Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, June 2003)


Last month I wrote about the exodus of expat offspring. This month I find myself on the road with two teams of Balinese gardeners escaping fiscal ruin and we keep bumping into other Balinese doing the same thing. I am in India, where the native Hindus have always been rather disdainful of their island cousins,  perhaps the modern day Balinese brand of South Indian ritualistic Hinduism is far too ethnic and picturesque (read inaccessible?) for the new age deskbound Dravidian. I find the eyes of hotel staff light up when I say “Bali, you know, the bomb". “AAAAH, the bomb.” They gleam; obsessed, as is any true Hindu, with extremes of human depravity.
In Singapore, the Balinese receive some respect as a master-race of gardeners. The gardeners themselves have become to the Singapore construction industry what high wire acrobats, the aerial aristocrats, are to the circus world. I deliver them to the labour camps and come back months later to find that they've rearranged the furniture  and are fielding calls on their cell phones from the local maids.
Since HIV screening was introduced in Singapore, the gardeners who pass (so far 100%, thank god) become instant babe magnets; ‘fathers for rent’ as the hot- blooded Balinese like to call it and this can lead to embarrassing incidents. One uptight client couple of ours found a hottie cohorting with their maid in her room on a Sunday and promptly locked them in then called the police!

I mean, with Christian compassion like this, who needs Islamic Syariah law police?
In Kuala Lumpur, the heavenly Regent Hotel Club floor is operated by Balinese wonder women who run rings around their Malaysian sisters in terms of poise and common sense. I have seen two move on into the waiting arms of European industrialists; ‘from trolley to lolly’ as the Indians call it.
It must be said that in over twenty years of working with the Balinese abroad, there has never been an incident, a drunken brawl, or any frustration with local culture, food or lodgings. As in all areas of their life, except perhaps in real estate if we read between the lines in the Bali Advertiser, the Balinese are exemplary gentlemen equalled perhaps in terms of elegance and grace only by the Rajasthanis and Michael Jackson. (Did anyone else see that extraordinary new documentary: ‘The Michael Jackson Interview: the things you never heard’ ?)
Now read on:

5 May 2003, The ‘Riviera’ Restaurant, Panaji, Goa with four Balinese commando gardeners and my p.a. Nyoman Miyoga of Sayan
By the grace of the good Taj Hotel Group, I am starting to rebuild the aesthetic bridge between Bali and India that once existed 1,000 years ago but with the traffic now flowing the other way. Bali has the best tropical gardeners in the world, India has none; well, none I've found in 20 years scratching around the dusty potscapes of the beloved sub-continent. Something went seriously wrong between the end of the Mogul era, with their incredibly poetic gardens and the gardens one finds at most Indian hotels today.
The Balinese gardeners have been working their magic for a month now, without a break, at the gorgeous Taj Holiday Village in Fort Aguarda. The draconian timetable was their own choice, the Balinese hate to be idle more than anything else, so today, as a reward, I forced them out to see the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa (where rest some holy relics of St. Francis Xavier who brought Christianity to Flores and Timor, in the 16th century). There is also a gate erected in honour of Vasco da Gama by Governor Albuquerque in the 17th century.
We arrived at the magnificent basilica in time for mass and the heavenly Goan choral accompaniment which the Balinese found somniferous because they are used to shivering and shaking with their devotion. They were impressed, however, by the exquisite catafalque that holds the saint's holy forearm (closer to home) and the Portuguese style confessional room. Indeed, the very notion of being absolved of all sins automatically once a week had their cheeky eyes twinkling.
In the museum across the vast square it was the map of the world with the voyages of the great Portuguese navigators that caught their attention; here was undeniable proof that Soeharto didn't discover the Indian Ocean (known in Bali as the Indonesian Ocean) and they were thrilled.
I should mention here that the boys had been to Old Goa the week before but, in true Indonesian ‘sight the obyek (sic)’ fashion, took one look at the fountain in the forecourt and headed back to familiar territory. It's not that Balinese in tourist mode are not inquisitive; it’s more that nothing enthrals them as much as their own culture and obsessive village intrigues.

From Old Goa we moved up the river some 20 kilometres to Ponda and the Hindu temple of Shanta Durga, an important pilgrimage site, where we changed into our temple drag.  We bluffed our way through some pretty bizarre protestations and a communion ceremony; the Balinese are often disappointed by Indian worshipping rituals. The temples are not open air and the priests are not nice; unlike in Bali. People hassle and bustle and there is little time for contemplation. It’s more like a rush on a karmic A.T.M.
I divined that the pilgrims from the east were hoping for Bollywood meets Brahma or Aishwarya Rai on a palanquin and some line dancing!
After prayers we sat with the brahmans on a porch outside the complex's Laksmi temple and watched them drink Pepsi. None of the pandit were the least bit interested in these oriental Hindus with foreign habits. To many Indians, all ‘Chinkies’ (as they call them) are merely quaint. The Balinese in turn think the Indians smell like jamu (Indonesian herbal medicine) and are obsessed with making muck out of their rice. Milky tea and cricket are anathema to the Balinese.

Over Kingfisher beers at the blessed ‘Riviera’ Café on the riverside in Panaji, the capital of Goa, watching the disco boats glide by like nautical Coney Islands, the boys started to open up out about their work experiences.  
“I even lost my temper once,” said saintly Dewa, a Sai Baba follower from Ketewel near Sukawati, “those workers are all dills.”
They were inspired by our local boss man Mr Madelkar, the ‘chief horticulturalist’, who chases daily workers with a big stick.  I advised the boys to bring remote controls to work because the locals have a habit of getting stuck in ‘pause’.
I have observed over the years that the commandoes, wherever they are, manage to teach the rather doltish local labourers a few words of Balinese and with this in place, they soon establish a polite feudal system based on the achievement of higher beauty, which is the way Balinese run temple festivals and cremations. It gives me such pride to watch them every morning, striding down the hotels paths, hand in hand like Nureyevs with machetes, to take on another errant border or a recalcitrant horticulturalist.
Long may it last!

12 May 2003, the trial of the first Bali Bomber, the dashing Amrozi, Australia’s most hated, begins in a Denpasar community hall.
Boy! Is there going to be more outrage in the Australian press! It seems that the families of the victims of the tragedy are notgoing to be given special passes to witness the proceedings, unlike the press, which seems a tad cruel. Having now suffered the inadequacies of the local medical and emergency services, let’s hope they will be spared too much of a close up view of the prosecutors’ offices, where they have been bidden to watch the proceedings on television.
The authorities really should offer Amrozi some sort of plea bargain such as only 201 consecutive death sentences, not 202, so that he stops flashing that movie star smile which so enrages the victims’ families and Indonesia-bashers around the globe who just don't understand that for many village Javanese, a show of restrained aggression (i.e. baring the teeth but not biting) is a way of hiding  emotions such as guilt. Anyway, the accused still has followers and the Balinese are still exercising restraint. By far the more extraordinary trial is that of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, whom CNN calls the mastermind of the church bombings in East Java in 1999 and the ‘godfather’ of Indonesian terrorism.
Due to the pioneering multi-national effort in capturing the Bali bombers, spearheaded by the Balinese Colonel I Made Mangku Pastika, the Indonesian police now have a mandate to capture the extremists whose fiery rhetoric of hate has fuelled the actions of village vigilantes. Thousands of Ba’asyir loyalists are creating havoc in Jakarta. The trial is a true test of President Megawati’s reform movement and her presidency; both her father and Soeharto were enemies of the extremists. The public is longing for justice to be done and for an end to this era of political uncertainty and violence.

18 May 2003, the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Singapore. 
Last year I designed a garden in the Chinese ‘peranakan’ style for a Singaporean diplomat. He obviously liked it, for it lead to a commission to do the two large central courts of Singapore’s venerable ministry building, a hybrid of old colonial and modern social realist architecture.
I pitched a concept based on ‘Nusantara’, the Malay word for archipelago, and the notion of a garden that symbolically displayed ‘Asean’ as a maritime empire. The idea was to do a stylised map of the region using coloured plants and pebbles and then people it with primitive pre-Hindu era art; or rather primitive style art with a sprinkling of original art and artefacts.
To my amazement, the scheme found favour with the decision makers and I was set loose with noted Balinese traditional sculptor I Made Cangker of Kramas, a pupil of painter-guru Nyoman Gunarsa, modernist sculptor Pintor Sirait of Suwung Kangin and two teams of Balinese garden commandoes; all under the watchful eye of our Singapore godfather, Fairuz Bin Saleh.
The results are quite dramatic and will, no doubt, send tremors through the ‘neatnik’ Muscle Mary movement that has the Singapore architecture and landscape worlds by the balls.
But I digress; and so I should (gosh this cause has few champions) because these eloquent architectural brown shirts are giving me the dry trots!
Has anyone else noticed that design magazines are starting to look like Office works catalogues and that talented architects are spending a lot of time making ‘handmade’ look ‘machine made’?
My friends think I'm getting obsessive on this particular campaign trail but I see the aggressive, mindless promotion of wimpish filleted minimalism (not to say there isn't a lot of strikingly handsome minimalism) as running a stake through various Custodial movements; the rustic charm movement, the Bali Baroque movement and the Hysterical historical movements to name but a few that are very dear to many of us lovers of nature.
“A pox upon them”, I say, bring back full-blooded, poetic, romantic garden design that is culturally referenced.

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