Thursday, 12 May 2011

TRAVEL DIARIES: Taj Bekal - Balikpapan - Bali

Published in Now! Jakarta, June 2011


Handsome Agathi village bearer

I have been looking for the perfect village in South Asia for over 40 years — ‘perfect’, that is, in terms of architecture and conviviality.

Bali has one perfect village : the walled medieval village of Tenganan, which has for centuries had a free-wheeling communal lifestyle, now, sadly, based on selling things to indifferent tourists.

In Central Vietnam the riverside ceramics village of Hoi An has perfect noodle-vendors with perfectly visible panty lines and sublime 17th and 18th century town houses.

In North and West Sumatra there are any number of sublime longhouse-strewn villages, where water buffaloes roam and strong women weave sombre cloths on shady verandahs.

Last month I discovered a really pretty, really charming rural village called Agathi which lies just after that point, at the end of India’s ugliest highway, North of Mumbai, when despair turns to thoughts of suicide.

What was so special about this Maharashtra vernacular village that so tweaked my fancy? Of course one is always elated during that two minutes of countryside situated beyond the city limits of grungy Mumbai before one descends into the grit and grime of Suburban Pune: one is elated to be still alive and breathing, and still in possession of one’s natural dignity.

But there was something more profound about Agathi, where every one of the broad verandahs facing the pretty communal court has a colourfully-clad grandmother on a flat-bed swing.

‘Beauty Queen’ grandmother (and inset) and grandson, Agathi Village

And the village is full of surprises: handsome homeowners meet you at the front door of their heritage homes with cricket balls in their hands. ‘Legendary beauty’ grandmothers are then produced; grandmothers who are still strong, and still strikingly beautiful.

It wasn’t so much that the village is on the Gulf of Arabia, like nearly all Indian coastal resorts — where, due to a plethora of energy supplier billboards and Tandoor outlets, one never quite sees the sea — nor was it the fact that there are, nearby, a slew of kitschy water parks with ample parking, and nursery after nursery of distressed hibiscus bushes aggressively over-bearing.

It was just the ‘niceness’ of the villagers — all called Patil, most of them cousins — who were so friendly and contented, and the villagescape was so perfect.

This one village restored my faith in humanity: I now know that there is one corner of Maharashtra were the ‘tribals’ (as the Indians call their aborigines) are housed, modestly, and New Asian architecture has yet to arrive.

That evening I went to Yoko Sizzler in West Santa Cruz to celebrate my good fortune. They didn’t serve beer so I went to a nearby Barista coffee shop where one can smoke in the gutter with the scavenging jackals.

My host for the evening — who lives in a dusty apartment block full of Gujarati maiden aunts behind “Yoko Sizzler” — was late so I ‘people- watched’ while force-feeding a Nepali driver who had never had a grilled chicken Tandoor and Billboard sandwich. Soon I realized that there were no people worth watching — most of the pedestrians were just office workers walking home from the day before — so I went shopping. I bought a dozen baby yellow roses which the nice man wrapped, after a fashion, and threw at me.

West Santa Cruz is full of exciting moments like this — “turning moments into memories” is the town’s motto. Getting there in bumper to bumper traffic one gets to go through the carpark of Juhu Chowpati beach. This afternoon there was too much smog so I couldn’t see the sea — but I did see Haji Abdul’s Fruit Juice shop. That’s the other great thing about Mumbai: there’s always a fabulous Muslim Juice bar blocking a famous sea view so one doesn’t have to be disappointed because actually most of the beach views are just a browny-grey ‘smudge’.

That’s really why I loved Agathi: it was a precious respite from the visual pollution and urban sprawl that is engulfing most of South Asia’s cities — even Denpasar — and it’s important that we keep on being optimistic while enduring the 21st century travel experience because hope dies last.

Images of the remarkable Taj Bekal, Kerala

I next travelled to Balikpapan, another big ugly city on the island of Borneo.

I had been commissioned to take photos with no humans or animals in them, for a restaurant I have designed for a South Asian with animism issues. I spent a morning at the Klandasan Market, on the waterfront facing the Straits of Makassar : the market place was alive with beauty and incredibly good-natured folk.

It may seem far-fetched to recommend visiting a place just because of its morning market — but this market is a feast for the senses. It is a feast of produce — being on fairly unfished seas and in a region of rich soil and equatorial abundance — and of personalities. The Buton, Bugis, Dayak, Sulawesian mix that makes up the market-load of happy merchants, bearers and jesters-parking-attendant is a veritable cornucopia of conviviality and comic wit.

The aristocrats of the market are the egg-sellers who flank the seaward entrance, attended by a squadron of colourful Madurese matrons skinning pineapples at low tables. The fish section is like a Hermes store — with everything artistically laid out — manned by the cast of the Beggar’s Opera.

Outside, that day, were the magnificent seven — real men husking coconuts — and on the markets north western side, military types were weaving ketupat baskets as if they were at the corner pub.

There is no hostility but a lot cajoling and contesting. The market’s toilet, a confection in pink and blue tiles, is guarded by a languid male siren who wraps himself around a door jam like Lily Marlene.

Such simple pleasures are so rare in a travel-world full of hype and hyperbole.

View from the Klandasan Market, Balikpapan

Artistic produce display at the Klandasan Market, Balikpapan

World’s best banana shop, Klandasan Market Balikpapan

LEFT: Borneo beauty in Freedom Park, Balikpapan
RIGHT: Saucy rest room attendant, Klandasan Market, Balikpapan

Saturday 16th April: A Tale of Two Communities in Bali

Last night I went to two block-buster events: one with hundreds of members of the old Kuta-Legian-Seminyak gang (local and expat) from the salubrious, fibre-filled 1970s, who were gathered under white tents on the vast tea lawn of the Villa Gajah Putih at Brawa Permai to celebrate the wedding of Bali-born 'INDOKRUPUK' sweeties Afandy Dharma Fairbrother and Dewi Cynthia Bradley; the second was a 'vernissage' (pre-show showing) of AMAZING RECENT PAINTINGS of New York-Bali artist du jour Ashley Bickerton's at this complicated but cozy almost cliffside Chateau Rinjani on the Alila Uluwatu Road. I ran gauntlets of old friends/flames/foes/fiends/fashionista at the first party, where the heavenly nymphs of the tea-coloured next generation smooched under the stars, on the dance floor, in figure-hugging ball gowns (no figure more hugged than that of bridesmaid Luna Maya (Oh Mama, I now have some stills to go with my videos).

The goddess Luna Maya (right), bridesmaid at Afandy and Dewi’s wedding, Canggu, Bali

At the second event, I ran an obstacle course of the treacherous and self-absorbed (Artists and Surfies and Herbal Suffragettes) while trying to take in the length and breadth of Ashley's articulate, exquisite hottie-stud-chub and Gaugin-esque grotesques. Amongst the glitterati and clitteratti (Carolla the Luna Maya of the Haut Bohemian set) wandered Ashley and Rinjani’s beautiful 5 year old son, great Grandchild of Louis-Charles DAMAIS, the French Etymologist who deciphered the inscriptions on the ancient candi of Java.

An Ashley Bickerton artwork

Art lovers, models and groovers at the Ashley Bickerton show, Pecatu, Bali