Thursday, March 22, 2012

HECTOR;S DIARY in the Bali Advertiser, March 21, 2012

Banking on it

Janet DeNeefe, doyenne of dinners and instigator of that annual Ubud fixture, the writers’ and readers’ festival, has been busy lately. That was in Melbourne, where she did a stint demonstrating the cuisine of Bali to residents of that alternatively cold, hot, wet, dry city at the southern extremity of continental Australia. (Only Tasmania, where the Southern Ocean winds truly find an edge and evoke the ambiance of Europe, is closer to Antarctica. It’s a lovely island; really. The Diary spent two years there long ago.)
      But we digress. DeNeefe’s culinary exemplars teased taste buds in suburban Hawthorn – not the Diary’s preferred footy suburb: we barrack for St Kilda – over a series of evenings this month, in aid of promoting Bali and DeNeefe’s latest cookbook.  That’s all to the good. It will have had its spinoff in favour of this year’s UWRF, the eighth, from October 3-7.
      DeNeefe said of her Melbourne culinary enterprise: “I want to highlight the majesty of Indonesian food in all its glory. I will be featuring dishes from all over the archipelago, spotlighting elegant curries, golden seafood broths, wok-tossed greens, banana-leaf specials, sambals and an array of traditional and contemporary desserts.”
      Her food nights were staged at Wantilan Balinese Restaurant. Hopefully DeNeefe found some elegant curry-eaters to sample her elegant curries.
      This year’s festival theme, announced with a flourish this month, is This Earth of Mankind: Bumi Manusia, from the title of a work by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, regarded as one of Indonesia’s greatest contemporary writers. It was the first book in Pramoedya's historical fiction trilogy, The Buru Quartet, first published in 1980. Pramoedya died in 2005.
      The story is set at the end of the Dutch colonial rule and was written while Pramoedya was a political prisoner on the island prison of Buru in eastern Indonesia. His life there was one of deprivation, hard labour and physical cruelty. Denied even the most rudimentary writing implements, he got around this obstacle by narrating the work to his fellow prisoners, who shared it around the prison. The work was maintained and kept until eventually Pramoedya was allowed to write.
      The narrator in the book, Minke, wishes to be a writer. He is told: “Write always about humanity, humanity’s life, not humanity’s death. Yes, whether it’s animals, ogres, gods, or ghosts that you present, there’s nothing more difficult to understand than humanity. That’s why there is no end to the telling of stories on this earth.”
      That’s sound advice. Here’s some more, from another Pramoedya work:
      “It is really surprising sometimes how a prohibition seems to exist solely in order to be violated. And when I disobeyed I felt that what I did was pleasurable. For children such as I at that time – oh, how many prohibitions and restrictions were heaped on our heads! Yes, it was as though the whole world was watching us, bent on forbidding whatever we did and whatever we wanted. Inevitably we children felt that this world was really intended only for adults.”
      Pramoedya is referring to children. But the prohibition on prohibition that he implies should be mandatory is no less valid more widely, and should be insisted on for governments whose grasp of democracy extends only to acceptance of their own official truth.
      Last year’s UWRF was sponsored by leading Australian bank ANZ, which owns Panin Bank locally.  Hopefully the 2012 festival will benefit from that sponsorship, renewed.

Nyepi Non-Silence

Silent Day, the annual 6am-6am Balinese Hindu seclusion that shuts the island down, falls on a Friday this year (it’s on March 23). Because Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, the authorities have agreed that Muslims may leave their houses to walk to prayers at the nearest mosque. This is a fair concession and should be applauded for several reasons.
      The first and most important reason is that it recognises that Bali is not exclusively Hindu. It has never been so, of course, but in the distant past the numbers who followed other religions were tiny. Not so nowadays.
      The importance of the day to practising Hindus (and to local communities who traditionally mark the day in significantly varied ways) cannot be gainsaid, should never be, and must be protected by law.  But it is time symbolic restrictions were confined to traditional practices: there is no reason to black-out broadcasting for example.
      And there’s a further issue, given the precedent set for Friday prayers: If Nyepi falls on a Sunday, Christians should be granted the same concession.

Not so Mobil

Once, as they say, is a misfortune. Twice looks likely to set a trend. And thrice definitively establishes this. Diary and Distaff have now three times tried to buy a car – a mobil in these parts – from the Suzuki distributor here, PT Indo Bali. On each occasion, deal done except for the final signature, these fine sellers of motor vehicles have dealt themselves out of the game by failing to provide a test-drive vehicle, finding an eleventh-hour reason to demand more money, or refusing to hold the nominated vehicle pending final payment.
     We had been unwilling this time to venture into the premises on Imam Bonjol in Denpasar where these reluctant salespeople are to be found. But our attempt to acquire our chosen vehicle from a new dealer on the by-pass at Jimbaran failed when that was too hard for them too and they flick-passed us onto PT Indo Bali.
     It’s a shame, because Suzukis are fine vehicles. But we’ve had it. We’ll buy another make from some outfit that actually closes deals.

