Friday, April 29, 2011

What I Dislike About America

Last week I wrote an article for this column entitled “What I dislike about Indonesia.” In the article, I listed some particular failings of the country, some being amenable to change (like corruption), and some (like the shortness of people) being quite unpremeditated, and therefore certainly no fault of the country itself.

Lest I be found prejudicial, or accused of harbouring some favouritism toward any Country in particular, I will now offer a few words about America, the Country of my birth. I am impartial, you see, merely a reporter, so it’s the facts and only the facts.

And the fact is--a sad one, I think--I have lived in only two countries during my lifetime, which extends at this point to 57 years (another sad fact, that).

Oh, and Canada. I forgot about Canada. It’s easy enough to do.

There are 195 countries in the world. That leaves 192 yet to be explored. And so I am hopeful. And then after that there may be the possibility of visiting Mars--given the proper advances on the part of science, along with an incredibly long lifespan on mine.

So what do I dislike about America?

OMG, don’t even get me started!

I’m going to pass over the small points here--the high cost of living, the rampant incidence of violent crime, the inner-city gang wars, the soaring national deficit (now in the trillions), the collapse of the housing market, the more than 250,000 foreclosures in the year 2010, the political imperialism so cleverly disguised as compassionate nation building--and address instead a few points of character, or rather the demise of character.

America has become a giant corporation, a machine of meshing pistons and gears in the form of human beings. It is a single sprawling company, and everyone is on the roster, from the chairman of the board to the janitor in the basement. It is a name-brand. It is an info-mercial.

Character in the vast expanse of America has been superseded by conformity, driven by an infection of ‘political correctness.’ Everyone knows the same things, says the same things, covets the same clothes, the same cars, the same condos. Everyone wears the same blindfold and gag

What is the difference nowadays between the person who lives in Los Angeles and the New Yorker--some 2400 miles apart? Just that. Two thousand four hundred miles and odd change. It’s a matter of space, not of culture or spirit. In kinder times one could find something quaint, according to the region he happened to visit. Krispy Kreme in the South, for instance. Waffle House. Seattle’s Best in--where else--Seattle. Oh, they are still there, make no mistake. In fact they are now everywhere, as prolific as MacDonald’s. So much for regional flavour.

It’s a franchise, folks. There is no difference to be found from Maine to Arizona. We are overtaken, suffocated, captivated by the banality of big money and name recognition, strip malls and sound bytes.

The American dream is a dream of abundance, but it has become an abundance adding up to nothing more than tedium. The American dream--now more illusive than ever--has its own dependent society in a firm death grip.

Give me land lots of land under starry skies above . . . Don’t fence me in.

So went the old song. Now we have the catchy commercial jingle. We sing these songs in our sleep.

In America, one can go without ever meeting his next door neighbour other than to exchange a wave or a scowl. I cannot imagine this happening in Indonesia. You wouldn’t get two feet from your front gate without a greeting. Mau ke mana? Dari Mana? Where are you going? Where have you been?“

In America we try not to look at each other. In America it’s none of your business.

Am I too harsh? Am I unfair? Well, my apologies then. But you know it’s true.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I Dislike About Indonesia

What do I dislike about Indonesia? Well, short people, for one thing. Oh, I’m not saying that I have anything against short people on the whole as a creature type. I’m sure they are all very nice. Or that many of them are, anyway. And I am also sure that there are a number of short people here who are actually fairly tall.

The problem is not with the short people themselves, but with the inconveniences they cause me to suffer.

What do I mean by this? Well, take kitchen counters, for instance. Throughout Indonesia, kitchen counters have been fashioned to suit the height of the common Indonesia kitchen user--who, moreover, is most probably a woman, and thus shorter yet. Now, I myself am not an overly tall person by American standards, and yet I find that these countertops are impossibly low--really more like cobbler’s benches than kitchen counters.

Can you imagine how difficult it is for me to perform the multiple kitchen tasks I find daily before me--washing, slicing, cooking, cleaning--when I must hobble from one end of the counter to the other bent over at a 90 degree angle? Can this be good for the spine? I think not. In fact, it does seem to me that I am a little more stooped in stature every day. It happens only by tiny increments of course, but it all adds up. For all I know the Hunchback of Notre Dame started out as a perfectly upright man, and it was just all those years of pulling on a rope to ring a bell that led in due time to a serious case of poor posture.

