Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Echo Magazine, March 1997)


"Designed by Bill Bensley, this pool in Bali evokes the ubiquitous sense of serenity present in the Novotel Benoa". says Tan Hock Beng. "An offence to Buddahist's" I say.
NB: (The Balinese are highly disdainful of religious forms in areas where tourists run around in their undies).

The Stranger discovers a link between Kunming, Kauai and Kudus; the last Turtle Island Festival before the bulldozers and a new book blows the cover on cultural tourism.

20th February 1997. The Polynesian Room, at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu is such an inspiring place.
The mix of great oceanic art and gothic revival architecture, the model worshipping grounds with their totem pole chorus lines, and all those multi-coloured feather capes never fail to thrill. I’ve gone off hating Waikiki because it’s version of tailor-made tourism is much more wholesome than Kuta’s : good urban planning and a respect for the environment are sadly lacking in Bali these days. I’ll now stop being rude about the “mindless Hawaiian burmscapes” that invaded the S.E Asian landscape world in the 80s. They are comfy... where Bali’s new age, draped Buddhas poolside and bronze kitsch ketjaks (gardens by the likes of rising star Bill Bensley) championed in Tan Hong Beng’s alarming new book “Tropical Retreats–the poetics of place” (when, pray tell, did this tense little trumpeter learn about romance in nature ??!!) are strictly “non-U Hindu”.

Enough!!! The truth is.... 3000 years before Tiger Balm and Kentucky Fried Chicken crossed paths there was considerable ebbing and flowing between South China and the South Pacific.
While visiting Honolulu-based photographer Franco Salmoiraghi I learn a lot about the animistic rites of the Hawaiians and find an image by the astute italian (above right) that brings new light to theories on the origin of balinese statues’ waist clothes. Is it possible that the cloths that respectfully drape all island votive statues, lingga and cairn are ancient balinese (ancient austronesian-polynesian) and not Hindu? This potent image suggests so.

Last week, slutting around Yunnan, trying, foolhardly, to convince chinese developers that bamboo is not bad feng shui and that there is life beyond golf, I discovered, in the fabulous Kunming Cultural Museum, the origins of the Malay kris on a 2,000 year old rubbing from a bronze kettle drum (how Mayan and Hawaiian the ancient Chinese headresses were !!).

Later the same day in the Yunnan Minority Tribes Cultural Village (brilliantly done) I discover ‘megalithic’ architecture so similar to that of Manggarai in West Flores and villages in Vanuatu, that I am finally convinced of the anthropologists theories pinning south Yunnan province as the cultural cradle for all the people of asia and the pacific (some gene pool!).

27 th February, Manado, North Sulawesi, — marine tourism’s new mega-market and home town to the radically sweet Klapper Tart (elevated to national icon status in the nearby Philippines where it is called ‘Buco Pie’).
Boy is Bunaken Island beautiful ! Great diving, beachside cafes serving sensational seafood and perfect siesta cottages on stilts.
On the mainland, Novotel have built a Miami gin-palace on a Manila Bay-esque boulevard with palm-fringed promenade courtesy of local hero Yoop Ave, Indonesia’s flamboyant Minister for Tourism.

In the hills, I visit an open air museum featuring hundreds of waruga stone sarcophagii, set in a field of 200 year old plumeria trees. Constructed by dutch and german archaeologists in the mid-nineteenth century, the museum is an extraordinary testament to a megalithic culture that has now disappeared (after ‘blitzkriegs’ of Dutch taste in the colonial era). The carvings on the stone coffins are crude but powerful—entwined dragons and hunting motifs the must common. I discern a life, or ‘force’, in these solemm pre-historic relics that connects them to statues and petroglyphs I have seen in Yunnan, Nias, (Sumatra) and even Nagaland in India.
Am I reading too much meaning into these, perhaps, coincidental similarities??. Why are all these ancient peoples so closely linked artistically, if not in time and place?. Its rather like the study of twins raised apart, what-what?.

4 th February 1997. Pemapagan : South Bali’s biggest day.... the meeting of all the gods as returning from Sakenan, Turtle Island.
At last...............a meaningful cameo!
My career as a new-balinese ceremonial groupie has had it’s moments—security on the gate at Cok Sukawati’s cremation, palanquin-bearer for the god of Penataran Agung, the mightiest in the land, during Eka Dasa Rudra and, recently, designer for the Joint Venture float (Bali regional office) for the 50 th Independence Day parade—but nothing, nothing like the extraordinary course of events that lead to my star turn at tonight’s mega-festival.
It had been a quiet weekend at Sakenan. The rain kept the devotees away in droves and the five-storey dredger that’s turning Bali’s holiest island into a mega- resort hovered, respectfully, on the wind-ward side of the island.
Tonight’s big ‘pow-wow’ at the Pura Persimpangan in Suwung Gede, ‘half-way house’ for home-bound dieties, threatened to be a damp affair too but for a particularly lively trance ceremony (kedatengan). During the lull which follows the trance cereminis climax, the Stranger, the pink face in the front stalls, the eternal bridesmaid of the pallbearer corps, was summoned by the entranced priest of Ratu Agung, the son of the god of Turtle Island (about whom, all you intrepid fans of these chronicles will recall, I have written at length over the past 20 odd years). Versed in the vagaries of dealing with a fully entranced person only through observation I was startled to find myself on stage and ‘holding court’. I offered to carry an umbrella over the entranced priest in the 5 kilometre procession that was about to start, but, before I could consign my flatties the frothing priest—Ratu Agung the “alien baby” of the Hindu Balinese hagiography—was on my shoulders and demanding a ride home*.

* See Stranger in Paradise–The Next Generation, BALI ECHO edition February/March 1996, p.281 for the story on the gods strange behaviour at this festival, aimed at coercing the royal family into re-building the chariot, called pedati, that once conveyed them on the 5 km journey north.

The next hour, during which headless chicklets were flung at my feet and an accompanying swell of hymnsters never stopped their soul-lifting chants, I struggled like a good novice, determined to prove my devotion to the god to whom I owe all my years in Bali, and to beg release from the chain of chinese developers who haunt my reverie. I prayed, foremost, that my sarung wouldn’t fall down.
By the time we reached the Pura Dalem Kepala I was pooped, but another act was enfolding. The host refused to come out of trance and demanded to sit in the high assembly hall with the arca god-statues. The local prince was very against this: the gods of Dalem Kepala, while technically all “children” of the god-priest wearing into my shoulder blades, are also deified ancestors of the prince’s family and he, in that side of his balinese being that deals with the skala (the temporal, the visible), didn’t want some tripped-out little rice farmer sitting in the royal box!!. So, there was a terrible fracas and, as usual, the priests won out: after a most cleansing ordeal I was released.
There had been no cries of “Way to go, gringo” along the way. my balinese mum didn’t blink when she saw me turning into the temple with the whole show on my head. Only the priest of the god of Uluwatu shuffled over to me, at my new seat of honour near the priests’ platform, and asked, ever so conspiratorially, did I “feel something special”!
Power to the people!
Let them eat babi !
Don’t rain on my parade!

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: