Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, September 2005)


There has been a small revolution in the streets of ‘Deep South Sanur’. A team of weapons-grade trench-diggers have, with surgical precision, ripped up half of Jalans Pengembak and Mertasari. Teams of twenty men move in on stretches of road and, in 36 hours, complete the equivalent of triple by-pass road surgery, three metres down, under layers of asphalt, compacted soil and sand. All of us expatriate residents – uptight, compound-bound suburbanites to the man – have been forced out onto the streets, where previously we had only passed each other in blacked out S.U.V., like ships in the night.
It’s like London during the Blitz, when fellowship and bonding were at an all-time high. I chatted to neighbours I hadn’t seen since the last force-seven earthquake in 1976.
The trench-diggers themselves are a happy group: when approached, they scream “Nyimeng!!!”, which means “Go forth and buy me cigarettes, Sprite and sweetmeats” in low Javanese, and “Goleki kontol, Kowek”, which I am having translated as we go to press. Belanjong, our village, is one of the oldest in South Bali. No-one was surprised when the teams started to dig up skeletons and ancient artefacts, which prompted the emergence of Deidre of Zen Real Estate, with her prayer wheels, rattles and magic potions (visit strangerinparadise.com for video clips) to placate the netherworld.
On one excursion out, to check on trench-findings, I met the Dutch alternatives from the new gnome-home – called Palais du Silence – on temple corner: I have admired their quaint landscape designs and joie de vivre in home making for some time. “Our smelly coastline has been renamed ‘ Mangrove Beach’,” they explained. (Is it an attempt to attract the slightly portly, slightly stupid to our previously tourist-free shores, I wondered.)
Early in August, on my way back from a post-tennis trench shoot – results can be viewed at my ‘TUKANG’ exhibition at the Richard Meyer Culture gallery, in Petitenget, 27 th October - 14 th December 2005 – I am dragged into a friend’s house to see a Bugis chieftain’s sword that had been dug up the day before (see sketch below). Walking home later, past sand dunes and merry chain gangs, I bumped into our friendly local priest and cornered him about all these findings and about a possible link to the ancient ziggurat that an Italian friend demolished in our neighbourhood ten years ago.
“Ah forget about that,” he said, “the big story is the one about the four Denpasar-Chinese developers who refused to respect an even more ancient coral temple on the vacant hotel plot in front of my house. As a direct result of this cultural faux-pas,” the Mangku assured me, “this land has been in dispute and undeveloped for a record 28 years.” (See ‘Ocean Views are Over-rated’, Stranger in Paradise, September 2004). The spirit of the land liked cock fighting. “A holy relic, shaped like a cock-fighting rooster’s box,” he then explained, “was found when the developers bulldozed that temple.”
One day a superbulé turned his black Lancer out of “Developers Gulch”, the seedier end of Pengembak, and tried to run the trench digger’s blockade (“My way or the Highway” is the superbulés’ cry, readers will recall). He was turned back by a human shield of Bulé Aga protectors – Uluwatu Lace Michael; Eye Hospital John, Fuel Bar Karen, Times Editions Leonard and a posse of honorary consuls – before he had time to vandalize the perfect margins of these maestros of the shovel and pick.
One day I threw Made Lati, my long-suffering maid, into the trench, fully unclothed, with a big velvet ribbon around her neck. It read ‘Free Schapelle Corby’. She was weighed down with 25 packets of Arnotts Assorted Creams, a case of Sprite and a Soto vendor.
Oh, what fun it’s been.
Now read on:

Ni Komang Ayu Setyawati prays at her family house shrine for the last time before her marriage to Ida Bagus Made Suta Bayu of Geria Sunataya, Penebel, Tabanan

26 th July 2006: My Balinese niece has been kidnapped by aliens!
Avid readers of this column will have followed, over the last 26 years, the goings on in my adopted family home, the Griya Bungsu, in Kepaon, South of Denpasar. Some may even recall that our titular family head, Ida Bagus Oka, a staunch Brahmana – for the last 35 years, non-tenured night security at the Electricity station – has two lovely daughters and a son. In 2002, one of the daughters wed a dashing ksatrya nobleman from Kapal; the wedding was recorded in these very pages, as was the 3 months ceremony of their first born daughter some 15 months later. Ida Bagus Oka’s other daughter, Ida Ayu Oka Antari – always a shy girl – has, over the 21 years I have known her, spent most of her time sitting quietly in her bare family cottage. She was, of late, prone to fits of sullenness.
I heard last month that she has been lured into the Catholic Church by some Denpasar acquaintances. This has raised eyebrows in the village.
Now, the Balinese don’t have a problem with any religion but it is always a shock when a Brahmana lass leaves the rarefied confines of a pleasant purdah – an offering and holy water-filled existence in a priestly Hindu house – for a foreign faith and an urban western lifestyle.
Last week I got an urgent SMS saying “Dayu is to be married on the 25 th July” (in one week’s time)!! As I was abroad I could only go to the reception at the swish Nikki hotel in North Denpasar.
Now read on:

• • •

Tonight I see Dayu for the first time in her incarnation as Gabriella Beatrix. She is wearing a beautiful, tight, ivory satin wedding dress with a bulging balcony extension. Her hair, usually pulled back and fixed with frangipani flowers, is tonight piled high in a Princess Grace chignon. She is radiating happiness. Her husband Richard Rowel is dashing and urbane in a loose-fitting tuxedo. They are working the crowd – a banquet hall of thirty-odd tables – like the Reagans at an inaugural hall.
“Who is this person? Surely not the shy Dayu I once knew?” I keep thinking.
I sit at one of the two tables reserved for the bride’s family, who are already shovelling down huge amounts of lemon chicken. Dayu’s father has not come (He did not go to yesterday’s wedding either). I sit with Dayu’s mother – hair bouffant, eyes wild – and discuss relations with the Rowels (I make a mental note to buy them all some going-out clothes too). Jabbing in the direction of the groom’s family, Dayu’s mother explains that the Rowels, fourteen of them, had wanted to come to our house last week, but were refused by Dayu’s father. The families have yet to meet, even informally. “It is normal, in Bali, for a Brahmana father to refuse a marriage settlement outside the caste,” I tried to explain to some Surabayans at our table, but they just looked at me with looks of horror, tinged with sadness.
In Bali there are three sorts of marriage: ngerorod (kidnapping of the bride; by far the most popular, and cheapest) where the bride’s family are not officially notified; makerab kambe, where only the immediate families meet at the time of engagement and the formal mapinang, where the extended families of both sides engage in weeks of meetings, ceremonies and feasts. It is very possible that the Rowels are not aware of the intricacies of Balinese caste and adat protocol and must, tonight, feel a bit bewildered – particularly, at the stampede of Kepaon relatives with feed bags attached.
A songstress glides up the aisle crooning love songs as we tuck into mango pudding. Gabriella Beatrix is centre stage: She throws her bouquet like Doris Day in ‘Pillow Talk’ and then it’s photo-op time on the dais. I have to intervene to get us a slot but eventually Dayu and her very full, very extended family are captured, for posterity.
Peace reigns on tinsel town once again.

Selamat menempuh hidup baru, Gabriella Beatrix and Richard!!

28 th July 2006: At last a gathering at the Griya in Kepaon between the two families!
I arrive at my village home at noon, expecting to find lunch on the table (the big pow-wow was called for 11 am), but find instead a listless courtyard with babies’ nappies drying outside the front gate. Everyone is in Balinese dress of sorts; I am the only one in Batik shirt and trousers, as more befits the occasion. The bride’s father, Ida Bagus Oka, is finally on deck and looking ready for business; fighting cocks in hand. The husband’s family arrive and we sit cross-legged, after a fashion, in the fancy north pavilion. It turns out that young Richard was born in the Kai islands, near Papua, and moved to Makasar as a young child, then to Denpasar for his secondary schooling. Now he works for the Siemens company, which is sending him to Munich tomorrow for ten day’s training.
Extraordinary!
Soon we are all eating great chunks of pork meat as I try to deliver a quick verbal guide to Lower Batavia.
No-one is interested.

Sayan village, 31 st August 2005: dusk in the lovely Pura Dalem, Sayan, packed for a ngerit ceremony
The Balinese often confine the souls of their loved ones ‘to the flames’, as it were. This course of action, called ‘makingsan digeni’, is chosen when someone dies during a period in which it is inauspicious for cremations to be held or, more frequently, in villages which have regular mass communal cremations. Close to the day of the cremation, the soul is requested ‘back’ from the flames in a ceremony called ngewangun, literally ‘waking up’, similar, in concept only, to the matangiang ceremonies to ‘wake up’ (energize) a Barong which has been in hibernation for decades.
Today was the ngewangun of Ketut Suasta, the son of my old builder chum Pak Dapat, who built many ridge-side retreats in Sayan, and also of Men Tinglih who was once cook for the legendary artist Walter Spies who died, tragically, off Nias Island, in 1945 (No doubt about ngerit for stirring up old memories!!) I missed the ngewangun earlier today but am here for the family pray-ins before tomorrow’s big ngerit cremation. Everyone I have ever known in Sayan is here, gathered in neat clan groupings in front of the grandstand for the ancestor spirit effigies that runs the full length of the temple forecourt.
Hanging off the eve of the grandstand I spot full temple outfits belonging to both Ketut Suasta and Men Tinglih. It is an eerie sight; carnival-like in a way. One only finds this ritual in these more Bali-mountain communities.
The high priest has now started ringing his bell. I bump into waves of old friends, arriving, on the bell, as I try to quietly slip out the side gate. The longer I live in Bali the more I realize that unconditional commitment to one’s adat community and a powerful sense of family are the true pillars of Balinese culture.
My admiration and my respect just grow and grow.


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