Monday, 20 June 2011

Stranger in Paradise: Bali’s Corner Warung

Yanti, the Belle of Pengembak, posing in the pandanus.

There are few things more sacred to the Malay culture than the corner tea-stall, or warung.

In Java, the warung has an important community function: it helps feed the teeming masses. It also provides a sort of ‘communal living room’, for migrants, street people and workers.

But there are warung and there are warung: Made’s Warung in Kuta has grown to become one of Bali’s most famous eateries and is a cultural cross road.

In the hills of West Java, some warung have hoses outside, playing into the air, these are warung plus or warung of ill repute.

Famed Ubud Writer Wayan Juniartha sets his weekly columns in a fictitious palm-toddy warung.

Jakarta’s former top comedy trio were called Warung Kopi.

The corner warung, the Warung Pojok — where domestic help can leave their toddlers, and community police can gather intelligence — are an institution across Indonesia.

I learned almost everything I know about Balinese culture in a warung in South Kepaon, near Kuta, which was run by an old, aristocratic street-barber’s ancient girlfriend.

LEFT: Ibu Yuni poses provocatively in front of Ipang’s food cart.
RIGHT: Warung Pojok ' Buang Nenggel"

In Surabaya, in 1973, during my first month in Indonesia, I was stone broke and was kept alive by the kindness of a warung vendor — an old Madurese lady with a set of chrome top ‘choppers’ like a Chrysler grill.

I went back to thank her twenty years later and she was still there, helping the hard-up.

In the 1980s I enjoyed a brief stint as a warung ‘moll’, in Sidakarya, near Sanur. Every night I would come back on my push-bike from coaching tennis at the Bali Hyatt and perch on a platform behind the counter, and watch Cawa sell coffee and fried bananas.

Occasionally a passing truck driver or Bakso vendor would nudge me and I would go horizontal on the mat and talk about kangaroos and things (I was slimmer and prettier in those days).

Now I live in a mangrove swamp-side suburb of Sanur with more corner warung than you can poke a stick at. These warung have loaned the suburbs a measure of ‘Indonesian village’ pride.

The warung under the Beringin tree outside my front gate is a court fixture. It is manned by Ibu Yuni, from Madura, and her young husband with the thick moustache, and a few nephews. Next to her is a reserved parking space for Ipang, the ‘sweater-boy’ bakso vendor from Blitar.

They are much beloved and they hold down the corner and bring local life, and dangerous liaisons, to a suburb otherwise inhabited by super-bule-in S.U.V.s.

It’s rather like Tinkerbell versus the Terminator.

Some 500 metres away, on the next corner, which is also on the coast (a great plus) a strange, green, gypsy caravan-type warung has sprung up to keep the parking ticket collector happy. The Mama-san here keeps lots of dogs and chomps on kretek cigarettes as she sweeps the road and gossips. Her exquisitely beautiful daughter, Yanti, is the talk of the town; Sanur he-men turn out of their housegates in the morning with smiles on their faces, knowing that Yuni will always be on the corner, minding the dogs.

Next to Yanti’s caravan a Timorese man sells fishing bait from little recycled Botox bottles.

Next along the coast, towards the Dalem Pengembak temple, is Mertasari’s ‘Warung at the end of the Universe’ — so named by a sporty band of English retirees — where Ibu Wayan serves the most delicious Gado-Gado (Ketipat Cantok), Pork Stew (Be Genyol) and fried bananas. Old Sanur aristocrats hang out here a lot, and talk dirty.

From my fashion on the by-pass series on Facebook

I am fighting to save these warungs, somehow, by lobbying the Mayor, who is a fellow warung pojok lover.

To this end I have designed a restaurant in the rustic warung pojok style — called the ‘Warung Tandjung’ (or RATU’S) — next to the last warung in Sanur. From Ratu’s one can see the tall ships of Turtle Island harbor. The relaxed, arty multi-cultural atmosphere will hopefully ‘raise the bar’ for small “boutique” coastal eateries.

Speaking of coastal eateries, I am at present writing a brief history of the gardens of the legendary Tanjung Sari hotel — arguably the tropical world’s first luxury boutique hotel, and past playground for the jetset and the crowned heads of Europe, and for the heads of Legian — which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.

