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To Market, To Market!

Waking up to an overcast day was the gods' way of telling us it was time to leave the hotel pools behind and go shopping! No mall for us – though apparently the duty-free superstore is a HUGE tourist attraction – instead we headed over to the Denpasar market, a four-story concrete structure in Bali’s capital city. Where the locals shop! Our driver asked repeatedly if we were sure that’s where we wanted to go.

We were hoping for some kind of Indonesian version of the Khotan bazaar: sprawling acres of people haggling over endless varieties of goods. Instead, we found a Kashgar-style market: side-by-side stalls jammed together, smack in the center of downtown, surrounded by double-parked cars and motorcycles. Produce hawkers called out to us from their parking-lot patches as we headed inside.

(Where in the world are Kashgar and Khotan, you ask? Check out the scenes from our trip to Xinjiang in October 2004.)

We started on the street-level floor, jammed with stall after stall of dried foods – animal, vegetable and who knows what else. It smelled as if we were walking through the kitchens of Southeast Asia.

After we politely declined to buy a few of the dried thingies on offer, the vendors realized we weren’t potential customers, which made it easier to walk the narrow aisles, ogling the merchandise. If they had thought we were serious purchasers, we would have been instantly besieged, as we quickly found on other floors.

All of the sudden the smells got much stronger - or, as the kids put it, “it really STINKS now!”

Sami (our ultra-sensitive sniffer) raced ahead to the light at the end of the dark and narrow aisle, desperate for some fresh air. We were now in the dried fish aisle.

The little round things in the foreground are not tortillas, they’re dried squid… Yum! Tastes like chicken – not!

Every stall, even the tiniest, contained its own little shrine to the gods. Such shrines are everywhere in Bali. Large ones occupy the centers of rotary intersections, and small ones are everywhere – even on the dashboards of every car and taxi.

And here, of course, in the market. Fresh offerings of food, incense and always a few grains of rice are placed there every morning and evening, always by women, who use a flower petal to sprinkle a few drops of water on the food while they say a brief prayer. Tending them is an essential part of daily life in Bali.

One day we asked a taxi driver what would happen if he forget to place a new offering on his dashboard each morning. He was silent for a second, seeming surprised at the question. Then he touched his heart and said, “If I didn’t do it, I would not feel right, here.”

The inextricable relationship between religion and daily life in Bali makes the Western habit of church-on-Sundays seem pretty lame.

We moved on from the dried-stuff section. Now we were passing the middle area of each floor, which had an open courtyard from basement to roof. This allowed some air to circulate, but even so, the humidity made it pretty stifling inside.

As we approached the end of the hallway, another strong smell wafted up from the floor below, which sold fresh meat and fish. Charlie, the kids, and I charged off to check it out. Once we walked down the stairs, though, we realized we had lost the kids, who had scampered back upstairs, accusing their crazy fathers of a new form of child abuse: olfactory torture!

Almost overpowered ourselves, Charlie and I were right behind them. A few more minutes and the vegetarian community would have welcomed several new members.

We headed up to the second floor, far way from edible items. The first stall was stuffed to the ceiling with handmade palm frond baskets, used by Balinese women to transport food offerings to temples.

I love to shop, and plunged in to make my first purchase of the day.

I had no idea what to expect when I asked for the price of a beautifully-painted, large, lidded basket. At Pier One, something similar (though far less intricate in design) would probably run about $35. So I had to hold my jaw in place when I got their opening offer of four dollars!

At that price, who could resist?! I promptly bought five, in different colors.

Adjacent stalls sold everything needed to make temple offerings: banners, decorations, fake money, and toothpicks to hold together towers of fruits and other foods.

The rich colors and designs were a visual feast that the photos don’t come close to caputuring. Now that we could see the tools of the towering offerings up close, we could understand how ladies like the one in the photo on the right create these intricately balanced masterpieces.

Naturally, every stall had its own offerings, and from time to time we saw stall-keepers bend down and light a fresh stick of incense or sprinkle a few more grain of rice on a woven palm-leaf tray or simple banana leaf “plate” to make sure the gods, good and evil, were sufficiently placated for the day. Some people made their own, and others bought ready-made offerings from vendors like the one on the right, below.

I didn’t buy any of the decorations, but I did go kind of crazy in the next section – kitchen implements! I felt like Sharon in Williams-Sonoma. (While I shopped she kept busy challenging the light and tight angles to try and get decent photos. )

From a distance, these stalls looked like my fantasy come true - I’ve always loved browsing traditional American hardware stores. These Balinese versions had tools I’d never seen before. Here was a chance to go on a spree!

After looking at every stall’s offerings, I started hunting in earnest at a corner stand with a huge selection and a wise-cracking proprietor who seemed to hugely enjoy the spectacle of large, whiter-than-white people crowded around her stuff.

An enthusiastic saleswoman, she attempted to explain how to use the various implements. I wish we had had a video camera to capture the trans-lingual pantomime!

Just as she was bundling up my purchases, Charlie and Daniel, who had been casing a different part of the floor, showed up. Charlie’s eyes lit up at the sight of endless hardware, so I guess it’s something in the Melcher gene pool...

Our new friend, the proprietor, certainly had a great day, since even though we knew that bargaining was expected we didn’t have the heart to go at it with our usual energy. Her opening prices were absurdly cheap!

I can imagine what she told her friends that night: “You will never believe it. Two white guys came up and paid 5 times as much as they should have for a STUPID COCONUT LADLE! It was if they had never seen one before! Don’t they have coconuts in America? You have to wonder about these foreigners…so sheltered.” On the other hand, we would’ve paid about 15 times as much for our haul at Pier One, so everybody was happy.

As we shopped the hardware scene, we also noticed people bringing in new inventory for restocking. On their heads. In the countryside we’d seen women carry temple offerings, 50-pound sacks of rice and even – memorably – five-gallon, open-topped buckets of water on their heads, but for some reason the practice looked even more exotic and impressive in an urban retail setting.

But it worked quite well, especially since the aisles were much too narrow for a wheelbarrow or even a dolly. Virtually everything sold in the market could be bundled into a package made for head-carrying.

In fact, as soon as we made our first purchases, a few women started following us around, offering to carry the stuff for us - on their heads, of course!

Just then, Miranda grabbed me, shouting “Look out!” Sharon captured the moment on film: a restocker making her way up the aisle with a load of beautifully-painted stools.

Now that I look at the pictures more closely, I can see that the load was carefully tied and balanced. Wal-Mart could learn a thing or two about retail logistics here.

Meanwhile, Sharon had found a stall in the remotest corner where she and two shopkeeps helped Miranda try on and purchase her prize souvenir: a Balinese dancing costume.

With that wrapped up, it was Sami’s turn to choose a souvenir. She had spied a selection of fans as soon as we hit the second floor, and after touring the rest of the wares, she insisted on going back to get one. The vendor was especially pleased to see us return, as that was of course a clear signal that we were ready to buy.

Knowing she had some hot customers – and doubtless having heard that we had paid top rupiah for our other purchases - her first offer was patently absurd -- $8 for a single fan! She claimed they were hand-carved sandalwood.

Unfortunately for her, coming as we did from the land that invented hand-carved sandalwood fans, we were not fooled. Especially when we glimpsed a dozen boxes of identical fans further back in the stall. I didn't have the heart to tell Sami that the fans were probably made in China, and therefore not really a "Balinese" souvenir!

Seizing the educational moment – my girls are Melchers, after all, and bargaining is part of their heritage - we retreated to discuss negotiation tactics.

Sami REALLY wanted a fan, and $8 for what would be pretty much her sole souvenir of the trip was not on the face of it outrageous, but I just couldn’t stomach over-paying so much, and without even countering her bid.

First, we tried the walk-away method. Each step we took out of the vendor's stall brought a further price drop, but still not enough to seem reasonable to me. We then decided to offer her half of her lowest offer. After the predictable lamentation about the price being too low, she gave in.

Final price: one dollar.

The girls were thrilled with their new purchases (Miranda also bought a fan).

As we walked away, I couldn’t help but overhear some quiet giggles from the fan-seller. Despite our valiant efforts, I’m sure we overpaid by a factor of two.

That said, it was a great lesson in relative value, since we also thought we got a great deal!

Just as we were getting ready to leave, it started to rain, a true tropical cloudburst. The skies opened up and started dumping tons of water. The sound on the tin roof was deafening. We watched for a while, transfixed by the deluge.

Once at the door of the building, we found ourselves behind a scrum of people crammed into the entryway to wait out the downpour.

It was a fun scene – kids grinning for the camera, old fruit sellers checking out the foreigners at an up-close-and-personal distance, and all of us wondering how we were going to make it around the mass of parked motorcycles, kitty-cornered cars and umbrella-clutching crowds without losing a shoe or a child in one of the bottomless puddles.

Finally, we made a dash for it, getting soaked in seconds but with everyone making it into the minivan safely. We all had purchases that made us happy. Who needs duty free?

Next: See how Miranda turns into a Balinese beauty!


Bali chapter shortcuts: Intro Xmas Eve Zoo Temple Market Balinese Beauty Tsunami
Batik Monkeys Rafting New Year's Biking Elephants Sea Sports Cremation Dress Up Missing!

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