NINE
I’d been there before in the 1950s, but memories of Bali had resolved into non-specific, big- picture sensations, fragmented feelings, voluptuous smells, the taste of bananas – panoramas of power, magic - and the gamelan; a green, red banana island, a cornucopia of fruitish inventions fascinated once again a palate conditioned to vegetables and fruit robbed of their vigour thanks to mass-production and mono-culture. Here, it felt like humans belonged to the earth, were intimate with its dust, and did not just occupy the slippery surface, screened from the deeper, resonant earth by concrete, bitumen, tiles, carpets…shoes. I took off the sweating canvas shoes. Dust stuck to my feet as I walked, softening my footfall, like a hunter’s mud and feathered feet, disguising this alien being as he strolled down the main street of Kuta, negotiating the complex sensory world of an ancient people, intent on disturbing as little as possible this delicate world. But as soon as I opened my mouth the mirage evapourated and I was once more an overlanding westerner in search of accommodation. The first losman I came to just off the road was run by a lovely woman who introduced herself as Kompiang Sukerti. She’d converted her house into a series of rooms with a communal bath room/toilet which she let out to travellers. The clean firm bed included a mosquito net and a breakfast of the best banana fritters I’d ever tasted. The losman was only a hundred meters or so from the beach where you could lie back in the grey, volcanic sand for a delicious massage and select from what seemed like an army of service providers the batik, wooden carving or Sumatran heads of choice. In the end the sunbather had to spend a good deal of time and effort keeping the beach-prowling providers at bay so after a couple of days, Kuta’s beach and its tireless traders offered scant appeal. Mostly I walked around the village chatting in sign language and a kind of hybrid Bahasan English with the locals, eating fruit salads and drinking sirzak whips from the street stalls. The island of a thousand fruits. The sirzak, apparently a relative of the custard apple, about the same size and colour green, but thin skinned and softly spiked with the same white flesh and large, shiny black pips, is an absolute eye-popper of sweet effervescence. Rambutans, variant of the lychee but with an extravagant, faintly pubic, hairy coat; and my favourite, the mangosteen, its delectable heart of four or five white juicy segments protected by a thick purplish coated skin. A quick twist and the fruit’s delicate inner flesh is exposed. If it could be said a fruit’s destiny and purpose is fulfilled when eaten, then the desire to achieve that end was never more convincingly construed than in the mangosteen. I’ve seen them for sale here in Brisbane over recent years, imported from up around tropical Cairns, but a sense of loyalty to an old taste memory combined with the uncertain fear the fruit would have lost its intensity of flavour in translation to Australian farming culture made me pass over the choice. Better to preserve a cherished friend than cultivate in its place some shallow, unsatisfactory acquaintance. One evening, on my way back to the losman, I wandered into a part of the village I hadn’t seen before. At this late hour the brief tropical twilight had all but vanished from the narrow roads formed by the tall mud-brick walls protecting the houses in this part of town. In this island of friendly people I had often wondered at the need for such stout and protective walls. But there was more to Balinese culture than merely human activities. I could still see daylight catching the tops of the coconut trees but down here at ground-level the night seemed to be rising from the dry beaten earth, oozing out of the dust and silently filling the world. The diminishing light and the maze-like quality of these narrow roads, walled with dried mud and infested with creepers was stirring up a faint tingling on the tops of my ears as I wondered what was around the next bend, would I recognise where I was? The corner shed no light on my whereabouts; in fact it was getting so dark I could hardly make out the detail on a series of wooden structures, like little houses aligned along a wall. Each structure had its own distinct characteristics, miniaturised detail identifying the contents or occupant. Initially I thought they were little houses for the countless monkeys who lived on the island; but it was past their bedtime and there were no monkeys about, only a single Balinese man standing in front of the most impressive construction. He turned as I approached and in the gloaming he didn’t seem all that friendly. The prickling on tops of my ears started to heat up. I stopped a few paces short of the man. “Good evening”… in my best Indonesian. “Hello young gentleman”. He, in his best English, me considerably relieved. “I’m trying to find my way back to the village centre; I’m a bit lost.” “You should not be walking about at this time.” I was starting to get that impression. He indicated the route for me to follow to get back to my losman, but on a whim I asked him what he was doing with the little houses. He explained they were residences of their gods and spirits. He said it was necessary to keep the spirits locked up in the day time and at night he would come out and release them for their nocturnal adventures. The twinkle just visible in his eyes made me wonder whether he was pulling my leg, but he quickly turned away and vanished through a wooden gate in the tall wall. Now it was almost completely dark, no moonlight, no streetlights, no fires, just the still and almost silent night wrapping me around like an unwelcome hug. I stepped out bravely in the direction he’d indicated, but something was tugging my interest from behind. I looked back. Nothing. Turned again and with