Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CSI -- The Bali Version

A reader of this column writes to share the following story. Some money was stolen from a safe in a friend’s Seminyak home. The husband had unfortunately left the key out in plain site (husbands are like that). A number of staff members employed in the house fell under first suspicion. The couple called the Bali police to report the theft and try to discover the culprit. The police arrived, took some notes (as I would imagine it), and prepared to depart. It was at this point that the disinherited home owners asked if the officers couldn’t perhaps take some fingerprints from the staff members. Though we, as mere laymen, are not well versed in the finer points of investigative procedures and techniques, the suggestion would seem a no-brainer. Chances seemed fair to good, after all, that the thief was standing in the very midst. And if not -- if all passed inspection -- the matter would be solved to that point, anyway.

Fingerprints, they were told, could in fact be taken, but this would come at a cost of Rp.4 million.

What? Yes. It seems that here in Bali the victims of a crime must pay for an investigation of the same. You’ll not see that on CSI, folks. Fingerprints, DNA samples, ballistics, interrogation . . . Hmm, let us check our price list first.

Is there a schedule of fees, my reader asks, that the ex-pat can obtain in order to be prepared in advance?

I think not. Because really these things don’t happen at all. Ask any policeman, he’ll tell you.

Well, Rp.4 million seemed excessive, and so the couple fired their entire staff instead.

Now to be fair I must say that, in America anyway, demanding fingerprints on the spot, on the basis of a suspicion, is very likely against the law. I can’t say for sure, because I’m not a cop or a lawyer or a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Nor do I have any useful experience at being a criminal. I just suspect that our all-American fixation on protecting the rights of the individual law-breaker would supersede any such good reasoning, leading, as it might, to the violation of someone’s civil rights.. More than likely the victim’s. And we must be very careful about that, mustn’t we?

But this, after all, is Bali -- a comparatively reasonable country. Here the police have much freer rein to perform in whatever manner they will. Here the police can pull you over on the highway merely on the suspicion that you are a foreigner and may have money. Here the police are perfectly free to circumvent the nuisance of legal procedure and simply pocket your money -- a fee which itself is in accordance not with legal guidelines but with the extent of the motorist’s naiveté -- i.e., if you’re new around here it will be Rp.250.000 or more, if you’re experienced in the game it will be only Rp.50.000.

The driving principal is not law enforcement, but the collection of money. Accordingly, the ex-pat must be careful to follow two simple rules of thumb: 1) Avoid having any kind of trouble, and 2) Don’t call the police if you do have any kind of trouble. That’s the real no-brainer here, and any local will tell you so.

But it’s not all bad news. Here’s the good news. In Bali the police are authorized to detain any vehicle and driver as they please. (Wait for it). They are able to search any vehicle as they please. They do not need a cause, they do not need a warrant, they do not need a Federal Court order or a specialist or a Captain or a General. If they find a bomb in the trunk of a car so detained, they do not need to read the bomber his Miranda rights or summon higher authorities or pussy-foot around in any way -- no, they arrest the man on the spot, cart him off to jail, and maybe even knock him upside the head along the way if it strikes them as a good idea. And that’s only fair, isn’t it? What self-respecting bomber can have any sensible objection to being knocked upside the head?

Still and all, it’s not a perfect system. I discovered this for myself on a recent visit to the Bali Mall Galleria. It was a Sunday, and the Christmas Season, and so the mall parking lot was very crowded. Whereas cars are usually checked by guards as they enter the mall grounds, they were not being checked this day. We were waved straight through. Nonetheless, my wife stopped the car and beckoned to the officer at the gate, despite the blaring horns of frustrated drivers from behind.

“Why are you not checking the cars?” she asked.

“Oh, too crowded, Bu -- not enough time.”

But hold on -- isn‘t that the point in this sort of thing? What better time for a terrorist to strike than during the Christmas season at a crowded mall?

Oh well, like I said . . . it’s not a perfect system.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Once Upon A Lonely Road

Recently I received an e-mail from a man who lives near the small town of Sandy, Oregon, about 20 miles east of my home town of Portland, where I lived for some 55 years The man, who identified himself as George Porter, and a complete stranger to me, related that he had recently come upon a computer thumb drive lying at the side of an all but unused road behind the plant nursery he owns in Sandy. Thinking at first that it may be his own, and curious in any case, he took the drive home and plugged it into his laptop. Though this revealed the existence of some files, both photo and text, he was unable to open the files on first attempt.

I thought about just giving up and tossing the thing, Mr. Porter wrote, but then something told me to keep on trying.

He did so, and ultimately, after tinkering around with several programs and options, he was able to open one of the text files on the drive. What he found was the entire text of a book I had written some four years ago.

And this is where things begin to get a bit eerie.

In the first place, I have no recollection whatsoever of having put the book on any storage device other than the one I have in my own possession, tucked securely into the pocket of my laptop case. Such was my conviction of the same that I checked the case just to be sure -- and sure enough, there is the thumb drive, and thereon the copy of the book. The book, though three years with an agent, has not been published, and so does not, for all practical purposes, exist at all, other than in my hands and in the hands of the agent. And now in the hands of George Porter as well.

So how in the world could my book have gotten onto another thumb drive, and how could that thumb drive have ended up on a back road in Sandy, Oregon? I have not been in Oregon, or anywhere in the world other than Bali and Singapore, for almost two years. What then has been the career of this mysterious thumb drive? How has it remained intact for at least two years? How long did it lie on that road -- two years? Or have its travels been wider and involved more people in transport?

Or is this some kind of scam?

That, quite frankly, was my initial suspicion, given that internet scams are so common these days. We’ve all received them in various form -- from the unknown recipient of millions who desires for some reason to share his wealth, to the beautiful woman (photo included) who lives in Africa, has come across your profile somewhere on line, and feels that you and she will make a perfect pair (if only you will send her some money for a plane ticket).

What was the scam in the case at hand? I could not imagine -- but of course that’s the point. A good scam does not betray its nefarious nature, but relies on the human inclination to trust, to be curious, to believe and to bond. I replied therefore to George‘s mail, reticent, guarded, yet captivated by curiosity.

And I found that Mr. Porter wanted nothing at all. He had no plan, no agenda, no rabbit up his sleeve. He offered in addition only that he had seen one of his drivers walking on the back road where the drive had been found, and said that he would do his best to contact this man to try to determine whether it might have been he who dropped the drive.

But there’s more to this story. What I have said so far is skeletal only, without meaningful substance or animation, a mildly curious coincidence.

Here then is the kicker: The book that I wrote, which somehow got onto a thumb drive, which itself somehow ended up on a back road in Sandy, Oregon where it was found two years down the path of time by a man named George Porter, is the story of my life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the spring of 2007; and the man who found the drive, who brought it home, who plugged it into his laptop and laboured at some length to discover what was on it, had just recent to that very day lost his friend of almost forty years -- Mike by name -- to the contributory effects of multiple sclerosis.

Here is where coincidence becomes cohesion, here is where a fluke becomes a twist of fate -- for the reason that George was writing me at all was to share how meaningful my book had been to him, how comforting my words had been and how informative about the disease that had taken his friend. He had written, in short, to thank me -- and, as it happens, to encourage me as well. One writes, ultimately, to connect, to share; one writes for the ear of an invisible reader with whom he hopes to find a fellowship of living. It may seem sad in some way that this book over which I had expended my heart had ended up in the gravel on a lonely roadside, and yet the miracle that brought it to the hands of this single reader is encouragement beyond the common pale of life, and a a gift of rarest, most rewarding amazement.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Up In Smoke

Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me! A no smoking law passed in Bali? It can’t be, and yet it is apparently so. Soon hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, government offices, places of worship, and who knows what else -- bars, boats, cars, bikes, malls, the insides of buildings and the outsides of buildings and anywhere within 50 feet of a building -- will all be smoke-free havens for those few people in Bali who actually don’t smoke. Congratulations to the Bali legislative council -- you’ve just become a Western nation. Now big brother is watching you too.

What, I wonder, is the irresistible attraction of this runaway anti-smoking campaign? What causes the leadership of just about every country to want to jump on the bandwagon of legislation that rests not only on bad science but on the dangerous notion that the freedom of an individual to make his own choices can be made subject to government control? Do we really want to join that party? Does Bali -- does Indonesia -- really want to bleed itself dry of all the colour of character by imitating the restrictive, conformist, stodgy, reductive, timid, paranoid social rules of political correctness that plague modern-day Western countries?

I say that if you want to smoke, smoke; if you don’t want to smoke, don’t smoke. But for crying out loud, don’t make a law of every little thing! This is one of the reasons I left America. I was suffocating. Not from cigarette smoke, but from the strangulating grip of countless special interest groups, humourless, lacklustre, anal-retentive biddies and snobs who somehow managed to make law of opinion, and a travesty of the right to personal choice.

Here in Bali I found a different society -- and ironically, a society much like the one I used to know as a young man in America. I rediscovered a society of common agreement, ordered not so much by law as by common sense. I found a freedom of expression and movement and action that made me feel once again like a dog with his head out the window and his ears flapping in the wind. I could breathe again. I could speak my mind. I could jay walk (at my own risk, and yet by choice). And I could smoke a cigarette just about anywhere I wanted to.

What are the real facts about smoking? Well, for one thing it doesn’t cause lung cancer. It may contribute, along with a multitude of other considerations. The process of developing cancer is complex and multifactorial. It involves genetics, the immune system, cellular irritation, DNA alteration, dose and duration of exposure, and much more. It’s not a simple matter -- and don’t let them tell you it is. Every member of my immediate family died of cancer. None of them smoked. How’s that for a statistic?

