Twenty eight years ago I started a column in the fledgling Sunday Bali Post called “Stranger in Paradise – the diary of an expatriate in Bali ”.
This month the column moves to Jakarta – for a new audience of Jakarta-based English readers. I am hoping these readers might like to know what’s really happening in Bali , and what the Balinese are really doing overseas.
I’d like this column to reflect my years spent in Jakarta too.
The moniker ‘Londo Depok’ is one of my favourite Jakarta expressions. It refers to the slightly daggy Dutchmen (Londo=Javanese for Belanda or Dutchman) who lived in the boondocks and not in uptown Menteng in the colonial era. The real-estate Bali equivalent is Bulé Dalung – Dalung being the Depok of Denpasar [enough explanations already! – Ed].
Over the past few years my audience in Bali , and in the broad Bali-based diaspora, has dwindled to a fervent few: they are mostly Bulé Aga (hill-tribe expats), Balinese travel guides, hotel staff, and the odd tourist who stumbles across my cultural column while searching for the property or scented-candle sections.
The voice of the stranger – once benign and anthropological – has lately become shrill. He feels he is taking offence, on so many fronts, on behalf of 2,000,000 Balinese – cultural prostitution, environmental degradation and Bali’s re-branding as a ‘cheap exotic getaway’ or ‘Asian Ibiza’. It’s long haul, but it’s rewarding.
These days my design business takes me abroad twice a month. Often I find myself marching forth as an ambassador for the Javanese-brand of Islam: in Australia for example, I am hourly called upon to calm the nerves of the natives who would have Bali overrun with sabre-wielding mullahs. I also find myself in the role of free-range apologist for the world’s most gorgeous culture – still defiantly ‘pagan’ in an era where anything representational is a no-no. I regularly watch Singaporean and Malaysian eyes glaze over as I explain the way it really is inside the world’s last surviving fully medieval god-king system.
The Balinese are a bit down in the mouth these days: after the bankruptcy of ‘Air Paradise’ (appalling glib name I always thought) your average Balinese has adopted ‘BANGKRUT’ as his war cry, as the Javanese betjak drivers took on ‘NEPOTISME’ at the time of Soeharto’s fall.
But Balinese culture is not on the ropes; only the tacky end of mass tourism.
80% of Balinese may work in tourism or tourism-related industries but the Balinese’s number one job is being Balinese – with all the lavish South-Indian ritualistic Hinduism and Southern-Chinese-style ancestor worship which that implies. All their other jobs are just moonlighting.
Jakarta, on the other hand, seems happier this month: the Immigration officers at the airport are singing; the spanking new malls are full of suburban Chinese housewives in search of J. Lo look-a-like competitions; and the homeboys have adopted a softer curlier coif (see photo below). Even Garuda, God bless them, have finally, after 14 years, got the Denpasar sign to coincide with the corresponding terminal door at the airport.
Now read on:
Friday, January 20th, 2006: Dodol in Dodo Land – a trip to a garden show in Colombo, my favourite tropical colonial capitol.
Sri Lanka is like Indonesia in miniature – it has all the ancient and modern, Hindu and Buddhist, natural and man-made delights – all maintained by a benign, smiling populace with a tense fanatic faction who occasionally blow themselves up.
Like Bali, Sri Lanka has wantilan pavilion structures, Kerry Hill-designed coastal hotels, exotic discothèques by the sea, fathers-for-rent and lots of surfies.
Like Java, Sri Lanka has sarung, sambal, dodol and sweet curries. There is even a Malay Street in downtown Colombo with dreamy doe-eyed Javanese look-a-likes – living proof of the export of Bugis and Javanese culture into the Indian Ocean islands since ancient times (one feels it very much in the Maldives and Madagaskar).
At the garden show I encountered a couple of Sri Lankan’ Malays selling dodol – a sweet confection that is to Java what the Iced Vo-vo is to Australia.
There are three grades of dodol at the Malay families stall. I sample the finest, weapons-grade batch and collapse into paroxysms of delight: visions of Diponogoro on a pony galloping down Malioboro flash before my eyes.
Saturday, 21st January 2006: On the holy grail of coastal resort hotels, in ‘Gone-Bawa land’
The next day I travel to Galle, sister city to Banda Neira in the Spice islands, and to the recently, lovingly revamped New Oriental Hotel (est. 1760). It is now an Aman resort, called Amangalle. The heavenly colonial-style hotel is located inside the Portuguese–Dutch-English-Moorish fort. It was re-designed by the same team –that did the Serai in Manggis (now the Alila), East Bali – Kerry Hill and Terry Fripp. The present manager, Olivia Richli, formerly ran the Amanjiwo near Borobudur with her debonair husband Francois Richli. Francois now runs the very sleek Amanwella hotel – a modernist master piece, also by Kerry Hill – 2 hours drive down the coast. Assisting Olivia in keeping the Singalese focused is Balinese I Made Bagiarta formerly of the legendary Amandari hotel.
“Like their soul mates in sarongs, the somnolent Solonese, the Singalese tends to suffer from A.D.S., and need a trained-up Balinese to keep them in shape,” comments the well-travelled Mz. Richli.
After a perfect rijsttafel style lunch I pulled Made into a corner as I had a rather serious matter to discuss. Yesterday, at the Taj Exotica Spa in Bentota (50 kilometres up the coast), I went looking for a Balinese masseuse, called Christiani, who had befriended my gardeners some months back. She was desperately lonely back then: yesterday she seemed positively suicidal. She clung to my shirt as if to beg me to take her home.
The light had gone out of her eyes.
Balinese should never be sent abroad alone. From birth they eat, drink, and sleep with someone attached to their hip.
Made and I discussed how there needs to be an ‘international banjar’ hot-line in every country in which the Balinese now work – the Maldives, Malaysia and India, in particular – so they can reach out in times of stress. The Pilipino workers have safety nets, so should the Indonesians, and particularly the Balinese, who are plucked out of joyous villages and pressed into service in strange lands.
Wednesday, 25 January 2006: To the Four Seasons Jakarta Ballroom for India’s Republic Day:
In ancient times, Bali was known as “Farthest of Farther India”. Nehru called the Hindu island “The Morning of the World”, in the way that Kedah State in Malaysia is called the “Verandah of Mecca”, and Morocco is called “The Magrib”, or the evening of the (Islamic) world.
Weren’t those ancient politicians and regime-changers poetic!
These days, island states are rebranded with cheesy names like ‘Treasure Island’ (Cheju), South Korea and ‘Caribia Arabia’ (Dubai). In Kolkata one finds real estate called ‘Veda-land’; meanwhile the white supremacist real estate collective are really dumbing down Bali with names like ‘Temple Hill’ or “Estates on the River” or “The Mandi – an integrated ablutionary experience.”
Don’t get me started.
INDONESIAN HAIR STYLES THROUGH THE AGES
Orde Baru, 1970-1998
Jakarta Homeboy, 2006
The India Embassy on the other hand has built an Indian Culture Centre in Bali, which opened last year.
Tonight Ambassador Singh and his talented artist wife Mrinalini are hosting a glittering gala which is also their Jakarta swansong. The ambassador and Mrs. Singh are going to be missed.
It’s funny how ambassadors come and go but the party crowd stays the same. I have observed it for over 33 years now – since my humble beginnings as Dick Woolcott’s gardener. Certain individuals have developed almost messianic auras: the Harry Darsono, the Warwick Purser, the Nini Saputra, the Ghea Panggabean are all like characters in a cartoon crowd drawn with extra thick outlines.
• • •
Wednesday, 1st February 20006: To Hyderabad, to the Chowmahala palace, to have lunch with H.E.H. Princess Ezra, and my mentor (Khasmir palace and the Punjab) Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh
Chowmahala means ‘palace of four courts’. This incredibly beautiful palace has for centuries been the seat of the Nizams of Hyderabad – for generations the world’s richest men – until the likes of Henry Ford and Bill Gates came along.
For me, the main attractions of the palace are the costume museum and the photography exhibition: they give an extraordinary insight into the beauty of the court life in the 19th and 20th centuries. The whole place is redolent of Java – the Hamengku Buwono, Jogyakarta and Susuhunan Solo palaces in particular I am intrigued to see the similarities between the men’s dress coats of Hyderabad, Java and Bali, for example. Even the Hindu-Islam decoration on all the architecture is vaguely familiar. The stylistic influence of this fabulously artistic Indian Islamic court on the courts of Java would be an interesting area for further research.
Sunday, 12th February 2006: A cosmic sea-change!
I am sitting at home, writing a piece on Bali’s gay community’s float for this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras. Between paragraphs, I am watching the steam rise off the garden, suddenly a party arrives from my adopted ancestral home, Jero Kepaon mini-palace, dressed in full temple dress.
Mrs. Agung, the prince’s wife, leads the pack: she has a malfunction on her volume control. Breathlessly, she starts bellowing about the great event I missed in the village last night (I had been researching my Mardi Gras story). It transpires that the daughter of the old spirit medium of the Sangiang Sengkong (trance dance), who has never danced before in her life, flew into trance at last night’s gandrung-like temple event. The girl started dancing and singing in tongues, like a women possessed. “Even the yellow tiger (macan gading) from the new holy spring showed up,” the holy-woman honked. “The one-eyed, the limp and the lame were all invited,” the palace party chorused. “Even the memedi (Memedi is the name for terrifying evil ground spirits; it is also the name of a popular Korean BBQ restaurant in the Garuda Wisnu Kencana ‘Culture Park’, Ed.)!”
It’s the sign I had been waiting for!
After all the talk of tank-tops and dunkin love-donuts I was jolted back into the real Bali – the Bali that bubbles and bristles and bursts just beneath the surface, just behind a gay disco near you.
All is well in the land of mysticism and romance.