Letter 4


After I had taken Nengah and all the family of the sick baby to hospital, I had to take my leave of them because I had been invited to spend the weekend with my old friend Peter. Could the contrast between my village life and my ex-patriate social life be greater? One arrives at Peter’s carved gates and a uniformed boy appears from nowhere to take one’s car keys and see to everything. The car is parked, the overnight bag is carried to the house and one’s clothes are arranged for one. One plunges into the solar-panel-heated pool and a towel miraculously appears by the poolside along with tea and sandwiches – with the crusts taken off, of course. The gin and tonics appear at the appropriate moment, are replenished the moment the ice tinkles desolately at the bottom of the glass, and a servant for each dinner guest hovers around the dinner table, waiting to whisk the plate away the moment the last mouthful is still in mid-air-conditioning. I find this disconcerting; this constant watching over one’s every move. I sense they are inspecting me for the least sign of a faux pas. Far from relaxing me, it gives me the jitters; and don’t you find in these circumstances you tend to drop more food than usual? It’s as though those beady-eyed servants have put black-magic on them and are willing the imported garden peas to fall from the fork onto the Carrara marble floor.

So this a bald reality of life in Bali: Peter’s average monthly electricity bill is more than the carpenter Nengah’s total income in a year. And Bali, through its tourism, is one of the richest islands in the Indonesian archipelago. As an American corporate Vice-President once said to me: “I’ve been very poor, and I’ve been very rich; and I can tell you, rich is better.”

After I had returned from a weekend of sheer hedonism at Peter’s house, I walked up to Nengah’s to find out how the baby was. Nengah greeted me warmly and put his arms round me and laughed. “It died yesterday” (very matter of fact, very precise) “at eight-thirty.” All the relatives, however distantly related, were sitting in the Bale Gede laughing and joking. Nengah’s wife, Ketut, was rushing around preparing black tea and rice-cakes for the inevitable free-loaders. She looked very tired, so I called her over to where I was sitting. I felt awkwardly out of place with this curious bonhomie and was weary of the laughter and jokes at my expense about my poor attempts at speaking High Balinese. And when they have been chewing betel, it’s all I can do to keep my stomach down when confronted with those blood-red toothy smiles and the vermilion spittle on the floor. “You look tired.” I said to Ketut quietly, so as not to be overheard. “How’s it going?” “Well... you know," she sighed, "sad, I suppose.” But I knew not to pry too deeply. It is never done to display your grieving in public. “And how is Nengah taking it?” “Oh.. you know.. same as me.” No, I didn’t know, and didn’t understand how a father who - however inadvertently - had killed his first-born son could be so calm about it.

But death is commonplace here. Malaria (don’t believe the brochures: malaria is on the increase), dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis, polio, - one of them will carry the little ones off if the other one misses its mark. If a baby dies, make another one. “How many children do you have?” Is a standard opening question. “We’ve got five children: two have left this world and three are still with us.” - is the standard sort of reply. The trick is to survive into adolescence. Once these impoverished people get there, they are likely to live to a ripe old age. One of the toothless, cackling women in Kadek’s family pavilion is his great-great (I think) grandmother. She’s 103. She was carrying water on her head well into her nineties. Even now, she was sitting in the bale making intricate offerings for the first of many elaborate ceremonies for the dead baby. Her fingers are still nimble as she cuts and weaves, folds and plaits palm leaves into stunning green and yellow filigrees.

I couldn’t stay long. I couldn’t behave as I wanted to; sympathy, affection, gestures of mutuality - let alone condolences - sit badly in the Balinese psyche. They just become embarrassed and giggle even more. Nengah walked with me out to the road. “Thanks for coming. We would like you to come to the ceremony tomorrow. Will you come?”

“Of course I’ll come.” I said.

Looking a proper Charlie dressed up to the nines in my temple gear - cloth-of-gold outer sarong wrapped round another pleated sarong, white shirt and intricately folded headgear; the udung of every tourist picture of Bali - I walked up to the house where the ceremony would start. The women of the household were screaming and shouting instructions about how the offerings should be handled. It is customary to take a gift of some sort, rice or some cloth is the most usual. I have learned to be canny. On this occasion I took some multi-vitamins to give to Nengah’s wife. I saw Ketut immediately and gave them to her privately. We, with all the offerings, piled onto a truck. Buses are too expensive for the villagers to charter. I protested that I didn’t want to sit in the front; that seat should go to one of the older women. I would stand at the back. But they would have none of that, so the Tuan sat in style up-front instead of standing and swaying in the blazing sun, as the truck lurched from pot-hole to pot-hole on its way to the cemetery. I can’t say I was not pleased with this arrangement.

At the cemetery the relatives and I squatted down under the shade of a tree, while grandpa, who happens to be a pemangku – a sort of village curate – sang mantras over the offerings. Fresh turf was sliced off another part of the cemetery ground and laid over the tiny, mounded grave. Then the offerings were put on top of the grave – fruit, rice cakes, splayed, roasted chickens, white cloth and smoking incense sticks and many, many flowers. All this was conducted not with an air of subdued reverence, but with a matter-of-fact indifference. Passers-by stopped for a chat (“Who are you burying?”) and the ‘mourners’ (for want of no better English word) chatted amongst themselves as they would at any other time and any other place. Even under the shade, I always suffer mightily from these long waits in the sun, and the heat was getting to me. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t come. More offerings, more mantras then, finally, we all gathered round to be blessed. This invariably follows the same protocol. In the yoga position (Oh! The Pain!) three times we gathered up special flowers to our fingertips and raised our praying hands above our bowed heads. After the third time, the pemangku came round with holy water (always comically brought to the site in something mundane like a Coca-Cola bottle). Three times he sprinkled with a flower the holy water on our outstretched hands. With the first drops we drank, with the second we washed our faces and with the third we passed it over our hair and placed the flower behind the ear.