Open Arms

We hear that a new watering hole has opened in Banjar Anyar, on the northern extremity of the KLS traffic snarl. It’s the Plumbers Arms, which is trading without benefit of the singular or plural possessive in the ungrammatical way of the modern world. It is billed as an English pub and is the latest venture by that peripatetic Anglo-Australian couple, Nigel and Jacky Ames, who do all sorts of other things around Bali and in the Gilis off Lombok.
     We wish them good fortune with the new enterprise. Presumably they’re chilling that awful English beer. We would have inquired about that, except we did ask about the opening and heard nothing back. Perhaps all that hot froth got in the way.

Mangoland Rules!

There’s an election in the Australian state of Queensland on Saturday (March 24). This is a matter of decidedly finite importance to anyone outside Queensland – the north-eastern third of the Australian continent – unless they are former residents; or perhaps for readers of lately published satirical novels.
     Ross Fitzgerald, a professorial type well known to Hector – he’s also a frequent Bali sojourner and will be here again in June – has written a book, Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State, which is about an election in the fictional state of Mangoland. For those who do not know, Queensland produces a lot of mangoes.
     Fitzgerald, who wrote the book with Trevor Jordan, is a historian and Mangoland aka Queensland is a rich field for anyone interested in examining the venalities of politics. It’s a readable yarn, except that – irritatingly – it uses discrete (meaning severally) for discreet (which among other things means don’t get caught).  Never mind; this is after all the post-literate age.
     The book – dedicated thus, “For all the fools we have known, including ourselves” – is published by Arcadia, an imprint of Melbourne publisher Australian Scholarly Books. Fitzgerald has written several books, including Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia.

Corked Out

A kind friend, possibly mindful of the conditions endured by drinkers of alcohol in these parts – it is Haram to the majority of Indonesians after all – sent Hector this little thought the other day: “Nobody has ever come up with a great idea after a second bottle of water.”
     Quite so; it’s no wonder all those earnest seminars and conferences, locally and globally, seem to have difficulty fixing anything other than the date of their next gabfest.  But our problem in Bali is of a different kind. Given the price of the fermented product of the grape hereabouts, few people can come up with a second bottle of wine.

The Bali Advertiser is published fortnightly, on Wednesdays. Hector's Diary appears in the print edition and on the newspaper's website Follow Hec on Twitter (@scratchings) or join him on Facebook (Hector McSquawky)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

HECTOR'S DIARY Bali Advertiser, March 7, 2012

Dolts Rule

It’s always fun visiting the Odd Zone; it’s the very best of your diarist’s former domiciles, for all sorts of reasons, most of them a cause for wry smiles or irritated grimaces. There’s the traffic, for one thing. It largely obeys the road rules and even stays in lane; what’s more, at traffic lights if there are, say, three lanes of traffic marked, none of the vehicles present attempts to create eight lanes. It’s very confusing for drivers accustomed to Bali’s road system (sic) and driver behaviour.
     But the very worst of the Australian experience, for those citizens of the Odd Zone who have exchanged You’re Being Watched resident status for the significantly better benefits of Frequent Visitor, is the bureaucracy in general and the customs and quarantine and airport security you encounter in particular.
     On our way back to Bali from Perth the weekend before last, for example, the Diary and Distaff lost some valuable soft cheeses – the finest products of Western Australia no less – on the risible grounds that they were “gels” and thus suspected of being potentially explosive.
     We all value airport security and agree that mad shoe bombers and others of incomprehensibly suicidal intent should be detected and diverted from their proposed criminal acts. But a little common sense wouldn’t go astray among those whose daily duties arm them with bureaucratic instructions that an imbecile would instantly recognise as stupid.
     If the two Aussie border control heroes who fished around in our cooler bag had exercised common sense when they detected brie and haloumi (we had to insist they dropped it down the disposal chute while we watched – we’re not in the business of providing free gourmet foods to anyone) they’d also have confiscated the prime soft Tasmanian blue with which we were also armed.
     But they didn’t.  For that oversight they and their over-prescriptive masters should be shoe-ins for a Dumbo award.
     There’s a serious side to this.  Frequent visitors have plenty of other places they can choose to go instead, where you’re much less likely to get cheesed off by doltish buffoons on food patrol.

Bit of a Stumble

It’s not always as much fun as it should be returning to Bali. This time The Diary stepped on a hidden road-level metal guardrail on alighting from the bus from the plane to the terminal and overstretched a hamstring.  Perhaps it is there to deter bus drivers from motoring up the terminal steps. But the embarrassing limp that resulted has not been a Favourite Moment.
     In the terminal, we ran into some nattily dressed customs and excise officers who, while presumably present to clamp down on the informal system of paying under the counter for extra alcohol above the one-litre limit attempted to extort even more. Unfortunately for them they had to deal with the Distaff, who was not in the best of moods. We paid, but not on the basis of their aberrant and singularly profitable mathematical concept.


