Rio Helmi – Bali 15th June 2020

It’s been more than a week since the Eid holidays that marked the end of Ramadan, and I’m curious to go to the ferry terminal in Gilimanuk to see the flow of returning workers who went home to Java for Eid. There has been some grumbling about allowing people in from Java, and some ethnic sentiments have come up. On the last day of fasting there was tension in Denpasar when a largish group of young men got together in Kampung Jawa to celebrate after the last “sahur” predawn meal of the fasting month, which many Balinese were upset about because there was no legal action taken, in contrast with the now infamous Sudaji cremation case which I wrote about in my previous blog post. Listening to a discussion on the 2ndof June on Radio Guntur attended by a police representative, the defense lawyer, traditional adat  representatives, and a public health expert I got the impression that there was an overall bias.


In any case it is high time to see for myself what is going on at the ferry terminal. The route up Bali’s western highway to the ferry terminal in Gilimanuk is one of my least favorite rides in Bali. Murderous truck and bus drivers making tight deadlines; mindless holiday makers in a hurry to overtake anywhere; oblivious farmers who can’t seem to compute oncoming velocity; twisted, mutilated asphalt around blind corners; endless diesel fumes – all these make the longer scenic route over the mountains more attractive. Not that there isn’t beautiful scenery in the west coast – you just can’t enjoy it unless you stop and walk away from the road.

Today, it’s reasonably quiet as restrictions are still somewhat in place. I’m in a hurry so, teeth gritted, up the highway I go. Two hours from Ubud, after a quick stop in Tabanan to install a new light bulb in my headlamp, I roll through Negara. As I come to the outskirts of town ubiquitous, orange-red police barricades forces all traffic into the new bus terminal. Tall, importunate, mirrored-sunglasses wearing officer waves me over. By the amount of bling on his uniform I figure I’m dealing with the person in charge of this operation. But all he wants to know is whether or not I am crossing over to Java – the terminal has been turned into a Rapid Testing station for people. Fair enough, that would save a trip back for many people. I explain that I’m doing a survey, and show him my ‘credentials’. All good and we part on good terms. All in all I have to say that my dealings with officials on the ground so far have been pretty cordial and helpful.

Off I go on the last stretch through the last few hamlets in Melaya and the forest before finally arriving in Gilimanuk. Here the orange-red barricades are like a maze – this route for trucks, this one for cars etc. I blithely cut though loop holes and make my way to the terminal office. A startled police guard stops me but then allows me into the parking area. Grabbing my cameras I head into the office, completely forgetting to change the run of the mill mask I wear in public for the N95 that I carry for these occasions. Inside a somewhat dreary reception area arrivals are queuing up to present their rapid test results, ID cards, letters from employers etc. I wonder about this 7-day validity thing for the Rapid Tests. A lot can happen in 7 days, and the reactivity of these tests isn’t very specific. Upstairs other people are getting rapid tests done in a small, dingy, airless room with three nurses in hazmat outfits busy pricking travelers’ fingers.

Above: doing the Rapid Test in Gilimanuk

It’s at this point that I remember my N95 sitting in my tank bag.  Damn. Well I’m here now. I snap a few shots and try to squeeze by a guy who just bursts into the room without a thought for social distancing. Downstairs I find Ibu Yeti, who is the head of the harbor health office (KKP) taking temperatures and examining passenger’s papers. She’s no push over, but once she’s satisfied with my official letter of introduction tells me that they are averaging about 1400 passengers a day. All the nurses are from Jembrana’s health department, and are on a rolling roster. At one point a couple of days ago, apparently there was a queue of 1500 people waiting to be tested by only 2 nurses sitting in that airless room in full hazmat – I start to wonder about PTSD.

I take my leave and go to the adjacent parking lot where the police have set up another checkpoint, with rapid testing facilities, for motorcycle passengers and truck drivers. I spot another bling-covered officer who everyone is being deferential to and introduce myself. I’m not sure at this point who is more intrigued – me fascinated by the shiniest pair of patent leather shoes I have ever seen (clearly this is not the guy on the receiving end of orders on the ground here), or him, agog at this apparition in full protection gear who just pulled up on a beat up BMW. Life can be such a circus.

