By Amy Chavez

For The Bali Times

One thing I like about Bali is that there are no vending machines selling soft drinks. Nothing where you feed coins into some cold, unappreciative slot, listen as the machine swallows them and the coins travel one by one down through the pharynx into the esophagus and plop into the pit of the machine’s stomach, after which it belches out a soft drink. No wonder there’s so much gas in them.

Then, after you are given your can of fizzy gas, with any luck, the machine will expel some pellets of small change, coins that were originally fed in by someone else, and since then have been digested and have passed through the machine’s entrails.

No, no, not me. I prefer buying things from people. I prefer little Indonesian houses with storefronts with someone inside who smiles and greets me with, “Selamat pagi” (Good morning). Someone who will give me a cold bottled drink from their ice chest, hand it to me and insist I take a seat. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few moments on a hot day. And when I’m finished, she’ll smile and say thank you with “Terima kasih, Ibu.” Then I’ll pay, and if I say, “Keep the change,” she will.

On my planet, the United States, not only do we get soft drinks from vending machines, but we are likely to eat many of our meals in the car. These meals have been made by a team of people wearing plastic gloves and hairnets who are paid to make food as fast as possible and then hand it to you through a drive-in window. This is only after you have shouted out your order, loud enough to be heard over the background noise of a car muffler, into a small black box. This muffled English is then processed by the team. When you see an arm sticking out of a window and a bag of food hanging from it, you know your meal is ready. Who needs face-to-face contact? Isn’t arm-to-arm good enough?

No, no, not me. I prefer to buy my chicken and rice straight from the nasi bunkus vendor on his bicycle, and then sit down to eat under the swaying leaves of a palm tree. The vendor, who is always stationed at the same palm tree, likes to joke with me and I like to joke with the other customers who come and go and do the same.

On my planet we have superstores like Kmart and Wal-Mart, where you can spend the afternoon walking through aisles, pushing an oversize trolley and looking for blue-light specials. The last time I was home, I went to a store called Bedding, Bath and Beyond. Believe me, the emphasis is on beyond, as this place has all the daily unnecessaries, such as machines that will mix your margaritas for you and 20 different models of electric toothbrushes.

No, no, not in Bali. Here we have vendors with pedal power: Kmart on a bicycle. Each bicycle vendor represents a different department, and together they make up a superstore. Forget football field-size parking lots and shopping trolleys. Here comes the blue-light special now! It’s the guy selling household cleaning supplies. He’s got buckets, brooms, mops, toilet-bowl cleaners, feather dusters, sponges, pot scrubbers and the kitchen sink, all dangling from his bicycle. He’s always polite, always thankful, and he always comes back.

But my favorite vendor has always been the Welcome Mat Man. Talk about a niche market! This guy has all sizes of welcome mats – those bristle-haired mats for the front door of your house -draped over the back of his bike. You’d think he’d sell all kinds of mats, such as car mats, and place mats. Nope, just welcome mats.

It’s hard to believe there would be such a demand for welcome mats to support so many vendors. There are always vendors lined up along Jl. Sudirman in Denpasar, obviously a proven location for brisk sales of welcome mats. I drive with caution along here because of the likelihood that the car in front of me is going to screech to a halt while the driver yells out, “Eureka! That’s what I forgot to buy at the store — a welcome mat!”

Or maybe there really isn’t a demand for these mats at all; the guys are just really, really lazy. They chose to be welcome-mat vendors so they wouldn’t have to work very hard. I mean, if they really wanted more business, don’t you think they’d offer their mats in different colors, or softer bristles or special ones just for dogs? You can’t even get a welcome mat that says “Welcome” in any other language than English.

The other day, I finally decided to buy a welcome mat from the welcome-mat vendor. After all, he’s my favorite vendor. The Welcome Mat Man smiled, greeted me with “Selamat pagi” and gave me the morning price.

I took my new welcome mat, a big heavy one, and happily stuffed it into the car. I paid him, thanked him saying, “Terima kasih.”

The Welcome Mat Man gave me a big smile and said, in English of course, “You’re welcome.”

Filed under: The Island

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