By happenstance, the day after our return from the Odd Zone (Western Division) the Perth online newspaper WA Today ran an article headlined “Where the bloody hell are all the tourists?” Coarse language (along with bad grammar) is only one irritating element of life as it is lived in the continent of kangaroos.
     We tweeted that, suggesting that perhaps all the tourists were in Bali. They’re not, of course – for some strange reason Aussies are also travelling elsewhere overseas on cheap holidays – but one of the reasons they’re not packing Western Australia’s many attractions is the cost of doing so. We sympathise with WA’s tourism marketers and agree there are a great many reasons to be a tourist on their patch, among them the beaches and the wineries. And beaches might be a mass market chance, except that most Australians already live within reach of perfectly adequate alternatives to flying 3000 kilometres to sit on one in WA.
     Other tourism options are largely for niche markets. It’s a tough business, as Bali itself is finding out.  Pursuing quantum figures in tourism is fine if you’re only looking – in the Australian context and here – for the Yeh ‘n’ Neh crowd and big sales of “I Drink Beer and Have the Belly to Prove It” vests.
     The Diary looks forward to regular trips to WA where, in the south-west particularly, there are many establishments offering prime potable products. On our recent visit to home territory we dined and drank at both Voyager (whose Girt by Sea pinot noir is fabulous and not only for its name, which comes from a memorably ridiculous line in the Australian national anthem) and Wise, a personal favourite because it looks over an expanse of generally calm north-facing ocean and has a Provencal air. Voyager affects a Cape Dutch architectural style (quite well) and has lovely roses – and perhaps the biggest flag in Australia apart from the double-decker bus-sized flutterer atop Parliament House in Canberra.

Quality Counts

On the question of looking for quality rather than quantity (and the higher per visitor spend that results) it’s cheering to hear that Bali proposes to shift its focus that way. We’re under siege here, after all, though not solely from foreign tourists: all those chaps who bring their cars with them on holiday from Jakarta and Bandung and Surabaya, and their road manners and driving skills too, are a nuisance.
    It’s long overdue, even if we’re pitching for three million foreign tourists to write another record. Bali’s infrastructure – not just the roads and the pathetic power system – is literally cracking under the strain of the tourist load. Provincial second assistant secretary Ketut Wija recently pronounced upon this at a planning meeting on economic development held appropriately enough in Lombok (which should be taking a larger portion of the tourist load, except that Bali keeps putting rocks in the road of that endeavour) when he said: “We no longer will prioritise the quantity of tourist arrivals, but will now place the emphasis on quality of those visitors.”
    Wija said Bali – an island of only 5632 square kilometres, 0.2 percent of Indonesian national territory – has between five and six million visitors annually. It is also a magnet for Indonesians from other islands seeking work, with about 400,000 arriving to settle each year.

Skippy’s a Winner

The Diary’s side trip on the Australian tour – mentioned in the Diary last issue – was by Qantas flying Perth-Canberra-Perth.  We’re now a mere bronze QFlyer (the halcyon days of pointy-end platinum status are long gone) but a happy confluence of an accommodating friend at head office and unoccupied seats in business class resulted in upgrades both ways. It was delightful to have space to stretch the legs, food to match the ambiance and actual metal cutlery to eat it with, and an unobstructed view out of the window.
     Both flights were into the gloaming and then the night, affording the Diary an opportunity also long forgone to feast the eyes on the amazing light-hues off to the south in the stratospheric distance and to imagine all that ice-waste far away beyond the Southern Ocean. It stirs the Muse, that sort of thing.
     Another stirring element of the flight was a dangerous confection, the work not of the Devil but of Maggie Beer, who may be one of his culinary agents but is certainly an Australian icon. Her burnt fig and honey ice cream is to die for, though one naturally hopes not immediately.
     The Purser on the flight agreed, when we beckoned him over and said: “Maggie Beer is a bad, bad woman.” A big smile lit up his face and he replied: “Oh I know, I know. But I’m lucky. I live only 30 minutes up the road from her shop.”

It’s a Riot

It is the lot of the unlucky diarist to be elsewhere when something happens. We had to watch the unfolding drama of the Kerobokan prison riot through the imperfect prism of Australian television.  Matt Brown was measured – and by far the best – on ABC. The commercial stations were their usual breathlessly uniformed selves.  And that’s such a shame because most Australians get what passes for their news from tabloid TV.
     The Kerobokan insurrection was hardly unexpected. It beggars belief that the custodial authorities are not provided with sufficient funds to properly house all those that their companions in crime, the police and the judicial system, insist on jailing.
      A solution is more prison space so that at least the basics of human existence can be practised in clink. There are some useful human rights rules the government could read up on, in that regard, too.

Oh All Right Then

Last issue’s guarded reference to Titian and ladders – it was in the context of the Renaissance exhibition at the Australian National Gallery – brought a rash of requests to expand upon it. So OK, we were wrong to attempt to be decorous. Here’s the limerick in question:

While Titian was mixing Rose Madder
His model reclined on a ladder.
The position to Titian
Suggested coition,
So he ran up the ladder an' 'ad 'er.

Hector's Diary appears in the Bali Advertiser, out every second Wednesday, and on the newspaper's website Hector is on Twitter (@scratchings) and Facebook (Hector McSquawky).

The diary is also posted at this blog: