Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, May 2006)

Lady Pacalang lesbong, a new unit with Grace, at this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras


My straight readership (7) have complained that the Stranger is getting too “campy”, so this month I’m doing a special on fashion trends in Bali’s vigilante temple police, or pecalang community. It’s hard to find something fresh to write about these days – so relentless and repetitive are the ceremonial cycles in Bali , and so limited my reader’s interest in things Balinese – but last month Bali hit top gear with a series of Nyepi related- spectacles preceeding the day of silence itself.
Now read on…..

27 th March 2006 : the Morning of the World
I wake to the sound of temple chants and crashing gamelan music: a big temple procession is going down beach road, twenty metres from my pillow. Looking out the window I see the tips of the tall white, yellow and gold umbul-umbul banners skimming along, above my compound wall.
It is a perfect March morning – the sun has pumped up all the greens and blues, and the gorgeous Nyepi season has just started. For the next three days Bali will be criss-crossed by processions to the sea. Magnificent congregations of devotees in regal temple dress will gather on the beaches at dawn and dusk. And as if this were too much ambrosia, the crafty islanders have, every few hundred yards, set up posts of sinister sentries, in the form of giant Ogoh-Ogoh demon effigies. This year they are more imaginative and salacious than ever before – there are demon punk rockers, dope heads, horny dingbats – as if to defy the controversial Anti-pornografi and Pornoaksi bill being debated in Jakarta as I write (The Balinese are nothing if not porno-aktif!). There is also any number of demon kings from the Ramayana, alla Steven Speilberg.

• • •

After a hasty breakfast I climb into my by temple gear and head for Mertasari beach where almost the entire Sidakarya village is waiting in neat rows.
It is an orderly and immaculately stage-managed affair, not up-tight, like some of the Ubud area festivals where serfs are herded around by royals on megaphones. Sidakarya prides itself on its “ Bali luwih “ (refined and egalitarian) values.
I haven’t heard the nationalistic catch cry Ajeg Bali” (Come on, Bali , come on, come on) for months now but love of things classical is sure in the air: everyone is dressed to perfection today, in historically-referenced garb. Gone are the Baywatch pink satin boob-tubes (for ladies) and Harley Davidson parkas (for men): today’s Melis ceremonies are testimony to a classical revival sweeping the island (but don’t anyone tell the real estate barons: it may upset their menu of glass bricks and godless gardens).

• • •

In the afternoon I go to Sanur beach with a sweet young English model. She soon has the dashing Renon pecalang gnashing at the bit.
“Why are you staring at my daughter?” I snap at one. “Do you have impure intentions?”
“Just a bit,” comes the cheeky retort.
Sindu beach is a sea of celebrants. Every hundred metres or so a bamboo altar laden with arca statues and rangda boxes has been set up.
We stop first at the Renon section where the famous Ratu Tuan trance troupe from Semawang, South Sanur , is in sabre-rattling good form.
I use the super model as a human shield (the Ratu Tuan can be dangerous but would never strike a pretty redhead) to move in for a definitive snap. Her eyes are on sticks: she has just stepped off the plane and suddenly she’s front row at the hairiest trance dance on the island! One of the trancees – sabre stabbing the air and drooling ectoplasm – starts jabbering in neo-European jibberish (the Ratu Tuan trancees trademark. Ed).
Candles are blaring. Sabres are rattling, offerings are served on the sundeck at 6 p.m.

• • •

Next we move to the Intaran village section (Sanur is formally known as Sanur-Intaran; Intaran being the ancient Brahmanic stronghold inland from the present tourist strip ).
Everyone prays to Baruna, Lord of the Sea, and then quickly prepares to go (the Mona Mendez Mexican soap starts at six!)
As we stand with the priests in front of the towering Barong Landung puppets high on the long altar of glittering gods the village gamelan whips in front of us, along the shore line: it feels like standing on a subway platform, on the Ambrosia line, as two beauty trains rip by!
I spot Professor Urs Ramseyer in the crowd and we chat about the miracle of the Balinese culture’s sustainability. We are in the ‘jet stream’ of Sanur-Intaran’s procession home, marvelling at the spectacle as we chat. Five gamelan orchestras, ten thousand devotees, all in gold and white, and hosts of glittering gods head into the setting sun.
The beauty train has gone through and left us standing in awe at the station, the oxygen sucked out of us.

[More photos of Melasti]

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