Letter 3


In 1997, at the beginning of the Asian economic crisis, the Indonesian rupiah fell in a matter of days from 3,500 to around 5,600 to the pound. Things were serious. No-one had the slightest idea that this was merely the prelude to greater calamities. Within a few months, the rupiah dropped from 5,500 to just over 20,000 to the pound. The economic crisis burgeoned into a political one. One of the world’s longest serving tyrants, President Soeharto resigned, only to be replaced by his satrap Habibie. The military is still very much in control. Nothing on the political front has really changed. Ida Bagus Oka, the former governor of Bali and known universally on this island as ‘Ida Bagus O.K.’ for obvious reasons, has been made a minister. Riots are so commonplace now, they often are ignored by the Indonesian press; the press from other countries has moved on to other, juicier pastures. The worst examples of looting and mayhem might warrant a couple of column inches on an inside pages of the Jakarta Post. Whilst all is collapsing around us, and people are starving, the state television service, TVRI, continues to broadcast important stories like the visit of the minister of trade from Colombia, or the president opening a plastic bag factory. (If you think I am embellishing to make a literary point, both of those stories were on the news a few weeks ago.)

A few months back a qualified accountant migrated in desperation from Jakarta to Bali. For the Javanese the streets in Bali are paved with gold. He came to my house and pleaded with me to give him a job as a driver or a gardener - anything. The company for whom he worked in Jakarta had been owned by a Chinese businessman. In the mayhem of May '98, when Soeharto was finally toppled, looters had first stripped the offices of all their computers (along with years of data) then rioters burned the building to the ground. There was nothing left for my accountant friend to account for. I couldn’t give him a job. There’s a queue of 90 million people (and that is the government’s estimate) battering at my door. Every few days I notice something is different in the village: “Where’s Ketut gone? We haven’t seen him recently.” “Gone to Denpasar. A friend sent word there’s a job going in a furniture warehouse.” Invariably he returns: “How did you get on?” “I spent three days wandering round. Nothing doing.” “I suppose you’ve spent all your money on food and bus fares?” “Yup...” “Here you are... Go on... Take it.” “No. I can’t. I won’t be able to pay you back.” “Take it!”

‘May you live in interesting times!’ Goes the old Chinese curse. So far rice has quadrupled in price; medicines, except for those made in Indonesia, have mostly quintupled. Western products like tonic water or bread suddenly disappear from the shelves. Sometimes there is butter in the supermarket, but it’s always a gamble whether to make the two-hour trip to Denpasar (if a car is available) only to find the shelves empty and suffer a wasted journey. Sometimes a rumour spreads: Toko Pasific has got HP Sauce again! We rush off and buy four bottles. Who knows when we shall see Market Harborough’s most famous product again? (When I opened the cap of the first bottle of HP Sauce I had seen in months, eager to appreciate the delicious brown goo oozing slowly onto the plate, half the bottle gushed forth and swamped my chips. Somewhere along the line a resourceful entrepreneur - if you’ll forgive the pun - had watered it down!)

I had to fly to Kuala Lumpur to get the necessary bits to hook up to the internet. I couldn’t get them in Bali. Whilst I was away, our very own village transvestite - with the touchingly appropriate name of ‘Betty’ - hanged him/herself from a tree in the rice fields below the village. She was 23. I was inordinately shocked to hear this news on my return. I suppose, in my innocence, I imagined that anyone with the inner strength to live openly and naturally as one of the opposite sex in a small community like ours would be able to weather any storm; that such brave people were somehow immune from the normal stresses of everyday existence. I asked the guy who told me of the tragedy whether Betty had trouble with her family because of his/her eccentricity. Oh No! That wasn’t the problem at all. Everybody was perfectly happy with that. Apparently Betty had hanged herself after an argument with her mother over a loan of Rp.10,000 - about £1 now. “Betty was just stressed-out.” Opined my informant. “She just couldn’t take any more of this difficult life we are all leading.”

'Asian Economic Crisis' are only words. But in a village as poor as this one these words are translated into terrifying meaning. I paid a social visit to Kadek's house the other day up in the village. He and his wife have just had a baby so I wanted to see how they were getting on. Kadek has no work, though Komang (his younger brother who lives with them) has got some casual work as a labourer 45p a day. There is no social security here, no free medical treatment, no pensions except for government officials. Everyone from the poorest of the poor is on his own. So Kadek and his wife are making sate sticks to sell to the sate sellers in the market (even in the night market it's mostly dog now to make the meat go further, so I never eat sate from the market these days). If Kadek and his wife work hard, they can make 1000 sticks a day. Because so many people are out of work, everybody is making sate sticks; consequently the bottom has dropped out of the market. The sate sellers are paying them Rp2000 for a bundle of 1000 sticks. So Kadek and his wife - a slip of a girl, really - are earning between them 20p a day. The conversation I had with them is worth reporting verbatim:

Me: When did you last eat meat?

Kadek: I dunno... maybe a week ago.We killed a chicken.

Me: So your wife's breastfeeding the baby, but she's not eating any meat! You know she must have protein.

Kadek: Where are we going to get meat from? We barely have enough to buy vegetables.

Me: What about eggs?

Kadek: Eggs? We NEVER eat eggs! Each egg is now Rp850

Me: But what about the chickens? Can't you get eggs for your wife from the chickens?

