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Saturday, Feb. 5, 2005


'O-baa-chans' on the loose in Bali shops

I recently had the opportunity to accompany two Japanese women to Bali, Indonesia. This is not the first time I have been a personal tour guide for Japanese going to Bali, but this time was different because I was taking two very special people: my next-door neighbor Kazuko and another islander, Hiroko. These 50-something, self-proclaimed "o-baa-chans" (old ladies) were taking their first trip abroad ever. For Kazuko, it was her first time ever in an airplane.

Just planning time off was difficult, as these traditional island women have so many island duties. Finally, they found a week free between a "kasa odori" performance (traditional umbrella dance) on Jan 26 and the annual "setsubun" bean-throwing ceremony on Feb. 3 (a ceremony to welcome spring and chase demons out of the house).

Travel can be complicated when you're leaving from a small island of just 700 people like ours that still lives and plans events according to the ancient Chinese calendar. First, although their flight was not until the 29th of January, the women left the island two days early because, according to the Chinese calendar, the 29th was a bad day to take a boat. So the women took the ferry to the mainland on a safer day, the 27th, and stayed two days on the mainland until the 29th. Luckily, they'd be gone on the first day of the month, a day when one is not supposed to work in vegetable gardens, giving them an extra day free from obligations at home.

Once in Bali, they were anxious to taste the local food. "No seafood!" they said, crossing their index fingers to make the "batsu" gesture. These homegrown island girls wanted beef. And they ate beef at every meal, as well as taking part in local exotics such as goat satay, and foreign exotics such as lamb chops. "Oishii!" they screamed with delight.

The women were not interested in the sea, since they had grown up next to the sea. Besides, they never learned to swim. No, what impressed these women most about the Bali island paradise was the shopping. Giving in to the slightest suggestion of the local hawkers to "Come look, ma'am" in their shops, the women did exactly as they were told. They readily identified themselves as "o-baa-chan" to the hawkers (in Japanese!), which seemed to be their license to shop indiscriminately. They were like children in a candy store -- except with enough money to buy the whole store. And they did. They bought clothes they would probably never wear, multiple gifts for the same people back home, and knickknacks galore. "Yasuii!" they screamed with delight.

I often lost track of the "o-baa-chans in overdrive," as they were regularly consumed by crowds of hawkers pushing their wares. At one point, I suspected paparazzi would arrive. And this was just the first day!

The second day, the o-baa-chans spent going back to some of the same stores to buy more, and on the third day, they wanted to go to an outdoor market. On the fourth day, we went back to the outdoor market to buy more. The fifth day, they claimed they could not fit more in their suitcases, but that did not stop them from spending. Hiroko wanted her hair braided like Whoopi Goldberg's, and Kazuko wanted a temporary tattoo (the ones that last two weeks). In addition, on a whim, they would get their toenails painted pink with pretty little white flowers on them. "Tanoshii!" they screamed with delight.

On the last day, we had a couple of hours free before heading to the airport, so they wanted to go down one of the shopping streets they hadn't been to yet. As we made our way down the street, the o-baa-chans were unusually quiet. I sensed something was wrong. We hadn't even entered any stores. An hour later, the o-baa-chans still hadn't bought a thing! "What's wrong?" I finally asked.

"We're out of money!" they screamed with delight.

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