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Postcard from Indonesia (4) – Names, Countess Botoxova and March of Progress

February 12, 2015

Bali Tourists

A few more words on my Balinese hamstring crisis. So I’m still in Bali, still in a wheelchair, getting fatter (arms excepted), watching enviously as Aussie backpackers head for the hills in their rented motorbikes to drink beer in exotic places.

At least I’m off the painkillers, and I’m finally able to walk a few steps without accompanying Turneresque grunts.

If we haven’t been able to do our usual walking, watching and listening holiday routine, at least we’ve got on to first name terms with a number of Balinese taxi drivers, which isn’t too difficult, because in Bali you can only have four first names.

Depending on when you were born, you’re first, second, third and fourth. The naming system is slightly complicated by regional variations and also the fact that each of the four castes has a different version of first, second and so on. But the basics are the same everywhere.

Admirably simple, and in case you’re wondering what children beyond the first four are called, it’s “first again”, “second again” and so forth. Don’t ask me what they call the ninth. First once again, or first three times. I never thought to ask that question.

This naming system might not go down too well with English parents. “Jemima, do try and eat your ratatouille” doesn’t really compare for directness with “oi Number Two, eat yer dinner!”. The Balinese are not the only people who use numbers for names. Quintus (fifth), Sextus (sixth) and Septimus (seventh) were common Roman names, for example, though they didn’t necessarily denote the person’s place in the sibling line-up.

More like the Balinese system was the naming convention used in British boarding schools. I, as the second child, was known at school as Royston Junior. Or following another Roman convention, I was occasionally called Royston Minor, as opposed to big brother, who was Major.

True to form, the British usually manage to bring rank and class into the social equation.

But whereas the British place themselves in classes with a mixture of defiance and self-effacement, as “I’m working class and proud of it” or “I suppose you could say I come from an upper-class background”, the Balinese happily identify their caste without any undertone of embarrassment or resentment. Perhaps that’s because the top two castes – the Brahmana and the Ksatria – are extremely thin on the ground. Most people belong to the bottom two – the commercial and administrative caste or their equivalent of our working class. And while caste was important a century ago, these days, as I understand it, it’s no barrier to education and success in life.

If you’re looking for the ultimate in “I am” nomenclature, look no further than Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the richest man in Saudi Arabia. The literal meaning of his name is “The Newborn”, but in common usage means The Boy. Probably gives you an inbuilt confidence boost if everybody refers to you as – effectively – the one. But being instantly identifiable as the first-born certainly comes a close second.

A word about the hospital that treated me when we arrived in Bali. It’s called Siloam, and it’s part of a chain of private hospitals that operate throughout Indonesia. My wife hauled me up there after three days of my incessant moaning and groaning. She was thinking of MRI scans, surgery and other drastic measures, and indeed, Siloam has all the facilities. It’s immaculately clean, and the staff are solicitous and friendly. Of course you get presented with a bill virtually every time you breathe, but that’s private hospitals for you.

One is so used to the British National Health Service, where so many of the administrative staff think they’re doing you a favour, and where each step in the treatment process requires an interrogation, several forms and a cost-benefit analysis (the honourable exception being emergencies) that the contrast is striking.

At the Siloam Hospital we saw a trauma physician, a consultant orthopod, a rehabilitation specialist and had the first dose of physiotherapy within two hours of arrival. That’s the difference between private and public medicine. We would have got there on the NHS, but the whole process could have taken weeks.

Apart from dealing with the usual range of hospital cases, Siloam has a flourishing plastic surgery business. Very appropriate considering that the shopping centre in which it’s located rejoices in the name of Lippo Mall. So presumably you can pop over for a spot of food shopping and a skinny latte and get a few inches off your waistline in the same visit. What better place than Bali – an island of artists – for a bit of body sculpture? You can hang out in your bandages at some exotic spa in the jungle while you down a few cocktails and watch the wildlife.