a determined stride headed away from the spirit houses that suddenly seemed animated, charged with a palpable force. By now the tingling in my ears was rolling down the back of my neck and spreading over my scalp as a chill breeze sent a shiver down my spine. I stopped, turned to look once more at the collection of little houses so neatly aligned along the wall but in the dark they’d virtually disappeared. I stood staring, willing the whisper that couldn’t be heard to reveal itself, but the silence remained inscrutable. Other parts of my body seemed to pick up and articulate what my ears and eyes couldn’t detect. The chill in the air ran into my legs and they began to feel heavier, the pit of my stomach seemed to want to lift into the air and my eyeballs didn’t seem to fit in their sockets anymore. Eventually all these sensations coalesced to convince me I was scared. Of what? The dark? The spirits? I remembered my struggle with the dark after seeing “The House of Wax” but the sensations were different. It wasn’t so much my imagination and its ability to conjure images of terror, but rather an actual sensation that the feelings had nothing to do with the imagination and everything to do with the local atmosphere now currently confusing and locking up my motor skills. The night pressed in on me as I plundered on. In the distance I could hear the hubbub of human activity and I began to calm down. That night, sitting around the kitchen table back in the losman, Kompiang Sukerti explained a little of the spirit world known to the Balinese and mentioned the village of Kuta was to have a ceremonial dance the following night. It was to be the Barong dance. She was emphatic the dance was not a performance for tourists but rather a ritual performed regularly as part of the village’s spiritual life. She said the Barong was the good spirit whose task was to overcome the evil one, Rangda the witch. This ritual she said would be accompanied by Kuta’s gamelan orchestra, a troup of dancers, men from the village and the priests. Would I be going along? Of course I’d be going along. I told her how as a small boy I’d been to Bali and my mother had bought a young girl’s dancing costume, all bright reds and yellows studded with costume jewellery. Up until the wicked stepmother offloaded the accumulations of our family’s life, every now and then I’d drag the dancer’s costume out of its blue tin trunk to contemplate this artifact of Balinese life. Kompiang explained the masks used in dancing become animated with a variety of spirits which are kept contained except for ceremonial occasions when they’re released by the priests to participate in ritual. The Barong ritual dance involved the two fundamental forces of good and evil reenacting their constant struggle for preeminence within the human psyche. And the function of the ritual was to identify the spiritual state of each individual in a kind of group therapy. It was impossible to avoid the attentions of the pervasive sellers and their wares. Some were benign and could read body language, others drove their products hard, understood “no” to mean “go on, have another go at convincing me that without this (very special) batik my girlfriend will surely be looking elsewhere for a more discerning man”. The batik sellers were perhaps the most hard-driving, but even among them there was one fellow who stood alone in his determination to sell his batiks for as much as his greed and ambition would allow. He was well known among the travellers who’d been in Kuta for more than a couple of days and in Kompiang’s losman he was even mentioned occasionally in the inevitable travel-themed conversations that characterise the chat when two or more overlanders gather together – where to eat, where to stay, how much to pay…this fellow had a walk on part to play in the upcoming Barong dance. In the evening a small crowd began to gather in what seemed to be the traditional location for the Barong dance adjacent to a temple. The village organisers had set up two lines of wooden benches opposite the gamelan orchestra thus creating the performance space. The benches were soon filled with a small gaggle of tourists bussed in from Denpassar and toting, in several instances multiple cameras, correspondents from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Liverpool, Dusseldorf, Melbourne – hell, if you didn’t photograph it, did it really happen? Holidays are so soon memories; and the pictures - artifacts of memory. The gamelan had maybe twenty or so players, all arraigned before a wide variety of percussive style instruments, no obvious leader meant there must have been one of the players whose role it was to set the tempo. With what seemed like slight of hand the gamelan was trucking along, setting a mood, an audioscape of chunk and rhythm, shaping the falling day, putting it to rest and calling in the seeping swell of nocturnal life. Insects of the dark emerged stretching, scratching their legs, wings, claws for another turn on the swing, their vocal contributions bright in the gaps of the gamelan’s unwritten score. Out of the darkness welling on the edge of the clearing, in time with the chunk chunk chunk of the gamelan, two lines of men slowly approached miming a team of rowers beating into the current of a river, their eyes darting this way and that, sudden sharp gestures of wariness, forging on. They were on the look out; by the time they arrived before the rapt congregation their raucous chanting had lifted the pitch of anticipation in the silent spectators. There was a lot of chat between various parties, I had no idea what was being said, shouting and bustling about as the ‘oarsmen’ sought to organise their next move. They seemed slightly confused as the gamelan backing track waffled a bit loose, a bit off topic, itself reaching for some shape… It appeared from behind the