Every Christmas I take the Midnight Express Garuda from Denpasar to Sydney, hoping to see a kangaroo.
After a year in the rain and traffic of South Bali ― it’s getting like South London! ― the crisp dry December weather in sunny Sydney is a godsend. They have highways without art shops, and sea-views ― lots of them ― and places of worship as yet unrenovated since the 19th century.
At the Art Gallery of New South Wales they have free food if you go on the right night and rooms full of Asian art ― not pilfered during the colonial era ― exquisitely displayed and catalogued. I saw an exhibition of the Ming warriors that was brilliant.
I went to the Hawkesbury River, one hour north of Sydney, to the waterside home of photographer Juno Gemes and her poet husband Robert Adamson. While Cranbrook boys munched on ham and turkey on the verandah, Juno showed me her photographs ― for National Geographic ― of the coronation of King George Tupou V of Tonga, from 2009.
The photos of the various honor guards (see photo below) were particularly amazing.
LEFT: Australian artist Peter “Mr. Harbour” Kingston’s Christmas card.
RIGHT: Miss Holly Cobden, a Sydney beauty.
I spent two weeks in harmony with nature and then, late December returned to Bali, re-immersed myself into the glorious bumper-to-bumper traffic that has become a big part of life on the island of the gods.
To make one’s waiting more enjoyable the thoughtful Denpasar city fathers have added ― every few yards along the Ngurah Rai by-pass median strip ― decorative Malaysian-Modern planter boxes and giant busts of Janger dancers done in the butter-statue style.
I quickly burrowed into my Sanur nest and started watering the thatched roofs, for fear of death by fireworks.
Tempests were raging and it was New Year’s Eve.
In fact, Bali had been one non-stop fireworks display since the 29th December, the night the Malaysian soccer team beat Indonesia in a critical match in Jakarta. According to many pundits, it was God’s will; but the silly press had a field day accusing Malaysians of shining laser beams into the eyes of the Indonesia keeper ― not an easy feat from 100 metres away.
Indonesian sport teams rarely lose fairly it must be said.
Anyway, as a result, anarchy was in the air: the disgruntled urban youth ― fed up with planter boxes and ugly white people in singlets ― took to the streets and their front yards to hurl two-bit pyro-technic abuse.
The expatriate community were understandably outraged; ‘free flow’ was momentarily suspended at the “On, On” girly bar in Sanur in protest and an Ubud yoga/retail hag posted an angry message on the Facebook page “Bali without plastic.”
(Facebook has become the new forum for fed-up foreigners).
“Ah, who cares about a few crackers! What about the mob of turis domestik ‘sistas’, ten-deep, outside JOGGER on the Kuta-Airport drag; or the mountain of Zimmer frames outside Spartacus Gay Spa; or the yoga hags chained to the low carved PARAS SANGGINGAN wall outside Starbucks Ubud whose mass has spilled into the gutters blocking the drains; or the stench of Tom Ford perfume in the METIS carpark responsible for the respiratory collapse of a commercial truckload of mountain village beggarwomen??”
“The island has become one big tourist trap and cliché and art shop mall. Perhaps the Balinese were mounting a fury of fireworks to match the monsoon’s meteorological mayhem. Relax-lah: it’s just a cry for attention, tinged with anarchy.”
In fact New Year’s was a magnificent monsoon midnight: the tempest peaked just as the angry urban fireworks reached fever pitch. I played “Stampede of the Assyrian Amazon Women” sung by Fairuz, Lebanon’s answer to Barbara Streisand, and my party guests swooned.
The tension was almost tangible, as they say.
* * * * *
On New Year’s day I took a gaggle of spirited spiritual tourists (Ozzies in sarongs, singlets and sash) to the Pura Segara temple in Songan at the far end of magnificent lake Batur.
The locals are still warm and hospitable but the dreamy village-scape — once a Shangri-la if ever there was one — has been gutted by urban sprawl. The once exquisite temple complex – unique in Bali for its simplicity and elegance — has been renovated by the ‘Transformer Crowd’ and now resembles a ‘Legoland’ of grotesque andesite shrines and pavilion bases. The villagers are still charming, however, and we were quickly invited to a magical prayer session at Songan’s lakeside Pura Segara festival. Twin priests intoned ancient mantras in the melodic way of mountain folk, surrounded, on one side, by the ultimate vertical garden and, on the other, by the gentle lapping of the crater lake. After prayers one of the priests took us to the new Shangri-la, the village of Blandingan on a plateau above Songan.
The priests of the Pura Segara Temple, Songan.
Bearers carrying the magical pejenengan swords — of the Pasek Taro Selem clan of Songan —
to the Pura Hulun Danu Temple, Songan.
A typical Blandingan village dwelling
Mountain folk often go for strong colour in their temple decorating.
The village sits in valley of extra-ordinary pastoral and natural beauty, not unlike the north end of the Bedugul caldera. It was like the Songan I remembered from the 1970s — pristine, poetic but poor (no billboards or andesite). The temple architecture still has the ‘Shinto Meets Shanghai Deco’ look.
The village itself is just a few neat rows of mountain huts — timber boxes with bamboo shingle-roofs, steeply pitched — gathered into clan (dadia) groups.
The only sound in the valley was the menacing throb on a large wantilan-load of cockfight gamblers at the bottom of the village.
Views from the Pura Segara Temple, Songan.
LEFT: Mountain man with chicken, Blandingan village cock-fight arena.
RIGHT: A Blandingan Villager goes about his skin care regime.
My Australian friends wandered up and down the village’s poetic alleys for about two minutes before settling at the illegal cock-fighting to watch mountain men in army fatigues gambling away their wife’s father’s vegetables patch.
No one tried to sell us a villa and we were not offered massage services ― it was like the Bali of yore.
Don’t go there, you’ll ruin it. Ha!
Instead go to the new-look “Kakatua” club in Seminyak which has effigies of the old Australian owners hanging from trees.
During the Christmas holidays macabre is the new merry on the Hindu Street.
I saw a champagne bar with a Balinese doorman dressed like an organ grinder’s monkey.
The gay beach bar ‘Callego’ now has a ‘Seniors Night’ for young Balinese to watch well-preserved Caucasoid geriatric go-go boys gyrate in gilt cages.
All along Jalan Legian Brazilian grandmothers in wet bikinis eat cold chips from cardboard boxes these days ― my eyes were on sticks.
In the island’s myriad tourism rags ‘Real Bali’ is now called ‘Secret Bali’ for some reason: I guess because it only exists behind the ‘billboard curtains’.
Nowhere else on the planet is evidence of the new theory of parallel universes more visible.
There was an edge of anarchy to the fury of fireworks that ushered in the new year: as if the Balinese were saying “We’re still here."