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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Kuta, Indonesia

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, November 22, 2002
From the Field
Smith Graeme


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Pictures from Indonesia

Komara, 21, sells meatballs from his cart in Ngruki, Indonesia. Business has been slow recently, he said, because he has been too afraid to roll his cart near the strict Islamic boarding schools where he used to sell snacks to students. "It was never this dangerous before," he said.
Photo: Graeme Smith

Sunaryo, who teaches at a boarding school, Pondok Pesantren Patisah, in downtown Solo, Indonesia, blames the recent spate of terrorism in Indonesia on violent television programs such as war movies and American wrestling. "The government should eliminate the rude programs on television and give more religious and educational broadcasts," he said.
Photo: Graeme Smith

The site of the bomb blast, which killed more than 180 peope, mostly foreign tourists. A mass purification ceremony took place in front of the Sari Club in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia to cleanse the island resort from evil spirits.
Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

Tourists once flocked to Bali's Hard Rock Cafe, which dominates the beachfront like a stone temple to the god America.

It was busy every night of the week. People crowded the patio and watched the waves roll in across the Indian Ocean. They jostled around the bar and craned their necks at the flesh on the dance floor while cover bands played eerily accurate versions of American top-40 hits.

That was before Oct. 12, when bombs killed more than 180 people just a few blocks away. All that's left now is the band, the sad-eyed staff, and the sort of dead feeling you might get from visiting a ruined cathedral.

Sure, everything looks pretty much the same.

The two-storey building still houses rock memorabilia, brass fixtures, movie posters and Western-style toilets. The musicians are still playing. The Balinese boy on stage whines the lyrics of a Creed song with the obsessive precision of somebody who will never see the band's concerts but has memorized every nuance of their albums.

He's singing for an empty dance floor, though, and a few straggling Australians with their heads down. They're no longer drinking for fun or celebrating life. Instead, they're trying to dull the feeling of waking up from a marvelous dream.

“Well, I just heard the news today,” the boy sings, and something in his eyes shows that he's thinking about the words. “It seems my life is going to change.”

The line gets an ironic smile from the skinny bouncer at the door as he idly slaps his metal-detector wand into the palm of his hand.

Like most of the people working in Bali's tourism industry, he can't do much except wait. Maybe the rubble of the Sari Club will be shovelled away. Maybe the memories will fade. Maybe the revellers will return.

Or maybe not.

The bouncer, who asks me not to get him in trouble by printing his name, says that bosses from head office are coming to inspect the Hard Rock and decide how to cut costs. He's heard that the plan is to turn off some of the lights that flood the building's columns and sculptures.

But judging from the number of patrons tonight, the accountants will have to do more than just shave a few dollars from the electrical bill. The bouncer knows it too.

“Maybe we close down. I don't know. Maybe I have to go home.”

The idea of going home isn't an appealing option. He comes from a small rural town to the north where jobs are scarce. Other locals feel the same reluctance to give up on this town. The waiters who loiter at the entranceways to restaurants are obviously bored as they talk or smoke or stare silently at the rare pedestrians. The retail clerks seem restless as they stand on the curb and chat with the taxi drivers beside their empty cabs.

But for the moment it's still better than living in most other parts of Southeast Asia. At least the streets around Kuta don't smell like raw sewage. The rats aren't bigger than the cats and the cockroach population has been kept down by years of insecticide. Some residents even own houses with tile roofs.

Immediately after the bombings, people here believed that the prosperity could continue if they made it clear that they didn't hate America and that they worshipped money, sex, surfing and beaches just like everybody else in the Western world.

But the condolence banners hung on street corners and outside shops are beginning to fray at the edges. The spraypainted graffiti - “Fuck terroris,” using the Bahasa Indonesian spelling of `terrorism' - is chipped and faded on the walls.

At the destroyed section of Legian Street where the bombs went off, huge flower wreaths have wilted and are beginning to smell like compost.

There are almost no tourists weeping at the site of the blast anymore, just one white guy sitting crosslegged amid the powdery dust and broken glass with his face in his hands. He's carefully avoided by the throngs of locals who come here to stare mournfully at the twisted steel girders, shredded sheet metal, and heaped concrete chunks where visitors used to eat, drink, and dance.

It's strange to think that this wasteland was once the throbbing heart of a hedonistic playground. It's even more strange to watch a Christian church service performed here, complete with crosses, brass incense holders, and robed priests leading prayers in the local language.

When they sing, their voices sound throaty and thick with emotion.

I can't decipher the words, but I understand the meaning. These people built a town full of places like the Hard Rock Cafe, temples that exalted a foreign ideal.

Now the foreigners are gone. All the banners and wreaths and wailing won't bring them back.

So they're left looking up into the night sky, singing something like the old biblical phrase: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.