crowd, swooping into the arena with a mighty clap from the opposite direction to the dancers. All heads spun around to witness a giant, leonine monster leap into the air just as the gamelan seemed to find its form and once more began laying down a solid metronomic backbeat. This creature, a wooden mask carved sharp and painted in bright primaries, had a single dancer inside the costume whose athleticism was truly astounding. He leaped and twisted, jumped and swirled, all the while shouting unintelligible imprecations. From another quarter then came a second masked player, a dervish of dust spinning into contention and obviously poking fun at the great lion head blowing its gasket on the performance floor. The lion monster I subsequently found out is the Barong, the spirit of the force of good, light, love. His whingeing, spitting, disdainful and abusive challenger, whose mask was dark, wizened and furtive-looking was his nemesis, Rangda, the embodiment of evil. As the minutes ticked by Barong was becoming increasingly agitated with the provocative Rangda and begins to attack her, spewing eddies of dust as he attacked again and again in order to subdue this mocking opponent. I was standing towards the back of the crowd feeling the tension in the rhythms, being carried along by the beat of the orchestra. The emotional pace was picking up; an urgency was evident in the ritual as the two prodigious forces confronted each other. Initially I was pleased to just stand and watch, listen, feel. Then the feelings began to swirl up in the dust around my ankles, I didn’t notice it straight away, just an initially imperceptible move towards the arena. The closer I got the more the spiraling energy of the dance and the gamelan infused into my body, until I found myself within a group of male villagers at around the time when the conflict between Rangda and Barong, with rising frustration, was getting feverish. The drama was gripping, the tension excruciating. Suddenly, Barong was leaping about in front of this small group of villagers and they were, in turn, infected with increasing agitation. At that moment one of the priests appeared and using a sort of long horse hair brush flicked water from a ceremonial container across the group of about eight or nine men. A current seemed to pass into us, I still had no idea what was going on, and the men standing around me began to hop and shuffle their feet, jabbing their elbows, rolling their eyes. Now I started to get scared and feeling the magnet pull to hop and shuffle my own feet and roll my own eyes I made a serious inner lunge for compos mentis and actively engaged reverse gear as I shuffled back into a more obscure vantage point. The message just arrived and my feet slowly dragged me back from the brink…of I knew not what. But the brink was still a way off. The seven or so men who made up the cluster from which I’d just been able to withdraw, shuffled forwards, quieter now as they clustered around Barong, apparently waiting for some cue to action. The whole ceremony seemed to have a life of its own, breathing in and breathing out, times when the tension was dense, times when all shape seemed to evapourate from the proceedings and then times when suddenly the drama and its inner logic became dictatorial and the whole thing plunged recklessly on to chaos…At a given moment, not signaled by anything I noticed, the Barong and his team of now blank eyed villagers seemed to think that enough was enough and now was the time to terminate Rangda with extreme prejudice. Fly at the wicked witch as they might, flailing their fists, kicking their hardened feet at her implacable defences, she remained impervious, dismissive, scornful. And she seemed to be having a good time of it, cackling and jumping. This stalemate lasted for maybe ten minutes until out of the corner of my eye I spotted the same priest gliding back into the arena from the temple. Only this time instead of his water container and horse-hair thing, in his arms, bundled and heavy, lay a pile of blades. Black iron and snake-like wavy blades didn’t look anything like decorative weapons and there was something in the way the priest offered them to the frustrated allies of the Barong that had the hairs on the back of my neck start to tingle. Sure enough as soon as the weapons were all distributed and there was a little more banter between the Barong and Rangda, the faithful village men renewed their ferocious attack on the evil one, only this time dangerously armed. Not much changed. Rangda seemed to be really enjoying herself as she taunted the now weaponed foes to greater effort. The blades flew through the air stopping millimeters from Rangda’s body only to be redrawn and restruck to another part of leering monster with no different result. This failure to pierce the hide of the enemy combined with the agitating rhythms from the orchestra was rendering the helpers mad. Increasingly demented, their sweat poured out, flying through the cool Bali evening air and splattering the audience, making them one with the event. But our valiant fighters were not aware of anything beyond their fixation to destroy Rangda. This was no show, it was for real. A human being can only stand a certain amount of existential stasis before frustration and deep psychological confusion peer through the murk in order to find an alternative approach to the problem. The problem was intractable. Barong had invoked holy war, jihad, kill the enemy. The faithful just couldn’t do it. But in this heightened state of frustration and religious zeal the men were running out of puff; they’d ripped their clothes, screamed themselves horse and still the evil one was untouched. Somewhere in the recesses of the human mind there’s a door that opens at such times. It’s logic is irrefutable. If I can’t fix the problem, then the problem must be me, so to solve