Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, May 2005)


I think the Balinese are finally fed up with our boorish ways and our attempts to restyle their precious land as an Asian Ibiza.
I believe it was an ad. campaign by a luxury realty company which finally tipped the scales – from benign acquiescence to militancy.
In the ads. an expat sits in the middle of an empty white room. The caption says: “I thought I was renting a fully furnished villa…..but I ended up with an empty house.”
Another one says: “I thought I had a 30 year lease on a piece of land ……..until I discovered a road runs through it.”
Message: the cagey Balinese have done it again.
“Go rent something in your own country then,” a Balinese friend of mine reacted when shown these ads.
I mean it is basically unfair: the Balinese have remained hospitable and gracious hosts despite our – the expat community’s – increasingly more selfish, hedonistic and louche behaviour. Admittedly, the bright young Balinese like a good night out too, and a bit of commerce, and the odd leg over down under; but they don’t get disillusioned with their love-as-long-as-your-visa-lasts-fling-that-goes-sour in Perth, for example, and take out ads that say:
“I thought I’d married a spirited hornbag…… but ended up in the godless suburbs” or, “I thought Mister was my rich Rambo ……. until I met his wife and five kids.”
Basically the Balinese don’t blame and rarely complain, but are they now questioning a life style that is fast moving towards a western model? Is rallying around the concept of ‘Ajeg Bali’ – Stand for Bali, the Balinese community’s new buzz word – really just a call to reappraise and re-assert traditional values?
A smidgeon of Hindu militancy would go a long way in a people famed for their passivity, I would have thought.
“Passive until the title deeds come out,” I can hear some readers snicker. Ha!
Well that may be the case – there is a snaky side to every paradise – but the Balinese, as supreme hosts, don’t need us telling them how to be better people through luxury real estate ads!
The Balinese have long found comfort in fundamentalism – the ‘mula keto’ philosophy is inherent in the Balinese brand of ‘bhakti yoga’ – but detest extremism. I believe the Ajeg Bali movement is mostly community leaders re-assessing what’s truly important in their lives – their gods and their rituals – without being judgemental.
The Hindu vigilantes’ costumes may go overboard for a while, and ‘the collective’ may storm the odd Dunkin Donut shop but in the end the incense will still be burning. And the tourists will still be getting their hair beaded on Kuta Beach. And the superbulés will still have their dream villas, pliant maids and other essential Bali-Modern accoutrements.
Let us pray!

• • •

Shortly after writing this I travelled to my South Sanur Hindu think-tank – the ball boys and hitting partners of the heavenly Sanur Beach Hotel – for some consensus-taking.
Ajeg Bali is over,” says Made (19) from Abian Semal, “only the priest (Pedanda Made Karang) talks about it on television.”
The lads all speak good English so I read them the above piece. Approval is unanimous. They particularly like the bit about the “legover downunder”.
“Variety is important,” they remind me, “like in tennis.”

• • •

A month ago when I was championing the cause of ‘Ajeg Bali’ the ball boys had said, “Oh I suppose that means we have to remain in the dark ages, planting root vegetables.”
My chum Putu Suarsa of the Sidakarya Scrabble Collective said that he prefers ‘Bali Luwih’ (‘High’ or ‘Refined’ Bali) as for him ‘Ajeg Bali’ sounds too bullish.
Basically the Balinese’ limited attention span for political slogans and their dynamic mood swings needs to be factored into any equation regarding Balinese adat versus the rest of the world.

• • •

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I headed out into Hindu Bali’s holiest month – festival, festival, festival – to judge the sea change, the road map, the moving on, the closure and the fashion trends in the ultimate culture of the living. Amen!
Now read on:

24th March 2005 : the Tenth Full Moon; a trip to Pura Ulun Danu, Kintamani
The big bash temple festival at Pura Ulun Danu (Pura Batur) is the best in the Balinese year; there is always a full military tattoo of Baris Gede dancers, dozens of totally amazing giant sarat offerings and towering penjor poles – all amidst the splendour of the pagoda-packed courtyards astride the caldera rim of Mount Batur, Bali’s second highest active volcano.
I am with a French film crew shooting “Immanuel at the Cockfight – thirty years of the Stranger in Paradise”, so am dressed to kill – grey blazer, Harjonegoro coronation purple batik, mustard Marrakech velour apron, vintage (Suci, 1974) Swastika (Hindu-Bali) brooch, crimplene turban, Black Solo slippers – but have misjudged this year’s fashion story. It’s orange and black, with Rita Hayworth hair, fob watches and chunky sandals.
And there’s an Italian pecalang or Hindu temple vigilante dressed de rigeur.
There is no talk of Ajeg Bali among the ten thousand pilgrims because Pura Batur is just so brazenly Balinese – with all ceremonial cylinders firing – it would be redundant. We are all gob-smacked by the beauty!
I interview a few pecalangs, who are guarding the inner sanctum from real estate brokers, and am relieved to hear their clear confident message of a better Batur for the beatified. It is certainly a bigger, more beautiful temple festival than ever before – ten days, hundreds of gamelan orchestras, thousands of ceremonies – and the film crew is ecstatic.
(For more on the Baris Gede dances performed at Pura Batur every tenth full month read ‘Military Tattoo at Pura Batur, Stranger in Paradise, June 2004’).

• • •

Today’s shoot had started in Sanur: the shrine at our office also has its ‘birthday’ on the day of the tenth full moon. I had asked our hard-working offering brigade to put on a bit of a special show this year, and to invite Lanying, the famed Telek dancer, to come with the Sidakarya gamelan.
I had asked all the office staff to dress ‘Ajeg Bali’ for the film crew. I wore a domino print Fijian shirt – which is like a Hell’s Kitchen version of an Hawaiian shirt – and a giant canary yellow floral print (William Morris in Jaipur-esque) towel tied high (empire line) – over a white and blue Pekalongan batik ……. for maximum visibility. The effect was cheap, and effective.
The officiating pedanda priest, from Intaran, Sanur, was certainly impressed; variations on white and yellow are very much the Brahmana’s area.
During prayers, my landlord’s uncle, the district chief, flew into trance. Now, one doesn’t necessarily expect this at the office party but fortunately my lease wasn’t revoked. It was divined, however, through the local deity who had inhabited my landlord’s uncle, that spending small fortunes on offerings and ritual – a rsi gana demon-placating rite – was appropriate and timely.
I was greatly relieved.

27 th March 2005 : to the Fantastic Trance Spectacle at Pengerebongan Temple on the outskirts of Denpasar
I have not been back to this extraordinary and unique theatrical event for fifteen years so am wary that I will find the beautiful red-brick architecture gone and the Majapahit-era costumes replaced with synthetics. But no! Everything is as before.
The trance dancers’ costumes have even affected, as cummerbunds, Gujarati (Indian) patola-like cloth from Ende in Flores. The jackets of the Poleng Kesiman), the honour guard of trancees, are as grand as any pedanda high priests ketu crown in the intricacy of the gold and velvet ornamentation (see photo right).
I chat in the Dalem inner court with my old buddy Ida Bagus Dharma, of Kesiman and Perth, former union boss of the airport porters (1972 – 82) and a local wag, and with one of the Kesiman palace princes. I am reminded of the gentle refinement of the people of this most traditional Denpasar suburb.
The ranks of trance dancers have actually swelled since last time I watched the spectacle: many of my chums from my days teaching English at the Dance Academy are among them.
Over four hours we witness act after act of heart-stoppingly beautiful ritual – spirited Barong dances, processions of trancees (see photos right), and the re-enactment of the famous 18 th century battle when the Poleng Kesiman fought on with their intestines spilling out. All set to music.
At the end we are emotionally drained. It’s been a fabulous re-affirmation of Real Bali!

P.S. Readers who want a fuller description of the fantastic theatre of Pengerebongan are referred to ‘The Complete Stranger in Paradise 1979 – 81’ available at select bookshops on the island.

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