And then there are the common housecleaning implements which, here in Indonesia, are uncommonly abbreviated. Take the 3 foot long broom handle, for instance. It’s the same with the mop handle, the same with the outdoor rake. One of my height--which, as I have said, is no more than a regular height after all--cannot possibly stoop and bend and contort the day long without ending up like a little old man in need of a cane. Even so, I suppose the cane would be much too short as well.

That’s another thing I don’t care for, by the way. Little old men. Despite the fact that I’m a little bit old myself. But that’s a separate matter altogether, involving inconveniences its own.

I do have a proactive idea, however. I am not content to simply complain. A handle extension is what I have in mind. A handy device fashioned in such a way that it may be slipped over the handle of any existing household tool, thus extending the length of said handle to suit the Western deficit. So to speak.

What else? Oh, the humidity. I dislike the humidity in Indonesia. It seems excessive. I think the problem should be well up on the list of things that need to be addressed in this country--corruption, poverty, religious extremism, wobbly infrastructure, rising prices, decreasing pay, traffic congestion, untreated sewage. And humidity.

Oh, and then there’s the trash on the beaches of Kuta. Even though this is not really our trash per se, as one official has already made clear, it still needs to be addressed, regardless of where it came from. Unless we can convince that country to which it originally belonged to take it back again.

But aside from what I’ve mentioned above, I’m cool. There are only these few things that I dislike. The rest is all good. Wonderful, really. To tell the truth, my wife is much worse than I. She dislikes, she says, the people in general, the pollution in the air, the Bypass traffic, the motorbike drivers, the greedy sellers, the gossipy women, the rabid dogs, the rivers of garbage, the curb-side scammers. And that’s only the beginning.

My wife is an Indonesian, by the way.

She is also short.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bummer of a Birthmark

According to the Bali Times (9/3-9/2010), "Bali Police Chief, Hadiatmoko, acted this week to stop police unfairly targeting foreigners (i.e. white people)--especially those on motorbikes . . . following complaints of harassment." And etc.

It's about time, right?

We all have our stories to tell--which of course is something that makes the case all the more apparent. In my first four months in Bali I was stopped four times in traffic and paid some 500,000 Rupiah for the infraction of . . . well, being white. The first time around you pay whatever the officer suggests, as you don’t know the game (the scam, that is). After that you learn to argue ever more forcefully, you learn to negotiate, you learn to dicker. You learn to carry no more than 30,000 Rupiah in your wallet, hiding the larger money elsewhere. You learn to speak more Indonesian. You learn to say "Hell no!"

The last time I was stopped, my wife happened to be riding on the back of my scooter. As soon as she took her helmet off, and the officer noted she was Indonesian, he said "Oh, okay," and went on his way.
One hardly needs strain at conclusions here.
I know something about this. I can sympathize. One never knows what to say these days, when to say it, or who to say it to. It’s a slippery slope is common conversation, a veritable minefield--for I well remember sliding down this selfsame slope not so very long ago when I mentioned to my stepdaughter, after receiving my fourth traffic ticket here, that now I knew what it was like to be a nigger.

Yes, I used the “N” word, and given that my daughter is half black in skin colour and all black in
allegiance, this was a mistake, a gaff, an affront of the first order.

“I can’t believe you said that to me,” she complained bitterly via Instant Messenger. “You of all people should have known better.”

I should have known better? Shouldn’t it have been she who should have known? She whom I had raised since the time she was in grade school?

How is it that a child can grow and yet so completely forget? How can it happen that our efforts are so easily slain by mere slogans?

Well, I had made an assumption--and we all know the old joke about assumptions, right? I had assumed that the spirit of my words would be automatically conveyed on that invisible, that mythical belt of relationship, that tale of the years, of love, of sacrifice. Yes, that selfsame tale told ultimately by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What matters is skin colour.

But wait . . . That’s exactly what I’m saying.