How about the dreaded second hand smoke, that fairly recent modulation of paranoia that has made pariahs of those who smoke. Well, the fact is that by the time second hand smoke is inhaled by another person it has already been filtered by the cigarette itself, and then by the smoker’s own lungs. What’s left? Not much. A World Health Organization (WHO) study did not show that second hand smoke statistically increased the risk of getting lung cancer. EPA statistics, moreover, show that living with a heavy smoker over a period of 30-40 years will only increase the non-smoker’s chance of getting lung cancer from 0.4% to 0.6%. Want a better chance of getting lung cancer? Try stepping outside your door in any modern industrialized city and taking a good, deep breath.

All cancers combined account for only 13% of all annual deaths, and lung cancer only 2%. Given the actual numbers, one has to wonder what’s really behind the hysteria.

It’s not a question of public health, folks. It’s a question of individual freedom. If I die of lung cancer, that’s on me. If I die from eating too much fried chicken, or from someone sitting near me eating too much fried chicken, that’s on me too.

“Yes, smoking is bad for you,” writes J.P. Siepmann in the Journal of Theoretics, “but so is fast food hamburgers, driving, and so on. We must weight the risk and benefits of the behaviour both as a society and as an individual based on unbiased information. Be warned though, that a society that attempts to remove all risk terminates individual liberty and will ultimately perish.”

For goodness’ sake, smoking is an Indonesian pass-time. It’s part of Indonesian heritage. It’s as Indonesian as bakso and sate (neither of which is probably good for you). What a shame it is that this government of Bali has so bought in to another culture’s propaganda and agenda.

I’m a smoker. I like to smoke. I regret that there are some who do not appreciate smoking, but I will not fault them for it, nor will I seek a law against them. I say in conclusion, with American author Mark Twain, that “if smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Things That Keep Me Up At Night

 “I’m one of those people,” writes Stephen King in his most recent novel, “who doesn’t really know what he thinks until he writes it down.”

I can go a step further than that, because I’m one of those people who doesn’t really know what he thinks even after he’s got done thinking it. My mind seems to have no sense of informed taste or selection, but jumps instead at every bit of passing information like a fish that can’t see the difference between a tasty fly and a speeding bullet. It seems that the dumbest things strike me as somehow significant or mysterious. They get into my brain and clatter about like marbles in a tin canister, interrupting a focus on matters more worthy of attention, or indeed needful of the same.

Why, by way of example, are most females so fond of the colour pink? The normal answer should be Who cares, right? What difference does it make? But no, I must look the thing up, get to the bottom of the matter, no matter how insipid the question may be.

I learn through the internet that “scientists” believe this female attraction to the colour pink arises from prehistoric times, when the role of the woman was that of a food gatherer. Since berries are sort of pink (so the scientists claim), the colour was ingrained into the woman’s psyche so that she would seek out and gather up things that were pink, and therefore (hopefully) berries. In due time, of course, this berry gathering pastime petered out, and yet the biological, genetic fixation remained.

So next time my wife hankers after that pink purse, or those pink shoes, or that pink Mercedes, I will know what she’s really on about. Berries.

Another thing that strikes me as curious (and keeps me up at night) is this whole idea of global warming. Here we have a shaky theory that has been turned in the space of a decade or so into a matter of popular lore -- and this despite the objection of a number of eminent scientists who say it is no more than a hoax. Norwegian Nobel prize winner Ivar Giaever, for example, states that “Global warming is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientic fraud I have seen in my long life.” So why do we continue to believe? How does a falsehood so robustly persist? Who is behind it, and what is the plan, really?

This leads me to the whole question of tobacco use being harmful to ones health. It says so on the package, right? And therefore it must be so. Yet, statistics gathered from around the world would seem to show that very often the rate of lung cancer in heavy smoking populations, such as those in Turkey and Egypt, is far lower than the rate of lung cancer in countries where fewer people smoke. Now what‘s that all about? What’s really going on here? What shadowy, conspiratorial group is out to kill King Tobacco, and why?

Why were forty planes needed to bring Barack Obama to Bali? I mean, when my wife and I moved from America to Bali we brought along thirteen boxes of various stuff, and I thought that was a lot at the time. But forty plane loads? How is it possible? Yes, I realize that some of the planes were burdened with larger sorts of items, such as armoured personnel carriers -- and I understand there was no need for my family to bring along any military vehicles --, but still, if I had known we could have brought forty planes worth of stuff, I might have included a few extra bits and pieces. My piano, for instance. My wife’s Marcos-like collection of shoes. Two or three old girlfriends. My two dogs and my two dog’s dogs. As it turns out, we were really quite Spartan. And I guess that’s something to be proud about.

Another mystery concerns the bug in my motorcycle helmet. I cannot find this bug on careful examination of the helmet, nor does it make its presence known when I am stopped at a traffic light or travelling at low speed. No, this bug only appears -- and always in my ear -- at high speed or in heavy traffic when there is no opportunity for me to free a hand or stop the bike. Naturally I ask myself how this can be. Coincidence is one thing, but this seems beyond coincidence. I reckon it’s some kind of fate or bad karma, a little bit of purgatory on earth.

Lastly I will mention the matter of the gas in my motorbike. Through two years of experience I have found that the bike will run just about forever when the gauge is on empty, and yet when I fill the tank, the gas disappears with alarming rapidity as if through a hole in the bottom. But there is no hole. I’ve checked, many times. I conclude, therefore, that the best course in the future will be to keep the gauge well into the red, thus saving myself from trips to the Pertamina and the needless expense of refilling.

Friday, November 25, 2011

More Fiasco Than Festival

Another community planning disaster, about 7.5 on the Richter scale, shook the little town of Sanur last week as the Sanur Village Festival, held at Sunrise Beach, played host to five long, hot, unspeakably humid days of frustration, vehicular chaos, roadway gridlock and boiling tempers.

In the past the little festival had been a pleasant enough affair, offering food and drink, local crafts and wares for sale, music and entertainment at night -- a place for tourists and locals alike to meet and meander, take a meal or sip at a tall, cold beer. I had looked forward to returning this year, as had my family, remembering a time when we had enjoyed local flavours, mingled with friends, basked in the cooling breeze off the ocean, and then sat on the grass at night for music and dance presented on a central stage.

But this year was to be different; for we ended up not with a festival, but with a fiasco, long to be remembered, if for anything, as the place one should not have gone.

Why? What had happened between this year and last to turn a pleasant amusement into a nauseating nightmare?

In two words: bad planning.

Or maybe I should say no planning at all.

To begin with, what genius, I wonder -- or what corporate body of genius (since it usually takes more than one person to be this stupid) -- came up with the idea to hold the festival at Sunrise Beach, to which there is only one road of entry and one road of departure? Last year the festival grounds stretched between Grand Bali Beach and Sindhu, an area to which many roads enter, and to which one can easily walk from any avenue of entry. But one road only? To an event that will attract not only the population of Sanur, but of the far flung outlying areas as well?

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, folks. You cannot see the whole picture until you take into account that this single road of entry comes straight off the Bypass. As we all know from daily experience, the Bypass is bad enough when simply left to itself; but funnel all this traffic, bound in both directions, onto a single narrow side way and what you have is the old hopelessly clogged drain effect.

No matter how I try to imagine the decision making process behind this disaster, the thing defies reason.

“Where should we hold the festival this year. It seems to have gone all too smoothly last, don’t you think?”

“Hmm, yes. How about the middle of the Bypass?”

“Oh ya? And what shall we do about traffic control?”

“Well, let me think a second . . . Oh, how about nothing!”

One must consider as well that not all people on the Bypass were bound for the festival. Some were trying to get to work. Some were trying to get home from work. Some were actually in the midst of work, like the truck drivers, the delivery vans, police cars, ambulances and such-like. Ah, but now they were going to the festival, like it or not. There was no place else to go.

Such was my situation on the final Sunday of the disaster. My son had stayed overnight with a friend in Sanur and I was to travel from my house in Biaung to pick him up in the afternoon, a trip which usually takes about 15 minutes one way. This day the round trip required two hours and 15 minutes, most of that passed in increments of half-inches between Padang Galak and Grand Bali Beach. The problem on Sunday was not only the fair. They had added a twist in the form of a parade of marchers and decorated floats. To accommodate this parade, they had closed one side of the Bypass. Not one lane, but one side, you see? Predictably, no contingency plan had been made regarding what must happen with the Bypass traffic.

But the Bali spirit is indomitable. There is always a way. And the way, in this case, was to simply cross the highway divider and head up the road into oncoming traffic. I’ve got to hand it to these Balinese motorists. Nothing will stop them short of debilitating injury or death. And such was the height of my own aggravation by this time that I did in fact join the desperate wrong-way crowd, despite my sober western self, and experienced therefore a period of gleeful schizophrenia wherein I found myself both cursing and congratulating my unlawful actions.

At some point during the ensuing war of opposing traffic, the police awakened, emerged from wherever they had been napping, and began to wave their arms wildly and shout commands at the inventive motorists; with no consequence, however, other than to add a sort of celebration touch to the general clamour.

Come Monday heavy clouds rolled in, rain threatened, and many people, according either to personal experience or word-of-mouth warnings, began to avoid the festival grounds. By mid afternoon the traffic on the Bypass had begun to flow again in its customarily gluey way, and it was clear that the island had survived the trial (although official casualty figures are still pending).

And what about my experience at the festival itself -- aside from the traffic and the heat and the sweat and the honking and the swearing and the sitting and the waiting and the wilting? Well, I really can’t say. I was too exhausted by the time I got there to notice.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Comment on Bogor

A anonymous (of course) comment is received in response to the previous post regarding a Supreme Court order to reopen the Yasmin church in Bogor.  The comment reads "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"  Although the comment is cryptic, I'm guessing that the author meant to express a sort of "who started it" sentiment.  My answer would be that the question is moot.  What we deal with in the present are present realities as they coincide not only with an eternal notion of justice but with application of the rule of law.  Both the order of the State, handed down by the high law, and the true spirit of Islam are violated in the Bogor mayor's defiance.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bogor Mayor Called to Account Over Defiance of Court Order

Encouraging this last week was the news out of Bogor, Java, as reported in the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe and elsewhere, that both private parties and democratic political entities have begun to exert pressure on the mayor of that place to desist in his defiance of a Supreme Court order and reopen the CKI Yasmin church.

Mayor Diani Budiarto has stubbornly disregarded the order since its issuance early this year. Now at long last a formal inquiry has been set in motion by major political parties, including the party that contributed most significantly to Budiarto’s election -- the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) -- wherein the mayor will be called to account for his recalcitrance.

PDI-P Chairman, Untung W. Maryono, accused the mayor of mocking the rule of law by refusing to reopen the church, saying that “In his disobedience of the law, I see indications of defiance on the part of the mayor against keeping religious harmony.”

In a separate statement, Ruhut Sitompul, Lawmaker with the Democratic Party, said that the Bogor Legislative Council would be instructed to join in the effort to uphold the law. “We should work together to eliminate human rights violations,” he said, “especially those against religious freedoms. The mayor must be ousted.”

Start counting, Mr. Mayor.

In the meantime, parishioners at the Yasmin church have continued to hold services on the sidewalk outside their locked-down place of worship, while Muslim extremists have sought to interrupt, menace or expel the Christians, often leading to conflict and necessitating a police presence to keep the two groups separate. It is the latter group (not the rule of law) that has apparently exerted the greatest effect on Mayor Budiarto, convincing him that intolerant demands of the few are of greater importance than the prevailing laws and inclusive religious ideology of the Indonesian Nation.

’I’m just trying to keep the peace,’ the mayor claims, ’to maintain security in a community that doesn’t want the church here anyway.’

Yes? Is the community of Bogor, then, the voice of Indonesia? How about if the tables were turned? What if a mosque were closed, rather than a church? Still merely interested in maintaining security? At all costs? What happened to Pancasila -- Unity in Diversity -- the motto by which the Indonesian nation stands?

There is more here, I think, of the disingenuous than of the defence of the peace.

But it’s nothing new. Similar characters and intolerant factions have kicked against the ideal of justice throughout the ages. Once upon a time in America a man named George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, sought to defy the law of the land and the will of the majority, not to mention the direct order of the President, by barring a black student from registering at the University of Alabama. Wallace said that he felt the people of the State of Alabama expected it of him.

Was that the real reason, then? Or was George Wallace merely offended by the presence of black people on principle, the way some Muslim extremists are offended by the presence of Christians? What threat does this Christian minority pose? Is it to Islam, or the State, or the City; or is it to some weak and empty chamber in the heart of extremist fear and paranoia that can only be filled with blind hatred and violence?

We’ve had enough. This is the phrase that will ever arise in the mouths of the patient, silent majority. We have fought long and hard, through trial and loss, blood and triumph to forge societies that are just and fair, safe and secure, wherein each individual may pursue his inalienable right, as the American Declaration has it, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We are slow to act because we had hoped we had arrived; we are patient because we understand that a certain amount of human ignorance is eternal; but when we are tried to the limit and tired at last of the ogre, the bully and the outlaw, we will stand and reaffirm our hard-won vision of government by tolerance, friendship, fairness and equality.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Night to Remember

Recently I was the unlikely guest of Rob Peetoom at the gala opening of his new Seminyak salon, along with festivities afterward at the Metis restaurant. I say unlikely because there is nothing I can lay claim to that would recommend my presence at such an auspicious event. On the other hand, my wife is an important person -- just ask her -- and it was she who received the invitation, along with the offer to bring a guest. Given that two of her friends backed out at the last minute, she dressed me up as a guest and took me instead.

Upon arrival we found ourselves instantly swimming in a soup of rapidly wilting expatriates highlighted with a peppering of stunningly beautiful Indonesian women. Designer dresses were the theme of the night, all carefully engineered to be much too stifling for this hot and humid Seminyak night. For some reason everyone was being held outside a single gate, which intermittently peeked open to receive two and three of our enormous company at a time, while the rest, either unlucky or unimportant, pushed forward, gasping and sweating, clawing the unfair, dispassionate air.

I remember someone mentioning once that there are 70,000 expatriates on the island of Bali. I know it now for a fact, for they were all on the sidewalk outside Rob Peetoom‘s salon.

The gate opened again -- just a tad, mind you -- and the ravishing young Italian woman standing next to me (partly on me, actually), resplendent in airy white chenille, stiletto heels and carefully conspicuous jewellery, shoved me deftly against the wall with an unusually powerful left arm and thus made her entry to inner court, along with three friends linked together like sausages fried nearly to perfection.

Eventually all 70,000 of us made it inside. There we commenced to matriculate, shoulder to shoulder, pelvis to rear, and to breast up to the bar where free champagne was being served. People were hot, a bit wet and stringy, and so they gulped the first glass and asked for more. While I waited for seconds, a man stepped up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. Then the hand slipped up to my neck. He said nothing, but just smiled, fingers gently kneading my neck. I decided I wasn’t very thirsty after all.

Why do people always think I’m gay? My second wife said it was because I walk like a giraffe. But what is it about a giraffe, or the way that he walks, that’s gay? And if giraffe’s are all so gay, how do they procreate and make more?

Paris Hilton was to be present at the party afterward. Everyone knew it, and the name was on every tongue, whispered in steady repeated cadence ---- Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton. Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Bettlejuice.

Honestly, I don‘t know who Paris Hilton is. I mean, I know the name and the fortune that goes with the name; but who is she otherwise? What has she done? Why is she so famous? Has she ever had her picture on a bubblegum card?

The Rob Peetoom salon is a fine salon. I was able to see it inch by inch, in the finest detail, as we shuffled painstakingly through the premises. At the back of the place we found a patio and some breathing room. People had matriculated back this way in order to light up cigarettes, and my wife and I did the same. Limpid pools shimmering in hues of indigo and magenta breathed contented sighs between polished Dutch colonial pillars in an effortless blend of nature and architecture, gazing onto the rich green tapestry of the abutting rice field. But where was the ashtray? This, rather than Paris Hilton, became the whispered subject of the moment. Ultimately, most people reckoned that that was what the rice field was for.

We headed early to the party at the Metis in order to avoid another frustrating winking gate scenario. And in fact Paris Hilton did show up. How she made her entry -- whether it was through a tunnel, a secret door, or down the chimney -- I do not know.

“Get a picture, get a picture!” my wife urged excitedly.

Raising the camera above several shoulders and heads, I snapped a photo.

“Got it!” I said, handing the camera to my wife.

She stared at the screen, frowning.

“That’s not Paris Hilton.”

“Oh?” Who is it then?”

“I don’t know! It’s nobody.”

It seems I may as well have taken a picture of myself. I tried again, but this time came up with a pair of large breasts. No head, no body; just the breasts.

“Never mind,” my wife decided, waving a hand in dismissal. She had lost interest. She might have enjoyed sitting down for a private chat, but if Paris wasn’t receiving private guests, my wife wasn’t receiving Paris.

Two women I had been more or less noticing all evening now caught my eye again as they floated our way in a cloud of admirers lit lightning-like with camera flashes, making the group as a whole seem like a little self-contained storm front. Both of the women were Indonesian, and apparently quite beautiful. One wore a red dress, the other was in green, and both dresses displayed dark sweat marks in all the wrong places. They looked like movie stars to me. Indonesian soap opera movie stars. I couldn’t help wondering if they had made a few internet movies on the side (having read that that sort of thing was going around).

As a general rule, the closer people approach, the better you can see them; but this was not the case with the two movies stars. Rather, the closer they approached, the hazier they became, a disorienting effect of facial makeup which seemed to have been applied with a putty knife. Shadows and highlights became blotches and smears. Who were they really, I wondered, beneath the meticulous disguise? They could have been Lindsey Lohan and Kim Kardashian for all I knew. Given the heat and general drippiness in the atmosphere, I figured I could find out if I waited around long enough for the makeup to kind of slough down to chin and dress front, but my wife had other plans, and  escorted me to the dance floor.

The evening gently deteriorated to dancing and mingling amidst a unanimous effusion of auxiliary sweat, and at last we all headed out to our far flung homes -- and Paris to the far flung corners of the earth.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Do You Do Here?

“What do you do here?”

This is generally the eighth in line of the questions I am asked during the polite though somewhat unsettling, curiously thorough process of everyday Indonesian interrogation.

Apa kabar (how are you) comes first, as is the case in most languages and cultures. In America this is sufficient, perhaps even excessive. The question itself has taken time for the asking, and thus has been an interruption of schedule. In Indonesia, however, there is much more to come.

How are you, Where do you come from, How long will you stay, Are you married, What does your wife do, How many children do you have, How old are your children?

The first seven inquiries are fairly simply addressed. It is the eighth that I and my interrogators get stuck on. What do you do here? It seems to border on the existential. It’s a philosophical puzzle, a conundrum, like ’What is the meaning of life?’ or ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’

Firstly, one must rightly interpret the question. One must determine exactly what is being asked. Are we talking about a justification for my presence in terms of occupation (gainful employment), or does the question pertain to my existence alone -- why are you here and not elsewhere, or anywhere for that matter?

The most natural conclusion, as well as the one most likely to be accurate, is to presume the first case. The question seeks to determine something specific about my employment, business, financial status, property, possessions and so on. In other words, it is a typically Indonesian question regarding typically Indonesian concerns and seeks a typically predictable answer -- I‘m a doctor, an hotelier, a landowner, a school teacher, an exporter, an architect, a drug dealer -- something by which I may be pinned down and pigeonholed. Only then can the questioner be satisfied, having collected reasonable, albeit abbreviated data regarding my country of origin, marital status, family status and employment status. It wouldn’t bother me in the least if I were actually doing something here. The problem is that I am not. And the trouble, therefore, is with my answer.


To which the usual response is:


“I’m retired.”


Being retired is clearly unacceptable. The word is not in the Indonesian vocabulary. It is no more than a sound, like “Woof” or “Quack.”

“But my wife works,” I say, throwing out a bone for the perplexed interrogator’s relief.

“Ohhh! So you have business together!”

“Well, it depends on her mood.”


“Sometimes she has a headache or needs to wash her hair.”

Humour does not help the situation. I have merely become stupid as well as suspicious.

Now this is what gets me. One spends his entire working life waiting for that day to arrive when he can finally say “I’m done, I’ve finished,” and then happily retire to a life of repose in his country manor, or on the island of Bali, or at least in a low-income housing project in Pittsburgh or LA; and yet the expectation of gainful employment persists, not only in the minds of those who ask after the matter, but in one’s own mind as well, perhaps even more acutely so. Little do we know, while working, how soothing it is to be defined. Little do we anticipate that the occupation we had long dreamed off -- specifically, nothing -- will be a matter of personal discomfiture, even shame. Theoretically, we have earned the privilege of rest; realistically, we shall never do so.

What am I doing here? What is my function? Does lying almost perfectly motionless on a chaise lounge count? How about reading the newspaper at Luhtu’s? How about flirting with the waitress in the bar?

“What did you do today?” my wife will ask, in that particular sort of way that sounds more like an accusation than an inquiry.

Rare is the occasion wherein I can think of a satisfactory answer -- for I know, you see, what is really being asked. And so I might say instead:

“I’m retired.”


My wife is a native speaker of Indonesian. She is fluent in English as well. I offer the two cases as proof that the word ‘retired’ does not exist in the Indonesian vocabulary. It has no meaning for the Indonesian mind.

But wait! I work for this paper, right? I wrote the very words that are being read.

“And what do they pay you for that?” is her barrister-like rejoinder.

The fact is I cannot receive pay in Indonesia because of my status on visa as a retired foreigner. And so the answer to the question is . . . Well, you guessed it.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Blogger Beware

Those who blog -- as well as many who don’t -- will know that the blogger has a feature available to him wherein he may append various “tags” -- non-hierarchical keywords or terms -- to an entry he has written. Once associated with a particular entry, these tags go into the bottomless pit of the Google database where they wait to be nudged by a user of the search engine, at which point they wake up and convey the user back to the blog.

Let us say that you are writing about Hinduism in Bali. Upon finishing your entry you might add tag words such as “Bali,” “Hinduism,” and “religion,” providing each word as a general guide. It’s really a pretty nifty way of facilitating the web surfer/researcher, streamlining and focusing, cutting corners which would otherwise encumber. Tags may even lead you around lengthy introductions such as this one, or at least save you from getting lodged on a sandbar you had not intended to visit in the first place.

In addition, many bloggers utilize a web tracking program. This allows the blogger to see how many “hits” his blog has received, and where these visits came from. (If you thought you were perfectly anonymous, think again).

Looking recently at the data on my web tracker, I discovered that my blog entry on “sex with cows” (which concerned a Balinese man caught in the act of sexual intercourse with a cow) had placed #5 on the record of Google visits for entries so tagged.

I was surprised, to say the least. Who knew that cow sex would be a subject of such keen interest? Moreover, I felt proud. Surely placing #5 put me toward the top of the bottomless pit, and should therefore be a rare achievement and testimony to my gifts as a writer.

However . . . well, clearly a sober man is inclined to wonder, after the initial glow of fame fades away, how many blog entries, worldwide, there can have been on sex with cows. Perhaps five? Which of course would put mine dead last.

Then again, perhaps I had been merely unaware of a lively interest out there in sex with cows. I began to imagine hundreds, maybe thousands of sleepless men, sitting alone in darkened rooms, laptops open, screens ablaze with graphic, unsettling images of unclothed cows in all manner of position and pose.

One visitor from Pakistan hit this entry in my blog thirty-seven times. In a row. I make no personal judgment either of the man or of Pakistan, but merely mention the occurrence.

Another of my blog entries that has done well, as a Google destination anyway, is one entitled “Mean Spirited Women” (and tagged the same). This placed as high at one point as #1 in Google. Honestly, the actual content of this blog entry does not warrant the attention. It was simply something had I dashed off some three years ago when I happened to be angry at my wife. I wrote, therefore, that she was a mean-spirited woman, and philosophized that most women are.

Of course it’s not true. She is in fact a sweetheart, and t’was I who was in the wrong. Okay, honey?

Nonetheless, what shall we conclude from these statistics? How has it happened that so many people have typed in the words “mean spirited women”? Or can there be a fetish at play here as well?

Wanted: Attractive female

Age: Negotiable

Must be mean spirited

In any case, I merely pose the question, and will allow the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Lastly, I’d like to say something about the “comments” I receive. Entries in my blog have often been associated with multiple sclerosis (which is a disease that I have -- or had, at least, until it was flash-baked out of me by the searing, laser-like Balinese sun). Subjects addressed included such topics as brain damage, neural deterioration, profound fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and so on. They have not been wildly popular entries, where the Google database is concerned, but they have attracted an astounding amount of spam. A good deal of this spam has been of a sexual nature, advertising everything from cheap Viagra to hot Russian blondes. What one has to wonder is whether there is something about MS that has aroused the spammer, or has he been somehow inspired to believe that this sort of thing arouses the MS sufferer in particular?

Frankly, I find it discouraging, and an insult to my efforts and good intentions. But what are you going to do? It’s a sick world, folks. If you want to know more on the subject, just start a blog.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Obstinate Is As Obstinate Does

People are obstinate. There you have it. The encapsulation, in three words, of human behaviour. I reckon it ought to be the first sentence in every psychology textbook.

Take Saddam Hussein, for instance; a poster boy for obstinacy if ever there was one. Here we have a man who preferred to let the world believe he had weapons of mass destruction to simply allowing inspectors to enter his country and reveal that he did not. What was the result of this obstinate behaviour? Well, ultimately he was hung, wasn’t he? After being pulled, rat-like, from a hole in the ground, dirty, haggard, pitiful, ruined. Of all possible outcomes, Hussein managed to achieve the very worst.

Ring any bells? Of course it does. Moammar Khadafy, Hussein’s mulish compatriot and contender for the throne, refused to heed voice of his people and was of course just recently pried from a grimy drainage ditch, beaten, shot and killed.

Do the obstinate learn from these examples? Of course not. Otherwise they should cease to be obstinate (and thereby disprove my theory). But in fact there are more candidates waiting eagerly in the wings -- in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran and elsewhere -- granting awareness of recent events not so much as a nod, as if they will somehow do stupidity right this time around. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical, is it? But I guess that’s my point. People are obstinate. We are made that way. Hard-wired, helpless, doomed.

Take the Christians in Bogor, for example. What? The Christians in Bogor? You mean those from the Yasmin church who persist in holding services on the sidewalk outside the building from which they’ve been barred? Those who stubbornly wait for the obstinate mayor of the town to obey an order from the highest court to desist in prohibiting them their service in that place? Yep, those are the ones.

We are inclined to rebel against that which seems unfair, to throw out the chest, to lift the proud fist, to proclaim our cause to be right and holy. We don’t like being pushed around, and by God we’re not going to budge an inch.

But hold on a sec. Did not the Lord himself point out that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head? What’s all this fuss then about one street and one block in Bogor? What, other than obstinate pride? Lets think it through. Where is The Church? On this block alone? In this building alone? Does it reside in a legal document, or is it written in the deed to this particular tract of land?

“Where is your kingdom?” Pilate demanded of Jesus.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” he answered.

Where is it then?

“Where two or three are gathered in my name.”

No mention of a building there, or a temple, or a church, but only of human fellowship.

Do I excuse the Muslim hard-liners and their curious, senseless coveting of this same patch of earth? Not at all. One thing about obstinacy is that it is equally available to every race, religion and creed.

“We want this church building to be gone next week,” Ahmad Iman, head of the hard-liners, has said. “If it still stands, we will bring it down.”

Really? Is it that important? Is the foundational coherence of your beliefs so weak that you must fear and dispel a few Jesus freaks? Or are you merely offended by the presence of this sort of infidel trailer trash in your neighbourhood?

Oh well, that’s okay. There are people in America who feel the same way about black folks. They’re called the Ku Klux Klan. They wear white robes with pointy hoods and shout things like God is great and nigger go home. Sound familiar?

We who are not Muslims do not know the Muslim scripture, nor do the Muslims know the Christian. If they did, they would know that Christianity has from its beginning thrived on persecution. What better way then to make many more than to persecute the few?

Do you want that church to go away? Try ignoring it. At the very least peace may be had, and no one need be harmed.

Ah, but that would be less than obstinate, wouldn’t it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Trip to the Salon

The common American man is not in the habit of going to the salon for a pedicure, or a manicure, or any other kind of a cure. That's just the way it is. There are barber shops for men. You go in, you wait your turn, you talk about sports, you get your hair cut, and then you go on about your business.

There are exceptions, I suppose. The Wall Street broker, for instance. The corporate lawyer. The fashion conscious pimp from the hood. But by and large we just don't do the whole salon thing. It is frowned upon. In fact a man may justly fear the censure of his fellows if the news gets around that he’s hanging out in a foo-foo beauty salon getting his toenails and fingernails pampered and snipped, filed and polished, soaked in lavender elixir, and so on.

Well, things are different here in Bali. Men do get pedicures. They do get manicures. They do get cream baths and the occasional facial.

Nonetheless, given the traditions with which I am familiar, I was reticent when my wife demanded that I get a pedicure. It wasn’t just the macho aspect of the thing. It was shame. Yes, shame. My feet, you see, are not normal. For one thing they are old. And some of the toes are crooked. And some of the nails on the toes are as thick and yellow as weathered patio tiles. I’d turn them in for new ones in a hot minute, but one can only imagine the cost of new feet these days.

It was Sun Tzu who sagely recommended that we choose our battles with care; and as this particular issue seemed important beyond common measure to my wife, I ultimately took Sun’s advice, ceased in my struggles to free my elbow, and let myself be led to a chair.

With many apologies in advance, I removed my shoes and exposed my horrifying feet for all to see. And all did see. And then called in others to see as well.

This is where the talent of the professional manicurist truly rises to the surface. Without gasping, without shrinking, without fainting or being ill, the young woman kneeled before me, caressed the two wooden doorstops that have long masqueraded as my feet, and assured me--and with a straight face too--that they were not so very terrible. They simply needed a little help. They needed a little care.

And so she went to work. To my surprise no heavy machinery was needed. No drills or chisels. Rather, with small instruments precisely fashioned for such tasks, accompanied by a studious nibbling of the lower lip and a working of the tongue around the corners of her mouth, the young woman snipped and scraped her way to an artful restoration of something resembling real human feet. My hermit toes peeked from their yellowed blinds and did, as I believe, smile in gratitude and amazement.

Now it was time for a head massage. That sounded pleasant enough. There’s nothing very obviously wrong with my head. It’s not crooked, chipped, discoloured, nor otherwise a source of particular embarrassment to me. I relaxed therefore into a new chair and awaited the soothing touch of a new practitioner, while my wife did the same with her own head.

Who knew that a massage could be so excruciating? Or that the fingers of a masseuse could be so like crowbars? The girl had digits of iron. They were hard, dense, digging digits. Her thumbs were like shovel blades, deftly separating nerve from muscle, muscle from bone, man from boy. Through every digging pass I fought back tears, fought back groans, fought back the desire to bolt from the chair and run out the door.

And yet, glancing to the left upon the face of my wife, I found there an expression of perfect repose--eyes closed, jaw relaxed, lips turned up in sleepy smile.

How was it possible? I had to this moment thought myself a man and able to bear rigors beyond any woman’s endurance. But oh my God, my head, my head!

“Enak?” the girl asked.

“Oh yes . . . Sooo good,“ I managed to whisper in reply.

I cannot say that I enjoyed the pain, nor that my head felt improved in the end. I say merely that I survived. And that I learned one thing.

The beauty salon is definitely not for sissies. It is for the brave, the strong, for those who endure. And even for Americans too.

The Other Side of Paradise

I was doing a bit of exploring one recent day, following a few of the lesser known ways--thereby knowing less and less where I was---when I happened upon a small bridge spanning a small river. I noted that smoke or mist or steam was rising from beneath the bridge and curling over the railing at the top.

Hmm, what is this, I pondered as I passed on by? Steam from a hot spring such as those we have back home in the Pacific Northwest? Or perhaps the brush on the riverbank has caught fire. That could be bad. Or maybe it’s just a campfire. Maybe people are fishing down there and then cooking their catch.

Well, I turned my bike around after about a city block’s worth of indecision and went back to see what sort of marvel this might be. Bali is a marvellous island, right? Full of beauty, both natural and of man’s own making. You never know what exotic new sight you’re going to stumble upon.

Parking on a gravel siding near the entry to the bridge, I soon found a narrow path which led through brambles to the verge of a bluff above the river. Looking down from there into the shallow river gorge I found not a hot spring, nor a local fisherman’s fire, but a roughly pyramidal mountain of garbage rising from the middle of the stream, and afire. The mound coughed moiling clouds of smoke, from milk cartons, wooden crates, cardboard boxes, palm fronds, beer bottles, diapers, window frames, wheelbarrows, plastic bags, newspapers, bike fenders, grass, dirt, tree branches, stone--you name it. Garbage is limitless. It goes by all names. It has a beginning, and yet no end.

Though interesting in itself, this was distinctly less than I had hoped to see. Or more, rather. And the sight struck me instantly as perfectly emblematic, a poster board picture of the real Bali, the place we live, as opposed to the pristine paradise of the travel brochure and slick magazine; for that latter has long since retreated, to the guarded compound, to the exclusive beach front, to the high hill, cliff, and jungle canopy where it is tended by resident monkeys and birds.

This is the problem, you see--this mountain of garbage in the middle of a stream, burning, smoking, stinking, polluting, and sending little boats of non-biodegradable material on a steady journey to the unhappy sea.

This is the other side of paradise.

How did we get here? That’s the first question. What has inspired people not only to the indiscriminate discharge of trash, but to discarding the same in mountains, and the mountains to the middle of rivers and streams? Is the island without governance, without services, without laws? Is there some strange insensitivity at work in its people that has caused them to despise the very paradise they were born to? Or is it laziness merely, a lackadaisical conviction, or a dream anyway, that the trash will at any moment take care of itself? Or that maybe dogs will carry it away?

 Back where I come from we used to have a slogan. It was posted on highways, in parks and in State buildings. Keep Oregon Green. The phrase was encouraging in itself, for the clear implication was that Oregon was clean already, and that we needed only to keep it that way.

But what are we to do about Bali? Sink the island and start again?

I came here to the tropics to see something new. I had certain visions of what that would be. Oceans, jungles, mango trees, mountains; monkeys and monitors; pageants and parades. But the garbage on the beaches, on the roads, in the rivers, and the drooling of refuse to the shores of the sea . . . Well that turned out to be the surprise of my life. I don’t know what more I can say.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cow Sex


I had other things to write about, really -- in fact a train of things, lined up like boxcars, each packed with its own particular load of goods -- but then along comes this story about sex with cows, as reported in the most recent edition of The Bali Times, and I can’t get the thing out of my mind. Just when the thieving pig, otherwise known as Babi Ngepet, described in the same paper perhaps a year ago, was beginning to lose his novelty, and thus his boorish grip on my daily thoughts, this preposterous bovine tale appears, and my mind lumbers off on the back of the creature, helpless to resume its own way.

But let’s recap first and touch on the salient facts of the matter.

“The incident came to light,” our article tells us, “on September 22nd, when the daughter of the owner of the cow allegedly caught a married local man having sex with the animal in a field.” This, therefore, was not only perversion, but adultery, and would need to be addressed by a ceremony of purification. I’m not sure if both sins were to be covered in the ceremony, or just the one specific to the cow.

A meeting of local traditional leaders and religious figures was immediately called to discuss the matter.

Attending also was a psychiatrist -- a modern touch for an age-old calamity. What to do?

You see, incidents such as this are not unheard of in Bali. In fact, this sort of human and cow hanky-panky has been a recurring problem on the island. In a similar case last year a young man was forced to marry a cow after having sex with it. Pertaining to the case at hand, however, the guilty man, as assessed by the psychiatrist, was already depressed, and so it was felt that marriage would only make things worse.

Now, there is an extenuating factor at play in this otherwise unacceptable romance of beast and man which should be mentioned, lest we conclude the man to be totally bereft of common decency (although we cannot speak for the cow). To whit, the cow had in all cases, by some magic, managed to turn into a beautiful girl. This is strange not only in itself, but also for the fact that such transformations seem more often to work the other way around. In any case, wonderful in its own way is the fact that in Bali, a land of magic and superstition, one can make a claim such as this and be taken seriously.

There was music the man is rumoured to have said, and beauty, and flowers, and bells, and a peaceful field of green-green grass, where a curvaceous maiden, a new blooming bud, beckoned him to come thence and enter with her to the heart of bliss.

The psychiatrist in the case is noted to have said that the man might have mental problems.

And yet we have heard of the Sirens, have we not? And of mermaids and of witchery and of the beautiful and monstrous Medusa -- those ancient, inhuman seductresses who lured sailors to shipwreck and captivity with enchanting voice and song.

“Well, I think I’m goin’ out of my head.
Yes I think I’m goin’ out of my head,
Over you . . .
Moo, moo, mooo-moooo.”

Well, it’s just not quite the same thing, is it?

How does this happen, one certainly wonders -- and not only in the moral sense, but in the anatomical as well. For the largest of men is still rather small as compared to the enormity in the least of cows Did the cow seem a human girl throughout the entire episode, or did the man at some point become sober and realize his mistake? And are men alone afflicted in this perversion, or are women liable also, and saved merely by impracticability?

So many questions, so few answers -- and that’s the hell of the thing. It besieges the mind, tormenting through a repellent dissonance of imagery and inquiry. It’s a puzzle that resists its own picture. We struggle to know, yet can hardly guess; and so we are lost in the redundant folds of the enigma -- until the next interesting animal comes along, anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Words from the Less Than Wise

Concurrent with the worldwide outpouring of sober remembrance and renewed sympathy on the recent ten year anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks on America came also some rather zany viewpoints from various corners of the globe.

From Malaysia, for instance, comes the notion that the collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center could not possibly have been caused by the explosive collision of two enormous, fuel-filled jetliners. No. There must have been something else, something more reliably destructive behind the actual event.

