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!”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Journey in Time

Sitting at the patio table at the front of my yard I watch two boys ride by the open gate on bicycles. One boy is bigger, one is smaller, but both bikes are the same height. They are simple bikes--no gears, just handlebars, a frame, and wheels. I think that the boys are brothers. One boy--the bigger boy--pedals along easily, long legs pumping in even stroke, like a swimmer in air, while the other reaches with his tiptoes for an elusive grip on the twirling stirrups, ever redoubling his efforts to catch the long shadow of his companion.

And at once I am transported to another time--a different time, and yet somehow the same. I am the smaller boy, my brother the bigger, separated by two years, and yet separable by nothing short of death. My bike is a Cadillac, his a Ferrari, or so we say. My father had bought them somewhere--a garage sale, a second-hand shop. We didn’t have much money. No one did back then. On my block, in my town, everyone was equal. And seemed happy enough at that.

What Proustian cake is this that my soul has suddenly imbibed, extracting such a magic of transport from a moment? Two boys, two bikes, two score and ten years in the balance?

It is the magic of the Third World, it is the magic of Bali, an island arisen from a warp in time. It is the magic of standing still, or at least seeming to, and then catching up long after I’m gone.

In the dark of evening a woman passes by alone She turns her head to look my way. Her eyes meet mine and she smiles. She is not fearful, not worried. She is merely walking, going somewhere, going home, as any free man or woman ought to be free to do--and yet would not be in my time, in my place, in my country. Not now, and not ever again.

I know the street--I know it suddenly once again--removed now from a place five decades in the past to reappear outside my gate on the far side of the world, on an island which, as foreign as it is, may as well be my life and my home.

And I marvel at this miracle of regression, this device of displacement; marvel yes, and also inwardly wince at the sadness of an old world lost. I lament, as once the poet, William Carlos Williams lamented. We have to get back to the beginning and do it over again.

In the dark of night I take a walk, down the street to the alley, down the alley to the Bypass. Up ahead a group of young men becomes apparent in the darkness, standing by motor bikes parked by the wall. I wonder whether I should continue or turn back, when one of the men sees me, beckons, speaks.

“Where are you going? Where are you from? How long will you stay?

What, no knives? What, no guns? What, no threat to life and limb?

Where am I now, other than where I came from? A kinder time, a world and an eon away.

I was one evening on the beach at Ketewel, just to watch the waves. One other man there was on that beach. I might have thought from all I had learned in a life lived in another place that we would turn our backs, that we would walk away, and yet it seems we are metal and magnet and must therefore attract. It seems we have something in common after all.

It happened then as we conversed that two other men walked by. They were speaking together, discussing the day, and I noted that they were holding hands in simple, brotherly way. One might have been my father, one might have been his bosom friend--but for all the years in between and the decease of such innocent things.