Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2005)

At work in Kerala, India, star Bali sculptor Made Cangker wearing the livery of Wijaya India’s accounts receivable division.

This year I have found myself working with teams of Balinese artisans in exotic locales as far afield as Fiji, Kerala, Goa, Germany, Calcutta, Central Vietnam and Rebak Island, Malaysia
The most exotic adventure, however, was last month’s.
Now read on:

It is five years since the downturn of the Indonesian economy, The messy fall of Soeharto, the monetary crisis, the Kuta Bomb, and SARS have all left their toll on Bali – but the Balinese have not lost hope. The community has tightened its communal belt and put a communal foot down, hard, on the gas pedal of survival. For the first time since the 17th century, when Balinese slaves were exported to Batavia by the Portuguese, a great slice of the work force is heading offshore. Artists and artisans, once gainfully employed creating a tourism Mecca, now find themselves suddenly ‘on the shelf’, and have to look abroad for work. In the four corners of the world, the Balinese have re-invented themselves, as masseuses (someone has to pick the hibisci for all those blondes in the baths!!!), manicurists and travelling sculptors. As ‘Bali style’ hotels and theme parks, spas and restaurants pop up around the globe, so does a market for great globs of carved excess, rows of gilt things and fields of scatter-Buddhas.
There is a niche market too, at the high end of the burgeoning ‘decoration’ industry, for star turns by arty globetrotters: Bali has, after all, remained as the cutting edge for tropical landscape and architectural design, despite the downturn, and despite also the ghastly new Zen and ‘New Asia’ (tight-arsed) minimalist design movements.
In early December, I travelled to Germany, to Spreewald, the world’s gherkin capital one hour east of Berlin, to check on a group of 30 Balinese sculptors and carpenters I had left there last month. They were left with 80 Brazilian dancers, ten Samoan carpenters, 20 Thai builders and over 300 very serious Germans; all hermetically sealed in the world’s biggest dome. The dome is soon to be ‘ Tropical Islands’, a theatrical-horticultural theme park; the brainchild of Malaysian entrepreneur Colin Au

1st December, 2004: inside ‘ Tropical Islands’, Germany – the world’s biggest dome
Now, I am not wholly shocked by what I find upon my return: the Balinese have set up a salon, under the dormitory stairs, for the beading of Brazilian pubes; the Thais are charging top dollar for cross-dressing boxing matches in the staff car park, yodelling ‘Mai Pen Lai’ in purple suèdette lederhosen; the Samoans have set up a preachers’ corner and are converting communists to charismatic Christianity, and the Bombay folk dancers have set up shop inside a Mercedes-Benz vending machine, dispensing Mars bars, hugely marked up!
The Malaysian executives are beaming at all the healthy work ethic too.
As a million Euros worth of rare tropical plants are poured into the dome, 30 Balinese sculptors from Singapadu slave away at the 11th hour, completing the tallest indoor Balinese gate in the world – a masterpiece of 70s tourism Kitsch.
My gang, including five carvers from the erotic sculpture division of my office’s commando corps, are busy doing homo-erotica in the love tunnel for the potsdammerpooves - as specially requested by the flamboyant mayor of Berlin.
“We need the pink market”, Colin Au, the Domeführer, exhorts.

4th December 2004: Pilipino tennis coach marries Indonesian sweetheart at ‘Lovers’ Leap’,  Taman Bebek, Sayan
Since joining the rent-a-karya wedding business in 1979, when I staged Bali’s first same-sex, aquatic spa wedding (ya shoulda seen the hibisci and the bath-bound blondes that day!), I have arranged many ceremonies for the betrothed and Bali-besotted.
Today Jordan Sanchez, founder, together with my garden company, of Bali’s Pandawa Tennis Club (for the betterment of Junior tennis in Bali) in 1999, is to marry the lovely Mike, at the ridge-side presidential villa of the Taman Bebek hotel. My old pupil Dewa Raga and I form an honour guard for this plucky Pilipino battler and his lovely Manadonese bride.
Good luck, Jordan and Mike, in your new life together. The Pandawa Tennis Club looks forward to your offspring!

5th December, 2004: Agung Rai’s Art Gallery for the launch of a very special book
Idanna Pucci is one of the old guard of Bali-lovers who write about, and from, the true heart of Bali. Her first book, ‘The Epic of Life’, about the incredible paintings of the Kerta Gosa pleasure pavilions at the Klungkung imperial palace, was a wonderful excursion into Balinese and Florentine cosmology. Her latest book, a biography, is illustrated by Dr. Anak Agung Made Djelantik (a Stranger regular over the years) who is also the subject of the book. The remarkable life story of Dr. Djelantik – the first Balinese to study at a European university – which spans eight generations of very changing times, is masterfully recorded and retold. Dr. Djelantik’s paintings, naive and poignant, are enchanting.
The book launch at Agung Rai’s Art Gallery in Pengosekan is a five star affair: all the literati and hill-tribe glitterati are there. Publisher Sarita Newson, star of last month’s Stranger column, has done an admirable job not only with the book, which is beautifully designed, but in bringing together disparate segments of Bali’s art-loving community for the big bash.
A superb Genjekan from Karangasem is performed in the museum’s garden as the gentle doctor-painter and the passionate Italian writer collect accolades.

16th December, 2004: a visit to the village for a baby’s ceremony
Today there is another baby’s nyambutin (3 month) ceremony at the Geria Kepaon, my village home. Over 30 babies have been added to the once tiny (by Brahmana house standards) courtyard home since I moved in with my tennis racquet in 1974.
Today, it’s the second son of the fifth brother in the third courtyard. Dishevelled kiddies are running every which way in the forecourt when I arrive: over the last decade a ghetto of the less fortunate family members has sprung up in the coconut grove adjacent to the house’s main gate. Opposite, across the once pristine stream, one half of the family have built a new mini-palace, which operates as an offering factory for all the cremations, weddings and nyambutin of the district. Today it is Dayu Gede, wife of Gus Teja, from this factory home, who is leading the merry sing-along accompanying the complex rituals that help to fortify the new-born’s pure soul:
“Auntie, if you are going to the river for a bath,
Tighten your sash, carry a blunt knife.
Use a shallot for protection”
The two immaculately dressed high priests – husband and wife – are thrilled with the beauty of the quaint rite de passage and the merry song. They beam grace at the perfect boychild.
Urchins scatter.

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