Mt. Agung, to the northeast of Denpasar, now begins to erupt. Thus far, this is in the form of a towering cloud of ash, which, today, has closed the airport for safety purposes. Molten lava is still filling the crater of the volcano and the greatest fear is that this will soon spill over and down the slopes into the populated areas below. The government has so far done a good job in evacuating citizens, but many lives and livelihoods will be affected nonetheless by a major flow of magma.
Having spoken of the rain, I would feel remiss not to mention the flying brown Bali beetle as well, for he comes along with the rain as surely as puddles come along with the rain.
During this season, directly after a downpour, you will see a follow-up downpour of these brown beetles, seeming to have been suddenly birthed by the rain itself, and equally storm-like in their own way. They appear in great swarms and have as their goal the inner part of any house they see. They fly in on large brown wings, which straightaway fall off, leaving the much diminished bug running around chaotically on the floor, discarded wings wafting about on their own.
As it happens, these bugs are a favorite snack for the lizards, cicak and tokek alike, and therefore one will see a swarm of these reptiles as well, rushing to the feast. (My wife tells me that the bugs are ‘high in protein’, which explains, I guess, the dietary wisdom of the lizards).
So, the hunt is on. The lizards rush up and down the walls, gobbling up the tasty morsels. Wings or no wings, they are apparently delicious either way (and, yes, nutritious).
When the rainy season ends, the beetles are gone as well. One does not see them again until the next rainy season. But one remembers how they filled the air, as dense as the rain itself, and feels, curiously enough, a certain pleasure at their return, as if, like snow, they were a winter tradition.
Well, this is shaping up to be a pretty rainy rainy season here in Bali. This has varied over the past seven years. Our first year here in Bali, 2010, saw little rain at all. For that reason, having never been to the tropics, or, indeed, outside of America (except for a couple brief trips to Canada), I had the happy, though false impression that this would be the normal course for the weather here.
I found out differently during the course of years 2-7. Rainy season in Bali generally begins in October or November and extends into the early spring. One will very rarely see a day of constant rain; rather, the rain gathers itself in dark, swollen, bulging clouds, the air becomes tense with a breathless, suffocating humidity, and then the heavens break loose in buckets and tubs and tanks of water, assaulting the earth with a certain inimitable fury (a bit like my wife’s temper). But it is a short-lived fury, generally exhausting itself within 10-20 minutes, lifting just as suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown — on, off. The sun creeps back into view, poking tentatively between the fleeing clouds — like, Holy Cow, what was that all about?
The same show will play perhaps two or three times a day. Motorbike drivers, constituting the majority of drivers here, will have hurriedly pulled to the side of the road to don their (supposedly) rain-proof smocks, and at the end of the fit, will stop once again to shed their smocks, and find themselves pretty much as wet with sweat as they would have been with rain anyway. A number of vehicular accidents will typically have occurred, testifying to the general unwillingness of the common Indonesian motorist to understand that the oil and dirt on the dry streets will have become as slick as snot in the rain. Other untoward circumstances may occur as well. Tree limbs, unaccustomed to the wind and the pelting of the downpour, may break and fall. I know, because I was hit by one in the midst of a typical rain storm a few years ago — not a stick or a flimsy branch, but an entire part of a tree. This, of course, knocked my motorbike over as well, spilling me onto the street. In fact, two of the three accidents I have been involved in occurred during a rainstorm. The answer to this danger, as I have concluded, anyway, is to simply stop and take shelter in the nearest shop or warung, and wait it out. Because the alternative — that is, falling off your bike and hitting the street — is a distinctly painful one, and best avoided.
Now, during the time it has taken to write these lines, the full fury of the storm has passed and diminished to a light sprinkle, with blue sky already peeking through the clouds. Another five minutes will bring partly sunny skies and the streets will quick-dry as fast as you can say The rain is Spain falls mainly on the plain. Some, as I say, will have had an unpleasant encounter with the pavement. Many will find their laundry, which had been hung out to dry, fully soaked and in need of re-washing. Dogs and cats will have enjoyed a rare bath, and rainy season will proceed; for here, as with every clime in the world, the words of Mark Twain ring faithfully true; to whit, Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it!
Took a three-day trip to the little town of Solo on the island of Java, population about 500,000. Solo is a sleepy little place, compared to the big cities of Java, as well as the tourist bustle of Bali. This was my third trip to Solo, and it is, for some reason, one of my favorite spots. Perhaps it reminds me of my old home town of Portland, Oregon. Solo is a bit cooler than Bali, and when it rains, it actually gets rather chilly — which is a nice change. When it rains in Bali, it is still hot. The rain itself is warm. Also, when it rains in Solo, the rain is downright serious compared to the brief showers of Bali. Quite a show, with pouring rain, palm trees blowing sideways, lightening the thunder.
