ALL OF THE THINGS ARE BROKEN, ALL OF THE TIME

Gas cooker with missing piece. Because Bali.

In Bali, every seven months or so, according to one of the island’s two Hindu calendars, which, together, are so fantastically complicated that many Balinese Hindus cannot even read the bloody calendar, let alone explain it to a curious bule, there is a ritual called Tumpak Landep.


This is the blessing of metal objects, which, in our house, includes the motorbike, the bicycle and both laptops, not to mention sundry phones, cameras, dive computers etc. You don’t need a priest – and, given it emerges our ponds, house and swimming pool were blessed in the Catholic faith, not the Hindu faith (so suck on that, river-borne ghost lady with the snake!), it’s probably unwise for us to invite one. Folk perform Tumpak Landep at home, then go to temple afterwards.

Made, the housekeeper, does our Tumpak Landep when the time comes around (as well as leaving offerings in the garden whenever she comes because…. well, I guess, better safe than sorry, what with the scary ghost lady and all).

But why, you might ask – though ONLY if you haven’t lived on Bali – why would any culture possibly evolve a religion that needed to bless all the metal objects in a household every seven months? Particularly in an era before electronics?

BECAUSE ALL OF THE THINGS ARE BROKEN, ALL OF THE TIME. Or, as Zac and I say with increasing regularity: “Because Bali.”

Having no water is not quite as desperate a scenario on Bali as it might be in Blighty, since we have a swimming pool from which to fill buckets to flush the toilet, or wash up, and, as only a raving lunatic would drink the water in Bali, we have 20-litre containers of drinking water lying around.

After our little volcano delay in Kuala Lumpur, we arrived back in Bali last Sunday. I had spent considerable time and energy, and a surprising amount of money, mending things before we went away, not to mention while we were away, so I thought it might be some time – at least a fortnight, or perhaps even a month – before anything broke again.

This was, shall we say, optimistic.

On Monday morning, we had a power cut. When we have a power cut, we have neither water nor internet, because our water comes from a “bor”, which I thought meant a well, but may in fact be something different, like a borehole. (I haven’t lifted the stone up to look because I’m scared of what I might find, and anyway it would probably break a critical bit of string.)

Then the power came back on, which was nice. So did the internet, and so did the water. Excellent!

And then the water stopped. Bugger.

Our house rules in future will include “no feeding wildlife and definitely no animals in the house”.) Did I mention I miss smoking, btw? Or that I am a cat person?

Now, having no water is not quite as desperate a scenario on Bali as it might be in Blighty, since we have a swimming pool from which to fill buckets to flush the toilet, or wash up, and, as only a raving lunatic would drink the water in Bali, we have 20-litre containers of drinking water lying around the kitchen, plus if we get stinky enough we can always hop in the pool.

But it was enough to take the edge off my already volcano-frazzled equilibrium.

And, when I turned to find a stray puppy, tail wagging optimistically, not just through our gate but actually in our living room, where persons unknown had doubtless been feeding him while we were away, imbuing him with the unfortunate belief that he lived here, breathing didn’t cut it. (And, yes, our house rules in future will include “no feeding wildlife and definitely no animals in the house”.)

Did I mention I miss smoking, btw? Or that I am a cat person?

I shoo. He wags. I yell. He looks hurt, then carries on wagging. I wave my arms at him in the direction of the door. He retreats into a corner. I throw a shoe in his general direction. He looks hurt. I go to pick him up and physically remove him. He bites me. I throw a shoe at him for real. He whimpers and scrambles through the window.

Insufficiently caffeinated, absolutely nicotine-free, and in an epically foul temper which (spoiler alert!) has yet to dissipate, I scroll through my phone, in which it seems every third number is a Javanese workman with a specialism in patching up broken things, and come to Indra.

Indra, the guy who keeps our air-conditioning, fridge and water pump running, is so popular due to his reasonable prices and long-lasting-by-the-standards-of-a-nation-that-fixes-most-things-with-blue-string-and/or-plastic-bags repairs that he now has a mini-repair empire. He sent two guys over to deal with the water pump.

They arrived only a few hours later, which was great. And when they left, the water was working again, which was also good.

A few bule oh-so-cunningly negotiate clauses in which the landlord agrees to fix broken things, apparently under the belief that a clause in a contract is like a big pair of pincers to extract cash money from the landlord’s wallet, or at least enforceable in a court of law.

It’s superficial to assume that the reason everything is broken all of the time in Bali is because it’s in the tropics. Admittedly, that doesn’t help. But, one of the main reasons everything breaks all the bloody time is that everything tends to belong to the landlord.

I don’t know what vintage our water pump is, but I’m sure it’s at least as old as the house. Which means that generation after generation of renters have patched it up, and patched it up, spending, cumulatively if not individually, very much more than the cost of a whole new water pump. Because that would then belong to the landlord.

Most Balinese rental contracts are fairly straightforward in this regard: “If it breaks, you fix it.” A few bule oh-so-cunningly negotiate clauses in which the landlord agrees to fix broken things, apparently under the belief that a clause in a contract is like a big pair of pincers to extract cash money from the landlord’s wallet, or at least enforceable in a court of law. Because who doesn’t go to court to make their landlord fix their 1990s Chinese-factory-reject washer-drier?

I understand, for the record that a typical timeframe between first telling a Balinese landlord that his/her fridge/toilet/air-conditioning unit/ceiling fan/water pump/pool pump/washing machine/garden lights/all of the above is/are broken and a Balinese workman arriving bearing blue string and plastic bags to patch it up for the next fortnight is three to six months of rage, high blood pressure and SMS excuses so surreal they are only borderline comprehensible in any language.

Hell, it took us the big end of a year to persuade our landlords that they might want to remove the broken washing machine as, really, we were quite happy with the laundry across the street, not to mention Made’s cousin recently died from faulty wiring and it did emit quite the voltage when you touched it, ta muchly. I don’t know when the pool cleaning machine that’s in our contract last worked but AFAIC, everyone who rents the place buys their own machine, uses that, and leaves the old, broken one for the next person on the contract, and – guess what? – that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Anywise, even by Balinese standards, I suspect the water pump may be on its last legs. I’ll ask Made to bless it, if it lasts till the next Tumpak Landep, that is. When in Rome, and all that.

As a bule, I am entirely complicit in this, because it is about a bazillion times easier to find the funds to inhale imported gin & tonic during happy hour at Old Man than it is to invest in a piece of household hardware that costs about the same as a round of 2-for-1 G&Ts.

I have yet to find a satisfactory solution to repairs in Bali. I do believe that Indra is genuinely good at his job: his repairs have a price:longevity ratio that’s rare on the island. Made’s father is excellent at odd jobs. I’m happy with both Agus and Agi’s MacBook repairs. Only one of the things Johannes the builder did over the summer has broken, and that only cost 5,000 rupiah to mend, so by Indonesian standards he’s a rockstar, although I did think we were going to fix the leaks in the roof by replacing some tiles rather than slapping a bit of rubber car flooring under the gap between the tiles, but then again, the roof’s stopped leaking, I didn’t pay for the tiles, and it’s not my roof, so….

During a previous week of rage – from memory, the items then broken were both toilets, my MacBook, the water pump and, I think, an air-conditioner – I took advice from Mr Travelfish to enlist Mr Fixit. It is true that both the cisterns of both toilets have not leaked since. It is also true that Mr Fixit gives you aeons to pay. But, it is sadly true that, at least with toilets as cheap as ours, I could have bought an entire new toilet for the price of Mr Fixit’s workmen making minor repairs to two.

The climate, I suppose, doesn’t help. In Bali, bizarre things go wrong – for example, our water tower was struck by lightning on Christmas Day (hell of a bang!), which shorted out both the modem and the phone, though mercifully nothing more expensive. Humidity isn’t good for stuff in general. Torrential rain does put the roof through it.

And still, on one level, I am genuinely pleased that folk in Bali, collectively, make the effort to repair things rather than just throwing them out to landfill. It’s green.

On the other, I feel that this attitude bears with it the acceptance that ALL OF THE THINGS WILL BE BROKEN ALL OF THE TIME, except for the odd week or two between repairs. Things are mended beyond the point of reason, beyond the point of repair.

And, as a bule, I am entirely complicit in this, because it is about a bazillion times easier to find the funds to inhale imported gin & tonic during happy hour at Old Man than it is to invest in a piece of household hardware that costs about the same as a round of 2-for-1 G&Ts. Though, frankly, after a day of getting things mended in Bali you need those G&Ts.

Excuse me while I take a deep breath and sob quietly for a few moments. I am girding myself to relate the saga of the stove.

