Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Echo Magazine, March 1996)


It is 15 years since the first series of Stranger columns. Nothing has changed in Bali. Oh no? THE STRANGER may have become jaded, but Rio Helmi, co-star of the original SUNDAY BALI POST - ENGLISH EDITION (1978-81), is still the heartthrob of Ubud. The Legian matrons may have joined forces with the Karen Rebels of Mullumbimby to save the planet, but Mangku Meme―Kintamani’s answer to Mother Theresa and star of the original STRANGER―is keener that mustard to help protect SAKENAN temple from night-golfers.
Is there life after Kuningan? Who filled in Mertasari harbour? Why do the Singapore Airlines girls look so radiantly gracious when collecting one’s used towels?
Read on........

16th December 1995, Four Seasons Resort, Bali ‘STRANGER IN PARADISE’ launch party.
Thank you friends and family for helping to make the launching of Stranger in Paradise-The Diary of an Expatriate 1979-81 such a joyous occasion (the rest of you can buy the vintage volume at a bookstore near you). The Australian Consul couldn’t come because, as a good Australian, he doesn’t approve of red-heads making noise in a public place, but the occasion was blessed by numerous ethnophiles, ‘70s legends, Brahmans-with-a-past, hoteliers (The Oberoi, The Tanjung Sari, The Bali Hyatt, the owner of Club Med International) and other lovers of Balinese culture.
With little prompting (it’s amazing what the presence of national television will do) the Stranger danced a ngibing indokrupuk or mixed pairs flirtation dance with a family-size “Phantom” fan by Sydney artist Peter Kingston. Not present: Carole Muller (left her car keys in the popcorn machine at Gelael); Lawrence Blair (champagne rinse gone awry), anyone from the Bali Post, and Peter Stettler, garden historian.

The stranger dancers The ngibing Indokrupuk with the fabulous Mangku Meme (Jero Tapakan from Kedisan village in Bangli)

Special thanks to Neil Jacobs, boyish G.M. of the heavenly Four Seasons Resort, for keeping the hors d’oeuvres bill till after Christmas, and the Sekeke Belagganjur Sidakarya Kangin whose spirited pemelaspasan bashings accompanied the offering of thanks to Dewi Saraswati, Goddess of Art and Literature, to whom the book is dedicated.

Pioneers of tourism in Bali at the Bali book launch: from right: Ibu Riyasse (former assistant manager at The Sunday Bali Post), Bapak Wija Waworuntu (of Tanjung Sari and batu JImbar) and Bapak I Gede Putu Riyasse.

22nd December 1995, SUGIAN JAWA, the first day of preparation for the GALUNGAN – KUNINGAN all saints season.
Sitting with a Balinese friend in his courtyard home I am reminded of the truly surreal nature of the performing arts. On the television a Gambuh classical Balinese opera is in progress. Gambuh is one of the dozen or so wali dances of Bali, the holy dances performed at temple festivals or royal weddings ( Bali is possibly named after “wali”, which means offering in Sanskrit). It is a treat to get it on the box as one can never see enough of the ancient performers at temple festivals, where the performance is often just part of the multi-ring circus of events. Tonight all the performers are over 90, and all wound so tightly into their costumes, and so heavily caked with showgirl make-up, that the screeching and wheezing of their singing is alarming. One prima ballerina assoluta, I Nyoman Rika of Keramas village, dancing the role of the lady – in – waiting, is in fact, a man, a sort of Balinese Milton Berle, so hysterically funny, like Kabuki gone Monty Python, that the fast-filling T.V. room erupts in a roar of laughter.
It is the genius of the Balinese culture to transcend all media and appeal to all age groups with its good-natured, no-holds-barred artistry.

6th January 1996, KUNINGAN, Balinese Boxing day, when Barong and noodle-vendors ply between the mainland and picturesque PURA SAKENAN on Turtle Island.
Tonight I’m acompanied by H.E. the French Ambassador to Indonesia, Thierry de Beaucé; famed Sydney decorator Leslie Walford; Homero Machry, Paris’s “host with the most”; and testy od Madj with her phone-wallah, It is a moonlit night: the mangroves glisten as our flotilla of fishing vessels glides down the estuary which leads to Sakenan Bay, Above the hushed huddles of white-on-white Balinese devotees can be heard the distinctive squawking of the Pink Flushed Slightly Portly Name Dropper: “Anyone who asks what time the trances start can walk home!”
The atmosphere on the island is pure magic: we run the gauntlet of toy vendors and cheeky schoolboys in the new long-line temple drag the temple where the evening’s pendet dances are in progress. It’s full moon and therefore a Kuningan Nadi: th elines of devotees keep pouring across the courtyard to pray at the meru pagodas to Mt. Gunung Agung and the offspring of the god of Sakenan, We sit at the base of the Barong Landung’s pavilion (the marvelous giant puppet pair are absent this year―someone filched their 700-year-old golden kris and the village is sebel), we are entranced by th emerry antics of the temple priests.
Fashioning fans of temple software, the dancing priests weave up and down the spacious grass court performing the frenetic Pendet Sakenan. One natty priest, in Roy Orbison glasses and a cleric’s beard, offers up various, very various, impromptu solos to the delight of our group and other Sakenan diehards. There is a new outdoor neon candelabrum propped up centre court and the proceedings are regularly buzzed by landing Jumbos......outer-islander quacks can be heard screaming the virtues of fried scorpions and snake oil......the hymns bristle from a faulty wireless......but nothing can distract from the beauty. It is sad to think that next year we may be welcomed to Sakenan by giant billboards of Greg Norman extolling the virtues of night-golf, what-what! Let us pray.
Later, I talk to Mangku Intaran, the leader of th emagic trance circle that takes place at midnight, also an uncle of my landlord and much beloved in South Bali ceremonial circles (he did the pasties for that Miller girl’s wedding). Sitting alone on the Manku’s grace & favour platform outside the holy Pura Dalem, admiring the great coral gate (sister to the main gate at Uluwatu), and the beauty of Sanur temple-folk, we talk of the surge in the importance of the three-day island ‘fete’ to Bali’s tourism-weary workers.
My tourists are goggled-eyed with the marvel and wonder of it all and, save for a brace of hoteliers in their habitual squash clothes, we are only non-Balinese devotees there. We glide home a-brim with beauty and love for the gentle Balinese art of being there.

