Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, April 2002)

International Bali Watch Up-Date

This month I travel around the equator monitoring trends in Bali-o-philia, that rampant virus that has captured the imagination of the tropical world—its spas, its used furniture shops and its amateur gardeners.
My first stop is Singapore where, pouring through a friends' collection of vintage postcards, I discover a heavenly 1932 image of Bali (right) that seems completely at odds with a horror which I had discovered earlier on the front page of the ASIA section of the robust Singapore Straits Times. "The Resort island of Bali" it reads. Sacre Bleu!! Heaven forbid that the "Island of the Gods" has come to that!! Is this a sea change?? And who is behind this environmental vandalism in the name of computer chips? We need to know.
For years now I have observed a tendency amongst many of my educated Singaporean garden clients to accept the ethnic and the oriental only if it is pasteurized i.e. without the spooky, the voodoo or, particularly, the Hindu. Thus, the immergence of properties like the trendy and popular Hard Rock Hotel (slam dunk on Denpasar's most ceremonially vital corner), the Banyan Tree Hotels (Asia-wide) which manage to be "New Asian" and "local" in a wholesome, homogenized way (read soul-less), and the many sanitized publications of the Singapore design world which extol muscle Mary minimalism over the truly gorgeous and romantic. In fact the latest style book to cash in on the "Bali Style" craze, called "New Asian Style" (Periplus Publications; Jane Doughty Marsden; editor), in its introduction, quotes architect Justin Hill, as saying that "Decoration in architecture has had its day" (He obviously hasn't looked out the window in Bali lately!).
Let us hope that this fabled isle—which has more daily beatifications than Singaporeans have daily road rage—never becomes a "resort island". And let us pray that the powers that be stamp out architectural atrocities like the aforementioned alpine A-frames spread thick down the hills and vales of the once scenic Pacung valley.
After Singapore my next stop is Kerala, on the Coromandel coast, where "Bali-style" spas are sprouting like field mushrooms, despite the existence of 2,000 year old ayurvedic traditions.

On heavenly Lake Vembanad I find two boutique hotels, the Coconut Lagoon and the Kumarakom Lake Resort which, the chief engineer tells me, are the result of a project team's scouring Bali for a fortnight, two years ago. "Everything is there," scoffed one local pundit, "except the hand-job in the house boat!" Ha! In Honolulu I discover a line of local lingerie called "Bali bras". One wonders if anyone in Waikiki still remembers Bali's pre-war fame as the topless capital of the universe and if anyone makes the connection? Amongst the vapid "Alohas" and militant moo-moos one does not detect any gloBALIsation save at the new "W" hotel in Kaimana, the décor of which is described by its designer, the talented and delightful Mary Philpott, as "Hawaiian-Balinese". Considering that the cultures of Polynesia originated many tens of thousands of years ago in Indonesia one can't help wondering why Hawaiian designers don't dig deeper into the past than the Kuta 'antique' shops for less "Balinese" andmore appropriate iconography, such as that of the pre-Hindu cultures of Sumba or Timor. Next, Belize (the former British Honduras), where the Maruba Resort Jungle Spa is offering Bali-Style massages replete with a red hibiscus stuck in the gob.
On Belize's Caribbean coast writer film-maker Francis Ford Coppola is importing half of Legian for his latest fantasy hotel, the Turtle Inn at Placencia. As designer of the property I have, daily, to fight off the born-again Bali-o-phile project manager's attempts to litter the beach with two metre high Buddha heads from Batubulan. "NO SCATTER BUDDHA'S." I decree vehemently, as images from numerous "Bali" books are shoved under my nose. (Rumour has it that NASA has already planned our evacuation from this planet in the year 80,000 A.D. They have planned two rocket ships. The first will take 20,000 people; the second will take 20,000 tons of reproduction Javanese furniture, so that they have something to move around when they get there!)
At a Belize airport gift shop I find, at last, the final resting place for all those rainbow-hued coral fish 'mobiles' that line the roads of central Bali: it seems that Bali is providing not only inspiration for half of the tropical world's hoteliers but a good portion of the tourism kitsch too!
My next stop is Guatemala and the beautiful city of La Antigua, the colonial capital of Central America during the hey-day of the Spanish conquistadors. La Antigua is a world heritage site and positively crammed with incredible Spanish baroque-colonial architecture. But what does one find in local starboy John Heaton's fabulous antique shop................MORE BALINESE REPRODUCTION JAVANESE FURNITURE!!! It's like the march of Tuppeware across the American mid-west in the 1950s, or the rise and rise of the mini-skirt in the swinging sixties.
Long may Bali reign, I guess, as the torch-bearer for all this titillating Tropicana!!

Jero Selat, East Bali; A nobleman's cremation in the mountain village of Selat

At last, back in my adopted home (after two weeks on the road, hawking the Bali-based goods) and the gods smile on me with an invitation to a new friend's house in heavenly Selat, near Besakih.
Selat is one of my favorite Bali Aga style villages in East Bali. It is not strictly Bali Aga (archaic mountain Bali) but something of a throwback, in the unique disposition of its village and the style of its house compounds, to the pre-Hindu, pre-tourism villages of mountain Bali.

My host is the gentle I Gusti Lanang Muliarta and his wife I Gusti Ayu Catrini Ari, champion of architectural heritage in Bali through her think-tank called Bali Kuna.
In the tight-packed courtyard perched on the side of a steep hill I marvel at the quality of the offerings and the old world elegance of the family members. All the guests are speaking the sing-song high Balinese that is the lingua franca of East Bali. Surprisingly, in this far flung outpost, nearly everyone I talk to is a manager or owner of some major tourism-related concern. One of the guests is a photo-journalist from Jakarta's esteemed TEMPO magazine.
Watching immediate family members prepare for the procession to the graveyard I marvel at the unique clothes the direct descendants of the deceased are wearing over their Balinese dress: lengths of woven grass matting secured with a white waist band, which is standard practice amongst the Chinese communities in Singapore and Penang but rarely observed here. The funeral bier is a work of art as are all the Cili faces (of the ancient pre-Hindu goddess of fertility) on the accompanying dangsal-like offerings. The gamelan musicians all look like torriadors: it is a stunning march through the high mountain passes to the bright green pasture of the graveyard. One can't help feeling that these mountain sub-cultures represent the real Bali, stripped of all the gentility and pomp of the coastal cultures that we also adore.
For me, today's small gathering and intense raw ritual represents the spiritual harbour from which a thousand containers of reproduction furniture have been launched. And tens of thousands of Bali-o-phile careers launched also.

P.S. This month saw the return to Bali of the incomparable Mlle Yeti, the Legong that ate Paris. She is working on a Bali Film festival to be held in Paris at the Cinematique de la Danse (curator, Patrick Bensard) which will feature all the great pre-war films on Bali. Die hard Bali-o-philes take note. Email address:

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