Holiday on Earth

Pic by Mark Ulyseas

Today has been special, I saw a Krait and witnessed the landscape I am designing emerge from a grotty space of tangled weeds and garbage into a wondrous garden full of butterflies and dragon flies with the great Indian sunbird popping in to check out the Allamanda.

Work on the rockery was just not right so I decided to redo the whole thingy. It was hot, humid and as I drank the chilled beer feeling one with nature as I answered it, still holding the bottle of beer…someone shouted my name from the main house…a frantic cry. Of course, finishing what I had to do I rushed back to the house only to find the young lad who was working on the interiors lying on the floor in a semi conscious state;  A panic attack brought on by the delayed schedules attributed of course to IST. Not Indian Standard Time but Indian Stretchable Time. What followed was the mandatory visit to the hospital and the wait outside the ICU sucking on a cigar and watching the ambulances arrive and depart with sick and injured people.

Death passed just once covered under a white sheet stained with blood.

Visits to hospitals, for me, are a frightening experience… Imagine lying with needles stuck in one’s body and dying alone in a room that smells of antiseptic and discovered by an overworked nurse. Another body for the morgue. A statistic. A certificate of death. Certificates for everything…birth, school, college and…death.

We live with certification.

We are mere numbers.

Not infinite, though.

Life is a dream…until fallibility comes knocking with a stethoscope…diagnosing an ailment…then the pills start popping and one embarks on the road to a cul de sac.

I have seen a friend drop dead on the road while we discussed existentialism. I have arrived in a hospital too late, only to be told my father and my mother had died, alone. I have seen friends fade into nearby cemeteries. Yet the life within keeps throbbing in hope; hope that bitch in heat that lures one away from the obvious, the reality of life with an expiry date…not ordained but one by accident.

Illusions, disillusions and dreams make up the canvas of all life beating to the rhythm of mortality. Why do people cling to life? Why do they believe, quite often, that life is untouchable by the phantoms of the dark side? I too have fallen prey to such imaginations. I too believed that life was all that it was worth and death always happened to someone else. Alas, reality that fornicator of the absurd has always arrived in inopportune times to announce the inconceivable.

Friends, family and the odd acquaintance lie buried six feet under, interred with the creepy crawlies of the nether world.

Could it be that we are all winners in a universal lottery, the prize being the chance to holiday on this beautiful planet for a limited period…

…And that when the holiday ends we return to our jobs, which is to serve the spirit in the sky…




Seize the day – Carpe Diem

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

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