Creative License Up for Renewal

By The Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times

This is my 50th column for The Bali Times. It would have been the 52nd but for Christmas week, when there is a double edition, and the fact that I missed a deadline this year. All in all, it has been one invigorating, vibrating, intensive year that has seen Bali grow in business, pleasure and most of all, peace. I am grateful to the following people who have been a source of sustenance, spiritual and “otherwise”:

My friends Tjok Raka Kerthyasa and his gorgeous wife Asri of the Ubud royal family; managing editor William J. Furney, who has had to treat me on some occasions like a schoolboy playing truant; my family, especially my two sisters, Ela Gori in the US and Sarita Kaul in Bali – both have often pulled me from dark depression and the wild life; Ketut Suardana and Ibu Janet de Neefe, who have gently introduced me to the exclusive Balinese society; Sioned Emrys and Nia Williams, my Welsh connection of love and hope; Manon de Jongh, my heartbeat; Jill Gocher, who has used the carrot and stick quite effectively to get me to write; and lastly and more importantly, all my Balinese friends in Kuta, Ubud, Lovina, Singaraja, Amed and Padang Bai. To all these wonderful people, I fold my hands and say in Hindi: Shukreya – thank you.

When I walked into William’s office in August last year to peddle my wares, I was hesitant about the outcome. Happily it has been a rollercoaster ride with culture chameleons, karma mechanics, birds of paradise, rice farmers, royalty, warungs, sleazy-greasy bars, stylish pretty-boys, cigarettes and cellphones with no pulsa, music, salsa nights and fading memories of a lost childhood. Much water has flowed under the bridge, carrying away the dregs of the past. The religiosity, weather, food and women played a decisive role in discarding the excess baggage of hopes, desires and false notions of paradise peppered with paradoxes, forcing me to come face to face with myself in a small Balinese village.

Now as the dust settles in the brain and thought processes start up like a blender that churns, kneads, minces and grinds all the words to pulp, the images of an enchanting ethos comes roaring back like a steam engine gone amuck. Sanity hangs in balance as one attempts to share the myriad images each jostling for space in the viewfinder.

Numerous trips across the isle have helped in broadening one’s views and opinions about rising prices of essential commodities, Bali kopi, rice, minimum wage and the headless chickens in the form of youngsters cruising the roads of death. One continues to ask – how many young people need to die before we realize the price of life?

And when will the madness end in the lanes of Bali where sometimes people fall prey to banned substances and sign their own death warrants by a momentary lapse of indiscretion or foolhardiness?

Questions raise their ugly heads like plastic floating down sacred rivers after the rains. The sanctity of the isle is slowly being defiled by an army of people from other countries racing to pitch a tent and claim a piece of land in the hope that a slice of nirvana can be theirs for a few dollars. Above the cacophony of bidders one can hear the sacred chants of the Balinese and the voices of the Gods through the gamelan.

Often one has walked the walk down ricefields past villas and small bamboo dwellings pondering the futility of existence with all the trappings of material wealth, the pointlessness of ravaging the beautiful earth to build monstrosities that mock all that is spiritually ordained for the isle.

The Balinese have taken shelter in their religion and customs. The cloak of centuries-old traditions like ceremonies has protected them from the acid rain of Western values.

Throughout the isle there are watering holes and resting places for expats treading the beaten path looking for a quickie with the culture. They hope to return to their concrete jungle with the satisfaction of having rubbed shoulders with another civilization by carrying mementos like handicrafts, some cheap replicas on canvas and trinkets of a kind that their ancestors gave to the natives.

But then there are expats like Robin Lim, the legendary midwife; the East Bali Poverty Project; the many social programs of the Rotary Club; individuals like John and Eileen from Oz who have adopted two Balinese families and more. The list keeps growing by the day of long-term resident expats and those visiting who are returning to Bali what others have been taking away for so long.

Ketut Suardana has sensitized me to the intensive culture of his people, often taking me to temples, holy men, sharing his food and home. This has opened the doors to a whole new world that exists beyond the eye and earshot of the expat enclave of know-alls who sit around watering holes waxing eloquent about the Balinese. It is through him that I met I Nyoman Suradnya the batik painter, a master who abhors the growing number of art galleries that are adulterating creativity to the point of extinction. Nyoman introduced me to Tjok Raka Swastika, the gamelan master, who shared his personal views with me about his art form and desire to continue promoting it worldwide.

In August 2007 I wrote a special report for The Bali Times on leprosy in Bali. When I approached my expat friends to help me locate the lepers I was berated for wanting to write about ugliness in paradise. Fortunately my Balinese friends helped me meet the lepers and to interview them with assistance from the banjar. This incident showed me in no uncertain terms that the Balinese are willing to accept a problem like this and to deal with it.

Admittedly this soliloquy seems to be a bit disjointed but that is how the year has been – some enlightening moments when navigating Jl. Dyanapura at 2am, conversing with the Kuta cowboys and cowgirls on Kuta Beach or sharing a Ramayana cigar with a traffic cop and discussing the accident statistics interspersed with the latest gossip surrounding Bollywood stars and their shenanigans.

Some other encounters have reminded one of Calcutta of the 1960s, of a misplaced people struggling for an identity that eluded them. They were the Anglo-Indians. In Bali fleeting images of them can be seen on the faces of some expats and their beautiful “Indo-Mix” children who are marooned between cultures living a life with tenacity and joy, ignoring the pain of unbelonging. Skin colors, religious ceremonies, languages and dreamscapes merge to form a bridge that crosses the minefield of subtleties of the all-pervasive religion, Hinduism, to one of pluralism.

This waltz between peoples of many lands enhances one’s perceptions and hopes, which induces a delightful feeling of being part of a whole.

However, there have been instances of sudden surges of emotions on full-moon nights that threatened to capsize one’s life. Fortunately an angel in the form of Nikki Kovesi told me to walk into a ricefield on a full-moon night and converse with the spirits. This was done after having imbibed enough spirits to set myself on fire, if one so desired. It worked. No more emotive recklessness.

The loneliness of a writer has its moments for it magnifies all the insecurities, desires and sexual tensions. This column, for a time, became the anchor that brought about coherence to one’s existence. And for this I have no regrets.

One misses the birds of paradise that have flown the coop and nested in the great unknown for they had shared their knowledge of innocence with me. The experience reverberates in one’s consciousness like the feeling of standing in a belfry when the bells are rung.

There are many more stories to be shared with you, dear readers, but before they see the light of day, I must renew my creative license with William J. Furney. Then and only then can I drive my pen across Bali to trace patterns of a wondrous life that continuously regurgitates a paradox – the regulator of reality in paradise.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

– Congratulations to Mark on his 50th column for us, an important series that has opened up Bali to readers here and around the world and explored the vibrant nature of the island and its equally vivacious inhabitants. Here’s to another 50 columns – so, Mark, consider your creative license renewed. William   

Filed under: Paradox In Paradise

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