Walking home
 

Arriving home to the Self

The Jakarta Post, 25 November 2007

For the last six months, it has been a pleasure taking this routine Sunday walk with you. Thank you for joining me and tolerating my rambling raves. As of today’s final column in the Jakarta Post, I have moved this column online. This is the static archive. If you wish to comment, visit the blog.

Cumbersome growth spurts affect us all, be they physical, mental or emotional. On the spiritual aspect, I had a lot of help, especially in the form of a ritual every 210 days to bring me down to earth. It can be described simply as my Balinese birthday, during which I am guided to honor the guardian angels of our folklore. In Bali, the closest concept to guardian angels is the Kanda Ampat, the four unborn siblings. Their protecting and nurturing presence can be described as the baby's relationship with its umbilical chord, fetal membrane, amniotic fluid, and placenta. Among these four siblings, a baby grows from a single cell to take human form. During those sacred moments when I emerged into this world, my siblings' pulse began to fade and they entered the spirit world. The bonds that connected us during our nine-month-long journey together continue in less tangible forms. They become my mediators with the spirit world as represented by the natural forces around us. I sense them influencing my keen instincts and finer intuition as well as in the wrenching warnings deep inside my gut.

At the end of this ceremony I always feel a stronger connection to the natural world. I become more aware of how the human body is a microcosm as complex as the universe itself. Millions of bio-chemical compounds, enzymes and electrically charged molecules are required for the day-to-day processes of a functioning mind and body. Hence, the balance called sanity or good health is indeed a miracle.

My afterbirth is buried in the ancestral temple at my grandfather's land. Reminded of this fact at each birthday, I feel a strong sense of belonging to my family and home. Being part of a huge extended family has also given me a strong sense of knowing my place in the many relationships within a family.
I may travel the world alone, but within weeks of arriving I would adopt a mother, brothers, sisters and father figures at the new place, making it feel like home in no time at all. This is quite a common trait among Indonesians, which goes to show just how strong our family instincts are.

As citizens of the world, technically we are all always at home. Walking home then becomes a metaphor for the search for Self: Identity, belonging, understanding, and acceptance of our inner landscape rather than the world outside.

No matter how often I go away, arriving back to Bali remains a profound experience. Touching down at Ngurah Rai airport, there is a sensation of slipping into a second skin, becoming once again a tiny cell within a much larger multi-cellular organism. Actions, utterances and thoughts become tempered by a communal conscience.

The great open spaces of the world allowed me to grow as an individual. I learnt to enjoy my own company and found out what drives me. However - in Bali - until I reproduce it seems I will always be a protected child.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder and offers new perspectives. From the outside looking in, I can observe and mull over issues back home with more clarity.

When migrant workers return (I am almost certain that most Balinese will at least attempt to), there is the inevitable clash of their newfound egos with the super ego of the community. There is a price to pay for belonging. Dispensation comes with the transient or visitor label. A friend from Sabah built his home here, but rarely needs more than the 30-day visa. Constant travel maintains his freedom and productivity. Rest in Ubud is his reward. Astutely, he reminded me how Bali is a feudal conformist society.

It's tempting to remain footloose and fancy free, constantly traveling, but being away for too long can diminish your right of say in the family or village. There’s the attitude: ''You weren’t here through the tough times, what do you know?' As more young minds go abroad and adapt to the ways of the world, I hope their knowledge will be as welcome as the cash they bring home.

I pass clumps of green, yellow and black bamboo to emerge at a lakeside temple. A new affluence has touched its walls and steps, now concreted. But inside, the primitive temporary figurines from indigenous wood and tree-fern remain.

This temple aptly illustrates how I find myself: A hardy modern mix outside, capricious animist inside.

~ ~ ~

 

Honest toil among grubby soil

The Jakarta Post, 18 November 2007

Land is identity, not commodity. Where cash is king, though, everything has a price tag. Especially when cash crops don't deliver enough.

"Would you like to see the land your father bought last week?" asks a black-clad youth greeting me by the roadside. I had just trekked for two hours through pine forests and bamboo groves to arrive at this lakeside village, but that isn't the reason for my mute surprise. My father passed away in December 1998.

The penny drops. All his siblings, sometimes even his cousins, by custom in Bali are referred to as my parents.

It's rather odd to ask, 'Which father?' so with a nod and a smile I agree to go. Walking up a narrow newly sealed road, he fills in the details with a preamble.

"I just moved back. My family house burnt down. Electric fire. Your father Wi donated Rp.1.000.000; Your father Ketut gave me Rp. 3.000.000; towards rebuilding it."

He cuts right through my mumbling about getting decent electric wiring. "So I came back from Kuta, there wasn't much work there anyway."

To our left and right are lush fields of tomatoes and chilies. Seeing dusty hunched figures weeding, I ask him whether the younger generation in the village is interested in agriculture.

"I carry the water pump down to the lake to water our fields twice a day," he answers defensively. "Those ones working over there are young," he points, "they just look old because they're grubby."

Now that he mentions it I begin to notice that most of the people working on the fields were young women in overalls. Radiant red-flushed cheeks peek through shawl-draped heads.

"Here it is: 2,900 square meters," he gestures to outline a narrow strip fronting a bend in the road to its north and east.

"Yos's father didn't till it much. At least your father Wi will make good use of it. Do you think he's going to build a Villa?"

I sure hope not. It's prime agricultural land.

Yos's father let go of the family land to buy his son a future. Yos had to pay a princely sum to an agency for job placement aboard a cruise ship.

While previously Balinese parents loathed sending their children away in fear of losing them to the world outside and having no one to organize their cremation, now an overseas experience is considered mandatory. Be it to widen horizons, improve language skills or economic survival, young adults today are being pushed to go beyond Java, beyond Indonesia, to learn the tricks of the global economic game.

Parents are willing to sell land to send their kids away, in hope that they will return richer, affording to buy more land. There's only 5,632.86 square kilometers of Bali, though. Most of which, thankfully, is not up for sale.

Yos is not alone in having to buy his way into a future. Responding to my previous note that land is increasingly being sold to fund education for the younger generation, a reader commented how education is becoming less about learning and more about dear investment:

"Education is no longer to produce a broad-minded humanist" expounds Professor Kung who has retired to Ubud, "but a specialist to make money."

Reader Robert Hobman from Klungkung considers this a small part of the story:

"Thanks for reminding us of the sacrifices that all Indonesians, not only the Balinese, need to make to ensure their children get an education. But you overlooked the fact that as far as expenses are concerned that is only the beginning as long as the reprehensible practice of buying a career, be it for a job in a hotel, the government, the police, the military or a cruise ship abroad continues in Indonesia.

At this rate it is surprising that families even bother to send their children to school at all."

Robert touches a sore point. When the family economic situation gets tough, there is a strong trend for parents in Bali to sacrifice education first. The dropout rate during the economic fallout after the Bali bombings was staggering.

Pessimism is slowly making headway. There is a perception that life is tough -- not in the Buddhist sense of accepting life as suffering until one reaches enlightenment, but more as a justification of taking any means necessary to get ahead.

The philosophy of this brave new world can be condensed thus: Life is tough. You've got to get ahead. By any means necessary.

This justification for corruption is becoming more and more accepted as a fact of life in Indonesia that I am most often laughed at by savvy expatriate businesspeople when I refuse to play the paying game to grease the wheels of bureaucracy.

Perhaps this is why I find my long rural walks so refreshing. There's something cleansing about honest toil in soil.

Granted, many leave the village in subliminal pursuit of the American dream (without even being aware of what it is) thanks to local and Hollywood dream factories.

But like my black-clad guide, some are returning. Disillusioned with the city, they are determined to eke out an existence back home despite the simpler rural life.

As for the land that has now diversified my extended family's portfolio, I found out my uncle Wi plans to grow flowers. Outer beauty seems to fetch a much higher price than inner nourishment in today's market.

~ ~ ~

 

That special place in your heart

The Jakarta Post, 4 November 2007

Home is more than a place where we spend much of our time. It is where we feel safe and comfortable, where we belong.

My great grandfather's village is buried under lava in the belly of the ancient caldera of Mount Batur. Eight kilometers in diameter, the caldera houses an ever-changing lake and a mountain constantly developing new crater heads like a Hydra.

From my grandfather's generation onwards, the three villages of Batur have clung onto the steep slopes on the western caldera. These three villages are still within eyesight of the many new craters that have sprung from the heart of Mount Batur, but safe enough from any pyroclastic harm.

Every year, at a particular lunar conjunction, those of us who can make it return to the site of our ancestral village and camp on top of the lava for three days.

Once there, we turn back the clock to our medieval times and prepare for temple festivities at Pura Jati (literally 'true temple').

A delegation climbs to the highest crater of Mount Batur and gathers condensed vapor from his billowing fumaroles to use as holy water. Yet another delegation paddles out to the lake and offers sacrifices to her depths.

According to oral history the mountain erupted many times, but the lava flow always stopped before reaching the temple gates at the village's highest ground.

In between eruptions, during a temple ceremony many went into a trance state and warned the villagers of a great impending eruption. It is said that when the village was eventually covered by lava, everyone had moved safely to the surrounding caldera.

Mount Batur remains our ancestral home where we feel safe, despite regular eruptions. We have come to perceive the regular spreading of ash as a blessing that keeps our soil fertile.

~

Having returned to my father's lakeside house after the village temple reunion one year, I found myself wide-awake at midnight.

I was 17, about to leave Bali to go to New Zealand for my university education. Perhaps I was restless about leaving, but now I know it was anxiety of what I would come back to.

I got up and watered the garden. The full moon beckoned. So, barefooted and wearing only a sarong and T-shirt, I began to walk across the road, through fields and forest, up the slopes towards the highest peak.

Despite the occasional cloud and thick trees, I knew the path well enough to make my way through the shadows. I walked through the forest, past the scattered clumps of trees and sat on a rocky outcrop.

Clouds were slowly flowing over the lip of the caldera like waves crashing in slow motion, hovering above the lake and wrapping the mountain like a loose blanket.

I watched and internalized the vision of the moon's silver light playing on the lake and clouds. For how long, I'm not sure. I hardly recall the walk back home, but the vision of mountain, lake and clouds under the moonlight stayed with me.

In my travels around the world, whenever I need sanctuary, I close my eyes and return to that view.

~

We Balinese are natural-born census takers, but I do get tired of using standard formulae like "Where do you come from?"

After months of pondering my questions, a Sundanese friend based in Jakarta responded to me recently, "There's only one question I cannot answer, 'Where is home?'..."

Today's world is moving and changing so fast, that perhaps we can no longer find any reassuring constant in our villages or cities. Having returned from my studies and travels overseas I am constantly amazed at the pace at which we are building. Modern palaces are growing in the place of rice and coconuts, while migrant slums mushroom along riversides.

Reader Jack of Hawaii, who grew up in a little fishing village called Kihei and has made Bali home for the last 24 years responded to my rant on the lack of waste management last week with the following statement:

"The single most important issue Balinese face is not plastic bags or narkoba (drugs). It's real estate scumbags."

Jack doesn't want Bali to turn into another Hawaii, where locals can no longer afford to live in their villages due to the high cost of real estate.

As a Balinese, I tend to be more introspective about the evils of villa development. I believe the crux of the issue is how we Balinese can find a balance between our desires to join the modern world with its demands.

How do we reconcile our dependency upon TV, motor vehicles, mobile phones, etc, with our love for our culture and environment?

Sadly, it's often during the month of June, when parents have to prepare the big lump sums for their children's higher education that land gets sold or leased long term. But where else are poor farmers going to get the money to give their children a chance to compete in the international workplace? More kids are dropping out due to financial pressures than palatial 'your own piece of paradise' villas erected.

Education is the key to our better future, but its cost is skyrocketing. Losing our land for it is a high price to pay. Especially when identity is bound so strongly to the land where our afterbirth and umbilical chord are buried.

If Jack's worries become a reality, home for most Balinese may have to become a memory cherished only in the heart.