the problem all I have to do is kill myself. As if on cue all the wild men seemed suddenly to reach this startling and suicidal conclusion. They uniformly forgot about Rangda and turned their sharp weapons on themselves, finally writhing all over the dusty ground, deadly kris blades at their own throats as they lunged and strained, eyes tight shut, muscles quivering to penetrate the skin and terminate this profound frustration. The skin at dagger point was facing serious questions and I looked on, frozen to the spot, waiting to see how this drama, this literal dilemma was to unfold. In the end the priest came out again and splashed some more of his water around and the men snapped out of what in retrospect must have been some kind of hypnotic trance. One of the men involved did in fact break the skin with his kris blade letting some of his blood trickle over his chest to the dust. It was the rip-off batik salesman. The priests took him and Kompiang later told me that he had to spend two weeks in penance and rehabilitation in the temple. It was explained to me that if a man is well, with the good and the evil, the dark and the light in appropriate and balanced measure, at peace, the kris blade would never penetrate the skin. But if the fellow’s conscience is troubled he may fall victim to a public display of his inner being’s commitment to transparency and truth by cutting himself during the trance state. The next day over her banana fritter breakfast, Kompiang asked me if I would like to take part with the dancers next time the Barong dance was enacted. She said she’d seen me there and thought I might like to join in. I quickly assured her that I had other plans for my spiritual growth and that I was heading to India for just this purpose. I was aware of the power of hypnosis and its ability to unleash atavistic vision and process so the idea of abandoning myself to a Balinese spiritual workout seemed just a little too dangerous - I might finish up plunging the bloody dagger through my heart (probably wouldn’t even feel it). I wasn’t entirely confident of the status of my inner being; that’s why I was going to India, to find out and chart some controlled and considered approach. I didn’t want to blow the whole gaff in some gestalt Balinese ritual dance. But what a profoundly well organised system the ritual represents: Good and Evil. Day and night. Essential binaries. You must have them both, they are the one thing, two sides of a coin, you cannot kill off one and hope to preserve the other. The logic is undeniable. George W. Bush and his accomplices might benefit from knowing you cannot eliminate perceived evil, let alone the folly of trying to do it with guns. It’s a deadly folly to drive the foreign policy of a country as powerful as the US with such an infantilism. Perhaps an introduction of the Barong ritual into mainstream Anglo-European civilisation would provide the means to step bravely into a new accountable world where punters are increasingly demanding a participatory role in how the future unfolds and are searching for the unmediated, experiential, dare I say grown-up component of the religious, spiritual experience. Sure there’s plenty of mediation in the Barong dance, priests still stop and start the whole affair, the gamelan orchestra and its sublime rhythms facilitate access to deeper layers in our psyche, but in the end the experience is entirely lived, breathed and the responsibility for how we live our lives is assumed on a regular, public basis, for collective appraisal and accountability. It won’t happen but in a global climate where problem solving behaviours increasingly suggest an old definition of madness where a troubled individual repeats an identical action, but each time expects a different result, we’d be well advised to think a little deeper. The enemy is within and it’s only there we resolve our existential crisis. So I failed my first test according to one of the criteria I’d contrived for this journey. Far from being an empty vessel, the Barong experience suggested I was fixed in a preconception like a mayfly in amber, locked in an idea which would control and guide me all the way to India and beyond, requiring me to block options perceived as dangerous or inappropriate in whatever way, as they arose, in a quite blindly faithful effort to maintain the original focus – Buddhism and the Tibetans. Although such intimations were at the time largely unrealised, the eventual awareness of fear’s power to organise at the gate survived: a hint, a clue that sometimes fear, like evil, can be a useful guide but only when there’s presence of mind enough to walk straight into it, towards it rather than fleeing oppositely. Fear, hate, love, good, evil, they’re all within each of us, they are us, and the sooner we accept the ugliness in the world as our own ugliness and its beauty as our own beauty the sooner all will be well and our transformational skills fully returned. Otherwise we are forever condemned to the cruel illusion the beauty and love we crave is exclusively in the hands of others to either grant or deny us. The likelihood of such outcomes however remains distant as a colonising consumer culture rolls towards fulfillment of its global agenda, swallowing indiscriminately all who fall into its glossy clutches, blinding alternative sensibilities with busy saturation and under the friendly façade of democracy, a most disingenuous deception for naked greed, it advances its selfish intent. The World Bank has proved its complicity in recent times demanding that countries recipient of its largesse charge fees to educate their populations. In Africa this amounts to criminal exploitation heaping further insult and further injury on a continent still profoundly traumatised by the predations of colonialism.
No Man’s Land
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