During the British colonial era in India there was no more fabled hill-station hotel than the Windamere in Darjeeling. There, surrounded by Ghurka hill towns, and in the shadow of the mighty Mt Kanchenjunga, British civil servants and their wives would frolic in a quaint cottage atmosphere and hold parties based on the latest theme-party trends from the home country.
They were, for the most part, oblivious of all things Indian. Their aristocratic Tibetan hosts -- the family that has run the hotel from the 1920s till the present -- were considerate, and only hung photos of English mill-houses on the floral corridor walls to eliminate any possible outbreaks of pre-war jungle fever or nervous cultural dyspepsia.
Bali is now following this time-honoured ever-popular petite bourgeoise trend to be 'culture neutral' after 30 years of often hair-raising cultural tourism. Hotels are being rebranded with soothing room-fragrance names. All the provinces of Indonesia have been given Singapore- Tourism-Board-approved English mottos such as ‘sunny holiday appropriate’ or ‘together in harmony’. In fact Bali is fast becoming a tourism culture that's heavy on the lite and fully homogenized.
Unnecessary tantric-sounding magazine names such as Garuda and Poleng are being changed to ‘nice’-sounding names such as Colours and White Linen. Next week I am invited by the island’s top expat magazine to a 'Back to Motown' party cum awards night at a hotel called LV8. (Giving hotels names consisting only of numbers and letters is a trend started in the gulags of Siberia, recently adopted, almost simultaneously and seemingly mindlessly, by marketing whizzes across Asia). Awardees at these functions are nearly always white and of expat-culture conscience. I doubt if many Balinese will come in afros, blackface, and bell-bottoms - but they might. For the tourism industry advertising executives, Balinese are best placed on billboards as drink waitresses or masseurs, gently kneading but never needy.
Balinese cultural events happen, out of sight and out of mind, in the backyards of budget hotels, or in the rice fields squeezed between extravagantly minimalist culture-neutral villas. These are designed, built, and sold by collectives with names like F10.
In Ubud, flash-mobs of yoga hags and slow- and/or raw-food suffragettes explode at normally Balinese marketplaces, to the visible discomfort of the natives. On Sunset Road super-bule SUVs force-introduce house music to the homeless. Everything has to be promoted in English, bad English. Only the giant Chinese cigarette ads that fill in patches of sky along the by-pass use correct English such as ‘urban refreshing for heavy connoisseurs’. In a major victory for fashion neutralists, the Miss World batiks have - only this week, pre-function - been replaced with computer-generated print sarongs.
The popular Governor of Bali has even rebranded the island's tourism ‘urban tourism’, one source told me. And so he should! Every day now I see tourists admiring our state-of-the-art underpass and adjacent policeman, put there to help shoppers go from their highway hotel to the mall across the six lanes beyond the giant say-what Hindu butter statue.
Last week I was in North Bali, a rogue regency which, together with East Bali, is bucking the trend and getting a lot of macrobiotic Germans as punishment. I see them enjoying the natural scenery and exotic culture and think that, maybe, they are onto a good thing.