~ ~ ~

 

Paving the way to get plastic out of rivers

The Jakarta Post, 28 October 2007

The rainy season is back! Even though we've only had pre-dawn showers down here at the coast, there are telltale signs on the beach of the deluge in the hills: Plastic wrappers, bottles and rubber sandals are blending in with seaweed, bits of trees and blobs of bitumen. Water is the only reliable cleaning service around here, but she's got to deliver the junk somewhere.

Cleaning and waste disposal is not a sexy topic with local government (yet). This could change if voters demand the service, but for now local government prefer spending their budget on larger commissions, visible high profile projects involve procuring big things: The 16 billion rupiah seawall on our beach, for instance.

Actively trying to ignore the dance and sound intrusion of the three mechanical swans packing giant boulders that crunch and crackle into a sloping seawall, I hardly notice the debris left by the outgoing tide. Preoccupied with cloud formations and the glimmering horizon, our willful dogs tugging at their leash jerk me back to the present.

And onto a sharp shard. I've a hole in my foot giving the burning signs of an infection. As I write, I'm soaking it in warm brine to soften the thick skin before opening it up to clean and disinfect with 70% alcohol. There's a silver lining to this monsoon cloud. This column is due and I can't walk away from this desk for a while.

There are not enough landfills to accept the waste we produce. Rubbish collection is unreliable. In Bali, even municipal rubbish collection trucks resort to dumping into rivers. Up in the hills locals and businesses often dump their waste into ravines to get it out of sight. Once the rains start, this all gets flushed downhill. The debris regularly clogs drains and causes flooding, which is a nuisance to all, but most persist in their habits because of a perception that there is no alternative.

Rivers flow to the sea carrying a wealth of waste. A lot of it is recyclable. There must be an alternative, wouldn't you agree?

Imagine yourself as a primary school student at a rural village in Bali sitting your end of year exams. Here is a question from previous years that touches on sanitation: "What is the correct method of disposing your plastic rubbish?"

The exam is multiple choice, so take a pick: (a) Throw it in the river, (b) Burn it, (c) Bury it, or (d) None of the above. Sorry, recycling hasn't quite made it to the school curriculum yet. Obviously we've got to find other options for 'none of the above' but for the time being, if you want to ace that exam, the correct answer according to the marking schedule is (b) Burn it.

According to recent studies, plastics can remain as long as 4500 years in the environment. Dry plastic burns beautifully like wax candles, but it's the carcinogenic dioxins, furans and styrene readily absorbed through lungs and skin I'm worried about.

Household burning of rubbish can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches. It can damage the nervous system, kidney or liver, and also has a detrimental effect to the reproductive and development systems.

I happen to be one of those hippies who refuse unnecessary plastic bags to the bemusement, amusement or utter confusion and blank disbelief of denizens of checkout counters. A ban on the use of plastic, however, is likely to be futile. Indonesia is too 'democratic' -- for lack of a better word -- to be able to enforce such a rule.

The risks to health and safety through increased chances of damage or contamination would also be so great that it would be irresponsible to ban plastic without offering a feasible economic alternative.

As Indian Physicist S. S. Verma puts it, the crux of the issue is more "the judicious use and re-use of plastic".

It's early days of trials yet, but in an article titled Roads from plastic waste in India's The Tribune S.S. Verma boasts how roads made of bitumen mixed with plastic can carry heavier loads and can last at least twice as long as their bitumen-only cousins.

The trial plastic roads in India use mainly plastic carry-bags, disposable cups and polyethylene (PET) bottles that are collected from garbage dumps as ingredient material. Mixed with hot bitumen, the plastics melt to form an oily coat over the aggregate and the mixture is laid on the road surface like a normal tar road.

Research has found that shredded plastic waste can act as a strong binding agent for tar, making the asphalt last longer. These plastic roads withstand hotter temperatures on sunny days without melting.

Reducing the porosity of the road, the use of plastic could reduce water-damage to roads, saving money from road repairs. Verma estimates that each km of road with an average width requires over two tons of polyblend.

Wonderful: yet another use for plastic. We know the stuff is valuable, is it time to for a concerted effort to collect and reuse it?

~ ~ ~

 

Slamming words of love's intoxication

The Jakarta Post, 21 October 2007

Large helpings of poetry over the last two months have shown me how crafting words for beauty's sake alone is not enough.

Beauty is a worthy disguise to lull an audience into a false sense of security but it shouldn't be empty. Set them adrift unaware, then BAM! Punch them in the stomach with shocking truth.

At readings, I've watched audiences double-up with laughter. Ill at ease, some would at first look around for approval before joining in the mirth. The more absurd the revelation of truth, the more effectively it is delivered.

Good manners require truth a vestige of cover up, which in poetry works beautifully like the see-through kebaya. Humor veils discomfort, laughter softens pain, aggression staves off intimidation, sensuality becomes an ode to repression. Even romantic love can become a lonely idol upon a monumental altar of abandonment, confusion and disillusion.

There is no magic formula. Poetry can be a play on sound as much as meaning, an exercise of wit as much as feeling. To capture the essence of life's moments, the only necessity in poetry is honesty. The best poetry comes in touching simplicity from the heart.

~

Honest simplicity from the heart does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with performance art.

Closing with a raucous "Spank the monkey" to up the ante on pornography at last year's slam was simply too much for the punters to bear.

Last month I got kicked upstairs to be one of the judges of the prestigious "Better Read than Dead Poetry Slam" at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.

Past judging panels -- who had been picked at random from the audience -- had to discern performances in English, Indonesian, Javanese, Balinese, French, Dutch and gibberish.

Their monolingual bias gave an unfair advantage to witty English poems and exotic-sounding "other" language poems. True to the Ubud policy of inclusion, this year the selected judges were at least bilingual.

My partners in crime were cheerful Joyce from the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation and delightfully imperious Australian-born Jero Asri of Ubud.

Professional festival slammers like Miriam Barr, Miles Merrill and Angelo Suarez were invited to perform, leaving the competition to mostly newbies.

Miriam's stilted phrasing set the bar, coaxing out wannabe poets from the audience. Miles impressed with his sound-check and near-perfect imitation of a scratched record, inviting the audience to carry on with the oral expression of alternating moods.

The ear-splitting screaming of Da-Da boy Angelo Suarez, however, was unnecessary and obtuse. The audience was too kind to boo him off stage.

Members of the judging panel were nervous enough to be acutely critical, but everyone in attendance seemed to be more in the mood for love.

~

The contestants were full of surprises. Despite the confrontational nature of a slam, many of the performances were solemn. Debra Yatim enacted a communal prayer for Aceh, Abe Bareto Soares offered a loving testimony to Timor Leste, and Robin Lim spoke of the magic of motherhood and childbirth.

Others disappointed with rambling personal tales and reading text messages, disqualified for being not even an excuse for poetry. But a participant from Rembang in Java took the performance cherry.

Cross-dressing DJ Pop nonchalantly smoked, writhed and stripped a few layers while calling love to enter his black-stocking-wrapped body.

Supremacy of content reigned over seasoned performance tricks as the packed audience voted by clapping loudest for the many faces of love. The winners were four firsts.

First-time slammer Stasha Luwia from Jakarta got fourth place with her jazzy rendition of "Instant Sugar Reaction". Her smug brief minutes of satisfaction gave the audience "Instant recuperation / Constant satisfaction / Far from redemption".

With the first reading of her ode to Ubud, penned ten minutes before braving the stage, Kerry Pendergast had everyone in stitches. In one skit she imitated crazed baying hordes of political demonstrators screaming "Bali Independence / Hidup Ibu Mega!" Campaigning in rabid support of presidential hopeful Megawati, they paused their threatening motorcade to offer little sweet hellos to the cowering expat.

Malaysian singer/songwriter Reza Salleh got into the trouble of winning second place with his soulful rendition of "What the hell just happened I'm not really sure". To the exasperation of the opposite sex, he admitted that "It seems to always happen when / I least expect it / It seems to be connected to / My inability to see, sense and to feel / The vital things that make you blue".

The top prize went to Fulbright scholar Danielle Bero on her first trip to Bali. Having arrived on the island the day before from Medan, she was a late entry. Nervous, she fumbled and kept the audience waiting. Their response to her uncomfortable, gangly timid performance in plain rap rhythm, however, proved the power invested in words:

"I want a love I can bare my soul to
show my world to
capture a verb to / just to be in view of

I want a love that can bear my mood swings
be my flight when I lose my wings."

Later that night, I walk home from the performance dreaming about such an uplifting kind of love.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Minal aidin wal faizin. Due to Ramadan, the Sunday Jakarta Post was not printed on 14 October 2007

 

~ ~ ~

 

Schizophrenia of abandoned darkness

The Jakarta Post, 07 October 2007

The crunch of pebbles in the courtyard alerts you to an intruder in the shadows. Your body feels bound, heavy like stone. Struggling with all your might, you cannot move. You attempt to wriggle your toes, then strain to move a finger. You cannot even force your eyelids to open.

Yet you have a strong sense of your spatial environs. You are aware of the silver sheen reflecting the moon's glow off the rounded river stones. You perceive the sway of fern trees from the erratic movement of shadows across dusty silver. You are not alone.

Memory wakes, your spatial awareness given reference: you are sleeping out in the open pavilion with all blinds open. Practically camping out by the riverside in Ubud.

The river below gurgles its merry tune, lulling you back to sleep. But your anxiety fights the week's weariness out of your bones, refusing to let awareness slip away yet again from your environs, from your body. It is communication that sets you free.

Vocal chords stubbornly dormant, you strain a mental "Excuse me" in three languages until your voice surfaces to break the spell

You sit up and observe your surrounds. Everything is in agreement with your prior vision except for one particular shadow, now bleached of its darkness. Heart still pounding, you switch on the lamps. The shadows flee the golden light.

~

Why do we fear the dark? I enter the guestroom to find my aunt in lotus position, perspiring under a glaring incandescent bulb. She is working herself up into a trance state again. Schizophrenia, the psychiatrist diagnosed.

She prefers the idea of deities visiting her body. I hug her, rocking her body gently until the stiffness drains away. Her daughter peeks in, worried.

I ask the teenager to turn out the light, and the struggle begins. For the next ten minutes, terse orders are issued to switch the light back on while I smile and shake my head to reassure them that the soft light washing in from the living room is enough. To avoid theatricals, I send for a candle. Its fragile flame is a lot more warming.

My aunt loved the bright lights. It lured her to Jakarta, where she worked hard long days and nights. At midnight she would still be in front of her TV, chatting away to various business prospects on her many mobile phones. In the witching hours of two to three, she would fall asleep to the background noise and flicker of the TV.

Living among a populace constantly flashing their devout credentials with dress code and prayer amplification, my aunt also took to her religion with gusto. She always woke up at five a.m. to do the first of her three daily meditations before preparing her children for prayers and school.

Trying to cope with modern desires and demands while proving her faith far beyond the call of tradition and religion was the path to her downfall.

Psychotic episodes leading to irreversible Schizophrenia are usually brought on by lack of sleep. The retina is bombarded by light without the reprieve of darkness. Constant stimulation disrupts the brain's chemical and electrical balance.

~

Having returned from a midnight pilgrimage to Batur Temple, I fell asleep at about three AM. The shadow intruder woke me an hour later. Optical senses reigning supreme again, I question my reaction. I'm not afraid of the dark; I have a healthy respect for it. Brightly lit urban areas dull many of our senses.

For the past week I've been walking through the monkey forest late at night to get home. It's the quickest shortcut, but almost always empty of pedestrians at night. Stifling vision and slowing down to walk lends too much power to other unfamiliar senses, most locals find it unsettling. They avoid the dark ravine of tall trees and swaying vines by taking the detour on their motor vehicles.

Western interpretations such as alpha and beta dream-state consciousness, alien abductions, and repressed guilt abound, but I learnt from a healer that the dream shadow is likely to be a part of me I set on guard against unknown forces. The shadows, according to Balinese interpretation, are my Kanda Ampat, the four siblings born in different dimensions along with my birth to this experiential realm.

I took the traditional approach first, that of communicating with the perceived intruder, but due to irrational fear I fell short of embracing the entity. I too, am a modern man who seeks to control the world with his intellect. We harness brute mechanized forces to tame organic systems so they behave in accordance to rational rules.

