Published in Jakart Java Kini, November 2008

Smiling Gombrang trance dancer (Rangda witch dancer) getting dressed inside Pura Pengerebongan.

Familiarity breeds content – Let’s stop putting the boot into Bali

Flying British Airways first class from Sydney to Singapore last month I was reminded of the heart-warming power of visual cues in interior design. Well lubricated on excellent wines―and bloated from crab cakes, Duchy shortbread biscuits, Stilton cheese, and apple crumble, while watching Scorsese’s brilliant documentary on The Rolling Stones―I started to examine the walnut veneer and the grey Connolly leather on the tweed partition that separated me from the seat in front, in a new and unusual way. These familiar, very English, finishes conjured up pangs of nostalgia: I started secreting endorphins; the penny dropped and the clouds parted: I was transported back to the land of Hampton Court and Savile Row!
Frequent flyers love BA because it is familiar.
On British Airways, one’s favourite magazines―shamelessly Tory staples like Hello Magazine, The Spectator and Tatler―are always proudly displayed. The trolley dollies are all English, to the point of distraction―“Another scone, dear?”― and the give-away toiletries always exhibit British good taste―with goods from Penhaligons and Kiehl’s, in navy blue toiletry bags by Anya Hindmarch.
All so British, and all so familiar.
Not so the horrible documentary ‘Bondi Rescue: Bali’, which I had watched on the telly at a friend’s house in Sydney the night before. I had just been to a superb Opera Australia production of Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ at the Sydney Opera House (which featured a Malaysian Chinese, called Henry Choo, in the lead role) and was feeling very proud of my home town.

But the Sydney-Bali reality programme had familiar footage―all too familiar―of Aussie Yobs, in Asia, at Denpasar’s new Hawaiian-lite airport: images of testosterone-charged lifesaveros: hell bent for leather, Agent Orange Oakley sunglasses, and aggressively well defined sun-in-the-stubble jaws spewing expletives. The Bali portrayed was not at all familiar: it looked more like Bangkok’s red-light district, Patpong, on a Saturday night!!
Why are documentary film-makers now reluctant to show us the real Bali: something of the familiar gorgeous village (which after all is still 96% of the island) instead of this Sodom and Gomorrah Seminyak??
Last week a Vanity Fair (Europe) editor rang, from Australia’s Byron Bay, to interview me about “Bali after the bombs… and how Bali has re-grouped, etc., etc.”

I jumped down his throat:
“Bali is the world’s most gorgeous culture,” I hollered, “despite bombs, Russian bimbos, real estate carpet-baggers, Jakartan mall developers, Taiwanese tourists and Australian journalists… HOW VERY DARE YOU!?!!”
I related this to a good friend, Jamie James, the Island’s best writer, who wrote back:
“Will it ever end? Even 9/11 finally lost its chokehold on media perceptions of New York. Ask this guy if they plan to do a centenary story about the Black Hole of Calcutta: How is the city coping in the aftermath of this tragedy? How about "The Black Death, A Millennium On: Will Europe Ever Recover?"
The real answer is that the only people who haven't recovered from the bombs are western editors. The 10,000 villas of Canggu is a vastly bigger story... we think it's covered to death here, but in Europe they filter everything through the smoked lens of The Bomb, and the orgy of development doesn't fit in with the only story they're allowed to report – scary little brownies want to kill us. In terms of foreign tourism and investment, the effect of the Bomb is now tiny, almost imperceptible in real terms, but editors are only allowed to have one new idea about Indonesia every 10 years, it seems. Will our grandchildren (or other people's grandchildren) in 50 years still go on ritually asking whether the tourists will ever come back to Bali, while the island sinks into the ocean from the overbuilding to accommodate the hordes?
The media obsession with the bombs is racially based: no one asks if London has recovered from the bombing at Paddington Station – that went straight down the memory hole, as editors have every incentive to make people forget, because London is such a major destination.
Bugger ‘em! – let them go to serene, tranquil Bangkok if they're afraid of Bali.”

•        •        •

Festival Frenzy Familiarit
Last month I went to my 30th Pengrebongan Temple Festival, the mass trance Barong-athon that happens twice a year in a stunningly beautiful temple at sunset.

The trance dances, costumes, music, atmosphere were all unchanged from years past: this is the sort of ‘familiarity’ that holds Balinese society together and brings tourists back! But, in fact, the only thing unfamiliar was the almost total lack of tourists. (In the 1980s there were hundreds outside the temple watching the trancees go around the cock-fighting pavilion, Bali’s biggest.) Is this because local and international magazines are not familiarising tourists with cultural tourism? Or it is because all the tourists are in their hotels getting familiarised with heroic Australian beach culture??

P.S. One of my editors has rightly pointed out that as the surf rescue training was in Kuta, we could not really expect footage of the Bondi lifesavers in Bali’s interior. Furthermore, they were instrumental in securing donations for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment for the Kuta Surf Lifesaving Club... Good on ya boys!


One of the famed POLENG KESIMAN
celebrants at the temple festival,
in full Majapahit costume

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