10th January 1996, “PAMAPAGAN” The Pow-wow of the gods returning from Pura Sakenan. Entranced Priest apprehended at garment factory.
I set off at 6.30 p.m. from Villa Bebek in Sanur towards the Titian sunsets over the west coast for the village of Suwung Gede, the host village for the first stage of the post-Sakenan pemapagan rites (see Stranger in Paradise pp.112-114).
Accompanied by the ever-dewy Diana Darling in coquettish mauve, I first visit the home temple of Ratu Agung son of the god of Sakenan and father to most of the gods of Nusa Dua and of the villages between Kuta and Sanur. This small but important temple, which is also home to pair of Barong Landung puppet giants, is one of the last ‘coastal’ temples with coral wall architecture intact (others: Pura Patal in Sanur; the temple in the salt factory flats on the By-pass; the temple north of Court III at the Bali Hyatt; and parts of Pura Mertasari). Tonight the courtyard is packed with village regular plus all the families from Greater Denpasar who couldn’t make it to Turtle Island over the weekend. (Flexibility is often built in to the Balinese ritual agenda).
From Ratu Agung’s we walk to the charming Pura Persimpangan transit temple where the spirit effigies of his ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’, the gods of Kepaon, Mogan, Bualu and Dukuh Sari, are ‘sitting in audience’ in a single central shrine. This evening, similar gatherings and ceremonies are taking place in temples dotted along the coast. It is a joyous gala night with le tout Sud Bali (including the hosts uncles and aunts from the Royal Families of Denpasar) in their finest. This year the long lean silhouette with square shoulders, tailored off-white jacket, one gold earring, and bangs protruding from white turban is de rigueur for the boys, and sassy kamben endek technicolor sarong, matching sash and yellow see-through chemise with gold leaf sprays in the hair for the girls (Bule Aga New-Balinese aspirants take note). “Form follows fashion” is a time honoured trend in Bali.
Sitting on the grass courtyard floor with the Kepaon ‘cousins’, hosts for the evening’s ceremony, I think what a fascinating exercise it would be to make up a ‘seating plan’ of this temple’s protocol:

*The Palace ladies always sit on the first wrap-around step of the priest’s pavilion.
*The king of Kepaon stands with the lead Brahman at the head of the court making sure that the view to his estranged brother, who in recent times has joined the trance circle, is obscured by a column,
*The palace ‘serfs’, farmers and plebs sit behind the gamelan in the temple’s south west corner.
*The eccentric priests from Bualu (Nusa Dua) are ‘contained’ by the palace ladies-in-waiting, east of the ceremonial pavilion.
*The crown prince sits with his cousins east of gamelan in the dress circle and the gods are in the royal box.

Thus it has always been here. And every temple is different. By 10 p.m. the trances have started in the ceremonial pavilion. Since the first Stranger (1979-81), there have been moves from the Brahmana-Ksatrya coalition to ‘control’ the wild ‘excesses’ of the lowly temple priests who are the sadeg or mediums for the deified ancestors of the royals. This year is no exception. The entranced priest of Ratu Agung refuses to ‘snap out of it’ and runs pell-mell in full Majapahit deity garb into the night to be apprehended later by his guardian at the nearby Princess Sonia garment factory.

The priests have been cross for some time: the palace has not repaired the pedati chariot, drawn by one black and one white water buffalo, an integral part of transferring the gods northwards to the state temple, Pura Dalem Kelapa, since medieval times. The procession of gods, their gamelan and standards are now backed up, half in, half out of the temple as the palace elders and village priests address the ‘impasse’. It requires forceful intervention by the crown prince, a tad cross himself, to convince all that the god is already in the heaven (payogan) and the procession must move. The priests say no. But Kepaon is a feudal village and the semi-divine statues of king hold weight. The processions race off into the night, gamelans blaring, to arrive half an hour later at the state temple: the Barong Medwi is waiting to welcome everyone returning from Turtle Island. Standing with diligent Diana (it’s hard to keep up in a sarong) in the state temple, with the Medwi gamelan competing fiercely with those of the arriving hordes, we are afforded a silver view, through clouds of sandal-wood smoke an rain, of thrashing priests jamming kris knives into their throats, the castanet chatter of the Barong’s mask, and the manual decapitation of a duckling.The welcoming rite (Mendak Bhatara) complete, the arriving gods push through the departing Barong group and drift into the relative calm of the state’s temple’s courts. Sakenan is over for another year. I borrow Rp. 10,000 to slip to Mangku Meme who is commanding me to marry Diana, and we drive home, exhausted from an overdose of bliss and nectar of the gods.

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