Queen of the Hot Water Pot

By Amy Chavez

For The Bali Times

I’ll never forget the first time I went to Matahari department store to buy a hot water pot. The usual menagerie of employees was swarming around the second floor, some chatting and joking, some engrossed in gossip, all oblivious to the shoppers milling about. After all, the employees still had several hours before they had to start work. Which is not to say they weren’t on the clock. It’s just that, well, you know, it takes a few hours before you can really get into your shift.

But some employees, mainly women wearing heels, had delved straight into work by taking up positions along the sides of the aisles, engaging in a form of standing meditation. The only sign of life was the occasional guttural sigh of boredom and a transfer of weight from one foot to the other, much like horses do when resting a back leg.

The striking thing about this style of employment to westerners is that there are often more employees than shoppers. You wonder how all those employees get into the building to work every morning without trampling each other to death. Matahari is extremely overstaffed. And I’ll tell you why.

Half the people are employed to work and the other half are employed to keep the first half company. It’s the buddy system. They hire pairs of friends, family or neighbors. When you think about this, it makes sense. What if, for example, there was an accident and an employee needed an immediate blood transfusion? What better way to get it than from a best friend who happens to be on-hand.

Or let’s say an employee had a heart attack. Things would be so much easier with a family member around to work with the paramedics and fill in the medical history form and the person’s details. Furthermore, no family member would get a panicked phone call telling them to rush to the hospital. Instead, they could just ride to the hospital together in the ambulance. Need an emergency organ transplant? You could just hand over your organs right then and there to the paramedics. No release forms, no fine print.

In the worst-case scenario, there would be no need for cellphones, and no need to inform next of kin – since they’d already be at the scene. And seeing how Matahari probably doesn’t offer health insurance to their employees, this is their way of making up for it.

All this I figured out while picking out a hot water pot at Matahari. I then walked to the register with the pot, a plastic contraption with a heating element in the bottom that in those days cost Rp12,000 (now US$1.28). As I neared the register, three employees in heels jumped into action and took the pot out of the box, inserted the plug into an outlet in the wall, filled it up with water and huddled around watching it intently. It was obviously expected to perform.

And I was left thinking: Did I somehow indicate I was serving morning tea? Hmm. Well, maybe I would still get out of it. After all, a watched pot never boils.

And so we stood watching and waiting. Every few minutes, one of the girls sighed, dropped her hip and transferred her weight from one foot to the other.

Suddenly, one of the girls pointed to the heating element that was beading up and releasing bubbles. “It works!” she exclaimed and unplugged the pot. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react, so I applauded. Not so much for the bubble performance, but for the fact that I didn’t have to serve morning tea.

And thus I learned that whenever you buy an electrical appliance in Indonesia, they always run a check before you buy it, to make sure it works. Either that or it’s a safety check to make sure it doesn’t blow up.

Indeed, the hot water pot is the first thing most Westerners buy if they decide to stay longer than a few weeks in Bali. It’s the most basic form of comfort that comes from a cup of hot coffee or tea. And from there, you can move up to making instant noodles, soups and, if you’re really innovative, eggs benedict with a side of hash browns.

And that’s how I became the queen of the hot water pot. In just a couple of weeks, I could make practically anything in it and was even considering giving a go at catering. But alas, my dreams came to a halt one morning when I caught a whiff of something strange. Sniff-sniff. It was a mix of instant noodles, curry and, sniff-sniff, PLASTIC! My God, I had forgotten about the water pot!

When I ran into the room, the entire pot was engulfed in flames. As I ran and unplugged the pot, I thought about the Matahari employee yelling, “It works!”

It sure does. It even explodes.

Filed under:
The Island

Leave a Reply