A Meeting with a Rainbow Warrior

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There is a prophecy from the First Nations of America that there will come a time when the earth will become sick, its waters polluted and the skies full of smoke and at that time there will rise up from all around the planet warriors and they would be known as the Warriors of the Rainbow. They will fight the forces destroying the earth and return all that has been plundered from it. We hope these warriors would also come from Bali,” said Mike Fincken, skipper of the Greenpeace boat, Rainbow Warrior, to me when we met last December in Bali.

This is the second boat of the same name. The first one was blown up by the French Authorities to prevent Greenpeace from protesting the nuclear tests in the Pacific.

In December 2007, nations gathered in Bali to confabulate and agree upon a strategy to prevent the further destruction of the earth by wanton pollution. It was grandly called the UN Climate Change Conference. I didn’t attend the jamboree. But I did get an opportunity to board the Rainbow Warrior anchored at Benoa harbour to speak one on one with the captain, Mike Fincken.

He agreed to my request for an interview of sorts provided he spoke in his personal capacity and not as the official spokesman for Greenpeace. I was only too happy to share a cuppa with him while he showed me around the boat.

The ensuing encounter brought back memories of the Sunder Bans and the savage rape of its fragile eco system. Afraid of reliving this reality that one had ‘left’ behind when recording Mike’s utterances for posterity, I filed this story under the heading miscellaneous hoping to return to it at another time; And what better time than now when plastic waste continues to clog and pollute the rivers and sea shores of Bali – the island that breathes a beautiful life into all who arrive at its doorstep.

Mike, as he prefers to be called, has been sailing the Rainbow Warrior for the last two years. He has worked a total of 12 years with Greenpeace. Being a pacifist South African when Mandela was incarcerated in jail on Robin Island, he went to sea to avoid the compulsory conscription then in force.

As head of operations on a cargo ship loading lumber in Vancouver he began wondering as to source of the wood and the resultant destruction of pristine wilderness wrought by mindless logging. This ignited an interest in environmental groups and their actions and brought Mike in contact with Greenpeace and in particular its maritime service. He began a correspondence with their office for two years while at the same time completing the mandatory 10 years sailing to obtain certification of Master Mariner. In 1996, he resigned his job and at his own expense flew from Cape Town to Amsterdam, the HQ of Greenpeace to volunteer his services. He was assigned to a boat called Moby Dick without salary but board and lodging.

“An unforgettable and humbling experience has been sailing in the south sea of Antarctica… on display Nature in its purest form, untouched and virginal… The vast whiteness and untamed wilds with lots of Orcas and hump back Minkes frolicking in the sea… Sunrays refracting on the ice creating mini rainbows…the mesmerising sparkle of light in many hues of pinks, blues and reds. Alas, every time we return on our annual visit we have to sail further and further south to reach the main ice lands as global warming has affected the South Pole by slowly melting the ice cap. This is the result of what we are doing to our planet, our only home. Do you know that two thirds of climate change is the direct result of energy production? We need to promote alternative sources of energy like solar power,” lamented Mike.

Greenpeace has three boats: Rainbow Warrior (small), Artic Sunrise (medium) and the Esperanza (large), which means hope in Spanish.

I asked him about the Japanese whaling fleets, how and why they killed whales for scientific experiments and how Greenpeace has often successfully stopped them from slaughtering whole podss.

He told me that when the Japanese whaling fleet locates a pod of whales they fire harpoons that strike the whales and explode inside their bodies immobilising them. When a whale has been hit the others, on hearing its distress calls, gather around to comfort it. This is when a number of them are also shot. The sea turns red with blood to the wailing song of the gentle giants of the oceans. Then the fleet moves in and secures each whale by the tail with rope hauling it tail first onto the boat. As the profusely bleeding whale is still alive its head is left under water for a while so that it drowns.

Mike has been on many missions with his associates riding the choppy seas in motorised rubber boats to act as a shield between the whales and the fishing fleets. The danger of exploding harpoons does not deter him. I suppose the cost of one human life for the sake of the survival of a species is a small price to pay.

