Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Echo Magazine, November 1996)


Stranger in distress; world’s oldest hippy found in North Legian; and Independence Day in Nias, island of the stone vaulters.
NOW READ ON.......

Sanur, August 3 rd, 1996―Villa Bebek, Sanur
Just in from two weeks in Singapore I’m feeling tender and battle-weary; most of the trendy architects I work with now find my work “too oriental” (!) and one copyist has published a paper in the soul-less LANDSCAPE EAST magazine saying “Balinese gardens are fine in Bali and that’s where they should stay”. Staring out at my muse/master work (see photo below) I wonder where I went wrong.
At that moment my editor Sarah Dougherty from the Bali Echo arrives, unloading a pile of criticism about the tone and content of this column: the last stand of “orientalism” against the tide of g-strings, theme parks and container-cultists. Where to know my lovely??
Sarah says the party crowds don’t get my message. The French Ambassador says it’s “all Aussie slang”. The Australian Consulate returned my book saying, “We don’t accept gifts”. It is now ten months since the column’s revival and I have had zero feedback. Is anyone out there interested in an inside-out view of new Balinese nouveau-orientalism? Please send a message of support. In the meantime I’ll write an opinion piece, as per Sarah’s suggestion.

The Governor of Bali has finally put his foot down about cultural prostitution: a TV advertisement, showing Legong dancers with pagers taking messages for karaoke rendezvous, has been stopped. In fact the depiction is probably not far from the truth―the way the dancers-by-numbers go through their paces let’s hope they do have something to look forward to after, what-what......but from the government it’s perhaps too little too late. What about the scandalous appropriation of a Balinese temple (Tanah Lot) as a backdrop for 5.000 parked Toyotas in one ad? That went unnoticed. Or the new RITZ-CARLTON’S hysterical piece, “Power of Place”, describing the divine properties of their pizza parlours? “Coming to the Bukit―Rajas in Batik” I call it. Nusa Dua Spa has followed suit, and the new Chedi Payangan, both cashing in on the Karma-kola-consciousness in their advertising campaigns. Shamo!!!!

Yea...Verily...For too long Hindus and Buddhist have been too passive about the casual use of their holy symbols―”throw-Buddhas” in yuppie flats, high priest’s hands as hand-towel holders, fake shrines and naga spouts) sacred icons in recent memory) at every other hotel. Try abusing a holy Islamic image and see what happens for example!! Does the Rome Hilton have foux confessional phone booths in the lobby and rows of matching crucifii as water feature? The Garuda Executive Lounge at Denpasar airport used to have a dancing Siwa on the “telly”. I managed to get it replaced with a jumbo in miniature by writing to the station head. One small victory in cultural tourism’s struggle for survival in face of the culture of tourism, coming in like a tsunami off the coast.

Nias, August 17, 1996, Nias, North Sumatra.
“MERDEKA!!! Freedom!!!” Went out the cry at the town square in Telukdalem at the huge rally to celebrate Independence Day. I had gone to the rally to see the rare ceremony in which a life-size effigy of a mystical tiger (called “BORON”...the primordial ancester of the Balinese Barong???) is thrown into a river. The tiger ceremony didn’t happen due to the inter-tribal “cattiness”, which seems a big part of life and history of Nias, but the drum majorettes and stole-vaulters were out in force.
Have a look at Nias picture on the flip slide of an Indonesian Rp. 1,000 note. In the days of walled fortresses and inter-tribal warfare stone-vaulting was part of the famously fierce Nias warriors’ culture.

Nias today is still a marvel of megaliths and highly evolved Neolithic era architecture. Reached fairly easily by S.M.A.C, airlines from Medan (two morning flights) in North Sumatra, the island (pop 600,000) is a wonderland of natural and cultural treasures. Adopted by adventure-surfers in the early ‘70s, the South Nias coast has legendary surf and many basic losmens for the beach-besotted. Just inland are famed villages of Arahili, Hilisimaetano and Bawo Mataluo, with their vast stone plazas, lingga and thrones. The striking traditional houses that line these massive squares are built out of giant lengths of hard wood to resemble ships’ hulls and decorative bows. The people, strongly reminiscent of the Homong and the Meo hill tribes of deep of deep south Yunnan (from whence they came by boat according to local legend), still lead a grace-filled village life based on rural traditions. The culture has, sadly, been stripped of much of its animistic-based ceremony by German missionaries at the turn of the century.

In the center of the island is the ancient village of Gomo, cutting three hours off the present five hour trek through the heavily wooded interior. Go soon is my advice.

Pahyangan. August 26, 1996: The Chedi Pahyangan
Lunch with batik supremo, Iwan Tirta, living treasure, and author of a two volume pictorial history on the art of batik, published in Jakarta this month.
Iwan’s forty year devotion to batik, as courtier, international fashion designer and finally, historian, spills on the pages like jasmine petals in a Javanese bedoyo dance (see photo). Congratulations!

Together we talk through the grounds of architect Kerry Hill’s, latest ravishingly simple boutique hotel. His earlier success include the Amanusa, the Datai in Malaysia, The Serai in Manggis, East Bali 9my favorite) and the Sukothai in Bangkok. We are both impressed with the freshness of the architecture and the admirable gardens installed by rising star Bill Dalton, whose mauve “luke-warm pokers” (as they are known in Barbados) are a charming foil to the relentless tank-trap strairways (a trademark that causes ‘young turk’ designers to secrete enzymes).
The Chedi and Serai hotels are brainchild of Amanresorts founder Adrian Zecha, whose spacious and stylish aesthetic is like a RELAXATAB against beauty fatigue.

1 September, 1996, Broken Bay, Sydney.
I visit Coaster’s Bay, one hour North of Sydney, and the week ender of Bill Morisson, former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia. He says he loves the “NEW Stranger in Paradise – the Next Generation” and looks forward to this complimentary BALI ECHO every month. Hooray! There is a God!

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