When hoteliers gather together at Ya Udah Bistro to enjoy each other’s company you can be sure they have some tall tales to tell.
Horst, Wolfgang and Franz were all seasoned General Managers of five-star hotels in Bali. They had seen the tourist trade grow into seven numbers – and they steadily entertained celebrities, royalty and the simply filthy rich.
The Managers had known each other for decades; several had Indonesian wives and planned to retire in Bali. They came together in Jakarta and periodically met to celebrate at the Bistro – where they could be sure of getting authentic Euro-cuisine, in a pleasant, somewhat smoky atmosphere.
Wolfgang brought along his new Dutch girlfriend Wilma, so they all spoke in English. It was an easy weekday evening at Ya Udah Bistro and the cool wind off the Java Sea twirled around them.
‘So, my friends, whom are we toasting this evening?’ smiled Horst, broadly. He was a broad fellow too, topping a hundred kilograms of well-fed, well-groomed Hamburg businessman. ‘Shall we toast our special guest from Holland? Well, Wilma, do we toast you?’
With a deadpan look she stared them all down. ‘Where is my bicycle?’ she snapped.
This occasioned a roar of laughter from all the Germans. It’s an old joke, so old you have to be very old to appreciate it: when the Wehrmacht skulked out of the Netherlands in 1945, having taken a beating from the Allied air and ground forces, many of them simply grabbed the nearest Dutchman’s bicycle and rode toward the (bombed-out) Vaterland. So, in all the years since, whenever a Dutchman meets a German he or she will customarily demand back his or her bike.
‘You could ask Herr Hitler’ Wolfgang said gravely, ‘but he is somewhat inconvenienced at the moment.’
They all smiled, ironically.
‘He led Germany to victory across Continental Europe and North Africa for 12 years, but after being married just 30 minutes he poisoned his wife and shot himself in the mouth.’
Ting-ting-ting went the spoon upon the beer mug. ‘Please, gentlemen. Whom are we toasting tonight? The beer is getting warm. The English may enjoy it that way but I doubt if any of us do.’
He made a face. ‘Except for those “gone tropo” Westerners who actually put ice cubes in their beer. Detestable.’
Franz, the quiet one, spoke up with an idea. ‘I suggest we toast our absent colleague Heinrich.’
Wolfgang looked quizzical. ‘Yes, he never misses our pleasant dinners and drinking sessions at Ya Udah. What happened to him tonight?’
‘Auditors in, from Germany.’ Sighs of sympathy all around.
‘He’s having some fancy explaining to do.’
Wilma was intrigued. ‘Come on, Franz. Tell us more. Is money missing? Some auditor jumped on a jet with his pockets bulging and headed for parts unknown?’
Franz shook his head. ‘No, nothing as simple as embezzlement or corruption. If it was that – well, then the auditors would know how to deal with it. We are after all in Southeast Asia, where the custom is very, ahh…’ He paused for thought, his eyes roving the heavens. ‘The tradition is “ingrained” in the culture.’
‘Yes, is it ever…’ sighed Horst. ‘So first, we toast. And then, we get the story. All right, Franz?’ he stared at his counterpart piercingly.
‘It is quite a story. Whether you choose to believe it or not, the story is amazing.’
Frank took a long pull on his beer, neatly wiped off his frothy beer moustache, and began. ‘We all know where the big money is in the five-star-hotel business.’
They all nodded. Wolfgang piped up. ‘Yes, the big money is in the big events.’
‘Specifically, weddings. There’s no more effective way for an Indonesian Bapak to show his power, wealth and social status than to marry off his worthless son or spoiled daughter to another august family’s offspring, in a suitable spectacular setting.’
He turned to Wilma and explained. ‘In Bali, that means a five-star-hotel wedding. You are looking at, say, a wealthy father willing to blow three to four billion Rupiah, when all is said and done.’
She looked suitably impressed. ‘My, nice to have that kind of cash to splash around.’
Horst waved airily. ‘Chicken-feed, for when the Minister of Public Works and Private Corruption marries off his idiot son to the plain but selfish daughter of a General who owns a chicken-processing empire.