On the other hand the Japanese also conduct scientific experiments. For instance, they annually measure and record the size of the stomach of a number of whales. Apparently the condition and size of the innards is a barometer of the state of the environment. For instance, it has been known that whale stomachs have been shrinking over the years. This is because their staple food, Plankton, is diminishing primarily due to global warming that is destroying the ozone layer and letting in harmful UV rays that affect the growth of Plankton. The truth is that more whales will die due to the effects of global warming than by exploding harpoons.

During the Climate Change Conference, the Indonesian Minister for Environment launched, from the Rainbow Warrior, the government’s program; “Energy Efficient Bali 2008 – Switch off, unplug and enjoy”. (What progress has been in the last nine months is anyone’s guess). Mike firmly believes that such a program will be successful if each one of us takes on the responsibility as an individual. And this could start by every person doing his or her small bit like not littering, picking up plastic waste and conserving energy by unplugging appliances not in use.

With the arrival of another round of coffee, the skipper spoke emotionally about his small home in South Africa and how his interest in the environment began after he took a course in organic vegetable farming: tilling the soil with his bare hands, feeling the moist earth and discovering the many tiny creatures like earthworms and beetles in his small garden. It sensitised him to the value of all life.

And yes Mike is a vegetarian and so are two thirds of his crew. He told me that the Rainbow Warrior is like a floating United Nations as the crew of 15 came from 13 countries.

At the end of the enlightening meeting, the skipper handed me a signed message from him to all who dwell on this isle. It is included as an insert in this column. Let us cut it out and keep it in our wallets as a constant reminder of our duty to preserve this paradise.

It has been suggested that we can begin by first banning plastic bags on Bali and then clearing the plastic waste that is defiling this sacred isle of the gods.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Seize the day – Carpe Diem

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Seize the day, pluck it and suck on the nectar of life; and be happy, one day at a time.

Sitting at Devilicous on Jalan Gootama pondering the fate of the cigar industry if I gave up smoking, my thoughts were interrupted by a foot tapping Creole song playing over the radio. The screaming of the violin accompanied by a wailing of sorts shook me out of my reverie and suddenly showed me that life in reality was not all that it was made out to be. That we can make it into anything we want provided we relinquish our past that we awaken to every morning when the sun rises.

Many among us brood and grieve for things past: The death of loved ones, failed relationships, days of beauty and tenderness like the warmth of a mother’s breast, lost in the haze of yesterdays. We vainly reach out to grasp the fading memories because we are afraid of losing the strength to dream. To dream of things we want to resurrect so that we can live our lives to the fullest. But in attempting to do so we are confronted with the truth.

Truth being that nothing remains the same for we have lost our innocence, which like virginity once lost is never regained. Sadly even our feelings shift from person to person or thing to thing.

Let’s ask ourselves this question: What if we returned to the day when we enjoyed the most enchanting experience however naive it may have been and relive it till we retire to the grave? Methinks we would get bored in no time: Like eating the same food everyday ad nausea. We will need sambal, spice and a dash of living on the edge to get the juices flowing, to agitate our spirit.

In Bali one comes across expats who have encapsulated their culture and language to a point that they have barricaded themselves from ‘local influence’. They are obsessed with speaking in their own language, sharing stories of their childhood and reminiscing about their homeland. Some wear faces that speak of futility and anger – a self-abandoned people. Their children are imbibing the sadness and sense of resignation of unbelonging through the daily process of osmosis. It is these people, some who known to me, that I dedicate this column because I have been where they are now, a dark world navigating a turbulent sea of memories without the compass of belonging to show the way: The return to the throbbing world being only through the portholes of each morning.

“Where am I to go from here? I escaped my home but I cannot escape from the memories of home. My mind is raped by horrid memories everyday, every hour, every minute. I am a walking ghost. I laugh. I cry. I make love. I live. But this is not life. It is purgatory. How do I get out and ‘be’ again?” said Mary as she held my hand and stuffed her face into vodka on the rocks.

What could one tell her except to live each day with complete abandon with an open heart, an open mind and a daring spirit.

Life in Bali is a challenge. One has faced the beast of depression on moonless nights and it has taken days often weeks to rid oneself of the cloud of darkness that cast a shadow over all things wonderful in one’s life. Hasn’t anyone noticed how friends suddenly behave erratically and illogically? They lose it and recuperate in a short period returning to the real world happily but still carrying a residue of the moroseness. So why is this symptomatic among us expats?

