It’s the first Balinese New Year since the horrible bomb catastrophe in Kuta and the Balinese ceremonial community are out in full force for the various New Year festivals.
Apparently, No one told the Balinese delegation for the massive PATA Tourism conference; our courtesy hosts at the airport were in Hawaiian shirts and not their trademark traditional costumes.
To make up for this ‘Dumbing down of Bali’, the local television stations have gone into a sort of cultural overdrive. This month saw the debut of a talk show on TVRI Denpasar called ‘Road to Bali’ (I don’t think the producers know the famous 1936 film of that name, starring Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope).The episode I watched featured the island’s heartthrob, the mediagenic Ida Cokorda Pemecutan, Prince of Denpasar, who was just brilliant denouncing all the whining ‘Bring back my Bali to me’ movements (the real Balinese really don’t have time for any of this armchair altruism). The good prince reminded the panel that “Bali is completely unique and that the Balinese will only put up with so much crap”- or words to that effect.
We want Cultural Tourism” he said “Not a culture of tourism.”
All ethnophiles were panting in their pyjamas.
Meanwhile I turned 50 and took my long-suffering staff and a few Aussie mates on a boat trip around Bali, with a masseur, lots of books and the first season of ‘The Sopranos’ on DVD.
I first sailed to Bali some 30 years ago on a 35 foot Ketch, named ‘The Kimbala’ which is now at the bottom of the straits of Madura where she belongs. She was a foul and demanding mistress but I kept up my interest with marine tourism over the years.
In the eighties, when Jakarta entrepreneur Jonny Wijaya founded a Bali based, up-market marine tourism company, I worked as a lecturer on some memorable cruises. I worked on marine tourism’s first floating gin palace, the Asmara Lumba-Lumba (or Sexed up Sea Cow), under swash-buckling pioneer Michael McDowell and the legendary ‘Queen of the sharks’ dive dominatrix, Valerie Taylor. These were difficult shrimp salad days - breaking in the laundry boys, the Komodos and the harbour masters of the lesser Sundas, - but over the last decade, Marine Tourism has really taken off. Bali now has any number of charter companies, from the ultra-luxurious (with Zen jet skis and the Attains Diet), to the nautically basic (glass bottomed boats and Nasi Campur).
I had always wanted to sail around Bali on a phinisi, - a traditional triple- masted Bugis schooner, and thought, for my big half century, that I might treat myself.
I chose the ‘Ombak Biru’, a handsome eleven cabin phinisi, with full diving crew, the very professional Dutch-Indonesian charter company, P.T. Ombak Putih .
Now Read On:
Benoa to Padang Bai, 19th March 2003
We slip out of Benoa harbour at 9 a.m. sharp, Norah Jones blaring, and follow the calm coastal waters all the way to Padang Bai, Bali’s eastern port.
At noon we anchor off a picturesque cove near the Amankila. From the boat we observe a group of perfectly formed Amanites in their trade mark black shorts and tight tank tops (post apocalyptic beach wear) gambolling amongst the palm trees and pandanus scrub. A reconnaissance group is dispatched from the upper deck – 20 draughtsmen and their couriers from the smoking section - to investigate. Some land to be sold here!
Another speedboat loaded with office itinerants leaves for a snorkel. It is like an aquatic Balinese version of the ‘Raft of the Medusa’; the free-range snorkelers have grabbed anything from the boat that floats as they certainly don’t. In the open waters they swim like tadpoles over a slice of bread; occasionally a snorkeller breaks off, barely buoyant, and attempts to swim back alone, to the biscuit jar on the boat.
Back on board the expat contingent have found the biscuit jars, and the mini bar, and need to be poured into wet suits for the afternoon scuba dive. What a gorgeous dive it is; nothing over two feet long, lots of colour and movement, and five people to help one back onto the tender. I discover that one can impress fellow divers by putting that dangling rubber mouthpiece between one’s ample thighs and ‘queathing’ bubbles, as it were, in an amusing way, as one ‘elevators’ up, or down, past an unsuspecting coral voyeur. Mirth always ensues.
Back on the ‘Ombak Biru’, we prepare for our first evening of solitude. The sun is setting over the emerald hills of East Bali, the lights from the Amankila are reflecting in the bay, to the roar from the gambling section of the upper deck. It is all too perfect.
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Overnight we sail to Tulamben, a scenic coastal village on the steep eastern slopes of Bali’s mighty Mount Agung.
We awake at dawn. Through our portholes we see a million prahu (fishing boats) on the glistening horizon to our east. The peak of mount Rinjani rises majestically in the pink haze beyond the sea of plenty.
Over breakfast, bobbing just off the Tulamben coast, we spot the same Amanites doing yoga on the beach which seems unusual. Actually, it’s a bit spooky, like being stalked by a Mission Impossible cult. We resolve to party around them.
We dive the famous Tulamben wreck, which is great because you can just snoop around. Giant mangled steel shards act as great ‘flaps’ for surprise ‘faux queathing’ too. We did three dives on day two and had masses of food in between.
We sail back to Benoa overnight, arrive fully refreshed and a full five kilos heavier.
1 April, 2003, Pengrupukan, the night of the Demons, (Nyepi Eve). A raucous procession through Sanur
This year’s Ogoh-Ogoh demon-float parade is astounding. There’s one of Amrozi (the hated Bali Bomber) being squashed by the giant hairy foot of the Demon Queen Rangda. There’s another of Goyang Bor (wobblebum) Inul, the country’s latest pop phenomenon, Java’s answer to Kylie Minogue and in Mengwi a giant Teletubby giving the bird to the gathered celebrants. My conservative Hindu friends at the SCRABBLE co-operative are shocked by these stories. “This is not good” says our grand master. “Ogoh-Ogoh should be demon-like, from the Balinese netherworld, “not popular figures from the worlds of crime and dangdut.”
Well I guest he’s right but try stopping the trend now!
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Speaking of trends, I’m inspired by Diana Darling’s brave (loosely veiled) ‘State of Tourism Today’ address in our beloved sister journal ‘Latitudes’. ‘Latitudes’ is now home to my Balinese fashionista column (to be found in the ‘Indonesia thing’ section of Latitudes, vol. 27, between ‘Shrimp Paste Changes Everything’ and the subscription page).
• • •
This month I’m thrilled that the Balinese and the Bali-based are standing up to cultural rot.
I want the Prince of Pemecutan to be the people’s prince, and lead us all from the temptations of crass tourism, dream home management and Bungy jumping.
Let’s return to Indonesia’s roots as a nation of seafarers, rice farmers and temple builders. Let’s look beyond hedonism to cultural, sport, and marine tourism. Let the Balinese, not PATA, run their island. Let’s just marvel, like we used to do.