‘Everybody and his dog wants to come along to the wedding. We have to have half a dozen people carefully checking invitations at the door to keep out the freeloaders.’
Wilma looked puzzled. ‘Why? I mean, why would anybody choose to crash a wedding when he doesn’t know anyone and hasn’t been invited?’
‘Free food. Five-star-hotel food. He will strut in looking very important and familiar, like he is Donald Trump, totally confident, drop an empty envelope in the gift box for the newlyweds and head straight for the food table.’
‘And will he be drinking their beer?’
Horst shook his head. ‘Not these days. Too much religion in the air to dare to serve alcohol. Maybe if it’s a Batak wedding or something in NTT – I don’t know about that. But fear is in the air.’
‘How many guests will ordinarily be invited?’ Wilma asked.
Wolfgang broke in. ‘I have the figures – I’ve studied the numbers over the last ten years. The biggest weddings host three to five thousand people.’
She looked startled. (The waitresses looked sleepy.) ‘How can you fit that many people in a ballroom? I’ve been told the biggest ballrooms in Nusa Dua hotels will only accommodate about eight hundred.’
‘I’ll tell you if you’ll let me’ Horst growled back. ‘But first we order. Waitress’ he bellowed. This jolted the lovely waitresses, who had been playing with their mobile phones, awake.
Grub & grog were promptly ordered from the rich Ya Udah Bistro menu.
‘The only way to accommodate such a “monster rally” is to hold a “Garden Wedding”’ explained Horst patiently. ‘We put up a gigantic circus tent and hold it outdoors.’
‘But what if it rains?’ she persisted.
‘Ah, there’s our story’ Franz interjected. ‘Now comes the incredible part, Wilma. These hard-headed Germans, who are so tight with money that they’ll turn off the air conditioning during lunch hour in the office, will spend fifty million Rupiah to…’ he hesitated, searching for the apt turn of speech. ‘Well, to hire an, ah, “expert” to influence the weather. In our favor. So, it does not rain.’
The practical Dutch woman looked perplexed. ‘Who in the world can “influence the weather”, Franz? A meteorologist? No, of course not. They influence nothing.’
Horst was enjoying her bewilderment. ‘A sorcerer, my dear. A rainmaker. Or more precisely a “rain-stopper”.’
Wilma grinned at the three hotel executives. ‘A “wizard”? You’re joking.’
Franz (huffily): ‘I never joke about my work.’
Wolfgang: ‘I see, 007.’ He turns to the gracious lady in white with a smile. ‘So how long have you been in Indonesia, Wilma?’
She pauses to think, raising her shining eyes to the stars as platters of sausage, cabbage salad, German fries and smoked snapper come sliding before the hungry Managers. ‘Three years. Oh, now I know what you’re talking about. Somebody tried to convince me a “pawang hujan” could make it stop raining. I just told him he was a fool and to shut up.’
At this point the three German General Managers exchanged knowing looks but said nothing. They just dug into their fine eats.
She looked around her. She hadn’t touched her food.
‘Well well, Wilma. We live in a tropical land infinitely older than any of our own civilizations. Feudal culture here has endured for thousands of years, in an unbroken tradition, while our ancestors were living in trees and eating bugs.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘So?’ Then she realized how hungry she was and jumped onto her snapper steak.
‘So, there is much mystery lingering over the centuries – quite a lot that cannot be explained in rational western terms. Like the pawang hujan, who looks and acts just like the skinny old fellow selling sate kambing in the kampung but drives up to my hotel in a chauffeured twelve-cylinder Mercedes. Very modest fellow, very quiet, not “educated” in the way we understand it. None of these fellows even speak a foreign language.’
She looked deeply mistrustful. ‘I think you gentlemen are pulling my leg. You don’t expect me to believe that – well, that in your business you actually associate with this kind of nonsense…’
Horst sighs. He has had to deal with this kind of stubbornness before. ‘Everybody who needs them uses a pawang on occasion. If it makes you feel better you can think of it as placating the local people who believe in his “magic”.’
Now she looked doubtful. ‘You’re saying it “works”? Really?’
Horst spoke up, waving his hands and talking forcefully. ‘I did not believe until I saw a bicycling event in Bedegul, sponsored by Deutsche Bank. International event, with many racing stars from overseas. But because of scheduling problems it was postponed and postponed right up to the rainy season.
‘Every day before the event it had rained furiously, for three or four hours. You know how these Balinese storms will move across the island. You cannot possibly hold an international bicycling event in a thunderstorm.
‘Now the good part: the day of the big event came and went – with no rain whatsoever. Zero. Huge black clouds were boiling on the horizon, the air was cold and damp as the cyclists took off – but no rain. Most peculiar. Very puzzling.’
Now Wolfgang piped up. ‘I was there because my hotel had agreed to sponsor a cycling team from Ambon. I saw the whole thing, and I kept expecting to get soaked in a downpour. But nothing happened until all the bicycle competition wrapped up, around four p.m., and then, as we packed up and got into our cars, it started to rain furiously.’
Wilma looked at the men. ‘They brought in a “pawang”?’
‘Oh yes. He was very quiet and methodical. Ex-military. It seemed that he was, well, doing something like consulting with the weather. Like he was pleading with it not to rain down and spoil the sporting event. And it worked.’
Wilma still did not believe. ‘This is ridiculous. And the idea that you educated professionals would even consider spending Company money on it – nonsense.’
Franz spoke to her tactfully. ‘Wilma, did you know that the Dutch police will occasionally consult a psychic, about a case they cannot solve? Some thing like a missing child? Or a car that simply disappears?’
She nodded. ‘They only do that as a last resort, when everything else has failed to give results.’
‘Well General Managers will do it beforehand, to try to ensure that all goes well.’
Horst snorted and looked angry. ‘Then you get the total catastrophe that could have cost Heinrich his job – if the auditors could not be convinced. You’re not an auditor, are you Wilma?’ he asked, mock-worried.
They all laughed.
‘No, but I consider myself open-minded. Still, this is really hard to accept.’
‘Heinrich’s downfall was the person he trusted most: his Assistant Manager was a Chinese-Indonesian woman who actually handled a lot of the local business dealings for the hotel. If Heinrich gets sent back to Germany in disgrace it will be totally her fault.’
Wolfgang smiled. ‘Now the story gets good. Waitress! More of King Ludwig’s beer for our party.’
Horst, sighing: ‘It was the biggest wedding of the year, in Bali. The cross-eyed daughter of one of the largest tobacco conglomerates was going to marry the junkie son of the Minister of, I forget…’
Wolfgang: ‘You don’t “forget”, Horst. You don’t want to say, because he’s so powerful his spirit might strike you down.’
‘Let’s call him the “Minister of Sticky Fingers”. Seven thousand guests – another record for Bali. People coming from Europe, Hong Kong and even Latin America for the event. They also had extremely expensive entertainment: some singer like Beyonce was in the show, with her orchestra.
‘So, this cheap Chinese Assistant Manager figures “We have to hire the pawang hujan to coax the rain clouds to stay away. But that old fellow we usually bring in costs us a fortune! We paid him sixty million for the last wedding”.’ Now Horst looks around and smiles ruefully. ‘Sixty million Rupiah versus a profit of about two billion. That is the definition of “false economy” But this is how the Chinese get rich and we go broke.
‘This Assistant Manager starts to ask around and finds out how to get in touch with one of the pawang’s disciples, a fellow in his thirties who has spent years with the old man, learning how to wheedle and placate and coax the weather forces. She offers him twenty million Rupiah to the do the job. He bargains her up to twenty-five.
‘Then she phones the old pawang triumphantly and tells him “We won’t be needing your services for our wedding, but thanks anyway”. But when he finds out that it is one of his own trusted disciples that has snatched away his fat contract, and will do the job, you can imagine how furious he becomes. He plots his revenge.’