Could it be that many are injured souls tortured by a life that took us in its clutches and knocked the wind out of our sails? We loll around lifeless on this isle waiting for the day of reckoning when we can rise at dawn to a perfect life, which will never come because Utopia is an endless castrated day with beauty but no joy. This is because joy cannot exist without the cruelty of life.

Last year I met a young lady who shared with me her thoughts on life in Bali and how it tore at the spirit and challenged her to become someone else.

“Some days when I walk out of my hotel I see, feel and sense the delicate intricacies of life around me. It glows. Every leaf, flower and even people’s faces. There’s a joy in my heart and a willingness to make my life perfect in every which way. Then on other days everything appears intensely dark and foreboding. I imagine ghosts hiding in the banana leaves and even simple words uttered by people as threatening. I want to return to the hotel and go back to sleep hoping to rid myself of the negative energy. My spirit is fragile and I am afraid I will lose it in Bali.”

Recently I met her at an art exhibition. She has become strong by fighting each day and seizing every positive nuance that came her way. In a sense, she has won. The smile says it all.

And then there is another friend who wears rings with stones of red, green, white and blue. Each stone she tells me helps in balancing her financially, emotionally and spiritually. The rings give her peace though I am told she ‘loses it’ once in a while. But aren’t we all human?

It has taken me about two years to balance the forces within me and around me to pluck each day from the forbidden tree like succulent fruit to satiate one’s desires that rise with the sun and retire at twilight. It’s not perfect. But then as some cynics say, God too is not perfect.

Many expats whose dictum is Carpe Diem have made a significant impact on other people’s lives on this isle and elsewhere. For example, the legendary mid-wife Robin Lim and John Hardy a successful businessman who has sold his business and is now setting up a green school, shades of Shantineketan founded by the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Bali offers all expats life on a platter. We can eat the food, grow fat and lazy, lose ourselves in our minds, and our past. Or, we can seize each day and live it to the fullest. Never letting anyone or anything interfere with the positive vibes we generate.

Every morning we must remind ourselves that only cowards blindfold themselves to the intrinsic splendour of this paradise for they dwell solely on and feed off the negativity of others.

Seize the day my friends. Suck its luscious fleshy fruits and live life, as it should be lived with love, happiness, and peaceful co-existence for we have nothing to lose except our souls to the universe.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Bobby Chinn – Hanoi’s enfant terrible of culinary gymnastics

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Exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas.

On Thursday 24, 2008, at the Intercontinental Bali Resort, Celebrity Chef Bobby Chinn, the swashbuckling host of World Café Asia, Discovery Travel & Living Channel, author of the cookbook ‘Wild, Wild East, Recipes and Stories from Vietnam and owner of the famous Bobby Chinn Restaurant in Hanoi –gave us a Kitchen demo and press luncheon hosted by the hotel.

With verbal antics and culinary gymnastics he introduced us to his world in the kitchen – the devil’s kitchen. Bobby demonstrated how to dissect a crab and prepare his famous tamarind glazed crab cakes; and Bun bo wagyu beef with rice noodles and salad. According to Bobby, Bun bo wagyu beef comes from the most pampered living creature on this planet – the cow that lives in Japan which is fed partly on beer and is given daily massages by hand!

The luncheon menu was; grapes wrapped in goat’s cheese with a pistachio crust; Bobby’s famous tamarind glazed crab cakes; Bun bo wagyu beef with rice noodles and salad; And for dessert, coconut crème brulee. Of course, it goes without saying, each course was accompanied by fine wine.

After the gourmet meal I retired with Bobby to the lush green lawns of the hotel to chat about his life and work.

Interviewing Bobby is like trying to communicate with someone who has a thousand volts of electricity going through him. He is a high voltage wire without insulation. So here goes.

Could you share with the readers of The Bali Times a glimpse of your background?

Well I am New Zealand born, studied in an English Boarding School, did my BA in Finance and Economics, worked on the New York Stock Exchange got disillusioned with the work and followed my passion for cooking by training under the guru chef Hubert Heller of Fleur De Lys. I did my apprenticeship in Bordeaux and Paris. To make ends meet I worked as a runner, busboy and steward in various restaurants. Actually my first work experience was in the kitchen of Elka, a Franco-Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.

