Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine,January 2010)

Amir Rabik at his house in Omben Village, Sampang, Madura.

Frequent Flyer on Maximum Alert

Has anyone else seen that bossy Queensland woman who runs ‘The Concierge’ at Bali International Airport’s Arrivals Hall?  She swans about like a party-planner at a celebrity wedding, while dispensing ‘Express Lane’ services to white supremacist villa owners or renters.
Indonesian citizens have to queue for an age with other nationals. The Concierge’s tontons—bodyguards in black safari suits—refuse to answer polite questions about the facility or its recent, short-lived closing by the Anti-Corruption constabulary.
I think this blonde Wonderwoman would be better employed by the Dept of Immigration as a consultant, to get the right level of ‘Supply Meets Demand,’ and to reduce clogging, all round. For example:
Denpasar Airport Immigration have a unique and time-honoured ritual that kicks into action only when the queue hits the back wall: as if by divine intervention two officers shuffle out of their office and assume positions at two of the eight booths, taking care to avoid eye contact with any senior travellers collapsing in  the heat.
If one knows the officers as I do—having taught them tennis and English (as a means of slow torture) in the 1970s—then one can have a conversation along the following lines:
Me (ebullient, having just had my bottom pinched by a Concierge officer):
“Your moustache needs some black dye, Pak Dewa.”
Pak Dewa (for it is he, adorable and ageless, looking just like a bowling champion): “Rabies.”
“What do you mean “Rabies”?”
“The dogs are pissed off, AHAHAHA.”
(The Balinese are never shy to laugh at someone or some living thing’s misfortune—it’s called ‘Reverse Ahimsa’).

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Pemapagan Ceremonies for the return of the gods from Sakenan,
Turtle Island, 2nd November 2009.

Next I meet young Ketut with the bedroom eyes in the bottle shop.
“Hurry up with my Gin, Ketut,” I plead, “I need to pee.”
“Go pee on your wife” comes the reply.
(Now it must here be said that this sort of disgusting humour is normally reserved for low Balinese conversations amongst consenting adults in private).
Obviously Ketut has been contravening Indonesia’s new Anti-Pornography Laws, and obviously he thinks that all arriving foreigners are into kinky sex: it’s a known fact that the Balinese believe that blue films are like the arrival videos on planes which describe a country’s attractions.

World renowned architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter at his 70th birthday party at the Taman Bebek, Sayan on 6th November 2009. Pictured below (left to right): Victor Mason, Annie Kelly, Tim Street-Porter.

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For frequent fliers the fun really starts in the Baggage Claim section.
On any given day the arrival porters can be either: 
On strike (milling aimlessly in a far corner).
Just back from a major pray-in, with faces spotted with white rice pellets.
In the mood for love (flirting shamelessly with Japanese surfie chicks).
Fed up with the system (the lack of trolleys, staff, space and air-conditioning has now reached crisis level).
Next comes the cheery new Customs gauntlet, and the money-changers, who all wave pretty arms out of their tidy booths, siren-like, pleading for business.
For Japanese and Taiwan flights the first money changer has recently added a handsome Balinese ‘Babe-magnet’ in full temple dress: who bats his thick eyelashes at the weak-willed and the easily-lead.

•    •    •

15th November 2009: Famed classical dancer Anak Agung Gede Bagus Mahendra Erawan visits the Villa Bebek to show off his latest accessories.

But I digress: last month saw many many events not on the Balinese ceremonial calendar.
There was a fashion festival featuring models in high priests’ headdresses and saucy frocks—wayang kulit characters hovering around their pubic regions—and there was a Spirit Festival for Didgeridoo enthusiasts and Dong-son Dingbats; and a film festival, dedicated to waste disposal solutions, of course, and Idul Adha (Eid Al Adha to the rest of the Muslim world) which commemorates Abraham killing his son, Ismail, who was replaced at the last minute with  a goat, as devout Jewish/Christian/Muslim readers will recall. (Not one Muslim I interviewed could recall this, however).


Amir Rabik and his wife Murni Surbakti.

27th November 2009: To Madura Island for a Muslim feast day
At the end of November, when the Denpasar By-Pass started filling up with goat vendors—a new slightly Jurassic Parkish development—I took my leave to visit Madura Island and the ancestral home of my old friend and fellow Bali resident Bapak Amir Rabik, Consul General to Portugal and Honorary Consul for Spain, former consort to the Queen of Bamboo, Linda Garland, and father of Arief (star of last month’s column “Super-studs at Gang Sunset”) and Karim, a successful London-based artist. Pak Amir is now married to beautiful North Sumatran performing artist Murni Surbakti, Ubud’s answer to Billie Holiday.

I have known Pak Amir since our fruit salad days in Legian-Kuta in the 1970s, when we all had a lot of fun. Over the years I have met his mother (now 95) and the other members of his extended family in his exquisite Ubud home, one of few Balinese homes to be featured in Architecture Digest (AD). The houses he designed for Sir Richard Branson in Antigua were also featured in the venerable AD.

The rural villages on the way are clothed in luminescent greens: verdant gently undulating landscapes reveal clumps of giant bamboo and ‘Toddy’ palms. The quaint clusters of compound houses are not unlike the Bali model — all have spacious airy central courtyards with wide verandahs and separate pavilion for ceremonies—and are set, jewel-like, in the idyllic landscape.
Omben,15 kilometers inland from Sampang, on the Island’s South Coast, is quite like an old Dutch hill station, with a spring-fed pool behind an old colonial style city hall.

•    •    •

Madurese men are fancy dressers: they often wearing bright tropical- coloured sarongs with earth tone shirts. Generally a snazzy outfit is topped off with a peci hat which comes in a range of models from across the Muslim world. A common sight is men and boys criss-crossing communal villages on their way to the mosque or one of the many ‘smoking section’ pavilions that dot the village-scapes.
On arrival at Pak Amir’s house we are greeted warmly and led quickly to the inner chamber where Pak Amir’s 95 year old mother is sleeping off the effect of the morning Goat’s Hoof Curry (Sop Kikil). A feast is soon laid out for us on a red Persian carpet on the spacious front verandah.
Under the gaze of Saudi Kings, and in the shadow of an ancient mango tree, our very mixed group partake of an Idul Adha feast-meal commemorating an act of piety by Nabi Ibrahim (Abraham) some 2500 years ago.
Allahu Akbar.


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