Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tales from Bali- The Price of Potatoes

The Price of Potatoes
By Uma Anyar

To get to our house, in the rice fields of Banjar Apuh, (population 180 men, women, and children plus fifteen cows, twelve pigs and a smattering of roosters) we have to drive down a barely paved narrow road past a soirĂ©e of free roaming chickens, which scatter like demented hysterics into trash-strewn ditches. Halfway down this country lane, just before Made’s Warung we slow to a snails pace to accommodate the family of geese who live on this swatch of cement like royal squatters. In Bali, no one bothers penning up domestic foul. Curiously, the chickens and geese get along with the mangy black and white dogs as well as the feral cats and the passing cars or motorbikes. No one complains if a platoon of ducks comes waddling down the street. Everyone just slows down and waits for the herdsman with the bamboo pole to nudge quacking tribe into a straight line so that motorists can get by. Both parties smile and nod as if approving the transaction before passing each other.
After the open hut that houses the ping-pong table over which young men thwack resilient balls with great gusto in the early evenings, the same small gang of local children emerge from various family compounds and wave vigorously while yelling “Hello, hello,” as loudly as possible, their tiny wrists twisting in unison, their eyes bright with excitement.

Greetings and smiles are as natural as sunshine in Bali.

When we pass Putu the painter’s house, we wave at the band of young Balinese guys hanging out on their motorbikes, smoking kreteks and shooting the shit in Balinese. They are not as interested in the Bules who have taken up residence in their village, as their elders appear to be.

Bules are foreigners who have elected to live in Bali. There are a lot of us in the Ubud area. Every Balinese knows we are a source of income. And everyone and his cousin have a business of some kind or other. Bules like art and Bules buy things. There are eight different painters shops on the pot holed main road leading to our village displaying Balinese interpretations of Western sensuality. Messily coiffured blond babe’s with puffy lips pout and strike provocative poses from canvases large enough to impress any lusty art aficionado. Tourism has affected Balinese painting styles as well as subject matter. But the sweet smiling bare breasted maiden carrying fruit on her head is a staple and has been selling well since the nineteen thirties when Bali emerged as a exotic place to visit.

Electricity reached Mawang just fifteen years ago. Telephone lines never made it to Banjar Apuh but everyone under fifty has a hand phone and thinks nothing of driving and speed dialing while passing a truck piled high with rattan wrapped pigs on their way to a profitable slaughter. It is impossible to be bored when driving in Bali. In fact it is crucial to everyone’s health and well being that drivers stay alert as sauntering old people, snoozing dogs, soup wagons selling bakso balls and noodles share the road with jeeps and motorcycles.

During harvest season it is common to come across large plastic turquoise tarps spread evenly with drying rice. If you have to drive over the rice then … please do so with care. No one admonishes the road hogs or suggests that they should spread their rice drying tarps someplace less obstreptous to village traffic. Only main roads devoted to speed are free of the brown kernel. Rice is life. Everyone knows this and everyone, even the new orange haired punk boys and the tattooed rebel painters slow down when they pass Ibu’s rice blanket. The local roosters peck at the bounty and no one raises a fuss. Sometimes an old man wrapped in a stained sarong doses on the grass beside the exposed rice, his watchful eyes lazy with the afternoon heat.

Afternoon siestas are normal in most Balinese rural villages. It is not uncommon to see groups of old men pile onto the village bale, curl up on the dusty straw mat and sleep together peacefully as children. No one uses pillows or cushions or covers of any kind.

Sleep is both a private and a collective activity.

Paul makes his way slowly over the banjar speed bump, we say hello to the bare breasted old woman in the brown sarong and old orange towel over her shoulder. Nenek is on her way to the river to scrub down before the grand- children return from school.
We stop by the warung where Kadek the saucy village warung proprietress is selling candies, soda pop, bottled water, four cucumbers and a single cabbage, the shelves s are stocked with krupuks and chips as well as several small rice concoctions wrapped in banana leaves. Hot coffee- black and sweet is available if the thermos isn’t empty

It is rumored that sexy Kadek recently had an affaire with our architect’s uncle. There are whispers of an abortion. But no one is pointing fingers; no one is avoiding her wooden hut resplendid with junk food and a few vegetables. Good and bad deeds get absorbed or stored for future scoldings. Kadek wears tight blue jeans and form fitting tee shirts. She watches and assess like a cat sizing up her opportunities. Her teen-age daughters take after her. They are lovely to look at and ripe for trouble. But no one will be too upset if one or the other is pregnant before she marries. Most brides are at least three months expectant when they marry.

Paul parks the car and we take out the blue and red plastic trash cans purchased specifically for the village square. “Hallo” smiles the old Nekek with the towel then turns quick as a ninja and swats the orange rag at a pair of barking dogs who run off. Paul shows the Village counsel leader the lids and the handy handles on the large containers. “This is for plastic,” I say. Plastic trash in the streams, rivers, ditches, roadsides and village area makes me crazy. We have decided to risk looking like interfering Americans and have helped instigate recycling in our tiny community.

Think Globally but work with your local banjar is our new motto.

Removing the trash barrels from the car has exposed our groceries and household items in the back of the jeep. Within minutes Kadek has wandered over to look into the bags noting our brand of laundry detergent and the back up mop refills and the cling wrap and the packages of light bulbs. She has no problem asking me how much I paid for the light bulbs and the towels as well.
Balinese have no issues with privacy. Or they don’t have it around the same things that westerners do, like money.

Money is of prime concern. Every body knows how much the local farmer sold his land for. Everyone also knows what we spent on our car and the cost of the extra electricity, which powers our swimming pool.
I watch Kadek paw over my tomatoes and watermelon “How much you pay?” She shouts holding up the plastic bag of potatoes.
“Twenty thousand rupiahs.”
“ Mahal!” she exclaims. “ You go to passar in Sukawati. Better price.”
She sees it as her civic duty to instruct Paul and me in the economics of grocery shopping. Only a fool would ignore her advice.
The price of everything and anything is of such interest to most Balinese villagers that at times it can seem perversely humorous. One day I was telling Made’ our neighbor about the program I saw on the BBC exposing the sale of children for the sex industry in India. “Is this true?” Made’ asks, bewildered by the information. I realize she has little awareness of the world outside her village. But in true Balinese fashion her curiosity gets the best of her and her practical nature takes over.

“ How much money they sell their children for?” She asks innocently.

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