Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, )



The President and Ibu Tien at the Great Wall of China

THIS MONTH: A nation mourns

Jakarta, Idul Adha, 28 April 1996, The second holiest day on the Islamic Calendar
Playing tennis at the Regent I notice the flags being hoisted to half-mast. “Who passed away” I enquire of the security detail. “No, no.........the flag pole’s broken” comes the answer. I immediately assume it must be the beloved first lady, who’s passing away is much too delicate a subject to be shared with foreigners in shorts across a bed of canna lilies.

The city is shrouded in grief, it’s like the day the world got the terrible news of JFK: suddenly the country’s standard for motherly values and family ties and the president’s keenest political advisor is gone. We have all grown up with Ibu Tien and come to accept her untiring devotion to her country. Of the many images flashing across the nation’s televisions for the next 36 hours, until the state funeral is over in the Soeharto family tomb near Solo, there are two that I find particularly poignant. One is of the “sungkem” ceremony, held by Javanese noble families in particular, in which the mother receives obeisance from her offspring, or husband in the form of bowing and, laterly, hugs and bussing. The warm embrace of the president and his wife showed the depth of love, and respect, they shared for fifty years. The role of the mother in Javanese society, and the importance of the appreciation of this role in Indonesian life, was so clear in this moment of grief.

Indonesian National television also aired footage of the first couple at the Great Wall of China. The president and his beloved Tien were shown, posing for the press, in a warm, almost teenagers-on-holiday embrace. No Indonesian watching, this memorial to a life shared with a nation could fail to be moved to tears. The Stranger joins the rest of Indonesia in wishing Ibu Tien a “selamat jalan” and to Bapak Soeharto, all strength in single-handedly leading the nation.

Sanur, 2 May 1996, “ TAMAN MINI” Mertasari, Sanur
At a dinner to celebrate the launch of publisher Didier Millet’s latest triumphs – books from his Indonesian Heritage series, on Indonesia’s Ancient History and Natural History, The Human Environment, I meet with illustrator Bruce Granquist, (who also starred in Galliamard’s new “ Bali” guide book and the Bali Hyatt-driven Map of Sanur). These new books, captained by John Miksic and championed by the popular Minister for Tourism, Post and Telecommunications, Mr. Joop Ave, are sure to have an impact. I also have the pleasure of running into Baroness Baeyens, lady-in-waiting to the Giant Egg Woman (wanita telor raya), and leading fashion plate. I tell her now dignified and stylish she looked on the arm of the Dewa Manggis, A.A. Gede Agung (Raja of Gianyar) at Lorne Blair’s funeral last year. We talk the profoundly beautiful ceremony and I hear of the wake held by the Raja at his stately palace, Puri Agung Gianyar. It is a singular nod to the esteem in which Lorne was held island-wide. He is survived by his wife and daughter and many insightful films and books.

The Ru Paul-ish Ida Bagus

Kepaon, 3 May 1996, Coming of Age ceremonies in my adopted ancestral home.
Many of Ida Bagus Surya’s rites des passages were documented in the earlier Stranger (1979-81): as first male offspring of many brahman ‘brothers’ he was a star.

A quiet infant, adoring his priestly father and grandmother, who makes offerings for greater Denpasar, he didn’t really come to my attention until he reached 6 feet tall and turned up at a family ceremony with some drunken mates in shredded jeans. One had tattoo on his back and said “Use before December 1996”. They were a good natured group, obviously wise to the ways of “The Strip” (Kuta-Legian) at night. Ida Bagus, whilst possessing the looks of a young Balinese Gary Cooper, didn’t seem to belong. Shortly after, he came to me, not surprisingly, with his two front teeth in his hand and was sent like his father before him, and his grandfather before that, to the goodly Dr. Guizot for repairs.

Today I travel ‘home for the coming of age (menek kelih) ceremony of Ida Bagusand his sweet but shy sister Dayu ‘Ade. The courtyard is packed with the family that I have watched grow from ten to fifty souls, and village members from their souls, and village members from their work, temple and night dominoes groups.

Pedanda Gede Kaler, the high priest from Cau-Marga, the consecrants’ maternal grandfather, is holding court in the house shrine, “Are you married yet” he blurts at me as I move through the petite gate. “No, but I went to Besakih this morning, your grace shouldn’t worry himself with these matters of the flesh” which is rewarded with a hearty guffaw by this wizard of the wand and whisky stopper.

The siblings

Inside the meten pavilion (the procreation pavilion in the courtyard’s northern quarter) Ida Bagus and Dayu, parade in the fancy Balinese costume that is de rigeur for all rites de passage. This time I take an informal shot of a Ru Paul-ish Ida Bagus which captures his unique beauty and innocence and a group shot of the siblings about to join the world for the first time as adults.

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