The officer here in Bali had made a series of assumption as well--that I was an easy target, a stranger in a strange land, and that it was likely, being a foreigner, that I could afford a substantial penalty for these unavoidable errors.
I can’t help but be reminded here of a Far Side cartoon I once saw. In the cartoon two deer are pictured conversing in the forest. One has a circular red and white target on his chest. The caption above his companion’s head reads “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.”

We Westerners wear our own targets here in Indonesia, just as glaring, just as irremovable as that deer’s unfortunate birthmark.

Black or white or yellow or brown, being a target based on skin colour is creepy. It's disheartening, maddening, frightening, and insulting. You are reduced for the personal use of the man who misuses authority in his own greedy version of racial and cultural profiling--most especially because no ticket is ever actually contemplated nor given, for the only point is the transfer of the money in your wallet to his.


Dear Devoted Readers (yes, the both of you)--Just want to let you know that much of what I write here in Jim Dandy will also appear weekly in The Bali Times newspaper, in a column entitled Practical Paradise.  Cheers.

Friday, April 15, 2011


So, how do you feel about grasshoppers? That’s right, those little green bugs that hide in the yard and then jump away when you walk through the grass. The kind that kittens and children like to chase, hopping along behind like grasshoppers themselves, snatching them in a paw, cupping them in hands, collecting them for a time in an old glass jar, or maybe feeding them to a pet snake or rat, for the more zoologically inclined.

Fun, right? Child’s play. A backyard game on a day in May.

But what about the Balinese grasshopper? How do you feel about him? That grotesque exaggeration, that seeming freak of nature (if all you’re used to is Western nature, that is). Yes, that hopping, flying, menacing insect about the size of a crescent wrench. Or a Smith and Wesson revolver.  A green Smith and Wesson revolver. 

He’s bad enough when you find him in the yard, though easy enough to deal with. He hops one way, you hop the other. But what if he has invaded your house? Yes, your personal living space?

Well, this is the situation I found before me last night. I was happily doing the dishes, in that happy spirit that always attends the task, when out of the corner of my otherwise undisturbed eye I spied this thing on the wall.

What in God’s Holy name!

This was the first question to enter my mind. Was it a gy-normous spider? Was it a blotch-like trick of sunlight? Was it a cat that had walked halfway up the wall between counter and ceiling?

I had stepped back a bit on first sight of the thing. Actually to the adjoining room. Now I crept forward again for a closer examination.

By God, it’s a grasshopper. An unusual one, to be sure; an incredibly large one; a completely inappropriate one; but a grasshopper nonetheless. It was not a fun sort of grasshopper, nor was it a harmless appearing sort of grasshopper.  On the contrary, its general shape and attitude were more reminiscent of the Alien in the Sigourney Weaver movie by the same name than of a simple backyard bug.

So what now? We could not live together. This, in my mind, was crystal clear. But how to explain this same to the creature?

Perhaps if I nudge it, it will fly out the open door. The doors letting to the yard are always open in Bali, and of course that is how it had made entry to begin with. A mistake pure and simple, a wrong turn, no more. Surely he would be just as happy to depart as I would be to see him do so.

So I nudged. Not with my bare hand, mind you. God forbid. I nudged him with a spatula, which of course was handy on the counter from my recent happy pastime.

Now, I cannot say whether it was being nudged that the monster took exception to, or whether it was being nudged specifically by a spatula, but it was swiftly apparent that the creature did not in the least take kindly to this nudging. Straightaway bat-like wings were spread and the creature flew directly into my face, got entangled for some time in my eyeglasses, then headed through the air toward other rooms, while I myself, screaming like a girl, fled in the opposite direction.

Where to now? Where had it hidden? Behind what door, under what counter, into what cupboard, under what bed?

Ah! There it is! Clinging now to the bedroom door, still as death, thinking. Or maybe planning? That is what these things do. They think. Then they fly. Then they sit and think a long time once again. Just now, sitting there on the door, dwarfing the doorknob, the grasshopper was thinking. Here was my chance then, whilst motionless the critter lay.

What was needed was a weapon of some sort. But what?

As it happened, the nearest weapon-like object at hand was a can of air freshener. It was the strong sort of air freshener, the industrial sort, the kind of stuff that would surely be deadly to an insect, and probably to a man as well. The scent was Strawberry and Cream.

