Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 16 April 2006

Invasion of the Body - Wrappers

 In June, DestinAsia magazine is publishing a cover story on Bali’s Seminyak district, the island’s answer to Ibiza, Spain’s tourist hotspot.
Ten years ago this would have been akin to the Tatler doing a series on the “Joys of Jatinegara” – not that there’s anything wrong with Jatinegara! Over the past decade, Seminyak has matured, from a remote Upper Legian ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ into the island’s most international and fashion-conscious suburb.
Airport handouts from Real Estate barons remind one that a treeless New Asian or “Zen-style” villa in Seminyak is the ultimate status symbol. Seminyak even has its own fashionable magazine – called “The Yak” (gettit), dedicated to skimpy swimwear – and its own official lingua franca, Legianspeak, which was invented in Golden Village Homestay, in 1974, with the utterance of the now immortal phrase, “mati lampu”. In fact, expats talking and dressing like fishing-folk is a big part of what the Seminyak expat life-style is all about, if you ask me.
Recently The Yak asked me to provide some old black and white photos of early Sanur, but “nothing to do with history, or culture, cause that’s not who we are.” The Yak email arrived just at the end of Bali’s Melis – Nyepi New Year ceremonial season, which was this year more intensely beautiful than ever before.
In the early 1970s Seminyak was known for the ferocity of its black Barong guardian and associated trance dances. Othellos, Lotharios and Romeos were thick on the ground – and on the beach –especially in the immediate environments of the handsome Jero Agung Seminyak Palace, which controlled the ceremonial life of this intensely feudal village.
Seminyak’s womenfolk were strong and broad – shouldered too, greeting expat schmattah dinosaurs with bear hugs and if appropriate, a ‘Seminyak handshake’ – a pinch of the upper body garment fabric while uttering the phrase “bagus baju”.
It was quite simply Bali’s most macho village for both demons and day-trippers.
It is quiteextraordinary, therefore, that Bali’s gay ghetto has nowmushroomed in the ‘screaming-demon’ flight path between Petitenget Temple, which sits majestically in La Lucciola’s expanding car park, and the very spooky Pura Dalem on Ku de Ta Restaurant corner.
When the black prince of Seminyak was building the legendary Kayu Aya (now the Bali Oberoi) with Pepsi Cola C.E.O. George Schaeffer, in the period 1971–73, one-eyed ogres patrolled the beaches and ghosts from the nearby leper colony graveyard haunted the Presidential Suite. Diane Von Furstenburg invented the fragrance “Volcan D’Amore” (since remanded) while grappling the Oberoi lifeguard at low tide. My Balinese mum used to put garlic paste on my head when I was going to work – as translator for the late Agung Ari, during the Kayu Aya hotel’s “crash city” days – as the hotel was near the island’s most tenget, or spooky, temple. “If you have a good heart, it’s fine over there: anyone with bad intentions can be drawn to the dark side,” she would warn.
Inside Pura Peti Tenget is a holy relic – the betel nut box, the peti tenget, of Bali’s much revered priest Dhang Hyang Nirartha.
A priest’s sakti, or magic power dwells in the betel nut box I am told. Nirartha had sailed to Seminyak from Daha in East Java, in the early 16 th century, bringing with him the blueprint for the Hindu-Bali faith as it is practised on the island today.
All this culture and history is now anathema to the hedonists it seems – ploughed under developers’ bulldozers. “It gets in the way of a nice holiday,” mocked one pareo-clad fashionista.

• • •

The King Kong beach lamp at Vaishakapatnam esplanade

After Nyepi I travelled with three Balinese garden commandos to the coastal city of Vishakapatnam in Andra Pradesh, India’s “sunshine state”, famous for its 8 m high King Kong beach lamps.I was there for five days, taming jungles. During this period many opportunities presented themselves for reflecting on the specialness of the Balinese character – the reason most people come back to Bali. Ireconnected with three talented and hard working artisans who haveallworked for me for twenty years.
By day, the Balinese lorded over a ‘dad’s army’ of dolts, trying to squeeze garden art out of a classless society (harsh words, but it’s hard work creating horticultural heaven in Mother India!). In the labourer world they were like graceful swans in a sea of goslings. One afternoon I found them staring at a newly finished garden area, admiring their own handiwork. They were standing elegantly, as the Balinese do, like three strands of river grass, swaying, as the stream of consciousness flowed through and around them.

One lunchtime I fed my commandoes some Indonesian language magazines and one of my belovedPoleng, a Sanur-based magazine which featur ing arty Bali expats they know. The Balinese rarely travel with books or magazines or even buy them at airports but once given some appropriate reading material – such as “Romance and Detektiva” – they settle down like true café intellectuals, devouring every word in intense silence. Once the pile is exhausted they’ll go back to starring at the ceilings or to the minute dissecting of a day’s events.
On this occasion Dewa Dwin, two gins down, and having spent twenty minutes scanning every page, of the glorious Poleng, threw down the magazine, looked at me accusingly and said, “Linda Darling looks old now.”
Another day, over lunch, I was regalling them with stories of their villages’ magnificent Melis procession, which had preceded Nyepi, the day of silence in Bali. “My mother fell and completely smashed her knee-cap on Nyepi,” Nanok blurted out,“They had to call an ambulance.”
Made and Dewa blinked.
Hindus can seem harsh in interpersonal relations.
The next day I took them on an excursion to the Akura Valley hill station and tribal museum, athree hours drive from the coast. In the museum we discovered that the local tribes perform versions of the Javanese Kuda Lumping (Crazy Horse dance) and Peacock trance dances (Sangyang Merak in Bali)
More fascinating was the discovery of a ritual on the museum’s ceremonial calendar board called Balli or Gyramma Panduga
The origins of the word Bali are lost in the mists of time but scholars tell us that the word comes from the Sankrit word “Wali” which means offering. In this museum I find for the first time, after decades of searching, the word Bali written in India.
Indeed there seem to be quite a lot of Bali-Java-Coastal Andra Pradesh links. The word “gundul” which means ‘bald head’ is the same in both Javanese and Talugu the local language for example (in nearby Bengal all “a”s are sounded “o” , as with the Javanese language). The prahu style fishing boats are almost identical too.
One other evening, after a superb dinner at Vista, the Park Hotel’s excellent brasserie, I caught Dewa starring aimlessly , vacantly at the floor.
“Do you want me to slaughter a black chicken?” I enquired (it’s a Balinese joke one uses when enquiring after companions who seem to have gone into a deep trance).

Left to right: Dewa Dwin of Ketewel, Nyoman Nanok of Sidakarya, Made Sucipta from Luar Angkasa in the very rusty mini-train at the incredibly dry Akura Valley Horticultural Garden, Andra Pradesh

Local garden commando Hari at work

Javanese-looking local in Vaishakapatnam, Andra Pradesh

The other two howled with laughter and volunteered that Dewa had been really ‘spooked’ ever since our visit to the tribal museum , with all its gloomily lit wax-museum-like display.
We all laughed.
“Dewa is having night-visions,” Made added, “And needs to put some earth from the museum’s tableaux vivants – the source of his nightmares – onto his forehead.
“Say what!” I protested.
“It’s what we do when our toddlers fall,” he explained, still with a huge grin, “so they don’t go into shock – it’s called Nunas Bangket
I tell you, with the Balinese, you learn something new every day.


Back | Home | Next

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: