Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, June 2004)


After years of hauling people to cultural events on this blessed island, I have developed a crust of indifference towards the whims of the day-trippers. Military precision has become my goal in targeting a trance dance or a military tattoo. This requires a firm hand with the cultural campers; a sort of ‘Gonzo guide approach’ to avoid collateral damage such as whingeing bus-drivers, burst bladders and impaled tourists (yet to happen - despite many a front row frenzy).
My career in security or ‘Gonzo extreme guiding’ started in 1979 at the Puri Saren Palace in Ubud on the occasion of the royal cremation of the late great Cokorda Sukawati, Patron of the Arts. At that time, I was an adviser for a Bali documentary, called ‘Bali Pulau Dewata’, which was being filmed for QANTAS by director Philip Noyce, with Russell Boyd, who recently won an Oscar for his cinematography on ‘Masters and Commanders’. On the big day I was plucked from the film crew and placed on the gate as bouncer, to stop Dutch anthropologists flinging themselves on the funeral pyre. Anyone who came near the palace gates, looking scholastic or Dutch, was repelled. My performance at that event did not go unnoticed: the next day I received a box of ‘Sehat Lelaki’ herbal medicine (jamu), from batik impresario Iwan Tirta and an offer from Warwick Purser, then White Raja of Batujimbar, to mow his lawn.
My next test, in 1985, was an architectural tour for the Young Professionals Organization; the elite militant arm of Rotary International. The group was based at the architecturally-splendid Bali Oberoi. The first part of my tour was a lecture on the evolution of Balinese architecture, at which I hoped to influence these regional moguls on the evils of overdeveloping an island paradise. Sadly all the moguls were in the next conference room attending an auction of Tanah Lot temple land and I was left with a posse of Stepford wives, who kept asking how they could meet Rio Helmi, the legendary Legian lothario. My carousel jammed. The air-conditioning failed. The room became a mass of throbbing moo-moos and I started having hallucinations about dismemberment by the Daughters of Hawaii. Then, from somewhere, deep inside, call it my Gonzo spot, I mustered the strength to cram the overheated republicans into a bus and race them to Tampaksiring for a dousing in the holy springs. They were bent on ‘regime change’, and I had to demonstrate the Balinese Hindu way of bathing.
My career break came in 1981, when I was instructed by the North Batuan bamboo collective to take a group of conventioneers to the year's end concert of the Dance Academy in Denpasar, where I was working at the time. The group had had too much palm toddy and got overexcited at the sight of so many nubile young things in lurex. Keeping them on the straight and narrow was like the Battle of the Somme itself; I felt I deserved a purple heart when, late in the evening, on the instruction of the Governor himself, who was sitting in the front row, I had to wade through a band of herbal suffragettes to advise an English actress, parked on stage, in a gypsy skirt, next to the gamelan, that she was flashing.
An auditorium of Balinese teenagers exploded in cheers as the actress demurely crossed her legs..................the rest is history.

. . .

Last month I managed to combine, on one small bus, three disparate groups - the South East Asian Ceramics Society, an A.B.C. (Australian) television crew, and a honeymooners’ package from Emmanuelle Tours of St. Tropez and Seminyak - bound for the tenth full moon mega-festival at Pura Batur.
Now read on:

4th April 2004, Purnama Kedasa, Bali’s most propitious full moon and the occasion of odalan temple festivals in many of the island’s major temples.
In April 1981, I did my first ‘tenth full moon’ tour for the Mitra Budaya Culture Group, from Jakarta. It comprised a trip up the mountain to Pura Batur, for the big mapapadan procession and the Baris Gede Military Tattoo. We then went on to Pura Mertasari in Sanur for the Baris Cina trance dance, and then, at midnight, to Pura Penembahan Badung for the Pemecutan (Denpasar) palace’s be-in. I have reprised this tour many times over the ensuing years; it is quite simply Bali’s best triple-feature. It combines magnificent Hindu-Balinese spectacle with a ‘kick in the stomach cakra, so empowered are the venues and potent the ceremonies popping-off in the courtyards.

. . .

