovina. I give up, spend another hour getting home and have a scotch and sulk.

A few days later, I enlist the services of a friend’s driver to go find the damn place and pay the damn bill. After much difficulty, he finds the elusive head office, and goes up to the counter. Another smiling man is there, who again scrutinises the proffered account details carefully before saying “No. Computer broken.”

I think I will have to do what I did last time. Ignore the damn bill until the man comes to the villa with his bag of tools to disconnect the water. Then I’ll pay him, and everyone can live happily – until next time the computer is broken.


Bali Villa Guests – You Get All Kinds

September 5, 2010

After talking to other expats here in Bali, I realise how lucky I have been with my villa guest experiences to date. It can be a little bit hard having visitors sharing my home, but it morphs my customary solitary existence into something approaching sociability. Scary, but nice. My house guests have been companionable, respectful of my space, aware that they are living in a home and not a hotel, and they have been relatively undemanding of my time. And this is as it should be. If in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity I offer free accommodation to impecunious friends and acquaintances, I neither want, nor expect to be subjected to demands that I add value to their stay. That is their job.

Not so for some other Bali expats though. Hearing some of the horror stories about guests who have ‘crossed the line’ have caused my eyebrows to climb well up into my receding hairline and a shiver of apprehension to course through both my belly and my wallet. Despite being really lucky so far, their stories make me question the wisdom of future sharing.

“Where’s the shampoo? There’s no shampoo!” complains a guest, irritated at having to march out of her quarters while wrapped only in a towel. Her compressed lips betray her annoyance at the lack of consumables in her bathroom. “Umm … didn’t you bring any?” asks the perplexed host. “Well of course not!” is the terse retort. “This is supposed to be a luxury villa, isn’t it? You’d expect that a place like this would provide some basic bathroom stuff. You should talk to your landlord, you know.” The irascible guest, staying for free, seems to be under the impression that she is in a hotel. The host, a paragon of patience (which far exceeds mine),  explains that this is her home, and like all expats, she buys her own bathroom goodies, or brings in the locally unobtainable high-quality potions from overseas.

Instead of apologising, the guest from hell promptly demands to ‘borrow’ the host’s personal shampoo, her conditioner, a different towel and some toothpaste.  She then complains about the soap provided which apparently is no good for her ‘sensitive skin’. During her subsequent three day stay, she not only avoids returning the expensive bathroom supplies, she ‘accidentally’ packs them in her bags on her departure. I suggest to my villa-dwelling friend that she lay in a stock of Drain Cleaner in shampoo bottles, conditioner seasoned with sump oil and some soap embedded with glass slivers specifically for obnoxious guests. The expat demurs, feeling that my proposal is a little extreme, but does hint that this guest won’t be invited back.

At a different villa, with different guests who have stayed for three weeks: “A tip? For the pembantu? What for?” says the visiting family’s matriarch, a fearsome woman who has treated the villa staff like indentured slaves. The host, a gentle man (and a gentleman) of my acquaintance, calmly explains that it is customary in Bali for guests to leave a tip for house staff. After all, with normal villa occupancy, there is an accepted workload that attracts an agreed salary. With the added room cleaning, laundry and other extra demands by guests, staff workload increases and a tip is not just payment, but a recognition of worth. “Rubbish!” is the rejoiner. “She gets a salary already. You can’t spoil these people, you know.” After his guests leave, the host pays the staff a bonus anyway. They are happy, but of course he is out of pocket. He is philosophical, but not so much that he would invite those guests again.

Yet another expat who has now sworn off taking in guests is one whose attempts to be hospitable have cost him dearly. His visitors insist on leaving the bedroom air-conditioners on all day ‘because it is really unpleasant coming home to a hot room’. They also keep the temperature at 16 degrees all night – while sleeping under a thick duvet ‘because it’s too cold otherwise’. When he points out that electricity is expensive in Bali, they dismiss his objections with an airy “Don’t be silly – everything is cheap in Bali”. They also demand that he change their money “because we don’t trust the money-changers here”, proferring him a fistful of badly-worn, small-denomination bills. Because he works here and employs a driver, they want to be driven around the island every day, for free, because “your driver already gets a salary from you”. His patience is more on a par with mine; after three days, he pleads urgent business in Singapore and kicks them out to stay at a hotel. Good on him.

What is it with some of these people? Are they just ignorant, or stupid, or just incredibly selfish?Remember that these stories are from private homes, not commercial villas. There is no profit in accommodating guests, in fact there is a loss. We expats are happy to absorb the cost of being hospitable to friends and acquaintances because it is part of normal social interaction. We don’t expect them to be pathetically grateful, but we would like them to act like responsible, albeit temporary family members in our homes. In my case, I have been fortunate, because my guests have been delightful company as well as good friends. But to the users and losers out there, how about you stay at a hotel – I suspect we will all enjoy the experience much more.


