Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW Bali Magazine, June 2009)

Boy-priest at Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple

Bali’s Boy-Priests

First it was boy-bands—Denpasar’s new 30-odd, pre-teen gamelan orchestras—now it’s boy-priests at major temple festivals. It’s as if the Balinese are showing the world that they can do it younger than anyone else. And they can!

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Last month, the month of the mighty tenth full moon, and the occasion for the once-in-a-decade Panca Wali Krama universe-appeasement ceremony at the Mother Temple Pura Besakih, all of Bali trekked up the slopes of Mt. Agung, to pay homage to the gods. It was a magnificent showing, and the ceremonies were immaculately well-managed.

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Last month also saw a changing of the guard at the immigration office at Ngurah Rai Airport. That old threadbare vinyl sofa (a Dr. Mengele model from the early 1970s)—the one that always stood there, just so, in the doorway, in a sea of Gudang Garam butts—has been re-upholstered.
And the money changers are now hanging breasts out of their counter windows, not just arms. 
Now read on:

7th April 2009: To Pura Luhur Uluwatu for the arrival of the god, Bhatara Luhur, from its safehaven in the Pura Desa Pecatu
Pecatu village used to be a one pig town—blink and you miss it, sort of thing—now it’s the Las Vegas of the arid bukit peninsula, thanks to all the dream-home builders and projects, such as Bulgari Bali and the nearby Alila.
The Alila is by architects-of-the moment WOHA, of Singapore, and will be the last word in the microwave oven look we’ve all grown to admire on the bukit.
WOHA’s airport hotel in Singapore is FABULOUS; and it looks like the Alila Uluwatu will be a fitting encore!
In the past when gung ho young turk architects get to Bali their sphincters seem to seize—and they studiously avoid anything Balinese or even tropical. As a result their works of architecture—the work of these fascistionistas I mean—usually has to be post-fitted by general managers so it doesn’t leak.
I hope I’m wrong on this one!
More next month.
Anyway, as I was saying, Pecatu now boasts Indonesia’s most successful L.S.M. village lending bank, inside the world’s largest chunk of wedding cake architecture. And this was a village of peanut farmers and surfies just 30 years ago!
As I approach the village, black Hindu vigilantes (pecalang)—posturing like roadside robo-cops—wave cattle prods threateningly at my convoy of Hindu goodie-goodies dressed in white!

Pecatu boasts Bali’s butchest pecalang, and they perform a necessary service: the Bukit superbulé (your average villa-builder) needs to be restrained on his/her way to Pilates/Paul Ropp’s/Pedicure, or he/she might plough into a crowd of celebrants, so narrow is the superbulé focus!
Arriving at Uluwatu Temple in the morning light is like stepping into a dreamscape of loveliness: in the carpark the roast pork smells are divine; even the monkeys seem at ease.
Once inside the temple I see my old friends from Puri Agung Jero Kuta Palace, the temple’s custodians, and a whole batch of angelic boy-priests, dispensing the holy water like old hands.
It is always heart-warming to witness the enthusiasm and love the Balinese youth have for their own culture. And why not: the culture encourages teenagers to dress-up in hip-hugging fashion every day, press the flesh with flower bedecked ladies, jam with boy-bands, and eat roast pork on the hour……all while gazing at the Indian Ocean framed by temple pagodas from a dramatic prominontary!

The crowd of pilgrims watch the Legong dance performance outside the closed main gates of the Pura Besakih Temple, waiting for their turn to pray.

14th April 2009: To Pura Besakih, with another two bus-loads of office staff/pilgrims
Arriving at Besakih today is like arriving at Harrods’ for the post-Xmas sale! The place is packed! And everyone is dressed to the nines. The denim jackets over white temple gear—worn matador-jacket style by the mountain boys—are beyond shabby chic; the new opalescent no-brocade, chemise stitched onto the long-waisted palace beauties are to die for; even the bike-boys look more stylish and groomed than ever before.
These days the pre-teens wear big, full-throttle head scarves and shorty sarongs; beige is the new white; and Rembang sashes—with their distinct East Javanese North Coast Batik pattern—are de rigeur.
Inside the temple, things are very ordered and organised, to cope with the hordes. Holy water is dispensed from the back of the courtyard, for example, to stop a stampede.
The boy-bands playing today are surrounded by Rejang Dewa dancers from Ubud, home of simmering-shimmering.
Oh the joy and bliss and beauty of Balinese temple festivals.

Faces at Besakih

The big head-scarf look popular with pre-teens

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The scene at prayer time inside Pura Besakih

Today two Javanese Muslims from my office are praying here too, to thank the Balinese gods for their (the Muslims) successful trip to Mecca last month. The Balinese gods are sooooo magnanimous. And they fully deserve all the attention lavished on them, big-time, every ten years at Pura Besakih.

20th April 2009: Running the Gauntlets at Ngurah Rai Airport Hall
In the old days—before the bombs and the krismons and the scourge of the super-bulés and carpet-buggers—it was considered bad form to use the constabulary’s V.I.P. escort service at the airport; and only Amcham President Harvey Goldstein used the Rent-a-Motorcade!
Now every avaricious arriviste is onto the scam: today the arrival hall is full of plain-clothes cops greeting shady customers! Ha!
Then there is the immigration hall.
Those wonderful officers have, over the years, made an art form of providing just enough desk officers to ensure that the lines just scrape the back of the arrival hall. Indonesians stand politely in queue while brash well-‘connected’ bulés (honkies) glide through the express lane utilizing the secret service.
Inside immigration, one can’t find a porter for love or money:  Australian tourists never tip them, I hear, so they now spend all day in the Rasta Shack-like smoking room, avoiding trolleys.
Only the aforementioned, well-stacked money-changers are on the ball: plying their ‘best rates’ like sirens at the cliffs of Knossos!!
Outside one is deposited into a sea of Harem pant-clad tourist guides. None are wearing underpants ((the Balinese eschew V.P.L. (Visible Panty Lines. Ed.)) and there is nowhere to park.

30th April 2009: To Sir Warwick Purser’s spectacular new villa in Ubud for a fund-raiser for the 2009 Ubud Writes and Readers Festival
I have seen all of socialite-sociopath Warwick Purser’s beautiful Bali homes since 1973: the Campuan petit palais which inspired a generation of up-land dream homes; the Batujimbar, Sanur beach villa (by famed architect Geoffrey Bawa) where I started my career as a garden designer; and lately the contemporary but cozy Penestanan villa near his new hotel, The D’OMAH, stocked with wall art by Balinese artist-of-the-moment Putu Sutawijaya.

The new Alila Villas, Uluwatu, by WOHA (Courtesy of Alila Villas Uluwatu)

Tonight all bookish Bali is out in force: ‘Painted Alphabet’ author and Ubud-resident Diana Darling; Jamie James, the region’s best travel writer and novelist; Jean Couteau and Wayan Juniartha, Ubud’s most prolific writers on Balinese issues, and Janet de Neffe, festival  director and popular culinary columnist.
Also present are filmmaker-anthropologist Dr. Lawrence Blair, the John Hardy Jewellery Rep. Polly Purser, Warwick’s glamorous daughter, and Australian Consul Lex Bartlem.
It is a glamorous night under the stars knocking back the Manhattans and fighting with the huge bird’s nest ferns Warwick has attached to the pavilion columns. The line-up of writers for this tears festival looks exciting and Janet looked great in a Highland tartan baby doll dress, working the crowd for patrons.
Open your wallets, big boys, this is one festival worth forking out for!!

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