The Real Boss

There’s so much I deeply appreciate about my life in Bali. The people, the culture, the weather, the gardens, the lifestyle … and the fact that I hardly ever have to do housework.

I am pathetically grateful for this. I never seemed to get the hang of housework, somehow. I like cooking and don’t mind ironing but everything else baffles and alarms me. So I felt very blessed when Wayan Manis drove into my life on a battered old scooter 18 years ago.

I was new to Bali and living in a leaking, scantily furnished, haunted bungalow on the Andong road. I hardly knew anyone in Ubud, spoke very little Indonesian, needed help in the house and had no idea how to go about finding someone. Then Wayan Manis, whom I’d met once and liked, called out of the blue and asked whether I needed a pembantu. At the time it seemed like a miracle. Years later, I discovered that wasn’t a coincidence, she’d heard through the grapevine that my previous pembantu had been let go for stealing.

On her first day of work I was in bed with Bali Belly. I apologised for not being able to give her a briefing. She vanished for half an hour and reappeared with a basket of herbs she’d foraged from the fields and garden. Without fuss she found what she needed in the kitchen and set about making traditional remedies that soon had my tummy back to normal. It was an auspicious beginning. She still makes my jamu.

Effortlessly she undertook all the issues over which I had been despairing. Her husband appeared and replaced the cracked roof tiles, refusing payment. She brought me fresh vegetables from her market, paid the bills, found a gardener and created a nourishing pudding of chicken heads, red rice and vegetables for the dogs which we still feed them.

My domestic incompetence was glaringly obvious to us both and she firmly took up the reins of managing my household and me. Areas of responsibility were clearly defined. I was allowed to do a little light sweeping, cook and work in the garden. I was not allowed to touch the washing machine, the operation of which she kept a closely guarded secret for many years until an illness forced her to reluctantly divulge which buttons to push.

Suddenly my life began to go more smoothly. We worked out a division of labour, and hours that suited her other commitments. My attempts to monitor and pay her overtime were brushed aside. There would be ceremonies, she told me, it would all balance out. There were, and it has.

Someone advised me to have my pembantu keep a household expense book so I could ensure I was not being cheated. After the first two months I asked to look at it and found that I hadn’t been giving her enough housekeeping money; she’d been making up the difference from her own wages and was too shy to ask me for more. We quickly got that straightened out but have kept up the expense book and periodically check it to marvel at how the cost of living has spiraled since 2001.

When it was time to move into my newly built house in Ubud I fretted about how to transfer my worldly goods between abodes. Wayan Manis rolled her eyes and sent me out for a few hours to buy things for the new kitchen. On my return I found that the entire move had been accomplished in my absence with not a single item broken or missing.

For years we lived with a well-thumbed Indonesian/English dictionary on the counter. My Indonesian is still far from fluent but we communicate on a more intuitive level these days, often reading each other’s minds. I occurs to me that I’ve probably spent more hours in her company now than anyone else’s.

The role of women in Bali has always been demanding and complex. They are responsible for managing the household, marketing, cooking, cleaning, laundry, raising children, nursing the elders, making offerings, observing the busy calendar of prayer and ritual on the household’s behalf, performing their banjar duties and keeping the husband happy. This busy life became even more hectic in the past decade or so as women took on full-time jobs to help meet the skyrocketing cost of living in Bali in addition to their already long list of tasks.

Wayan Manis balances all her other work with looking after me. In the early days when she arrived looking exhausted or fighting a cold I’d try to send her home to rest, but soon learned that Balinese women are not expected to take it easy at home. So on those days I tuck her up on the day bed with a blanket and a hot drink. The roles are reversed when I am ill.

She is confident, competent, has a robust sense of humour and a keen sense of adventure. Once I took her to Bandung for a few days. Her first plane trip, hotel and multi-level shopping mall whetted her appetite for travel. “I could do this for a month,” she told me. Now she talks of visiting family in Sulawesi.

She calmly manages emergencies, nurses sick dogs, parrots and chickens, oversees the family bamboo straw business and finds work for her poorer neighbours. So I’m very lucky that she consents to oversee my wellbeing in her spare time. I think she still finds me entertaining as we companionably slice onions together in the kitchen, chase big monitor lizards out of the hen yard or hang out at ceremonies. She’s been my window into the world of Balinese culture for almost two decades, my liaison with the banjar, my bridge to Balinese cuisine and medicinal herbs, my tutor in ceremonial dress and conduct.

Life with Wayan Manis has taught me to be flexible, patient and less serious. Working with me she has learned about nutrition, waste management, environmental awareness, the value of having a bank account and many strange tamu ways.

In keeping with the recent shift away from manual labour, it is getting harder to find a housekeeper these days. Young women would rather work in a hotel, spa or restaurant. Older women are increasingly needed to stay home and look after grandchildren because everyone else is at a paying job. Those of us who had the incredible luck to find a wonderful woman to look after us awake every day with gratitude.

Our housekeepers used to be called pembantu (helper). These days the government suggests that they be addressed as pengurus rumah tangga (household administrator) or assistan rumah tangga (household assistant). I just call mine The Boss. And pray that she never fires me.

By Ibu Kat

Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak
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Ibu Kat’s book of stories
Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle