One of the quirks of public transportation on Bali is that it really only runs in the morning. In the early afternoon, once the rickety mini-buses have ceased their regular routes and the long haul coaches have picked their way out of town, the bus terminal takes on a new function. Food carts and vendors of every variety converge on the empty space and turn the lot into a bustling market. Every afternoon the same transformation takes place, and every night the fluorescent lights and deep-fryers burn late into the night until they are finally extinguished and wheeled back to a deserted corner to wait out the morning hours. Here is a day at the Batubulan Bus Terminal:
8am– The terminal is quiet. Buses to other parts of the island have already left or parked themselves along the street to await more passengers. The bemos, large vans that run local routes for highly negotiable prices, are still coming and going occasionally. I have to imagine that this terminal was once a much busier place. Private ownership of cars and motorcycles has exploded in recent years as tourism and development have brought rising affluence to the city. Denpasar now has more vehicles per capita than any other city in Indonesia; use of public transport (as well as bicycles and feet) has obviously dropped.
At this early hour, the only sign of the night market is a single food cart selling fried tofu or perhaps rice porridge. Across the street, a morning produce market is in full swing. Between these two markets the area is a 24-hour hub of commerce. The fruit and meat sellers are open by three in the morning, just a couple hours after the night market usually peters out. By the time the produce market shutters its doors, the terminal is already a sea of blue tarps and steaming street snacks.
2pm- The first stirrings. At this point the remaining busses are confined to one corner of the terminal as the evening vendors begin their daily set-up routine. Extension cords are laid out, poles are erected, alleyways and thoroughfares are framed by the tent city, and out this fleet of compact carts comes every good and ware that your average Balinese family could need. Food vendors are organized on one side, household goods on the other, with amusement rides and sunglasses hawkers scattered in between.
5pm- By late afternoon all the pieces are in place. Shoppers and diners trickle in; after a few hours the night market in is in full swing. The lights are burning brightly and the dangdut music, Indonesian pop-tunes set to Bollywood-style tabla beats, is thumping out of stalls selling bootleg CDs and American action films. Leafing through the foreign music offerings is a review of the MTV playlists from my early teen years: Blink 182, Green Day, Celine Dion, Limp Bizkit, Aqua, etc. For some reason, Indonesian tastes are firmly rooted in the late 90’s. Past the music tent are aisles of clothes and shoes, then traditional cloth, jewelry, goldfish, knives, loose tobacco, and heaps of plastic trinkets.
For those of us who don’t spend our evenings sparring fighting cocks, grinding in seedy resort towns, or drinking palm liquor at the billiard hall, this is the happening nightspot. I rarely do any shopping, just take in the scene from whichever food stall looks promising. Tonight I choose a small cart selling noodles topped with sweet shredded chicken. The noodle man has a headset attached to his cellphone so he can keep up a steady conversation with his football buddies as he lowers my noodles into a pot of broth. He only pauses his call to ask if I want an egg on top.
I like to sit and watch the food vendors’ work. They may not seem like artisans or skilled craftsmen, but the repetitive nature of their work gives an elegant confidence to every movement. The sate man fans his charcoal embers with a piece of woven palm leaf, burning his meat skewers to the perfect crisp. The gorengan man expertly turns his fried bananas in a wok of oil, while the gado-gado lady patiently grinds peanuts and spices with a mortar and pestle. Watching the preparation is half the feast.
An equally charming spectacle is the small collection of amusement rides that whirl and beep every night. My favorite (not that I have actually taken a ride) is a bicycle-powered merry-go-round for little kids. The best part about this contraption is that it is actually a functioning bicycle. Sometimes in the evening I will pass the young man who operates it as he pedals his way to work. He rides with all the lights on, quite a sight, then parks himself at the terminal and turns kids in circles all night.
The night market scene is truly mixed. While slurping my noodles I see young couples out on a date, families with small kids, and commuters who don’t even bother to take off their motorcycle helmets as they grab a quick meal. Rice farmers come to get their tools, teens to get their frilly tops, and mothers to pick up some spicy meat for the family meal. A handful of sad-looking kids circulate in search of spare change. The vendors are as diverse as the customers, coming from all over Bali and Indonesia. Most of the food sellers seem to be Javanese, having moved to Bali in search of work. The noodle vendor I am sitting with has been in Bali for just a couple years. He used to work in a regular restaurant but had some personal issues with the staff there, so now he runs his own noodle cart.
After fielding all the usual questions (where are you from?…are you married? how long have you been in Bali?..etc), I pay about 75 cents for my noodles and wander once more among the food carts. I pick up some ‘mixed ice,’ basically fruit salad with shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk, plus some seaweed jello and fermented tapioca root on top. That satisfies my appetite and puts the evening’s expenditures around an even dollar. I work my way towards an exit, where the unbroken roof of blue tarps finally ends and I can see beyond the haze of fluorescent lights and sate smoke. I look up and see the station signs advertising different destinations: buses to Ubud depart here where the black jeans and flannel shirts are sold, southbound buses leave from the stand now occupied by the fried chicken dealer. Yup, this is still a bus terminal, and in a few hours all these shops and stalls will be gone. But they won’t go far, and whatever the signs may say, this parking lot’s real purpose is the night market.