And so I took the weapon in hand, crept another step forward, drew in a breath and aimed the nozzle . . . .

Ah, but no! I cannot do it. Chemical warfare is a horrifying thing. And also banned by the Geneva Convention. I could not morally employ such measures, even against a creature as terrifying as this.

I dropped the aerosol can and searched about for something more humane.

Here, for instance, was a floor mat. A pretty thick floor mat at that. This, I reasoned, could be rolled several times, made club-like, and then wielded in one swift blow to put an end to the thing, freeing us both from this unwanted episode (though admittedly not the better for him).

Oh well, for goodness sake, it’s a bug after all--no matter whether it’s as large as a puppy. It’s only a bug, whose grave error had been to invade my house, and there are a million more bugs like him anyway (which is something I realize with horror just now, even as I plot his demise).

And so I roll my 99 percent pure cotton club with care, draw back my arm like David with his sling, and then with one mighty lurch forward I bash the thing!

And the thing flies again straight into my face!  My club has simply bounced off, has glanced harmlessly away as if it were made of nothing other than . . . well, other than 99 percent cotton. Worse yet, after this second entanglement with my face, the thing has now disappeared. It is not on the wall, not on the door, not on the floor nor the cupboard nor the chair. Where, oh where?

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of death . . . 

I hunt the creature pace by pace, room by room, door by door, carrying now a broom in one hand and a small stool in the other. Bug-like myself, I slide stealthily along walls, creep around corners. Where are you, Grasshopper; in what secret cove do you hide and think and wait?

There! Yes there! There on the table. Aha, my foe has made the fatal mistake! Dropping my spear and shield and leaping with great agility to the kitchen counter, I grab the plastic juice container so recently cleansed and placed thereupon, then leap back again to the table to clap the container over my prey.

Trapped, finished, defeated. The thing flies in a dozen furious circles, butts its head against the imprisoning walls, and then sits down to think again.

Carefully, I slip a magazine beneath the juice container, then transport the little prison to the yard and place it on the grass. One deft movement remains, the tipping of the container to release the insect to its proper environ. And there is sits.  Huge.  Spindly.  Majestic.  Green.  There it sits, and thinks.

It’s an amazing creature really, as I myself ponder from behind the parted back door curtain.  Perhaps I should have paused to appreciate this odd creation in a little more detail. Perhaps, after all, he meant no harm.

But the whole truth is--and I’ll be honest with you here--that like the fabled purple cow of American rhyme, I never wished to see him in the first place, and I never want to see him again.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Three Hour Tour

So get this. Recently, in the pitch black hours of a stormy midnight, a tourist boat transporting passengers to Komodo Island (yes, that’s the one with the dragons), crashed into rocks off the coast of that island and swiftly began to sink.

As the passengers scrambled in panic to grab lifejackets from the hold, they found that these and the mesh containing them were inextricably tangled together, rendering the jackets quite useless. It was then discovered that the rubber lifeboat was also useless, as there was a gaping hole in it.

As the boat listed to the starboard and slipped ever more completely into the sea, the passengers were told to gather at the side and jump into the water.

“Swim for the shore,” they were told.

One of them was a 10 month old baby.

And so they jumped. And so they swam.

Miraculously, all survived the swim and all reached the rocks. None had other than minor injuries, although a few went briefly into shock.

Later, all agreed that only one young man among the boat’s crew had tried to do anything to help them throughout the course of their experience.

Everyone for himself! It’s the way of the road here, and also, apparently, the way of the sea.

Soon enough they were all picked up by another boat and taken to the nearby island of Flores; it being thought by those in charge, no doubt, that a night spent with Komodo dragons would not be quite appropriate at this juncture.

In recompense for this unfortunate accident the passengers were given a night of free lodging on Flores. And a meal. They were told, however, that the tour boat company could not afford to fly them back to Bali, or to replace property that had been lost in the incident. Such as one woman’s laptop computer.

Now what kind of tour boat company operates a ship with useless lifejackets and a lifeboat with a hole in it? That is the question.

One often hears people here say that the Balinese are lazy. Personally I cannot believe it. They all seen no nice.

