Thursday, 3 March 2011

Travel Diaries: Balikpapan - India - Bali

Published in Now! Jakarta, April 2011


Finally I made it to Balikpapan — that fashionable oil entrepot where Dayak head-hunters once ruled the roost.

Not as pretty as nearby Samarinda — the Sydney of East Borneo — but Balikpapan does not have a Novotel and a gay beat in front of the PLN building. It also has some of the best grilled fish and tomato-sambal on the planet! (“Melati” on the road to Samarinda is to die for!).

I spent most of my down- time (2 hours) in quaint coastal Malay villages documenting the idyllic lifestyle and cute felines for my coming book “Cats of Kalimantan”.

I found a gorgeous old wooden mosque and a ‘tabby’ stretched out in the sun at a camouflaged petrol kiosk.

The Dayaks with feathered head-dresses are now sort of “corralled” in a tourist village but the airport departure lounge has a sporadic collection of the rare Bule Bensin Borneo-ensis (BBB) with his gold chains, and Tennessee or Cockney or Perth drawl and his male-peacock attitude. Most BBB travel with mail-order brides (‘road bumps’ as they are affectionately called in nearby Labuan) who tend to dress like Paula Abdul.

LEFT: A woman picks lice from her husband’s hair on a ‘Romeo and Juliet in Borneo’ verandah, Kampung Sepinggan, Balikpapan, Kalimantan.
RIGHT: From my series: ‘Cats of Kalimantan’

LEFT: The fabulous ironwood sun-shades found only in East Kalimantan.
RIGHT: Artistic snap of one corner of the delightfully cozy village of Sepinggan, Balikpapan.

• • •

From Balikpapan I flew to Bangalore and discovered another quaint village, near my splendid airport hotel “Olde Bangalore”. Indian villages are really nothing like Malay villages: in Malay villages’ clever people do lovely things a lot and they preen, and keep everything gorgeous and there are any number of warungs selling healthy food. In most small Indian villages I have visited — and I have visited quite a few — the locals tend to stand around screaming at each other a lot until they collapse and sleep on a piece of discarded collapsed overhead bridge, or a dolmen in a temple. There is little pretense towards civic pride — except inside the temples and mosques — and the food-stalls are dark, foreboding places with fried things on platters.

But boy do they, the locals, make up for all the visual, aural, anal and olfactory the pollution with good cheer when one wear a cricket cap and announce that one is Australian! Tea is produced in tiny paper cups from behind packed Bajaj (an Indian Company by the way) and soon, drunk on tea and glucose biscuits, the whole village is singing and swaying under the spreading branches of a giant Banyan tree: “You light up my life, Shane Warne etc.”

In this village I found two neat rows of very skinny, very cute school children sitting cross-legged in a dusty school forecourt — eating rice and dal of tin plates. An angry-looking principal was guarding them with a big stick — for fear of a dal revolt or tin plates Frisbee offensive.

“Don’t look up, you donkeys!” he castigated them once I loomed into range with my Nikon.

At the head of the court a festively plump lady in a shocking pink saree guarded the vat of dal from insurgents. The school walls were painted colorfully — with scenes from India’s struggle for independence.

It was all very touching: the beauties, the obedience, the murals.

I could have stayed for lunch but I had to catch a plane to Mangalore where my Balinese artisans are working on a Taj Vivanta hotel.

That’s another thing in India: because they have so many wonderful-sounding Sanskrit names and cultural-reference — 3000 years of classical culture to draw from in most states) — they have decided to throw everyone off the scent — so that they think they’re in Brisbane, or Singapore — by calling things idiotic new names that mean nothing. Mindless branding agencies have bequeathed the nation with a few words — ‘chill’, ‘easy’, ‘blue’, ‘sweet’, ‘frangipani’, or ‘olive’ — for the naming of hospitality outlets.

Anything else has to call itself something like “Essort”, or “Mommy’s Colony” or “Someplace Else”.