Then it was over. The Hindus deem the ‘essence’ from the offerings has passed to the Gods who have been appeased, and to the recently-departed soul for its nourishment; so now these offerings are anybody’s. Poverty leaves no room for sentiment. The shrieking children scrabbled about fighting over the fruit and the choice bits of meat. Over the grave they tore off bits of chicken flesh with their teeth, threw fruit across to friends and squabbled over who should have what. Intelligent curs had been standing some distance away eyeing all this food, and now came homing-in with fangs bared lest some junior dog stole the prizes. The humans made only half-hearted attempts at shooing them away, as these mangy hounds pounced and chomped on discarded chicken bones. Grandma came up to me, and with filthy fingernails from hefting the turf, offered me a choice bit of greasy chicken flesh which had been standing in the sun for over two hours. I politely declined with the excuse that I had already eaten. But I could not get-off so lightly. In the end I opted for a proffered mangosteen which I could peel and feel fairly sure about. It would have been rude not to eat something with them.

With much quiet relief on my part, we made our way back to the truck. Just past where it was parked we could see workmen bolting girders together for a 200ft tall steel tower. And here you have another side of this extraordinary island: whilst we were observing a ceremony unchanged for a thousand years, scrabbling over food surrounded by mangy dogs and going home in an old truck, they were erecting an antenna for mobile phones.

Some observations on poverty which are generally not included in articles in The Economist or seen by helicopter-borne bureaucrats:

If you don’t have shoes and walk in bare feet, it’s not true that your feet grow leathery and tough. Actually what happens in the tropics is they become encrusted with skin-moulds which itch constantly especially between the toes.

What is sometimes perceived as ignorance is often just poverty. Electricity is a good case in point: the theory of fuses, earths, correct amperage and the like is generally known by most younger people, but if you don’t have the money to buy the proper rigging, you make do with what you have or just ignore what you have not. Consequently sparks fly, houses go up in smoke and often people are electrocuted. It’s pointless to admonish (“If only you had spent 50p on the proper earthed plug, your daughter would not now be in hospital.”); a variety of risks are taken every day in all sorts of domains. Electricity is just one of many dangers on which they gamble, with Poverty as croupier.

Men fall out of 80ft coconut trees and brain themselves on a daily basis - for the sake of the 20p each coconut fetches in the market. Tyres are bald, concrete is mixed with 14 parts sand to 1 part cement, drinking water is stored in old paint tins. And – yes – motor-bikes skid off the road, walls collapse at the merest whiff of an earthquake and people get ill.

Fat, white people are attractive. (You’re fat because you’re rich; you’re white because you don’t spend your days in the fields.) I score lots of Brownie points on both counts!

Toothache is dreaded, because it is the one common malady traditional, herbal medicines seem not to be able to cure.

Contrary to Western perceptions, people in poverty are not hardy. They are sick frequently and are all hypochondriacs. The onset of a headache or even the common cold may be the presage of something worse, and they are very fearful. The luxury of Stoicism is given only to those in the developed world, who can be assured of a rapid and reasonably pain-free recovery should their ailment prove substantive.

I am by far the smelliest and worst-dressed person in our village. Poverty engenders fastidiousness in personal hygiene. Most villagers are almost compulsively clean. They bathe at least twice a day (and always before donning temple dress) and wash their clothes after one outing. The dust in the courtyards (or mud in the rainy season) and the dirt floors in the rooms makes this finicky cleanliness absolutely essential. The relative value of the few clothes they possess means they look after them much better than we do. Yards and rooms are swept twice a day too. We’d be knee-deep in chicken and dog shit if they weren’t. (When you come to Bali, always remember the Balinese can smell you a mile off – not because of the Paco Rabanne you snatched up in the Duty Free Shop, but because we eat too much red meat, and our pores give off a rather unpleasant and pungent odour. Or so I am reliably informed... And while I’m on that subject: it is salutary to learn that our practice of wiping our noses on handkerchiefs then putting them back in our pockets is looked on with utter horror and disgust by the Balinese.)

Bali, which used to be a net exporter, must now import rice because so many of Bali’s picturesque rice terraces have been turned over to hotels and golf-courses. This the Balinese understand, but shrug their shoulders: “What can we do about it?”

I can hear you! “If it’s all so ghastly, why does he live there?” Well, I hate living in Indonesia. I hate the all-pervading, top-to-bottom corruption, the petty bureaucracy, the irritating restrictions and the sinister repression which the larger state overlays on this small island’s way of life. And I avoid it as much as possible. But I love living in Bali. Despite their poverty, the villagers have a serenity, good nature and inner beauty which is hard to find anywhere else and harder to explain. Even when they rip me off, it is done with such cultured finesse I am left gasping with admiration. To live intimately with so ancient and richly endowed a culture (they were building enormous and elaborate temples when we were still in woad) enriches me. Even the surrounding poverty is in some way enlivening. They make the best of what they have.