Living in this modern age, we have developed a fixation for control. Not for mastery over the self, but over nature, our environs, and those around us. Our intellect is the Burmese junta shooting down the meditative forces of nature protesting its arrogance. Harmony is sacrificed to the fires of hegemony.

Pray, make peace before Schizophrenia takes over.

~ ~ ~

A leap from oral traditions

The Jakarta Post, 30 September 2007

Literature encapsulates many worlds. It gives us an opportunity to travel to foreign lands, or look again at our daily lives through the spectacles of others.

Reading in the comfort of our own bubble, we can comfortably and safely explore the world through the experience of characters taking risks on our behalf -- not just those of our culture, but also those with vastly differing traditions and lifestyles.

Gems of literature touch us in places that we are not necessarily aware of, reminding us of the world within, and that of the universe outside.

Improvisation in the wayang shadow puppetry or masked theater of Java and Bali are traditionally the medium of social commentary and critique as well as education.

It is these epic nightlong performances to an appreciative public that sits (and often also sleeps) in on these performances that has woven moral fiber into the backbone of society. Growing from roots of understanding, it lends us strength to question dogma, alienation and fear.

Despite a great love of listening to and marveling at the beauty of words, be they poetry or great epics, readers out there have yet to catch up with the hordes who are writing.

Fortunately, a growing number of literary events are responding to this disparity.

~

Poetry and storytelling are the abundant crops of the fertile imaginations of Indonesia. The language itself, growing from a lingua franca for trade, tends to become expressive through ellipsis where the spaces between can allude to feelings that speak louder than the words themselves.

We love to play with imagery and the sound of words, often caring more for rhyme than reason.

Due to our longstanding oral traditions, poetry has seeped into the Indonesian psyche. People send poetic short messages to each other on their mobile phones; use riddle and rhyme in daily conversation.

Be it at an Independence Day celebration, a traditional blessing ceremony or a modern wedding, there is bound to be some form of poetry being listened to.

And listening is the operative word. Our oral traditions are strong, writing is catching up, but book sales figures loudly broadcast the fact that not enough people are reading. Discussions and readings are very well attended by people who prefer to listen and ask questions rather than having to read up on a topic.

People who want to be heard by a wider audience are writing and self-publishing. However, very few are actively prepared to read. In fact, very few Indonesians can say they have read a great work of Indonesian literature from cover to cover.

Is this because of the lack of privacy and personal space?

It's true that few people have the luxury of being able to create a personal bubble in which to explore new worlds through books. Few want to -- preferring the constant company of TV or radio when live entertainment is unavailable.

There is much audiovisual pollution in the landscape of our lives that makes it difficult to tune out of the babble. Among a people for whom social life is paramount, is solitary reading that incompatible?

For the few who choose to read Indonesian literature, a dynamic world awaits. It is vibrant and polarized; the Indonesian literary scene is full of newcomers challenging the status quo.

The iron curtain of government censorship has lifted. The iron grip of few publishers has loosened. Hundreds of titles are being published each month. The mushrooming publishing houses are building new worlds for your armchair travels.

Buyers beware: Be selective. You've got to shift through a lot of rubbish for the jewels.

~

Literary festivals never seem to avoid that particular kind of participant who shows up to have his or her opinions heard without having read anything by the author who is speaker.

After readings by four world-class authors in front of a captivated Jakarta audience last month, a graduate student took to the microphone to share a statement and question that gave me a lot of food for thought:

"I admit I can't understand modern literature much when I read it, be it poetry or prose. When read out loud like today, however, it all makes more sense. How about you record the readings and distribute the recordings instead?"

Local events such as the recent festivals in Surabaya and Tasikmalaya are budding throughout the country in celebration of a literary freedom that is the envy of South East Asia.

Most focus on readings to introduce works of literature. Few manage to translate this into sales. Our participant has a point, but would talking books sell any better?

And despite travel warnings, Indonesia continues to lure international stars to festivals such as last month's Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale and this month's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF).

One of the many things UWRF has right in its formulae is implicit in the name: It is also a celebration of the reader. Many aspire to be great writers. I for one aspire to be a great reader.

I believe that my taste for reading matter and the way I vote with my wallet in buying not just one copy of a book I consider good -- but verging on the dozen to dish out to friends -- will help establish the classics for the not so-distant future.

~ ~ ~

Life in the fasting lane

The Jakarta Post, 23 September 2007

The fad of fasting has spread far and wide. Perhaps it is high time to share the tradition of breaking the fast with a healthy meal.

I didn't expect to be reminded of the Muslim holy month by my Christian friends in New Zealand. Peter and Jeanette Shearer of Auckland's North Shore raise the bar of tolerance to the level of compassion and empathy by appreciating the virtues of Islamic tradition. Jeanette wrote to me in an email:

"Pete and I do a version of Ramadhan every year. We shorten the day and have breakfast early at 6 a.m. and eat again at 5 p.m. I find it a good time to get work done as distractions in the form of cups of tea are reduced.

"I take to soaking up the sun for breaks. Yesterday we walked at lunchtime."

Ah, the joys of living in a temperate climate with public amenities. Hardly anybody walks in Jakarta for fear of the sun, smog and heat.

Once the sun has gone down, these days, traveling through Jakarta at dusk becomes a breeze -- just don't try going anywhere at 4 p.m. Chances are you'll get caught up in the gridlock of fasting folk attempting to get home in time to celebrate that day's victory over self.

~

There are many ways and benefits to fasting: It's good to slow down the digestive system once in a while to allow a cleanup of the detritus that tends to accumulate along the stomach lining.

When the fit fast correctly, most enjoy sustained higher energy levels throughout the day -- they miss the post lunch slump when a lot of energy is diverted to digesting food.

Fasting can also trigger cleanup action by the rest of the body, which also requires energy. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of the fasting routine many people feel weary, although one could argue that the low energy levels are psychosomatic due to a perception of starvation.

I find it rather beside the point to gorge oneself in the euphoria of food at the end of a day of fasting. The body is just starting to streamline its processes and wham! It's loaded up with a lot of complex tasks again.

Long before the Muslim tradition of Ramadhan came to Indonesia, there was already a strong foundation of belief in the virtues of fasting and voluntary abstention.

Mutih (literally going white) is a Javanese tradition of abstaining from everything but fresh rice over a long period of three, seven, or even 40 days as a ritual of spiritual purification.

In celebration of the Saka calendar New Year, Balinese Hindus are encouraged to "nyepi" or abstain from food, work, travel and using technology.

From midnight of the new moon, through the following day, night, until dawn the day after, those who take the ritual seriously spend the day meditating to clear the body and mind. Some even suppress mental chatter and the urge to talk.

Of course, much like the few Muslims who become nocturnal creatures in order to fast (and sleep) during the day, there are the rogue Balinese who use Nyepi as an opportunity to check into a hotel and party, or stockpile food and movies in the house for an eat-as-much-as-you-like DVD marathon.

They don't know what they're missing.

~

With a group of friends, I took advantage of the quiet first weekend of Ramadhan to go on a three-day hike in West Java.

Our porters on the trip, some of who were fasting during the day, cooked rice with salt and monosodium glutamate for dinner, served with a side dish of soupy noodles.

We insisted they partake in our goat curry, salted fish and beef jerky, which they received with glee, but they refused to touch the greens we'd gathered from the wild. They definitely bust the myth of the vegetable-loving Sundanese.

Most of them failed to stick to their fast. The goat curry we cooked at the end of the first day's walk was simply too tempting.

Yudi, our most talkative, approachable, energetic and environmentally conscious porter, was the only one who managed to steel his resolve to fast for the following two days despite the heavy backpack he was carrying.

He was superhuman. What rendered me awe-struck was his cheerfulness throughout the day, while his friends moped about not being able to fast.

~

In spite of the fasting, Ramadhan is the month of the largest food consumption in Jakarta. Just ask our logistics body, BULOG, who have mountains of rice stockpiled to ensure continuity of supply this month.

I know well enough from joining my friends and family to break their fast that we have made quite a tradition of gorging ourselves at the end of fasting.

How about continuing the fast with a little moderation? There's a lot of excess that could be used to improve the diet of the not-so-fortunate around us.

Naysayers have been booing the recent ordinance against giving money to beggars. Considering a faux-cripple can earn more than a university professor, I do see some reason behind the mad rule. Instead of giving money, why not share healthy food?

Yes, I know career beggars would simply throw what delicacies on offer in your face, but do try taking it beyond the literal.

How does one nourish the soul?

~ ~ ~

Global warnings, local lassitude

The Jakarta Post, 16 September 2007

The government of Bali has come up with an ingenious plan to ward off the effects of global warming and rising sea levels: fortification.

At the present rate of building seawalls, the island will be fortified well in time before polar ice caps melt into oblivion, taking island nations like the Seychelles and Mauritius along with them.

We won't need pornography bills to stop people sunbathing in near-nothing on the beach. There simply won't be much beach left.

Not at high tide, anyway.

It's early days yet, but with the recent government success in curbing the island's drinking problem (notice all the wine stores closing?) I must say nothing is beyond their amazing foresight and impeccable planning.

The cup isn't half-full after all. It's overflowing! With confidence!

It's most definitely celebration time.

Champagne, anybody?

Whoops, I forgot that we've run out of that, too.

~

Walking the 40-minutes along the beach home from a pleasant afternoon at Merthasari yesterday, I came up with a new name for our Department of Public Works (Pekerjaan Umum). I think Pemborosan Umum (Public Wasting) is much more appropriate.

As they won't even need to change their acronym, PU, most people wouldn't even blink or notice.

Here's their grand plan (as divulged by informants): There is to be a beachside road connecting the derelict Taman Festival Bali amusement park to the existing Sunrise Walkway.

The road will wipe out the fragile sand-dune ecosystem protecting the coastline, to be replaced by a rock wall made of giant boulders weighing about a ton apiece.

The Sunrise Walkway is their shining beacon of success. The sand along that walkway is white, a clue that the limestone walls protecting it are in turn protected from the open sea by coral reefs.

The sand along the proposed rock wall and road, however, is black, supplied by the nearby Ayung River. It is open to the brute force of the sea, not to mention the monsoon moods of Ayung flooding.

At the southern approach, the sea is already chewing up an existing road built on a foundation of limestone. The protecting wall of soccer-ball sized rocks didn't do much once the sand in front of it had been scoured by waves. They collapsed in an unspectacular manner like krupuk prawn crackers going limp after sprinkled on top of bubur ayam (chicken porridge).

And our PU officials (I dare not say "engineer" in honor of the profession) think that bigger is better and stronger. One-ton boulders shouldn't be movable by waves.

Correct me if I'm wrong, don't big boulders follow the law of gravity? Somebody seems to have forgotten.

The boulders have been placed on a slope upon a foundation of sand. Pray tell, what happens when a wave washes on a rock sitting on sand? The sand is washed away.

Sure, in some places the boulders actually touch the solid clay beneath, but when I finished inspecting a section of the erected wall, I hopped off a tall boulder to find myself knee-deep in wet sand.

The wet sand was once of the dry fluffy kind that absorbed the impact of waves.

Seawalls deflect waves, which rebound from the sea as bigger waves still. Bigger waves that scour out more sand, or whatever it can.

No matter the size of the boulder, when it's got nothing holding it underneath, it will roll down into the sea to become yet another hazard for surfers, but that's a different story. Rumors abound that someone high up wants to invest in setting up beachfront (soon-to-be rockfront) apartments.

~

To me, the quest for harmony espoused by the Balinese concept Tri Hita Karana is literally the three reasons for beauty. It is awareness of how we are all interlinked, and how maintaining all those relations is important in order to have beauty in life.

Officials in Bali use this worldview to extol how harmonious the Balinese are with their (1) Fellow men and women, (2) Environment, and (3) God. Hogwash. Devoid of such simple things as common sense, community consultation and assessment of environmental impacts, this beautiful sand castle is being washed away by waves of empty rhetoric.

Looking at the big picture, there are many reasons why the beach is losing its sand.

Cleopatra's descendants will tell you that the Nile Delta retreated after the completion of the Aswan Dam, its waters intensively used for irrigation. Similarly, the Ayung Delta is retreating because its banks are tamed and its waters diverted. She is no longer delivering as much sand to the sea margins.

