HECTOR’S DIARY Bali Advertiser, June 26, 2013

His fortnightly diet of worms and other non-religious experiences

May the Farce be with You

A month in France is a useful reminder of one’s European heritage. That is, specifically European, not “Anglo” as this is understood to encompass English-speaking British-North American-Antipodean culture.

French farce, for example, holds great value beyond mere entertainment for Anglos who grew up within the geographical limits of Eurasia’s damp north-western peninsula. One’s parents might have believed – and indeed sometimes may even have said – that wogs began at Calais, but French and other European cultures have always resonated well among the British, or at least those Britons for whom “Yer” is neither a real word nor a substitute for an entire conversation.

So spending some time in Marseille has been illuminating. The thick city accent is a treat, unless you have to try to understand people. But that would spoil the fun.  And anyway the behaviour of the locals is an engaging demonstration of the fine French tradition of carrying on, farce-wise.

Two weekends running, on the splendid seafront thoroughfare that separated our temporary home from the beach and the big salt lake that the Romans, bless them for their chutzpah, called Mare Nostrum, the police closed off parts of the road to accommodate events. One was a massive cattle and horse drive, said to have something to do with culture and heritage in this, Marseille’s, year of being Europe’s capital of culture. The other was some sort of run.

We saw neither event, since we are not the descendants of cattle thieves or in the least interested in how you can develop crippling knee problems in later life, but we did see the side-show. This was provided by streams of drivers who, rather than muttering “Merde!” and finding another way to go when they chanced upon a barricaded traffic circle, stopped their cars in the middle of the road to argue with the flics.

In some cases they did this with actual violence. One feisty little blonde thing leapt out of her miniature conveyance with a fetching series of angry flounces and advanced on the waiting gendarmes, screeching abuse. Or perhaps it was a stream of questions, perhaps pejorative, rhetorical or otherwise, and possibly beginning with “WTF?” Finding the official answer unsatisfactory (we hope it was “Can you not zee zat ze road eet ees closed you stupid hen?”) she jumped up and down in frustration, rather in the manner of a lady caught short in a long toilet line-up, and rattled the barriers with quite inappropriate force. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t care about, the growing queue of honking cars blocked behind her.

The drivers of the blocked vehicles probably didn’t find this amusing. We did. All it lacked for cultural completeness was Inspector Clouseau.

Homage to Catalonia

Five days in Barcelona is a great way to spend – well, five days, to begin with. No time is ever long enough if you’re travelling, especially if you’re also enjoying yourself. The old town had changed since the Diary was last there, but since that was 1966 it’s no surprise. Back then Catalans lived without the authorised benefit of their own national culture, or of their language legitimised by national law, and were even forbidden to give their children Catalan names.

Since then, the fascist Franco regime has long gone (and Franco himself too) and the new Spain is a different place, with democratic institutions and its king back on the throne for which Franco (to his credit) always believed himself only to be regent. One difference is that there more beggars. In the old days they had ways of making them disappear. Today you cannot do this, and quite rightly so. Nonetheless, they are a nuisance when they patrol the outside eating areas that abound in Barcelona and rattle their cups. It prompts one to guzzle the gazpacho and quaff the Pedro Ximinez far too fast lest either of them seriously sours.

There is a silver lining, however. None of the beggars seem to play the accordion. Aptitude with the Devil’s instrument is reserved for that class of irritating itinerants whose members ride on the city’s excellent metro trains and serenade you (whether or not you wish it) in expectation of financial reward.

We several times ate and drank at little establishments in Plaça George Orwell, in the Cuitat Vella (old city). It is in an area that is quite suitably proletarian for that writer chap who briefly fought for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war and named himself after the English river which he especially loved. We came to know his plaza in Barcelona as Penname Place. It sounds so much better than Eric Blair Square.

Jet Lag

Well, only a little – and in this case it’s the name of a nice little bar in El Gotic, Barcelona, which we found by accident even though it was just around the corner from our hotel. We were glad we did, because the free hotel Wi-Fi that was part of our deal was non-operational (though only for us, according to the hotel, which said we must have had a problem with our protocols; strangely our notebooks had no trouble with anyone else’s internet connection) and the bar was a handy login point.

We suggested to proprietor Nicolá (first names only) who was formerly in the aviation industry and is from Sardinia, that he hire a sandwich-board man to patrol the street in front of our hotel advertising working Wi-Fi at his bar just a step or two away.

Like many such establishments in civilised parts of the world, Petit Jet-Lag is a convivial place for locals and tourists alike. It has a nice tapas menu, great coffee and a good range of drinks. Plus it is open until 2am.

We became legends while there. On one occasion we’d had a trying day attempting to arrange our scheduled return to Marseille since the French air traffic controllers were on strike and the gallant French train drivers, not wishing to be thought absent from the front line of the battle to ignore budgets and promote the view that financial restraint or productivity have nothing to do with them, decided to stage a stoppage of their own at the same time.