Sob Stories and Scams in Paradise

August 22, 2010

So I’ve just finished bargaining hard for something inconsequential and the price has been accepted. All that remains is for me to hand over the money and receive my goods from the nice lady. Then, with studied diffidence, comes the sob story: ” … you give me extra 10,000 so I can buy rice for my children?” If I don’t respond, the bathos continues, explaining in heart-breaking detail how her children are hungry, how her husband needs a crucial operation on both arms, and how business has been terrible lately.

I look pointedly at the stall holder’s shiny Honda Tiger parked next to the shop. Her husband arrives in a near-new top-end vehicle professionally emblazoned with the shop’s logo and expensive graphics. He bounds out, effortlessly carrying a huge load of stock. He hides his disability well; no doubt he will be a regular Superman after his operation. Their net worth is probably greater than mine, yet the ingrained imperative to trot out clichéd hard luck stories remains undiminished.

The low-end massage therapists are the same. A mediocre massage is followed by (or sometimes concurrent with) the inevitable mantra: “You give me tip?” Any lukewarm response from me elicits a multiplicity of choices as to why I should, such as “My phone pulsa is finished”, or “I have motorbike payment”, or “My son needs a dentist, and he is in much pain”, or “I must pay school fees for my daughter”. None of the reasons relate to quality of service. I think I am expected to select one or more of these choices, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I can be conned out of extra money.

My favourite sob stories come from inventive, but not entirely logical traders.  “You must buy from me because I am not getting any business”. This is from the proprietor of a stall selling mainly junk. “Why aren’t you getting any business?” I ask, hoping to provide a micro-lesson in stock selection, marketing and promotion. “Because you not buy from me,” is the circular answer. I am filled with admiration. This is not just a sob story, but one which makes me the cause of the trader’s difficulties.

Then there’s the ‘sympathy vote’ sob story: “You must pay me more because I drive four hours to work each day and four hours back”. I am impressed with the man’s dedication, and ask him what time he gets up. He tells me 6am, so I ask “What time do you open the shop?”  “7:30am”, he says proudly, ” … and I work until 10pm”. I commiserate with him about the long hours, and say that it must be very late when he gets home. “Oh yes”, he says sadly, “Sometimes 9pm”. I notice he has no books on arithmetic in his shop, and resolve to buy him one.

The ‘support my banjar’ gambit is another one on my shortlist for a prize. “You pay extra 100,000? My village is very poor.” I ask how this will help the village, and get a recitation of  “improvements” needed by his village. “Maybe I should give the money to the head of your village?”, I enquire innocently. “No, no, no!” he says with increasing alarm. “Better you give to me!” Of course it is, what was I thinking?

But the crème de la crème of sob stories surfaced a few days ago. A temporary house staff member, a Balinese who had been with me for less than two weeks, became increasingly morose, stressed and teary. Eventually an almost incomprehensible  story emerged about her mother being in some sort of unspecified trouble with the authorities. The said authorities, in the guise of five local police officers (whose names she had conveniently forgotten), had allegedly confronted her family and demanded 15 million rupiah, or else their mother would be carted off to prison. Hmm, I thought, here it comes. Sure enough, the conversation quickly veered towards my potential participation in the family’s ‘rescue’. “Can you help us? Can you lend us 15 million for one year?”. I said that I wouldn’t. Not couldn’t, wouldn’t.

So there it was, the three-day sobbing set-up, the ‘desperate’ plea for help, and the attempted sting. Except this sting just won’t happen – firstly because other people’s legal and financial woes are not my responsibility, and secondly because this particular sob story smells to high heaven. I’ve never heard of police in Bali shaking down a poor Balinese family with an extortion attempt of this magnitude, but I have heard plenty of stories about ‘wealthy’ expats being similarly targeted, both by police and the locals themselves. If this is a scam, it is breathtaking both in its audacity and the amount being demanded. It is also insulting to be thought of as someone gullible enough to hand over money on the basis of an anecdote which is flimsy, incomplete and inconsistent. But at least I’ve been promoted from ATM to Bank Manager, and that’s something I suppose.

But if it is not a scam, but real extortion of a local family by local police, that is even worse. What about due process? Even in Bali, doesn’t an alleged miscreant normally get taken to court? Doesn’t a judge decide the merits of a case before prison even becomes an issue?

Prior to this little drama, I had already become heartily sick of sob stories, but at least had managed to retain my sense of humour. Now, I’ve just about had enough. In Bali, expats are perceived to be ridiculously rich and over-privileged – whatever their actual circumstances. And that seems to make us all sitting ducks for those who want what we have. That’s sad.


A Mistake That Was Meant to Be

August 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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