Ubudians in the hills of Camelot

This is about cross-cultural fertilisation…
The land of the rising sun in harmony with the morning of the earth.
Of course one can’t overlook the ubiquitous watering hole.
The Jazz, Saki and Vodka.

Occasionally, I have spent leisurely hours wallowing at my favourite watering hole downing gallons of draught beer and discussing Sartre while nibbling on chicken Satay, and pontificating on the travails of living in Camelot (often referred to as Ubud) complete with its bars, nightclubs, restaurants, art galleries etc. etc. etc…as the King of Siam would say. Or was it Yul Brynner?

Talk is cheap but liquor is quicker as Doc. Dwarka (a visiting Ayurvedic Specialist and Doc to us) would declare. And what would I say? I would say that my watering hole has now become a Chinese restaurant. In fact one has to wrestle with the Sino customers to get a seat…you know like musical chairs…the music being the sizzling sound of pork chops on the barby.

It was here that I had breakfast with an acquaintance, Chris Gentry, the other day. The mornings being the only time the irregulars can get a look see in. Over a meal of ribs, tuna sandwiches, fried eggs sunny side up and crispy bacon washed down with large tumblers of Bloody Marys we moan the intrusion into our watering hole by invading hordes of tourists from the Asian mainland. The time is 9.30 a.m. I feel it is going to be one of those days when we will be here till closing time, a comforting thought considering the mayhem that surrounds us all in our daily grind.

Then Chris in his inimitable bedside manner gives me a few unsolicited ideas for future columns. I patiently hear him wax eloquent on Ubudian society.

“Mark, do you know that there are over one hundred and fifty Japanese women who have married Balinese and are living here in the villages in and around Ubud? My wife is Japanese so I know”.

“Yeah but I haven’t seen any women dressed like Japanese in Ubud let alone elsewhere in Bali” I reply.

He then extols the virtues of the Japanese women in point who have married Balinese men and have adopted the local culture. They live like Balinese in thought, word, deed, dress and are indistinguishable from the locals. Unlike many other expats who have retained their culture in terms of dress and lifestyles and some even their names…Made Wijaya, a friend, being the exception!

Isn’t this ironic as it was only in the last century that the Japanese invaded and occupied Bali? One can still see the tunnels that they had built in WWII near Klungklung.

History is the sacred cow often sacrificed by the hands of forgotten memories. The spirits of the innocents who were killed in WWII in Bali must be keenly observing the migration of people like birds, the comings and goings of generations of foreigners on this island, probably pondering the rationale for the bloody past and the incentives for wars.

Just the other day, Graham, a buddy from Ibiza who spends six months a year in Ubud took me to As One Lounge and Gallery to meet the Japanese couple that run the place – Chika Asamoto and her husband Hutomo Ishii. Now if you are a Jazz fanatic this is the place to hear Chika on the sax performing with local and visiting musicians. And while you sip Saki one can converse with Hutomo about his artworks, which grace the walls of the lounge. He is an artist who is in love with Bali.

Speaking to Chika and Hutomo I begin to realise that Time is only the vehicle – the essence is the heart of the people who adopt Bali as their home. They bring with them a culture and an acceptance of all things Asian that makes this experience so enriching.

A month ago Jill Gocher, a photographer friend, took me for dinner to Hyroshi the Japanese restaurant on the high street. Unfortunately as I don’t eat seafood the dinner was Nasir Bunkus with Ayam for me. But the experience left me wondering about the Japanese who have settled in Bali. What has lured so many back?

Chika and Hutomo, the soft spoken hugely talented couple don’t carry with them the burden of history. What they have brought to Ubud is the intrinsic passion for culture – art, music and (I think) the best Saki in town.

Let us revert to Chris Gentry… the superlatives he uses so effortlessly while talking about everything Japanese, is an American who is married to a fine Japanese lady and resides in Ubud. Okay I’ll not go off on a tangent on this one but suffice to say Bali is the prime meridian between light and dark. Those who venture onto this isle must understand the rules of peaceful co-existence. Methinks Chris has got it pat down.

It is 6 p.m. and Doc grabs the copy of The Bali Times from me and starts reading it aloud. He abruptly stops and remarks, “The world is f..kd, take a look at this…” and hands me the paper pointing to the Health page which carries the news item “Doctors use Vodka drip to save tourist”. Apparently a man in Oz who tried to kill himself (like we all do while driving in Bali) was resurrected from near death by a constant drip of vodka for three whole days. Hooray, our endless days of depravity have finally paid off. All along we assumed that vodka would be the death of us. In fact it has given life to someone albeit in tragic circumstances. But on the flip side can you imagine the hangover he must have had?

“So Doc what do you have to say about this?” I ask

“Absolute vodka saves absolutely”, he replies while sipping his sinful martini.

The morning has now become night, Chris has left and there are only a few stragglers like Doc and yours truly sluggish at the square table.

Quietly Doc confides in me his dream to set up an Ayurvedic Retreat somewhere in Europe. I announce that I plan to visit Japan to find out why my favourite Japanese writer Yukio Mishima – author of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea – committed hara-kiri in his mid-twenties. Oh well, we are like two sodden souls waiting for the Day of Atonement.

Later in the night while returning home I hear Chika playing a soulful rendition of Louis Armstrong’s – What a wonderful World – her saxophone wailing in the night. Whether it is real or imagined I don’t know but it strikes a chord in me. Could it be that the morning of the earth and the land of the rising sun have found peace in each other… in Camelot?

To Chika Asamoto, her husband Hutomo Ishii and all the wonderful Japanese who have made Bali their home, I bow and say…


Thank You.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Spirits of the island

spiritsSomewhere beneath the shade of a tamarind tree in a small village outside Calcutta lies buried a stone wrapped in paper. On the stone is inscribed the words M loves Nina. Many years on that little boy M has grown into a man who is still searching for the esoteric dream of utopia. Trying to grasp the fleeting ethereal phantoms that appear off and on, on a full moon night in Bali.

So what is it that this island conjures up for each of us?

Some nights back a much travelled actor and writer announced over a glass of wine that people come to Bali only to be confronted with their demons. If they endure the truth they survive life on the island and are reborn. Otherwise the punishment meted out is one of instant loss of passion, the visible effects being cynicism and pessimism.

The Balinese have long understood about instant karma and have dealt with it in a matter of fact manner. Going about their work and respectfully carrying out their religious duties. One has often wondered about the pact they have made with the celestial forces that guide the ebb and flow of life for they live in sublime harmony.

As a child I have been enchanted by the spirit world, watching ghosts wander through the old colonial house in which we lived in Saint Thomas Mount, Madras. Too afraid to get up in the night to go to the bathroom I would wet the bed. The morning brought with it a sound thrashing.

Here in Bali I have seen apparitions off and on that walk past my room quite oblivious to my presence and no I don’t wet my bed…the thrashings did work. On arrival in Ubud it took me a few months to adjust to the pace of nightlife…bars, jazz and night time uninvited guests. I didn’t mind the nocturnal visitations to my room except for one particular lady in black who would often sit at the foot of my bed and look at me. Whenever I glanced back she would disappear. Irritated by this intrusion I called a friend to seek her advice. I was instructed to light an incense stick every night before going to sleep and if the visitor did appear again I should converse with it. Hah! As if I was about to start a dialogue with a being from another world.

“Excuse me Ma’m would you like a nice cuppa with a spot of milk and two sugar ducks? And if you are a bit peckish may I offer you Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

No the incense stick trick didn’t work but the visits have become few and far between. Maybe my personal hygiene could be the reason.

The period of adjustment to spirit life has had its moments. Once when I was going through a sense of displacement I bumped into a young designer and photographer, at Indus. She advised me to walk into the rice fields on a full moon night and talk to the spirits of Bali. I did just that. It opened wide the door to psychedelic visions. Beyond it laid a world of Dali ish phantastic realism that my friend and painter Wolfgang would have been most interested in. Suffice to say it settled matters with the spirits. Now I am not bothered by niggling doubts of mundane things like existence, co-existence or for that matter Sartre’s Existentialism!

All this Blake ian talk is enriching for it brings to the fore matters that need to be redressed by us visitors; The inexplicable sudden surge of extreme feelings that many of us have had to grapple with and the deep yearning to find the road to love and sometimes to connubial joy that is instigated and enhanced by the island’s spirits.

Diana asked me the other day about my uninvited guests remarking that she had not seen any entities that defied logic except the ones she met at Nuri’s. And Sophie talked about water being the vehicle for spirits. So if there’s any running stream, river or maybe a leaky faucet near, around, under your home the chances are that your neighbours in the other world may take the fast train to the physical plain and drop in for a chat.

Colin Wilson’s book The Occult is a must read as it documents many recorded instances of the paranormal. Some would call this old wives tales and mumbo jumbo. But proven studies only help in dispelling doubts many of us have with regard to the unseen world.

The following incident occurred when our family lived briefly in St. Thomas Mount, in the 60s. You decide what to make of it.

Alfie, the family friend who saved me from being electrocuted when the lights of the Christmas tree attached themselves to me, was an unholy gentleman who dabbled in black magic with Tantrics.

One day on the way back from primary school I saw Alfie taunting one of them whom he felt was an impersonator of the black arts. The man stood up, eyes blood shot and pointed at Alfie while uttering some obscenities. Alfie fell to the ground with both his hands around his throat and appeared to be throttling himself. People fled while shouting and pointing to his writhing body in the dust. I imagined he was joking so I ran to him calling his name and laughing. The Tantric looked at me. His face was the epitome of a power that was frightening. He turned and walked down the road without looking back. I shook Alfie but he didn’t respond. His eyes were bulging and spittle was coming out of the side of his mouth. I realised then that something was wrong and kept screaming till a passing bullock cart stopped. The man alighted and nonchalantly started slapping Alfie till he released his hands from his throat. He lay there covered in dust, spittle and blood that oozed from the side of his mouth. I pleaded with the bullock cart walla to take us home. The gruff chap just lifted Alfie like he was a stuffed toy and dumped him onto the cart while beckoning me to get on. He took us straight home. Mom was livid with me for bringing Alfie home. She thought that the spirits could have followed us.

So what was it that the Tantric did? Mind over matter? Cast a spell? Or was it harnessing the unseen world to do one’s bidding?

To survive in Bali one must pay heed to the spirit world by making offerings and listening to what the holy men say because they know from whence the spirits cometh. We cannot and should not ignore the tell tale signs around us.

It has been suggested that we look closely at how the Balinese live in harmony with their surroundings, their acceptance and comprehension of the metaphysical world and the many avatars that one encounters in this paradise. The road to attaining nirvana could be by shedding all angst of the past that we carry to this isle and to embrace the spirits of the land.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

The Last Paradise

This week’s column is dedicated to my Balinese friends in Kintamani, Lovina, Singaraja, Amed, Kuta and Ubud. And to Jill Gocher, photographer and friend – thank you for making me sensitive to Balinese Living Culture. Hopefully the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Bali in December this year (2007) will draw the world’s attention to this island’s problems of sustainability in terms of its people, culture and natural resources.

Arriving in Bali many Kuta sunsets ago one was confronted with paradoxes interspersed with stunning beauty. The sunset, the full moon, the religious processions and the rural landscape washed by the rains all made up for a never-ending story of beauty beyond my perceived understanding of the known. I knew then in my heart that this was the Last Paradise, the end of the rainbow. Hopefully the arrival of seasonal visitors, foreign residents and lost souls will not destroy a beautiful people and their culture.

