I emailed this letter to The Jakarta Post, not sure if they would publish it. They did. I’ve already gotten a couple reactions from readers that utterly surprised me: they thought I was being serious! Such is the danger of satire.
Below is an article from the DENPOST newspaper, 15 Jan 2013:
Headline (my rough translation): “Erosion uncovers gravesite of PKI victims”
The content of the article states that high waves at Cucukan Beach, in Gianyar, Bali eroded a forgotten grave site where victims of “G 30 S/PKI” had been buried in 1965. The bones were uncovered at three different locations along the beach. Dozens of area residents flocked to see the skeletal remains (no doubt some of these residents had lost family members in 1965). According to sources, there were five grave sites where in 1965 hundreds of executed victims were dumped and forgotten.
“G 30 S” is the acronym of “Gerakan 30 September” (also referred to as Gestapu) when in 1965, after the kidnapping and murder of six Army generals that was said to be the start of a Communist coup attempt that subsequently failed, the Army and various nationalist groups rounded up and killed tens of thousands of Communists and leftists. Madness descended on Bali. A nine-year old boy at the time, your blog correspondent vividly recalls the “tameng” killing squads marching past our house in Klungkung, Bali.
This remains a sensitive topic, as illustrated by the quoted comments made by the village head, who displayed a finely calibrated sense of waffle: “Maybe these bones are those of 1965 victims, but maybe not, because many unidentified corpses were also buried here until 1997.”
The village head stated that the bones will have a cremation ceremony “agar nanti tidak terjadi masalah” — meaning, “so that later there won’t be problems”, which is a wonderful line to practice the art of reading between them.
On Bali, such a gruesome discovery of forgotten bones is nothing new. Many of these graves have been periodically uncovered over the decades, often by seaside villa and hotel construction.
This is how my new novel opens. BONES OF THE DARK MOON: A contemporary novel exploring Bali’s 1965 massacres is forthcoming from Saritaksu Editions.
A kind reader reported the other day that this long inactive blog was hacked earlier this year, and malicious code inserted into the website files.
They’ve been cleaned up.
There’s been a lot happening in Bali. Too much, one could say.
I’ll start posting once in a while.
When I was a boy, and even as a young teen, much of Bali was lit only by fire. Late afternoon, we’d line up our lanterns on the porch, the small tin ones for the bedrooms, the larger Aladdin lamps with graceful chimneys for the dining room and parlor, and fill them with kerosene, ready to be lit at dusk.
The predominant noises in the evenings were garden crickets and the occasional growl of a passing truck. But some nights there would reverberate from the unknown distance the slow measured drumming of the large gamelan gong. On an island lit only by fire, this was also the island’s loudest sound, louder even than the villages’ kul-kul drums, a mysterious beating from the drenching dark of night that seemed to say, something this way could very well come, and I’d tremble a little. (Ever since HEART OF DARKNESS, it’s a cliché to speak of a distant drumming being an island’s exotic beating heart, but it wasn’t a cliché to me.)
Today, all is electrified, including the gamelan. The other night, the pura dalem temple several hundred meters from our house had a rededication ceremony. A sacred Rangda dance was performed, and whereas in the old days her natural screeching voice was enough to give one the heejie-beejies, this night she was miked up to the speakers, loud enough over the clanging gamelan for even cruise ships in Benoa to hear. It wasn’t shivery scary—it was just deafening.
Electric amplification? Why, oh why? The louder it gets, the more something gets lost–a sense of the other, the numinous mystery of the unseen.
One of the mysteries of Bali is the eternally full garbage truck. You never see any empty ones. They are always full, and always stopping to cram on yet more garbage. You almost get the feeling that something….mystical…is going on.
Bali’s garbage trucks collect 5000 cubic meters of garbage a day that is taken to official dump sites. It’s estimated that another 5000 cubic meters are tossed elsewhere, in rivers and streams and your neighbor’s empty back yard. So says AA Gede Alit Sastrawan, head of an environmental organization, in an article in today’s Bali Post.
Bali is only about 5600 square kilometers in size. Considering only the officially collected garbage, in three years you could cover the whole island in a centimeter of trash. Of course, sometimes its seems that the illegal garbage is already doing the job.
Sastrawan estimates that about 300 cubic meters of the collected garbage is packing material that could be recycled. And indeed, pemulung from Java (no self respecting Balinese would be a garbage picker) have a thriving business by collecting recyclables. Unfortunately, the plastic bag (which if you go ocean trolling after a good rainstorm and full rivers is also considered to be Indonesia’s national fish) is not taken for recycling.
What the article doesn’t stated is that a significant percent of the volume is composed of plant material from discarded ceremonial offerings. Perfect for compost and fuel projects. But is anyone making compost and fuel? Nope. Foreign companies have in years past invested in pilot projects for commercial ventures, but get stuck in the morass of corruption. Foreign aid for this problem mysteriously vanishes.
One of the main dump sites is in the mangrove swamps near Benoa harbor. It’s been there for decades. And it keeps going up and up and up. One hill there is at least two hundred feet high. It’s certainly the highest geographical feature for miles around, if garbage can be said to be geographical, and I have heard that the Udayana military command has marked it on their maps as a strategic high ground.
