Why has the Australian media got the boot into Bali? Have the Balinese not been warm and generous hosts to hordes of surfers, hippies, holiday makers, fun-seekers, scumbag property developers, spoilt hoteliers, restaurateurs, writers, artists and filmmakers?
The love affair, mind you, has not gone sour: there’s really nowhere else to satisfy Australian youth’s need for spirituality, mercy sex, wall art and cheap beach-wear like the fabled island. So why, since the Kuta Bomb, has Bali been painted so black?
For sensationalist journalistic reasons, that’s why.
Bali, the real Bali, has never been better.
A generation of Balinese, lost, almost, in the false belief that hedonism (sensation worship) was perhaps a healthy alternative to animism (spirit worship), have now been released from the shackles of mass tourism and have re-entered the mainstream of Bali’s ceremonial life; not that they ever fully deserted it. Temple festivals are bigger and better than ever. Pura Besakih, the mother temple, is evidencing record off-peak attendances, even though the annual temple festival is not until 4th April – 4th May.
Interest in traditional arts and music is on the rise, especially, and this is a nationwide phenomenon evidenced, in the hypnotic bottom-wobbling of post-SARS love-goddess, Inul. Even pride in the environment is on the upturn. At the peak of the boom, in 2001 before the tourist bomb, hoteliers, corrupt property conglomerates and tourism consultants of foreign extraction were empowered beyond their stations. They forgot who owns Bali and what is most dear to the Balinese — their gods. Tourism lords in recent months have had their wings clipped while the stocks of Bali’s feudal overlords have soared. Even the disgraced King of Denpasar, currently in jail for murdering his stepbrother (see last month’s Stranger), is receiving over 200 visitors a day.
This month I went to Australia, my homeland, for two weeks. I recorded some of my observations of ‘downunder’s’ relationship with her nearest neighbour, Bali.
Now read on …………………..
2nd January, 2004: Sydney’s leading paper delivers a hatchet job
Today’s full page photo essay on Bali in the Sydney Morning Herald is a disgrace. The belly kick delivered to Sanur, my adopted home, is particularly unfair: a gaggle of bar girls (you can bet, of outer-island origin) are described as “Sanur waitresses forced into a life of prostitution.” This is utter codswallop! “The banjars of (staid conservative. Ed.) Sanur should rise against this insult to their honour and march in the streets,” exclaimed documentary filmmaker and long term Bali resident John Darling, when I contacted him for a comment. Indeed Darling’s own excellent film ‘The Healing of Bali’ (reviewed in last month’s Stranger), which shows the Indonesian perspective on the aftermath of the bomb, has been hard-pressed to find distributors.
“Australia only wants the Australian side,” the ABC’s Dasha Ross recently pointed out.
Certainly the tragedy was particularly gruesome for Australians and the number of Australian victims was disproportionate (it was Australia’s biggest peacetime disaster) but why victimise poor Bali when it was, essentially, the licentiousness of a sector of Bali’s guests that drew the wolf from its lair.
The Balinese were happy with the notion of cultural tourism (it dove-tailed with their own immersion in culture) until ‘TROPPO ZONE’, theme parks and mess (sic) tourism came along; the latter being, arguably, a product of commercial zeal and greed.
Today Bali has just the right number tourists, I think, but way too many ugly buildings, many illegally built in green belts and beach reserves. A large number of these offenders were designed by Australian architects, many of whom suspended their environmentalist principles once they entered Indonesian waters. I say Australian courts should prosecute Australian architects for environmental crimes committed against foreign lands, just as they prosecute Australian paedophiles for crimes against foreign children. Was it just a coincidence that the Howard Government’s Bali Bomb anniversary was held in the aesthetically-challenged and environmentally-suspect Garuda Wisnu Kencana Theme Park? Was it really Queensland’s premier landscape design firm that raped Turtle Island? Why doesn’t the once august ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ write about these issues?
10th January, 2003: A Wedding in Sayan
Back from heavenly Sydney, I travel to heavenly Sayan, to the house of painter Suji, once nanny to Claudia Karvan, Australian actress of the moment and face of Australia’s ‘Country Road’ (the Saks of the South Pacific). When Ms. Karvan’s parents lived in Bali for some years in the 1980s, they adopted Suji as a family member. Many Australians have such ‘family’ connections to Bali. This island is so much more than just a “cheap exotic playground for Australians” as Sydney radio station 2GB called it, after the Kuta bomb. Bali provides many Australians with their first taste of Asia, of mysticism, of police corruption, and of love as long as your visa lasts. These are the real rites de passage of Australian youth in Bali, not ‘chunderings’ at the Sari Club,” as exalted by an Australian journalist in a recent editorial on Bali.
* * *
The wedding in Suji’s compound is divine. The family have woven a special palm leaf enclosure for the ceremonial pavilion (see photo this page) in which sits a magnificent pedanda high priest facing off a truckload of colourful offerings. The atmosphere in the stalls of guests set up in the courtyard home is relaxed, and beautific. Two tooth-filing celebrants, young girls in angelic dress, hover amongst the guests like spring butterflies caught in the sun.
Life is beautiful.
* * *
From Sayan I travel to Banjar Kacagan, Ketewel, for the wedding of an artisan in my employ, young Dewa Antara, and the spritely Desak Made Meni, also of Ketewel.
Dewa once trained under Australian trompe l’oeil expert Stephen Little. Today I notice that the finishes on the walls of Dewa’s pavilion house are a testament to this cultural exchange
With his team of Balinese and Javanese artisans, Stephen Little painted all the 457 doors of the dreamy Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran and many of Bali’s finest homes before the New Asia Neatnik pogrom eliminated colour from architecture.
Dewa was part of Bali’s cheerleading squad for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and in this capacity served as wine waiter for Olympic hostess and Woollite heiress Carole Müller of Amandari and Bali Oberoi fame, at her ‘Athletes for Liberal’ cheese tasting at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He was the only person of colour at this event (as you can imagine).
Ketewel is my favourite village in Bali for the splendour of its architecture, as is Banjar Kacagan my favourite Banjar (community) for the grace of its members, all Dewas of the Ksatriya Dewa caste.
Over the past 30 years I have, in this column, written of the Dewas of Ketewel and of the fabulous Ratu Dedari mask dancers, unique to Ketewel’s wondrous Peyogan Agung temple. Go soon if you’ve never seen this temple; the ‘conservationists’ are poised on the hill with quarry loads of nasty black andesite.
* * *
Today I marry off the last of the some thirty Dewa cousins who joined my company in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of them are, as I write, employed in far flung destinations - Bangalore, Labuan, Penang and Udaipur - bringing lustre to the Bali name and a sense of artful order to herbaceous borders.
God bless these chevaliers of beauty and integrity.
Long may they roam.