Oddly, given its predecessor was struck by lightning, we have also neglected to have the modem blessed. And, lo, just as, having fixed the water, I was gearing up to address the problem with the stove – an only-in-Bali farce that I can barely face summarising, let alone dealing with – the internet went down.

Refreshingly, it did this by way of adding a red light to the modem and ceasing to function, which makes a change from the standard method of slowing to a crawl that’s just enough to allow use of Gmail Offline and Twitter, AKA create sufficient glimmer of hope to stop one driving to a cafe with working internet and actually getting stuff done, meanwhile bewildering the few remaining Twitter followers who don’t have you muted by wondering how bad the internet can be when you’re on Twitter whinging about it for this much time.

Of course, nobody moves to Bali for turbo-charged wifi and Teutonic efficiency, but all the same it has been galling to be finally back from travel into a base where I can get stuff done and find everything bloody broken, again, especially the internet.

I generally turn broken things into a massive to-do list for Made, but, as it happens, Made has friends visiting this month, so would rather not have any extra work.

Excuse me while I take a deep breath and sob quietly for a few moments. I am girding myself to relate the saga of the stove.

He put the piece in his pocket and disappeared. Then his phone number stopped working. Agus, and with him our cooker bit, had vanished – conceivably all the way back to Java.

Unusually for an affordable Balinese rental house, we do not have a two-ring, tabletop movable cooker, but a proper cooker, that foreigners – particularly foreigners who were born in or before roughly 1920 – would recognise as such. It has four rings, and what could in theory be an oven except nobody, including Indonesian gas cooker menders, has ever managed to get it to work, and in fact, when we tried to make mac ‘n’ cheese in it after Agus – a different Agus – got it lit, it actually cooled down from the sauce stage.

Anywise, the point is, it is a cooker. And, like other things which are only used by bule and rich folk from Jakarta, this is an unusual, and, therefore, ludicrously expensive item. And, when it came to handing the house over to guests in the summer, our guests were expecting a cooker.

It is amazing, I will observe in passing, how minor problems that one can quite happily live with become urgent issues that must be fixed when contemplating accepting paying guests. One of these was that the metal cap on top of the burner on the largest of the four rings was so badly eroded that flames shot through the top of it as well as out of the holes in the side. To me this looked, well, normal for Bali. Through the eyes of a new-to-Bali paying guest, it might have looked positively lethal.

We summoned Agus, the gas cooker mender, who was also quoting to install a boiler and an eye-bleedingly expensive mixer tap which has already calcified. He sucked his teeth, said he could get a new one, but soldering might be an option. I, slap-happy after a visit from the money fairy and tired of mending things that could cost-effectively be replaced, said we’d like a new one, please. Agus put the piece in his pocket and disappeared. Then his phone number stopped working.

Agus, and with him our cooker bit, had vanished – most likely all the way back to Java.

Apparently, the cooker is an old model. No shit, sherlock. It is, in all fairness, a cooker whose like I have not seen anywhere, ever. It’s the sort of substantial affair I imagine being melted down in huge quantities to supply iron for factories during the Great Leap Forward.

You would think, what with this not being a sophisticated part – it’s a round bit of metal with some holes in it to let the flames come out, and that is, AFAIC, absolutely all there is to it – that it would be easy to find, or at least to substitute, particularly on an island as resourceful as Bali, where every single working part in every single piece of scrap is salvaged and resold.

You would, gentle reader, be wrong.

While I squawked feebly in fear, Indra put the part below the missing part, plus two other equivalent parts from the rest of the stove, in his pocket and disappeared, sucking his teeth, shortly before we went to Europe, leaving the cooker down to one ring.

On day 1, he updated Made that he’d had no luck, but was hoping for more joy with some of the better second-hand parts stores. On day 2, he updated that he’d keep looking and still had hope. Then he stopped answering his phone.

In Blighty, and living in fear that, at this point, I’d be forced to buy an entire new cooker for our guests, I got Made to hound him 24/7, promising money just to get the parts back, before we were back to our three-rings-out-of-four status quo.

Apparently, the cooker is an old model. No shit, sherlock. It is, in all fairness, a cooker whose like I have not seen anywhere, ever. It’s the sort of thing I imagine being melted down in huge quantities to supply iron for factories during the Great Leap Forward. I very much doubt it ever came in a range of colourways, and what I have seen of its interior indicates the sort of simple, robust design that is as indestructible as it is lacking in safety features.