Kadek: We've eaten the chickens.

This morning I went to the hospital. Gede, who plays the ugal in our gamelan, had told me his nephew - the son of his elder brother Nengah (there are fourteen children from the father and his one wife) - had been taken into hospital ‘with a cold stomach’. I happened to have a rented car so I rushed up to the house and collected her of the fourteen children - the grandmother of the sick child - and five others who wanted the ride, and drove them to the hospital. It was, I learned there, internal septicemia brought on because the child’s father had fed him a banana. The child is less than month old; still too young to have a name here, let alone digest a raw banana. Yesterday the baby’s heart had stopped twice and the nurses had given him the kiss of life twice. I found the little thing (surrounded by a dozen of his family who had spent the night sleeping on the floor) in Amlapura hospital's incubator. It is a raised wooden crate with four ten-watt light bulbs underneath. He was on a glucose drip, and had been given an injection. It’s pointless to compare costs; but just the drip and the injection cost Nengah more than he earns in a month. Nengah is a carpenter, as his father is, and he had to pay up-front before the doctor would allow the drip to be fastened. “I was wrong” sighed Nengah. “I shouldn’t have given him that banana. It was a bad banana.”

“Ada obat, Tuan Robett? Saya sakit sekali.” This cry - asking if I have some medicine because my friend feels very ill - I hear maybe two or three times a week. I dole out the aspirin or paracetamol; I treat the septic cuts with antibiotic cream without much enthusiasm. There’s little I can do. It is difficult to explain the poverty which reigns in terror in this easternmost part of Bali; a poverty so absolute that it denies the people even the simplest of medicines; a poverty so grinding that even basic nutritional food is a luxury; a poverty which denies them every standard amenity, not because they are not there, but because they can’t afford to use them.

I’m a bit tired of the sleek holiday brochures: “Come to Bali, the Paradise Island. The Island of the Gods.” Behind the dazzling smiles, the dances and the music, behind the sumptuous processions and the cloth of gold lies a vast misery. The tourists rarely, if ever, see it from behind the tinted glass of their air-conditioned coaches. But I do. Just occasionally I see the mask drop. Every so often the sheer labour of staying alive gets too much for them. Nyoman who suffers badly from asthma was in a serious frame of mind one day. We can’t obtain Ventolin inhalers in Amlapura, they are much too expensive (nearly £10 for one inhaler). He said to me: “You know, Pak Robett, sometimes I really want to die.” I reacted sharply. “Oh no! I don’t mean I would kill myself. That wouldn’t be right. But if I died tomorrow, I should be pleased. All my problems would disappear, and my spirit could start again on a new and better life. Maybe as a cat in your house, eh?” And, as he always is prone to do, he doubled-up in giggles. Yesterday on my motor-bike I passed eighteen-year-old Ketut sitting under a tree on the road sheltering from the sun (he's one of eleven children in that family; and before you think it, don’t you know how much a condom costs - even if they knew what one was?). He didn’t look up. I could tell he’d had it up to here, so I didn’t stop. I knew already what was bugging him. No job, no money, no food, no new clothes, no prospect of any of these things. He gets up in the morning, eats plain, boiled rice perhaps flavoured with green leaves and tiny dried salt-fish and goes down to the stream for a shit and a wash. He wanders about, goes to sleep, eats more rice, sits, wanders about again, washes in the stream again, eats more rice and goes to bed, which he shares with three of his siblings. (He’s small for his age through lack of nutrition.) This is the sum total of his day - and every day. It’s not that he doesn’t have much money, he has no money. This is difficult for us to imagine: absolutely no money at all; nor the prospect of ever getting any. Can we imagine the ennui of such an existence? It’s not as if he could allay the pain by getting drunk. He hasn’t got the money to buy the drink. He does work in the padi-fields, when there is work to be done; but you can only weed a small rice field so often, and the only other thing you can do is watch the rice grow. The land doesn’t belong to Ketut’s family. They give half of what they grow to the landowner. They eat the rest, so there is no cash crop.

Rarely - but it does happen - the stress of scraping a living just gets too much on top of them, and they either go crazy or they run amuck or both. We had, in the English-speaking world (that is, until Hungerford and Dunblane), no concept of amok so we’ve taken this Malay word into our own language. Men (more rarely women) will suddenly snap, and go rampaging through the village with a knife, killing anyone who happens to get in the way. No amount of counter-attack will divert them: they are in trance. Some are badly injured by the other men of the village trying to constrain them, but their trance renders them immune to pain. Eventually these hapless men are subdued and taken out of their trance, (if they’re not liked in the village, this may well be the opportunity to dispatch them for good) but rarely are they handed over to the police. Elaborate ceremonies will be performed to cleanse the man and the village of this taint. Some go back to their everyday lives as though nothing had happened; others remain orang gila (crazy people) and become unwelcomed burdens to already overstretched families. You see them walking aimlessly about the roads; their hair uncut and dank, their clothes in rags, muttering to themselves. Yesterday, a man came from the remote village of Wayan, our cook, to tell him some sad news: Wayan’s uncle hanged himself that afternoon from a tree in the field he worked for another owner. The reason? Apparently he was frustrasi because he had no money and owed too many people too much. It was less than £100. There you go...