What then to make of the evidence above?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Across the River and Into the Trees

I don’t like to drive a car in Bali. For one thing, the steering wheel is on the wrong side, which means that everything else is flipped the wrong way. This is continually confusing to me. Aside from that, fully 90 percent of the people on the road here are lunatics, escapees from the asylum. Oh wait, they don’t have an asylum here, and therefore they need not have escaped. They are driving test flunk-outs, unlicensed operators, maniacs, NASCAR racers, Evil Knievil wannabees, brainless zombies. What can I say? This is the way it is, folks. I wouldn’t lie. Speed is everything. Life and limb mean nothing.

Nonetheless, sometimes one simply has to drive. Such was the case last night when I was called upon to take my wife to the airport for a sightseeing trip to America. Rather, I should say I had to drive the car back home after she drove us to the airport.

Oh well, it’s just this once, right? Just this once maybe twice a year. Damn the USA. I wish it would sink to the bottom of the sea.

I have two problems with driving really--aside from the wrong-sided steering wheel issue, that is. One is that my MS, generally sleeping or sunbathing here, rolls suddenly awake at the reality of a challenge. I don’t mean that it opens its eyes, blinks and few times, rubs the sleep out, and proceeds. I mean it bolts straightaway upright as if suddenly drenched under a bucket of cold water--tense, trembling, eyes as wide as saucers and darting to and fro like frightened ravens. Yes, I’m still here! What, did you think I was gone?

The other problem I have, especially at night time, is that I can’t see worth a damn anymore. A recent visit to the eyeglasses store revealed that even the maximum adjustment fell woefully short of correcting the problem.

On the way into the airport area my wife carefully pointed out landmarks and detailed the methods by which I should return to the main road, and thenceforth to our home. And it all seemed pretty straightforward at the time. You just turn around and go the opposite direction, right?

So I put her luggage on the curbing, we exchanged kisses and goodbyes, and then we were off--she on a 38 hour journey to America, I on a ten mile return trip to Biaung.

But wait! In the brief time it took for us to park the car, set out the luggage and exchange farewells, someone had changed the entire network of roads by which we had come! Suddenly the big white statue my wife had pointed out on the way in had moved to another spot altogether, and had sprouted multiple roads like the spokes of a wheel whereas previously there had been only two. Was this even the same statue as the one she had shown me not ten minutes ago?

Without any trouble at all, I took the wrong turn at the white statue.  The road I took did not lead back to the traffic light and the Bypass (which is what they call the main road here, strangely enough). No, this road, starting out wide and then shrinking down to the width of a broccoli stalk, conveyed me into a maze of motor bikes, countless Circle K stores, and small roadside bars featuring blaring music.

With considerable trouble, then, I turned the car around and headed back toward the big white statue, straining my eyes for the sight of the thing like a sea captain searching the horizon for a light house.

Imagine my relief upon finding that it had moved back to its old spot smack dab in the middle of the entryway to the airport. Thank God for small miracles. And large, unusual ones too.

One mistake, one stutter of cognition, one stumble in the dark--not too bad, really, for one stricken with this combination of MS and blindness. Here was the Bypass after all--Bali’s own version of the freeway, where there is no speed limit, no lanes as far as practice goes (despite those strange white lines that someone has painted on the pavement), and no holds barred. My next destination--the next landmark on my mental roadmap to home, was to be the next big statue--this one bigger, wider, taller than the first, radiating roads to Kuta, to Seminyak, to Sunset Highway, and to Sanur (and thence to Biaung).

And it showed up just like it was supposed to do--looming, brooding, unspeakably grand in the night, like a sudden ship-smashing rock in a stormy sea.

Now at all hours of the day and night cars and motorbikes swim fretfully around this rock, pushing and shoving, shifting and accelerating, drifting swiftly from left to right and back again as if pulled quite against their will by some drastic current.  It seems to attract motorists like a strange magnet. In fact, I do believe that not a few people come out from the comfort of their homes just to go round and round this statue. Is a terrifying thing to navigate--both reassuring landmark and treacherous obstacle..

You pass one road, you pass two, you pass three--and then you take the fourth. Remember? Simple, is it not?

