Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, December 2001)

Siswanto - A Javanese worker in Bali
27/06/1972 - 26/10/2001


For twenty years I have written in this column about the links between Java and Bali: about the historical links (Hindu Bali coming, for the most part, from Hindu Java), and the social links (the impact of one million Javanese workers flooding Bali, since the 1970s, when the tourist boom kicked in) and the emotional links which emerge when two full-blooded cultures are joined at the hip. This month I went one step further, towards an understanding of this link through my offices connection to a small rural village deep in the cultural heartland of East Java.

October 28, 2001: A Heart-wrenching episode
Yesterday there were thirteen Javanese working in my design office in Sanur; today there are twelve. Siswanto died last night, after tennis, aged 29 in the humble rented room he has shared, for the last ten years, with his wife, and quite recently, with a daughter. Ten years ago Siswanto then a laborer in a construction company emerged into our lives, through a Balinese door, from a pavilion whose marble floors he was grindingdown, at the Four Seasons Resort, Jimbaran. It was during the project phase, on the afternoon Katherin Carlisle and I were consecrating a huge statue of the Buddha. On Backlit by the rays of a setting sun he appeared, as if by magic, like a Javanese angel in an nebula of glowing marble dust. His face was full of hope and dignity. He watched the ceremony quietly and then asked for a job. His subsequent employment, as office boy, in the architects' room, was a gift from the gods. He was the first to the office every day for ten years—always immaculately groomed, always polite, always helpful. His presence, his perfection of manners' daily elevated the office to a higher plane. The fact that he was a Moslem in a predominantly, nay, militantly, Balinese office was never a problem. As a sign of respect for his hosts he would often come to Uluwatu (see related article on preceeding pages) or Besakih temple in the prayer bus, dressed in Balinese traditional dress. But he did not pray.
At the office he would be away before lunch on a Friday, at the mosque. During the Moslem fasting month he went home for two weeks to Banyuwangi, on the near Java coast. In ten years no-one had been to his home in Java: his was the quiet, private dignity of a Javanese farmer.
His rise in the office was steady: he was recently promoted to the unenviable position of Head of Archives (anyone who has tried to store anything in Bali, in an organized way, will sympathize). He was about to buy a small (60m2) house in the south of Denpasar for his young family when he died, suddenly, mysteriously. "He had been studying santet" went one early rumour,. "Banyuwangi is famous for it's black magic". "His daughter was almost 'double-whammied' last week by a jealous neighbour" was another rumour. "We Indonesians are like this" announced Gede, our blunt construction chief, "if someone succeeds, someone gets jealous and cuts him down."
We all piled into the bus. We had missed viewing the corpse (a local custom) at Sanglah Hospital's morgue but the office was unanimous in its decision to race to Jajak village, somewhere 50 km south of Banyuwangi, to express our condolences to the family and accompany Siswanto to his grave. Grief united us in our love for this fallen angel.
A guide was found to show us the way—Pak Padur, a Moslem Balinese, descended from the melayu (Malay) fisherman who have had outposts on the west coast of Bali for thousands of years. He was related, vaguely, to Siswanto's wife. He had been with her during her nine hour traumatic vigil, with her husband's corpse, at the Denpasar morgue, waiting for the ambulance man to come to work. According to Islamic tradition the body must be buried within 24 hours of death. For Javanese Moslems this means there's often little time to race the body back to the ancestral graveyard.
With Pak Padur, we sped to Gilimanuk, three hours behind the hearse, to the Gilimanuk's Ferry terminal on Bali's far west coast. On Indonesian ferry's one really feels the diversity of Indonesian life and its links to the sea. There were intriguing, striking Arab Indonesian faces amidst the greasy ones of the pickpockets there were rice-farmers in their Sunday best and, everywhere, representatives from the some 10,000,000 strong diaspora of Indonesia's aimless semi-nomadic city youths, looking for a job, or a trick, or a break.
My Balinese contingent were huddled in one section of the passengers' lounge, looking very middle class transfixed by the safety demonstration. The mid hipsman holding the life-jacket had the gift of the gab: you could hear a pin drop (no mean feet on a ferry) under the booming baritone of the boatswain. Meanwhile a chain smoking ten year-old terrorist shoeshiner had my cook, Komang, bailed up in one corner of our huddle: he was not taking no for an answer. In another corner, fake-Rayban vendors, straight out of a Fellini film, were aggressively hawking their wares. Suddenly the safety jacket demonstration eazed into a weapon's-grade promotion of a multi-purpose carry-all—"Good for the mosque, the temple or the church!" The Balinese, sucked in by the heroic hustle, snapped them up at one dollar a piece. The Javanese present sat unimpressed: they'd seen it all before, and, more importantly, needed Rp10,000, to get through the next 24 hours, more than another handbag.
An hour later we were in East Java. We were all struck by the spaciousness—the low walls, the sprawling front gardens and the tidiness: no mountains of burning plastic as we'd seen leaving western Denpasar, which is now, sadly, like an escape from hell. Everything is peeling in greater Denpasar. The natural stone veneers of the Balinisasi campaign have turned into a sort of sotty skin cancer on urban architecture. No where are any setback regulations been respected. Outside the great rural swathe Bali is now, tragically, a mess. For two hours we sailed through village after village of idyllic colonial-era town planning. White washed picket fences laced views across rice fields.Volcanic mountains glistened to the west. It was rural bliss in the East Javanese hinterland.
On the ferry our elegant guide Padur saught me out on the poop deck to explain the full horrors of the night before. Siswanto's wife had tried, repeatedly, with no success, to find me. Her own sister had deserted her. No- one from their homestay had helped. The ambulance man was snappy with her (another day, another corpse to Java sort of thing) and she had left for Java, completely despondent, with a distant relative of her late first husband. She had left before we finally turned up, late, at the morgue.
He saw the rage building in my eyes (that polishing tomhawk missiles looks expatriates get, regularly, after decades of dealings in steamy climes). I was livid that our night security had not dared to wake me. I felt like raging against the Balinese nonchalance towards their burgeoning communities of poor refugees ("the neo-colonial underclass "as one astute Balinese writer recently termed them. Pak Padur beseeched me to refrain from reprisals. At 4.30 p.m. we finally found the village. We were to late. The ambulance driver had sped to Java at breakneck speed, collected his $100, and dumped the widow and orphaned child back in the thread bare cradle of Javanese village life. Siswanto had been hastily buried at 2.30 p.m. Mrs. Siswanto saw us enter her humble house and threw herself at me. "Oh, I thought Boss didn't come. Oh, it was horrendous. Four times I called the office. Why? Why? Why? "and then fainted, in to my arms. The gathered Balinese were speechless.
The Balinese are rarely speechless and are never NEVER callous about honoring the dead. For the Balinese, life is just fill between cremations, it often seems. Late night, bed-side and graveyard vigils are the solid thread which binds the communal fabric. Today, for the first time, I see my Balinese peers speechless. "My cook Komang, the most emotional in our compound almost flew into trance: "Patience" she kept murmuring as the partially cognizant widow continued to detail the full horrors of Siswanto's final trip home.

