Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2005)


This column has followed the rise and rise of Zen as a fashion force in Bali since 1979, when Australian anthropologist Carole Muller used the word to describe the austere beauty of the Pura Puseh temple in the mountain village of Bayung Gede , near Kintamani (photo right). In the ensuing 25 years I have watched as ‘Zen’, once the highest, unattainable form of Buddhism, and of Buddhist art, has become the buzz word for design dingbats across the globe. Real estate developers in Bali, fascistionista architects in Singapore and even Hollywood florists have adopted Zen, whatever it now means, as their own fashion creed.
Last month, Kenneth Lee, Los Angeles’ finest florist, was interviewed by ‘E’ channel about his flowers for the Brad Pitt - Jennifer Aniston wedding: “Very Zen,” squealed the Kowloon screamer (read: light in his loafers. Ed.), “sensual, stylish, you know, with lots of Asian flair, flair, flair.”
“And sexy,” countered the star-struck interviewer.
Last year, when my Zenwatch column in the Poleng magazine was in full swing, I even found a Zen-brand bum-squirter in a bathroom in an Indian ashram: a new depth for Non-U Hindu?
In Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta I have documented ‘Zen touches like the use of the pebble drain as a bedroom or health spa accessory. Another Zen fashion staple is Horse-hair plants in a rectangular planter (preferably black, the favourite non-colour of the Urban Zen Warrior).

Nature is considered old-fashioned in today’s Zen era, unless it looks man-made. The Balinese garden, for example, a thing of great beauty, is now pooh-poohed in the real estate magazines. Ads for Zen villas in the island’s Zen press (the aggressively metrosexual YAK magazine is the industry leader) feature ads and articles which trumpet the virtues of a tree-less, bird-less, heart-less home environment resplendent with de rigueur black trim, chrome inlay and wooden slat ‘fascinators’.
In fact, one fears that traditional Balinese anything is considered the enemy by the Zen practitioners! “ Temples of style like the Legian and the Balé and Ku De Ta restaurant (all great properties. Ed.) are the new age Balinese temples,” one pundit recently wrote.

In December, I went to a Christmas Party across the Wallis Simpson line (Expatria. Ed.) and found myself up against a slab of carved Palimanan with a pair of Seminyak fashionistas (male) in stretch drain pipes. They sounded like the ‘Kim and Kath’ of Zen Legian (All sizzle and no sausage. Ed).
“Let’s face it,” winced the weedier one to his friend, “You’re the best photographer in Bali. That photographs you did of 100 girls in thongs at Ku De Ta waving to the helicopter was B.R.I.L.L.I.A.N.T. I mean who needs old village ladies in the rice fields with their titties hanging out – been there, done that. “B – O – R – I – N – G.”
IT WAS A WAKE UP CALL! For the umpteenth time I promised myself never to cross into shallow expatria again.
But the very next day I found myself turning into the car park near La Luciola with some Indonesian friends. We were on our way to the gay beach to swim between the flags.
Now, I had not been to this quartier since the early 1980s, when the thick belt of pandanus that bordered the beach was alive with squadrons of Balinese voyeurs and the beach at sunset a veritable Who’s Who of the Balinese fashion, jewellery, disco and free range massage worlds. It was on this beach that I once saw a line of 47 Balinese watching, from pandanus perches, a German honeymoon couple having an al fresco matinée.
These days the beach is empty. The magnificent pandanus grove has been replaced by sets of Zen black concrete stairs spaced at 5 metre intervals. A hotel lifeguard tried to move us on. We were upsetting the Zen wave patterns in the newly swept sand.
“What have you done to all the frolicking homos?” I demand, “Swept them away?”
On the way home I spy a huge billboard in the last sliver of rice-field before the venerable Bali Oberoi. It is very bold and ultra modern and hides a grazing cow. ‘C-151’ it says.
Is this ‘Brave New Bali??’
Once upon a time, developers would have been very ginger about filling in agricultural land.
The next day, keen for some wholesome Bali, I am invited to a royal Balinese wedding in the pretty village of Bongkasa near Sangeh monkey forest. The son of Stranger regular, the gorgeous princess Roosye of Roosye modelling fame, is to marry Rucina Ballinger’s niece. Rucina has just published a magnificent book – with my old dance academy colleague, Wayan Dibia – on dance and drama in Bali. Congratulations.
Now read on:

17 th December 2004: to Puri Banyuning, Bongkasa, the nice palace, for a royal wedding attended by the glitterati of Sanur (those Swela sisters) and representatives from most of Bali’s noble houses
In the 1970s and 1980s I knew the present prince of Bongkasa as ‘Gung Wa’, the polite eldest son of my sponsor and great friend, I Gusti Agung Gede Oka (now deceased), founder of the Chicago Club (Bali’s breakaway Karaoke co-operative) and lord of Bongkasa village.
‘ Gung Wa’ worked for the Governor’s office and ran, with his beautiful wife, Roosye, a princess from Klungkung, the biggest art shop in the Hotel Bali Beach arcade. Roosye, on her own, ran a successful modelling and etiquette school.
Today their eldest son is to marry a princess from Kapal.

There is a lovely relaxed feeling inside the packed royal court. The offerings in the royal chapel have been beautifully and originally fashioned by the village community – Gung Wa is obviously as popular with his subjects as was his father. There are no film crews clambering for position, nor Jakarta VIPs looking hot and flustered in the royal pavilion, just top-drawer royals looking cool and collected and proud for their friends on this big day. Three dance troupes and four gamelans perform in the various palace courts. Everyone is dressed amazingly: the Stranger is happy to record that psychedelic colours for ladies are back for the palace fashion-conscious in Bali, as they are, co-incidentally, in India.
Lunch is served in pavilions in the pleasure garden: delicious Balinese delicacies for which this palace is famous. The garden’s caretaker, the indomitable Ibu Swela, the Chantal Miller of Denpasar high society (see photo left), has done a fabulous job with upgrading the gardens. Today she sits nursing her trademark cigarette, admiring her garden; it is full to the brim with gorgeous butterflies.

26 th December, 2004: the biggest natural disaster in recorded history hits North Sumatra

I am in Sydney for Christmas. Six of my Balinese commando gardeners are on Rebak island, off Langkawi, when the Tsunami hits. Mercifully, they escape injury. Publisher Hans ‘Guide to Bali’ Hoefer’s home in Sri Lanka is wiped out. The images of the devastation in Aceh are sickening. Messages of concern pour in from all over the world; mostly from Americans, who are surprised to find out that Bali is 3000 kilometres east of Aceh.

• • •

Ten Days Later: Back in Bali
The response from the Bali community has been amazing. Many of the funding and care agencies which started after the Bali bomb have sprung back into action. Ubud’s Agung Ari (Odek) of Ary’s Warung has chartered a boat out of Padang, West Sumatra, to personally deliver Ubud’s donations of food, medicine and clothing to the outer islands off Aceh. Ruth Hill, wife of Singapore architect Kerry Hill (of Amanusa and Alila Manggis fame), is co-ordinating a medical drop for the Galle area in Sri Lanka through Aman Hotels teams on the ground there. Flamboyant Ubud-based motivational speaker Chris Gentry is flying to North Sumatra to run courses.
“Poor Aceh,” commented one observer, “first the Tsunami, now Chris Gentry.”
I am off to the Maldives and Kerala next week to repair damage to the Taj gardens and properties there. Everyone has been affected, and the whole world is pitching in to help the victims.

The Stranger joins the rest of Hello Bali in offering
condolences to the victims’ families

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