Well, I passed four and took the fifth. The fifth road, as it happens, is the one that goes back to the airport. And yet, as far as I was concerned, I was surely on my way back to Sanur. Until, that is, I passed the Surf Shop once again with its tall red lettering--very familiar, that--strange, are there two of them? Next I found myself ducking as an incoming 747 skimmed the top of my wife’s little black car.

So back again to the statue, the Rock, the Gibraltar of Southern Bali. One road, two, three . . . four . . . and yes five--again, five--and I was once again on my way back to the airport!

This is where MS becomes really annoying, folks. Suddenly it doesn’t seem interesting or strange . . . It seems only acutely, maddeningly, infuriatingly annoying.

Back to the statue, that demon of night. Back to the jostling bikes and cars, pushing, elbowing, dashing and darting. Back to the search, the increasingly desperate search for a single road, the one that leads home.  

Use the force, Luke.

I could tell you that I had no further trouble on my way--but that would be a lie. I could tell you that I had been cured of MS by the sun and simple life of the tropics, as I have often enough told myself. But that would be a lie too. It’s there. It never goes away, and never intends to. It just rests while you rest, and wakes when its host is called upon to function like a normal person.

What’s the solution?

Next time take a taxi!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Apathy or Age?

I find that as I grow older I become much less inclined to argue with people or to defend myself against unfair accusations--and I am wondering now whether this is because I have matured or simply because I’ve grown lazy or apathetic.

I’ll give you an example (as obviously something has caused this to be on my mind, right?).

I have a friend here named Victor. Originally from Stoke, England, he has lived now in Bali for 5 years or so--ever since he married a Balinese woman by the name of Iluh. Victor is a short, aggressive, scrappy sort of guy who had previously lived a rather hard life--in and out of trouble, in and out of bars, in and out of strange women’s beds.

Now Victor has slowed down (at 63), but he still likes to drink, and he still likes his freedom. In the past year I would see Vick perhaps once a week, when he would call and ask if I “fancied a pint.” This, of course, would turn into well more than “a pint,” but then he would go home and that would be the end of it for another week.

However, we have now moved to a house just a few houses up the street from Vick, and so he is now inclined to show up every day, very often wondering if I fancy a pint.

The trouble is, Victor’s rather proper, tea-tottling wife has decided that I am responsible for the beers he drinks and for the cigarettes he smokes, neither of which substances she can abide.

Okay, so I smoke--in fact much more than I or anyone else should smoke--but I’m not much of a beer drinker. The fact is, in the absence of Victor, I generally do not drink at all. I’ve nothing against it, mind you. It’s just not all that tasty, and it’s way too expensive here in Bali with the alcohol tax that is attached.

So yesterday I received a long text message from Iluh in which I was accused of corrupting poor Vick, forcing him to smoke and drink, and so on.

This is where old age comes in--for in the past I would most certainly have been inclined to immediately shoot back a better, harder, ruder message, whereas now I seem more inclined to shrug a shoulder and dismiss the matter.

And yet, it does in some way eat at me, for I wonder if silence is tantamount to agreement. By refusing to speak, do I justify the attack? Do I foster the impression that this sort of thing is appropriate?

On the other hand, I wonder what could be gained were I to join the fray. Would I not then find myself having to bust on Victor? Would I not, out of personal pride, end up merely a tattletale?

And then again I think, well perhaps it’s just better to leave things this way--for Victor will likely show up for fewer pints and fewer cigarettes, which altogether saves me time and money. Right?

It remains therefore a bit of a quandary. In Iluh’s mind, I force Vick to smoke and encourage him to drink. I am not a friend to him, she says. In my mind I am his friend, but not his mother. I somehow just cannot picture myself snatching a cigarette from Victor’s hand or refusing to share a pint, even when I might fancy one myself. He is, after all, a grown man--and an older one than I at that!

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Today, via Facebook, I relocated a great friend from my college days, Rebecca Podvent.  We were together in the school of music, used to hang out together between classes, and for many years sent Christmas cards back and forth.  Then at some point we lost track of one another.  Ah, but by the magic of Facebook, here she is again.  Moreover, it turns out that we have as a friend in common (according to Facebook's records) CathyTrueb, who is the wife of my best friend from Kindergarten (and still my best friend),  Marc.  Goodness the Lord works in mysterious ways.