Monday, October 30, 2006

Happy Diwali, 2006

Darjeeling is just as fun on Diwali as Aurangabad, 1997, or Jaipur, 2001.

These festive decorations made a foggy day an absolute delight!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Remembering the 2002 Bali Bomb

So it was four years ago, the bomb that all but ruined the tourist industry in Bali, the bomb that killed 202 people from 22 countries.

I had to go pick up my man from the airport, so I just left several hours early and went straight to Kuta beach, site of the blast.

I was to learn something about how people choose to memorialize tragedies.

I wandered down to the area near the Hard Rock, where, crowded in a small swath of the wide sand beach, maybe 1,000 people were gathering for one of the memorials in the area. This was the Billabong Paddle for Peace rally. In this day and age, it is no big deal, I guess, for a peace rally or memorial to have a commercial sponsor. Oh well.

I was overdressed, as usual, in linen shirt and trousers, holding my sunblock umbrella against the setting sun. Everyone else was dressed for a beach party... bikinis, shorts, tattoos, etc. There were also about ten or fifteen local ladies in lacy kebayas and batik sarongs (pakaian adat). A number of kids raced around, scooping up flower petals and tossing them. Maybe 100 surfers sat in rank and file with their boards, festooned with flower petals and looking like some kind of warriors or human sacrifices... up higher on the sandy slope they did have a kind of altitude over the rest of us. I waited in the crowd, up near a white cloth "wall", taking in the ceremony. All seemingly very casual, but planned and orchestrated. To my embarassment, they played the Australian national anthem on the PA, followed by a highly sappy version of Waltzing Matilda, all verses, and then the great Aussie ballad True Blue.

Possibly the most obnoxious moment was courtesy of some helicopter company, which sent a copter roaring over to the ceremony area, hovering over the shore break at a frighteningly low altitude and even more frighteningly high decibel level. Drunk and carefree participants waved at the chopper like it was an angel from heaven, or at least a good pal.

Many of those present were drinking from bottles of Bintang Beer. Many gals (even, horrors, my age) were cavorting like pinup girls in revealing bikinis. I had invaded an Australian memorial! Kids let loose turtles in the sea, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the people around us, and there was a moment of silence at sunset, while the surfers who'd paddled out to form a circle just past the breakers, held hands.

I was moved by the beautiful sunset, by the candles we each were given, and by the 22 gongs for the 22 nations who lost people. But I felt like an intruder in a party to which I was not invited, when I had to sit through True Blue and the anthem. A strange mix of sombre sacred and party hearty profane.

Perhaps craving a show of dignity, I grabbed a juice at the Harris Hotel and went to the Legian Protestant Church to take in the ceremony there. Olga of the Bali International Women's Association had sent me an email notice of this memorial. And, all being welcome, I decided to go there and pay some Christian style respects to the innocents killed by the bomb.

The church service was on the order of charismatic Christianity, with lots of songs about love, no hymns, and a Power Point illustrative slide show to help us see the words of songs and prayers, in Indonesian as well as English, with dreamy renditions of nature, the bomb site, and Jesus. Christians from all over the island took part, and there was even an interpretive dance about faith in Jesus.

There was St Francis of Asisi's prayer, about being an instrument of God. Yeah, inspirational, I suppose, but very humble in that turn-the-cheek way. "Nothing we can do about it" was the attitude, and may as well take comfort in the fact that Jesus loves us, and so on. A sucker for dramatic lighting, I was moved by the candle lighting ceremony in the dimmed church (a cute white Balinese style structure without walls), but that darned synthesizer continued to wail music during our 2 minutes of silence.

Funny thing, the noise factor. I'm clinically 40% deaf, and yet I am keenly aware of the lack of true silence. The chopper, the synthesizer, dogs barking, chickens crowing... Bali may never find peace.

So really I got to see how amazingly different people can be in memorializing victims and remembering a tragedy. Both ceremonies taking a fairly light touch, despite the glaring overtones of Jesus and Australia. No acrimony toward the perpetrators, not even a hint of their horrible act of murder. I was not directly affected by the bomb at the Sari Club those 4 years ago, but I have always viewed the event with disgust. Sometimes anger, but I can imagine only a fraction of the anger that victims' families must feel. If I'd been simmering in vengeful and sorrowful thoughts for four years, would I take any comfort in an Aussie beach singalong and an evening of lightweight Jesus songs?

Strange capper to these events was watching a tape on the Discovery channel called Bombali, aired on our satellite network and taped by me so that I could watch it yesterday. Very unabashedly presenting the party and pickup scene at the Sari Club that fateful night.