• • •

Later, we visited the fresh grave. It was in the most beautiful Moslem graveyard in the world: the sound of the nearby river intermingled with the sounds of and the wind and of the jungle birds. The evening light, settling in the hills behind, lit up the canary yellow kroton bushes like so many candelabras—illuminating the path, as it were, for newly departed souls. The Balinese were at a loss as to what would be appropriate in this alien environment. Tears were shed on the fresh mound of earth, flowers aimlessly flung. A small speech was called for. Always out of place amongst the magnificence of ritual hinduistic cremations in Bali, a speech, I decided, would be a rallying post for bewildered humans in this eternal garden for the souls. I asked that the office think of the beauty of this garden when remembering the nobility of Siswanto's character. We then moved on to Siswanto's own home expecting to find more despair and desolution. We were met by the beaming visage of Siswanto's dad and grandmother who was beside herself with the thrill of having a londo, a white man, in the parlour—but siblings shuffled desolutely in the shadows. Plates of cakes were produced. The local mosque's elders were arriving for the evening's prayers. "We'll make the grave in 1000 days" the father explained, matter of factly,: "in cement, or in ceramic tiles if we can afford it". "Now, whose going to taking Siswanto's place?" he asked, producing a carbon copy of the original. How pragmatic—to think of continuity in the wake of such bad luck. How civilized—all this communal chanting to distract from grim thoughts? How beautiful—the elegant simplicity of Javanese rural life and adat (ancestral traditions)?. Bali is but a busy beast built on this spare ancient lean thorougbreed, I thought: my staff were gnashing at the bit to head home.

• • •

The business of Banyuwangi on a Saturday night, post pilgrimage, was so different to our dash through the still sun burnt streets of the siesta hours. There was a circus and even some Osama bin Laden T-shirts, to remind us of who, and where, we were. On the ferry I watched the silhouette of Java's mount Semeru, still holy to the Balinese, receeding into with the night soup. A sampan bobbed up and down in the moonlit-speckled waves. I stared wan and weavy and emotionally spent into the waves. I recalled how Siswanto had recently given me his tennis raquet, which he had saved two years to buy. I will always treasure it. It was a Boris Becker model.

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