In the forests of northwest Bali, in a corner of the Jembrana regency that most people speed by on the last stretch to the ferry at Gilimanuk, are two unique communities carved out of the Alas Cekik jungle in the first half of last century. Rio Helmi visited them on Christmas Day.
The story goes back to the 1930s when Christian missionaries (Protestant to begin with) started making headway with conversions. Though Christian missionaries had already set foot on the island as early as the 1630s, the mass Protestant baptism in Dalung created a palpable tension with traditional Balinese (who at that time hadn’t yet been forced to take on the politicized identity of “Hinduism”).
These tensions spurred the creation of the Protestant community of Blimbingsari. A decade later a Catholic community sprung up in Palasari, only a couple of kilometers away. The first time I visited these communities in the 80s I was struck by the orderly grid of the roads in Palasari. It somehow reminded me of a village version of Chandigarh, a city dreamed up by Nehru and designed by Le Corbusier – except with more fresh air and more smiles. But in all this time I had never been in Palasari or Blimbingsari for Christmas – or even Easter. Bad boy.
Early on the wet afternoon of Christmas Eve, I manage to load up three cameras, three lenses, a tripod and a drone on to the panniers of my bike. Clothes, a spare pair of shoes and overnight necessities were stuffed into a dry bag and strapped on the back seat.. It’s full protective gear time – I’m not taking any chances with crazy holiday drivers. But even before I get to Mengwi I hit a snag – the local Pecalangs have closed off a major connecting road for a ceremony, forcing everyone north on the Sangeh road. I see the traffic massing up on the main highway. Hmmm, better to cut up through Bedugul. However it becomes clear by the time I turn on to the Denpasar-Bedugul highway that this is also a stupid route. At Baturiti, the traffic forces me to abandon the Bedugul-Seririt idea and cut down through Penebel to Meliling just north of Tabanan. I begin to feel chuffed with myself. Then it starts to spit and by the time I pull over it’s pouring. There’s a really friendly and helpful old man who gives me the clearest directions – just as well, as my GPS has decided to go comatose.
The traffic on the main highway is heavy but I manage (with some mildly aggressive riding) to get to the turn off after Negara well before dark. I’ve booked a fancy place in Palasari (so I thought), the Taman Wana villas. I can’t quite believe that with all the detours and traffic it has only taken me 3 plus hours to get to Palasari; as it is still light I go and check out the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or Gereja Hati Kudus Yesus (it is almost a cathedral really) in Palasari first. The Police are out in force, a sobering reminder of past violence in Java when churches were bombed during Christmas. They’re kind of astounded when I pull up on the beemer but are very friendly. They don’t even blink when I pull out the drone (I was expecting some questions, but no…). Inside the outer gates there are a couple of branded coffee stands. I think “What would Jesus say to that?” then tell myself to shut up.
The Church of the Sacred Heart Jesus in Palasari
Finally I I make my way to the resort. Signage is obviously not their forté. It’s a case of concrete lanes through a couple of miles of plantations, confusing crossroads, and imaginary asphalt. I’m glad I’m on the GS, the 21inch front wheel just rolls over most of the potholes which are broken up with tiny stretches of actual asphalt. Finally I pull up – it’s clear that no expense was spared building the place. Unfortunately a lot of expense has been spared maintaining it. In short, a sort of folly with just a tinge of Gormenghast. I check into a huge room, then go to the restaurant/lobby by the greenish pool. I work on some pics and put up a passable Christmas greeting on social media.
There is a Dutch couple staying there, and we chat. People from Surabaya and a couple of Christians from Negara waft in and eat. Then they take off for the 7 o’clock Christmas Eve mass. I’m too fried to go out again. There is one girl at the lobby, and she takes orders, shows you to the room, checks you in, etc. It’s a skeleton staff, the gardeners are in the kitchen – all the Christians have taken a holiday. I eventually get my meal.
As we sit there a bearded man in shorts and thick glasses comes up and introduces himself as Ida. He turns out to be the owner. Then he asks my name; when I tell him his eyes light up. It turns out this is “Jimmy” who about 2 decades ago I went on my one and only motorcycle convoy (Harleys, gahh) with. We were supposed to stay here, but at the Antosari crossroads I had begged off – that convoy felt like a train wreck about to happen. At least 3 of the riders were completely (I mean completely) new to riding. So I never came to this place in its heyday. “Jimmy” has since been initiated (‘Medikse’) as a Sri Empu priest for the Pasek clan, thus the “Ida”. It’s semi awkward as he is now a high priest, and our conversation is friendly but I do have to watch my manners. I find out that sadly his only son (who was on that infmaous ride) died a few years ago in a road accident. Without anymore male heirs to run this place, and as his daughters are married and not interested, he is selling. It’s obvious that it’s a pretty heavy burden to maintain the place, especially when you really don’t have any real worldly interest in it anymore. A fixer upper for sure, and one with some interesting potential.
