Letter 2


In my radiccio salad days when I was purple in my prose and oily in my praise, I wrote an ecstatic letter to my friends about my life in Bali. No-one thought to tell me in those balmy days that the novelty might wear off; that my bubble might be pricked. Now, in my Salad Niçoise days, I am fishy in my dealings and vinegared in my judgment. The Balinese have proved to me Paul Theroux's dictum was cooly accurate when he wrote: "It is almost axiomatic that when a place gets a reputation for being Paradise it goes to hell."

Never mind the plastic bags strewn everywhere; ignore the pollution belching from every noisy motor-bike and badly tuned truck; suffer the barking dogs and the barking mad. It is the greed that has left me speechless; the interminable, all-pervading, never-letting-up greed. It is, of course, by no means exclusive to Bali, but the Balinese are past-masters at it; flawless in the manner, and exemplary in their execution of it. Innocent grandmothers are sprawled all over the place just waiting for their scheming grandsons to step over them. I have been ripped-off so many times there isn't much left of me to rip. The Balinese must think I am a walking money tree. All they have to do is walk up to me and pluck off another luscious, ripe fruit which they promptly deposit in their bank accounts.

They are so nice about it, you see. With the broadest of smiles, or the most coquettish of winsome looks they can extract millions of rupiah from my branches without a blink. I hardly notice it has happened until weeks later I remember so-and-so owes me a considerable amount of money and there doesn't seem to be much sign of it coming back. I am not alone in this. The island is crawling with whey-faced expatriates who have had every penny they own extracted from them by means of the sly administration of laughing gas. In Ubud there is even a club of them. They are mostly middle-aged Australian women who, having divorced their beer-glugging husbands back home, arrive in Bali looking for a good time. And a good time they have of it - especially with the charming young man they pick up on the beach. Before you know it, they are going through a full Balinese wedding ceremony - all eleven days of it - which, of course, these Australian good-time girls pay for. Then they pay for a new shop for their new mother-in-law, a new motor bike, a new house and a new business for their sparkling new husband. Life truly is paradise. But Paul Theroux was right: it quickly turns to hell. Balinese men are allowed to marry up to four wives, so it isn't long before the ever-grinning toy-boy has found himself a prettier, younger Balinese girl whom he promptly takes as his second wife. This, as you can imagine, doesn't go down well with the Australian of riper years. Having invested all her first divorce settlement in keeping her lover happy – he is probably half her age – it comes as a bit of shock to discover it wasn't her body he was interested in after all. Nor has she anyone to turn to; the mother-in-law is happy with her new shop, the husband is delighted with his new motor-bike and his business and wife-number-two is ecstatic she has landed herself a husband with excellent prospects. So a gaggle of these hapless matrons meet every Friday for lunch. With pursed lips and arms akimbo, they swap stories of the latest injustice their errant husbands have got into. It is not an elevating sight.

It is significant that in the Indonesia language there is no word for guilt; nor does it have its own word for 'corruption'. They have borrowed ours: corrupsi. What that tells you about their view of Western civilisation I leave to you. Corrupsi is everywhere, and is the most common topic of letters in the English language daily newspapers. Only the other day a headline in The Jakarta Post trumpeted that the Government auditors had uncovered malfeasance in government departments to the tune of 27.7 billion rupiah. (That's about £9 million in real money.) But nobody will be sacked and certainly no-one will offer their resignation. There is no guilt you see. When, in President Soeharto's time, the Minister of Transport was discovered syphoning off huge amounts of money into his own bank account in order that his wife and her entourage should go shopping every week in Singapore, he received nothing more than a slapped wrist – and that was that. He carried on as the Minister of Transport as though nothing had happened.

Guide books tell you to bring to Bali mosquito repellent, travellers cheques, sun-block and diarrhoea tablets. Never mind all those things - you can buy them here. What you will need most of all, and will part with on a diurnal basis is small brown envelopes with a large banknote or two inside. They are so useful.

Owing to my own ignorance I once messed up my visa when I returned from a visit to England. Realising my mistake, I swallowed hard and with dread in my heart went to put the matter right at the Immigration office. After many a sharp intake of breath and a lot of sucking on the teeth, I was presented with a stark choice by an official in dark glasses, a permanent tooth-pick and a practice golf tee in his office: either I fly out of the country and start the whole process all over again, or I hand over the cash equivalent of the return air fare to my new-found friends at the Immmigration department. "We want to help you!" He simpered. "You help us and we help you." The barrel was there and I was about to be put over it. I squirmed a bit, but not for long. I had no inclination to go through all that Byzantine bureaucracy again. I even had the temerity to haggle the price, and put down my own conditions: half now and the rest when all the paperwork was complete. Within three days I had a visa which it takes the innocent three months to obtain. Next time I need to go there, I shall walk in with a tube of golf balls for the man in dark glasses.

It would be wrong to assume all this corruption and all that greed is effected in some scowling, threatening way. Nothing could be less likely; for the Balinese, even at their most nefarious, are exquisitely polite.