Now whether this Malaysian source has some intimate experience with the effect caused by fuel-filled jetliners colliding with tall buildings, I do not know. He did not mention any such knowledge, but I suppose this could have been a personal oversight, or perhaps a copy-reading or printing error. Suffice it to say that the man has been convinced, ever since that fateful day (or so he says), that two enormous jetliners filled almost to the top with jet fuel could not have quite the destructive effect that we saw on 9/11.

There must have been something else.

His theory? Why, that the building had been previously set up for demolition, just as you see when old buildings are demolished to make way for new ones. Of course, for this to happen certain appropriate authorities had to have been aware beforehand so that the thing would go off well, and moreover would appear to be the result of two jetliners flying into the buildings. Who were these authorities? Well, shadowy people for sure, dishonest, manipulative, quite necessarily evil people who wanted to manufacture a reason for the United States to attack Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Obviously this could not possibly have been accomplished without a preceding terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. And on the Pentagon. And on farmland in Pennsylvania.

Golly, even former President George W. Bush could have been involved. Very likely was. And our Malaysian source says as much.

For my own part, I must admit to being unclear on a few points of this theory. Why, for instance, was it deemed necessary (by the President and his co-conspirators) for the towers to be all the way flat? Would not the death and destruction caused by the planes have been sufficient? And what about the multiple truck-sized bundles of explosives and miles of fusing and wiring that attend demotions such as these? How were these kept from the view of janitors, engineers, electricians, policemen, firemen, and pedestrians, not to mention the thousands of employees in the World Trade Center?

Oh, and if it was really President Bush who was behind this terrorist attack, why did Osama bin Laden take credit for the thing?

I just don’t get it.

Frankly, I suspect that a more revealing investigation, and one that might arrive at more useful conclusions, would be an inquiry into the psychology of the fanciful notions we so often see applied to real life events. What is behind it? Is it misplaced guilt? Is it selective blindness? Is it an aversion, either willful or pathologic, to the simple truth?

Moving on.

It has been suggested from other quarters that God Himself was behind the destruction on 9/11 and meant it as a punishment for the imperialist, morally bankrupt American nation. That’ll show ‘em. But again, I would have to wonder why God would choose those particular 3000 for the death sentence. Was there something about that collection of 3000 individuals that was particularly indicative of American imperialism and moral bankruptcy? The method seems kind of random and unfair--two qualities that I find hard to ascribe to God.

Let us finish then with a piece of humour from Al-Qaeda itself. In a message on September 11th, Al-Qaeda’s new leader sought to claim credit for the recent events of the Arab Spring. This was accomplished by “striking the head of the world criminal,” he said, forcing America to press Arab countries to rise up against tyranny and godlessness.

This of course is so convoluted, so obtuse, and so insincere that’s its not only meaningless, it’s laughable.

The Arab Spring has been the work of young peaceful protestors seeking democratic freedoms. In this they have risen, and continue to rise; whereas Al-Qaeda is all but flat on the ground.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some Curious Observations About Some Curious Creatures

Dogs in Bali are different from other dogs. You may say that the statement is obtuse. You may even say that the difference is merely due to the fact that Bali dogs are dirty, smelly, flea-bitten, scrawny, generally unkempt and occasionally rabid. Of course, that is all true, and I do concede the point. Nevertheless, it is not the dirty, smelly, rabidness of these dogs that is my intended focus here. 

By the same token, I will not address the habits of careful grooming, clean hygiene and sophisticated lifestyle that are the purview of the American of the animal. It may be that American dogs in the near course of evolution will be smoking pipes and reading the morning newspaper instead of bringing it in from the doorstep. But I will leave such matters to another writer.

What interests me about these Bali dogs, and what truly bears comparison with the American, is the matter of community.

Let us say something first, however, about the natural history of the Bali dog.

Approximately 800,000 primary feral dogs live on the island of Bali. As far as can be discerned by those who ought to know, the Bali dog travelled from Africa through Indonesia and thence to Australia some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and is related most closely to the Chou and the Dingo. In addition it is known that this peculiar community of dogs became isolated some 10,000 years ago, when sea levels drastically rose and continents drifted apart. So it happened that the Bali dogs found themselves in Bali to stay, like it or not.

Now whether these dogs, isolated as such and thus stuck with each other, have grown throughout their generations an unusually close sense of community, or whether there was from the beginning some poverty of affection for them in the coexisting community of humankind, I know not. What can be readily seen in any case, at this late stage of evolutionary progress, is a persisting segregation of the breeds--human and canine, that is.

In America, for better or worse, the dog is a family member, a coddled child--walked by leash, fed by hand, caged or tied according to law--each member kept apart from “those other dogs,” except of course for the purpose of breeding, wherein the male and female of the species are allowed to interact for . . . well, for as long as it takes.

In Bali, the dog is a dog, has always been a dog, and will ever remain a dog. They are not pampered and spoiled by an owner, and in fact they often have no owner in particular, but belong more often to an area, members of a satellite community consisting of other tertiary communities such as cats, rats, birds, lizards, cockroaches, and so on.

What these dogs have then is each other. They are a race, a people, a social group, a religion, living separately and yet in harmony with all other creatures. In short, you have your Hindu, your Muslim, your Buddhist, your Christian, your Republican, your Democrat, your apple, your orange, and your Bali dog.

Because of this continued autonomy of community, what is most keenly noted is a vitality in interaction, which the civilized dog no longer possesses. In short, the dogs recognize their fellows and care for one another. They seldom go out alone, but prefer to take a friend along (or three, or four). They are aware of one another, and place a certain value on one another, whereas the American dog will see his erstwhile fellows as aliens and foes. Just watch the Bali dog at play! Like children, they know their kind and cavort the day long at their timeless amusements.

Is the American dog, in his family mansion, not poor by comparison? What game has he to play, at this far end of domestication, other than to stand behind his fence and bark?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11

It seemed a day like any other day. I woke as always to the buzzing of the bedside alarm, hit the snooze button, woke again five minutes later, rolled out of bed, made my way sleepy-eyed down the hallway, tripped over the dog in the usual way, let the dog out to the patio, went to the kitchen, put a pot of water on the stove to boil for coffee.

It was a Tuesday.

I sat down in the living room to wait for the water, picked up the remote, turned on the TV.

And learned that the world had changed.

The date was September 11, 2001, and the images that came to the TV screen were from another universe, another dimension. They were science fiction, scenes from a nightmare, lurid, hysterical, inexplicable.

It seemed that a jetliner had somehow crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. But how was this possible? The newscasters seemed, for once, as much in the dark as their morning viewers. Billowing clouds of black smoke were rising from the fractured tower. Sirens were wailing, red lights flashing, policemen and firemen rushing this way and that like frantic insects suddenly kicked from a nest, unsure of which way to run. How many had already perished in the flaming tower? And what of the passengers on the plane?

But then, of course, it got worse.

A second plane appeared impossibly from the blue, altogether out of place, grotesque. The second plane impacted the second tower. The tongue of hell slashed the veneer of heaven and the open mouth of evil belched fire and smoke and choking soot, sending flaming shards to the earth--of metal, of glass, of flesh and blood.


Perhaps 90 percent of the people who watched these events on their television screens, or witnessed their unfolding in person, would later describe their initial reaction of one of disbelief. It had happened right before our eyes, and yet it could not have happened. We had missed something, something was wrong, and if we would but hold our breaths for a half minute longer, it would all come clear.

And it did.

A third jetliner ploughed into the Pentagon in Virginia. A bit later a fourth would plummet to the earth in Pennsylvania.

These were not terrible accidents. This was premeditated murder. And war.

I remember going back to the bedroom to wake my wife. Something had to be done, and surely she would have some idea of what. As yet I had only sat and watched. What now? What now? A sadness was upon me, black as smoke, heavy as stone. I was falling from high in a tower. All of us were falling at once.

Every generation has at least one defining moment. In 1941 it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In 1963 it was the killing by assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ours happened on a Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

One will hear people say that innocence, as a defining characteristic of society, died long ago. But I do not believe that is true. Rather, innocence throughout this sad mortal life dies over and over again, at every age and in every people. It dies new on each occasion. What cannot be comes about nonetheless, and our fear is suddenly upon us--because someone somewhere, once again, has mistaken individual human beings for cardboard tokens, pieces in a game, political ideas, and has from the blindness of an alien and bankrupt soul plunged the real world into misery. Again, again, and once again.

If innocence dies always and forever, simplicity is the breath that brings life again. “All we want is to be left alone,” Jefferson Davis said. It is simple, it is naïve, and it will never happen. And yet it is the eternal anthem of the common man.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Masquerade of Madness in the Land of Amity

By and large, my impression of the Indonesian people in general, and of the Balinese people in particular, as imparted after two years of residence here, is of a people friendly almost to a fault--although only a Westerner, jaded and cranky as we are, could find fault in such a happy circumstance, seeming as it does not altogether prudent or quite adult.

But here are a people--though again in my somewhat limited, short-term experience--ever willing toward kindness and tolerance, intensely polite, simply agreeable. Here is a people who love to smile, even in the face of less than perfect circumstances--the near “accident” on the Bypass, for instance, when one is passed on the right while himself actually, and legally, and cautiously trying to turn right. This of course would be in the West, at the very least, sufficient cause for a lashing of carefully chosen curses.

It happens, and by old habit, that the words are already on the uncivil tongue, rising to that member volcanically with the heat of instant anger. It’s a knee-jerk response, and it’s easy. Strangely, it seems almost natural.

But what is this? The offender has flashed a toothy smile! His eyes are actually sparkling!

“Sorry, sorry,” he calls out cheerfully as he proceeds on his way.

What can you do? Kindness, like music, soothes the savage beast.