Because of this, we reached the bar – where we were already known and had been classified as “old” (a tad unfairly although it’s true the Diary could easily have been just about every customer’s, and the proprietor’s, father) – in somewhat pressing need of zesty refreshment. We chose long Campari tonics, since we like them, it was a warm day, we were frazzled, and it’s a great drink if the barman remembers to pour Campari into the glass rather than just wave the bottle at it.

We drank them swiftly (see above). Next day we learned that when we left the previous evening the bar’s denizens said – it would be nice to think this was in unison – “Wow! I want to be like them when I’m old! Twelve seconds to down a long Campari!”

That’s How You Do It

While we were astounding the locals in Barcelona (see above) we spotted an item in a national newspaper that seemed relevant to a recent event – an ongoing one, unless we believe in miracles – in the field of zoonotic diseases in Bali.

It concerned a dog that had bitten five people elsewhere in Spain and had been found to be rabid, the first such reported incident since 1975. The health authorities in the area had immediately provided all the bitten bods with the full post-exposure vaccine course and the regional government had ordered the immediate vaccination of all dogs, cats and ferrets (a pet in Spain) within a 20km radius of the incident.

Oh yes, and the idiot dog owner who had broken the law by falsifying his animal’s rabies vaccination record and failing to report as required when he several times took the animal to Morocco, a declared rabies zone, and more importantly brought it back to Spain, was facing criminal charges.

Might the foregoing give any official mind in Bali cause for thought?

Ups and Downs

Interesting tourist arrival figures for April: the Japanese are returning in strength (up a standout 17.91 percent month on month versus 2012) which is great news, but the Aussies are showing signs of weakening: down 1.5 percent.

There’s no doubt the Australian economy is not quite as robust as the country’s government would like people to think – too many eggs in one overfull resource basket is one cause – though neither is it in the dire straits the country’s opposition likes to suggest. There’s a national election on Sept. 14 that should clear the air politically. That would be the best fillip to confidence, the long-missing subjective ingredient in the present economic brew.

Hector’s Diary appears in the Bali Advertiser newspaper, published fortnightly. Hector tweets @ scratchings.

Taking the medicine – shock and Awe in the Amazon

This is really worth reading.


If you were sick, I mean really, and happened to be abandoned on a sandbank in the Amazon, would you trust a chain-smoking motorbike mechanic with a fetish for vomit and a blunt machete who turns up out of nowhere, stinking of cigarettes and says, I can be helping you if you drink thess!

Deep in the ancient forests of the Amazon, where healing arts have been honed and practiced for hundreds of thousands of years under strict and secret lineage, a shaman of an unknown tribe blows heavy plumes of Marlboro Red from a rickety stool under a banana tree.

His practice is a jungle garden. His ‘consulting room’ is air conditioned by plants, and his library is living all around him; in blossoms, cloud, roots, shoots, animal visitors and continual dialogues with nature that inform his powers of diagnosis and prescription.

The currandero ,Don Agustin Rivas, was five days late for…

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HECTOR’S DIARY Bali Advertiser, June 12, 2013

His fortnightly diet of worms and other non-religious experiences


A Quirk a Day

The best part about writing a diary is that you can be as quirky as you like. It is thought, or used to be thought before energy drinks laced with high-octane caffeine came along and fried everyone’s brains, that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. We like apples, but a quirk is a far better preventative.

      So it’s great fun being temporarily based in Marseille. It’s not Paris; this means no one’s actually rude to you just because they can be, or possibly because the climate is nearly as bad as Britain’s. Foreigners who hire cars in Marseille are warned that Provencal drivers are mad. Well, yes, they are. But they’re not nearly as mad as drivers are in Bali, so it’s been a bit of a rest-cure really. If you had to sum up driving conditions in Marseille and the rest of Provence in one sentence, you could say this: They are indeed all mad, but they stay in lane.

     Quirks there are, aplenty, in this part of the world. At Cassis, for example, the car park in which we deposited our hired conveyance while we trotted off in search of a quayside luncheon, provided toilet facilities. We thought to sample these facilities on our return to the car ahead of what might be a lengthy drive. To utilise the privy, however, one had to visit the caisse (pay station) to obtain permission and then return with your parking ticket duly authorised. Armed with this the door to relief could be comfortingly opened.

     Since achieving this would have meant queuing up to talk to the one harassed gent behind the glass screen and stating the nature of one’s business in very poor French amid a milling and quite possibly sniggering crowd, we forwent the opportunity and drove home, humming little tunes that had nothing to do with tinkling streams.

     We made it. But like Waterloo (we didn’t hum that Abba song either) it was a damn close-run thing.

     It was a day for minor embarrassment. At lunch a well turned-out French woman who had been dining at a table next to us was leaving and accidentally brushed the Distaff’s chair. She apologised with a smile and excused herself by saying (we think) that lunch must have fattened her up. Her demeanour underwent an inclement change when the Distaff, no doubt distracted by the foreign tongue and the delights upon her own plate, replied brightly, “Oui!”