So why do I call Bali the Last Paradise? Well it is for me an island that holds a special meaning. Here amid the lush green rice fields, the fertile lands around the volcanoes and the gentle pace, are a beautiful people who live a life that is being increasingly disturbed by advancing modernisation – The centuries old entrenched religious traditions, family support systems and the harmony in which the Balinese live with nature. A long time ago they were sheltered from the vagaries of technology and its sidekicks by the expanse of water surrounding the island. With the occupation by the Dutch and later by migratory visitors from far off lands Balinese civilisation, as I like calling it, is struggling to remain the Last Paradise. Today tourism has become the staple diet of the islanders. The Tamu (honoured guest – also a euphemism for tourist) has often shown scant regard for the hosts and the environment. Bali has a new name now – the best island tourist destination in the world.

Take a drive through the countryside to view the wonders of the island in its purest form; Tempe lovingly wrapped in banana leaf; Offerings placed delicately on the roadsides; Children climbing trees to break mangoes; Colourful rice cakes drying in the sun; Babi Guling roasting on large bamboo skewers over a fire lit by coconut husk.

However, behind the curtain of sylvan surroundings is an ongoing silent invasion: the result of the world becoming a global village – Hordes of invading holidaymakers who are using and abusing the island’s fragile eco system. This is a necessary evil. For without the tourists there will be no income for the island’s inhabitants. But then again how does the island sustain the growing need for water, food, shelter and transport? And the disposal/recycling of garbage?

Just the other day I was invited to speak at the Rotary Club of Ubud by Asri Kerthyasa, the Princess of Ubud. It was at this meeting that I met David Kuper, who along with his Balinese counterparts, has set up a large recycling waste project in Gianyar. He spoke passionately about waste management in Bali and how effective it could be. Is it too little too late considering the extent of plastic that one can see being used for bags, packaging and that ubiquitous bottle of water?

To be a critic is the easiest job, as one does not have to do the work! Lesser folk have to contend with the refuse of mankind. Travel to any part of this isle and you will see how plastic is being used in everyday life. How essential it is. How economical it is. For instance if we are to suggest a ban on plastic bags on this island what affordable alternative do we have, and one that will not damage the eco system or infringe on the daily income of the Balinese? Also, have you noticed the growing number of vehicles on the road? I suppose progress is a natural phenomenon, which we have to deal with. A mass transport system could be the answer, or maybe not. Who knows? And who decides? The Balinese? Or the self-appointed bleeding hearts from foreign lands?

The Last Paradise embraces, nurtures and sustains a living culture. The tight embrace is slowly loosening. Fertile lands are being bulldozed for new housing in all shapes and sizes. The ancient Balinese architectural code- Asta Kosala Kosali – is rarely referred to while building homes. What are we doing as guests on this island to respect the living culture of the Balinese? How many of us can speak Balinese? How many among us have built houses with high walls around them to keep out the locals in total contravention to the island’s social ethos?

It’s apparent that there are more questions than answers. But isn’t it time that the Tamu returned the favours bestowed by the Balinese so that their culture is kept alive and prosperous in a self-destructing world?

In the process of travelling across this isle I have met many rural folk –peanut/corn/rice farmers and owners of small warungs along the way. One is overwhelmed by the simplicity of their lives that revolve around the family, bangar, marriages, births, deaths and religious ceremonies. Interestingly, most of them speak Balinese. For me this is the heart of a civilisation – language.

Language contains within it the soul of a civilisation. The eternal seed that continues to germinate new generations that nourish a living culture. Wayan, my Balinese landlord, told me the other day that Balinese children were being influenced by other cultures and were beginning to speak a kind of Indonesian slang. He was worried that his mother tongue would soon go out of fashion. I assured him that as long as he spoke his lingo and it was taught in schools the Balinese language would never die out.

