Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, June 2002)

This month the U.N. is holding a conference on "Sustainable Development": 6,000 delegates at seven sumptuous hotels in Nusa Dua. My editor the effervescent and perpetually pickled Mz. Sarah has accordingly asked me to write a piece on "something cultural". "You know, like temples or golf or shopping" were her exact words. As the island's self appointed cultural watchdog I have written this month's column in the form of an open letter.

Dear conventioneer,
Bali was once a completely self-sustaining island. It had its own building materials, an immaculate wet-rice agricultural system (admired the world over), an extraordinary, unique culture bursting with family values and maximum flexibility ("the world's most gorgeous" Diana Cooper once said) and a tropical architectural system that was a "masterpiece of simplicity and elegance" (according to Miguel Covarrubias, the 20th century's most renaissance man). Even Bali's Divine-Kingship system of Hindu worship, while a tad suspect to republicans, worked like magic: Warrior-Kings, Priest-Kings and Architect-Kings ensured that the land was free, and beautiful and holy.
"Magnanimous" was Bali's middle name. All major ceremonies were directed to the four corners of the universe: despite the island's far flung position the islanders believed that they could make a difference to the whole world if they just kept on doing their Bakti Yoga rituals (Bakti Yoga being the path to enlightenment through offerings, or ceremonies, called Wali (the origin of the word Bali)).
Today, after 35 years of meddling by various central governments, by the Asian Development Bank (seemingly in cohorts with cronies of the Soeharto Administration), the World Bank (whose book-keeping in Indonesia makes even Enron blush) and a gang of merry developers (mostly S.E.A. based) with limited tolerance for the uniqueness of the Balinese culture and environment, we have a 'paradise' beset by traffic jams, visual pollution (on a scale unseen since the British post W.W. II building boom), teenage drug abuse and cultural prostitution.
Cultural tourism has become a culture of tourism: the erudite "Bali Up-date" ("Bali's truth ministry" says Time magazine), is written by an hotelier; the "Stranger in Paradise" is a bloody redhead, Legongs have left the stage for a life on the juice blender! Look around you gentlemen and learned ladies, at the encrustations of Hindu tak Hindu art on the hotel walls and observe the Hindu genuflections when the (probably non-Balinese) waiter changes the ashtray.Is all purity lost?
Have the Balinese lost hope? Not for a minute: the culture has never been stronger. The Balinese' ability to absorb, adopt and adapt is a lesson to all mankind. Last month's Day of Silence was strictly observed (there is no descent on the island when it comes to adat (custom) affairs). The monster effigies the night before were this year bigger than Ben Hur (one of a 3 metre high Rangda parking a Qantas jumbo!). Weddings, cremations and tooth filings are all up on 2001 figures (See "Willie goes Overboard" Stranger in Paradise, Feb 2002); even the traffic cops busting the whorehouses now wear Balinese turbans with a sliver of gingham trim.
What have we, the enlightened international community, done to help Bali? We've entrusted money to thugs, that's what. For 35 years "(under the cover of darkness, the era has been cancelled)" anti "development" utterings were considered treason. Environmentalists and labour activists were harassed. The river banks of South Bali are now covered with concrete and the few peoples' beaches with bloated tourists bellies of the Bali-besotted. Turtle island and Tanah Lot have become foregrounds for lateral condominia. The by pass (designated a green belt) has become an industrial zone. Bali is today Bargain Bali (see last month's column of the same name on, the world's longest ribbon development shopping mall. "Live like a King on the island of the Gods" scream the new lifestyle enthusiasts. Why were none of Bali's many brave embattled NGO's not informed of this conference you may ask? Their voice deserves to be heard.
How does the real Bali survive (albeit under a thicker and thicker veneer of Bargain-Bali and Business-Bali)? And for how long can it keep on keeping on?? The answers lies in the island's animistic (spirit worship) beliefs (I wanted to call this column "Sustainable animism" but you probably wouldn't have read this far). For the Balinese, being Balinese, i.e. ritualistic Hindu-Balinese, is their number one job. Helping to ensure the harmony of nature, man and the netherworld, and of the gods and the demons, is what life is all about. Holy work, called Yadnya, in the form of offerings to the deities, the ancestors, humans, to animals and even inanimate objects is the main focus of a Balinese life. All other jobs are moonlighting. Balinese who really want to succeed outside this system tend to move to Jakarta or overseas, as the social and rituals demands in Bali are enormous. And enormously comforting. Hinduism, Balinese-ness, Universal altruism are all sustained by a belief in animism. Most rural Indonesians are partially animistic too, if mixed with other religious beliefs, and many urbanites, like past presidents Soeharto (a practicing Kejawen) mystic and Abdurahman Wahid (a sufi mystic). The biggest danger to Bali at the moment is meddling under the guise of Development. The Balinese, I believe, can take care of everything themselves.
Megawati's presidency, which once enjoyed a 96% popularity amongst the Balinese, has lost some of its shine with the alarming recent announcement of a Java-Bali bridge project, to be funded by the Chinese. Java is the world's most populace island. Bali is Indonesia's only Hindu island. Most educated Balinese agree that a bridge between the two would destroy the Balinese culture, already swamped with over 1,000,000 non Balinese residents (on an island of more than 2.6 million people). There needs to be a moratorium on further tourism expansion. Other hospitality industry options need to be explored, like the health industry and sport. Recent global events have shown how much Bali is now dependent on the tourist dollar, but sustainable tourism needs to be balanced with respect for the environment and cultural traditions.
Bali has hosted the world long enough, it's now time for the world to thank Bali in a meaningful, sustainable way.

