Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

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


The bukur tower heading towards the cremation ground on Kuta Beach

Lip Curl

What about all these new surf shops, and signs for vapid villas!!!
At major intersections on the island one can’t see the sky anymore.
But the Balinese keep churning out amazing ceremonies while we all wallow in the white-trash gutter.

•     •     •

Last month I had poll position amongst the court photographers at the once-in-a-generation massive Baligia soul purification ceremonies for the Raja of Denpasar’s late mother. The raja dragged me up into the high priest’s pavilion and patted my bottom and I went all silly, like a Pavlov dog given coconut ice.
I got photos of the Raja of Mengwi—also Lord of the Airport and Greater Denpasar―positively ‘going down’ on the cushion of his rival Raja’s mother; and photos of the Raja of Denpasar emerging from his palace hotel suite buttoning up the gold buttons on his Nehru jacket after a late night; and photos of the dawn procession on Kuta Beach…..and I posted them on Facebook.
And do you think anyone was interested??
Do you think any tourist was on Kuta Beach witnessing the hands-down most amazing spectacle on the planet that day.
Two joggers ambled by: blonde ironwomen in black spandex.
What has happened to cultural tourism??

•     •     •

A cymbal player in the palace’s bleganjur marching gamelan band.

Leaving the ceremonies I discovered that, one block back from the beach, my countrymen and women were ten deep on the footpath, Stubbies in hand, having their hair braided!

•     •     •

So I complained on FACEBOOK that nobody reads this 30 year-old column anymore.
And I got 19 replies:
“That’s probably only 30% of your audience,” my managing editor (a Sumatran) told me.
“I read your column, Bli…….” came one little cry from Singaraja.
Peter Velks, a handicraft czar from Amsterdam, said that, “The Stranger must never stop……it would be like the Beatles folding.”
Meg Gilmour, an old-fashioned good-time girl in Gang Plawa, Kuta said that I was “the thinking woman’s sponge finger.”
Tim Street-Porter, a long-time supporter said that this column was the only thing reminding people that “Bali is so much more than an Asia Ibiza.”
“An Asian Ibiza,” said Ivy league wanker Scott Carlson, “….I missed that.”
Meanwhile, Janet DeNeefe, doyenne of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, said she has never read the Stranger but was on a plane with twenty Papuan athletes.
(That FACEBOOK wall is dangerous, especially for women on the verge of a major sponsor!)
Anyway…….the dust has settled……the ashes are waiting to be picked up at the Ann Wilson Funeral Home in Dee Why (I love you, Mum!)…..and the Stranger is Back….with a vengeance.
Fasten your seat-belts—you’re in for a rough column.

28th July 2009: Jero Dalem Tanjung Kepaon; My adopted family perform the rites at my Liege Lord’s soul purification ceremonies
Over the years I have followed two families in Kepaon village: my adopted family (small-time brahman offering-makers); and the very extended family of my liege lord, Gusti Made Oka, a cousin of the Raja of Denpasar, Tjokorda Pemecutan XII I love you.
Gusti Made Oka died last year—his exquisite cremation was recorded in this august journal—and today I visit his tiny palace for the start of the many, many ceremonies that will eventually lead to his re-internment as a dewata, or deified ancestor, in his family house temple.

At Jero Dalem Tanjung Kepaon, Ida Bagus Suteja fashions a padma spirit effigy

On arrival, on a cool spring morning, day I run the gauntlet of serfs and nobles who sit in the large, outer palace courtyard, and jostle past all the relatives in the inner ‘royal’ court—deftly deflecting an invitation to sit in the high pavilion with the macho chain-smokers and distant, dusty dukes from Denpasar (the big Pemecutan family, as it’s known, is about 20,000 ksatryas strong!)—and head for the house temple, where I belong, as a Siwa-ite groupie.
There I find my fierce, fat sister-in-law—fake Chanel bum-bag at half-mast—ordering everybody about.
The menfolk are fashioning gorgeous spirit effigies called padma (see photos overleaf)—two in the tiny Veda Pavilion; three others on a table on the courtyard floor.

Gung Geg Belanda

Jero Raga

The widow Jero Raga—who bore my late Liege Lord three children —sits comatose in a corner: she has been thus since the day of his death.
I squeeze her hand and scream my name, but nobody is home.
The courtyard is otherwise ablaze with rosebuds, glitter and glee.

