Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, August 2004)

There's more confusion than fusion

You couldn’t think of a better time to be alive, what with the region’s social pages being the way they are today. Imagine missing the cavalcade of recycled mobsters, identically-remodelled Chinese faces (the ‘mean blonde vixen’ is definitely this season’s look), and the talk of ‘Oxfordshire aristocratic style’ and ‘Zen’ in the ‘Indonesian Tatler’. This month’s edition sported more of my company’s debtors in party dress – 17 to be exact – than in any previous issue!!!. I just relish the hours spent annotating before I slip the magazine back into its pocket on the Garuda jet.
Another great reason to be alive is to observe the trends nationwide in the rise and rise of the super buleé expatriate (Honky wife. - Ed.) –  that rare product of new-age, new-Asian emancipation who knows what she wants and wants it NOW! Last month I observed one specimen, of antipodean provenance, bellowing at a taxi driver outside the airport in Jakarta: “Am-pat palau mao, ‘gak?” (Empat puluh, mau, tidak?) or, in Strine, “Fordy - Thousin, tage-it or leavit”).
It’s the sort of language that once upon a time would have stamped the impatient expatriate as coarse and manipulative. But not anymore: this new breed of super buleé, raised on the white supremacist pages of the Bali Advertiser and The Yak magazines, knows that ‘money talks and bullshit walks’ and they wanna boogie.


 On another tack I travelled last month to the 3rd Hue Arts Festival in the beautiful citadel city of Hue, Central Vietnam. I am writing a water-ballet based on ‘Dr. No’, you see – hopefully starring the fabulous Cham dancers (ostensibly remnants of Vietnam’s Hindu Cham culture. Ed.) and I really wanted to see the Cham dance spectacle at the Purple Forbidden Palace on the Fragrant River.
Now read on ….

 11 June 2004, The Grand Opening of the Hue Festival of the Arts, Central Vietnam
I was trapped in a typhoon, driving 900 kilometres up the coast from Cam Ranh Bay to Hue, via the Hindu temple ruins of Bali’s distant cousins, the Cham people of Central Vietnam. In driving rain, I visited the red brick candi shrines in Nha Trang and My Son, finding an architecture similar to East Java’s classic Hindu period.
Avid Stranger readers will recall a story on the Makam Putri Champa in Trowulan, East Java. The tomb (makam), built in the Majapahit Hindu style, is for a Cham princess who had married a prince of the Majapahit court in East Java’s immediate post-Hindu era (16th century).
At dusk we stopped in the heritage town of Hoi An near Danang and, like nearly everyone else in Vietnam, watched the festival opening on television. It was like an Olympic opening ceremony staged by the Red Army Ballet (Plum Fairy Division). Of course my beloved Cham dancers stole the show with their Clara-Bow-as-Cleopatra costumes, grotesque grinding and Thai-style vogue-ing.

12 June 2004, to Hue, the Imperial Capital of Vietnam during the late classical era of Chinese cultural influence (18th & 19th  Centuries)
The tourist town is abuzz with exhibitions, sculpture parks, lantern processions and a million domestic tourists desperate for a bit of spectacle. The festival, held once every two years since 2000, is well organized and beautifully staged inside the courts of the old imperial palace.
I choose the Royal Hue dancers, the classical folk songs and the Cham Dance programme and am not disappointed.
The male chorus of the Royal Hue dancers wear a version of the Balinese Baris Gede Warrior dancer costumes but spend too much time farting around with pink plastic lotus lanterns. The prima ballerina does grandstand jetées: ‘Raise the Pink Lantern meets Mulan
’ sort of thing.
I long for a glimpse of what real classical Vietnamese (not folk Vietnamese) dance must have been like.
Then comes a sub-tropical deluge and with it the fabulous Cham dancers slipping and sliding as they perform a mind-boggling array of hi-camp, Hindu callisthenics. They are really the best thing since Banyuwangi’s Tari Ular (Saucy Snake Dance. - Ed.)
Later that night, in a stately timber reception pavilion, a small ensemble of classical musicians accompanies divas singing classical court songs.