So where does this passion for food come from?

Both my grandmothers – one who is Chinese (Buddhist) and the other Egyptian (Muslim). My preferred food when I was homesick in school was; Moukh – deep-fried goats’ brains that is creamy inside with a crispy outer texture served in a sandwich. And the other favourites were and still are – Chicken Tikka Masala, Falafel and other Arabic food and Mexican food. I am enchanted by all kinds of cuisine. In the foods of the world I see reflected a people’s culture, age-old traditions and more importantly love. Probably that is why the cooking of my grandmothers captivated me.

How would you describe yourself as a cook?

I am not that kind of cook who says, ‘Let’s create something new everyday’. My cooking is based on need and necessity. I am an artist in my own right. I get to paint the masterpiece while others have to repeat it everyday. (Laughs). Food for me is a tool. I remove myself from the emotional impact like cleaning a live crab. I was a vegetarian from 1982 to 1994 and stopped when I became a chef. Maybe in the distant future I will become a vegetarian again.

So have you learnt everything you wanted to know as a chef?

Impossible. No one can say they have reached a point where they don’t need to learn anymore. For me I have reached a level in my work where no one wants to teach me. I find it difficult to get other well-known chefs to share their knowledge. So I have to get creative and draw on my experience eating street food, food cooked for me when I visit people’s homes for a meal etc.

Tell us what you have been doing in Vietnam?

I have been living and working in Hanoi for twelve years. After much travel I ended up in Vietnam and was instantly smitten by the wealth of culinary ingredients, applications, combinations and most importantly street food. I worked in a number of popular restaurants. Finally some years ago I started a restaurant, as I wanted to present my own eclectic cutting edge concoctions of food and drink. Read my book Wild, Wild East – recipes and Stories from Vietnam it tells all about the truly fascinating life that awaits all who arrive on its shores.

What was your first experience in Bali?

Some years ago when hosting my maiden program World Café Asia in Bali, everything went wrong in the sense that I was not used to being ‘directed’ and needed to walk and talk naturally. But the following programs panned out well once we all got into the rhythm.

What do you look forward to when you arrive in Bali?

Eating Betutu Bebek and satay and the sixty-minute Balinese massage that are unparalleled anywhere in the world, more importantly the Balinese who are experts in the hospitality field. I come here to relax and go back tired (laughs).

Any suggestions for the readers?

Yes buy my book from any Periplus bookshop. On page 160 is the recipe for my signature dish Tamarind-Glazed Crab Cake with Chive Flowers. Go for it, try making it yourself and if you stumble and mess it up, try again and again till you get it right, that is, if you are an aspiring chef. Otherwise give me a call and I’ll drop by to cook it for you in return for a first class air ticket and stay at one of the luxurious suites at the Intercon (Laughs).

Art – give us a break!

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Recently a dog was starved to death as part of an art installation. And presently an artist is looking for a dying person to be part of another art installation – the artist’s depiction of ‘real death’. No canvasses, no oils, brushes or easels just insensitivity to all that nature holds dear – life.

The above news that filtered to Bali sometime ago started me thinking about the state of art on the island and where it was heading. So, I spoke to a few well-known foreign and Indonesian artists including the owner of a large art gallery. All of them refused to be quoted for fear of being ostracised from one clique or another. So here I am belling the cat and calling a spade the tool for digging one’s own grave.

A disturbing trend in art is taking hold in Bali – plagiarism and rampant mediocrity. Dramatic statements from orators posing as artists speaking eloquently at opening nights to the well-travelled high-heeled society only confirms one’s worst fears that a clash of clichés has sidelined the real artists.

There is a Latin saying which loosely translated means – poets are born, orators are made. Poets being the quintessential creative folk who are born with talent while the orators are devoid of any talent and have to practice their art ‘for’ perfection. Those ruling with paintbrush in hand pontificate about the lack of talent and vision (excluding themselves, of course); conveniently overlooking the struggling gifted local artists handicapped by language and oratory skills that fall by the wayside. These young people often resort to replicating artwork for a fee to keep the home fires burning.

So where has all the passion and originality in creativity gone? Has it been lost in the counting of bank notes or in the ever-shifting prism of the confluence of cultures on the isle? Some claim that the lifeless canvasses actually reflect a pervasive ‘surface society’. While others defend it by shouting from the rooftops that art is constantly in transition and therefore anything goes for a fee, adding that a dog does not appreciate art, only humans do.