It may be, and sadly so, that we in the West have lost something of the communal spirit, and that simple tolerance, for all the pseudo-enlightened lip service given to lofty notions of political correctness, has long since slipped our archetypal grip.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that common people the world over--me and you and them as well--are inclined on the most basic level to be friendly and kind. It is when you transition from the general to the particular that you begin to get into trouble--when you enter the land of the special cause, the religious extremist, the political slogan, the shrill alarm. Here is where you find the haters. These are the folks who get into print, who hold the megaphones, who carry the signs. Here is the person, as Mark Twain said, who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

And yet we listen. Or some of us do. And why? Is it only because of the volume? Is it because hatefulness in its own way, at some sad and degraded level of the human psyche, is simpler yet than simplicity itself?

We read in the Jakarta Post, for instance, that the vast nation of America is merely a puppet of the miniscule state of Israel. Is this not manifestly incredible? We read in another paper that Osama bin Laden “supposedly instigated and funded” terrorism. Supposedly? Really? We read of a 17 year old girl in Denpasar who has been found “partly responsible” for her rape at the hands of a tenant in the house because she forgot to lock her bedroom door. From Aceh comes the news that lesbians will henceforth be beheaded if caught in their transgression. “We are actually allowed by our religion to kill them,” said a district police chief. Good God.

Does this not bring for the better part of us an acute feeling of disbelief and disorientation--rather as if one had fallen off a skyscraper and landed on his head?

What? Where am I? What happened?

When something sounds wrong, sounds foolish, sounds unbelievable, it’s because it is.

These are the things that are truly aberrant--this masquerade of madness disguised as reason. This is where the unfeigned smile fails and compassion falls to the totems of fanatic prejudice and ignorance. In truth, one only needs meet a man to befriend a man. It is, as I said and still believe, the most natural thing in the world. And it is, despite those few shrill voices, the natural treasure of Indonesia.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Searching for Paradise

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes (to which Mark Twain added “and children”). I don’t know about contempt. But certainly it brings a dulling of the edge, both of ones own perceptions and attitudes, and of the “character” of the place one finds oneself in--yes, that same place that had at first seemed endlessly exotic and new. In short, the longer one is in paradise, the more it begins to seem like Dayton, Ohio. Nothing against you Daytonians or your community intended. I could just as easily have said Phoenix, Arizona or Boise, Idaho, or indeed Portland, Oregon, my own home town. Dayton just sounded funnier--an evocation of that Midwest sort of sleepy-sameness that infects the familiar in general--where, as Paul Simon songfully said:

“Everyday is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines,

And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories,

And every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be

Homeward bound . . . .”

I remember a time when my younger daughter was just graduating from high school, and was sick to death of “boring ass” Portland, Oregon. There was a big, wonderful world to be discovered outside our dreary city limits--sights and sounds and people and places, Emerald Cities which beckoned with promise.

Philosophically, I counselled that essentially “All the world is a stage,” and “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” I told her that every day is an endless dream of cigarettes and magazines. And so on.

What a fun dad, right?

Well, she decided forthwith on Seattle, Washington--that soggy yet luminous jewel of the West. And then on Atlanta, Georgia. Then on Washington DC. Then on Los Angeles, California. Then on New York City.

She lives now in boring-ass San Francisco, where the golden sun will shine on her (on those rare occasions when it breaks through the fog). She is older now, she is married, and will likely soon produce a brood of children.

Ah brave new world.

And so I tempt her in my old age with Bali--with the idea that paradise really did, and still does exist--knowing full well that this in the end is as much a lie as Los Angeles (the city of angels) or Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love). Why? Because she herself is paradise. She, my children, my wife, my friends. And so I use her old dreams for trickery. Because I am selfish. Because I want to see her again, to touch her, to hear her voice. E-mail and text messages just don’t cut it.

I admit it. I revel is glowing portrayals of what appears to be my happy circumstance--writing home, posting pictures on Facebook--the swaying palms, the silver surf, royal feasts, costume festivals, girls in bikinis, sexy dancers! The responses I receive fortify my glad delusions. “So beautiful! So exciting! You’re really living the life!”

I can’t bear for them to learn that it’s just Dayton, after all.

The fact is, paradise comes in small doses--which are yet large for their momentary savour. Moreover, it is sprinkled liberally throughout the earth--from Bali to Singapore, Congo to Paris. And Dayton, Ohio as well.

This is paradise: A Friday afternoon. They are launching kites at Padang Galak. They come in trucks. They spill out on the sand, setting it alight with their kites, their clothing, their laughter. And down by the sea some young men make a sculpture, their amazing artfulness producing a shapely black woman, every inch of her winking back at the sun, round buttocks raised in lush love-making to an invisible male just beneath the carpet of the endless sand. Three girls pass by, and look back as they pass, and say Hi!, and giggle, and say Hi again.

There is it, just going by. Paradise after all. Catch it if you can.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The News in the News

In the old Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau classic, The Odd Couple, there is a scene where Felix Unger (played to perfection by Lemmon), newly separated from his wife and uncomfortable in his new role as a bachelor, is left in the living room by his buddy, Oscar (Matthau), to entertain two women, the Pigeon sisters--their “dates” for evening--while Oscar departs to mix drinks in the kitchen.
After enduring a painful period of silence, one of the Pigeon sisters tries to break the ice by posing a question to the fidgety, slightly sweaty-browed Felix.

“What do you do for a living?” she asks, uncrossing her legs, sitting forward in a properly anticipant attitude.

“I write the news,” Felix answers.

“Ooooo,” the Pigeon sister returns, appropriately impressed. “How interesting! Where do you get your ideas?”

“My ideas?” Felix begins, obviously nonplussed. “I get my ideas . . . Well, from the news.”

Silly, isn’t it? But I understand what the Pigeon sister meant, just as I understand Felix Unger’s unavoidable reply.

This then is the news in the news. It’s right before your eyes, by the day, by the week, and it tells its own story. One hardly needs lift a finger. It’s just there.

Take the story of the disappearing pig, for instance, as reported in a past issue of the Bali Times (as well as elsewhere). Babi Ngepet is the pig’s name and as is well known throughout the islands he comes to steal your money when you are asleep, out of the house, or otherwise unaware. The pig has been spied and pursued on occasion, but always disappears before he can be apprehended--not into a field or a forest, but into thin air. The delightful thing about this story is that it is reported as news, right alongside the rest of the news--foreign affairs, economic forecasts, disappearing pigs. I infer from this that the aforementioned pig is a fact, and I remain, therefore, watchful.

Does it seem unworldly, too strange to be true?

Well then how about the story of “The Obedient Wives Club,” a Muslim organization which advocates its members become like “first class prostitutes” in the marital bed in order to discourage their husbands from cheating? Maybe one has to be a westerner to appreciate the fullness of the hilarity here. Talk about a cultural divide. Can you imagine the existence of such a club in America, or in England? Get out of town! It might strike a man as funny, but for the western woman it is heresy most foul!

Hypocrisy seems big in the islands; so big, in fact, that we haven’t space here to do more than scratch the surface.

Consider, for instance, the story of the “Islamic Scholars” and their reaction to worldwide criticism of the light sentences (a couple months in most cases, minus time already served) handed down to Islamic extremists who killed members of the “heretical” Ahmadiyah sect in recent religious violence. What was the answer given by the Council of Ulema? Why, a counter-criticism of course (if they weren’t inclined to face the facts--and the videotape--in the first place, why would they be so inclined in the aftermath?).

“Western countries must respect another country’s judiciary system,” the Council said, and then went on to cite the case of Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivic, as if he had provided some kind of legal or moral groundwork. The Council noted that Breivic will face a maximum sentence of 21 years, while in Indonesia a terror suspect would be facing a death sentence.

Ah, shame on us. We had obviously mistaken a time period of 21 years as something essentially different than a period of two months.

Being a body of fair-minded men, the Council concluded with the following:

“It’s okay if they (the western countries) want to have a say, as long as they are not applying any pressure.”

And that’s the news in the news folks. Goodnight.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chaos on Wheels

I'm on a bit of a roll these days about two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, and the half-witted drivers who operate many of these on the roads of Bali. Now don't get me wrong. One can find half-witted drivers anywhere and everywhere in the world. The difference is that they will often be found (and stopped, and corrected, or even arrested) elsewhere in the world, whereas on the island of Bali they are for all appearances free to go their merry and all-too-often deadly way without interference from the police, who are much too busy collecting roadside fines from bule motorists whom (they hope) do not have a proper local license or a vehicle registration or are otherwise lacking in some less than pertinent way. Pertinent to what? Well, pertinent to the actual ability to safely operate a motor vehicle within the parameters of good reason.

Where enforcement of the law does not exist, neither will adherence to the law. This is also the same in every country, state and province over the whole of the wide world, for the mass of men do not obey laws by choice or through some innate sense of moral or communal responsibility, but through fear only along with the experiential effect of negative reinforcement--i.e. the application of a sufficiently unpleasant penalty in the form of the traffic ticket, the court summons, the license suspension or the impounded vehicle. Take away the penalty, take away the threat of consequence, and every man becomes a loose cannon, and therefore a reckless driver.

People’s thoughts and actions are bent toward evil from childhood.

There you have it, from the big book itself. I didn’t say it, God did.

So what are the choices of men in the absence of meaningful application of law?

I will offer a few examples by way of illustration.

The two-lane road becomes a four-lane road, the four-lane road an eight-lane road--despite the visible presence of those funny white lines on the tarmac. Vehicles travelling within the confines of the white lines are not longer in the right, they are merely in the way. And so you go between them, elbowing through like the jammer on a roller derby team. Maybe you clip a couple of side mirrors as you squirt on through, but oh well. Catch me if you can, right?