Seawalls and large-scale ocean reclamation to make more land have changed tidal and wave patterns. Good bakers know that changing the direction of whipping the batter spoils the cake. Well, the Bali cake is crumbling.

Haphazard additions to the irrigation network along the coast have forced several new streams to break through the protective sand dunes, exposing the clay underneath. Vegetation struggling to hold the sand down is trampled daily by surfers, romping lovers, martial arts groups, soccer players, revelers and vendors. The gentle forces of nature and men's many wee hands and feet have taken their toll.

Brute force to the rescue!

~ ~ ~

Creative freedom exists in high school

The Jakarta Post, 09 September 2007

The magic of hosting an event in Indonesia lies in how everything simply falls into place, even if it is at the last possible minute.

And there's always an element of surprise.

When it comes to putting on a show, most Indonesians -- whether poets, singers, musicians, dancers or students -- have a public face on standby. Within a few seconds, the dusty day-to-day facade sloughs off to let the creative spirit shine through.

I don't think Indian Ambassador to Indonesia Navrekha Sharma was exaggerating in postulating that Indonesia has historically been and is poised to regain its reputation as the creative link that connects the culture of India and commerce of China.

Recent encounters during a tour-de-force through Java with international literary luminaries proved her point.

As part of efforts to encourage reading, the Literary Committee of the Jakarta Arts Council initiated a school outreach program during the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale.

Less than two weeks prior to the event, they provided translations of visiting writers' work to three high schools volunteering: SMU 78, West Jakarta; SMU Kanisius, Central Jakarta and SMU Lab School Kebayoran, South Jakarta.

The response was memorable, to say the least.

~

The international writers were expecting to show up to do some readings followed by discussions, but little did they know what advance notice and brief preparation could catalyze.

My favorite example is the trip to Lab School Kebayoran, where a select group of visiting writers interacted with about 100 students from five different schools.

The session began with Singaporean poet and countertenor Cyril Wong reading a few of his poems. Ayu Utami performed the translations.

The students quickly stole the show -- they chose to apply their musical voices, their keyboard and harmony skills, and even an electric guitar, in interpreting the words of South Korean novelist Shin Joong Seun and Vietnamese poet and visual artist Mong Lan.

"I have never known kids to be so musically gifted at such an early age," admitted Cyril Wong, adding that they were "equipped with the ability to improvise and create chords as a group with such ease and maturity."

While some of the meanings in the poems might have been lost, the enthusiasm and fine dramatic qualities of the students' presentations proved to be infectious.

For Mong Lan, "It was an extraordinary experience" seeing her work taking flight. "I spoke to a few of the students at the beginning," she enthused, "they were young, fresh and eager."

One group formed a band consisting of two guitars and piano, plus four female singers. They performed Love Poem to Cafe au Lait in the version translated into Indonesian by Miagina Amal, composed and arranged by Malcolm, the pianist-composer extraordinaire.

"It was most uplifting to hear them put my poem to music," said Mong Lan, "and the spirit and humor of the poem was there."

Three different students then performed Mong Lan's other poems, Love Poem to Spinach, Love Poem to Red Chili Peppers and Love Poem to Green Tea. The poet then responded by reading the original versions of the work to thank them.

Later, Malcolm asked Mong Lan what she thought of his arrangement.

"It's fantastic what you've done. I loved it! You're very creative and please keep on being creative," she responded.

Asked about his experience in putting the poem to music, Malcolm modestly admitted that he was given three days to complete the assignment and did the best he could, leading Mong Lan to wonder, "Perhaps Indonesians are naturally dramatic. The students put all of their heart into it, and it seemed easy and natural for them to come up before the audience and play music, the piano, guitar and sing, and recite poems."

~

The performances taking up all the allotted time, discussions took an additional hour during which students asked questions about writing, how they can overcome criticism, how to begin to write, where to get ideas. The writers encouraged them, of course, to continue being creative and to write. They were well on the right track.

Before saying their reluctant goodbyes, the visitors were given canvases to draw/write whatever they wished. In a few minutes, the cloth began to fill with autographs, encouraging words and faces of the young aspiring and creative students sketched by Mong Lan. The canvases would be hung on the school walls.

Upon leaving, the students gave as parting gift a colorful "zine" that the school had produced, as well as a folder containing the work of one student: Strip -- Welcome to the first suicidal web in Indonesia. Find out how to be looking good when you were found dead! Also 1,001 ways to do your own suicide!

Avant-garde creativity? Some of the visitors were shocked at seeing such a dark side to teen life expressed with freedom at high school. I, for one, continue to applaud them. Teen suicide is a big problem in a number of developed countries where it remains a somewhat taboo issue. Discussing death in the open with humor -- especially at school -- opens a window of opportunity to entice our young larvae out of their cocoons. High school has always been the best time to come out and smell the roses.

~ ~ ~

 

What's in that writer's name?

The Jakarta Post, 02 September 2007

If it were not for comments like "I learned so much from your piece on Balinese names" and "Thanks for reminding us of the power of names," I would have no idea that anyone reads this column. Besides my mother, of course.

Baring the bones of why some Balinese prefer to use nicknames and hide their true names, I seem to have invited confessions and gossip from the literati about the origin of pen names among their peers.

Many Indonesians have yet to adopt a family name: the majority, in fact. While traditions that use name to emphasize kinship abound, in Java there is also a strong tradition of choosing one's own professional name.

A propitious name would be selected to be more in line with one's chosen path in life. Some simply rearrange the letters in their name, or reveal or hide particular parts of their names, while others adopt a completely new name altogether.

In Bali, to be a priest one goes through a ceremonial rebirth after which the initiate chooses a name for himself. Roles can also be all-consuming. As a token of respect, some high priests in Bali are only referred to by their position as spiritual guide for society.

The concept of "being reborn through knowledge" has been around for centuries, so it is also not rare for a teacher to give a star pupil a new name upon graduation.

For many reasons not explored here, many Indonesian writers seem to hide their Christian names, which often refer to a saint or biblical personage whose character is admired by their parents.

Names given by parents are often wishes so strong they should be considered a blessing. In fact, parents would like them to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, writers are an independent lot and like to assert self-determination of identity.

When Sugeng becomes Eros (Djarot) and Susetyo becomes Mohamad, one would think there is a desire for something universal: Not so much abandoning the local, but more an attempt to break away from bearing too thickly a particular identity.

For Japanese flavor, novelist Seno Gumira Ajidarma once chose to write as Mira Sato in homage to Zatoichi.

~

At the outset of his career, Sarwendo found his name unlucky. With it he could never catch an editor or publisher's eye, so he rearranged his father's gift to Arswendho -- more fitting to his tongue-in-cheek, slapstick, open character.

With the new name, Arswendo had the Midas touch -- everything he touched turned to gold. Monitor became the largest grossing tabloid in the world in its day and Hai magazine the youth favorite.

His stellar rise was matched with his fall from grace for daring to publish a list of "most popular people" based on mailed nominations that led to his name sharing the top 10 with the prophet Mohammad.

Rapidly, he was denounced and sacked. For his own safety, he was thrown in the clink to save him from the hordes baying for his blood. Like Pramoedya, he went on to write many books behind bars.

~

Hardly anybody remembers that the "Pablo Neruda of Indonesia" once went by the generic rural Javanese single name of Sunarto. In fact there were two of the name at university, so he was referred to as Sunarto B for showing up second.

He studied wordcraft and poetry under the tutelage of cultural impresario WS Rendra. Adept he sure was, the nuances of words and internal rhyming of verse as natural as conversation to him.

So as a graduation gift, he was given the name Sitok Srengenge.

Worthy of a poet, the name that means "One Sun" has helped build a shining identity that has taken his poetry from strength to strength.

~

A young writer by the name of Goenawan Susatyo was having trouble getting his work published.

Always knocked back by editors, he opted to use the second name given to his older brother: Mohammad.

Under the new name, his submitted work was soon published in various media.

There was a time he had to abandon it, however, and write under pseudonyms such as Mundardjito and Tisna Aji to remain published. In 1963 the Karl Marx admirer helped pen a Cultural Manifesto that irked the powerful Lekra, the media mouthpiece of the communist movement of the time.

The rise of the New Order government meant that he could resume publishing under Goenawan Mohammad.

However, the pattern repeated in 1994. Tempo, the newsweekly of which he was editor in chief, was ordered to tow the government line. Rather than sacrificing his ideals, he chose to close it and set up an institution to resist the control of information.

Perhaps there is something in the name about being the voice of reason, empowering the marginalized with a progressive movement to set people free from the shackles of backward thinking.

His namesake was similarly persecuted in his time.

~ ~ ~

 

Up and down Gunung Gede in a day

The Jakarta Post, 26 August 2007

Last week, I celebrated Independence Day by coming to a fuller appreciation of the virtue that lay in patience, resilience and managing one's limitations.

Waking up at 3:30 a.m. to drive up to Cibodas where we would start our three-day hike, I was advised by a cell phone text message from the advance team to go back to sleep.

The mountain was closed to trekkers by a blanket security order to ensure exclusive access for a group from the Ministry of Health and Youth Affairs.

The two extra hours in bed meant two extra hours on the road. Battling through the mass exodus out of Jakarta, I was told to pray to Raden Surya Kencana for permission to visit his domain.

The Cartesian thinker would have not worried. Mt Gede and Mt Pangrango National Park requires a mandatory booking at least 30 days prior to the trek and reconfirmation three days prior for Indonesians. It has a 600 persons-per-day quota. We had booked. We would go up that mountain.

I prayed to the encouragement of Ayu, who was driving. Our navigator Erik pledged an offering of the best stick of goat satay he would make that night.

Perhaps it was appropriate that the hillbilly from Bali was to pray to the mountain deity on behalf of a Javanese beauty and Padang tough, but all was to no avail. Arriving before noon, we were advised that our permit had been revoked.

We accepted the news in humility and walked to the Cibereum waterfalls to join the advance team in commiseration.

That walk alone was worth the trip: The blue lake en route was calming and the expansive view of dense rainforest covering the two mountains soothing.

I picked watercress by the falls to add color and spice to our kingly, camp-side, four-course meal.

That evening, my mouth was half full with the first bite of satay when I remembered Erik's pledge. We may get to the mountain-top yet. We selected the best satay stick and made our offering.

Here's the plan: the eight of us would get up to hike at 4 a.m. to give potential rangers the slip. We'd pack provisions for the day and just walk for the pleasure of it. No rush. We would get up as far as we could and return midday.

~

In hindsight I thank the officials for closing the mountain off and deflecting the hordes that would have gone up to party that Independence Day weekend. The ban became another test for those worthy of the climb.

Two in our group didn't feel well enough to start that morning. They stayed back and served us dinner by a crackling campfire upon our return at nightfall.

Halfway to the top, we came across an obstacle course created by a 20-meter-wide cascade of near-boiling water.

Gingerly walking along the cliff's edge trying not to slip into the hot water or the emptiness to our right, we emerged into a clearing with an open view of the hot waterfall tumbling onto ferns, rising steam a transparent veil to the landscape beyond.

Behind the falls was a mass of my favorite Sundanese salad pohpohan, a tree whose leaves tasted somewhere between crunchy fresh lettuce and spicy betel leaves that hinted of basil and mint.

It was another feast, having more greens than we could possibly eat with our rice and reheated tongseng kambing (sweet goat curry).

After the heavy lunch, another from our group fell back. He chose to hang out by the pristine warm river where he could splash about, and we would join him on the way back down.

The five survivors, including 9-year-old Fidel, made it up to the top after scaling a steep slope to be rewarded with the view.

It was literally breathtaking: At over 2,900 meters altitude, the air over the crater was thin and occasionally laced with sulfur.

Standing on the crater rim, there was a rare moment of complete stillness.

Silence. No crunching of twigs or gravel underfoot, no voices, no more birdcall, no traffic -- the wind's caress the only reminder of motion.

~

My monkey brain keeps going back to its chatter.

"Relax, let it be," says Ayu. "They're not quite human yet so you must excuse them."

The notion is absurd, tickling me to simmer down, stretch my lips towards my ears and shake my head.

