It was a little after midnight last night. I was still up, working on my computer; Made asleep on the bed beside me. Suddenly, “Tock tock tock” – the sound of the village kulkul being struck. The kulkul is a kind of traditional bell used in Bali for communication – a hollow tube of wood that is hit with a stick in different rhythms to summon the villagers for various reasons. I am used to hearing the kulkul several times a week hit with a slow regular rhythm that gets faster – this is used when there is any kind of work in the village to be done or a temple ceremony and indicates it is time to leave the house. However a different rhythm or a frantic fast beat means that something is wrong. Made lept out of bed half asleep, knowing that hearing the kulkul in the middle of the night like this means that someone needs help. Fire.
A house in the next village across, just a few hundred meters away on the other side of the river from us was ablaze. The flames were already visible over the roof of our house and the acrid smell of smoke filled the air. As I shouted at him to be careful, Made ran into the street with his father, joining the other men who were spilling from their homes and rushing to put out the fire. There is a basic fire service in Bali but it is basically useless. The village relies on its own people and those from the surrounding area to put out the flames and everybody rushes to help.
From the street the size of the fire was intimidating – the river and road were lit up in orange light and sparks flew into the night sky. I wondered how a fire of this size could be put out by hand, thinking of the time a shopping centre went up in flames when I was in Cambodia. We’d been inside, shopping for snacks in the supermarket and totally unaware that a whole side of the building was up in flames. No alarms and we only realised something was wrong when we saw people running outside. A single man ran up the stairs with a bucket of water as we retreated and watched whole chunks of the building disintegrate and collapse. By the time the fire services showed up, the whole building was just a blackened shell.
I returned home while Made’s mother and the neighbours watched from the street, not wanting to leave my sleeping babies alone in the night. After 15 minutes or so the flames were no longer visible from inside the compound and Made and his father returned within half an hour, reeking of smoke. The fire was extinguished, nobody was hurt. The fire service from Gianyar turned up just as the last of the flames were being put out. It seems the Balinese method of throwing buckets of water at the fire en masse, works after all.
Fire is a normal part of daily life in Bali. Many families still cook over an open fire. Rubbish is burned by the side of the road and in the drains. The rice fields are blazed at the end of the season when the crop has been harvested. And of course the important cremation ceremonies like the one in Ubud pictured above (photo taken by my father). It’s coming up to the end of the dry season here and we have had no rain in several weeks. It’s likely that the fire was caused by a lit incense stick, used daily in offerings and prayer, igniting one of the wooden structures that are found in traditional Balinese homes. Luckily this time the story has a happy ending and everyone returned to their bed safe and sound, albeit a little smokier than before.