Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, August 2009)

Bali Trailblazer rider, Wayan Widia Sentana.



Pan-Pacific letch Leonard Lueras recently asked me to write the foreword for his coming book on Mertasari (the southern tip of Sanur before it turns into mangrove swamp).
I called the piece “A New Place for Old People,” as it seems to have been adopted by the ‘grey nomads’, that burgeoning group of bike-loving veterans.
As part of my research I went to Mertasari Beach early one morning last month—ostensibly  to photograph the Bali Trailblazer’s Mountain Bike Holiday Team for the Bali Triathlon, held at the  Four Seasons Jimbaran, on 29th June—and discovered a whole new scene down there by the temple and on Lover’s beach!.
I found my old friend Ida Bagus Blanjur—who built most of Batujimbar Villas (Sanur’s most exclusive community. Ed.)—having a morning gado-gado under the shade of a Beach Heliotrope. Next to him, on the long beach-side bench, were two parties of lovers puffing away furiously on clove cigarettes.
The beach was comfortably full of friendly families—children soaking, fully dressed, in the tepid morning tide.
A very fat bronzed man, shirtless, was tending his fighting cocks.
Even the ticket-collector at the car park danced as he blew his whistle.
This is what happens when there is a slump in tourism and the Balinese re-take their territory: loveliness blossoms in coastal car parks.

•     •     •

On a sadder note, last month saw the passing of the much-loved village elder of the Bugis community on Turtle Island, near Sanur. The Bugis Muslims and the Balinese Hindus have co-existed on the eastern tip of Turtle Island for hundreds of years; and as a show of solidarity, Denpasar ‘Raja’, Tjokorda Pamecutan XII showed up with his wife, both in glamorous Muslim burial mufti.
The Royal House of Pemecutan and the various old Muslim communities of South Bali go back a long way, in many cases through intermarriage.

Claire and her gang

Sunday, 27th June 2009: The Four Seasons Jimbaran for the Bali Triathlon
Lovely English lass Claire Price has been training the Bali team (See photo above) for the relay event (there’s an Ozzie ring-in in the swimming section) and also five long-distance runners from Timor and Timor Leste (the Ethiopia of South-East Asia, runners-wise, it seems).  The Triathlon group are today assembled in the Four Seasons car park—a riot of spandex and iron people. One can hear the testosterone bubbling and cracking in their veins.
Clare’s teams do really well: they come in overall second, amongst Indonesian teams; their star runners come in first second and third in the 5K fun race (200 competitors) with their star runner Penny (15), from Denpasar, coming in first for ladies!
Congratulations and bless the Four Seasons Jimbaran for putting up year in year out with all these ‘jocks’.

•     •     •

Bali is a great destination for sports tourism because the Balinese love sportswear and are themselves lithe and athletic in everything they do.

5th July, 2009: Same Sex Affection
People often ask me, “Are all Balinese men bi-sexual,” because they see so many men holding hands and curled up together on siesta platforms.
I always answer that same sex affection is natural, indeed prevalent, in a wholesome society where there are no taboos against fraternal love, and where demonstrations of affection are never repudiated.
A truck driver from West Bali once wrapped his legs around my face and I didn’t move, so Balinese have I become.
Is this why gays love Bali, one might ask?
Certainly the number of web postings on gay chat-sites of the “In Bali for Sex” variety is on the increase my friend John Darling told me (He is doing research for Gay Unesco).
Darling also made the incredible discovery that all the ‘Gay Bali Villas’ posted for rent on the gay website are not only identical but also inseparable in style and design (Muscle Mary Minimalist, with pretty-litter abundant) to their straight confreres.
“Our architect was a homo,” Baroness Van Houten told me recently at her Lovina dream home, “so everything in the house is black and white.”

7th July 2009: Mertasari Redux
My house guest Jan Sharp has jut come back from a morning swim at Mertasari Beach and is ecstatic.
“‘Old men, fully clothed, are meditating, in the water: in the lotus position, their serene faces popping out of the water like daisies,” she enthuses.