I am discovering all sorts of things you don’t need to know about the early history of swinging Sanur and some nice things too — such as the influence on the early development of the garden by two old grandees, Dutchman Arie Smit, who is still alive, and flamboyant Australian artist Donald Friend.

In 1967, for example, Arie Smit lived on Sanur Beach in a small bamboo hut, built for him by Wija Waworuntu the hotel’s founder some years later. Friend, who had moved to Bali from Bentota in Sri Lanka, was influential in establishing the cottage garden-like paths and the romantic art-gallery atmosphere of the hotel, which survive this day.

17th May 2011: To Jero Gede Subamia in Tabanan, to fetch some holy water for a Sanur Festival

Jero Gede Subamia palace is the ‘ancestral home’ for a sizeable chunk of Sanur’s nobility — the Jero Abian Timbul clan — who own the Warung Tanjung and its adjacent hotel.

This Sanur mini-palace is set in the heart of ancient Sanur — that is Intaran, a Brahman enclave — and is very ‘traditional’ with a gorgeous garden. The Tabanan ancestor palace is magnificent, with giant Majapahit-style gates and vast garden courts dotted with colonial era bungalows and pavilions.

Merajan Agung, Jero Gede Subamia, Tabanan.

The Royal chapel, called the merajan agung, is a masterpiece — the carving on the soapstone walls is delicate, but not too intricate. An old female retainer with one eye and a chain around her ankle tells me that, really, only one uncle lives here now which is terribly sad. This is largely the fate of most of Bali’s stately palaces: no one wants the responsibility.

A family elder has flown in from Jakarta to take part in tomorrow’s odalan-anniversary at the Sanur palace.

He is a natty dresser — quite au courant with the latest trends in temple dress in ‘male peacock’ Bali — and is a wealth of information about the ancient Subamia line, founded, in fact, by the same Majapahit warrior prince who founded the Pemecutan palace line, my obsession.

18th May 2011: To Jero Abian Timbul, Intaran-Sanur, for a special Pedudusan Alit Odalan

I arrive at 9 pm to find the family house temple in full swing: palace priests and priestesses are dancing with the gods (now there’s a title for a Bali-based reality T.V. show! Ed) as the exquisitely tuned house gamelan plays a haunting accompaniment.

I meet the family head Anak Agung Gede Ngurah Pemecutan, a sweet blinky chap and his glamorous power — broker wife, who complains that the ‘superbules’ renting her Mertasari Villa are too mean to pay for daily offerings (a shocking new trend this writer notes).

I am introduced to the palace’s Japanese wives (many major Balinese palaces have them now). I then position myself at the foot of an eastern shrine to video the evening’s trance ritual.

It is a beautiful ceremony — the climax has all the trancees clothed in (stylized) Majapahit Era ancestral robes. The delicate placing of the flowers in the turbans is particularly poignant.

Anyone still reading should also watch the video my team edited and posted on YOU TUBE/Wijaya Pilem 2: Pedudusan Alit at Jero Abian Timbul.

25th May 2011: To Ketewel near Sukawati for a grand cremation

The 95 year old father of one of my employees died last week: he was a priest in the Ketewel village Pura Desa temple and much loved. Today I am invited to his cremation.

Faces at the Cremation, Ketewel

When I arrive for pre-cremation brunch and heavy gossips, I see a magnificent, giant white bull ‘lembu’ (sarcophagus) parked in the village lane. Soon I meet all my outrageous Dewa ‘friends’ on Facebook — all sons of my master gardeners (I employ some 25 Dewas from Ketewel) — who are so meek and mild in real life, compared to their ‘take no hostages’ comic attitudes on Facebook.

The procession to the beachside cremation ground — now gloriously free of ugly villas spoiling the view, since a New York jeweler went bust — is ‘triumphal’. This priest was incredibly popular.

In the blazing noon sun the cheeky Dewa Facebookers take turns posing on the bull for mock-heroic snapshots.

1st June 2011: My mentor historian Soedarmadji Damais calls from Jakarta

“Made,” he says “Your video is brilliant! You must stop writing and just do this.” (Those in favour say “Aye” Ed).

He continues to say that my little barefoot videos, with commentary, are like “cinema verite” (in the style of Jean Rouche I hope) but need a bit of “introducing”.

Stay tuned.

(Above) Geesi and Pintor Sirait at the Gays Against Plastic work-bee in Mertasari, June 2011.