Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Travel Diaries: Lagos, Nigeria

Travel warning: Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is not for the faint-hearted.
The airport is like the descent into hell. Once in town there are very few nice views or handsome landmarks — one just drives around in a state of mild apprehension.
In three days I got just three nice photos, they are all on this page. One is of the nice Tutsi man who took me Christmas shopping; one is of the pretty fitness instructor with the amazing Star Trek coif  at my luxury boutique hotel (“The Wheat baker” on Ikoyi Island, Lagos’ answer to Belgravia) and one is of athletic banana vendors on the main  street.

Banana-vendors road-side, Lagos.
It’s not that there aren’t a lot of snap-worthy subjects roadside — in fact there are any number of statuesque ladies in fancy dress and uniformed officers hanging out poetically as they lean on automatic assault weapons — but my driver and guide wouldn’t let me take any snaps of them.
“People don’t like white folks taking snaps of them,” he explained.
This is an enormous handicap for a white photo-journalist.
I confined myself to covering the goings-on in my hotel, surreptitiously, with my Blackberry, but  had limited success.
Every time the guest wing lift- doors opened a Naomi Campbell look-a-like would emerge, long purple toe-nails poised to attack if I so much as raised a smart-phone.

Kurus, my Tutsi shopping consultants at Harrid’s Mall, Ikoyi next
to the National Museum of Nigeria.

My foxy fitness instructor at the delightful Wheatbaker
boutique hotel, Ikoyi.
There was also a photogenic bishop who haunted the coffee shop. In his dress sense he was a dead ringer for Michael Jackson’s father, right down to the giant diamond studded cross around his neck and white alligator cowboy boots, but he was always surrounded by Southern Baptist sycophants warding off demons.
I decided to watch the local television channel, “Magic Africa” , to get a reading on the local culture. Almost every program featured domestic violence played out in nouveau riche homes: Over-sized leatherette lounge sets are essential to film-making in Nigeria I discovered: banking scams are hatched on the arm rests, wives and girl friends are hurled down hard onto the holstery and semi-automatic assault weapons are stored underneath.
Still from “African Magic” television show.
Shamans in tribal dress shaking sticks also featured prominently in many of the episodes I watched. The shooting angles are ridiculous and the scripts bizarre (I’ll spend any amount of money to get you back, honey”) but it's addictive.
•         •        •
On one trip out I went to the National Museum, also on Ikoyi Island, where my white face was welcome — “You’re most cordially invited, sir,” said the guard at the main gate — but no photography was allowed. The custodian even turned on the portable generator in the courtyard so I could go through the beaten-metal Waterworld-style doors and see the magnificent Benin heads and other artifacts inside.

Tribal artifact/stone totem from Central Nigeria in the National Museum.
On another trip out I went to a huge communal nursery run by a Lebanese immigrant which featured row after row of the same boring palm. In matters horticultural the Nigerian elite seem to prefer the Pondok Indah-Semi-Classical-restricted-palette look, perhaps as a reaction to their former colonial master’s garden exuberance. The other popular style for the avant-garde apartment complex is “Gotham City Grunge” realized in severe lines with entrance gates of beaten metal plates (a national obsession) with rivets all welded on like.
As a city Lagos has few redeeming features besides the charm and enthusiasm and dress sense of the Nigerians themselves. There is nothing quite like the site of a big mama in funny dress emerging from a black S.U.V. , or an alpha male in kaleidoscopic pyjamas, or the sound erupting from Victoria Island Stadium on Gospel Sunday.
I was lucky to witness these cultural treats and felt as I left Nigeria, after surviving the two hour obstacle course at Airport Departures, that  Lagos is perhaps best enjoyed in small doses.
•         •        •

View from the glass lift at the MCA, New Years Eve.
From the city often voted the world’s worst I flew Emirates, one-stop, to Sydney, the city often voted the world’s best.
For a Bali-dweller like me Sydney is the perfect Christmas holiday destination: it has sea-views galore, moving traffic and no-one offers you a massage or land to develop.

My Christmas tree at Lavender Bay, Sydney
(Flores Island fertility totems).
Loroblonyo meet Queen Elizabeth II — my Christmas
decorations, Sydney.
On the way from the airport I stopped at Wiley’s rock-pool in Coogee and found a Batak family, the Siregars, frolicking  in the surf in a way one never sees on Samosir Island.
Sydney brings out the best in the Batak I divined.