Mertasari morning scene

Indeed it’s full moon today and Mertasari like many beaches in Bali, has a reputation from its healing properties. The nearby Pura Pengembak is a favourite Siwa-ite ‘haunt’: recently bus-loads of pedanda high priests gathered there for a spiritual pow-wow, but it rained. (The open pavilions of Balinese architecture are not ideal for general assemblies in the wet season).
I had rather hoped that the only Hindu Bali See, in its infinite wisdom, would vote to halt the stampede of McMansions filling in the hills and vales of Canggu; or ban all billboards; or limit the use of that horrible black andesite stone smothering all the South Bali’s amazingly picturesque red-brick temples. These are all ‘worldly’ wishes, but one does wonder how much longer the Balinese Beauty of Spirit can survive in this urban sprawl.

Later the same day: A jolly big Brahman bash in Denpasar
Thirty years ago I had my teeth filed, according to the Balinese custom, with my two ‘brothers’—the impossibly dashing sportsman Gus Rai, and his sluggish brother Gus Oka, the security guard—in a small village near Kuta.
Over time the two Brahman brothers and I grew apart, as ‘brothers’ often do: Gus Rai married young, to his cousin, and became a bank manager. I became a photo-journalist and tennis coach, and poor old Gus Oka stayed a security guard.
Eventually I moved out, to Sanur, and Gus Rai started on a series of postings to banks all over Indonesia. Gus Rai had four children one after the other—in Sulawesi, East Java and Kalimantan—as our family house compound, in Kepaon, grew from ten souls to almost sixty.
Gus Rai brought his family home rarely, and, as a result, a sort of sibling rivalry—seasoned with Gus Rai’s signature ‘thriftiness’— developed into a rift.

Family re-union in Denpasar



Ida Pedanda Istri Rakand Australian film-maker Jan Sharp in the family house temple.

Gus Rai’s nephew, Ida Bagus Alit from Grya Tegal,

Dewa Kompiang, Gus Rai’s brother-in-law.

Gus Rai’s future daughter-in-law in trance.

•     •     •

Today we all flock to Gus Rai’s new home on the outskirts of Denpasar for the consecration of his new house temple-cum- ancestral shrine. None of us has ever been invited and I am expecting a McMansion—replete with black andesite stone temple—in keeping with his status as a ‘money man’.
We are all surprised to find a rather classy bungalow, replete with tasteful red brick gate and temple, and a large arty garden.
Above the front courtyard, from a high bamboo platform the island’s most popular high priest, Pedanda Gunung, is officiating over a truck-load of offerings. The Kepaon boy-band gamelan is playing feverishly in one corner while Gus Oka smokes cigarettes, equally feverishly, in another.
Gus Rai’s cousins—from the productive, non-smoking side of our family compound—are out in force, running the show like troopers. Gus Rai has barely acknowledged them over the years, but really needs them today.
The ceremonies go on and on as the sun rises higher and higher; my houseguest—film-maker Jan (“Love as long as your visa lasts”) Sharp—is agog at the beauty (this is her first trip to Bali in almost 15 years).

Pemecutan Prince (right) and loyal Muslim subject.

Suddenly it is time for the climax of the pemlaspasan rites, when the ancestral spirits—who have been sitting in a bamboo altar—are processed around the courtyard. Preceded by ladies dancing a dainty pendet, the gods process three times around the caru offerings before heading towards the new break-away ancestral shrine—the new branch-office, as it were.
At this moment things become very light and lovely but also very tense: the gamelan moves into a more godly melody, and three family members (one just a potential daughter-in-law really) fly into wild trance and are a whisked up the stairs into the almost-consecrated shrine.
Jaws seize, eyes go steely but nobody comments: it’s not the most auspicious of signs, but it does also mean that the offerings are working.

•     •     •

The trancees are quietly subdued—mercifully without any peer-envy utterances—and we all pray.
In such a way are ancestral deities spread thinly across the land, I muse.

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