Bali is following the Singapore trend and calling everything numbers or letters — “W”, “C151, “2B Bukit Kucit”, etc — so that the Chinese don’t get the creeping-willies.

From my ‘Beauty in Workplace’ Series: worker at Taj Bekal project site, near Mangalore, Kerala, India.

‘Dosai in the Dust’ schoolchildren having lunch at Tarabana Public, Karnataka.

Schoolmarms guard the dal vat, Tarabana Village Junior school, near Bangalore airport.

Ancient ‘compang’ platform under banyan tree in centre of Tarabana village, near Bangalore airport.

• • •


Four palace ladies and ladies-in-waiting waft off the essence of the Melasti offerings directed to Bhatara Baruna,
God of the Oceans, at the Kepaon-Suwung ceremonies three days before Nyepi.

Back in Bali I find that preparations for NYEPI, the day of silence, have gone into high gear.

Every community hall (banjar) has the most magnificent monster- effigy ‘float’ this year and — perhaps to protest the new SARS anti pornography laws — the breasts and other appendages seem more over-sized than usual!

Those cheeky Balinese just don’t know where to draw the line!

In my sleepy suburb of Mertasari — Sanur’s answer to Blackpool — I was awoken this morning by the melodic crashing of a marching gamelan accompanied by the wails of kidung hymn choristers: a melasti procession was surging down my road, passed Wilhelmina’s Revenge Retirement Village, on its way to Mertasari Beach.

‘Gray nomad’s’ on push-bikes are knocked gently into the gutters by the softly-stampeding hordes.

The gods and Barong and temple flag precede the blisteringly-boisterous bleganjur band. At Mertasari Beach they are placed on a magnificently decorated ‘altar’ and blessed — the accompanying villagers pray to Bhatara Baruna god of the oceans, jet-skis and sashimi.

It must be said that the week before Nyepi is a good time to be on the beach in Bali: from the comfort of one’s deck chair one can see all the culture and magnificent processions one ever wanted to see, without getting into fancy dress.

On that point, the Bali wedding business is enjoying a boom. All sorts of oddly-shaped foreigners are climbing into Balinese dress. There is even a trend for foreign ladies — who marry their driver or jet-ski instructor — to have ‘pre-wedding photographs’ done in various Soviet-Era style pastoral poses, on the bike, for example, coming home from the harvest or fishing for blind mullet in the Denpasar river.

In fact, interest in fake Bali — as in fake Balinese weddings, theatre, etc —is surging, whilst Real Bali, that Bali beyond the billboards, just noisily goes about its own business.

Manis Nyepi, 7th March 2011: a four of Bali’s far east coast

It’s been ten years since I drove from Taman Ujung, the old Raja of Karangasem’s water garden, to Amed, via Seraya — in 2001 the area had a weird Greek Island feel about it.

Today I find verdant hills and vales dissected by bubbling brooks — the 16th month wet season has transformed the once arid coastal strip.

It is a heavenly drive until one enters the tourist area near the predominantly Muslim town of Amed: here the idyllic fishing village architecture turn into McHotels with names like Karma Beach and Meditation Cove. What it is about practitioners of Vedic bliss and ugly architecture: I haven’t seen such environmental vandalism in the name of enlightenment since stumbling across the Sai Baba Complex in Kodai Kanal, Tamil Nadu, India.

RED ALERT: From Amed we drive to Tirta Gangga, the Royal Baths of the above-mentioned last Raja of Karangasem now being ruined by well-meaning amateur horticulturalists and garden historians.

Go soon if you’ve never seen it — before it is swamped in floral frou-frou.

• • •

LEFT: Typical North Legian couple and best man.

RIGHT: Sexpat superstar Widji Wienberg and matinee idol Ketut Ari — stars of Kampungan Production’s blockbuster ‘Cowboys in the Pandanus’ — in one of their pre-wedding snaps.