A Regal Luncheon

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, at the mouth of the River Rhone in France’s Mediterranean south, is a spot any traveller to Provence should visit. So of course we did, driving a chunky, boxy little Fiat 500 whose Italian designers have cunningly removed all possible spatial-awareness guides to drivers, making it entirely a guessing game as to how many millimetres remain between your vehicle and the nearest obstruction. Still, it’s well equipped and runs the iPod through the quality sound system, so Geoffrey Gurrumul has now played the Rhone Delta.

     Foreign travel is always a delight. We lunch a lot on such expeditions, because acquiring new tastes and sensations is essential (or reacquainting oneself with them for that matter: a break from rendang sapi is no bad thing) and it’s good to experience how other people live.

     So at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, we found a delightful little tapas bar and restaurant off the main tourist strip, in a quiet little street back from the beach. The street was named Rue Capitaine Fouque, apparently after a local hero. Your diarist, having always taken the view that dark humour is best in a tight spot and being a Blackadder fan to boot, inwardly speculated that it might have been named in honour of the last known utterance of the gentleman concerned; as in the manner of Captain Blackadder’s enigmatic statement, on his failure to avoid having to lead his men over the top in a final suicide mission on the Western Front in 1917, that he thought it rhymed with clacking bell.

     The establishment was called Ambience Tapas and provided a snug little courtyard at the back, out of the rather stern breeze, where you could sit and nibble in the dappled shade provided by the plane trees and a see-through shade cloth overhead. We did and it was divine. The strawberry soup was particularly so. The tempura mussels ran the soup a very close second. The aubergine baked in honey was magnificent. The vin ordinaire was very, very far from being in the least respect ordinary.

     It is early in the season so the little place was not crowded. And apart from us, the crowd – scant as it was – was entirely local, which is how we like it. We had a chance chat over lunch with fellow diner, guitar king Antonico Reyes, son of the legendary flamenco guitarist Jose Reyes and author of several prime Gypsy Kings tracks, whose group is called the Gypsy Reyes. The Distaff strongly desired his fingernails. The Diary thought Reyes possibly coveted the Distaff’s boots. It was that sort of day. Reyes and his group were playing that night and we would have stayed (free tickets were in the wind) but couldn’t. We’ll have to see if we can get him to Bali.

Beeline to Aix

It is impossible to visit the Midi and not go to Aix-en-Provence. It is far better, from the Diary’s perspective, when deciding what to keep in your schedule and what to drop out, to go for Aix rather than Avignon. It might have less papal history, but there’s less of a song and dance about it too. One can easily have too much of a good thing.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon / L’on y danse, l’on y danse / Sur le Pont d’Avignon / L’on y danse tous en rond

(On the bridge of Avignon / We all dance there, we all dance there / On the bridge of Avignon / We all dance there in a ring)

    We’ve modified the old ditty to our purpose, since our digs in Marseille afford as well as a beach panorama a fine view of one of the local roundabouts. These essential traffic regulators and their sensible rules are of course ubiquitously ignored in Bali by people on motorbikes and frequently by those driving vehicles.

    Our version goes like this:

Sur la rond-pointe Bonneveine / L’on y danse, l’on y danse / Sur la rond-pointe Bonneveine / L’on y danse tous en rond

    Hector’s helper had noted on his Facebook that the trip to Aix-en-Provence had revealed many university students but no Marie Bee lookalikes. He got a swift note back from Bee, a graduate of Aix and nowadays one of the brighter luminosities of Ubud, to say that she had indeed been there – just a few days prior. Ah well, next time.

Same Old Bali

It’s good to see that in our absence Bali continues being … well, Bali. The place just wouldn’t be the same without continuous performances of that favourite soap opera Farce of the Day. So news that the Buleleng regency wants the new coal-fired steam power plant at Celukan Bawang closed because its Chinese builders and their local operating arm haven’t acquired licences and operating permits as required by Buleleng is cheering indeed.

    Regent Putu Agus Suradyana is lately reported to have issued a formal warning to the companies – this was on Apr 19 apparently: so much for timely disclosure of official local government business – listing five reasons why the project should be stopped. He’s miffed that the operators have failed to create a company profile (and apparently that they haven’t kept him informed). We can discount these as the usual blowhard guff that emanates from regents who confuse the grandiloquence of their titles with the prosaic (and unfortunately also notional) public utility of their office.

     He may have a point with complaints that no detailed environmental impact plan has been presented (don’t give a Chinese company a building contract would be a suitable prophylatic against that condition); lack of a detailed layout for the plant (ditto); lack of an accurate time schedule for completion of the project (Come on! This is Bali!); and failure to obtain all necessary permits from the central and regional government. Needless to say, local landowners are also miffed that they didn’t get as much for the land required for the project as they had persuaded themselves they deserved.

     So it’s business as usual all round. If the Buleleng Regent is so concerned about how things are done, he should do us all a favour and protest at the confusing mishmash of regulations that confronts anyone trying to do anything potentially productive; he should press for a national-provincial (and enforceable) environmental planning law; and he should recognise that in matters such as energy policy and power plants, local government councils have only a minor role.

Hector’s Diary appears in the Bali Advertiser newspaper. He tweets @ scratchings.