Monday, November 28, 2005


That evening I went shopping at Kem Chicks supermarket, a red-roofed building that looks like a large private house. While walking the aisles, I bumped into Carmen and we decided to have a coffee and a chat in the little upstairs restaurant.

"How was your weekend holiday?" I asked, once we had settled ourselves down at a table.

"In Bali you never need to be short of company," said Carmen, with the sort of loud chuckle that makes heads turn.

"What sort?" I asked, as I began applying my fork to the first of two large almond croissants.

"I remember two teenagers in particular: Andi and Andri: earrings and cool shades and skinny bodies. They were sitting outside an American fast-food restaurant. Andri was sitting on Andi’s lap and the two of them were being quite affectionate to each other. They’re like that in this country. Even the police. Andri and Andi insisted that they should act as my guides in Kuta."

"You couldn’t get rid of them?"

"I told them that I was a local and didn’t need a guide. I asked them if they were Balinese and really knew Bali. They admitted that they were migrants from Java. I asked them if there were any problems between the Balinese and all the Javanese who’ve come into the island. They admitted that there were problems. They said that the immigrants got blamed for spreading AIDS, selling drugs, selling sex and extorting money. I asked them if they were going to try to extract money from me. They gave me friendly smiles and I wandered off unmolested."

"Has Indonesia got much of a problem with AIDS?" I asked.

"An expatriate nurse once told me that in the naughty parts of Surabaya, and other such places, it could be the same high rate as in Bangkok’s Patpong."

"I don’t suppose the Balinese can do much to get rid of the incomers."

"They’ve tried to fight against the drug trade and so on, but the criminal gangs are protected by the security forces."

"The army is important in Bali?"

"In lots of ways. Around 80,000 Balinese were murdered by the army people, back around 1965, when the Americans put Suharto into power. Now a lot of the tourist industry seems to be owned by army generals and the Suharto clan. Also, Bali is the base for the Udayana Army Command."

"Udayana Army Command?"

"These are the army people that control East Timor."

"And did you enjoy Bali?"

"It got me away from all the useless meetings and paperwork at school. Was I happy in Bali? I was happy when I could see the temples, the mountains and the sea. I wasn’t happy with the queues at the airport. I think, to be happy, you have to learn not to cry over spilt coconut milk. When the Garuda flight’s delayed, you just have to adjust. You just have to say to yourself that it’s not the end of the world. In fact the delay can be seen as a bonus, because it teaches you patience."

"And if there are mosquitoes in the sandwiches, it won’t spoil the picnic."

"That’s it," said Carmen. "Live for the moment."

"Are you good at doing that?"

"Not in the slightest. To be happy you have to be able to move on, otherwise you get bored. I’m not always good at moving on."

"Moving on?"

"Forgetting about yesterday’s problems with maids and traffic and moving on to today’s adventure."

"I have problems with maids and traffic and lazy students."

"I thought you were the charitable type." Carmen gave me a look which suggested just a hint of doubt.

"There’s often an opposite side to people," I said.

"Ah! So what’s your opposite side?" Carmen’s eyes had developed a wicked twinkle.

"There is nobody more irritable than me in a queue in a Hero supermarket," I confessed. "And when I don’t get the right change there is no one more quick to take it personally. I’m always complaining to restaurant managers about cold soup and poor service."

"We shouldn’t take things so seriously?"

"A friend at university once said I shouldn’t look down my nose at people. Then a numerologist warned me against false pride."

"You didn’t hit them?"

"I didn’t believe them, especially about the false pride," I said. "I didn’t believe them until that child called Budi died. Then I thought, well, I should have visited Budi more often. I’ve got nothing to feel proud about."

"I sometimes go from one extreme to the other," admitted Carmen. "One moment I think everything’s going wonderfully and next moment I think I’m a complete failure. We need a balanced position. We’re not as good as we think. But we’re not as bad as we think."

"Do you have a negative side?" I asked.

"I’m bad when it comes to patience. I think all my traveling’s got something to do with impatience. The traveling is an escape."

"An escape from what?"

"An escape from making the necessary adjustments. The Balinese make a big thing about making adjustments and keeping life in balance. When a boy reaches the age of puberty, there’s a ceremony in which he has his upper canine teeth filed down. This is all about him getting rid of his less desirable characteristics, and becoming more balanced in his behaviour."

"Bali is the biggest Hindu place after India."

"Bali’s religion is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism," said Carmen.

"A balanced approach."

"When you look at the depressed and drunken British and Australian tourists in Bali, you think that the Balinese have a superior way of life. But I’m not sure that the Balinese religion is necessarily perfect. Bali still has a little bit of the caste system. And I’m not sure, if I was Balinese, that I could cope with all these priests and endless rituals. I wouldn’t want to see a cock being killed during a cock fight and then the blood being used in some purifying ceremony. That seems too primitive. On the other hand, I love the beating of the gongs and bits of bamboo when they’re driving out evil spirits. And I like the Balinese idea of communicating with your dead relatives."

"On balance, you’d rather be Balinese than British."

"Oh definitely Balinese," said Carmen.