By Vyt Karazija
Breakfast complete, I lean back in my chair at the new cafe I’m trying out and puff contentedly on my cigarette. The couple at the next table glance at me disapprovingly, despite the fact that I’m sitting in an open area, well downwind from them. One of the pair wrinkles his nose and ostentatiously fans the air in front of his frowning face, as if to signal that my smoke is destroying his sensitive olfactory system. “You smokers are so bloody selfish,” he yells. For reasons that will become clear, I find his reaction a little surprising, and decide to rev him up even more.
So I take a deep drag, watching the tip of my cigarette glow cherry red as his face assumes the same hue, presumably due to his climbing blood pressure. Then, pretending that I have just noticed his negative reaction, I wave an apology, and stub the cigarette out in my right eye. I am supremely gratified as he knocks over a glass of water in shock. I take another quick puff and drop the apparently burning butt into my shirt pocket.
I say “apparently burning” because I am using an electronic cigarette, a rechargeable device with a red LED on its end that glows brightly when you draw on it. It has a cartridge containing ethylene glycol and some additives which are vaporised by a tiny heating element. The smoke produced is not smoke at all, but water vapour. It has no odour and dissipates almost instantly. Its operating principle is the same as that in the nebulisers used by asthmatics. But it looks like a real cigarette and satisfies the behavioural addiction inherent in smoking without its downsides.
In response to my cheap trick, the disapproving patron recoils and mutters darkly to his companion while giving me the fish eye. Obviously a person who takes great pleasure in being annoyed by everything, he switches the focus of his ire from my smoking to me personally, snarling, “Bloody wanker!” as he leaves. Uncalled for, even if true.
I am consumed with immature glee at having pricked his pomposity and making him lose face. To stifle my guffaws, I put my face in my hands and my elbows on the table’s edge. Unfortunately, I’m seated at a round table mounted on a pedestal – one of those awful designs with only three legs. My position midway between two of these legs gives my elbows perfect leverage to instantly tip the table towards me. Naturally, my glass of pineapple juice slides towards me and falls into my lap, saturating my crotch with yellow liquid.
That’s right – I’m in Bali. I’d forgotten that karmic payback here can be immediate. Embarrassing that non-smoker chappie may not have been such a great idea after all. Now everybody who sees me in the next hour will shake their heads at the poor old duffer who has obviously forgotten to wear his incontinence pads. Maybe I could just sneak out with a newspaper over my lap.
No such luck. A local acquaintance promptly walks in and greets me with a sunny Balinese smile. This gets even wider when he sees my saturated pants. To distract his attention before he makes the obvious coarse comment, I show him my electronic cigarettes. It seems to work, as he loses all interest in my wet lap. However, this also proves to be a massive tactical blunder, because he is utterly fascinated by the e-cigarettes. And as with many locals, fascination with a new consumer item leads to desire, and desire inevitably leads to an unabashed request, which I, as a bule, am expected to immediately fulfil.
“You give me one electronic cigarette, ya?” he says eagerly. “You have two.”
“No, I need two because one gets charged while I’m using the other,” I explain.
“That’s OK; you only need one. Smoke first, then charge. So I can have one too,” he persists.
I change tack. “It charges from a USB port on a computer,” I tell him.
“Yes, yes, I know USB,” he says.
“But do you have a computer?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “but my cousin does, and I see him every month.”
I try to discourage him by pointing out that you have to charge the things several times a day, but he won’t have a bar of it. I unscrew the end of one and show him the cartridge, explaining that once it loses its ability to generate the vapour, it has to be replaced. He is unimpressed.
“No worries. You give me one cigarette and 100 cartridges,” is his solution to the unexpected problem of having to replace consumables.
“Well, no, I won’t do that, because I only have 10 cartridges,” I say, trying to keep my cool.
Ever creative, he says, “But you can just buy some more and give them to me.”
This is getting nowhere. So I spend a little time on a basic lesson about the difference between consumer items, which might be relatively cheap, and the consumables that they need to keep running, which in the long run can end up hellishly expensive. I go through all the arguments as to why it would be thoroughly impractical for me to give him one of my electronic cigarettes, stressing that he has no way of charging the thing anyway, and would have no source of consumables or spare parts.
I leave out some other, equally pertinent reasons for not wanting to accommodate his request, such as the fact that I hardly know him and my general ire about always being asked to buy things for people in Bali. But the main reason is that I just want to get out of here and change my pants. He looks at me and nods solemnly, and tells me that he understands completely. I am relieved. I have managed to convince him with the sheer weight of my logical arguments and my forceful and persuasive personality.
He pauses for a few seconds, looks straight into my eyes, and says, “So, can I have the cigarette, then?”
I close my eyes and shake my head, both to indicate that no, he can’t have the damn cigarette, and in despair at the damage that we, as Westerners, have inflicted on the locals with our pervasive toxic consumerism that just does not fit in here.
“Oh,” he says with downcast eyes, the single syllable clearly conveying that he thinks I’m a hopelessly stingy bule. He pauses for perhaps five seconds, then meets my gaze, the better to deliver a dose of classic Balinese passive-aggression:
“Why did you piss in your pants?” he asks.