As we chat away, he lets it be known that prior to the 28thof May they weren’t checking truck drivers. Once again I question the wisdom of waiting for 4 days after the Eid celebrations on the weekend before enforcing these regulations – which were actually formulated the week before at the provincial level. He tells me that on average they turn back about 6 people crossing over due to their papers not being in order or covid status, returning them to Java on the next ferry. I doubt they were isolated on the way back, but then again what else are they supposed to do with these cases?

On the way back home past Negara I pass by the entrance to a village that still actually has an active checkpoint. I’m intrigued and stop at Penyaringan. The Pecalang guards are taken by surprise and immediately want to know what I am doing etc. As I chat with them I see one of them stopping cars going in with locals, chatting with them and squirting their hands with sanitizers.  Her mask is half on, and every once in a while if it’s crowded car she sticks her head in to get to the passengers all the while chatting away. They let me through, and in a brisk half-hour tour through the various hamlets I literally do not see one person wearing a facemask. But it’s a nice village with obviously fertile farmland, a big river and lots of air. Not likely to be a famine here.

I exit back to the highway half an hour later by another road, which has no checkpoint. Once again I stop at the first check point and tell them what I saw, or rather what I didn’t see. The Pecalang chief is apologetic. He says, “Everyone actually owns two masks. What can we do?” Then he says almost plaintively “But it’s coming to an end isn’t it? I mean we won’t get it here; we’re so far away? It’s back to normal now, right?”. I ask him if there are any returning ship workers – apparently there are 8 of them in quarantine as we speak. I feel bad trying to set him straight, that no it isn’t over, and pointing out that all those cars are coming from destinations that nobody is asking about, much less who did what at those destinations. I don’t have the heart to add that hand sanitizer isn’t going to do much at this point if the person dispensing it is sticking their head into the cars and joking with the people inside – he’s dismayed enough already with his burst bubble. It’s only later that it sinks in that he was referring to the New Normal. What a terrible slogan, all people remember is the “normal” part.


Two days later I head out early – on a map that I received from the Task Force I see a big red mark on the village of Wongaya Gede, high up in the western mountains just under Batukaru temple. As I make my way through back roads I come to the Blahkiuh market, one of the most important markets to which people from as far away as Bongkasa and Sobongan go to. Those two villages are also marked red on the map; I cross check with the PeduliLindungi app on my phone, which is supposed to tell you when you are in a zone where there are active cases of covid-19. It tallies. Inside the market some people are wearing masks some not, but it is crowded and alleyways inside are crowded, including the ‘wet area’ where meat is being sold. I don’t tarry. And when I get back to the bike I pull out my spray bottle of disinfectant and do my boots, and then hand sanitizer for my hands. A parking attendant seems to be grinning at me until I realize it’s all just a mask. But he does laugh!

Above: inside the market in Blahkiuh. Below: Friendly parking attendant

Above: Saving what can be saved of the rice harvest battered by unseasonal rain in Jatiluwih

I decide to go through Marga and up Jatiluwih. In Jatiluwih they should be harvesting. Quite a few of the fields have been flattened by unseasonal rain. I see crews working as fast as they can to salvage as much of the rice as possible. But in no way do I imagine this area being vulnerable to food shortage. Back on the road, after a brief stop for a sandwich and a thermos full of tea, I’m in Wongaya Gede. There is no Puskesmas (government public health) clinic here, and the extension clinic is not only tiny but looks deserted. An ambulance driver fortuitously shows up – he says he doesn’t know of any covid cases here. So I go down to the Puskesmas clinic for the area a few kilometers down the road..

At Puskesmas Penebel II in Penatahan  I am greeted cordially and everyone is helpful. I find the person in charge of covid surveillance for the area, Ibu Dayu. I ask about the red zone marking. For a minute she and the lab technician are a temporarily mystified by my query: they have done 56 rapid tests up here, but have come up with only one positive, which when the person was swabbed turned out negative. Then suddenly the light goes on: “Oh that is a guy who is originally from the village but lives in Bualu (Nusa Dua). His parents live in Denpasar. His ID card still says Wongaya but he hasn’t been back in months, nor has anyone from here been to see him”.  Good to know that some tracing has been done. But somebody wasted red ink on the map, and the app is clearly even less reliable in this case.