Dig, the bombers were portrayed as misled robots in a ridiculous but well planned mini jihad against immoral white people, but there was no hesitation to show that the Sari Club was a good place for revelling football players to pick up cute young backpackers. Look, I feel it's anyone's right to go to bars and drink and even get drunk if you feel like it, which are actually big aspects of the Australian social life. If you go to a beach town and see a lively bar, packed with celebrants from a weekend of sporting events, why NOT go in? But to hear several interviews with witnesses and victims' families, many dressed as skimpily as western culture allows, was at moments a little embarassing.

Fact: there are a bunch of Muslims who think I'm immoral for having my wine with dinner last night, for wearing this sleeveless shirt today, and for not believing that there is one true God whose prophet was Mohammed. Fact: there are a bunch of Muslims who would like to see me dead for these things. Now, I weigh this against a personal belief that most Muslims are good people, and many probably think that as long as I don't go into their cities dressed like this or drinking like that, I'm okay.

But to see the Australian production, with no bones about the hard partying at the Sari Club, was to look at both sides of the event. I don't think this was intentional. But it made me think.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What I Wrote for the Bali Advertiser about Chris Kremmer and Eric Campbell

Christopher Kremmer and Eric Campbell are enjoying the popularity of their recent books, respectively Inhaling the Mahatma and Absurdistan. When these two world-class travelers sit down together October 2 at the Alila Ubud and compare notes, some rich tales will be traded. Anyone wishing to eavesdrop should be warned that tickets are selling like hot pakoras in Agra.

Kremmer is a former ABC reporter and now regularly writes for the Sydney Morning Herald focusing (sometimes very pointedly) on South Asian issues. Campbell began with the Herald and is now with the ABC as a foreign correspondent. They’ve been to many of the same places, have received notable awards, but the similarities end there.

Campbell’s aptly named Absurdistan fairly screams with the insanity, inhumanity, and horror of being in the world’s recent trouble spots. His memoir rather unceremoniously plops the reader onto a conveyor belt taking on a succession of corrupt Russian cops, Chinese propaganda in Tibetan monastaries, and courtly mass murderers. Campbell’s experiences are paced and described with both a matter-of-fact immediacy and an authentic sting of the kind of humor that keeps reporters from going crazy.

The book touts itself as a bumpy ride through some of the world’s scariest, weirdest places. Except for the adrenaline factor, this is nothing like a thrill ride. Although reporters have access to services (six armed bodyguards on a Balkans junket) and resources (flying on Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s jet), the work can be unpleasant at best. Though paid to travel and living on an expense account, a reporter goes where no one in his right mind would dare. Absurdistan is no just-back-report on a backpacker web forum. It’s the real unsavory deal.

Kremmer’s books are also born of the highly personal experience, but with a touch less frontline and deadline. set of circumstances. Campbell rushes from war zone to earthquake zone, falling in love on the fly and dealing with ridiculous nigglings from the home office. Kremmer’s journey in The Carpet Wars is by contrast a meandering stroll, full of delightful pit stops as agreeable as a cup of mint tea proffered in a fragrant souq. It’s detailed and descriptive, a tribute to the legions of men and women who have left their mark upon the carpets we can appreciate today.

Combining sober research with the warmth of personal contacts, Kremmer has become an expert on Afghan rugs, and his love for their craft and history is contagious. Kremmer exudes an infectious joy for factoids about dye technique and knots, and there’s a lot of poetry in his writing. He sees, in a sudden change in a rug’s color intensity, the story of a mother interrupted by a baby’s cry, leaving her wool overlong in the dye vat.

Kremmer’s sense of humanity brings readers a most reassuring message from his travels through an uneasy world. Armchair travelers who wouldn’t want to set foot in the Hindu Kush are at least able to channel the essence of the region through Kremmer’s wonderful writing. Not too different a task from that of our intrepid correspondent Eric Campbell, who keeps us informed as a witness to events in remote and dangerous places.

It will be interesting to see how Campbell and Kremmer will mesh in Ubud. We are lucky to have Kremmer’s generosity as a carpet trade insider, and Campbell’s tenacity for details surrounding his assignments. Each writer tells us more than just the facts, each man has his own passions and pain. Readers will find, in both men’s books, a sense of the undying spirit of humanity. The writers’ methods certainly differ, and therein lies the fascination.

Also by Christopher Kremmer: Inhaling the Mahatma, The Bamboo Palace.