• • •

Good luck kind delegates: you will be touched by Bali in many ways. Try and repay the favour. (The Stranger now returns to normal transmission after this brief commercial announcement).

16 April 2002: To Bali's largest Brahman compound (84 families) for a cross-cultural wedding
The Geria (Brahman home) of Tampakgangsul in central Denpasar is famous for the beauty (and business acumen) of its women. Many famous beauties and delightful dragon ladies, not to mention a line of respected pedanda high priests, have sprung from the multi-courtyard complex in the heart of Denpasar, behind the old Bali Hotel.
Stranger regulars the Segara sisters, Bali's first five star fashionistas, for example, married into the Geria Tampakgangsul. As did Mrs. Kompiang, Bali tourism champion and chatelaine of the Segara Beach Hotel, and Jero Karen (American-born owner of the popular "Terazo" and "Batan Waru" restaurants in Ubud). Legendary palace ladies such as Ibu Diwangkara, Ibu Kompiang (who married the prince of Bongkasa) and Dayu Tuti (whose Gianyar palace wedding featured Tuan Warwick Purser as pageboy) were all born into the extended family. Local myth has it that the opalescent ladies have a secret traditional recipe for a skin-whitener that is the envy of palace ladies across the archipelago!
My Balinese mum, Biang Ayu, was once courted by Gus Pong (Ida Bagus Kompiang, the founder of the Sanur Beach Cottages, and the Segara Village) but eventually chose another dashing Brahman, the bridge builder Ida Bagus Mandor, the matinee idol of his era).
Today I attend the wedding of Gus Kuk (Ida Bagus Adyana), nephew of Gus Pong and brother of Gus Kik, Jero Karen's husband. Gus Kuk once worked for me as bunker manager on the battlefield that was the Four Seasons Resort Jimbaran landscape project. He was a model of brahmanic patience and grace. Today, in the rarified atmosphere of the Brahman palace, packed with Denpasar nobility and a nice assortment of Ubud expats, I met Gus Kuk's bride, a Balinese-Javanese beauty from Tabanan. I request a photo in the merajan house temple, where I find Gus Kuk's father, a high priest, reading the holy lontar scriptures in his private pavilion. On one of the shrines sits an exquisite wooden statue of a pedanda priest replete with miniature holy vestments and a flower-wand. After the photo session Gus Kuk tells me of a recent holy incident which occurred in the house temple. One of his uncles was working on a family geneology when a 'force' grabbed his wrist and lead his hand to the eave of the pavilion. There the uncle found an ancient holy prasasti (brass tablet) that pre-dated the pavilion by hundreds of years!

• • •

Back in the semanggen (reception) court the Brahman beauties were abuzz: it was lunch time and the young crowd were arriving in all their modishness. One Gaugin-esque beauty, Gus Kuk's sister-in-law, sailed through the courtyard. "Stop" I screamed, politely, "Head up, eyes to the left, smile demurely. Click. Click. Click. Thank you". Still trembling from proximity to perfection I commented to my old pal Ibu Kompiang Bongkasa" "They're amazing, the Balinese, whatever you tell them they do". "Lucky you" commented the grand lady wryly as a delicious peel of myrth erupted from the dress circle.

23 April 2002: A major development in the Tommy Soeharto trial as reported in the nationÕs newspaper
The story so far:
Tommy Soeharto is heavily implicated in the murder of the judge who sentenced him to 18 months in jail (which he never served because the charge was miraculously overturned when he was on the lamb). Tommy is now apprehended and in the dock for various charges, including murder. Tommy's lawyer was today accused of attempting to bribe the late judge's young second wife, Iwah. Today Iwah took the stand to explain what happened. "My name is Iwah" She tells the panel of judges "I.W.A.H.: "I" is for Indah (beautiful), "W" is for Wangi, "A" is for Asyik (Sexy), "H" is for Hangat (hot). I serviced the late judge inside and out".
Hammers rained down.

29 April 2002: A tennis game with Denpasar's finest
30 years ago this week I left a promising career as a tennis ball boy to pursue a career in architecture. I have always regretted it. Highlights of my brief career included ball-boying for Roy Emerson, Billy Jean King, Rod Laver and Margaret Smith. There were three Davis Cup finals and an awakening in the scorebox during a Manuel Orantes match. At the height of my junior career I was invited to be coached by the legendary Ken Rosewall as a BP junior. He swore a lot.
This week I discovered an 18 year old Balinese with a Roy Emerson back hand volley—the most graceful sight in sport (on a parr with Tiger Wood's swing and Katrina Witt's spin). His name is Gusti Ngurah Eko, and he is a descendent of the last great Dewa Agung (Emperor) of Klungkung no less. His all court game proves it. And his impressive 24 tournament wins in Australia where he was trained by Jakarta-born June Welford who most generously launched EkoÕs career. Eka's father Drs. Gusti Wiyasa is a teacher at Denpasar Sports Academy. Eka's 14 year old sister, Ayu, played the European circuit last year. Drs. Gusti Wiyasa deserves a medal for raising these champions on an Indonesian teacher's salary!

Back | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Next

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: