A few weeks ago, when I spotted piles of cement bricks being piled up, outside the new-ish outlandish and oversized plein-air bale banjar (community pavilion), in my neighborhood, I could only suspect that a new structure was being built behind it, or elsewhere on the spacious grounds. Wrong!
Over the next couple of weeks, laborers laid down those paving bricks around the entire gargantuan front yard of the bale, at which point I figured it was going to turn into another parking lot. Wrong again!
What it became, I discovered shortly thereafter – clued in by the white lines painted onto the bricks – was a soccer field. A field of bricks. I certainly didn’t see that one coming.
The boys of Bali, by which I of course include men, are MAD for soccer. They watch it. They play it. They argue over it. They gamble over it (some going into serious debt). They have their favorite teams – many adore Manchester United (go Chelsea!) – and when World Cup season descends, all bets are off for getting your landlord to answer your messages, let alone him coming to fix a broken anything.
A few days ago, on a weekend afternoon, I was at home painting, when a loud voice suddenly soared through the air, magnified by a crackling PA system. Given that I’d not heard about a ceremony taking place that day, and since no sounds of a tinkling priest’s bell could be heard, I came to a sobering conclusion. Ball’s on.
Dropping my paintbrush into the can of water, I grabbed my camera, locked the house and ambled up the road. A sea of bikes greeted me. Locals flocking into the bale grounds, with men gathering inside and up front, while their womenfolk stayed at a safer distance away. (Ahhh… not for nothing, the smarter sex!)
From the driveway entrance, I edged in only as far as the split gates. I saw my landlord, his son “Oscar” and Nyoman in traditional costume; my laundry ladies seated further away too. Many of the other villagers that I’ve come to know over the past year, some still wearing helmets, others in tattoos, bleached hair, singlets, flip flops and smokes. Lots of smokes.
At first, a free-for-all was underway. Boys to men, all ages were knocking around balls, having fun. Then a whistle blew and uniformed players (from the ‘hood) huddled and took their positions. Wayan the waiter was goalie for one team, new papa Eddie for the other.
It only took a few seconds to suss out the scene – and realize that my life was at risk just by standing there. So I walked outside and around to the far (northeast) corner of the field, imagining that I’d find safety there. Even ducked under a cement overhang, I felt vulnerable.
What struck me most was the sheer and unrestrained velocity. Those balls were hit as hard – perhaps with even more force – as any you might see being kicked by a pro player in the EU or South America. Except that in those arenas, you’d would be sitting in the bleachers, at a safe (read: not life-threatening) distance. And you’d be in the presence of players who actually know how to angle and direct their kick-shots. Guess what? No such prerequisite exists in Bali, no real game rules as such, at least not in my ‘hood. Anything goes.
So those balls went flying off in every direction: up and over the front walls onto the road; outside the northern edge of the open field and onto the wall of the neighboring house, then bopped back right into the cement-brick-making factory just next door. They flew over the heads of children seated nearby, over dozing dogs, and right into crowds. A few shoulders were hit, and a few near-misses happened. A couple of errant balls landed close to me, a few others in the irrigation ditch to my side.
All the while, the locals laughed. And ate. And drank. And smoked. And joked. And gossiped.
Then Wayan leaped to catch a ball, slipped, tumbled onto his front, then rolled over and onto his back. His hand went to his plexus. From a distance, he looked in pain. But the boys would have none of that. They went over, coaxed him up and the game continued. Suck-it-up smiles notwithstanding, Wayan’s face still bore signs of discomfort.
I lasted only a few more minutes – mostly because the young man’s voice bellowing loudly through the loudspeakers was becoming intolerable. While the ball was still in play, I cowered while inching along the water ditch, then made a dash for the road.
Build it, and they will come. Oh, and how they came – in droves. But what puzzles me still is this: When the lands behind the bale are still ripe with fields and forests of green, why would the good men of Bali build their field of dreams out of bricks…?