Friday, December 3, 2010


In ecologically sensitive times such as ours, litter is not pretty anywhere. Of course, it never has been pretty, but there is just more of it now, and so we are more aware of it than ever. The island of Bali, in this regard, is no different than anywhere else. We have our share of floating, blowing, huddling, homeless garbage, in the street, in the sea, in the gutter and on the highway--and in fact, to be honest, more than our share.

Depending upon the strength of the tide, the direction of the submerged ocean stream, I may sometimes find myself swimming alongside empty Lays Potato Chip bags, double cheeseburger wrappers, the daily ceremonial offerings to the gods, and the occasional plastic diaper.

There is no readily discernible garbage, I mean sanitation, service in Bali. There seems to be no regular scheduling of men or trucks--and God knows where the occasional men and trucks that do happen by take this stuff once they collect it. Pressed for an answer to this riddle, I might guess that a good deal of it is deposited in the field just a block down from my house, for I cannot begin to imagine how else it got there except by plan.

One will see these haphazard trucks, circa 1950, roaring up the highway, streaming miniature clouds of gravel and non-biodegradable refuse in their wake, but where they are going, no one knows. I do note that the river just up the Bypass, and just before you reach the Matahari Mall, is very often choked with a sludge of manmade refuse, and so maybe that is where some of these trucks relieve themselves of their loads. I think it must be so--for, again, how else could the situation have arisen?

In any case, what I want to talk about here is more than your common, run of the mill sort of litter. No, what I want to address is Bali’s very particular version of litter--or garbage, if you will--those local men on the beach who hang about in the shade and seek to sell chicken. I’m not talking about the sort of chicken that is commonly fried, baked, or barbecued. No, this chicken is of the human variety, of the female gender--those girls, those daughters of men, who find themselves without money, a home, a job, a guardian, quite without pity or charity, continually up for bargain like cheaply made baubles and trinkets in the market. They receive but a pittance of their own wage, along with the opportunity to be housed, in a communal sort of way, to eat, to be clothed--all according to the magnanimity of the pimp. The going price is 500,000 rupiah, about 50 US dollars. This includes the room, one hour of time, a beer, a massage, a bath, a condom, and pretty much anything else within the limits of human depravity that can also be fit into the space of one hour.

Now litter is not wholly without appeal, at least in some limited sense. It may be, for instance, that the Big Mac carton, yet seaworthy as it tops a nearby wave, inspires a vague notion of hunger, or the orange Fanta can, snuggled in a nest of sea anenomi, gives rise to thirst, but God help the man who is offered a 17 year old girl and straightaway seeks to consume another human being, as if she were nothing more than a bit of meat for his appetite.

Five hundred thousand rupiah, as I have said, is asked; but of course it is only the rare man who will end up paying this price, and the rarer pimp who will not ask a good deal more at the outset. It is a game of negotiation, of lie and bluff. Everything here is got by bargain--shirts, hats, sunglasses, paintings, watches, bracelets, and human beings. The beach boy starts high, forever hoping for the jackpot--a callow Westerner, a white man with money--and the wise, yet hungry customer starts out very low indeed.

In broken English the pimp paints his fresco of paradise--a cliché, a joke, a lie, a dream--while the customer, already containing at least two or three drinks and probably more--continually checks his wallet, hems and haws, careful to show that he is a man to be reckoned with, and no fool.

One hundred thousand rupiah sounds like a lot of money, but of course it is all relative. It is nothing to the common Westerner on vacation, much to the pimp, and without pertinence to the prostitute herself, for again she will receive but her pittance and her pittance alone.
It is, at the present rate of exchange, about 11 US dollars.

I am told that one is taken by taxi or motor bike up the road a piece and onto the winding back lanes. Where light is dim, where wild dogs wander, where children cry and squalor thrives, the man is let out to a Kos-Kosan, a central dwelling coupled to four or five small rooms. Each room is equipped with a toilet and a bed. The driver winks, money is exchanged, and the nervous yet anticipant purchaser finds himself facing perhaps fifteen, perhaps twenty, perhaps thirty women--young, older, thin, fat, pretty, homely--the well endowed and the unendowed--the experienced, the jaded, the fearful, the hopeless--all the little girls now trapped within the value of their flesh.

What bargain has been worked this night, what price, what deal, what swindle made for this father’s daughter, for this mother’s treasure, for this young woman’s heart and soul?

The next day another man will visit the beach. There he will find the same trash--unbothered, irremovable, as permanent as the sea itself--and despite the whiteness of the sand, the long sighing of the breakers, the majestic rise of the inland hills, the play of a child’s laughter on the breeze, he will do his business, make his killing, and reap the life of another human being--never seeing, never hearing, never imagining that paradise, rightly judged, had been available all along and quite without cost--free for the asking, albeit with this one caveat attached: He must seek in truth, ask with honor, and embrace with the sort of thankful compassion that should be the common currency of all men.

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