Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, April 2008)

One of the princely priests who run the Pura Sakenan temple festival at Turtle Island

Earth Culture

Last month I travelled around Southeast Asia and the Middle East with a band of Balinese master-gardeners; trying to impose beauty on a suspicious populace. During my travels, I was horrified to record the speed at which the Bali Spa experience and Celebrity Culture is being spread thin across the globe. Would, in the year 3008 , I wondered, aliens from galaxies far, far away travel to Planet Earth, to observe our homogenous Earth Culture under Brangelina the 79th, and to have hot stones put on their navels while Javanese love-slaves bathed their feet?

I was having my feet bathed the other day at the wholesome Bonita’s Spa when I was ambushed by a pretty Punjabi developer; she had come to Bali to “build something and sell it on.” She had been to Chris Gentry’s house and she wanted to “buy me off Sayan Ridge” (I felt that she needed to get in touch with her real estate self; not me)...anyway, it just got worse and worse as my toe skin, my only good bit left, started to wrinkle.

Who are all these people trying to buy up Bali and sell it on? As Real Bali sinks into urban sprawl, expatriate dream homes look more and more like microwave ovens or North Korean crematoria.

And why are the clever English lads and lasses at The Yak (read Diana Darling’s new column ‘Cope with the Slope’ by the way) pretending that Bali is only “Asia’s fashionable playground” (“The Lighter and Darker Sides of Bali” indeed! Clever!). They talk about hedonism in Bali as if it’s the only option, to quote:

“...with the upcoming festive season in mind (Nyepi, the day of Silence, a time for complete abstinence and reflection. Ed.), please ensure you are as opportunistic as you can …"

• • •

Why do all the magazines, and advertisements and young people look and sound the same; from Denpasar to Dubai?

Weren’t we supposed to be thinking locally and acting globally?

Meanwhile the Balinese are behind high walls, beavering away at performing ancient ceremonies perfectly while the environment goes to the dogs! Balinese children are starting to suffer vitamin D deficiency because all the big billboards ― extolling the perfectness of paradise ― are filling up the sky!

I have never been pessimistic about the Balinese culture’s future ― the Island’s ability to absorb, adopt and adapt has always amazed me ― but this latest wave of carpet-baggers and their associated tricksters and tailors and magazine-makers is a tsunami of the tacky.

“Bali is becoming a culture of greed,” one surfy lamented when I found him, distraught, on the former Dreamland Surfers’ Beach: he was witnessing the destruction of all the charming bamboo huts on the beach (soon to be the site of a fabulous disco and karaoke palace and laser light show, I heard, which “one can see from Ku De Ta”).
In despair I fled to Turtle Island to savour a wholly Balinese atmosphere.

Offerings at one of the Pura Sakenan shrines

Friday, 1 st February 2008 : To Turtle Island with the Kepaon Village gods on Kuningan Eve
Walking to Turtle Island in a glorious procession with the gods and gamelan gets harder and harder every year. I’ve done it annually, since 1973, when I met my Balinese family, for the first time, under the pagoda to the god of Mt. Agung, and my knees aren’t what they used to be: Too much jumping on and off soap boxes my doctor tells me. The thick clouds of incense deburning plastic ― coming from the new municipal rubbish tip, which runs adjacent to the processional route ― make it hard to breathe. Another major distraction is the fact that the giant trunks of almost-petrified frangipani (the national tree of Expatria) have still not sprouted in the stepped planter boxes that line the immensely ugly Turtle Island bridge. But the Balinese don’t see any of this ― their only focus is on getting their gods and their babies and gamelan orchestras to the temple on time.

This year there are three Jakartan tourists filming the gods’ arrival with Handycams, which is a positive development; the other 370,000 are probably at Ku De Ta waiting for Kate Moss or Miss Universe or Branjelina to appear.

Years ago the local Serangan Islanders with their quaint accents made a killing ferrying us all across on boats and filling us with turtle satay. We were all horrible to the islanders because they spoke funny and couldn’t really row straight and often swapped pig meat for the more expensive (and delicious) turtle in their satay. The actual temple festival, the odalan, was run by the princes of Kepaon, and the Brahmans of Sanur.

Tonight, for the first time, the royal box is occupied by a local kidung choir ― admittedly it is a tad crude-sounding and heavily amplified (if you’ve got a treble dial why not use it!). Dashing Serangan village Hindu vigilantes police the periphery (Jakartans are prone to acts of profanity in a temple setting).

It is a beautiful, beautiful afternoon and the Balinese children have never been better decked out, in temple attire, in defiance, it seems, of the tacky, beaded, bottle-blonde displays one sees on the tourist street.
(Does a culture really get the mass tourism it deserves?)
Sakenan rules!

Fertility offerings in the family house temple

17 th January 2008 : To Puri Bongkasa Palace near Mengwi for a royal wedding
I have often written in this column about my old friends the Bongkasa Royal family who often stage splendid lunches and royal re-unions in their gorgeous garden palace.

Today is no exception: the Tampakgangsul girls are out in force, in burgundy bee-hives and Amy Winehouse maquillage; the governor of Bali’s wife and the Bupati Badung (Mayor of Denpasar) are there too, as are representatives from all of the princely families of Central and South Bali. I sit with my old buddies from my Dance Academy days (1978-1984), the Brahmans from Griya Bongkasa, and talk about trends in traditional culture.

The groom is carried into family house temple

A.A. Gde Ega Devara Krisna (the groom) and Ida Ayu Mahadewi (the bride)

Today’s officiating priest is from the Griya Bongkasa, brother of the late Pedanda Dalang whose other brother Ida Bagus Raka once danced the Baris for Coco Channel at the Elysée Palace in Paris.
I talk to the priest, briefly, in the palace ‘chapel’ (he has dyspepsia and is calling for a Coke and some cake). We talk of how the high priests are run off their petalled feet these days, dealing with the plethora of utama (grand scale) ceremonies of the faux aristocracy. We talk also of the new generation of young high priests who have to deal with the new generation of young high-rollers.
And then the bride’s family arrives and talk turns to poor Jennifer Aniston “crying her eyes out” because Angelina’s having twins. Suddenly, the groom is being carried through the family house temple’s gates, dressed in fine prada cloth and wearing a golden gelungan crown. His princess soon joins him in the ceremonial pavilion where they kneel in front of a truck-load of offerings; preening for the press corps.
Lunch is served.

I bolt for the famous fish satay, snail lawar and fried padi eels, the house specialty.
“Kate Moss looked very tired at Ku De Ta today,” I hear one princess remark, as she sucks her satay off its stick.


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