Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, October 2007)

From left to right: Dewa Ngurah Swastha, Commissioner General Made Mangku Pastika, Sutedja Neka & his two sons.

Festival Fever

What about all these newly created festivals! There is the Lubras of the Lens (The Women’s Refuge Film Festival), Dingbats and Dollops (Food Festival), Maestros of Mulch (Indonesian Painters Self Glorification Festival)… Where will it all stop? On an island with a populace struggling to keep up with over a million annual religious festivals, it seems cruel to introduce more!

On the other hand, the creative endeavour of the Balinese knows no bounds (neither does the marketing verve of tourism executives!).

• • •

“You can’t keep a good island down” said one tourism pundit recently, “Bali has returned to its ‘pre-bomb’ prosperity levels.”

Last month, peak high season, the roads were ‘chockers’ and bums were in beds: no amount of death by food festival; no number of tacky tourism magazines; not even a wine-drought or imminent threat of terrorism could keep the hordes away - and the Balinese were smiling from ear to ear.

The punters are back, thanks not to the urban planning and tourism management skills of successive governments, but to the inexorable charm of the Balinese who keep giving while the world keeps taking.

Tourists don’t seem to care anymore that one can’t see the sky for obscenely ugly billboards and that the ‘Balinese’ kneading one’s knots is probably from Banyuwangi (East Java) or that hotels are starting to look like microwave ovens. They also don’t seem to mind the best traffic jams and urban sprawls that any paradise island could offer! Bali still has that old magic and the Balinese remain the tropical tourism’s world’s best smoodgers; God bless them.

What is the secret of Bali’s enduring success?

For the mass tourist, the fun starts at the airport, in the Arrivals Hall.

“You want to buy a villa?” chorus shapely young starlets recently dragged off the Legong stage; fans replaced by colourful brochures flogging a slice of paradise.

Outside Arrivals, young he-men in Donna-Karan-designed ethnic daywear greet the newcomers, already starry-eyed after the singing immigration officials and the relaxed, Rocky-style machismo of the Island’s customs enforcers.

At the hotel, one’s hair can be beaded, poste haste, by the concierge if one wishes. Womenfolk can head to the beach for a ‘mani-pedi’ or a ‘surfing-lesson’ from a bronzed ‘father-for-rent’. The men-folk generally park their bags in the room and then head for the well-being centre; once there, they slam their faces into the love doughnut at the end of the massage table.

Balinese nightlife is no longer spooky and trance-inducing (“unnecessary,” my mother once said): today’s tourists twist the night away at any of the Island’s more-than-100 night spots after a cut-rate gourmet meal at a classy eatery. No worries!

The variety is endless.

Last month I discovered Bonita’s, a fabulous Indonesian restaurant on the Petitenget road, where women are thrown live across the dance floor as one nibbles on Bugis delicacies. In the closing days of August I enjoyed a Legong festival in Peliatan; a kite festival in Sanur; a temple festival in Petitenget (Lo and behold!) and a Harley Davidson festival in Kuta...all in the one evening!

Now read on:

A painting by I Made Suta, entitled ‘Tari Joged‘

22nd July 2007: Sanggingan, Ubud, for the 25th Anniversary of the Neka Museum

I love the way the Ubud art community comes together for cultural events. Balinese artists, expatriate writers and anthropologists alike – en masse, en queue, in drag – joined at the hip in fabulously festive settings to scare off the tourists.

(‘Men in Lurex skirts???’ You see written across botoxed brows in the smudged windows of tourist buses passing by, heading off to an elephant park or a mega mall.)

I have watched Sutedja Neka’s museum grow in size and stature over the last 25 years. His family expanded also, to include a second generation of art patrons and architects (the Komaneka hotel). I marvelled at the family’s energy and enterprise.

Today’s 25th anniversary exhibition, curated by the museum’s full-time director Garrett Kam, includes a room full of colourful and dynamic genre paintings. They remind us all of the complex charm of the Balinese and of the Balinese lifestyle.

