by Diana Darling


In the olden days, when the dogs were thin and small children were still quiet, there used to be warungs everywhere in Ubud. I mean proper warungs — not smart restaurants, but little huts stuck onto the outside of a family compound, where women sold everything it would ever occur to you to buy on a village street.


The warungs were built of wood, like a musical instrument, and the tin or tile roofs would leak. It was like a little stage: three sides, with the street as the audience. A table stacked to the roof with wares separated the street from the vendor. Customers sat on a long wooden bench, drinking coffee, smoking, eating, often all at once. Arak was served from a dirty bottle stoppered with coconut husk; people took turns drinking from one dirty shot glass. Big glass jars held cakes—just stick your dirty hand in and grab one—and opened packs of cigarettes, so that you could buy just one clove cigarette at a time. Hanging from the ceiling were little packets of shampoo, laundry powder, spices, maybe some rubber sandals. You could also buy kerosene (you brought your own bottle) dispensed from a barrel next to the warung. Petrol was sold in big glass jugs that had once held cheap chardonnay, which it resembled.


The food at warungs was home-cooked, and usually ran out by mid-day. The plates were greasy, and so were the few spoons. The coffee was marvellous. Orange juice began with cutting an orange. Ice was hacked off a big block kept in a tub on the ground where the dogs would lick it or whatever.


There might be a little TV set up in a corner, flickering with images of the president of the nation chatting to farmers or opening another hotel. Sometimes in the evenings it would broadcast Drama Gong performances; the sound recording was awful, with the flutes shrieking and only the deeper gongs audible, in a low moaning buzz.


You might wonder how anyone could be nostalgic for something as uncomfortable and insalubrious as an old-fashioned warung. It’s because it was a place to sit and talk, a place to run into your friends, especially if your friends were old Balinese men. They would come to hone their skills as political clairvoyants and to polish their charm as amateur anthropological consultants. It was a place for forming and expressing opinions, solving problems, airing your problems, hearing and transmitting gossip, bragging, doing deals.


Now the warungs seem to have disappeared, displaced by shops selling gelato and designer bags, and the old men have disappeared with them. Perhaps they have died. Or perhaps they just stay at home watching TV, because there’s nowhere left to go.