However. It is a cooker. It has, or once had, four rings. All four of those rings once worked perfectly well.

Since the paying guests had stated cooking as one of their plans for their sojourn in our house, I asked Made to get a single-ring table-top cooker to bring our available cooker rings back up to four. Being Balinese, she considers this the same, if not better, as having a four-ring cooker. Qua bule, I do not.

Oh, yes, and the “metalworker” I was recommended on Facebook is not a metalworker but a kitchen fitter, who can replace the piece if he can find the part, which he can’t because it’s an old model, and is rather more interested in designing an entire new kitchen, which will look like something out of Wallpaper* until it breaks five days later. And probably even then.

I didn’t even bother to ring. I parked the entire bloody thing until Made got here in the morning, which she didn’t, because a blind girl in Karangasem had run away from school with her grandma and we need to find her, or, as we say in English, because Bali.

Mystifyingly, even workaday English products fail to work when they get to Bali, and I can’t understand why. I was very much enjoying my new cafetière, lugged back from Blighty at some considerable effort, when the filter and mesh bits at the bottom fell off after only three days EXACTLY AS THEY WOULD HAVE DONE IF I’D BOUGHT IT IN INDONESIA FOR TEN TIMES THE PRICE.

I fixed that, natch, because few things are more important than coffee. But clearly I fixed it wrong, because on Wednesday morning, as I stared blearily at the kitchen and decided today would be the day I finally sorted this sodding stove, and maybe worked out whether it was the internet, the modem, my MacBook or a virus that was causing that weird error on Google Chrome, the filter stuck a little, I pushed it down, and the brand new cafetière exploded all over the stove. In the course of cleaning it up, I cut my hand on some glass embedded in the sponge, and one of the shards is now embedded in a finger and showing every sign of going manky.

But I digress. Made and I were discussing what to do about the stove on Wednesday, as I filled up the kettle, when we both realised that the tap wasn’t running correctly, a problem Made described in her call to Indra as wah-wahing.

Every water appliance in the house is now wah-wahing, a sign, I believe, either that the water pump is about to die, or that we are about to run out of water, but something that should in any case be addressed as it might break other stuff, like boilers, or for all I bloody know the toilets (again).

One of Indra’s guys was supposed to come and look at it on Thursday. He didn’t. To be honest, I didn’t even bother to ring. I parked the entire bloody thing until Made got here in the morning, which she didn’t, because a blind girl in Karangasem had run away from school with her grandma and we need to find her, or, as we say in English, because Bali.

Or, as Zac said, “Liv and Rob don’t get here until next Saturday. I wouldn’t bother fixing anything until at least next Thursday, then we have a fighting chance of everything working until they leave on Monday.”

Most of the time, he will answer it, and come round, and mend things, unless it’s a problem with the mysterious Sentral, which I envisage as being some gigantic pyramid like one of the ministries in 1984, but is probably a pair of Komangs hand-knotting offerings to the internet gods in front of a 1950s switchboard.

On Monday, Indonesia turned 70, which was a public holiday. So you won’t be surprised to hear that the internet broke again, perhaps by way of celebration, on Thursday. I swear blind that there’s a cafe owner somewhere in Canggu who keeps cutting this sodding cable in Kerobokan, because I, for one, have been spending an absolute fortune in local cafes, and that’s with Putu from Speedy on speed-dial.

And, yes, that’s one reason we stay with Speedy, much as it fails to live up to its name, because I know the engineer, and have his number in my phone, and, most of the time, he will answer it, and come round, and mend things, unless it’s a problem with the mysterious Sentral, which I envisage as being some gigantic pyramid like one of the ministries in 1984, or perhaps the one in Brazil, but is probably a pair of Komangs hand-knotting offerings to the internet gods in front of a 1950s switchboard.

Anywise, none of this mattered, you see, because Zac and I were headed into Seminyak for a fancy weekend at his friend’s fancy 7-bedroom rental villa, which the family stay in every so often when they don’t have guests, which meant a range of exciting new people for me, and his mate, two laptops and a darkened room for him.

And so what if we got horribly lost in Seminyak, then got a flat tyre, then fought savagely over whose fault the getting lost was while we waited by the side of the road for half an hour while our friends tried to find us (we were about 300 metres from their house, because Bali)?!

