Letter from Bali – VII
It’s always nice to get visitors. Barry Soetoro dropped in to say ‘hi’ this week. That was nice. And just like the prodigal son’s fleeting visit, this letter is going to be a short one. We are not going to talk much about Barry though, we’ll just wish him well after the midterms and move on.
Electricity (or the lack thereof) and the price of everything is on the agenda. And maybe toilets. Nah, not toilets – did you vote?
Besakih temple is the ‘Mother’ temple in Bali. It sits on the side of the volcanic Mount Agung, a spiritual place on the island. Besakih is house to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu who all get their own individually coloured umbrellas and enjoy a tidy following. It was a widely reported ‘miracle’ when the temple site was saved during the eruption of the landlord in 1963. The approximately 1700 believers who died in that incident might have a dimmer view, I’m not quite sure, but unquestionably there is a devout following who regularly make the sweaty hike up the steep 300m of shop lined slope, from the warung bordered car park after the ticket booth up to the spiritual respite of the postcard touts and the temple gates themselves. The place is up for World Heritage Site designation. But I just don’t know.
Now I’ve got no beef with Lord Vishnu and his crew but I do take exception when my air conditioning goes off. In Bali you see, production of electricity does not always equal demand. From the Jakarta Post here.
What has this to do with the temple? Karma.
Electricity in Indonesia is generated 86% from oil and gas and coal with the rest coming from hydro 8%, and geothermal 5% (see here). Bali is less green than the country as a whole. One diesel generating station on this rock is good for 120MW, three gas fired stations for a total of 230MW with all other power coming from undersea cable out of Java that can provide 200MW. 550MW for over 3 million people and a tourist trade.
There is no hydroelectric, solar, wind, or more importantly geothermal generation capacity on the island. The entire island, nay, the entire country sits on an area capable of being tapped for geothermal heat to boil water to turn turbines to make clean electricity. But they don’t want it on Bali. Geothermal, you see, is bad karma.
Iceland generates 100% of its electricity through geothermal and hydro production but all Iceland has is volcanos and rain… now wait a minute…. But before we get flippant let’s consider the hurdles to such a solution. Investment, government resolve, and temples. Temples? Yes, temples. See here.
The word on the street is that Mount Agung and the celestial choir in residence might not take it too well if they were tapped for a few spare joules to add to the KW pot. I mean look what happened back in ’63! But Neptune doesn’t have a problem giving up the oil and gas from the offshore production to light the boilers the gas and diesel way? Am I missing something? Is the issue here really a religious one – Java being Moslem and drilling being ok then – or does the state owned electricity company, PLN, have an invested interest in keeping things the way they are i.e. second rate and smoke heavy? And is cheap, green, renewable energy not a good thing for the island, its people and the tourist sell?
Do you know what I pay for electricity here? You don’t care! Well I’m going to tell you anyway! $170 a month! One hundred seventy and if I run more than 8 lightbulbs and one a/c and one fan I’m flipping a coin on blowing the breakers. My housekeeper pays $35 a month for her juice and she doesn’t have a fridge or an a/c and she earns only $140 a month! Her husband is a carpenter. Do you know what carpenters earn here? $7 a day. Seven bucks a day! Their household pulls in a little more than $300 a month and the electricity bill takes more than 10% of that. They send a kid to school on what’s left. As a proportion of your income, try imagining putting 12% of your gross income in an envelope every month to a utility company that can’t keep the lights on all the time! It is a serious obstacle to development, and I don’t mean Las Vegas lights here, just an a/c and a fridge and a couple of fans and lights and a TV or computer – how significant a hurdle is the price and reliability of electricity to this country moving forward?
Maybe when Barry gets back to Washington he can get the House to pass a little foreign investment bill and rig some geothermal investment love… but no one here is holding their breath.
Last Wednesday we plumped for the generous offer of a free guided tour on offer to all and sundry by the money behind the Green School to which, you may remember, our kiddies go. We’ll call him Mr H. because it sounds mysterious, but mostly because his name is John Hardy.
Now there are those among you who might think of life as a succession of compromises – lets call you the ‘half empties’. Don’t be bitter! Is this too negative? Are you really a ‘half full’ deep down? Existence for you then is a matter of balance? Career and family, work and play, sweet and sour, Laverne and Shirley? Splendid. Now the rest of you, the heavily medicated and regularly hallucinatory no doubt, are still trying to figure out whether the deja vu is a Simpson’s episode or the temple really is better value on a Tuesday. No, I don’t get it either.
Mr. H. has no such worries and life involves no compromise or balance whatsoever. Wednesday’s are his deja vu days when half a dozen yokels follow him about and let him ramble on about anything he pleases. I’m thinking a nice thick wallet plays somewhere in this equation but it is a genuine and intriguing affliction he has none the less. Mr. H. showed us his bamboo factory and then let us eat from his organic garden while we lounged on the designer bamboo furniture. We then were put on motor scooters and driven by his staff (the wear orange, it is his favourite colour), down to the bamboo village where villas for expats are being erected along a majestic gorge for $400,000 a pop affording you a panoramic view while obscuring the same for the villagers behind.
There are a few photos down below that mostly show this construction. I find it fascinating, the whole thing, the tour I mean – the complete tosh and the sincere truths. We are told (and we are there to listen, listen above all else) that he doesn’t care for engineers or inspectors or formal education (an irony for a founder of a school perhaps?) – it ‘stunts creativity’. Evidently he doesn’t care much for building site safety either given the absence of fall protection for guys 100 feet up on the skeleton of a roof – a sacrifice, one must suppose, to their art.
For three hours Mr. H. served our group everything except self doubt. I will credit him this though – he does make it happen, these spectacular buildings are being built. “I have never seen a piece of bamboo that wasn’t beautiful, and I’ve never seen a piece of cement that wasn’t ugly.” Half full? Half empty? Half mad? Whatever your flavour there is some sense in that.