The Shadows that Dance in and out of my Memory

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The Shadows that Dance in and out of my Memory
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    • memoir
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                      Starting with a terrifyingly unwelcome reception at the hands of armed soldiers at Jakarta’s airport, Jan Mantjika’s lifetime of experiences through more than 45 years spent in Bali recalls a period of radical adjustments to life in a royal palace, the dangers and political upheavals of the mid-1960s, right up to her pioneering efforts to promote tourism on the island in the late 1960s early 1970s. After the young New Zealander arrives in Jakarta in 1964 with Djati, her Balinese husband, and their 13-month old daughter, they are rescued from a hostile interrogation session but are unable to cash their travellers cheques due to the country’s anti-capitalist stance and struggle to finance their onward journey to Bali. Finally they are able to board a flight from Jakarta in a single engine aircraft – the only ones available at the time – but with no one to meet them at Denpasar’s airport. For the first year, Jan lived with her husband’s royal family in Puri Agung Kesiman near Denpasar. Confined to the palace, Jan was stricken with a painful infection from bedbug bites. With her freckles, long Petruk-like nose and red hair the color of witches in Balinese legend, Jan encountered suspicion and an utter lack of privacy. In 1965, the family moved to the lecturer’s housing complex in Udayana University. In the same year, all hell broke loose after a bloody aborted coup in Jakarta that triggered anti-Communist massacres nation-wide. As President Sukarno was ousted and General Suharto consolidates his power, killings took place all around her. She saw a young man – a prison escapee – hacked to death by a frenzied crowd right in her own yard. During the horrific year 1966, Jan and Djati braved a curfew and gunfire to reach Sanglah Hospital for the delivery of their second child. At one point she and her husband were marked for death. The book doesn’t hold much back. It gives the Balinese their humanity – a people whose flaws and strengths covered the full range of human emotions – the kindness of her sister-in-law to the brutality of students slashing a Communist student to death. This dark period was not just pre-tourism Bali. This was another world, another reality. The family lives only on sweet potatoes, forages in ditches for snails and tiny fish and shares one egg between them for dinner. With all the unburied bodies of people who have been murdered, cholera raged through the city. All night long Jan could hear creaking pulleys bringing up buckets of water from wells to wash the dying. It took 20 years of nightmares to lay all of her ghosts to rest. Repressed in the media and by official reluctance to confront the issue, the younger generation of Indonesians isn’t even aware of the horrors that took place during the country’s most turbulent history when Suharto crushed the Communist movement and went on to rule the country from 1967 to 1998. Up to the present-day there is still no mention made in school history books of the military killings of hundreds of thousands of people and the imprisonment of tens of thousands more. But this memoir is not just about the sensational anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s as they played out in Bali. Although the most dramatic, the writer’s accounts of this terrible period take up only about a third of the book. The remainder is a catalog of her most vivid memories gathered over almost a half century through seven Indonesian presidents: the devastation and human suffering and loss after northern Bali’s 1976 earthquake, the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and the headlong plunge of the rupiah, the raucous mob vandalism and arson of the 1999 presidential campaign, the devastating downturn of business after the 2001 and 2005 Bali bombings. Jan also survived the drama and trauma of a broken hip, rat plagues, a human trafficking con man, the outlandish shenanigansand sexual escapades of neighbors, the laughable mishaps of travel agents and quirky and petulant clients. She assisted delivering babies and witnessed exorcisms by powerful balian (shaman) of irresistible love spells. An amusing chapter is given over to the pets that passed through their lives: flying squirrels; Bully, the faithful overfed family dog; an irascible Rhesus monkey named Mr. Robert. The island’s tourism industry was in its infancy: no faxes or emails, no English-speaking guides and very few Balinese could speak English. Bali’s roads were potholed tracks. The island’s only high-rise was Sanur’s 10-story high Hotel Bali Beach where she helps to prepare English lessons for the staff. A hilarious account describes the frustrations of training newly recruited waiters, bellboys and maids in time for the grand opening. In 1969, Jan and Djati opened Jan’s Tours, the first independent travel agency in Suharto-era Bali. Gradually, learning as they went, they started leading group tours. The Mantjikas walked and hitched rides to the airport to offer their services to disembarking passengers at a time when it had only one landing strip and no runway lights. The control tower could only contact a pilot 30 minutes before landing and parachutes had to be used to slow down larger aircraft. Clients were driven around in huge American cars, far too big for the roads. The most captivating parts of Jan’s story are her fond reminisces, eyewitness accounts and historical references. She met President Sukarno and King Sihanouk of Cambodia, the legendary Dr. A. A. Made Djelantik, governor Prof. Dr. Ida Magus Mantra, the originator of the Bali Arts Festival in 1978. We read of Djati’s older sister retelling what it was like during the Japanese occupation when advancing troops machine-gunned family members and servants of Kesiman Palace. With the help of hundreds of past letters and a prodigious memory, Jan is able to relive sensory details as if they happenedyesterday. Her writing is at its best when she portrays family members, colleagues and other memorable personalities. She is especially adept at describing relationships and feelings, the ironies of Balinese customs and the contrasts between Balinese and Western cultures. Anyone who reads this book can’t help but absorb a wealth of information about Balinese culture, religion and society. Told from the close-up perspective of a woman living at the very heart of a high-caste Balinese family, there are anecdotes about adattradition, social interactions, etiquette, levels of speech, the caste system, fine details of clothing, dance costumes and ceremonial attire, mystifying black magic intrigues, the oddities of servants, the practices of raising children, the running of a household, marriage customs and the difficulties of a mixed marriage. We even learn what kind of noses Balinese like, each given a different name. Grainy black and white photographs in the “Family Album” section in the back chronicle the writer’s life in Bali and the early days of tourism. Bali 1964 to 2009 is a first hand record of some of pivotal events of Bali’s postmodern era. The writer’s love of the island and her commitment to the Balinese people shines through on every page. The book particularly resonates with old Bali hands who share her personal recollections of the way Bali once was and who have seen the island go through such momentous changes over the past decades.