Couchfish: A chat on the beach

Couchfish: A chat on the beach

Spare a thought for the little people.

There’s a beach bar a five minute bike ride from where I live and I head there most afternoons to write—I’m there now actually. I like it because it is right by the crashing ocean, but also because, even pre Covid, it was almost always empty. Save the staff of course, but half the time they’re not there either—I leave the money under a book on the bar when I leave.

It is a small, ramshackle place, a dozen tables, no music, no WiFi and barely a 3G signal. The surf though, is right there, and it clears my mind. Their coffee is dreadful, but the soda water is always icy and comes with an earnest smile.

Keep running. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Over the last year I’ve come to know the staff a bit—at a distance. They apologise when the owner is about, as when she is on site they have to add on a service charge. They told me when they got their first vaccination shot. The son of one of the staff likes to play a game I don’t understand on a cheap tablet. When there, he sits at the table beside me and always chirps hello when he sees me. He’s long given up trying to explain the game to me.

There’s a foursome of blue deckchairs on the sand, umbrellas wiggling in the wind, waving to the few potential walkers strolling by. They’re almost always empty, in the hot grey sand, raked and swept, kept tidy and presentable.

Before the world changed. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The tables in the cafe area are wobbly. The umbrellas have holes in them—I like to think from coconuts, but more likely due to age and the weather. In wet season, the roof leaks.

Sometimes I’m here for an hour, other times, five or six, sometimes more. We make chit chat, but they mostly leave me alone, which I like. If I bring my kids down, they say hello to them, then the next day tell me how beautiful my grandchildren are.

I like it.

Offerings are in need. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Nearby there’s an older Balinese woman who does beach massage. She also sells sarongs, trinkets and bracelets and I’m sure if I had enough hair she’d offer to braid it. Thank god I don’t have enough hair for that.

We chat now and then. She’s from Denpasar and has been giving beach massages for “a long time”. She has five kids, but her husband is long gone—she’s said he ran away or died during different chats. I’d guess she’s in her 60s now. I can’t remember the last time I saw her give a massage. She often sits on her bedding on her phone, or snoozes—as she is now as I write.

When she wakes she’ll call out to me, holding up a blue and black sarong, it blowing in the wind as she stretches it out for me. There’s a huge toothy smile below the Ray Charles sunglasses she always wears. Above the shades a broad rimmed white linen hat—something my own mother would wear. Around her neck a cheap handbag dangles. I know it is filled with the tools for manicures, pedicures, foot scrubbing, ear candling and gawd knows what else.

A different kind of riptide. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It seems offensive to ask how business is, given the climate, but I do anyway. “Very slow,” she says, “worse than the bombs and Agung. No people, no business, no money for Mama.”

The bracelets she says she makes herself, the sarongs she sells on consignment. She makes more on the sarongs she says, but she’ll give me a special price with just 10,000 rupiah in her pocket because she knows I live here.

Then she’s gone, off to peddle her wares to a couple of tourists walking by in the afternoon sun. We both know they’ll pay more than me. This isn’t personal—it’s business.

This is business—not personal. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

When we’ve chatted before, I’ve asked how she is getting by. Some of her kids still live with her, one of her sons has some kind of a governmental job and makes decent coin. In the place of the father, he’s the breadwinner. For her, coming to the beach is as much a product of habit as a means to an ends.

She’s back from the tourists. The woman paid 150,000 rupiah for a sarong and she’s delighted with that. They’re French or Russian (how you could confuse the two is beyond me) she tells me—on honeymoon. What a time for a honeymoon I say. She laughs at that, then says they asked her if she’d been vaccinated.

This was something I had been meaning to ask her but had forgotten to, so I take the opportunity. It is funny how in today’s world it is normal to ask a complete stranger this. She has been, thanks to her son’s job and her age she’s already had both shots. The vaccinations were free.

I ask, when they asked her, did she ask them if they were vaccinated.

Don’t ask, don’t tell. Fisher hut near Batu Belig. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

She’s startled, like the thought hadn’t even occurred to her. She says no, she didn’t ask, then adds she thought all foreigners were already vaccinated—she thought they had to be to come to Bali. I explain that’s not the case, then she laughs, and says that she’d not asked, she thinks it would be rude. She pointedly doesn’t ask me.

I ask her if she knew anyone who has died of Covid. She shrugs, she’s not sure. A cousin, an uncle, a friend of a friend, someone she used to shop from at her local market. Maybe it was Covid. “They died early” is how she put it. No hospital, no doctor, no medical certificate. In the ground till the families can afford a cremation.

Trying to frame it as politely as I can, I suggest there’s nothing wrong in asking tourists if they are vaccinated. After all they asked her first. She’s not convinced. She pauses for a moment then says, “they’re guests here”.

All a true guest should leave. Seseh. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

She’s off wandering again. Plodding 3pm hot sand, looking for more honeymooners to pay over the market price for a sarong. But in her own way, she’s the front line of Bali’s (and many other) tourism industries.

A week ago, I was on Bingin beach in the south and a similar vendor asked me where my daughter Lyla was. Not only did she remember I had a daughter, but she remembered her name. It had been months since I’d been to Bingin with Lyla.

Maybe the vendor has a great memory, or perhaps Lyla overpaid so much, she’s now legendary—I lean towards the latter! But to be honest, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. I would guess, the Bingin vendor’s personal situation would not be all that different to the woman above.

Oh Bingin. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Travel is a personal thing—it is different things for different people. For some it is a fancy pants hotels, some with private pool villas, for others, it is a fall down beach bar or a bamboo shack. But by and large the former is getting the column inches. I’m not suggesting the expat F&B Manager with a residence the size of a football field including a half–size Olympic pool ain’t hurting. Hurt is a relative thing I guess.

But when States say they don’t have the funds to lend financial support to the little people, it makes my blood boil. Even the most nominal amount would give these people some breathing room. And in turn, destinations the time they need to vaccinate enough of their own citizens. Locals first. Then, and only then, let’s start talking about reopening to inbound tourism.

Because, in my humble opinion, it is the little people who make the difference—and they deserve far better than what they are getting.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.