Of Cigarettes and Cellphones

Of Cigarettes and Cellphones

By Mark Ulyseas

For The Bali Times

There are many images in paradise that enlighten, mystify and antagonize visitors who eventually become enthusiastic participants in the shenanigans of a populace living at the crossroads of the world.

So what constant images would be ingrained in our memories when we depart from this island, reluctantly?

Some of us have fallen unwittingly into the dance of a social stereotype that is prevalent on the streets of Bali – cigarettes and cellphones that are essential appendages that enhance our self-esteem. For the sake of brevity, we shall call them ciggy and hp (handphone).

When I arrived on this isle a few centuries ago – at least it feels like that – I was confronted with social liberties that extended beyond the pale. I would jokingly call the waitress at my watering hole “darling” and ask her to marry me, or light up a cigar at a community dining table where women and children were tucking into nasi goreng. In some cases a doting father who was smoking, while holding his small child in his arms, offered me a ciggy, which was followed by plumes emanating from our orifices and choking all who were within a few feet of us.

I like the community tables at warungs because this is where one can practice freedom of speech. It’s also a great place to meet people from all walks of life, in one sitting, to the symphony of hp rings and clicking of lighters.

Have you ever seen a youngster with a ciggy dangling from the corner of his mouth on a motorbike pelting down the road? Yes, of course you must have encountered these specimens that can be seen in abundance all across the isle. Rebels without a cause could be the apt phrase here. However, these “rebels” are of pretty face and slim build with a fetish for the latest hp that borders on neurotica and erotica. The constant fiddling with the hp and faces changing to the tone of the messages – frowns, grins or scowls all in a blink of an eye. I wonder what Dorian Gray would have done with one of these gadgets – taken a picture?

I bought my first and only hp more than a year ago for a price that embarrassed me whenever someone asked me how much I had paid for it. It is a basic instrument that doesn’t have a camera and all the do-das that are the craze today. It works in spite of falling into a commode, being stomped on and bitten by my landlord’s dog.

Whenever I remove it from my shirt pocket I get disapproving looks from self-appointed well-wishers chiding me about keeping my instrument in a pocket so close to the heart. I am warned that the radio waves could give me a heart attack anytime, anywhere, like driving or, worse still, in bed.

There have been news reports that scientists have discovered that prolonged use of hps could damage one’s gray matter, as if the pollution and noise doesn’t do it already. Now isn’t this a wonderful way to addle our brain? Talk while we drop.

I visited a friend’s home for lunch and was accosted by her daughter, who insisted I see her latest phone. It looked like a piece out of the science fiction movie Minority Report – the moving parts, crystal-clear pictures that it took and the ringtones that sounded like a 24-piece orchestra. I felt intimated by all the gadgetry and quietly returned the hp to the 11-year-old child with a terse, “That’s nice.”

A science magazine reported a year ago that birds in New Zealand are copying the ring tones of hps. Now where is Greenpeace when we need them?

Some may remember the good old days when we never had hps but big, black, heavy-duty land phones – the receiver that weighed a kilo was successfully used as a murder weapon on more than one occasion.

Hps are getting lighter and more dramatic in their features and therefore using them for any purpose other than making calls, messaging, photography and surfing the net is out of the question. I am referring to the darker side, like bludgeoning someone to death with an hp.

Methinks all this talk of hps has sidelined the other topic under discussion, cigarettes, affectionately termed by some as cancer sticks.

A ciggy resting firmly in the corner of the mouth of James Dean raised his testosterone levels and turned his female fans into giggling jelly. Nowadays everyone seems to be aping him – long, short, young, old, fat and thin – though not too successfully. But the various brands of ciggies that are arrayed on shop shelves bear testimony to the huge following of abusers. No amount of warnings by surgeon generals across the world will deter people bent on posing with them and sucking the smoke deep into their cavities, lining them with wholesome nicotine that affects all functions of the body, including the libido.

But does all this posturing with ciggy in hand get the girl? Some say it’s a phallic symbol and therefore works effectively to snare gullible nubile nymphets. I think my cigar is a safer bet – the pleasure one gets from the combination of a fine Dominican cigar and a cognac is unsurpassable. One can’t do this standing on the roadside next to a motorcycle.

The sight of a lit ciggy in hand and a hp in the other has become synonymous with life on the isle. Ever sat at a table where many hps have rung at the same time? It’s like sticking one’s head in the Big Ben when it chimes. Oh for the days when one was called to the phone.

The other side-effects of ciggies and hps is seen in the mannerisms of someone at a table who lights up and then blows the smoke in other people’s faces, and answers his hp so loudly that no one can hear themselves think. Here, though, there exists an absence of malice in the lack of etiquette.

The young and old are constantly bombarded with slick ad campaigns depicting dream merchants using products that ooze sensuality – a puff that increases the adrenaline and radio waves that tickle the brain: a burlesque that transcends sanity.

Is it conceivable that the cellphone mirrors our secret desires and hopes while the cigarette is an appendage that lulls us into a sense of false security and bravado?

Who’s to say – the user or the abuser?

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om


  1. Andrew Hall says:

    Dear Editor,
    After reading far too much of the hapless hyperbole of Mark Ulyseas in your otherwise readable publication, I find it necessary to respond:

    In the issue of January 18-24 (2008) Ulyseas calls for the expulsion of a Paula Hodgson from Bali for the “crime” of expressing an opinion. This might well be a telling comment about where Ulyseas’ philosophical and ideological roots lay – a self-proclaimed communicator/writer; he gets petty with those whose ideas don’t concur with his own.

    In his “Of Cigarettes and Cellphones” piece in the same issue the hypocrisy of the man – who has lived on Bali for less than a year – becomes manifest. Please note the photograph of your reporter in the “dinkus” on the front page of the current issue – cigarette and all. And having witnessed his incessant cellphone activities at his “favorite watering hole” – no doubt to tap into important and interesting contacts – one wonders what the heck that article was all about.

    There are some of us on Bali who have lived here for a lot longer. There are some of us on Bali who have served, faithfully, the craft of journalism in our pasts. This “scribbler who writes to eat” should be sent into “the room of mirrors” for an extended period.

    The fact that Ulyseas has a laptop and access to a publication does not, I trust, give him – or you, the publisher – the right to defame those whose opinions don’t happen coincide with his, or your, own.

    Yours sincerely,

    Andrew Hall
    Ubud – Bali

  2. […] Ulyseas, Mark (2008-01-18). “Of Cigarettes and Cellphones”. The Bali […]