Like other Puskesmas they have a mini-lab here where they can process Rapid Tests. Anyone who comes up positive gets picked up by a dedicated (at least that’s what I understood) ambulance and sent down immediately to the special ward in Tabanan. Fair enough, there is no way they could have isolation facilities here. On my way out I run into a doctor in full, brand spanking new level 3 protective gear. The only weak link in her hazmat outfit is a pair of high heel shoes. She catches my glance and explains that she lent the boots to a medic who had to go out to pick someone up. And that she actually bought the suit herself, as do other doctors. These things aren’t cheap and they are single use, and I find myself wondering how long can they keep this up, what more if there is a spike?  The other staff who don’t necessarily have close contact or don’t have to be in any aerosolized situation are fine with their reusable outfits. The doctor says resignedly “..well if they don’t get exposed to dangerous situations I hang them up in the hot sun to get a bit more life out of them.”.  What choice does she have? One can only admire frontline dedication.

At Puskesmas I in Penebel proper they are cagier about talking to me, until the doctor in charge comes out and he’s very relaxed and open. He explains that right now here nobody has a level 3 protective outfits. He is wearing the standard green cloth smock which honestly to my untrained eyes looks like it wouldn’t do much except get dirty.. (I look that these people and I suddenly have a crazy fantasy of robbing a bank, specifically one where all the corruptors in this country have stashed their cash, and buying  thousands of level3 outfits – a Robbing Hood kinda thing). They don’t have a proper isolation room but have designated an area as a waiting place while the ambulance from Tabanan comes up to pick up any covid patient. I have to assume that nobody in Jokowi’s cabinet has any idea of what the front line looks like in a village.

Meanwhile in Penebel village they have had one case referred to Sanglah for ICU treatment, and in the neighboring hamlet of Biaung there were two PMI’s (returning cruise ship workers) who had been positive but were cleared after quarantine. The extension clinic in Biaung is tiny, and run by two staff, one of whom is a midwife – they tell me that by the 28thof May both cases were “cured” and cleared. Again, so much for the app.

That evening I discuss the app and the map with Pak Rentin who is the “KALAKSANA” executive in charge of actioning policy in the provincial disaster mitigation body BPBD. He explains they have just had a teleconference with the national body BPNB who helped create the app (it’s national), and they plan to update it every week. Hopefully this will help clear things up.


The last few days have been taken up with meetings with Kopernik and others as well as taking care of neglected tasks on the farm, so today I decide to shoot up to upper Ban village in Karangasem which I know reasonably well – I can be back for the weekly 2pm online meeting with the Task Force. First on the list is Pucang, a compact hamlet directly under the Agung crater. They pipe water in from Daya, about 4 km away and are also dependent on rainwater both for catchment and also for their fields.  Usually when you arrive in Pucang there are baskets everywhere – ready to sell, waiting to be finished, half woven or even just strips of split bamboo waiting to be woven. This time there are absolutely none in sight. The villagers there tell me that no one is buying. It’s their one local source of cash income. And now that some of the few young people who had jobs in the south or other tourist areas have been laid off, money is getting harder to come by. But they still have their fields, and their access to the main road is good.

Above: Members of a clan gather in Pucang before working together in traditional communal “gotong royong” fashion to help finish off a building.

Then I want to check in with Komang Kurniawan of the East Bali Poverty Project who lives down in Tianyar to see if I can connect with him sometime this morning. This sounds simpler than it is. There is basically hardly any network signal in the upper Ban area. So I keep going down until I can use my phone. About half way down I get lucky. Despite being cut off about 4 times we finally establish he is coming up to Bunga this morning, so we agree to meet there at 10.

Meanwhile I keep looking to see if there are any health facilities – there is one private clinic in Tegalantang – the Kubu Husada clinic. It’s closed. And has been for the last two weeks. Not that it provides a great deal. Just a bit further up there is a rudimentary midwife’s practice. In fact in the whole village of Ban which spans from up near the crater right down to the lowlands, there is no Puskesmas. If you are one of the 12,000 plus inhabitants if you get sick you’ll have to go to Tianyar – easily a 20km trip, and if you are off the main road then a good part of that will be on narrow dirt and rock tracks. By my rough calculations, once there you’ll have to stand in line with all the other patients from the 12,000 strong population of Tianyar for treatment. I have to admit I didn’t make it down to the Tianyar Puskesmas so I’ll have to wait for my next trip to fill you in.