The driver of the car now betrays his secret dream--that his car has somehow become a motorbike. Darting in and out, from far right lane to curbing strip and beyond, at speeds generally unavailable to the smaller two-wheeled impediment, the driver of the car employs the ever popular nyelip-nyelip tactics of his erstwhile nemesis. Ah freedom! Which in due time very likely ends in serious injury or death to the motorbike driver and whatever passengers, men, women or children, he might be conveying.

Walking on Legian street the other night, my friend and I were suddenly confronted by a motorbike--not because we were walking in the street, but because he was driving straight toward us (and almost through us) on the sidewalk. My friend informed him, with a yet unlearned English sense of propriety, that streets are for bikes and sidewalks for pedestrians.

“Well this is my shop,” the man objected, pointing to the warung just beyond our legally and reasonably positioned feet.

We just happened, you see, to be blocking his way, and the pertinent point has nothing to do with walkways or streets, but with the fact that a motorbike is bigger and more powerful than a person, and so you’d better get out of the way.

Why not? Where law is absent, might is right. It’s the survival of the fittest (or the fastest and fleetest).

Overcrowding on the roadways is a problem. Traffic congestion is a problem. The uneducated driver is a problem. The hotdog youth is a problem. But the root of the evil is man himself, unbridled by the civil responsibility that only law, and the officer of the law, can enforce.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Bad Side of Bali Sports

On Saturday, July 23rd, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I had the not so rare privilege of becoming a Bali highway and byway statistic. I reckon it’s about time, after having lived on the island more than a year and a half now without collecting any distinguishing ordeals or injuries. While others I know have managed to gather various honours of long-time residence--the rabid dog bite, the petty theft, the wily scam--I myself had so far remained nothing more than an anonymous bystander, warming the bench, so to speak, for those more heroic players on the actual field of experience.

But no more.

For at 2 o’clock on that fateful Saturday I joined the ranks of the more fortunate when I found myself suddenly airborne, catapulted over the handlebars of my motorbike by the force of impact caused when another bike rammed full speed into mine from behind.

It’s not an experience one can enjoy or savour at the time, for it happens too fast. It’s rather like when your feet fly out from under you on a wet surface (a particularly popular feature of the common Balinese terrace). The next thing you know you’re on your back, probably groaning, wondering how you got there. It is only afterward that the experience can be appreciated, filled out and fleshed in, reconstructed in detail.

How did I do that, you wonder? I had not realized that I was so agile. How is it that a man who has enough trouble just standing to his feet from his bedside in the morning manages in this miraculous moment of accidental vehicular interaction to actually fly through the air, defy the law of gravity, do a back flip in the sky and alight again upon the unkind pavement (no net, folks!), skidding to a halt on his elbows, back, and rear end, while his bike--that mode of conveyance to which he had a split second earlier been master--screeches to a halt in a shower of sparks like a derailed locomotive, just short of amputating ankle and knee?

“What did you do?” the young girl who had rammed me said, launching into the familiar attempt to cloud the waters (for she has no money, you see; no insurance, no helmet, probably no driver’s license either).

Perhaps 53 Indonesians emerge from nowhere to minister to the now weeping girl, while bule tourists turn and walk the other way, or slip into something more comfortable, like a nearby shop.

It has become a bit of a Bali sport, hasn’t it? Wind surfing. Jet skiing. Handlebar vaulting.

But I do not intend in any of the above to make sport of the serious problems that exist on the streets and thoroughfares of Bali. One has either to laugh, cry, or do both.

“Roads of Death” was the term used in a recent edition of The Bali Times, which reported a mind-boggling total of 758 deaths during the months of March, April and May 2011--eight fatal accidents a day. It is a matter of overcrowding, we are told, a matter of increasing tourism and therefore increasing vehicular congestion, stagnant to nonexistent plans to ameliorate the situation, a toxic mix of ignorance and carelessness on the part of many motorists where the rules of safe driving, or indeed the value of human life are concerned, along with the crowning shame of disinterest and inaction that typifies the non-responsive attitude of the local police force, whose officers seem clearly more interested in lining their pockets with the proceeds of easy roadside bribes than in bothering those who daily circumvent not only the law but the most basic precepts of common sense.

In my case, I escaped with a few scrapes and bruises. I picked myself up, retrieved my battered yet functional bike, and was on about my business of the day. Not all have been so lucky. In fact most recently seven hundred fifty-eight souls have not.

Friday, July 22, 2011



“…and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.
--Friedrich Neitzsche

Three times in a handful of mornings I have been visited by a dragonfly at my table in the yard. It is a black dragonfly, of medium size as dragonflies go, and seems, just as I am, a creature of habit, for he comes to visit just as soon as I sit down and take my first sip of coffee and light my first cigarette of the day.

Do I appear to imply in the above that this is the same dragonfly on each occasion? Well, I intend to imply no such thing. Rather, I state the matter as a fact. He is the same. He is black, as I have stated, he is of medium size, and he comes as if by appointment, or perhaps as somehow appointed.

Moreover, he possesses a certain character that cannot escape notice, nor allow him to be judged as an anonymous sort of creature. He sits always, for instance, at the top of the chair opposite mine. On the top right, in fact, facing me. Not on the side, not on the seat, not in the middle or on the left. He sits on the top right, as if returning to a personal notch in space and time. Nor does he sit only (and herein lies further proof of his authenticity). Rather, he sits facing me for some minutes, then rises to hover perhaps a foot above the chair top, then returns to his seat (same notch, same groove) to examine me anon with the same carefulness, ever so focused and yet so perfectly serene.

He is devoted, this fellow, a reliable bug. He inspires me, and conveys in his simple presence something of magic, a hypnotic effect, so that my own mind falls back in repose on the stillness of fragile wings, resting, rising, moving gracefully in space and by a will not my own, as if attentive to a conductor’s baton or a wizard’s wand. I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags . . . .

How long like this are we silent together? I know not the duration, but seem lost (and yet found) in a shapeless parcel of time, a lotus tree moment. I think at once that the dragonfly is my brother, dead these 27 years and 4 months, returning now not in the splendour one might expect, but as this homely creature all dressed in black. But this, you see, is just how he was, and what he would do. Much of beauty is no more than pretence. Earth laughs in flowers, Emerson says; but I say that most of the world only comes around in full force when the rest of it goes away for a time.

People are continually given over to the notion that in order to seek something, they must do something. They must move their arms, move their legs, struggle through strenuous courses, as if revelation were a cliff to climb or peace of mind a set of rapids to cross. We go on treks--the river trek, the jungle trek, the mountain trek--and come away with the reward of a passing flush of hormones, sticky with an effusion of sweat.

And all the while this black dragonfly waits, as placid as the Sphinx, in-filling the whole world through the medium of silence from his humble throne in my yard, and echoes for the edification of he who will simply stop and see, the words that once rested on another mortal’s tongue--

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Few Tips for the Newcomer

Recently an Englishman arrived in my neighbourhood in Biaung. He moved into a house just a couple doors away from my good friend Vick’s house. Vick is also an Englishman, and so there are two of them now. This makes for far too many Englishman in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.

But in any case, this Englishman’s first questions, naturally enough, centred on matters of general etiquette and law here in Bali. What exactly, he wanted to know, was the speed limit on the roadways? Curiously (in his mind anyway), he had observed no posted signs.

“Speed limit, you say?” Vick answered. “Well . . . how fast does your car go? It really depends on that, and on how many cars are in your way.”

“Ah, I see. Well, what about drinking? I had a couple beers the other night, and I just wondered--how many beers do you reckon one could get away with?”

“How many beers can you drink?” was Vick’s reply.

The man, you see, was still swimming on the falling crest of the strange warp between West and East, and just about to hit the sand with a resounding thump. One may know well enough that he is not in Kansas anymore, but just exactly where in the world has he landed? That is the question.

And so I thought I’d do my part by offering a few tips to help orient the newcomer

The white lines, for instance, which in the West serve to divide traffic lanes or designate pedestrian crosswalks mean nothing in Bali. For all practical purposes, it was a waste of white paint, which might otherwise have been used for graffiti, and more meaningfully so at that.

“You want woman?” is not an offer of a housemaid. Similarly, “You want very young woman, maybe 17?” is also not an offer of a housemaid.

It will take approximately 3 weeks and 7 phone calls to get your Indovision hooked up and working. An Indovision crew (two guys on a motorbike) will come to your house within two weeks, but on this initial visit they will bring no tools or cables or dishes. They have either forgotten these common tools of the trade, or it is ‘simply not done.’

You will find that every other day is a Hindu ceremony of some sort, and that the days in between are Muslim holidays. These are of varying size and commotion and you will need to anticipate unusually snarled traffic, or even becoming, unintentionally yet inextricably, a part of the procession.

Expect to be stopped by the police on a regular basis. It’s nothing you did. It’s simply your skin colour. Don’t take it personally. Ignore the whistle and the pointing finger. Everyone else does, and so it will make you seem more of a “local.” If you go out of your way to pull over to the side of the road, you have merely shown yourself to be as callow as they were hoping you would be. Once stopped, in any case, don’t bother asking what you did wrong. It doesn’t matter. Just cut to the chase and give the man Rp.50.000.

When the woman on the beach says “Come look my shop, just looking-looking, very cheap,” she does not really want you to just look at the shop, and the things in the shop are not really very cheap at all.

If you paid Rp.200.000 for your ubiquitous Bintang tank top, you paid too much. If you paid 100.000, or 70.000, or even 50.000, this was also too much. But in some sense this is okay, for you have made your contribution to that which keeps the island of Bali in business--to whit, the Bintang tank-top, along with the Bintang itself at its own exorbitant price.

Lastly I will mention the honking of horns. In the western world the horn is a shout, an explicative. Here the horn says “Hi! I’m Ketut, and I’m coming through on your left. Hati-hati, ya!”