Sometime back in a far off country an experiment was performed where a monkey was used to paint a few canvasses that were displayed alongside those of contemporary artists. The public was never told. At the opening of the exhibition the monkey’s work was hailed by critics and public alike.

This in essence reveals the sickening depths of consumerism that we have shrunk to. Established artists have become brands. And, as you probably know, brands are identifiable and therefore ‘good investment’. Whether the canvasses depict truth in art is irrelevant as long as the price is right. It has been heard in warungs that the Chinese have arrived in Indonesia buying the work of Indo-Chinese artists, some for staggering amounts. I have seen some of the artwork in question and presume that I can also buy a square black canvass and paint a few red lines on it, sign a fictitious ‘Chinese’ name and peddle the work for a few thousand dollars. What’s the difference between this and the fake Rolex watches being sold on the streets?

Maybe I will ask Dewi, the eight-year-old daughter of my landlord Wayan; to help me and we could split the sale proceeds.

“Children are natural abstract painters for they are closer to God and in a way on a higher spiritual plain than their elders. Many of us have lost contact with this spirituality and unfortunately the majority of contemporary artwork on display in Bali reflects just this” says a young artist in Ubud.

The ground reality is that society cannot do anything for art. It can only help ‘arrived’ artists. Every artist must make his or her way through the labyrinth of art galleries and various social levels infected with cancerous consumerism.

In the words of a leading Balinese artist, “Ubud is like a supermarket flooded mostly with cheap reproduced art. There is no life in this art. Everyone is just painting to get money. A true artist paints because he wants to transfer his thoughts to forms and/or colours onto a surface. He doesn’t create for a particular market or with a price in mind. You tell me Mark, have you met any such artist? It’s a shame that galleries are opening like fast food joints peddling artwork that distorts the truth. There is little or no integrity or spirituality in art anymore; it’s just about money. We are selling our souls as we are lost and need money to give us a false sense of achievement. Wealthy artists are not necessarily ‘real artists’ for they have probably sold their spirituality a long time ago and are now manufacturing work to appease the culture vultures that descend on Bali. We need to find the likes of Van Gogh among us to rekindle the passion in art. Originality is dead or dying. Creativity has committed suicide. What have we left?”

This is endemic the world over. A classic example is M.F.Hussain, an Indian painter, whose works sell for hundreds and thousands of dollars. Prior to one exhibition in India he arrived a few hours before the opening and ‘quickly’ painted all the blank canvasses on display; the result – a sell out.

Though brand identity works even in the rarefied atmosphere of the self-indulgent art world, it takes poverty, social strife, political upheavals and genocide to give birth to great artists. It has been said that it took 500 years for Switzerland to give the world the cuckoo clock while in the same period other countries under strife, plagued by violence gave us famous painters, poets, writers etc.

For me, an artist is the ‘integrity barometer’ of the society that he or she lives in. For example, Picasso (who is accused by many of destroying European art) and Salvador Dali successfully mocked the art world for they had discovered through their creative pursuits how to relate art to society. They ignited the then art world and forced it in another direction.

I cornered the owner of an art gallery to question him about the fate of young emerging Balinese painters and why he usually exhibited westerners’ work.

“I need money to help the struggling artists. So a percentage of the money I earn from sale of the foreign artists’ works I use to finance this venture. I send them to Yogyakarta and Jakarta to study. I exhibit their work. I feel time is not on their side right now. The market is too saturated with established artists. Also, the market works on trends like the fashion industry. Young Balinese artists are not in fashion right now. But their time will come, I am confident. And I will continue to financially support the local artists.”

My friend ‘the painter’ believes in the laws of Nature, of natural selection. He is confident that the art scene in Bali that is predominantly governed by mediocrity and self-gratification will in time level out onto a plain of acute monotony. This in turn will prompt the rise of young firebrand artists incubating in society like desert flowers that bloom whenever it rains. Hopefully they will revitalise the fading integrity of the present day art world.

So, till such time this happens we will have to suffer the onslaught of insipid soulless art that is fast becoming a fashion statement in Bali and elsewhere.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om