So what is the view that the “average person” sees in this maelstrom of building and economic boom going on in Bali these days? The third in a series of ‘short takes’ done in cooperation with Jakarta Post’s Bali Buzz, where it appeared initially.
I first spotted Mé Agus zipping along the back roads of Bongkasa on her scooter, rigged out with wooden carrying pallets, various containers with all manner of goods sticking out, and a forest of plastic bags full of vegetables hanging from every inch of the rig. Middle aged, with a weathered face, she wore a cap, shirt, jacket and tights.
She pulled over in front of a compound where one elderly woman was already waiting. In one deft movement she swung a smooth, 1 meter long, polished wooden pole off the top her goods and propped the bike upright with it. Clearly she’d done this too many times to count.
Soon a couple of other ladies from neighbouring compounds emerged. The women picked and poked and haggled. “I still have some credit with you, don’t I?” One queried. Mé Agus nodded. To another she said matter of factly,” You still owe me 5000 Rupiahs I think?” The woman flicked her eyebrows up in the meaningful-but-not-exactly-clear way only the Balinese can do – which in this situation meant a reluctant “yes”. “Well can you just add this to that bill and I’ll pay you tomorrow ok?”. Mé Agus nodded with just the tiniest hint of resignation.
On top of her moving grocery jumble was a barely covered container carried preserved fish, the infamous Balinese bé pindang. Slightly shy of guileless, I asked what she did with the fish if she didn’t sell them all that morning. “Oh I keep them and sell them the next day.” Obviously a dumb question on my part.
About four customers later, after a young boy with his kid brother in tow bought a bunch of boiled soybeans, it was time to pack up and move. I got ready to follow her up the road only to find that she just zoomed up about four compounds, stopped again, and once again the same smooth, one-move-action, swung the stick over and propped the bike up. At this rate of displacement it was any wonder she was good at that move.
Between sales we chat a bit, and it turns out she is one of the main mobile durian vendors in Ubud for various people on Bongkasa who own the big trees that bear this big, thorny Southeast Asian renowned for its odour. There’s no middle of the road with durian – you either love it or hate it. Mé Agus tells me she does brisk sales in Ubud during durian season.
Wangling her mobile number and address out of her, I set up a time to see her in a couple of days. It seems to leave her a wee bit nonplussed but she nods. I can’t help thinking she agreed just a wee bit like she did to the woman who owed her money and wanted to add more to the tab…
Two days later, I track her down at home. Home is a small but ornately decorated compound with some fancy stone work. Three or four dogs bark ferociously from cages barely big enough to hold them. Mé Agus appears in a singlet and some pyjama-like pants. “How did you find me?” – I even have to describe the woman at the warung stall down the road before she is satisfied. Her mother-in-law, fragile and advanced in years, works quietly on a pile of offerings. I get a very clear impression that this old woman is still quite sharp, observing everything with little comment. Mé Agus’ husband, who is not home, turns out to be a builder in the traditional style. That explains the fancy stone and brick work in an otherwise modest home.
Mé Agus and I get chatting. We talk about her ‘business’ first. I ask her how much she spends at the market in Blahkiuh, how many times a week she goes out, and so on. “Oh I go out probably about three times a week, depending. If it rains, or if I don’t feel well I stay home. I spend about Rp 800,000 at the market for my goods.”
And how much does she gross, I wonder. “I don’t know…” comes the reply. The pretend businessman in me says “Wait a minute, how can you not know how much money you bring home? How can you not know your profit margin?” “Liu nyama braya né Pak…” Which literally translates as “I have a lot of family and related ones”. Which, translated into plain language, basically means that in typical Balinese clan style she gives to and supports various people from her income and doesn’t keep books on it.
I ask her about the people who run up tabs, do they pay up? “Most do. Then there are some who don’t…” She says in her matter of fact way, the quiet resignation flickers on her face. “But I also spend the money I make on offerings; we have to make lots of offerings daily.” She points to her mother-in-law: “It’s our way of life in Bali. So I really don’t know exactly how much profit I make. But we can make the offerings that we need to, and that’s most important for our well being.”
Mé Agus, which literally means “Agus’ Mum” is now feeling much more comfortable with me. Like many traditional Balinese, her real full name is rarely used. She tells me her real name (she says her ‘name before’) is Ketut Purni from Pejeng. In fact she is by now so trusting of me that she confesses she was a bit doubtful when I said I wanted to interview her at home: “I thought what does he want? Maybe he wants to hypnotise me?”
Struggling not to fall off the bale pavilion in a fit of giggles, I reflect on the many lurid stories local papers have run about “Javanese” hypnotizing shop attendants and robbing them (don’t laugh, the police seem to think it’s a solid alibi). “You know a lot of old people are particularly vulnerable to cheats.” That might be, but the sharp-eyed mother in law who is patiently and quietly works on her pile of daily offerings doesn’t look the type: she is registering everything we say.
It turns out that Agus is her first born, a son who now works as a guide for tourists. I spot a shiny new, tri-color Honda CBR 250 under the two storey building where Agus has his digs. I conclude that guiding business is good despite the fact that he previously couldn’t fulfill his dream of working on a cruise ship due to lack of registration money. Mé Agus has a daughter too, she works in a villa in Canggu, and is married with a child. So I suppose there isn’t that much pressure anymore for Mé Agus to do Excel spreadsheets with profit and loss columns.
The family apparently owns no ricefields nor dry fields, so what you see in this ornate but cramped compound is what you get. The absent husband spends time away working on projects, between them they support a functional Balinese village household. It dawns on that Mé Agus, 10 minutes away from the bustling expat hub of Ubud, is in fact a typical Balinese villager who despite having extensive contact with the outside world including foreigners when she is selling durian in Ubud, remains emotionally (and blissfully) un-involved in the booming tourism industry.
“Oh some tourists buy my durians, not all. But they never bargain”. When I ask her what she thinks about all the development and the tourist boom, she is non-committal, almost evasive: “Oh I just pray that everyone is happy, that everyone’s welfare is ensured.”
But when the topic moves over to her gamelan group, the competition in which they came in second she lights up, animated. “We were much better than the winners. The judges were definitely biased. Ah, you know nowadays even the gamelan competitions are just “projects” (meaning opportunities for graft) for these functionaries. They couldn’t believe that our group was all just from our village. Hey, we trained long and hard for this.”
The outside world that concerns her is more likely to be Javanese workers who come to work in her neighborhood. “I once had a truck driver and his family board. They burnt my curtains, still owe me two months rent. They took off and left some stuff behind, they didn’t even dare come and get it themselves, they tried to send someone else to get it. I said no way.”
Mé Agus, like most women of her village, is much more concerned with what she encounters in her day to day life than anything she might hear over the news. There isn’t much room or time for intellectual posturing or theorizing that might preoccupy the men of her village during their leisure time, which they seem to have more of than the women. Her opinions are simple and clear, based on her own direct, day to day experience.
text and photos ©Rio Helmi