Today I usher my charges off the bus, outside the towering temple gates, at 16.35 hours. While doing this I have to quiz the reporter’s squeeze about her menstrual cycle, make sure the old biddies don’t drop into a drain, and answer questions of the "When does the trance dance start?" variety. We then enter into the awesome Jeroan outer courtyard of the Pura Batur mega-temple. There are at least five Gong Gede gamelan orchestras parked on the swept lava-dust floor and numerous Baris Gede troupes, from the mountain villages of Bayung Gede, Sebatu and Kintamani.
We’ve hit the jackpot!
Today is Bali’s first Baris Gede ‘Tattoo’, coinciding with Pura Batur temple’s anniversary. The spectacle is Bali’s equivalent to the Sienna palio or the Edinburgh Military Tattoo but without any tourists. I spy one Dutch anthropologist, known to me through supplementary weave circles, and New Zealand born Sarita Newson, who has been imbedded in the Kintamani ceremonial community through her marriage to a Pura Batur priestly family, for the last 30 years. My group feels incredibly privileged and is awestruck by the decorative excess.
The ABC’s Michael Maher is so impressed that he storms off in search of a volcano, for a wide-shot, to establish the scene. Three of my group - lady photographers from various magazines, including Garden Design U.S.A. - have hit the ground secreting enzymes; making the most of the failing light to capture the fabulous fashion and strong profiles of the mountain men. Mademoiselle Yeti (from the Cinémathèque Française) and I get teary-eyed watching one dance-master going through the paces of the rare Baris Dadap dance with a prowess rarely seen these days; his expression is glowering, his shoulders taut, the fury of the coming (imaginary) battle in mind. Mlle. Yeti needs restraining as she attempts a faux sutee on a proffered lance.
By 17.25 Gonzo discerns that the Malaysians are itching for a costume change, the honeymooners are in need of a quiet, damp corner and the ABC are out of film. We speed down the hill to the next Baris performance, the rare and frightening Baris Cina from Renon, which once a year dances at Pura Mertasari temple in Sanur (for a full account see ‘Stranger in Paradise The Diary of An Expatriate in Bali 1979 — 80’, pages 77-79, 230-232, available at a bookstore near you).
So keen are the ABC reporter and cameraman to escape without tipping the bus driver that they flee the scene, claiming battle fatigue, as I lead a pair of octogenarians - "It’s Sanur, Betty, not Janur" - through the palm groves of Deep South Sanur. The Baris Cina trance mêlée under the giant Monkey pod Suwar tree on the waters edge (soon to be a multi-storied car park and convention facility) never fails to impress; my Malaysians follow the shaking daggers into the coral-walled temple and are lost for the night.

5 April 2004, to Griya Kepaon for the wedding of my godson Ida Bagus Surya to the lovely Ida Ayu Suryawati of Sibang
Last month I wrote of the action-packed betrothal ceremony of this attractive couple. Today is the big day; the courtyard is packed with family and friends witnessing the marriage ceremonies. Inside the family house temple, I am pressed into service to drag a duck on a pole, where my Balinese sister Dayu Mandri is singing:
ðMula kunyit mula endongan" ("Plant the turmeric, and the cordyline").
"Ngejengit Ngelondongan" ("Happy families, quick pregnancy")

This verse is sung as the groom is planting a cordyline bush behind the ancestral shrine. Everyone giggles furiously when I question the meaning of all this, as, quite obviously, it’s an early pre-nuptial exercise in family planning.
This small courtyard wedding has more tourists than the big tattoo at Batur. There are eight German students, all female, who fan themselves politely in the fierce noonday heat. My Emmanuelle group arrive fashionably late; Gonzo would normally be ‘having pups’ but it is the nature of a Balinese wedding ceremony - in waves of activity over an entire morning - that even the fashionably late can be on time. The group is dressed to kill in Milo batiks and Bin House kebaya. One has a Linda Garland bamboo musk harvester through her nose. As soon as they enter the inner sanctum they start bargaining for the bride’s bangles; a good omen.
"Sell something to a tourist,
On your wedding day,
Brings flat telly to compound,
Faster if you may," Gonzo sings, slightly tipsy on palm toddy and too much sun, as he counts Roubles for the bangle-shorn bride.
After the excitement of all the motorcades and visits to far-flung Brahmana homes near the Monkey Forest, today’s ceremonies seem subdued. The bride and groom look regal in their rented refinements but the edge of anticipation has been worn down by a week of scheduled events.
For me, the most unusual and touching ceremony of the week was the occasion when the officiating high priest, bell-clanging (see photo opposite), beseeched the bride-to-be to come out of her pavilion chamber and meet her groom-to-be.
"Nah, she won’t come out," commented Gonzo, loudly, at the time, "she’s still watching Valentina" (popular Mexican soap). The gathering giggled; making light of serious moments is not discouraged in Balinese homes. The bride was soon to emerge, her towering tiara covered with canary yellow veil, sunrays deflecting off the rich golden threads in her songket sarong. The oxygen was suddenly sapped from courtyard central. Four groaning terraces of family were silenced by the beauty.


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