They are idyllic, but so is life supposed to be on the ‘Isle de Romance’ otherwise known as ‘The Island of the Gods’ or, as Nehru called it, “The Morning of the World” (now styled “The Indonesian Resort Island of Bali” by the world media).

Indeed life in Ubud and its surrounds is idyllic: the languid lifestyle, lush hills and vales and the artistic populace have changed little in the past t 30 years.

Where others document change, the Neka Museum has concentrated on collecting images of traditional Bali; the real Bali is now submerged under a thick veneer of tourism and urban sprawl.

Congratulations Sutedja Neka and may the Museum’s next 25 years be every bit as productive.

27th July 2007: to Geria Tegeh, Mas, for the spiritual ‘housewarming’ of a friend’s new mini-palace
The Balinese are immaculate home builders. The principal duty in the life of a male Balinese is to leave a gaudy mini-palace or luxury villa for his son(s).

Occasionally this works out well.

Putu Suarsa, my erstwhile Scrabble guru, has, over the last 20 years, quietly created an immaculate museum of 19th century Balinese domestic architecture in his backyard, (while his very extended family huddle, happily, road-side, in the original courtyard cluster). One unmarried son makes giant kites in the museum’s garden and another has recently moved into the new complex’ grand brick and paras meten pavilion with his Led Zeppelin collection.

Gus Kik, Ubud heartthrob and owner (with his New York-born wife Karen) of a successful restaurant business (Terazo, Batan Waru, Cinta Grill) has today invited me to a ceremony at his mother’s ancestral village. I am not sure about the nature of the ceremony – his father’s Brahmana palace, the Geria Tampak Gangsul, is where ceremonies (weddings, funerals and the like) are usually held – until I arrive at the brand new Balinese, grandee style home he has just built in the field behind Mira Gallery in Mas. It is stunning and is obviously his new ‘branch palace’, an offshoot of his main family home in Denpasar. The architecture is grand but is set within a simple poetic garden of shapely frangipani trees created by his mother. The family are today holding a big ceremonial bash (Karya Ngenteg Linggih) in the new family house’s temple.

Faces at the Ngenteg Linggih ceremony, 27th July 2007
>> Click image to enlarge <<

A generation of gentlemen bodgies are there (bodgie is an Australian term of endearment for a larrikin or hooligan). Like the Neka Museum bash, today’s event is something of a reunion of the culture-conscious. The music by the spirited local gamelan band is magnificent, as are the sacred wali dances – a Baris Gede and Rejang Dewa – held in the palace’s main garden court. The palace is packed with beautiful people; all Balinese.

Geria Tampak Gangsul beauties – the Swela sisters and Tuti Kompiang, for example, all in the new burgundy ‘Alien’ coifs – line the pavilions edges.

Ubud high priests sit like kings in the high pavilion.

Everyone is extra high this morning on the ambrosia of the gods… We are all intoxicated by Balinese beauty.

18th July 2007: to Denpasar, for a tooth-filing ceremony for Asmara Francesco Confessa and Tresna Suputra Angela Confessa, the teenage children of a joyous Balinese-Italian union
In the late 1970s, while working at the Dance Academy in Denpasar, I would often bump into a skinny Italian mask-dancer. He was studying Balinese topeng, after a fashion; his own performance based ‘comedia della arte’ was already equally sophisticated. He was full of beans. His name was Giuseppe (Pino) Confessa.

In the 1980s, he performed with Balinese troupes at weddings and became a ‘name’ on the topeng circuit. In 1983, he married a Balinese beauty, Ni Made Darmini, and, shortly after, in the Italian and Balinese tradition, had two children.

In 1995, Pino became honorary consul for Italy and has not missed a social gathering since!

Today is the coming of age party for his two children –now lanky teenagers– and two of their cousins, also from Bali-Italia stock. All Bali is here –if for no other reason than to partake of this once-in-a-century offering of a meal at Pino’s!! The modest Denpasar home is decked out like a palace.

Tears are in the eyes of many old timers as the young stars file up to the ceremonial pavilion for their coming of age tooth-filing.


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