Unfortunately the only wildlife we’ve had the pleasure of observing while I’m temporarily incapacitated is the fellow guests who roam the resort. Which is no bad thing, because we enjoy watching people almost as much as animals – and there’s plenty of good watching to be had.

There’s Countess Botoxova for example – an eastern European lady who has the same waxy, expressionless face as Vladimir Putin, hence the nickname we’ve given her. Given the size and unusual upwards orientation of her chest, I suspect that she might be one of Siloam’s triumphs.

Then there’s Gunther the Goth, a huge German guy with a long red beard who looks like one of the warriors who fall upon the Roman army in the opening scene in Gladiator, broadsword flashing in the winter snow. Unlike Botoxova, who’s usually only to be seen at breakfast in the company of a couple of younger male acolytes, Gunther is mainly aquatic. He hangs out at the pool bar with a bunch of young Aussies whom I’ve christened The Miners – guys who you could imagine driving those outsize dump trucks in the Western Australian desert. Gunther, the Miners and a couple of girlfriends with spectacular tattoos sit at the bar getting noisier as the day rolls on.

There’s a couple of Indian families I call The Accountants. In several days of observing them at breakfast I’ve yet to see any of them smile. The name derives from their habit of coming together after breakfast and passing money to each other. One guy writes all the transactions down in a notebook. I can only imagine that they’re sharing the cost of their holiday treats and reconciling on a daily basis. The only one that doesn’t seem to take an interest in the proceedings is a teenage daughter, who does what teenagers with their parents usually do these days: she lolls around with a bored expression doing stuff on her IPhone.

There are also one or two Indian couples who look like honeymooners, except that all of them seem to have the same hangdog expressions as The Accountants. Is it not fun getting married in India?

Another notable character is The Professor. He’s an elderly American with permanent look of dyspepsia on his face, who sits near the pool holding conference calls with a bunch of people who report in to him about their daily transactions, which my wife tells me run into millions of dollars. Not that she’s deliberately listening in, but it’s hard to avoid their stentorian tones ringing out from his IPad. She has so far resisted the temptation to whisper “no peace for the wicked” as she swims by.

There are also a number of extremely large ladies of a certain age, whom I call the Gluteus Sisters. They also tend to be aquatic, or else they spread on their sunbeds covered in oil, like sleek walruses in the Californian sun. Recent medical research suggests that women who store large amounts of fat around their waists and backsides during pregnancy produce bright children – something to do with the nutritional value of the type of fat that gathers in the nether regions. In which case these ladies must all be mothers of Nobel Prizewinners.

With sights like these, who needs monkeys and elephants?

We’re leaving Bali in the next few days, but not before a trip to see an active volcano and a couple of temples. I wish we could have seen and done more, but we’ve seen enough to make us want to come back.

On a recent taxi journey I asked the driver whether Bali had changed for the better or worse since he was a boy. Worse, he said. Because of the tourists? Not really, he replied. He explained that he came from a very simple village about fifty miles up the coast. The sunsets are beautiful, and there’s a spectacular temple on the headland. In his village they grow all kinds of fruit and spices, and there are plenty of fish to be caught. He said that the tourists are welcome to visit, but now developers are building a five-star resort near the beach, and the place where he grew up is fast disappearing.

That’s the sad thing about tourism, isn’t it? The lonely unspoilt places that we want to visit stop being lonely and unspoilt because so many of us want to see them. In twenty years’ time will Bali be another Phuket, with little of its coast unmarked by hotels and resorts? Hopefully not. Tourism brings wealth to some and employment to many. But small islands like Bali can only take so much cultural invasion before they lose the character that attracts the tourists in the first place.

As I sit in my little villa garden, I hear the rumbling of building work, and a crane swings nearby. Two new hotels are under construction. Good news for some, but maybe not for the soul of this beautiful country.

From → Postcards, Social, Travel, UK

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