Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, December 2004)


There was once a spry young New Zealand lass who married a dashing young Balinese medical student. The young lass, Sarita, was descended from shepherds in the hills behind Christchurch, New Zealand. Her beau, Dr. Armawa, was from a priestly clan in the mountain village of Kintamani. In the dusty 1970s they lived in the back lots of Denpasar with their three genetically-blessed children. Sarita was the first editor of the Sunday Bali Post and, in 1978, she gave this column its start. Armawa was a man about town, studying medicine. In 1985 they separated, amicably, after ten years of marriage. Sarita stayed on in Bali to raise the perfect children on her own but with the help of 820 close relatives in her adopted mountain home. She started a graphics agency in Sanur which helped support the children as they grew up – half on the coast and half in the mountains. Armawa went off to a far flung Indonesian island to tend to Vietnamese refugees. The children all inherited the reticent dignity of mountain Balinese; acquired through long hours at family ceremonies and sojourns at the family compound. Sarita’s mother-in-law – a big-boned, big-hearted mountain woman with tigress eyes – owned the legendary ‘Lakeview’ restaurant perched high on the caldera, at Penelokan, overlooking Lake Batur. In the old days I would often stop there, for lake fish and chips, during round-the island motor bike tours.
In 1986 I designed a Balinese house for the family in Padang Galak near Sanur. The compound became known as the ‘Women’s Refuge’ as there one could always find slightly furry, single mothers of Celtic extraction, stirring lentils.
In 1995, Armawa died – too young, too reckless. His cremation was a riotous affair, true to mountain Bali traditions as he was much loved by his village community. As the body burned, a few hitherto unknown half-brothers appeared and were folded into the mix.
For most of that week, Sarita wove offerings with her extended family of handsome hillbillies; she has never abrogated her duty to her ex-husband’s family.
The children have travelled widely around the world since they all graduated from state high schools in Denpasar and universities abroad. Trisna has joined collectives in Chile and is a travel writer for Poleng magazine; Komang has studied landscaping in Auckland and breaks hearts Down Under; Kadek has worked as an environmental engineer in Christchurch and Australia and was recently M.C. at the Ubud Writers’ Festival.

29th October 2004, The auspicious fourth full moon, holiday for temple anniversaries, tooth filings and weddings
This evening I am invited to attend prayers at the temples of Batur and Belangking (the old pre-Hindu Chinese capital of mountain Bali). Early tomorrow morning, I will go to the tooth-filing of Sarita’s children, nearby, at the Lakeview hotel.
Before I can escape into the cool mountain air, I have another temple anniversary to attend, at Pura Jero Gede, a tiny temple which sits in the garden of my office in Suwung Kangin near Sanur. The temple is wedged into a corner between a bridge, our office and the main road. It is a tiny temple but a powerful one – the demon king Jero Gede Macaling of Nusa Penida pays regular calls on festival days. Indeed, the recent spate of extremely warm weather in South Bali has been attributed to ‘Jero Gede Melancaran’ (the demon king is on walkabout).
I arrive at 4 pm and the spooky music has already started. My purchasing manager, Nining, a saintly mother of three from Central Java, is already in trance. Next to go off is my landlord, a room boy at a large tourist hotel, and shortly after, all of his extended family. “Soon there’ll be no one to answer the phone if Jesus calls!” I comment irreverently (protocol allows the fattest celebrant to interject levity at moments of temple trauma).
On many occasions over the years, I have observed the spirit of the demon-king entering my landlord (not an unusual state of affairs, some might say, for anyone involved in extending leases in Bali). While still in trance, he is dressed in the netherworld visiting costume of distinctive chequered cloth head-dress and cummerbund. Dancing and flailing as the demon king (see photo last page) his frenzied trance medium work comes on as regularly as clockwork; just one of the many amazing rituals of south Bali’s fabulous, furry coastal temples.
Even more unusual is the fact that my landlord is originally from a mountain village which had no relationship with either the temple or the demon king.                              


At 5 pm, I travel up the volcano to the village of Kintamani, home to Pura Batur, the second most important temple in Bali. Pura Batur is the abode of the goddess of the crater-lake and, nominally, the Hindu God Wisnu plus a host of other deities of Balinese, Javanese and Chinese provenance.
Night has fallen over the temple town.
I sit in the cloud-filled courtyard, with Sarita, her children and her houseguests, admiring the giant pagodas illuminated by the filtered moonlight. Also in the temple is the new Minister for Tourism, Jero Wacik; himself a priest at this temple. We all pray; there are more foreigners than tourists but the priests are not in the least bit phased. Sarita’s family and their western friends are frequent visitors to the temple.


Later that night – in fact very early the next morning – the dulcet tones of a day-feeding (Kiwi) marsupial cut through my sleep. It is 4.30 am and Sarita is waking everybody up for the tooth-filing ceremonies.
I had spent a restless night as people were busy on the floor above setting up the tooth-filing offerings and catering tables. In my extreme tiredness, I had been hallucinating about herds of slightly feral feminists thundering up and down the hall above with bowls of chick peas and dental drills. Gingerly I dress, and climb the stairs to the ‘observation carriage-like’ ceremonial hall where the four celebrants are seated in front of a podium of offerings. The Sangging tooth-filer is chanting Vedic hymns; Sarita and her mother-in-law are silently directing proceedings with characteristic grace. Barely awake, the full import of the occasion suddenly tugs at my consciousness: here is a stoic mother’s final obligation to her three children, before fully ‘releasing’ them into the world. The gender wayang music kicks in like a juke box of heavenly emotions, played by newlywed Australian-Balinese couple Von and Made, friends of Sarita’s from Singgi, in Sanur. Tears well up as, one by one, Saritas’s pride and joy go through the important coming of age ritual. Their teeth are filed, polished and inscribed with the holy aksara letters that signify the virtues that should reign supreme, now that the bestial canines have been filed down. Battalions of cousins sleep in rows behind us as the sun rises on the crater-lake.
It is a magnificent occasion.


I muse that there are expat mums who watch from the sidelines, as their adopted families do all the ceremonies, and then there are the Saritas – fully assimilated and happy to sit all day, chewing the cud and weaving offerings. They worship the divine through their children, and their husbands’ families.


Last week I called Sarita to enquire about the programme of ceremonies. She was in a room full of mountain aunties and cousins squawking like caged hyenas. A phone conversation was almost impossible. “How can you think in such an atmosphere,” I bellowed, “You have been here too long you know – it’s time you went home!”
I heard her giggle as she asked an aunty for a bundle of coconut leaves.


P.S. 2 November 2004:

On a Singapore Airlines flight, I notice that their excellent in-flight magazine has, like Seminyak North, and the Massachusetts high court, been infiltrated by gays. There are whacky by-lines, whelping and general screamer-chops attitude all over the formerly staid glossy. One article, on the recently launched ‘LUXE Guides’ – ‘slim-as-a-supermodel volumes filled with shallow insights’ – says that for travel in Bali, the guide advises to only say: “Terima kasih”, which smoothly translate (sic) as “Thanks awfully, you delicious kitten”. Meow!
Just to help you readers out here: Malay is the national language of Singapore and Singapore Airlines the national carrier. I perfectly understand how the poncey little pansies who write this sort of crap must find 'native' expressions just too, too beyond the pale hysterical but does the campy feline reference really denote the ‘Luxe’ writers’ perception of Bali as a go-go boy paradise? Shallow is one thing: this is war!!!

P.P.S. I had these ‘Luxe’ pooves to my home once. I had been bullied into giving a lecture on Balinese architecture and a free gourmet meal to a group from Design Hotels, the millinery arm of the muscle-Mary taste-police (Bali HQ, The Legian). Their eyes glazed over during my lecture (not enough glass bricks); they didn't buy one book and I never even got a thank-you note from the pretentious batty boys. Sod ‘Luxe Guides’, I say. Meow.

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