But I think the thing I like best about Solo is just the people. These are some of the friendliest people one can hope to meet. Given that there is not much to attract outsiders to this little town, the appearance of a foreigner, especially a bule, or a white person, is met often enough with a certain amount of fanfare. One time, for instance, I was walking down to the mall when students were just coming out of school for the day. Seeing me, they ran single-mindedly to meet the strange alien among them, dancing around me, each with a dozen questions, some practicing a cherished word of English, all following me down the street as one little girl, without a word, took my hand and walked beside me, as if I were her temporary father.
Sometimes it pays to have wealthy friends … or rather, to have a wife who has wealthy friends. It’s all the same when you are both invited to stay a couple nights at a posh Seminyak Villa.
Vayu is one of two villas owned by John, an Australian friend. Both are situated among a sort of community of villas at the heart of the tourist district of Seminyak. The curious thing about these villas is that although they are tucked right into a district full of restaurants, shops and nightclubs, the villa environ itself is quiet and peaceful. How this bit of magic has been engineered, I cannot say. Perhaps something to do with the local Bali gods?
In any case, Villa Vayu, like most villas, is built around a central swimming pool and garden. Facing the pool are two suites, complete with king size bed, wardrobe area and outdoor bath and shower. And, of course, hot water. I mention that, because most places here, occupied by normal people like myself, anyway, don’t have hot water. Except when it turns warm from the heat of the sun alone. Not that we really need hot water, but it’s just nice sometimes, especially after a swim, or first thing in the morning.
Speaking of which, each morning the villa staff arrives to prepare a breakfast of your choice, and will then tidy up for the ensuing day.
It’s a little taste of luxury to salt the normal pattern of every day life.
Indonesian is said to be a fairly simple language. Even the Indonesians themselves will say so. And theoretically, they are right — it is a fairly simple language, conceptually.
But there are two problems.
One is its abbreviated sort of structure. It’s simply downright un-American, and certainly downright un-English. English is a language of many grammatical requirements, and its forms are very specific. You may say for instance, I am going to school, or I will go to school, or I went to school, or I go to school. In Indonesian, the whole ball of wax is contained in three words: Saya ke sekolah, literally ‘I to school.’ The particulars are implied in the context — which is to say that the hearer will fill in the blanks according to the context in which the sentence is uttered. If there is any confusion, certain specifying words may be added, such as ‘sudah’ (already) ‘belum’ (not yet), or ‘sedang’ (in the process).
For those who speak English as their native language, the simplicity is … well, way too simple. It is the foreignness of structure, therefore, that baffles. It is not a ‘normal’ way of expressing one’s thoughts.
Secondly, although Indonesian is at its core a simple language, consisting of a much smaller vocabulary than English, it has been greatly expanded by the common people with all kinds of alternative words and colloquial expressions and forms. One may understand an Indonesian who is speaking directly to oneself, because he will be employing common, correct forms; but one will likely not completely (or even near completely) understand Indonesians as they speak with one another, as they will be employing a dizzying tongue of slang, colloquialisms, alternate words, and so on. Add to this that they may well be salting the whole conversation with words from a shared second language, such as Balinese or Javanese. For instance, when I arrived at the neighborhood Starbucks the other day, the Barista happily greeted me with the word “Tumben”.
“Tumben? What is that?” I ask.
“Tumben? It’s … hmmm … I don’t know. Let’s see now … What is the Indonesian word?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Ha-ha! Hmm. Oh! Sudah lama! That’s it! Long time, no see. It’s Balinese word.”
There’s a young fellow who works part-time as the parking attendant at the Circle K store just up the street. If he is there when I stop by, the unspoken rule in that I must sit and chat for a while. Which I happily do. But to be honest, this young man’s use of language is so terrifically heavy on slang, that I generally understand no more than half of what he is saying. He, of course, understands all of what I say because I am employing only the basic core Indonesian that all Indonesians understand.
I was pleased, however, the other night when he said “Tumben malam” — because I understood it! I learned it at Starbucks! ‘Tumben: Long time, no see, plus malam: Nighttime = ‘Long time, no see at nighttime’, or, in English, ‘It has been a long time since you’ve come here at night.’
Regarding whatever he said afterwards, I am still uncertain.
There’s a fellow down on the beach, up Mertasari way, whom I stop and chat with every now and again. He is a partner in a little water sports business which seems to do no business at all, as far as I’ve seen. But anyway, he’s a pleasant, likeable man and he wants to learn English. For this reason, he asked for my phone number, so that he might ask questions as they arise. I am his mentor, he says, his elder, his teacher. As he input my number, he said he would put it under the name Father Will — not because I’m a religious man, but because I’m old enough to be his father. At first, this seemed impossible, and yet as I did the math, I had to admit that he is quite right. I am old enough to be his father, and even the father of an older brother (if he has one). And so bless me, Father Will I am.
I was talking to my friend at Starbucks the other day about smoking — or more precisely, about quitting smoking. This caused me to think back to a time when I did try to quit smoking. So, I thought I’d tell him that story.
“Do remember that old movie, Hatari?” I began.
“No, Hatari. You know, with John Wayne?”
“Yeah, you know, John Wayne. The actor. I mean … I mean, it’s John Wayne, man! You don’t know John Wayne?”