This conversation revealed an interesting fact and I beg to ask the question, “Are we seeing a clash of cultures?” Bastardised cultures imposing themselves on the fragile and sensitive living culture in Bali, the profane eating away at the membrane encasing the Last Paradise. A few may smugly observe that this is a form of evolution but some would say that it is an invasion of alien thought processes that can easily be repulsed by the sheer depth of Balinese culture embedded in the island’s social fabric.

The barometer of a living culture also reflects in its flora and fauna. One says this with reference to the Bali Starling and how friends and the people of Bali have saved it from extinction. By doing so they have kept intact their own culture. The state of flora and fauna on the island is a reflection of the health of its people. It is heartening to know that the Bali Starling is the mascot for the Bali 2008 Asian Beach Games! Government recognition like this brings with it acceptance, respect and preservation of the species.

Bali has, is and will always be the balm for many a weary soul who has built a nest and procreated on its land. Today it is tethering on a razor’s edge between sustaining a rich cultural heritage supported by a vibrant people and the surge of modernity raising its ugly head ever so often. What the future will bring is anyone’s guess but for many of us in the Here and Now, Bali is the Last Paradise. We can cherish, nurture and sustain it by honouring our hosts, respecting the living culture that embodies all that is in harmony with the island’s eclectic mix of people, flora and fauna.

In the words of my friend Made, “Bali for me is my life, Bali die I die”.

And for all those “foreigners” who grumble about the travails of everyday living and working in Bali here’s a quote from my (late) father Noel Eric, “If you want to see dirt look in the gutter. But if you want to see beauty look at the stars they reflect the beauty of the earth”. It’s that simple. The question one needs to ask is that if we continue to rape and lay bare the earth that sustains us, what sort of planet will our children inherit?

Bali is alive and throbbing today. What the morrow will bring is for the Gods to decide. Till then let us pay homage to the land, its people, seek shelter in their homes, eat the food offered to us, speak the language and honour them. For this, I know, we will be blessed in the Last Paradise.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Face to face with myself in a small village in Bali

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” – Pema Chodron, from Things Fall Apart.

In India, Dussehra (a prelude to Deepavali) is marked by the burning of the effigy of Ravana, the King of Lanka who kidnapped Lord Ram’s wife Sita and took her to Lanka. It is the day when Lord Ram, his brother Laxman and Lord Hanuman along with an army attacked Lanka. In the ensuing battle Lord Ram killed Ravana as it was foretold between day and night – at twilight. It is the day when good triumphs over evil. And the Hindus rejoice with pomp and gaiety.

About two weeks after this, Deepavali (the Festival of Lights also known as Diwali) is celebrated when Ram, Sita and Laxman return to Ayodhya. It is also the day when Pujas are performed in every Indian Hindu home in honour of Laxmi the Goddess of wealth. The bright lights, new clothes, the exotic variety of sweet meats (Barfi, Ladoo, Halwa, Rossagulla, Gulab Jamun, Sandesh) and firecrackers are part of the celebrations. It is the Hindu New Year in India.

Now why did I tell you all this?

It was many days ago when Ketut Suardana, Assistant Manager The Bali Football Club, successful businessman and husband of Janet de Neefe, sent me a message wishing me Happy Dussehra and inviting me to join him on a yatra with his wife and Elizabeth Henzell of the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. As it was his Balinese birthday that happened to coincide with a Full Moon, Ketut was going to meet a High Priest to seek his blessings.

He explained that the Balinese celebrate their birthday every 210 days (i.e. every six Balinese months consisting of 35 days each).

Ubud – October 25, 2007. – The drive from Ubud past Semarapura and then via enchanting Sideman to Selat Duda a village situated in the Amlapura area took little less than two hours. We stopped on a narrow road and walked to the Brahmin High Priest’s home.