‘My own student, betraying me, because of that cheapskate hotel! All right, if they believe in his power let me show them what is what.’ And he called on all the weather entities to work their worst.
Outside Ya Udah Bistro traffic was beeping and growling, but the four were entranced with the story, silently paying close attention, eager to hear the denouement.
‘Bali has historically seen some rotten weather, but nothing on the scale of the bomb-blast of howling winds and bullets of rain that roared down on Heinrich’s “Garden Wedding” that clear afternoon. It was spectacular. Within ten minutes all the guests, who had run shrieking into the huge tent for protection, were soaked and buffeted. Then they got blown down when the tent ripped out of the ground and went flying toward Australia, like a broken biplane. The rain came out of nowhere and howled down, while a few hundred meters away it was sunny and calm.
‘All this time the young pawang the had hired was getting yelled at by Heinrich and scolded by the Assistant Manager; he was waving his arms and shouting incantations but nothing worked. It would have been funny except that it was not funny to see how miserable everyone was.
‘Somehow all the dripping-wet guests managed to seek cover in the hotel: they looked like the victims of a terrorist attack.’
‘So, did the Chinese woman get fired?’
‘Oh she denied everything. “Not my fault, I didn’t get involved in this, not my doing at all. Who believes this pawang nonsense anyway? I never followed through when the Manager told me to hire these fakers. It’s all his responsibility for believing in witchcraft.” She tried to lie her way out of it.
‘Thus, the investigative team was ordered in from Head Office in Germany.’
‘And Heinrich’s defense?’ Franz asked, his eyebrows high.
‘Heinrich is a professional, just like you gentlemen. He faced down the angry team from overseas and challenged them, shouting: “If you can find me one General Manager of one five-star hotel in all of Bali who does not use a pawang hujan I will quietly resign quietly and disappear.’ The team looked dumbfounded. They had no idea of how to respond to this.
‘Heinrich pounded the table and snarled at them. “We make money for our Company, gentlemen, good money goes back to Germany from these events. And every Swiss, Frenchman, German and Australian who runs one of these hotels, gentlemen – just find a single one who doesn’t hire the best pawang around and then attempt to disguise the expense in ‘losses from pilferage’ or ‘repairs to the roof’ or ‘bribes to government stooges’.”
Franz pipes up: ‘Happy ending! He won. The team slunk away, back to Germany in total confusion, like whipped dogs. Heinrich kept his job and took pleasure in firing and blackballing the errant cheap Chinese Assistant Manager. She’s managing a sugar plantation in Kalimantan.’
Meanwhile, back at Ya Udah Bistro the food came barreling in. The four professionals had plenty think about as they downed their delicious salads and soups, sausages and steaks.
Wilma shrugged. ‘I have always been told “If you want to get along, then go along” and this is certainly a classic case of that.’ She looks sharply at Horst. ‘You tell a good tale, Horst, and I was quite entertained, even though I found it like a fairy tale.’
He shrugged and gnawed away on a pork knuckle.
‘But tell me, Horst, Wolfgang, Franz: do you believe in this “power of the pawang hujan”?
Horst stopped chewing. He took a swig of beer, swallowed and stared at the woman. ‘Wilma my dear, how old are you? About six, perhaps? Maybe almost eight?’
She was shocked and offended. Franz looked so embarrassed he could have disappeared into the night.
‘Who do you think you are to insult me this way?’ she whined. ‘What kind of question is that?’
‘It is not an innocent or silly question such as you just asked. Do I believe in witchcraft? Do any of these gentlemen sitting here enjoying this fine repast believe in sorcery? Of course not. Not in a thousand years.’
He paused and winked at her nastily. ‘But we’ll continue to patronize the best pawang hujan we can afford until we retire. Just to be on the safe side.’
She had turned red but kept clammed up. Not a word more from the lady.
‘Beer! More beer for the Managers!’ roared Horst, happy that it was not his hotel that had made the mistake of hiring the wrong pawang.
And the wild waves of beer came roaring in, with a froth of onion rings and calimares fritos…