Sydney Harbour thrill-seekers.
On Christmas Eve I took my Batak companion to St. Mary’s Cathedral for the laser show and the 150 strong choir and the atmosphere. He came away unimpressed: the ‘Bogans’ in shorts, toting shopping bags, ruined it for him he said.
Nor was he impressed by the fire-works on New Year’s Eve, viewed from McMahon’s-Point.
“Seen it before,” was his verdict.
So I took him to him to the deliciously Art Deco Cremorne Orpheum cinema to see “Life of Pi” in 3-D.
“Biasa” he said.
Next day we went to Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden in Lavender Bay for real Sicilian pizzas cooked by the gardeners.
“Same as Pizza Hut” he lamented.

Batak tourist pressed into service by Lavender Bay matron.

 Batak after Christmas lunch.
At the fabulous new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay he was under-whelmed by the Anish Kapur exhibition, but loved the view from the glass lift.
The one thing that got him excited was a trip to the famed Darling Harbour Aquarium with a society Queen’s Council and his children. After ogling sharks for hours he was taken to Lim’s in China town for Yum Cha.
He came back with a smile as wide as Lake Toba — the Chinese all-you-can-eat smorgasbord had hit the spot!
•         •        •

The old Raja of Karangasem, East Bali, with the palaces Nandir (male Legong) troup. The Raja’s son is in the front row in Condong costume
Back in Bali the floods have started in earnest and urban tourists are being washed down the new Kuta underpass hole. The hills are still alive with the sound of Legong, however, and I go to Peliatan  for the premier of the revival of Nandir (all male Legong) by the dance and gamelan troupe of A.A. Bagus Mandera and A.A. Rai Dalem, sons of the late great Maestro Gung Kak. Look out for it on your next trip to Ubud — it will blow your galoshes off!

Stranger in Paradise: Carry on Bali

Baris Tekok Jago dancers viewed through the burning flanks of the LEMBU at A.A. Alit Aryawan’s cremation,
Intaran, Sanur, 16 December 2012