UPDATE: David Booth of EBPP has corrected my assumption of the numbers for the Tianyar Puskesmas. the numbers are much higher because that Puskesmas inn Tianyar which has 4 doctors actually serves 4 villages (Ban, Tianyar Barat, Tianyar Tengah, and Tianyar Timur with a total of more than 60,000 people

I head back up and still have some time so swing up the steep narrow road to Cegi. I’m pleased to note that things look greener than usual at this time of the year due to the unusual amount of rain. Good, the fields will provide food for a little longer.

Half way up to Cegi I see a young man perched on his scooter with a laptop and a mobile phone. Turns out Gede is from Daya, but this is the only place he can get a network signal so he can turn in his assignment. He is studying hospitality – the school has been closed physically for months but the students continue working online. The invisible has so much influence on our geography these days!

Above: Gede from Daya, Ban uploading his hospitality course assignment from the closest spot that has mobile network access. Below: Wayan Indriyani, a 4th semester law student who also studies online, helping her mother out at her food stall in Cegi, Ban.

Up in Cegi proper I see a shop and food stall in full swing. People are shopping for food. I’m impressed that there is still enough money for people to be spending so much. Until a young woman making tipat at her  mother’s stall sets me straight: “Oh the shop owner extends them a credit line, so they all actually are in debt. The owners are still related to them and can still afford to extend credit, so it’s kind of a family thing –  this way at least people can get basic needs.”. Again nothing is what it seems – this young lady, Wayan Indriyani, is in her 4thsemester in the law faculty of Saraswati University in Denpasar. She studies from home – and has a network hotspot to upload her assignments just down a track from her mother’s stall where she helps out!

I’m impressed with the will of these young students from some of Bali’s most impoverished villages. Road access has been something, which has only come into being in their lifetimes. Schooling was never something to be taken for granted. The schools that EBPP has built in these areas have had a huge impact.

Cutting over the valley I wrangle the bike up the so-called road to Bunga. Potholes, sand, rocks all blend into an attention grabbing, steep obstacle course. This side of the valley is on the slopes of Abang, and geologically is very different.  Due to a more claylike under layer landslides are big concern here, as is liquefaction, as I reported in my post about the effects of the Lombok earthquakeof July 29th2018. There are hamlets even more remote than this, accessible by only small tracks from Bunga. In Bunga all the school kids are waiting for Komang – he’s bringing donations of rice for each student “to keep their spirits up”.

Above: rice donations to students in Bunga’s school “to keep their spirits up”

Once the formalities are over I get 15 minutes of Komang’s time. He explains that the hamlets of Manik Aji. Darmaji and Jatipuhu are going to be much more vulnerable than other areas of Ban once the long dry sets is. Food production will drop, there is little that they can sell to raise cash, and their access is a challenge. Ah, Ban.


It’s time for a foray through the western end of Buleleng, the district of Gerokgak to be precise. I figure the first stop should be the cargo-shipping harbor Celukan Bawang. A side road meanders through past a huge cement silo. There are local fishing boats on the beach next to monster ships docked. There is also a sizeable Muslim population here in this area – migrants from Java etc. Finally I come to the main part of the harbor. I see a police station and ask a couple of policemen where they do the rapid tests. They point me down to the harbor administration office. There I’m told I should go to the harbor health authority office. Which just happens to be across from the police station.

Above: outriggers in the middle of Celukan Bawang harbor. Below: a villager in Celukan Bawang.

The office is impressive. Sparkling new, two stories high. An official comes out and asks me my business, I explain. He pulls out a thermometer gun and shoots me in the head. Evidently I read out normal. Inside there is a spacious room with three people at various desks. The office chief, Pak Fajar, welcomes me and asks me to sit down. We start chatting, discussing many aspects of the covid situation and the harbor. One thing that really startles me is the fact that with 800 men dockworkers who mostly manually load and unload, the task force has never done any testing of the workers here. Ship’s crews are tested as they come off their boats but not the dockside workers who often labor side by side. Pak Fajar is nice enough also to send me some pictures that his friend took in Gilimanuk yesterday: “It looks like a party there,” he says half jokingly.

Taking my leave, I head further down to find the local Puskesmas. I stop by the Patas village office as there are some older gentlemen sitting at a table with a sign saying “Local Covid Task Force”.  We chat for a while. They explain that there are a few older people who depend on their children for food, but now some of these providers have lost their jobs. Local income has also suffered greatly. Pig breeders only get 10% of what they used to for piglets, and the price for a full grown pig is about Rp 300,000 compared to 1 million plus. Before I go they ask a portrait session together.A bunch of old gents we are trying to figure out how to use the camera!

Finally I get to Puskesmas I, one of two in Gerokgak. The head of the clinic, dr Nobella, is a good guy. We chat for a while, and he explains how he provides medical services for 9 villages out of 14 in the district. Puskesmas II only services 5 villages but they are much more spread out. I forget to ask him the division of the population but I know that the entire district has something like 83,000 inhabitants, and this clinic must have the lion’s share. With an ER and beds for in patients, four doctors and couple of ambulances, they are busy. As the boss he has to be there during all the normal office hours, but they are now short of doctors to keep the shifts going 24/7, so he ends up often doing double shifts:” before we had medical students doing their training, so they could share. Now they’re gone because of covid… we all have to do extra hours.” In the hour I’m there a couple of patients, scraped up kids, are treated in the ER. “We mostly treat traffic accidents. This big highway going right thru the villages, and the local people aren’t too careful…” He says they have a few level 3 hazmat outfits in stock but will only use them if really necessary. Again, he’s wearing the same standard green cloth smock – when I came in he was treating a bleeding boy who had been knocked down on the road.

Above: Dr. Nobella in his reuseable protective smock in the Puskesmas I of Gerokgak district.

“The problem for us here is that when get a positive rapid test result, there are no trained staff here to do the swabs. So we have to put them into our ambulance and drive one and half hours to Sangsit to get swabbed there. And we have to get there early otherwise we lose the slot for 24 hours.”  It really doesn’t sound ideal to me.

Nobella – who is a mine of useful information – points out that the another difference between his Puskesmas and Puskesmas II in Pejarakan is that the majority of the population there work in the tourism industry. And now that many have been laid off the people in that area, including Pemuteran, are really feeling the pinch.

Pemuteran is the obvious next destination. I cruise through slowly. The big Matahari resort is closed. It looks even more out of place unkempt. On a whim I turn into the Taman Sari road and to my surprise find that it is open. As I pull up I see the late owner Agung Prana’s nephew, Gung Ambara has just arrived. He greets me and brings me in. He explains they are opening on a small scale and are only selling the free standing villas to small number of guests. Right now there are 5 rooms in use. It’s part of the “New Normal” (more about that later). They haven’t let any of the staff go, keeping them on a rolling part time schedule which at least provides some income for them. It makes sense to me. As we chat, Agung Prana’s son shows up and he confirms what they are doing “We are really just targeting long term expats in small numbers”. There are couple of people on the beach and some kids playing in the water. I can’t help selfishly thinking wouldn’t it be nice if it stayed this way.

Above: Kids playing in the water at Pemuteran Beow: the BAPIPA post at the Gilimanuk Puskesmas.

Below: the scene in Gilimanuk on the 11th of June (courtesy Pak Fajar)

For some reason (ok the photos that Pak Fajar sent me intrigued me) I decide to keep going to Gilimanuk again, after it’s only about 30 minutes away. I find the Puskesmas there. There is a stand outside with BAPIPA written on it. I asked the plastic wrapped nurse what it means and she chuckles “we made it up – it stands for BAtuk (cough), PIlek (cold, sniffles), PAnas  (temperature). But apart from that here I hit a bit of a frosty reception. Polite but not entirely forthcoming, the head doctor greets me leaning sideways on the counter, his body language just a tiny bit dismissive. Nobody here is volunteering anything more than the most basic of answers; even general questions about the local population are met with shrugs. I guess he isn’t really under any obligation to tell me anything more than the basics.’I have better things to do, and politely say goodbye.

On the way back I pass Pulaki, the temples around are all busy. It is Tumpek Wayang after all. For the last week I have noticed people being much less disciplined about social distancing and wearing masks. Cars are packed full of devotees. This kind of behavior: the return of crowds shopping; events like the aborted beach party in Canggu in which hundreds of foreigners showed up mask less to revel before finally being broken up – all at a time when local transmissions are on the up – can’t be a good omen. I guess we’ll see in a week or so if testing is done in a targeted manner. New Normal is not normal. I’m glad to hear from a source in BNPB that the government is going to change the term. Better late than never.

Family prayer outings in the “New Normal”



Text and photos ©Rio Helmi

please scroll down to leave your comments