“John Lennon, yes, I know.”
“No, no. Different guy.”
Good grief. Well, on the other hand, it was a long time ago. Hatari, I mean. John Wayne too. And this particular young man is much (much) younger than I. Still, surely any westerner would know John Wayne, I have to think.
“Okay, you know cowboys, right?”
“Yes. The Marlboro Man.”
Ah, now we’re making progress. Sort of. Not where my story is concerned, mind you, but where the general idea of cowboys is concerned. Which, however, has nothing to do with Hatari.
“Okay, never mind John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. There was this old movie, see, called Hatari. I was trying to stop smoking, but I happened to turn on this movie, Hatari, and everyone, I mean everyone, in the movie was smoking! Like, in every scene!”
“Why are they smoking?”
“Well … no reason. I mean, everyone smoked back then.”
“When you decided to quit?”
“No. When I watched the movie.”
“You know what … let’s talk about something else.
“Okay. Hmm. Do you believe in Bocong?”
I’ve never heard of the word. I have to look it up in the translator on my phone, which gives the definition ‘Jug’.
“Do I believe in jugs?”
“Hahahaha! No, no. That’s wrong. It is not jug.”
I show him my dictionary.
“Yes, but that is not right. Bocong. This is what we say. It’s like slang.”
“So what is it?”
“Hmm. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know either?”
“I mean, yes … No, I don’t know in English. Hmm. Let’s see. You know the white face, with holes for eyes?”
What the hell are we talking about?
“Sorry, sorry. Oh! Halloween. The white sheet!”
“But that’s hantu, I thought.”
“Yes. But we say Bocong. Do you believe?”
“Yes. I do. I believe.”
“Well. Yeah. I guess I do, too. But they’re not really ghosts. That’s what I think. I mean, they’re not dead people. They’re demons.”
“What is it, dee-mon?”
“Iblis.” Ah ha, I know that one!
“Oh ya, Iblis,” my friend says. “With Muslims they are Iblis. With Balinese, bocong.”
“With Christians, they are different. A ghost is one thing, a demon is another.”
“What is the difference?”
“Oh … well, I mean, I’m not an expert. But a ghost is not real, but a demon is.”
“I believe in ghosts.”
“So you said. But anyway, go on.”
“Go on where?” He looks at his watch. “Still ten minutes in break time. Or … maybe you want to be alone? Maybe you are busy, yes. Please excuse me.”
“No, no. No! I’m not busy at all. Look … How about we talk about something else!”
“How about if we have another cigarette,” he suggests. “Just like John Wayne.”
I had mentioned previously how very much the Sanur beachfront has changed in a mere 7 years, now crowded with restaurants and hotels such that one can hardly get to the actual beach without feeling like he’s trespassing. Of course, the motive seems quite clear. People want to go to the beach when they are in Bali, and if there’s a restaurant in the way, why then they’ll probably have to stop in and order something just so they can sit near the ocean.
It’s the same on the main thoroughfare that runs through Sanur — Jalan Tamlingan at the one end, turning into Jalan Danau Poso at the other. Seven years ago, there were a few popular restaurants, a few popular bars, and many more than a few roadside local cafes and shops. Now the entire length of road is wall-to-wall hotels and upscale restaurants, clothing shops and jewelry shops and furniture stores and … well, you name it.
Jalan Danau Poso has been the slowest section to develop. There used to be two bars on the street (not counting the “chicken bars”, ie establishments of ill-repute). They were Angel’s and On-On and sat side-by-side on a lazy turn in the road. Every night, these two bars were crowded with customers, 95 percent of them tourists (the other 5 percent being the Indonesian waitresses). They were fun, carefree spots where one could meet people from all over the world — The Netherlands, England, India, France, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and of course there were a few Americans as well. The waitresses, mostly from Java or Sumatra, were delightful,, sharp-witted young women who knew how to sell as much beer as possible, and developed a particular talent for picking up bits and pieces of multiple languages. They have all moved on now — married, or gone back home to their islands. Angel’s has been changed to The Place to Be, while On-On is still On-On, as far as I know.
Nothing could be more apparent, however, that neither is any longer the place to be. One finds both establishments all but deserted now, languishing in the shadow of the new restaurants across the way. The waitresses are no longer bright and sharp and chatty. Usually they are staring at their phones, and seem somewhat annoyed at being interrupted. I imagine that both places will soon fade away as well — just like their former customers. It is as if they have grown old and unwell, just like people. Just like me. They have become but memories.
On the shrinking sands of Sanur, I found kind of a nice little spot this afternoon to lay out my beach towel for a couple hours of swimming and sunning. Reminds me of the olden days when we first came here, although one cannot really recapture that feeling of total peace and comfort he had experienced after having worked through a long career, eight hours a day,five days a week, and then finding himself floating in the sea beneath an endless blue sky, with nary a care in the world. Nor can he truly re-experience the wondrous, unreal intensity of the Bali heat after 55 years of Oregon chill. But anyway, I enjoyed myself, and the sun and the water and the rest was good for my poor old back.