Despite the avalanche of tourism kitsch threatening to smother the island the village Balinese continue to amaze with their patience and their prowess.
Patience is spreading thin in Ubud, however. Recently I detected a ‘schism’ forming when a village elder complained about all the pale-faces (bule) opening fish and chip shops and yoga retreats.
“They’re taking our jobs,” he protested.
It used to be that any foreigner starting a small business in Bali was welcome, as the Balinese ending up benefitting, but in these hard times Bali is feeling the pinch too and some village elders are looking for scape-goats.
The fact that over 60% of the labour force on any building project come from outside Bali is not an issue: the Balinese are happy to relegate blue collar work to others — Eastern Indonesian run most supermarket check-out counters, for example, and, in the construction industry, Lombokese dig all the holes and East Javanese fill them in.
It’s the pale face presence that’s starting to grate.
I now won’t go to palace events in Ubud or Peliatan because I get glowered at like some karmic carpet-bagger.
It used to be like that in Sanur-Intaran too — a traditionally vibrant suburb of old Sanur famous for its he-men — but I managed to overcome the impasse by schmoozing up to the pecalang (temple vigilantes) and the commandant of the Warrior Dance (Baris Gede) troupe by giving them videos and prints of themselves at the recent Ngusaba Desa ceremonies (See Stranger Paradise, Not Lost Bali, January 2013).
Last month the royal family of Intaran, Jero Abian Timbul, held a cremation of such extreme verve and vivaciousness that my camera gave up the ghost from exhaustion.
Now read on:
17  December 2012: To Jero Abian Timbul for the cremation of A. A. Alit Aryawan
The Abian Timbul palace is an offshoot of the Royal Pemecutan line and as such attracts all the warrior-princes from Denpasar to its family ceremonies.
Today,  Cokorda Pemecutan XI and his wife Cokorda Istri came; his brother Turah Agung rode the funeral bier to the cremation grounds, Made Kara, pecalang to the stars, was master of ceremonies and Seminyak fashionista Susanna Perini of BIASA was among the guests of honour. For full coverage, see my video
Pelebon Cremation of A.A.Alit Aryawan, Jero Abian Timbul, Intaran, Sanur
(Click image to enlarge)
The highlight of the morning’s precedings was the procession to the cremation ground, complete with teen-angel princesses-on-palanquins (holding the deceased’s spirit effigy) and a pair of lembu black bull sarcophagus (a cousin across the road had died a week before the big event so and extra, matching lembu was ‘folded in’ to the precedings).
The magnificent bleganjur marching band from Banjar Pekandelan, winner of this year’s Arts Festival Competition, provided a spirited accompaniment.  At the cremation ground the two black bulls were parked side by side under a gold and white canopy. After the last rites were delivered — by Brahman in-laws and uncles — and the lembu set alight, a troupe of magical, mystical Baris Tekok Jago dancers tripped the light fantastic in the small court in front of the blazing bulls.
Other highlights of the ceremony included: Agung Subamia (Biasa Boutique manager and son of the deceased) riding into the cremation ground atop a giant ramp, holding aloft a sacrificial adze; Turah Putra Darmanuraga riding the bade funeral bier from the palace to the cremation ground; Gusti Ayu Cici/Mrs. Subamia’s green toenails, under her turtle accented mules; Susanna Perini’s vision of Sista Jezebel, the Jewish saint of sch’muttah (textiles) in the cremation smoke.
26 December 2012: My article on Urban Tourism, Schoolies and Toolies is published in the Bali daily
Last week I was interviewed by a young journalist form Balipublika newspaper about tourism in Kuta and recent developments in the nocturnal raging of shit-faced (very drunk) Australian students, called ‘schoolies”.
Having been in Bali for the last 40 years I know little of recent trends in Australia and was shocked to read the Balinese journalist’s list of questions. Some were a bit school-marmish (“Don’t Australian parents teach their children not to run wild and naked in other people’s countries” sort of thing) and others were quite pertinent, about the direction of ‘urban tourism’ in Kuta.
When I was home in Sydney for Christmas I did some research and wrote an article (excerpted below) for the Bali Daily which was published on New Year's Eve:  (excerpt) “A recent survey discovered that most Australians now go to Bali to get horribly drunk and see a fire dance or drag show in the Seminyak district local homosexualists call the 'Gaza Strip'. The Australian red-head bikie gang The Rebels now has a chapter in Bali. Bali also has over 30 cricket clubs and an excellent new fish and chip shop in Mertasari, Sanur.
The great Australian 'Schoolies' tradition held during the last week of November — started in the 1980s in the fiercely culture-neutral Gold Coast of Queensland — has recently moved to Bali as well. It involves teenagers indulging in alcohol-fueled rampages of hedonism and aggressive behaviour. A vigilante group of Australians called the Red Frogs now sends volunteers to Kuta where they annually set up red tents on the beach, to council rampagers and hand out condoms. A slightly less altruistic Australian group, the Toolies, consisting of an a more mature cross-section of Australian alcoholic, now follow the Schoolies to Bali to prey on younger Schoolies.
“An island gets the tourists it deserves” a Sanur-based pundit recently opined, but I tend to disagree. The Balinese culture is still magnificent. There ARE still lots of immaculate rice-field views and gorgeous villages, and a few fairly un-trampled beaches. In this current tsunami of the tasteless let’s not lose the original flavour. Early January I posted the article on Facebook and got a startling comment from a Balinese lady journalist:
“There is no mentioned of lady-boy hookers who are lurching in dark alley ways of Kuta, ready to show their shiny skin to the right submissive western victims to be trapped into their webs being injected with poison in clubs and then their meat being sucked out dry and leave only skeleton!!”
Well, there's certainly no holds barred in home-grown  Balinese journalism these days!
Am I detecting a sea change in the local presses attitude towards foreign and unwholesome influence, previously let pass in a  passive-resistance sort of way?

Consecration of new Cokorda Pemecutan IX monument outside the Pemecutan Palace, Denpasar.
27 December 2012: Consecration of new Cokorda Pemecutan IX monument outside the Pemecutan palace by Cokorda Pemecutan XI, other family members and the Denpasar mayor Ida Bagus Rai Mantra
The monument is a memorial to the horrific 'suicide battle'(puputan) that ensued when Cokorda Pemecutan IX and his entire family and court chose death over dishonor (Dutch troops taking over their palace and ancestor temples), The Cokorda's son took some 20 bullets in the battle but survived, to become CP X, father of the present Cokorda.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013