13 June 2004: From Hue I send an SMS to my friends back home:
“Wandering thru the Hue Citadel suburbs with my guide Saucy Phoenix I find a Franco-Hue house that belongs to the grand daughter of the last Mandarin. She is busy chopping down every tree in the garden. I throw myself in front of her chain saw and show her my book ‘Tropical Garden Design’. She has been in Washington for the last 53 years. I am now held prisoner in a bamboo cage until I complete free designs.”


26 June 2004, at cremation in Klungkung
A good friend’s husband has died young, of leukaemia, leaving her with three young children. The cremation is a sad but beautiful affair with the banjar putting on a great show for a much loved member of their community.
It is Presidential Election day and tomorrow, returning home, I happen upon a motorbike squadron of political partisans in full battle dress.
Unlike the Ben Hur-style rallies of previous years, shows of force have, under reformasi, been replaced by television debates and serious campaigning, give or take a few love songs and wobble-bums (Penari Dangdut. Ed.)

[More Photos]


5 July 2004, The Presidential Elections and a visit to the royal chapel of Puri Agung Sukawati palace
My old chum Anak Agung Gede Agung of the once powerful Dalem Sukawati clan has invited me and my Australian houseguests to witness ‘a procession’ at his palace.
We arrive dutifully at 14.00 hours to find the palace empty but the courtyard full of café-style furniture; a tourist group has preceded us as part of a Ketjak Dance-Palace Lunch-Souvenir Shopping package for Jakarta bigwigs.
After a while we are offered some of the bigwigs’ Ayam Pelecing Lombok, fried chicken, which is delicious, as a succession of palace children is paraded in front of us in various stages of full ceremonial dress.
With time on our hands, we poke around the vast palace until we stumble across the beautiful Merajan Agung royal chapel with its ancient Majapahit era (17th century) statuary and architecture.
Next we walk to the Pura Penataran Agung temple – a sort of branch office for Bali’s mother temple, Pura Besakih, in days of yore – to witness the start of the Mendak Toya Hening procession, a ritual to request holy water at the holy springs south of the village.
The temple complex is full of royal family members; some 500 of them, in colourful prada brocade.
The shrines and attendant pavilions are all decorated, unusually, in classic Hindu Javanese style, in keeping with the architectural style of all the shrines. This is perhaps a stylistic link to the family’s founder Dalem Wawu Rawuh (Sri Kepakisan) a Brahmana (priest caste) ruler who turned ksatrya (princely caste) to rule all of Bali in the 16th century.
As the solemn procession of some 200 virgins moves off down the (closed) highway in single file, I spot a gaggle of Jakartan tourists, inches from the holy vessel, chomping on roast corn as they take in the show. Thinking they are Taiwanese I scold them in English for cultural insensitivity. Realizing, subsequently, that they are proto-developers from my Jakartan client base, I round on them with a ferocity that begs the occasion. Ha!
More photos]


Back home, I flick onto Metro TV to check on the Election Day stories.
First up is a riveting account of two citizens arrested at the polls for not being on the electoral roll.
“Anna told us to come”, they offer, pathetically.
They are then showed being bundled into the back of a security van, hugely embarrassed by the media coverage. “Three other ‘underage girls’ were similarly apprehended in a separate but related incident,” we are told.
Gripping stuff.
Cut to a shot of Former President Jimmy Carter, Head of International Election Watch in a T-shirt. No commentary. Then back to the studio for analysis by a panel of experts, including Professor William Liddle of Ohio State University, who knows his stuff and speaks perfect Indonesian. The other experts, all Indonesians, glower at him with barely concealed, but professional, contempt.
It was surreal electoral reporting at its best, in keeping with the grand tradition of Indonesian television motto – “You can fool most of the people most of the time.”

Singapore had last week described Indonesia as “a nation braced for violence”. Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.A. had issued travel warnings. My houseguests had to be dragged out to Sukawati because of all the warnings!
In Bali I observe that, in fact it was one of the most peaceful days in my 30 odd years in Indonesia.
Viva Reformasi !!!


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