Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 1999 )

Beauty Has Its Own Rules

Last month I found myself marvelling at the way in which the most handsome teenagers are always thrust forward, front and center, to ‘lead’ ceremonies in Bali. Not only are they purely decorative but ultimately functional - as the best looking are generally the best knot-makers, carvers and musicians. "Beauty has its own rules" intoned my escort, herself a handsome , mature, British specimen who had obviously benefited first hand from this universal truth. It set me thinking ……

18 October, 1998 : The eve of Megawati’s political comeback congress in Sanur, Bali
The world’s eyes were on Bali: everyone was very nervous that ‘ninjas’ or rival factions would disrupt the giant gathering.
The popular leader of Indonesia’s opposition, known fondly as Mbak (Sister) Mega, had put her own reputation (and that of Bali and the Indonesian Tourism Industry) on the line by choosing the fabled isle for such a gathering at this tense stage in the nation’s democratic evolution. Skeptics were leaving the island in droves, fearing a flare up. Patriots were battening down hatches.

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I arrived back from a trip to Singapore to find the island ablaze with red flags and an extraordinary array of posters of the housewife-superstar. True to the Balinese artistic spirit, every poster, and there were literally thousands, was completely different. There were Mona Lisa Megas, Verna Lisi Megas and Megas with her famous Dad in his famous Ray-bans. Convoys of wildly decorated trucks and cars laden with screaming supporters, plied the bypass. Excited youths, dressed in the red and black para-military fatigues popular amongst the party’s youth groups, buzzed villages in gladiator conveys of motor scooters.
Wild rumours were circulating the island during the days before ‘kick-off’: political analyst Tuan Chris Carlisle reported seeing a "vision" of Megawati and her father - Indonesia’s founding father, SOEKARNO - in the clouds over Kuta. (The next day I elaborated on this miracle and said that stigmata – like splashes of satay sauce had started appearing on the venerable Tuan’s T-shirt!)
I had procured an invitation to the Mega-event, to be held at the Sanur showground the next day, as bodyguard to the presidential candidate’s seamstress. I needed to register at the party headquarters in the Grand Bali Beach hotel, where Soekarno’s spirit reputedly resides in the magic Room 326 - the only room not burnt out during the great fire of 1996. Sanur villagers lined the road, men wearing broad black and white chequered sashes with Nehru white jackets and white Balinese turbans, called destar.
Twelve hours before the congress was due to start, Bali seemed to explode into one giant fancy dress party, matched only in festivity, by the closing ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics. This Balinese capacity for manufacturing beauty on a massive scale, always upstages everything. Even fears of social unrest, were unfounded in the face of this tsunami of street decoration.

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19 October, 1998: "Ben Hur meets Dorothy’s slippers": Megawati and the Balinese stage the greatest show on earth.
The one hour cavalcade down the by-pass was very moving - the peoples’ aspirations, after years of political oppression were being expressed with a creative excess that knew no bounds: Great papier-mache bulls, the symbol of the P.D.I. party, floated by on a sea of red flags each the size of a house. Thousands of cars, emblazoned with Soekarno-Megawati images, rolled towards the fair-ground.
Security was tight at each of the bamboo entrance gates. When confronted by guards I leaned into my ear-phone and mumbled, in hushed tones, rather like Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard", "Liz Taylor has entered the stadium". It worked every time!
Before we knew it, we were waltzing towards the coliseum-like showground, down a red dust carpet, passed rouge mobs lined with a thousand-strong guard of honour (white Hindu costumes to the left, red para-military guards to the right).
For the first time in recorded history, even the King of Denpasar was ashen-faced when confronted with the massive support and magnificence Megawati’s group had marshalled. Marines chatted with monks, media celebrities chatted with diplomats, 500,000 supporters waved flags and banners oblivious to the fierce mid-day sun. All supporters were in a different version of Balinese Mufti meets para-military pantaloons. Dewi Soekarno looked like Jodie Foster in "Silence of the Lambs", Guruh Soekarno, the talented choreographer–brother of Mega, beamed goodwill. The stage was set.
Finally, busloads of delegates rolled into the stadium as the combined musical might of ten red-hot gamelan orchestras pounded a brassy crescendo. The delegates climbed out of the buses and descended the rusty steps aged, wizened Indonesians from the outer islands. The muscular Balinese were terribly disappointed. Is this what it’s all about? And just as adoration was about to turn to apathy Mega’s cherry red Pajero stormed through the triumphal gates, and she was pumping the air with cries of "REFORMASI". The crowd erupted in a burst of neo-nazi salutes: clouds of dust rose to be dispersed by the giant waving flags. "Mega, Mega, Mega"!!!

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That night pissy little Maria Veza from CNN did a hatchet job on the congress (and on Indonesian tourism); she showed old footage of Mega shot shortly after her obscene ouster at the hands of the former regime. CNN also tried linking the Bali Congress to the recent spate of unrest in East Java. Shameful! This brave woman deserves the support of the free press and the free world - despite the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for gorey details and sensationalized sadism.
The Balinese showed the world, big-time, that "Beauty has its own rules".

Nusa Dua Open Air Stage, 3 December, 1998 : Mega’s brother Guruh stages a dance spectacular in the spirit of ‘reformasi"
Following this Mega-event, I travelled to Malaysia to deliver a paper on "Design Directions in New Asia" to a group of interior design students at a conference. "I come from a Bali ablaze with red flags" I bellowed. Their eyes glazed over.
"We don’t need reformasi" lectured one bold would be decorator. "Perhaps not" I shouted back "But the spirit of artistic freedom demonstrated by the Balinese last month should be a rallying post for all you ‘Nancy-boys’ hiding behind bumper stickers about New Asia!! "Post-mo for homo! Bring back blood sacrifices!" I hollered as the ruffled satin boom was lowered on my head.

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Like so many truly gifted Indonesians, musician and choreographer Guruh Soekarnoputra has been ‘waiting in the wings’ for three decades, until the stench of censorship lifted. Commendably, incoming president B.J. Habibie’s first act was to proclaim the importance of freedom of expression in Indonesia, particularly artistic expression; Guruh’s first show in over five years was a triumph of Indonesian patriotism, (turn, turn, kick, turn) - and heady high camp. There were more ostrich feathers and bejewelled kris knives then you could poke a stick at.
Guruh has always surfed the edge of East-West fusion: Busby Berkley meets the Barong Dance. The show’s music, recorded by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, was sometimes rousing and sometimes sublimely sweet - a mix of Indonesian traditional themes and Guruh’s own disco beat.
Particularly moving was a "Legong Surapati" complete with gun-wielding serimpi princesses fighting the red devil Dutch.
Congratulations maestro - it’s good to have you back.

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