An experiential account of living in the midst of the Ubud building boom.

photo and text by Ibu Kat

It started without warning one sunny day in November. Five men appeared early in the morning with the intention of breaking down the stone wall across the narrow lane from my gate. The wall held back a couple of meters of overgrown bank that separated the lane from a temple. ‘Bongkar’ is the delightful Indonesian word that means ‘pull it apart’ and the blameless wall was soon being violently dismantled into its component parts by a determined-looking youth. Another slowly heaped up the fallen stones. Two more leaned on their tools, observing. Another, clearly the foreman, squatted in the shade directly in front of my gate, smoking and watching the others intently. Just minutes into the project, the usual Indonesian labour protocol of at least one watcher for each person actually working was already in place.

After the foreman had to move three times when I emerged from my gate, he graciously borrowed some concrete blocks from my parkir and stacked himself a little bench so he could watch the proceedings in greater comfort.

Conversations over ensuing weeks revealed that the temple was a private one, not owned by the banjar but by the Gusti caste. It served about 70 families and was only used every six months. The decision had been taken to build a small kitchen and create a few parking spaces for motorbikes. There was not actually any land to build on so, with great initiative the workers were taking down the bank in order to create a few metres of actual real estate.

A foreigner might torment himself with issues like, “Why would I start this job at the beginning of the rainy season? Won’t this cause a lot of inconvenience in such a narrow lane with so much traffic from the two nearby schools? Where on earth will we store all the building materials?”   The foreman did not distress himself with such trivial matters. “Bongkar,” he intoned from behind his cigarette. And they did.

Stones and broken concrete were piled high, and an old truck came and took them away. Then the two guys who were actually working began to take down the earth bank, watched by the rest of the team. The rains began. The lane ran deep in mud. Another truck came, was filled with wet dirt, and returned several more times until a narrow strip of flat land became visible.

Now, this little project is not only taking place immediately opposite my front gate and parkir, but within 20 meters of an elementary school on one side and a high school on the other.   The lane at this point, when unobstructed by building materials and parked motorcycles, was a shade under four meters wide. Even a small impediment stops traffic and the construction was taking up quite a lot of limited street space. Only when it became clear that the truck delivering rebar could not actually approach the site because of a pile of recently acquired batako was it decided to move the concrete blocks slightly. Then everyone went home for about two months.

At intervals, trucks would arrive and decant building materials. The meter of flat space immediately in front of my parker became the storage area for sand, gravel, cement, batako and wood. I couldn’t take my little car out into the lane without driving over a pile of something. But it soon became the new normal to back and fill three times before being able to exit the parkir. Good for the shoulders.

It was still raining when a truckload of gravel was dumped directly in front of my car. This was a little inconvenient as I had a meeting to attend but luckily Wayan Manis arrived in time to take me on the back on her bike. By the time I came home the gravel had been moved and Phase Two was well underway. A further chunk of wall was being demolished and I learned that the project was being expanded. The team went into overdrive. Now there were four men working and only three watching. A cement mixer appeared in front of my parkir, making my exit even more problematic, and the foundation was laid. Walls began to rise.

At this point my landlord and neighbour Pak Mangku caught the building bug.   He decided to construct something above the shop in front of his compound directly across the street from the gate of the high school. Soon trucks were dumping bamboo scaffolding and building materials there too, and a short stretch of lane remained impassable for several weeks. The neighbourhood bore this stoically, even when it became evident that the workers were dividing their time between the two projects.

By this time the workmen had colonised my parkir, parking their motorbikes there, hanging their shirts on the gate and eating their nasi bungkus in its shade. They sang as they worked. They began to address me as Nenek. Just when it seemed like things were really moving along, they all disappeared and everything came to a screaming halt.

Nothing kept happening for several weeks. The extended families of 50 households, 500 high school students and 300 elementary school kids continued to navigate their way around piles of concrete blocks and sand along with usual hazards of double-parked motorbikes, dogs, chickens and snack vendors.

Every evening Pak Mangku would stroll up the lane to stare lovingly at the half-built temple kitchen. Construction of any kind seemed to bring him great pleasure. I tried to gently interrogate him about what was being built over his shop. The Mangku is a very sweet man but I have never been able to understand a word he says. Over the years I’ve learned to intuit his meaning or send Wayan Manis over to make enquiries. She elicited the information that he was in fact making a guest room for tourists. Perhaps there is a special market for a room that will be facing due west and therefore very hot, over a shop and a few meters from a very noisy high school.  Also his compound had no septic tank. But he was having a lot of fun watching the walls go up.

At last the builders reappeared and things began to hum along. The kitchen was no longer small; the new building was 12 metres long and 2.5 wide.  The Gusti caste of Ubud were clearly prospering. Another floor was added to the kitchen block and the bottom floor was plumbed and tiled. Walls were painted. I had high hopes that the project was winding up.

But when all this was finished, someone realised that the ditch draining the entire lane in the rainy season was now blocked by the foundations of the kitchen. There was also the issue of where to vent the water from the kitchen. A pause of several days ensued and there was a great deal of squatting on heels and smoking furiously while these problems were mulled over.

“Bongkar,” directed the foreman. Part of the finished floor was dug up and a new channel dug around the foundation for the rainwater, blocking the lane for another week. But we are close to the end now. The workmen are tipping the final tranche of broken bricks over the wall into the lane where, one day soon, a final truck will carry off the last of the debris. And things will be quiet again, until the next project.