The instant one walked through the entrance one felt as if one had entered a Pandit’s dwelling in Vrindavan; the courtyard; the bird cages hanging in rows; the serenity punctuated by the tinkling of bells, chanting of prayers and the aroma of incense permeating the air around us. In the distance, the audible sound of Indian bhajans being played over a public address system could be heard. Was I momentarily transported to the holy Hindu city of Vrindavan? Sentiments within me rose and fell to the reverberations of the haunting chants. I held back my tears for fear of being inundated by things that had fallen apart in the past.

Soon we were called to one side of the courtyard and the High Priest’s wife Pedanda Istri performed the Makala – Kala on us; that is the cleansing of all bad energy/spirits. Then we stood in front of the High Priest – Pedanda Lanang – who rang a bell, chanted prayers, blessing us many times with holy water that drenched our heads and trickled down onto our clothes. The fragrance of frangipani and the heady scent of incense sticks finally released the pent up emotions and I wept uncontrollably recalling for a fleeting moment (many years ago) when my wife and 5-year-old son stood beside me in a Krishna temple in Vrindavan while the priest blessed us and put Tikas on our foreheads just like the Pedanda Lanang, who was using rice instead of sandalwood paste. Nothing could bring those memories to life again. Only the thought of being with friends in a Balinese priest’s home and the passion of the rituals comforted one’s troubled soul. Elizabeth’s gentle hand on my shoulder made me realise that Love and God were both alive and well within me once more.

When the ceremony was over we retired to a verandah where we sat on the floor awaiting the Pedanda Lanang to return from his prayers. Warm cups of comforting Bali coffee arrived with pink seaweed jelly as an accompaniment. The silence was occasionally broken by the cooing of doves in the cages hanging from the ceiling above us. Idle chatter was half hearted, probably we all felt humbled by the profound spiritual encounter.

By now the sun had set and the Full Moon bathed the courtyard in an ethereal light. To me it seemed a shadow less night. Lunar rays gently stroking and calming the emotions that had made me a bit like the jelly I was eating. The mingling of tears with sweet Bali coffee put everything in perspective. This was life. The choices were there for us all. What we did, we did consciously. It was karma; and I had come face to face with myself in a small village in Bali.

Later the Pedanda Lanang arrived and sat before us on a cane sofa while benignly smiling at us. His face was a study in placidity that transcended life around us and in it bore a semblance to a kind of divinity. His hair was tied back in a bun with few flowers placed in it. We waited patiently in silence as if meditating on our lives. No one spoke for a few minutes. Then Ketut whispered in my ear, “Do you want to ask the priest any questions?” I did so hesitantly as there was a small congregation of faithful sitting with us! The medium of language was Balinese. Ketut was kind enough to translate the same for me.

What transpired next was a string of revelations that confirmed what one was doing all along – the rights, wrongs and sometimes the rudderless drifting. Regretfully one cannot discuss the details with you dear readers. But needless to say one did get a few pointers on how to become a better human being and for this I say shukreya…thank you.

A short while later we left the priest’s home and walked back on the moonlight road towards the car. The night air felt much lighter and the heavy burden on my chest had lifted. I understood then that it was the acceptance of the inevitable – the final parting from the Past – my family and home as I knew it. Maybe one was destined to travel the world like a bird to share all one had learnt with fellow travellers, just like the Pedanda Lanang had predicted of me.

The drive back through Sideman and the phantom like moonlit landscape with the backdrop of Agung looming on the horizon completed the picture of a Bali I had embraced. The experience with Ketut and my Australian friends helped me comprehend the many subtle layers of life that exist and persist on this isle.

We cannot ignore or control the rhythms of existence. All we can humanly do is to understand what Love is and to honour our Gods.

I wish my Hindu family and friends in Bali and around the world, Happy Deepavali and a Prosperous New Year. May this New Year bring you peace, prosperity, and happiness.

And to Ketut Suardana and his family, Elizabeth Henzell and the readers of The Bali Times may you be forever young.

Happy Deepavali!
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om