Monday, 11 June 2012

Stranger in Paradise: BALI SENIORS

Palanquin-bearer at Sanur cremation

The footpaths of Mertasari are littered with mangled walkers; Bali is perhaps not the best place to be old, unless you’re Balinese.
Last month I got dengue fever, in Lombok of all places — Lombok traditionally the home of Cerebral Malaria, and Dementia from rave parties on the Gili Isles — and I opted to convalesce back home in Sanur.
It’s amazing the way one’s Balinese friends swing into action when one is bed-ridden. Home remedies,  such as prune elixir, brown rice water, guava juice and rabbit satay come by the boat-load.
People I hadn’t seen for years sent outrageous claims for back rent and children’s school fees.
My house staff stocked my mini-bar with baby diet-cokes (the universal panacea) and ‘baby gold’ bananas — obviously some cargo cult remedy.
Every morning Bond-girl-like roving pathologists with big black bags would arrive by motor bike and draw blood to check my Thrombosite levels.
I participated, enthusiastically, in the Thrombosite Sweepstakes for fear of confiscation (drop below 100 units (150 – 440 units is normal) and it’s off to the hospital to be put “on the drip”).
Over the years, I have visited many friends “on the drip” in Denpasar’s  hospitals and it always looked grim.  It seems that one is forced to watch appallingly sentimental soaps on the TV on the wall, as armadas of family and friends fill in the gaps in the small room.
Fortunately my thrombosites held out and I was allowed to stay home and stare at the garden. Staring is all one feels like doing really as the virus leaves one feeling rather “senior”.
• • •

The late great Pedanda Istri Raka of Tegal who kept performing ceremonial duties well into her 90’s. (1979 file photo)
Once the thrombosites start going up, usually after 8 days… (one is out of the forest after two days of consecutive thrombosite improvement) one is left feeling dazed and weak.
In this state one is allowed to wander around unteathered  or lie on a rock in the sun and gather strength.
Apetite is the last thing to return and until it does one is forced to eat brown rice porridge and fried garlic flakes, with the occasional vegetable soup or soft boiled eggs.
All vices become undesirable: one wants to keep one’s focus to better appreciate the slow motion.
• • •
Finally, after 12 day’s I felt cured and I was seized with a desire to visit other seniors in Balinese compounds — to see how they were getting on.
My first Sunday out I visited the Brahman house compound where I had lived for 6 years in the early 1970s.
At the house, called Geria Kepaon, I was parked on a high eastern platform with my invalid Bali Mum, Biang Agung (95), who has lost the use of her legs (see photo below).
“My eyes water up otherwise I’m O.K.,” she offered stoically over super-sweet coffee and cakes.

Biang Agung, 1998

Biang Agung, 2012
I suddenly realized why the bases on pavilions are so high in most Balinese houses: it’s to enable bored sick seniors to get a vantage point from which to observe the young ones frolicking about in far corners of multi-pavilion homes.
Observing others from a safe distance constitutes a big part of being senior and infirm in Bali.
Below, a score of Biang Agung’s descendants were weaving up a truck-load of offerings for a pemelaspasan house-warming, happening in a house down the road the next day.
Biang Agung had set up this offering factory 70 years ago, when she married into the Brahman family compound (she is originally from a Pemecutan Palace family in Denpasar) which is now bursting at the seams with junior weavers and free-range nannies.
From her sedentary position in a wheelchair on a high veranda she now rules over her realm rather like Queen Elizabeth in her royal barge on the Thames, though with different music.
Poor Biang Agung has to endure a constant barrage of tacky teen pop emanating from the transistor  radios parked at various spots around the compound.
She never complains.
In fact, In Bali, seniors rarely complain: failing mobility, eyesight and hearing are all accepted with quiet resignation. Attempts to stave off the inevitable are feeble at best.
POPULAR SENIORS ACTIVITIES IN BALI : Clock-wise from top left : Groovy senior high priest; The fabulous Mangku Meme of Kedisan, Kintamani, burning up the courtyard floor at Pura Sakenan 1977; The Prince of Singgi attends a temple festival in Sanur; Senior satay-maker, Lombok.
Balinese seniors do maintain active roles within the community: they are wheeled out for rite des passage — weddings and such — and many, like Aji Gede, Biang Agung’s dashing husband, still take part in decorating and communal offering  making activities well into their 90s.
Today, Aji Gede is slicing up bamboo between drags on a fat clove cigarette, to fashion shrine stands. He wields his blakas knife with controlled precision.
The difficulties encountered while growing old in Bali are somewhat alleviated by the ‘inclusive spirit’ of the community.
Pale-faces in the expatriate retirement belts of Canggu and Mertasari stage outrageous theme parties  — “Grannies take a trip” or “Menopause Moulin Rouge” — to while away the time and behave like drug-crazed teenagers until the cows come home. No one bats  an eyelid.
For the Balinese, many talented seniors in their 80s are still active members of kris dance-a-thons, late night trance-ins and gamelan orchestras.
Nodding off between gong strikes is one of the joys of being over 90 in Bali; as is driving into one’s rib cage a blunt dagger with the force of a flea.
The ultimate profession in Bali, that of Pedanda high priest, is reserved exclusively for ultra-seniors; whilst the once seniors-heavy lay priest quarter is now laden with teenage trance-masters, as part of the new Bali-wide youth initiative.
• • •
Last  month Sanur’s oldest pemangku (lay priest) the popular Mangku Sakenan, died aged 105, having been active ringing bells and chanting prayers until recently.
The Brahman houses of his banjar, Intaran, traditionally run the giant three day festival at Pura Dalem Sakenan on Turtle Island which is visited by hundreds of thousands of devotees.
7 June, 2012: To Mangku Sakenan’s humble home in Central Sanur for his last rites
I arrive at the Mangku's spartan but stylish home to find a bevy of royal princes — Kesiman, Kepaon,  Jero Gede Intaran — in the north pavilion, and many old mates from my Sanur salad days sprinkled around the courtyard. Cremations often have a re-union atmosphere in Bali.
I am touched to see my Facebook pal, Sigex Ayu, the deceased's surfer girl grand-daughter , up on the funeral pyre hanging  my  black and white photo of the late priest — which ran in this column's  old home, the Sunday Bali Post, in 1979 — looking dashing in the temple he loved , the Pura Dalem Sakenan (see photo above).
Another grand-daughter, a brahman lass from Geria Delod Peken, sits daintily in the north pavilion in full palace costume, waiting to be conveyed on a palanquin in the funeral procession.
At 10 a m a rousing beleganjur marching band accompanies the popular priest on his last journey through the village to the cremation ground (see video:
On Sanur Beach later the same day  the deceased's son-in-law, the future Mangku Sakenan, leads the family in final prayers before the ashes are confined to the sea, the realm of Ratu Baruna, God of the Oceans,  one of the old Mangku's favorites.
One cycle is complete as another starts.
Long Live the new Mangku Sakenan.