She is referring to a gaggle of louts in sandals who are making signs of moving away from the hot waterfalls and pools, leaving emptied shampoo sachets and puddles of spittle in their wake.

Their campsite was a carnage of wrappers. We're not the only group defying the ban to climb.

Later, a fit Australian striding up the mountain paused from treating it as an obstacle course to comment that the littered campsites were "Just like Jakarta."

I like to think that eco-conscious trekkers are beginning to catch up in numbers with the non-sapient hominids. This mountain is a lot cleaner than Jakarta -- or any other mountain I've climbed in Indonesia, for that matter.

We came across the louts again, curled like exhausted puppies under the shade of trees on the summit, sandals intact.

Someone from our group reminds them in a motherly voice to take home all their rubbish.

Sleepy heads nod sheepish smiles.

~ ~ ~

 

Celebrating Independence Day at Gunung Gede

The Jakarta Post, 19 August 2007

Running and going to the gym are popular among the fit and body-beautiful hopefuls: no pain, no gain, they say.

Nevertheless, I have to be in a particular frame of mind to appreciate the thumping, throbbing sound invasion at fitness centers.

Given a choice, I much prefer tuning fitness of body and mind in solitude by going on a decent three- to seven-day walk.

Evolutionary historians argue that walking is a central part of what it means to be human. Walking on two feet are key traits distinguishing our ancestors from the apes. It was legs that carried Homo erectus on the long marches out of Africa.

The ability of standing upright freed our hands for holding and manipulating tools.

As a species, Homo sapiens slowly came to master this planet on foot. If you think about it, most of human history was established initially by travel at a walking pace, even when some sailed boats or rode horses.

It should come as no surprise to remember that walking has for centuries been considered a spiritual exercise: Muslims go on the haj to Mecca, Hindus walk to the source of the Ganges and Christians trace the path of Saint James of Compostela.

Today's fast and furious age has given us a thirst for the speed and convenience of motorized transport. Temple and holy-spring pilgrimages on my island home of Bali, where they still exist aplenty, are slowly becoming adapted into vehicle-assisted convoys.

Then again, most of the pedestrian alleyways are slowly being transformed to be more wheel-friendly.

What's the rush? We seem to be forgetting that walking has many benefits to the body, mind and spirit. For a number of stars of the literary world, walking has even led to acclaim and material success as well.

Did you know that Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding alongside the lakes near his home?

~

In 1986, the writer of the unnoticed Hell Archives and contributor to the obscure Practical Manual of Vampirism went for a walk along the Road of Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James. The Pilgrimage, his fictionalized account of it was the beginning of many similar simple stories written in a plain, direct style, which often borrowed ideas from other authors. The blazing difference was his worldwide success.

Can any of you guess whom I'm talking about?

The man has sold over 86 million books in over 150 countries. He has been translated into more than 60 languages. Obviously, he is now a multimillionaire. I remember him best as the author of the sublime tome of daily wisdom that is The Manual of the Warrior of Light. He is Paulo Coelho.

I'd like to be as rich, without the famous part, but I've got a long (very long) way to walk to catch up with Coelho.

Especially if all I do is walk between home and office. This weekend I'm going for a three-day walk in West Java.

It may not be practical, but there are some who take it many steps further, trying to live better and be closer to human purpose by moving as much as possible on foot.

Scottish author Rory Stewart has practically walked around the world. The Places Between, his account of it, inspired today's column. His unique perspective has awarded him recognition, critical acclaim and jobs in rugged, mountainous Afghanistan.

There is something magical about mountains that remind me of the stuff of legends: The testing of a warrior's mettle, for instance.

Walking up mountains requires more mental and spiritual preparation than physical. Keeping attention within two paces and focusing on taking each step on solid ground brings calm composure. Calculating the distance to the top all the time is draining.

In most cases, the journey isn't even climbing in the literal sense. It's more apt to describe it as putting one foot in front of the other up a steep slope. This can be done, and most of the time is best done without using arms to drag up one's torso.

Mountain climbing on Independence Day or New Years Day is quite in vogue among nature lovers. Conquering a mountain by standing at its summit gives a sense of achievement, not to mention an incredible perspective on the world.

While you're reading this I'll be ambling down the slopes of Gunung Gede (literally "Big Mountain"), after having enjoyed sunrise from the summit, I hope.

If epiphany finds me, I promise to share it with you next week.

~ ~ ~

 

Letters to Jakarta

(The power of the voter ends not with elections)

The Jakarta Post, 12 August 2007

Dear Jakarta,

As a 10-year old, I first visited you for a wedding and was wowed by the mass of people celebrating, the groaning tables laden with delicacies and the prosperity I saw everywhere.

You are indeed full of wonders, Jakarta. I remember diving and holding my breath under water at the amusement park at Jaya Ancol Dreamland to see suction grilles. I needed to figure out how a swimming pool could be full of waves not too different from the waves I swam in by my home in Bali.

At Taman Anggrek Mall I learnt to ice-skate long before I ever dreamed of hiking to a frozen lake in Canada to practice that Jakarta-acquired skill.

With time I became more independent, coming alone to your city, venturing out in the open. I learned to take the ojek to avoid your traffic jams, enjoyed the melancholic buskers serenading on your public transport, and stopped holding my breath when facing your pollution: Dirty air is still better than no air at all.

Even as a frequent visitor to your city, it is still with trepidation that I enter. The glimmer of hope and awe at unknown potential that attracts millions of workers to your city remains tantalizing. You are the megalopolis of Indonesia, holding the keys to so much wealth, so many resources yet to be tapped to its full potential. So many hopes and dreams are pinned on you.

Do you intend to deliver, or should we all start walking home?

~

Dear residents of Jakarta,

By now I hope that you have reconciled with the choice your majority elected as governor. The lead-in time for submitting this column does not allow me the luxury of knowing whom you elected last Wednesday, but it doesn't really matter.

I would like to congratulate those of you who have exercised your right to vote. I would also like to applaud those of you who out of frustration with your lack of choice, chose to abstain from voting.

Your actions have helped determine the direction your city will develop in the next five years and I hope you understand your responsibility in the matter.

To eligible voters who did not vote out of apathy, I urge you to wake up and take part in the largest social experiment Indonesia is going through, thanks to reformasi.

Regional autonomy can allow local decision-making to come to the fore if voters in Indonesia dare seize it by the horns. Be vocal. Reward good politics with votes and punish corrupt politicians by abandoning them at the following elections.

You now have more of a chance than ever to make a difference to your public space, how your children are to learn and your experience of traveling between home and your place of work. I hope there is enough among you who still care.

~

Dear voters of Jakarta,

Despite the disparity between the layers of your socioeconomic strata, each of you has one equal voice when it comes to elections. Despite the disparaging realities of pseudo-justice -- more akin to the law of the jungle where the strong thrive at the expense of the weak -- corrupt politicians, judges, ministers and tycoons have begun to fear the law.

Your power as a voter does not end when the ballot is cast. In fact it has just begun.

When it comes to establishing and ensuring democracy, there is something more important than voting: keeping your government honest. Protest the legislature to give you new policy and laws if you must, but I suggest broadening your focus to the executive and judiciary. There is much legislation yet to be implemented. This is where lofty ideals written in policy tend to be twisted. Demand accountability by keeping an eye on the dispensation of justice and scrutinizing the implementation of policy.

Are the courts sending corruptors to prison? They should be. Our neighboring countries like Malaysia and Thailand have corruptors too -- who get punished when they're caught. Do you have public space where you can feel as one community? Then perhaps it is time to lobby and pressure for the implementation of planning rules and restrictions. Are teachers showing up at school to teach? Are subsidies really reaching the needy? Are Transjakarta busway operators delivering the service they are subsidized to do?

It will be difficult, for you are diverse. In making your city a proud place to belong to, however, you have a common goal.

~ ~ ~

 

To the pig, our unsung eco-warrior

The Jakarta Post, 05 August 2007

One after the other, two scrawny bronzed men pass in front of me, half-trotting in their rush.

Between them, upended with hooves tied to the pole on the men's shoulders, is a black pig.

The men wear only underwear and hats from woven palm leaves. With a splash they enter the sea, wading to almost chest-deep toward a boat rocking in waves just beyond the crashing surf.

Holding their pole aloft, they are relieved of their charge as calves start jumping into the sea. The boat is full of cows, which three men are coaxing or pushing overboard.

The two men in the surf take hold of the cows' muzzle-rope and begin to guide them to shore.

This is a common sight in Sanur beach, where commerce thrives between Bali and the three populated islands cradled in its southeastern flank: Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan & Nusa Lembongan.

The dry islands don't grow much but grass, perfect for the cows that are their main investment and source of income. In return they buy foodstuffs, including pigs, that thrive in the mainland.

The cows are reaching the shore as I splash through a nearby creek. Here I see another common sight with which I struggle to come to terms.

One of the scrawny boatmen, body still dripping wet, is standing in the creek, passing a wad of cash to an outstretched hand.

Looking back, I notice the hand belongs to a young man in brown police uniform. He hurries up the creekside steps to a man in a light-blue water police uniform leaning on a motorbike.

As I pass them, I see the man in brown splitting the wad of cash between the two of them. The cash is then slipped into their trouser pockets.

There are no receipts: This is the norm. The boatman probably saved on paying the full official levy; the coastguard -- if there is such an institution -- denied an income.

A tax that could have gone toward providing a service to save lives at sea has gone to supplement the income of these two urban soldiers.

They probably consider the money their rightful entitlement for as long as they send up the right kickbacks.

As they overtake me, zooming on a motorbike along the beachside walkway, I realize that fiscal corruption in this country doesn't irk me quite as much as motorbikes.

Wouldn't you agree that it's a lot more fun to jump in and out of boats with pigs and cows rather than zooming around, acting pompous and asking for handouts?

It's 300 meters between their post to the farthest landing point, along a pleasant paved walkway shaded by broad-leafed trees. The trusty motorbike to the rescue, lest our men in uniform break into a sweat.

Most of you know how motorbikes have taken over city streets and alleyways. In lax rural Indonesia, it is also becoming common for primary schoolchildren to insist on a motorbike as a carrot for school attendance. This puts quite some pressure on family economies -- not to mention our roads and global carbon dioxide levels -- as every other Wayan, Made and Nyoman forgets the utility of their feet.

Call me deranged if you wish; you may be right. I'm burning with a fever at the moment.

I'm ambling away to save my sanity, avoiding the sound pollution from loudspeakers set up to blast the ears of the tens of thousands of kite enthusiasts swarming around my home.

Thanks to the near-total congestion of the roads leading in to the kite-playing area, groups of youths bearing kites have been reminded of the joys of walking the beach. It's early morning. The hordes are still pouring in.

The Bali Kite Festival is an annual glitch in the matrix of our sedate life among the fields by the beach, so by now I should be used to the noise they generate and the rubbish they leave behind.

Plastic bags, bottles and various wrappers and packaging for food and drink litter the trampled rice and corn fields as if it were a war zone. Pemulung (scavengers) come to do their selective cleanup.

There's hardly any smell of rotting food waste, however. For this I have to thank the stray dogs and that black pig's extended family.

Pig farms consume most of Bali's food waste, reducing what ends up decomposing as carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. For their contribution to reducing global warming, pigs in Bali are quite the unsung eco-warriors.

If only the brown and blue variety could be as useful.

~ ~ ~

 

Waiting at the airport an acquired skill

The Jakarta Post, 29 July 2007

Is jumping queues a national sport? A bunch of midgets from Pekanbaru shamelessly weave through the line of people held up at security entering the domestic terminal at Soekarno-Hatta, Jakarta's international airport.

Past the X-ray machines, I spot a thinning at the inside flank. I slip along the periphery, advancing. Now this'll get me home to Bali faster! I glance back sardonically to the meandering queue left behind. Something makes me do a double-take: A boogey board?

Musing about the alternative utility of such bags in the hands of a particular Australian beautician, I notice "ECCLES" in capitals on the nametag. It takes me back to childhood memories.

Eccles is the dimwit prone to telling himself to shut up in The Goon Show, a BBC radio comedy. My Kiwi grandmother, who spent the war years in England, used to bring us tapes to Bali to ensure we got a well-rounded education, what what.

The bleary-eyed youngster is no throwback to his namesake, however: He notices my maneuver and ambles to my queue. Obviously, he's brighter than Shapelle Corby, currently serving 20 years in a Bali prison for importing 4.3 kilograms of hashish in a boogey board bag.

Later on, as the queue creeps along at a snail's pace due to Soekarno-Hatta's antiquated computer network, I venture to ask, "You don't happen to be one of the Goons, by any chance?" "Before my time, mate!" he answers, taken aback. And that's how I met my friend Steve from Preston, a town in Lancashire, UK.

~

Air Asia running late is usually my cue to find a quiet corner at the airport, take my laptop out and write. This time I am knackered, so I offer to buy Steve a beer, my congratulations to his survival skills.

He walked almost all the way from the international terminal to avoid exorbitant fares from taxi touts. Accepting a sensible fare for a 20-minute ride, he found the one-kilometer drive between the international and domestic terminals rather amusing.

I learn that the 24-year-old investment banker is spending half his annual leave from the Bank of New York in Manchester to surf the waves of Bali.

"Obviously, I love the sun and the sea temperature, but the offshore waves would be the main reason I visit," he adds, "the surf is consistent and the breaks are all high-class."

On top of the budget airfare, the torture of flying via Abu Dhabi and Jakarta to him is a fair price to pay for three weeks in Paradise.

"All my mates think I'm crazing for going all this way," he admits, "but they just don't know how good the waves are." Naturally, he's staying in Kuta, better known to Australians as "Schapelle's Bali".

"Earning pounds, I like the value for money I get there," says Steve, explaining the great variety of affordable choice of places to stay, food and drink.

And here we are stuck at the airport. Not exactly the nicest -- or safest -- place to be.

~

Due to risky cost-savings, all our airlines are banned from Europe's skies. Tempo magazine featured "Indonesia's Flying Circus" in its July 10-16 issue, providing an in-depth review on why our airlines are "Grounded! Flying on Empty." Inept airports like this one don't get rave reviews, either.

Apparently, airport safety inspectors are not thorough. They let airplanes fly even when the navigation systems are out of whack.

But hey, when it comes to thoroughness in the face of tight deadlines, even Indonesia's leading news weekly gets things wrong.

If "In Indonesia the ratio (of accidents) is 377 for every one take-off" I wouldn't be here to tell this tale.

Facing the hordes of budget travelers, Soekarno-Hatta is described as being like a bus terminal. I happen to disagree: There is a lot more order in a Jakarta bus terminal, where people generally know what's going on.

Travelers be warned, do not to take any information displayed on airport screens as gospel. They are rarely updated when changes occur. You've got to stick with the information given to you by the airline you're traveling with, or risk waiting at the wrong gate.

Always take signage with a pinch of salt. By "free Internet" the pay-per-entry VIP lounge means there is "one computer with dial-up available only to the first resource hog".

If the chap at the check-in counter scrawled "6A" on your boarding pass, then go there. Do not get distracted by the fact that your flight number is displayed at gate 7A.

Airport survival aside, delays and transit lounges are perfect for seizing what's left of the day to complete an assignment, read a novel, write a postcard or be social.

The number of times I've been on the same flight with my dentist this year (three) is uncanny. Once I chanced to share a flight with 21 relatives within three branches of my family tree.

Fellow queue-jumpers, let's take note: we're all going to be waiting around anyway. Next time you get stuck at the airport, appreciate the wonder of being in a country of 250 million people in which there are only three degrees of separation.

~ ~ ~

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder ...

The Jakarta Post, 22 July 2007

Picture this: two gentlemen in city-slicker sports-wear walking down a hill in rural Bali.

They amble past rice fields and groves of coconut trees interspersed by traditional compounds, the odd "land for sale" sign, farmers planting rice and artists at work.

The two happen to be this columnist and a Malaysian friend on holiday in Ubud.

We've been up since 6.30 a.m. to walk the hills from Campuhan to Bangkiang Sidem. We've had our fresh coconut drink by the rice fields and are now returning to Canderi's Homestay on Monkey Forest Road.

"Luwung sajan body-ne" (Such a nice body) gushed a female laborer in Balinese as I walk past a cliff-edge construction site. Best not take the compliment personally: She's probably referring to the muscle-man to my right.

I must say it's nice to get compliments thrown at you -- even though they're random comments in a language you're not supposed to understand.

"Nawang apa nyi ken body luwung?" (What do you know about nice bodies) retorted a male construction worker, bursting my bubble.

"Ae, nawang lian muan luwung teken body luwung?" (Yeah, do you know the difference between a nice face and a nice body?) emphasized another male worker.

It's getting rather uncomfortable being under such detailed scrutiny. Thankfully our pace will soon get us out of earshot.

Not quite.

In the distance, I hear my heroine say "Men muan luwung kan patuh teken body luwung?" (Isn't a nice face the same as a nice body?)

It seems the English word "body" has made its way into daily Balinese conversation. But something has been lost (or is it gained?) in assimilation.

~

I haven't seen many, if any, female construction workers outside this isle. But it seems that construction workers the world over talk of the same things.

I worked as a hammer-hand for a few builders when I lived in New Zealand and found it to be a pleasant summer break from desk-bound jobs and computers. On those hot sweltering days, I must admit the conversation would tend to drift around the utility belt.

Fixing her attention on facial attributes, the female laborer at the construction site may not have seemed to care as much about certain bulges in the vicinity of men's waists as the men themselves.

Once growth spurts are over, excess food and drink do tend to turn six-pack abs into barrels. While enjoying a hearty feast, mine can fluctuate from "two-months pregnant" (barely noticeable) to the more pronounced "six months pregnant".

~

We're huffing and puffing up the steep sidewalk coming out of the Campuhan river confluence when I pass a friend of my father's dressed in full ceremonial garb. I ask him what's up.

"Odalan," he says, gesturing to the Pura Dalem with his head. There is a ceremony at the temple of the dead.

He shakes my hand and without hesitation pats me on the stomach by way of saying, "You're looking well. Life must be good."

I smile, colluding silently with an appreciative pat on his middle-age spread, "Yes, life is indeed good."

~

Girth is a source of mirth and a sign of affluence in Bali. It's as if we've all joined a Paunch Mutual Admiration Club. There is absolutely no malice intended in greeting long-lost friends or relatives with "Wow, you're fat!" or "Gee you've grown ... sideways!"

It's a cultural bone to chew for visitors facing a people who have the collective memory of famine, drought and pestilence.

As recently as the 1960s we had an island-wide crop failure that had families surviving on rice mixed with dried banana or sweet potato with one chicken as a month's flavor.

The bird would be fried and re-fried regularly with coconut oil, the oil itself used for daily seasoning while the meat reserved for special occasions.

That's what my teacher told me at primary school when reminiscing on the old days to remind us how lucky we are.

I like to think that this was the necessity that mothered our wild-food menu of ferns, palm-heart, banana-husk, star-fruit leaf, larvae, bees and even dragonfly, to name a few.

Today, high-protein, high-carbohydrate urban lifestyles are creating more Balinese that bulge, although not quite on a par with the pandemic hitting our distant cousins, the Maoris of New Zealand.

My claim to fame from living with a Maori family for one semester of university was reintroducing fruit and vegetables to their diet.

Something had to give, though. In exchange, I embraced their meat-and-potato ways, abandoning my six-year stretch of vegetarianism.

We got along well, but I really had to watch my tongue with the rounded comments. It was like walking on eggshells, never being able to call the kettle fat -- whoops -- black. The feelings of those not blessed with the hips of Adonis would really get hurt.

Now I'm suffering the consequences of my karma by bulging and bearing the brunt of fat jokes daily.

I try to face it the Balinese way: Smile and take it as a reminder to exercise.

Beauty, as the construction workers reminded us, is in the eye of the beholder.

~ ~ ~

 

Celestial visitors

The Jakarta Post, 15 July 2007

The Galungan and Kuningan festivities have just come to pass, and we Balinese have done our best to be good hosts.

There are many religious, cultural and spiritual reasons for our devotion at these two festivals that fall on Bali's 210-day rice-growing calendar.

My favorite is the one I have prepared for my grandchildren. I came up with it when being asked to explain why we have this festival by a tourist with a two-minute attention span:

"We host celestial visitors from the heavens for 10 days every Balinese year. They come down with the rays of the morning sun on an auspicious Wednesday, the day of Galungan, and rise up after a brunch feast on the Saturday-week, 10 days later, which is Kuningan.

"In preparation for this, every Balinese Hindu householder prepares a decorated bamboo pole penjor, which stands tall at the entrance to the home, curving elegantly toward the road above the electricity poles and power lines.

"The curve of the penjor signifies a mountain, which the spirits of light call home. It is decorated to be lush and beautiful to be welcoming to a passing celestial visitor.

Should they decide to stop by, a drink of holy water is prepared in an earthenware jug. Snacks are also provided in the form of cakes, fruit and little pockets of rice, nuts and spiced fine-grated coconut.

"Every day we would replenish the snacks and drinks, and in respect we don't place them on the ground like offerings for the earth spirits. We would make a little bamboo platform with a roof at least a meter off the ground should our visitors feel like lounging around for a while. Hopefully, they like the view of the mountain we erected in memory of their home.

"Just in case (and this is very likely) our ancestors decide to come along for the hoy-day, we provide Galungan-to-Kuningan snacks at the family temple too. Besides the traditional offerings, there are the favorite kretek cigarettes my grandmother puts in place for my grandfather.

And of course, if I feel like having a yarn with Dad, I'd bring some arak-brem, a rice-whisky and palm wine cocktail that he favored.

"Yes, the family temple is like a traditional satellite phone to call family members who have gone on their ultimate journey beyond. It's very handy to have within the family compound, but when the family grows bigger and bigger the temples branch out too.

"On Galungan I would try to go back at least three branches to visit my extended family temples as well. It's always a bonus catching up with some distant emigrated cousin.

"Mind you, if it weren't for the temples we belong to, we'd be hard pressed to remember all our relatives because not many of us have a written genealogy, and hardly anyone has a family name. We trace our ancestry through temples."

By this point, I've waffled. Eyes would start glazing to tell me my two-minutes is up.

~

This is pure conjecture, but perhaps visitors to Bali find it so welcoming because we believe we are constantly entertaining hordes of celestial visitors. We also know how to deal with the riff-raff so they don't spoil the party.

When we are entertaining spirits of light who come as deities of the thousands of temples in every place of natural splendor on the island, we make sure the lower spirits don't get jealous by offering a sacrifice. Depending on what kind of impression we need to make, the sacrifices can get bloody.

There's an acknowledged balance: for entertaining highs there must be sacrifices.

~

While there are the rare cases of sensitive human visitors to Bali who totally freak and jump on the next plane home, most of our Homo sapiens visitors (who are not too sapient) are completely oblivious to the bustling spiritual traffic.

The portly Dutch retirees on their budget holiday that I pass on my walk home from the office, for example.

Staying at the bungalows attached to the Grand Bali Beach in Sanur, they are for the most part oblivious about the garden villa-supplied incense and offerings daily for the mythical ruler of Java and Bali's south sea.

She, the lady in green, even reserved a room in the high-rise when it first was built as Bali Beach with Japanese war reparation money.

In 1991, careless painters ignorant of invisible thinner fumes left a cigarette stub smoldering in the ground-floor Qantas office. Unobstructed ventilation shafts quickly distributed the flames throughout the high-rise, reducing the modern palace to a black lump of cinder-dressed concrete.

It was quite a spectacle for mum, sitting with a late breakfast and watching Rambo-like scenes of helicopter evacuations from our house one kilometer up the beach.

One room was spared by the blaze. I've seen it. Some smoke-damage was evident, as well as singed corners around the doorway, but otherwise the room was unscathed.

Seasoned and wannabe politicians come from far and wide to light incense and meditate there, seeking support from the Goddess.

Whenever I walk past, I instinctively glance to the buildings and nod in respect, but usually I'm totally absorbed watching the sea.

Maybe I have a lot to learn. I'm more in awe of nature than the shrines we have erected to it.