To Sidakarya after a brief stint in Sydney
I visit my old buddy Putu Suarsa for the first Scrabble game since my mother’s death last week. I was very close to Putu’s late Mum—I even wrote an essay about her for the Four Seasons Jimbaran’s bed-time book—and he has been particularly sweet to me over the past few days (where previously he ruled me with an iron fist).
Tonight I have too much to drink or something and sort of pass out— from the effects of the past week and my new blood-pressure medicine I guess—and Putu races to fetch some balsam to rub the heat back into me. I black out on the pavilion platform clutching my mobile phone, but am shortly rudely awakened by a call from my bouncy yoga teacher, Katie.
Putu is still in the room watching soccer on the T.V.; his dog ‘Brandy’ is asleep, keeping ‘watch’ at my bedside.
I feel protected.

29th July 2009: To Pemecutan Palace, Denpasar for the climax of the Baligia Ceremonies, the ‘Titi Mas’ ritual and a Warrior Dance
Today I am plucked from the crowd of 126 lesser noble soul-effigy attendants (we are some 1,000 people en masse) and bidden up the bamboo stairs to schmooze with the first family, the Pemecutans (who are a bit like the Hindu world’s answer to The Sopranos, but better dressed) and a gathering of rajas (Klungkung and Tabanan and Mengwi) and high priests who are all sitting cross-legged in front of the glittering spirit effigies of the raja’s late mother and some royal uncles.

•     •     •

Baligia Ceremony at Pemecutan Palace Denpasar, July 2009

The Tjokorda and Tjokorda Istri.


The Tjokorda emerges from his palace.

The Tjokorda’s son leads a procession.

A.A. Ngurah Darmajati son of the late I Gusti Made Oka of Kepaon.

Baris dancers in the holy Baligia enclosure.

At one point a little brahman Baris dancer is ushered up, wide-eyed—he will be dancing for his raja later on. It’s these little gestures that have made the cult of Big Love for Ngurah Manik Parasara, ex-point-man for GOLKAR (the Tontons Pemecutan) during the Soeharto years, ex-national javelin champion and ex-convict (almost).
Today all is forgotten …..but not forgiven: none of his siblings are here. He survives as Tjokorda, despite murdering his halfbrother (crime of passion) because of his big heart and the support of all the Pemecutan main ‘courts’ outside the palace; the courts he regularly visits wherever there is a wedding or a cremation, or a pretty girl opening a satay-stall.
In this way, he is the hardest-working raja in Southeast Asia.
Over the next day I desert my Kepaon liege lord and shamelessly throw myself at the feet of the first family as they pose and storm and process. I expect retribution but my Kepaon family are thrilled, as their little Ozzie Battler has finally made it up the bamboo ladder, with weak knees.

31st July 2009: To Singaraja for the first North Bali Culture Conference
Today I first visit the mountain lake-side village of Kedisan to pay my respects at the ancestral home of the recently departed Mangku Mémé, star of this column in 1980s and 1990s.

Mémé was eccentric in her manner and her speech–a sort of one off–so I am amazed to find a courtyard of ‘duplicates’.
Last month, I sent the family a big framed photo of  Mémé at Turtle Island Temple, sitting daintily, at a pagoda shrine. Her eldest niece today requests a smaller version, to put on Mémé’s cremation tower.
A crate of bottled tea arrives.
Cabbages and packet noodles start streaming through the front gate. I feel like family.

•     •     •

15 00 hrs: Next stop:  the UNDIKSHA University campus in Singaraja, to attend the first conference on things North Balinese
There is free coffee and cookies and lots of locals in colourful North Bali costumes.
My Stranger books are selling like hot-cakes: the Leiden anthropologists are my biggest fans, especially the raven-haired vixen of the Kawi cult, Hedi Hinzler who delivers today a brilliant paper on the vibrant statuary of North Bali through the ages.

•     •     •

In the evening we travel west to Banjar village for a wedding, a pork meal and a swim at the luxurious hot springs there.
The springs are throbbing with tourists—mostly Dutch, who seem to have re-adopted Buleleng as their own!
Lovina is soon to be twinned with Scheveningen, the other daggy seaside town where Dutch-folk wallow knee deep in timid waves. Singaraja, the capital of Buleleng regency, was capital of Bali during most of the Dutch colonial era…..and it’s sort of apt that they are now backpacking back.


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