I take off at dawn on Christmas day for the Protestant church in Blimbingsari. Up the drone goes. I hurry back to the Catholic church in Palasari – mass is at 7:00 am. There I have just enough time to send the drone up again. Then I take out my other cameras and get ready for the 7 o’clock mass. Except it seems pretty quiet at 6:55, the only thing happening is the police security briefing in the parking lot. At 7 people start slowly coming in. almost all of them in traditional Balinese attire. As they file in and dip their fingers into the holy water and cross themselves I can’t help being reminded of the tirta holy water that Balinese sprinkle themselves with before entering temples. Meanwhile I’m dripping with sweat. Palasari is only about 65m above sea level and it’s warm already. And it’s past 7:15…Above: The PNIEL Protestant church in Blimbingsari. Below: Police security briefing before mass at the Catholic church in Palasari.
I shoot video and stills and inevitably muck up a couple of great video moments, especially that of a young girl who rang the bell by a rope hanging down in main entrance. People are very friendly, and the church officials don’t blink an eyelid when I ask to go up to where the organ should be. It’s even warmer up there but a nice view. Scrambling down and around the side of the church, a side door beckons. Slipping in I end up squeezing past the creche, with a very white baby Jesus, just as everyone busts into a hymn and the priest and all the altar boys and girls come up to it. I hope I’m not too much of a spectacle. And manage to slip to the side. The voices are beautiful.
Clearly it’s not just the attire that is traditionally Balinese here, but also the sense of time. I listen to some of the sermon (the priest has good sense of humor) from outside, but it’s getting close to 9 o’clock and that’s when the Protestant ‘PNIEL” church in Blimbing sari is set to start their service. I wait for the singing before I start my bike then head over to Blimbingsari.
Coming up the stairs through a curious divided gateway with classic Balinese ornamentation on top, I find the service well on it’s way. Not only are there very few people wearing traditional Balinese attire here, but they obviously have a stricter sense of time. The design of the church is completey unexpected – it’s circular, almost elliptical really and open on all sides! It’s a very different feel from the cathedral like atmosphere I’ve just left behind, yet here too the Christmas spirit is very evident. The minister, Hetty Widowati, is confident and not overbearing. I think to myself, more women should lead religious services. I also wonder if non-binary people will be accepted as ministers…
I’m glad I made the effort to come to these places, even though I’m not a Christian it’s nice to be where Christmas isn’t mostly about presents and stuffing yourself silly. This is actually a community. At the same time I feel a pang of sadness for those Christians in several parts of Indonesia who have been forbidden to celebrate Christmas by local Muslim communities. Indonesia has changed so much since my childhood.
Flagging, I go back to the hotel. I take a quick nap, then brave the pool. After two laps, dodging kids on oversized water mattresses, I give up, shower and pack. Ida comes around to say goodbye. He doesn’t ride anymore (that would probably create a hullaballoo) but he likes the BMW. “You know Harleys aren’t such a great bike.” He admits. It’s interesting having a conversation in high Balinese with a Sri Empu about bikes…
As I head off dark, black clouds threaten from the mountains to the northeast. Shooting through Negara, I see the turn off to Perancak. It’s been a while since I’ve been there so I swing off the highway. It’s boiling hot, and when I get there it’s clear that Perancak has been ‘discovered’. Seafood restaurants line the estuary. I pull into one that has a nice flat parking lot, perfect for the drone. I discover my phone has overheated in the tank bag, and the drone app won’t work. Much to the amusement of the staff I stick it into the drinks refrigerator while I have lunch. Then we launch. Dripping with sweat I finally pack everything up and decide to head for the mountains, I’d rather be a bit wet and cool than boil in the traffic.
A bit further down the road, men ploughing ricefields on the coast near Rambutsiwi catch my eye. I do a quick stop and send the drone up again. I have a quiet moment of panic when I lose sight of it, I haven’t quite mastered the art of flying purely by instrument yet. But I figure it out visually and bring it back it as the the low battery warning comes on.
At Pekutatan I take a left and head up the hill to Bunut Bolong, where the road goes right through a huge Bunut tree. It’s become pretty popular with young Balinese for selfies and instagram. I snap a couple of shots but don’t really ‘feel’ it, so quickly continue up to the mountain town of Pupuan. It’s raining pretty much all of the way there. I stop at a convenience store to buy some cotton buds – the GPS is driving me crazy blinking on and off, it’s clear the contacts are dirty. I give the contacts a good hard rub – the buds go black. I overcome an overwhelming desire to clean my ears too, not good decorum on the main street.
Before hitting the road again I mull about whether I should take my rain gear off. The security guard who is pretty friendly tells me it won’t rain again: “If that mountain peak appears out of the clouds, the rain is over.”. I snort silently but then think “Hey, who am I to challenge local wisdom?” Besides as I go down to the coast it’s going to get hot. As it turns out, he was on the money. Meanwhile GPS looked good for while but then went on the blink again.
But that’s ok. I know the way home.
TEXT AND PHOTOS ©Rio Helmi
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