Apparently, for people to live comfortably together the optimum number is 250 people per square kilometer. Bali has reached 733 people per square kilometer. This high population density has over the centuries forced the Balinese to develop a highly organised ethical code of behaviour; – ethical, that is, by their own lights. They even have a name for it: Gotong royong - mutual assistance. Existing cheek-by-jowl as we do, there simply isn’t room for individualism and a ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ mode of living. Even young, hot-headed, brazen men are usually compliant, and it is rare even for them to kick over the traces and upset the delicate balances which define Balinese life. The Balinese word is halus - refined, elegant, cultivated. To describe someone as not being halus is tantamount to condemning him to being a snake in the next life. Here are a few helpful hints for the next time you visit Bali:

When men come across naked women bathing in a pool (and vice versa) these bathers do not exist. Even though the road, or the stepping stones across the river are within a couple of feet of where they are bathing, they are not there. One does not call out a cheery “Good morning!”, or even acknowledge their presence by looking at them. One must proceed as though they are invisible. Some visitors find this quite difficult to achieve, especially if the bathers are comely.

If you are the bather and you are interrupted in your bathing reverie, the thing to do is to sink gently and purposefully without fuss into the water. You must on no account scream and attempt to cover your embarrassing bits, or give any hint that other personages might be in the vicinity. They, too, do not exist.

When you visit a house, tea or coffee is automatically put before you without a word, and you must drink it. In very halus households, you might even be asked whether you would like tea, coffee or water. You always say no. You say no again on the second time of asking, then on the third time you say “Well, just a small glass of coffee would be most agreeable.” The coffee is put before you, but you don’t drink it. It sits there for quite some time until your host says “Please drink.” But you still don’t drink it. You wait for a second “Silakan, minum” and you still don’t drink. The rule is: you must wait until your host raises his glass of coffee to his lips. Then you can drink. If you’re dying of thirst this can be most frustrating; but terribly good for the soul...

The commonest Balinese greeting is “Mau ke mana?” - Where are you going? Or sometimes “Dari mana tadi?” - Where have you just come from? This, of course, is quite at odds with the Anglo Saxon penchant for privacy (there is no privacy in Bali - not with 733 people per square kilometer), and at first it is difficult not to reply “Mind your own business!” But you must reply, and usually truthfully. If, in extremis, you really don’t want your whereabouts known to the entire village within 15 minutes, it is quite acceptable to invent a reply. It’s best to be vague (“Jalan-jalan sahaja” - just going for a stroll), because if your lie is found out, that too will be known about by the entire village in the blinking of an eye. (“You said you were just going to the post office, but Nyoman saw you in the bank. He said you took 500,000 rupiah out. What was it for? Was it to pay Pak Rai for your new wall? Can I have some?” etc. etc.)

This persistent questioning is all part of the rules, and is at variance with a European upbringing. It doesn’t stop with “Where are you going?”. When one first meets someone new, a whole gamut of questions are asked: Where do you come from? Where do you come from originally? Are you married? How many wives have you married already? How many children do you have? How old are you? What work do you do? How much do you get paid? It goes on and on and on... The Balinese are quite used to this and deal with each question with due weight and attention, as though nobody has ever asked these questions before. I am less patient, and usually end up exclaiming “Petanyaan, petanyaan! Berapa petanyaan lagi?” - Questions, questions! How many more questions! Not very halus, I’m afraid, but then I’m just a bule yang bodoh - a stupid white-man. I can get away with these things without causing offence. I think...

Raised voices are very rare in Bali. If you are furious with someone, it is absolutely de trop to lose your temper and shout. Quite the opposite. You become more halus; you raise your vocabulary to a higher level of refinement. It is most improper to say “You bastard! You’ve taken my money!” In Balinese it goes something like this: “Is it conceivable, O Great One, thou hast deflected the honorarium I so earnestly seek, and hast deposited it towards thine own bank account?” The ultimate penalty is to go diam. You do not speak at all; and the next time you meet, you simply go about your business as though your enemy is not there. Sometimes feuds span many years. Brothers, who have lived next door to one another in the same compound all their lives, have not spoken for twenty years. Yet a casual visitor would never know this. Other than the antagonists, the two families co-operate in perfect harmony. The wives are friends, the school-age cousins are inseperable and sleep next to each other on their mats; the babies are cuddled by whoever happens to be closest. Nor do the adversaries take their dispute outside the compound. They almost certainly have friends in common, and make no effort to sway village opinion in their favour. They are simply diam with each other, and that’s the beginning and the end of it. The worst cases are those where someone has gained a reputation for dabbling in black magic. The whole village can then go diam on such a person, male or female, but generally the family does not suffer the same fate.

I would have thought that such a dense population would produce a network of rules which guarded privacy jealously. I leave it to anthropologists and sociologists to explain why quite the opposite is true in Bali. There simply are no secrets here, and anyone who thinks he is king in his own secluded castle invariably gets a rude shock. Complete strangers will ask me in the post office “Is your cold better?” Bathers at the pools at the Royal Water Palace of Tirta Gangga who I don’t know from Arjuna will say “Your friends from America have left, then?” Bank tellers do not quietly or subtly hand over the money I have come to withdraw. They yell across a crowded bank, “Mr. Robett! Here’s your 500,000 rupiah.” Then they laboriously count it out in a voice more usually associated with town cryers, “Ten, twenty, thirty... - and you’ve still got 3,678,986 rupiah left in the account, and there’s some interest to come.” “You’re rich!” Says the woman standing beside me. I turn and smile inconsolably.