Bali’s Cultural Nasi Campur

screen-saver-copy1Bali’s signature culinary concoction is the ubiquitous Nasi Campur, rice with meat and vegetables that is the staple diet of most self respecting Balinese and some expats. But there is another kind of Nasi Campur that exists on the isle – the beautiful children born out of connubial joy between Indonesians and expats from far off lands. These creatures of delight with their light brown hair, biscuit colored skin and minds free of cultural encumbrances mingle with all and like chameleons take on the hues of their surroundings effortlessly and without prejudice. It is like they are born out of the mold. Could these be the next generation that will help us out of the convoluted quagmire of religious and cultural intolerance and will their parents be able to protect the minds of these exotic species from being poisoned surreptitiously by people blinkered by self induced machinations?

A few weeks ago Melani Semuel, the Editor-in-chief of MAXX-M Jakarta, suggested I write an article on mixed marriages between expats and Indonesians and hopefully get a glimpse of this exotic world that is woven into the cultural fabric of Bali.

So here I am sitting in a car crawling up the steep road to Pura Pasar Agung with Terje Holte Nilsen, a strapping ex-Norwegian Navy Seal, his wife Nyoman Parvati and their three gorgeous daughters, Achintya, Gayatri and Ananda. The loud chatter of the girls dressed in their kebayas is confusing as strange words keep cropping up. I turn around and ask them what language they are speaking.

“Languages…when we travel my mother always tells us to practice our Balinese. Today we are rotating between three languages – Bahasa Indonesia, Balinese and a little bit of Norwegian”, answered Achintya.

Terje (pronounced as Terry) tells me that Bali is like a fertile breeding ground for tolerance to all life. It is here that he has learnt to be humble.

Now that you have got the gist of the tale let us move on to the story of this family and how they came to BE.

I begin with three quotes taken from the famous Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan’s book titled, Managing Turbulent Hearts, A Balinese Formula for Living.

Always when I go out in the street, I make my face look bright…that people will not laugh and say, “She does not know how to manage her heart” (sing bise ngabe keneh) – Balinese Woman

“That’s why, if someone is sad, we laugh to make their hearts happy from sadness” – Balinese Man

How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease, and death? – Lord Buddha

Ni Nyoman Parvati was born 35 years ago into a family of eleven children. She did her schooling in Bali and University in Jakarta where she graduated in Economics (Audit & Accountancy). Her job as an Auditor for a reputed company in Jakarta took her to Medan where she and some colleagues were assigned to audit the books of a Hotel and its Fitness Centre. It was here that she met Terje, who was then the manager of the fitness center.

The first encounter was a bit washed out as most of the time was spent peering through the books of accounts. A few months later when Nyoman returned to Bali after resigning her job in Jakarta she contacted Terje. There was much travel to and fro between Medan and Bali till finally one fine day Terje proposed and Nyoman accepted albeit hesitantly as she wanted her family’s approval, blessings and support. Terje was politely invited to visit the family for an ‘interview’ for they believed that mixed marriages didn’t work; Prime examples being evident among the expat community where the debris of such failed marriages can still be seen on the faces of disenfranchised children at shopping malls and supermarkets.

The verdict was announced the same day to the couple – the family approved and would wholeheartedly support the couple. A few relatives were abrasive in the beginning as they doubted Terje’s intentions and his willingness to become a Hindu. They were probably apprehensive about Terje’s mental capacity to comprehend the thousand shades of grey between the colors of white and black – Sekala Nishkala – the seen and unseen.

The couple married under Hindu rites in Taman Mini Indonesia in Jakarta in 1998.

“I am proud of Terje because he has seriously studied the Hindu scriptures, learnt the language and more importantly taken an active part in temple and Banjar activities. Most of his friends are Balinese and he has insisted our children speak our language. And he loves the food. I remember on one of our trips to Norway to visit his mother and her husband he drove me crazy because he wanted me to cook Nasi Campur and Babi Guling! The food I liked best on these trips was Kalkun (roast turkey) and Norwegian Salmon (baked) which was cooked by my mother in law, Lisa,” said Nyoman with a smile.

“Do you have any misgivings about the modernization of Bali?” I asked.

“Yes. I feel that more and more Balinese children are not speaking their mother tongue and instead they communicate in Bahasa Indonesia. I don’t have a problem with them speaking the national language but Balinese is our language. It is an inherent part of our culture and religion. If we lose our language we will fade away into history. Our culture will be lost. That is why I insist my children and my husband speak Balinese as much as possible. And another point I would like to bring up here and that is the fact that traditional Balinese dance forms and Gamelan will slowly die away as the children are more interested in modern music and this crazy thing called DJs”, she replied with a sigh of resignation.

Later in the day after we had paid obeisance to Shiva and had been blessed by the Priest at Pura Pasar Agung, the imposing temple built on the slopes of Mount Agung, we returned to the car and leisurely drove back to Canggu where the family has set up home for the last five years. On the way I unashamedly ‘interrogated’ Terje about his life, beliefs and family values.

“Thanks to my father who was in the Navy, I got the opportunity to travel to many countries and sample the unique peculiarities of many cultures. Of course, the food and drink did play an important part in my understanding of social norms and religious sentiments of the people I met along the way. Though I was brought up Christian/Agnostic/Protestant, I also studied Islam. After graduating in Economics (Financial Management) I did a stint as a Navy Seal in the Norwegian Navy. But as arms and warfare were not in sync with my beliefs I left to globe trot.

In school and then college I was the National Rowing Champion and also took part in World Championships in Europe and Australia. Probably this background of sports and the Navy got me into the Fitness Business.

In 1994 I returned to Indonesia as I felt this nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I had to be here for some reason which I couldn’t fathom. Maybe there was a benign life force that I had encountered on my earlier trips that drew me back here…I don’t know. Anyways, a few years later I bumped into Nyoman and then my life began in earnest.

You ask me why I got married and why I converted to Hinduism. Well it is quite simple. The western society in which I had grown up in had lost its basic family values, family support systems and more importantly the community spirit. Everyone was for his or her self. Very selfish and self centered. In Bali all these values are the corner stone of its vibrant ethos and spirituality. The family, relatives and community all make up an intricate web of support that acts as a net incase one free falls because of delusions of singularity.

The Balinese concept of Tri Hirta Karana is not religious based. It is a clear statement of how one should exist on this planet: Harmony between Human to Human, Harmony between Human and the Environment, Harmony with one’s God,” he said.

“Do you fear that your children when they grow up and travel to Norway for higher studies will be exposed to other cultures and may lose their Balinese connections?” I asked.

“No, this does not worry me in the least. Our three daughters who are now aged 8, 9 and 10 years are being grounded and in a manner of speaking embedded in the Balinese socio-religious-cultural matrix. So when they do face extremes abroad they will know how to deal with these factors because they will instinctively refer back to their roots. But what concerns us is the present state of affairs like the preservation of the environment from polluting plastic waste and the indiscriminate construction of buildings by ‘other people’ without any reference to the concept of Tri Hirta Karana or adherence to some of the basic principles laid down in Asta Kosala Kosali (Balinese architectural Code),” he replied.

I will end this enchanting encounter with a quote from a Nasi Campur in Bali, Achintya Holte Nilsen aged 10 –

“I am Balinese and Norwegian. Indonesia is my home and so is Norway. I love both countries and both peoples. I hope someday everyone will begin to feel like I do now, then we will not be fighting and killing each other. We will only be loving and caring for one another”

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om