Balinese types

A Balinese chessboard
.. and rosewood

Bali is considered Indonesia’s center of fine arts. And indeed, it’s incredible what the island’s artists produce: wood carvings, stone carvings, wrought silver, textiles – you name it, they’ve got it! Absolutely admirable. However, sometimes I asked myself: What would one do with an intricately carved tree root with a diameter of five meters? Where do you put that in your apartment? On closer inspection, it often turns out that a lot of deception is involved. Take my good friend Ketut Jati from Kuta Beach as an example. I bought many chess sets from him, which I sold to Berlin’s flea market customers. Of course, only the finest woods were used: the black chess pieces were made of ebony, the others (more red than white) of rosewood! They were modeled after some characters from the Ramayana or heaven knows what.

I always thought they were a little challenging to play with. Hardly any foreigner can tell the queen from the king – they all look equally strange! And the lock of the box (which served as a chess board) in which the pieces were kept did not match the noble material: a simple bent wire and a nail! And there was something that aroused my suspicion. Although the artist always walked around in slippers or barefoot, he had stored many cans of KIWI shoe polish from New Zealand in his shop. Eventually, he confessed to me that the figures were all carved from the same kind of wood popular as firewood on the island! Red KIWI shoe polish turned firewood into rosewood and black into ebony! But they are decorative! No, I mean it! Really! No kidding!

Elvis Parsley's Christmas

Bali not only attracts many tourists and Indonesians, but there are many foreigners, too, who want to do business there. I was one of them, dealing in silver jewelry that I bought from my good friend Yusuf Silver. He was a Buginese and had – thanks to his excellent command of English – been a room boy at the Bali Beach Hotel. In his spare time, he sold silver jewelry from his home island of Sulawesi to tourists at the beach. It didn’t take long until he realized he could make much more money producing and selling silver jewelry than as a room boy. Other foreigners opened pubs and rented out jet skis or motorbikes – plus the usual rabble. In the 1970s, a Swiss guy named Jon Zürcher was the most famous among them. He ran the ‘Swiss Restaurant’ on Legian Street. Among other dishes, ‘Gschwellti’ (whatever that is…), the famous ‘Engadin plate,’ of course ‘Rösti,’ and heaven knows what else was served at his place. His compatriot, the renowned guidebook writer Robert Treichler, remarked that one could really enjoy the place – until Jon from Graubünden started playing his Alpine music! This, of course, was on the verge of lèse majesté because Jon had married into a former royal Balinese family, survivors of the notorious 1906 puputan, as everybody knew. It was rumored that he even spoke the court language! A guy who knew Bali and the Balinese inside out! 

I felt more comfortable at the ‘Bali Rock Cafe’ (not to be confused with the ‘Bali Hard Rock Café’!) in Legian, which an Australian musician ran. There are old record sleeves on every wall and plenty of photos of rock musicians. He played the guitar reasonably well (The Chantays’ ‘Pipeline!’ was his trademark) and appeared as Elvis Parsley in an Elvis parody. Gary Glitter is another one of his victims. The artist found it hard to believe what an asshole Glitter was. A notorious sex offender in Cambodia and Vietnam who ended up in jail as a result! Speaking of Australians: How do you recognize them without a doubt in Bali? They always have zinc ointment on their nose and a surfboard under their arm! And they’re riding mopeds. I owe this insight to my girlfriend ‘Sweet Pea’!