If you a person of authority, you are allowed to say really dumb things.
Some years ago, the Minister of Justice commented on a foreigner who’d been on death row in Sumatra for several years, his appeal dragging on, causing him mental suffering. The Minister said, “It is best that we execute him as soon as possible, for his own peace of mind.”
More recently, despite protests the local administration has built a six-foot high wall along Kuta beach. The mayor said, “It stops the sand from blowing onto the road, and besides, the wall is done in Balinese architectural style and provides an excellent backdrop for tourists to take their photos.”
I don’t about you, but if I want to head out to the beach, or have a sunset drink at a restaurant by the seaside, I want to go the beach without having to bring rappelling gear. And I don’t want to seeing the sun setting into brick, no matter how ornamented.
This island and country has long had a tradition of respect for persons in authority, no matter if they got their positions from lineage, nepotism, or corruption (only rarely, alas, by dint of intelligent hard work). Such persons are allowed to get away with saying really dumb things, in part because they aren’t capable of saying really smart things, but also because they know nobody is going to bat an eye. “Yes, sir, very good, sir, that makes eminent sense, sir.”
The Indonesians have a phrase for it: asal bunyi saja. As long as you’re making noise.
Lately there have been news reports in the local paper of riots and houses being burned in a community. The papers faithfully report the number of houses burned, the names of the victims, initials of those arrested. The article quotes police commanders being stern, saying they will not tolerate violence, and also report that community leaders of the factions have sat down to establish peace.
But what factions? What the heck is the fighting about? It’s all very murky, and unsatisfying. People don’t want to know just the facts—we’re all voyeurs, we want to know the dirt.
But it’s not really stated.
This is when it behooves the reader to understand the principle of SARA: suku, agama, ras, antar-golongan. Roughly translated: ethnic group, religion, race, and groups.
It’s long been a principle in Indonesian news, in the interest of maintaining harmony, to NOT openly identify the actors based on SARA, or to detail a conflict’s core issues if they are rooted in SARA. This is why articles will say “members of a certain religion” or “people from a certain island” instead of Muslims or Christians, or East Timorese. The articles will report the cause of conflicts as “disagreements over customary law” or “misunderstandings arising from the allocation of space for a house of worship”.
Of course, it’d be a lot more interesting to the reader to find out that (for example) a Balinese family has refused to pay its temple dues because they felt cheated out their fair share of village windfall from a tourism project, and the village cultural authorities then in turn don’t allow the family to bury one of their elders in the temple grounds to wait for the cremation, which in turn results in the family calling on their extended clan to take the body to the burial grounds anyway, which causes everybody to storm out in force with bamboo staves and spears.
Tip number 1: Think corruption
Not too many foreigners can read the local language papers, but if even they could, they might still scratch their heads and go, hunh?
For example, some time ago, in the same day’s edition of a local paper, there were two reports on drug sentencing (I’m changing the facts, but not the gist). In one article, a local man caught with a joint of Aceh marijuana was sentenced to 8 years in jail. Turn the page, and in the second article, an Australian tourist caught with 2.6 grams of cocaine was sentenced to 9 months in jail, and immediately deported because he’d already been detained prior to sentencing for, guess what, 9 months.
Confused as to the discrepancy? Don’t be!
Imagine Aretha Franklin belting out her trademark song: c-o-r-r-u-p-t, imagine what it means to me, a card says get out of jail free….
(I once was talking to a prominent lawyer who was celebrating a win in court. A Western woman had been acquitted in an embezzlement case brought against her by her local partner. The lawyer had expected her to lose because she flatly refused to pay bribes. The lawyer was all jazzed and excited because, as he exclaimed to me, the judge actually went by the evidence and the law and acquitted her without having received a single rupiah! Great cause for rejoicing, for lo and behold, an honest judge is found at last!)
(There’s an old joke: in Indonesia, there is good corruption and bad corruption. Bad corruption is when you have to pay somebody to do something they are supposed to do in the first place. Good corruption is when you can pay somebody to allow you to do something you’re not supposed to do in the first place.)
Bali is going to the dogs
Well, jokes about rabies aside, maybe so, maybe so. But then so is the rest of the world.
If only people could be less greedy.
While I am at it, let me pause a moment to wish for world peace.
It does seem that greediness in Bali is just a tad more greedy than greed in other parts of the world. Let me have my slice of pie, Jack, and to hell with everybody else.
Bali is a vortex of higher spiritual energies, a sacred place to seek enlightenment.
I often wonder if the new age folks here in Bali (to use a catch-all term for a wide spectrum of somewhat similar beliefs and practices) really understand what Bali Hinduism is about. Siva is the main deity, with emphasis on local gods and spirits and demons, lots of blood sacrifices, continual struggle to keep good and evil in balance. There isn’t exactly a surplus of good energies. And here are all these strangers and visitors sucking up what good energies there are, making it harder work for the Balinese to keep things in balance.
One way to look at it.
I bet if one did a study on the progress of those seeking spiritual progress and enlightenment in Bali, compared to seekers in, oh, London or Sydney or Le Mars, Iowa, one would find no difference.