~ ~ ~

 

Nature's reminder at 'Galungan'

The Jakarta Post, 08 July 2007

Walking the dogs, I amble past a small hill of giant boulders recently dumped along the black sand beach just south of the Ayung River.

Stumbling along half-asleep, I slowly wake up to the warmth of the morning sun. Normally, I would splash my feet at the meager trickle of what is left of the mighty Ayung entering the sea. But today, logs, rubbish and a dead dog deter me.

Named after her beauty, I recall Ayung as Bali's longest river. Every day, she hosts hundreds of tourists rafting down her rapids, contains floods and nourishes thousands of hectares of lush rice fields fed by the Subak irrigation network.

Increasingly siphoned for water to satiate Bali's thirsty developments while being fed s**t and garbage, she must be tired. Having the open green spaces of fields and forests through which she absorbs water blocked up with concrete must feel like suffocating in a straitjacket of plastic wrapping.

She and her river sisters, along with their faithful retinue of blocked drains, rebelled the day after Galungan.

Blessings from the sky that fell as rain 11 nights ago had nowhere to go. The earth, which normally would accept the blessing with sighs of gratitude, was for the most part choked -- denied breathing pores by Bali's latest boom crop of concrete, not to mention poorly drained roads slicing agricultural land into convenient plots for development.

As floods hit the populated parts of Bali's southeast, on that wet Thursday's Surfing Bali page of The Jakarta Post, Wayan Juniartha talked of our holy day as "One of the most joyous Balinese Hindu festivals, ... observed to celebrate the victory of Dharma (Good) over Adharma (Evil)."

I have one word to add: "temporary".

Galungan to me is the celebration of the momentary, temporary, victory of Dharma over Adharma.

It is a reminder that evil can prevail when good people do nothing. Most importantly, it is a reminder about the eternal battle for balance within each and every soul, every single day of life.

Indeed, Galungan was a wonderful day of celebrations for us all. We gave thanks to the Universe and paid our respects to our ancestors, then relaxed and enjoyed the blessed food of the offerings with our extended families.

The floods came the day after. A mixed blessing, perhaps: A reminder.

~

To its south, the mouth of the Ayung River is bound by a failed amusement park. The bare skeleton of its roller-coaster ride is left to crumble as rust in the sun, rain and salt-spray of the sea.

During my high school years, I recall truckload upon truckload of lime dumped, compacted and housed in concrete to tame Ayung's delta.

Not stopping there, to gain premium land the developers continued to dump further truckloads of limestone rocks into the rumbling sea. It was not reclamation; they were trying to claim the delta and sea as theirs.

But Dharma did prevail.

The development threatened to take away a site for melis (holy procession to the sea), nganyud (dispersing ashes of cremation to the sea) and banyu pinaruh (cleansing by bathing in the sea) for a large number of villagers further inland.

One of the villages affected happened to be the ancestral home of the governor at the time. They sent envoys to Bali's number one with a simple message: Stop, or we will refuse to fulfill your final rites of passage.

Yes, in Bali, you can be as rich and powerful as you like, but you still need the blessings of your community for your passage to the afterlife. Cremation is a huge community affair.

So the development stopped filling in the sea to win more land. It opened to fanfare and within a month went bust. Only decaying buildings and a stinking pit full of festering crocodiles remain, resorting to cannibal behavior to survive.

~

In the past decade the sea has torn apart walls of reinforced concrete to scour rock by rock, slowly revealing layers of limestone wall planted along the beach, once again exposing the red earth and black sands.

As I walk home southward, I can see the layers of limestone in the crumbling wall to my right. Above and beyond it is the ghost town of tall tattered buildings, a rusty carousel, rides and slides. Occasionally, the limestone wall contains a small pocket of soil imported to house the roots of a coconut palm. Occasionally, a shriveled stump remains.

Arriving to the open section of beach, freed of limestone by the ocean's waves, I come across the new boulder hills once again.

Yet another sea wall in the making, it seems. No sound science to back it up. No consultation with the affected public. Is this arrogance in the face of nature, or just another excuse to raid public coffers?

As I continue on home, avoiding logs and debris washed up from the deluge, I contemplate a Galungan cell phone text message. This particular one was sent by Pino Confessa, our Italian consul-gone-native. Sent in high Balinese, here I share my English translation:

"Truth is the victor's history. Dharma and Adharma continually defeat each other. There is no ultimate truth in this life. Ultimate truth (occurs) when the soul unites with Brahman (God/the Universe)."

~ ~ ~

 

What's in a (Balinese) name?

The Jakarta Post, 01 July 2007

There's a reason why I don't like to yell out a person's full name in public to get his or her attention.

To get into the house from the beach side after walking home from work, I use a combination of a Swiss yodel, British colonial "cooee" and motions reminiscent of the Maori haka.

On lucky days, our cook Nyoman would hear or see me from the kitchen and unlock the gate. Otherwise, I have to go around a few more rice fields to get to the roadside entrance.

Nyoman is like a surrogate mother to me. She has been with us since I was in primary school. Her name means that she is the third-born sibling in her family.

Like its internal-rhyming substitute, Komang, the name Nyoman supposedly comes from the root word "anom" which means "younger". Ergo, she is the younger one.

Perhaps it comes from an ancient family-planning scheme. Children's names among us commoners in Bali tend to follow a preset unisex pattern: Putu, Gede or Wayan from words that mean "big" or "more mature" for the eldest; Kadek, Made or Nengah from the root words madya or tengah meaning middle for the second born; and Nyoman and Komang for the third.

Oh, and if a surprise comes along after the "younger one", then he or she would be called Ketut. I believe it comes from the word kincut, which means "tail".

Then again, life can't always be confined to planning, especially that for families. Should the wonder of a fifth child arrive, then (perhaps by lack of imagination) we would start again: another Putu, Gede or Wayan. Then another Kadek, Made or Nengah for child number six; another Komang or Nyoman for the seventh, etc.

~

It's always amusing when someone asks, "Do you know Wayan?" when they hear I'm from Bali. It's rather like asking a Londoner, "Do you know John?"

But we do like to go by our generic first names. Introducing myself as Kadek when overseas, the name is unique enough to be mispronounced or remembered, despite there being about half a million with that name in Bali. The often-exasperated question from a visitor becomes, "How do you tell one Kadek from another?"

The exasperating answer is: by his or her nickname. We all get nicknames, whether at school, at home, or in the village.

There were several Kadeks in my class at high school. I was the Kadek bule (albino, on account of my lighter skin) who sat next to the Kadek bola ("ball" -- he was a nicely rounded).

Yes, nicknames often don't pick our most admirable traits. Once a name sticks and one stops fighting the inferred jest, though, it can become just another handle.

Or term of endearment, even. While it often bothers me that those of dark skin want to be white and the pale want a tan, I learned to take my nickname as a compliment.

First names aside, the Balinese can be creative in carving out unique names for their babies.

We look forward in Bali: it is the parents who are called after their firstborn and not the children who are named after their parents. That's why most of us don't have a family name.

I tend to use Krishna, my second name, for more formal situations.

Krishna is perhaps a name best known as the sage in the Bhagavad-Gita, the hallowed chapter of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

He later became recognized as one of the 10 Avatars in Hindhu mythology: a reincarnation of Wishnu, the manifestation of God as Protector and Sustainer of life.

My father would have had long consultations with his father and other elders when selecting a powerful name for me. It was a form of blessing to impart a certain characteristic, a certain power.

Usually at the age of 105 days, a naming ceremony would take place. The child's name would be inscribed upon a piece of lontar (dried palmyra leaf). He or she would grow up to know it in full, but it is the child's way of pronouncing the name that sticks.

Hence my sister Trishna is better known as Nina, which is how she referred to herself as a toddler. And by that spell of her self-identification my father and mother became Pak Nina and Mek Nina respectively.

~

To those who believe, true names have even greater power to summon, handle, affect and control a person.

Doesn't the uttering of your name out of the blue summon you to turn around to face the caller?

In traditional societies, a person's true name is often hidden from the public ear lest it be used in spells.

So it wasn't until I was 18 and about to leave for New Zealand that my cook told me her full name. It was imparted to me after months of lobbying and entreaty, and after guarantees not to share the knowledge lightly.

Imagine living with someone for over a decade without being entrusted with his or her name. Imagine it being the norm, not exception.

You, dear reader, know my full true name. I trust you not to use it lightly.

~ ~ ~

 

The pleasure of food and its preparation

The Jakarta Post, 24 June 2007

Walking home after a long day at our Sanur office, I often stop by the beach for lumpia (spring rolls). Cut with scissors into chunks and served in a warm, creamy, bean sauce, it's a rich, stopgap meal.

In Indonesia, we're lucky to have so much variety of ready food to choose from at such amazing prices, but I happen to be a believer in the value of home-cooked food.

Especially when you take part in making it yourself.

Did you know that during festival time in Bali, feeding the masses is men's business? In my mountain village of Batur, we have a tradition of starting between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. The men would go to the temple or the home of the family hosting a ceremony, carrying their thick, big knives. The host provides the ingredients and his neighbors the manpower.

Besides butchering live animals and preparing a roast suckling pig, chopping is the main task. The shallots, garlic, ginger and eleven other main spices, as well as the vegetables and meat, have to be sliced, diced and chopped to shrapnel-size for the main dish, lawar.

A bunch of men sitting on a mat on the ground, hands and blades flying chop-chop-chop while animated faces exchange stories and gossip, is quite a spectacle. In spite of the razor-sharp knives, it's definitely un-cool to be looking at what one is chopping.

~

Meanwhile the women start arriving to make the offerings and decorations of woven palm-leaf, fruit and cakes. It is rather chaotic, with no one really taking full charge of what is being done.

People arrive, start chatting, and look for something that needs doing. Without missing a beat in the conversation, one would take a handful of materials and start to create.

Adolescents have their part to play too. The unmarried boys and girls are most likely found in the day-to-day kitchen preparing tea and coffee, along with assorted snacks. These they serve to the adults in waves every half-hour or so, making sure all the workers are happy.

There's usually way too many of us unmarried adolescents making sly glances over tea service. I can vouch that many a budding romance in the village begins at the temple kitchen.

To escape the tension, however, some of us boys opt to grow up and learn how to wield a knife in chopping food -- or the finer art of preparing satay sticks, trays, baskets or temporary structures out of bamboo.

By sun-up, food is prepared for the festivities of the day.

The men sit down and eat, followed by the women and the adolescents: Not always in that particular order though -- sometimes mixing occurs when different groups of men or women finish early, or in my case, when I jump the queue so I can make the drive back into town.

~

I love food. So much that hunting for kangkung (water spinach), herbs and spices at the migrant-dominated Avondale Sunday market became one of the thrills of living in Auckland, New Zealand, while attending university.

It was a matter of survival. Indonesian students facing winter get very hungry, and there's only so many times you can get by on instant noodles. I yearned for the variety of food back home, so little by little I tried to recreate it.

Recipes were loose guidelines for experimentation. Following my nose and tongue, I would improvise with available ingredients to recreate a taste from memory.

Cooking Indonesian or Balinese food became my meal ticket. I developed a reputation for introducing friends to exciting new taste combinations. What they saw as exotic ingredients were for me links to home.

One of my favorite ways of putting dinner on the table was to call friends up asking them to bring an ingredient each for a cook-up. It was a frugal way to have a jolly good meal and social life.

For the Kiwis, it was a new twist to their longstanding BBQ or potluck-dinner tradition.

When I started working and became more affluent, I would buy all the ingredients, prepare some snacks and invite my friends early. It's fun hosting while juggling woks, steaming pots and oven trays.

For bigger parties, I would invite the inner circle to come help chop an hour early. They loved learning to make Balinese cuisine -- even labor-intensive lawar (meat, coconut and spices) and urab (vegetables, coconut and spices), which required a lot of fine chopping.

We would have great conversations, but although the knives were minute by comparison, my friends still needed to look at what they were chopping.

While I've managed to bring this art of enjoying food and its preparation with me on my travels overseas, I have very limited success at doing this now I've returned to a more urban Indonesia.

Most think I am mad if I try playing host without a mountain of ready-made food to gorge on. Guests come, sit, eat and are pampered -- they do not expect to help out.

But where's the fun in that?