You don’t get more civilised than outdoor bathrooms, lanterns dangling in the trees over the swimming pool, staff passing round nibbles, and Balinese fizz chilling in the freezer, while other staff wheel the bike to the bengkel and get it mended.

Their water went off at 7pm on Friday, and the civilised weekend away came to an undignified halt around 3pm on Saturday. Laugh? I almost cried.

When Zac heard hissing coming from the cooker, that wasn’t a cobra either! Just a gas leak!

I’m not at my best before coffee, which means that when one of the neighbour’s chickens took off from our cooker and flew into my face as I was attempting to make my sadly no-longer-cafetière coffee on Sunday, I screamed like a girl.

Still, at least it wasn’t a cobra, and Zac used his superior visual-spatial reasoning to chase it out of the door. Young chickens can fly quite well when they’re panicked. Who knew?! And, yes, I should have let him loose on the puppy.

Further, when Zac heard hissing coming from the cooker, that wasn’t a cobra either! Just a gas leak! Resignedly, I disconnected the LPG and switched to our reserve, single-ring stove-top cooker which does, for the moment, work better than the four-ring cooker, due to a) cooking things and b) doing so without danger of death. Further, it’s sufficiently cheap and flimsy that we can just chuck it when it stops working rather than waiting in for someone to patch it up, which will also make the garbage men very happy.

Better yet, nothing new broke on Monday, which was nice, and, in fact, come Monday evening, the lights on our modem went from red to green, and the internet went from “definitely not working, must go to a cafe” to “could possibly work if I wait long enough” to “oh god, I’ll spend all tomorrow harassing poor Putu, oh, no, wait a moment, Gmail Offline got a message, there must be something happening, I’ll just give this page five more minutes to see if it loads”.

Yet, although I started yesterday by stubbing my toe, thereby creating my own personal blood offering to the gods of broken things and trailing it all over the house, neither the internet nor the water have been fixed and the cooker currently squats in the corner of the kitchen like a giant heap of reproach. Because…

Because Bali. And is it gin-o-clock yet?

7 Responses

  1. Orana says:

    one day the water heater thingy majiggy got loose and flooded a balcony on the second floor, I thought it was raining until the neighbors came and knocked on the door to tell me something was crazy wrong. another day the thingy that makes the house not smell like fried chicken when I make fried chicken stopped working and the “fixers” keep saying they don’t know what’s wrong. yesterday the handle on the kitchen sink faucett broke off, and the fridge make insane noises. The hoses never stay on the taps to water the garden, and well the belimbing is always falling on the patio making a mess. jajajajaja. the joys of bali.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh boy. If they don’t know what’s wrong, that’s alarming. There are several schools of thought as to what’s wrong with our water. It could be a leak under the house; it could be that we need a second pump; and the landlord says this just happens sometimes when it’s dry. So I’m just leaving it to wah-wah until it gets to a point where I really have to spend days arguing with fixers.

      When our fridge last made insane noises it was because the rubber on the door had broken so the thermostat was working overtime to keep it cool. Then the thermostat broke, which is how we know what the insane noises were. So, I’d check the door seals. Probably not that, but, you know, we Bali folk have to support each other.

  2. Tom Jarvis says:

    My wife and I run a property agency here in Bali, Sanur specifically. We spend our lives fixing issues for our tenants and property owners, and it did make me chuckle to read your accounts of the ongoing fight against the unseen force that corrupts all machinery here. As some famous American athlete (whom I always misquote) said, ‘it never gets any easier, you just go faster’. We find ways, mostly involving blue plastic string, and yes we do try to keep the rental contracts fair so everyone knows whose turn it is to buy the string. But it’s also important to keep the spirits happy. It’s Tumpak Landep tomorrow, so be prepared and don’t forget to bless the things that you love most…

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you for your comment! I’m currently waiting in for a man to fix the fishpond, and the water went off again this morning, so glad to know it’s really not just me.

      • Tom says:

        Bali is one of the only places I know where ‘waiting’ is an active pursuit. “What are you doing?” “Waiting.” “Oh, ok.” I think we actually employ a “waiter” – they wait for the tv, aircon, electric, water, lock, garden, or roof guy to come. Sometimes they actually show up!

        • Theodora says:

          I am currently employing my pembantu as a remote waiter. You don’t happen to know anyone who can mend fishponds, do you? Not joking!

  3. DarShan says:

    Love your writing style Theodora. It’s fun reading you.

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