~ ~ ~

 

Ghosts and other supernatural beings

The Jakarta Post, 17 June 2007

One of the things I missed about Bali was openly talking about ghosts and the supernatural.

While living in New Zealand, there was a time I saved on rent by house-sitting along with a resident ghost that had a habit of sitting on sleepers.

When the owner of the house hinted about a white ghost, I thought he was referring to his five-kilogram white cat that would appear at odd hours and insistently wake me up to feed him or open the door, to the point of dumping his fluffy behind on my face.

Sleep being my drug of choice (second only to dark Belgian chocolate), I have my reasons for not being particularly fond of cats.

I found out much later, after my own confrontations with him, that this particular phantom was a lonely white settler.

According to a sensitive Maori friend, he was still confused at being uprooted from England to find himself dead in one of the many channels that drain the swamp that was the life source of Otahutahi.

That was the Place of chief Tautahi that settlers of Anglican bent renamed as Christchurch.

Monty, a friend who had bought the abandoned house to renovate, subdivide and sell, had moved down from Auckland for the cooler climate. He never acknowledged the ghost. He would lie in bed, keeping his eyelids tightly shut while repeating the mantra "Nothing is happening!" in his mind.

Nothing indeed: just a dead weight crushing his body, at times suffocating him. And the occasional sudden tug of the bedclothes that left the hot-blooded winter-lover shivering.

Initially, I assumed his crankiness was due to staying up late to watch a certain stash of naughty movies that was revealed to me when hidden doors opened at night.

This engineering student was so used to a life with modern concerns that I had a pragmatic answer for all the oddities.

The creaking floors, the shuddering house and the occasional surreptitious opening and closing of doors were attributable to parts of the big, wide, wooden house adjusting differently as it cooled down at night.

The banging? Must be that darned giant cat bumping into things again.

It was when I woke, sensing an intruder in the dark, that I began to realize that this was a similar hair-raising sensation that I had felt while walking home down the slopes of Mount Agung, Bali's highest volcano.

Suspend your disbelief a while and bear with me.

~

I was 14, still in SMP (junior high school), and was tagging along with my cool, older sister. She was on the committee of her SMA (senior high school) nature lover's group. They were preparing to take the first year's intake up the mountain as part of their initiation to the adult world of SMA.

With jam karet (rubber-time) delays, we completed the seven-hour hike in time to watch the sun set westward over Java's mountain ranges, from Ijen to Semeru.

The caves above the tree line, just below the final ascent, were the designated overnight camp, allowing the keen climbers like my sister and I the chance of going back up to the summit before dawn to watch the sun rise over Lombok's Mount Rinjani.

After sundown, however, we began to realize that something was amiss when the supervising teacher, a jovial, short, mild, moustached gentleman who incidentally taught Hindhu Dharma, began to herd us down in an uncharacteristically pushy manner.

He had even less patience for us, the last ones to be shooed away from the summit. At base camp, he barked, "No stopping, get your bags and go straight down."

This wasn't the plan, but no discussion was allowed.

Tired, cranky and annoyed, we took our marching orders and began to storm down the steep slope in the dark, overtaking the rest of the team.

By the fact that we reached Besakih temple at 2:30 a.m., I would deduce that between the witching hours of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., a skull was following us.

Walking hand-in-hand to maintain a steady stomp, stomp, stomp, through the bush, once in a while a whitish orb would appear just to the right-hand side of the path in front of us, revealing itself to be a skull as we were passing.

"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" I asked my dear sister.

She squeezed my hand and we both began reciting the Gayatri mantra out loud. In my mind I acknowledged the presence and apologized for trespassing in such a foul state of temper.

It felt like a period of suspended animation, despite stomp-stomp-stomping faster down the slope. We broke out into a clearing of corn stalks. Our anxiety subsided, tempers extinguished.

~

We never saw it again.

I never saw the Christchurch ghost either. I sat up in bed, and spoke out loud to the dark.

"I realize you've been living here. Now, I'm living here, too. The house is big enough; I'd appreciate it if you allow me some privacy. I need to sleep."

It behaved. For a while, at least. Like any annoying flatmate, it had to be reminded from time to time to respect some boundaries.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Ambient noise a constant companion

The Jakarta Post, 10 June 2007

If you enjoy your sleep as much as I do and live in Bali, you'll learn to filter out the dogs that bark and howl, cocks that crow before dawn, and the friendly honk from a passing vehicle saying hello.

The screeching crickets at dusk is another story, though: That strident sound serves as warning that during the sandikala of twilight hours the wall separating the seen and the unseen has become a thin membrane.

We Balinese joke that in Jakarta that membrane is getting so thick that to be heard across the mystic divide, amplification to extreme degrees has become necessary. The devotees must be deaf, or God very far away.

The first night I spent at Utan Kayu in East Jakarta, I almost leapt out of my skin when someone screamed into my ear "Bangun, bangun... " (Wake up, wake up).

Gathering my wits, I came to realize the insistent call was coming from a loudspeaker on the roof next door, waking the faithful to prepare for prayer. It was barely a few minutes past 3 a.m.!

Over an hour early before the muezzin is rather zealous, I must say, but perhaps he is making sure all the faithful have time to complete their ablutions.

I call upon my long years of training with the howling hordes at full moon in Kintamani, and settle back into sleep.

Then comes the medley, for it is not quite a dawn chorus, rather dissonant and lacking of grace, from the eleven loudspeakers within shooting distance.

Now I must admit that I do love the sound of the natural muezzin call heard across a distance over the rooftops as I have heard in India.

Even in sharia-controlled Malaysia, high-wattage amplification is kept at bay. Is there nothing our progressive Jakarta neighbors can do about this?

Decibel limits would be wonderful, but I'd settle for a minimum standard of elocution. It can sound quite beautiful, you know.

~

Did you know what one of the elders of Sideman, a village in remote East Bali, did when he was similarly disturbed?

He shot the loudspeaker.

Luckily, ownership of guns has dropped in Bali since the "Dilarang Menembak Burung" (Don't Shoot the Birds) campaign. We haven't had many repeat incidences.

Sadly, however, this fever of sound amplification is catching on. Temple festivals on my beloved isle have always been full of ambient music wafting from the many courtyards and pavilions of the temple: Some solely for the ears of the gods that don't require an audience, some more earthly in nature.

Gossip and laughter from the ladies making offerings, a gamelan orchestra accompanying a masked topeng performance, kidung chants from the inner sanctum, and various other gamelans and dances were part of the ambient noise bubble that envelops you upon entering festivity.

With the advent of microphones and speakers, they all start competing.

Ambience becomes cacophony.

We seem to be addicted to noise. Even the most beautiful settings are bombarded with unpleasant vibrations, losing some charm.

We can't simply blame PLN's flat pricing structure for the thousands, if not millions of TV sets left blaring on across this country.

Is it because we are so used to being part of a community and are not used to being alone?

A journey to Banda Neira at the heart of the Moluccan islands once taught me how hard it can be to bear my own company. Below is the brief story I wrote as a thank-you note for Mira and Michael Szarata who took me on their trip.

~

Lost at sea

The solitary hum of the fishing boat's engine fills the empty expanse across the jade-colored sea.

The ripple of breaking water spilling from the crest brings my attention to the frothing bow, and I notice the dolphins racing the boat.

They soon tire of it.

A solitary turtle swims lazily in the depths.

The winds becalmed by El Ni¤o, the sun beating down, sucking moisture out of the sea's surface; water with nowhere to go -- it lingers on the horizon bringing visibility down to a few hundred meters.

I hear the radio crackling -- captain is talking to the island's harbormaster. We are close. The radio signal is strong. We've been zig-zagging up and down these waters all afternoon.

The island, a mere two kilometers long and 500 meters wide, is hiding from us. The king has sent over 200 boats out to search and bring back his daughter, the princess, fellow passenger, elegant, stoic, ready for home.

But the sea remains a mirror, air calm -- not a single flutter. We continue to zig-zag, creating streaks of white on jade.

The situation is getting desperate, for me. I'm down to my last bar of Kit Kat -- a million voices vie for attention in my mind. I've had my break of solitude. I need the multitude, to set me free from me.

~

As Alanis Morisette put it, "Why are you so petrified with silence?"

 

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Join Me for a Walk on Sundays

The Jakarta Post, 3 June 2007

I would like to take you for a weekly walk, sharing the things I see and my conversations with people along the way. Let’s slow down from the fast-pace of this Kali Yuga, age of speed and chaos, to allow time for reflection.

Walking is for me part exercise, part meditation, and part hobby: I am an avid mountain climber, trekker and bush-whacker. I’m not much of a runner. While my mother, in her early 50s, can wake up in the morning, put her jogging shoes on and take the dogs for a run, this 28-year-old prefers to take it easy, plodding along the footpath that leads to the beach across three rice-fields to stretch and salute the coming of the sun.

‘Rice fields and beach? What rustic development in Jakarta is this and where do I sign up?’ you may ask, but I’m afraid I will have to disappoint. While I do work in Jakarta at least one week each month, the sleepy village of Sanur in Bali is my home.

I find that when walking to a destination, be it university while living in Auckland, consultancy office while living in Christchurch, or a monastery while traveling in the foothill of the Himalayas, I have a bit of a one-track mind in getting there, but on my way home, I tend to relax and take in a lot more, allowing time for interaction with the people, puppies and monkeys along the way.

The bane of existence of third culture kids is never quite being accepted as a local anywhere. You’d think by now I’d be used to it, but it’s been a lot tougher adjusting back to living in Indonesia after studying and working overseas compared to the relatively smooth transition to life in New Zealand nine years ago. There seems to be a lot of friction coming from my newly developed ‘outsider’ perspective when it comes into contact with the ambiguous reality of time, justice, social equality or other aspects of day-to-day life in Indonesia. It’s going to take a long walk before I arrive to being at home again.

Among the things I want to talk about while we go for this walk are food on the go, people offering transport, our dependency on a growing level of ambient noise verging on sound pollution, as well as the less seen and talked about aspects of the Bali that I call home, such as pilgrimages to holy springs, temple hopping under the full moon, and celestial or other-worldly visitors. No, I’m not going to talk about E.T., but I will pick up and toss around whatever else that comes to mind or smacks right into me as I ramble along.

Speaking of meditative walking, I don’t quite go for the methods described by Carlos Castaneda in his Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. I’ve tried this exaggerated gymnastic walk: swing-leg-up-to-the-chest method while hiking alone in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and can confirm it does bring the awareness back into the body, but I can’t recommend it for trial in Indonesia. In Bali you’d get quite a few laughs, but doing this in Jakarta might get you restrained and taken to the loony bin.

The essence of Yoga and Tai Chi for me is to bring back awareness into the body. To feel and know the absolute truth of your beating heart, blood-flow, contracting muscles and straining ligaments, for all other information you glean from the world comes through biased senses. The easiest point to start is to focus on being aware of your breath.

After finishing my studies at Auckland University, I honored myself by going to a 12-day Vipassana insight meditation retreat. Purported to be the technique taught by the Buddha to release the soul from the laws of karma to achieve nirvana, it involved taking a vow of silence for ten days, during which the students were only to engage with the teacher. We had about ten hours of meditation and four hours of discourse each day. Besides the normal bodily functions and ablutions, the only physical activity allowed was walking within the pristine native bush surrounding the monastery.

This is when I developed my ‘method’ of walking meditation that I now use to centre myself during busy working days. I walk slowly, allowing my thoughts to catch up with me, acknowledge the thought, then let it pass. Slowly I bring my mind to the rhythm of my breath, letting go of control over my breathing, which in Jakarta tends to be shallow and disjointed, allowing my body to regulate its own breathing as I focus on walking deliberately, feeling and observing in my mind’s eye the motion of my feet, the shifting of body weight, and the sway of my arms. By the time I have fully arrived back in my body, I would only need another ten breaths to complete the exercise feeling rejuvenated.

Try it next time you go for a walk, and let’s catch up next week.

~ ~ ~

 

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Last updated Sunday 25 November 2007 at 09:10 AM (+8 GMT)

© Kadek Krishna Adidharma (2007). Providing you link back to www.adidharma.net, you may quote from this page.

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