Joy to the World? Christmas 2019

I remember the turning point vividly, that year when I decided that enough was enough, which in reality, was far too much. It was the beginning of my awakening about Christmas Day, an ongoing change of mindset, involving rewriting tradition and re-evaluating family, place and gifting.

It was my turn to host the Christmas family lunch in 2016, a rotating event shared by my three siblings. As my mother, the matriarch, was ( and is ) alive and well, an annual Christmas lunch was taken for granted, but it was a tradition that we all began to feel uneasy about as the logistics of hosting and catering for the day became a nightmare. At the age of 93 that year, and still living independently in her own home, it was a grand event involving her four children, their partners, her grandchildren and partners, and her great grandchildren, a cast of 32 people or more. Despite discussions about simplifying the day, it never happened. Along with cleaning, house sprucing, decorating and shopping, preparation involved finding 32 sets of plates, cutlery,¬† and glasses suitable for water, wine and beer, 32 assorted chairs, six tables, and tablecloths to cover them, clearing a room large enough to hold the tables and guests comfortably, the assembling of serving platters, table napkins, and the emptying of fridges to store food on the day. Eskies full of ice were strategically placed around for drinks, extra bins ready for recycling. On that occasion, a pissoir for outside male use was erected so that at least some of the 30 plus people wouldn’t flush away our essential tank water supply. Long lists began in early December, the whole month dedicated to planning the lunch, with inside/outdoors options considered, subject to weather conditions.

On that Christmas day, like so many other years in Australia, the weather turned hot and windy, the north wind blowing at gale force through my property perched on a ridge in the country. The temperature was 39¬ļc, and along with strong wind gusts of over 50 kmph, an outside garden event was definitely out of the question. The day was declared a Total Fire Ban day, which meant no barbecuing could take place. The day was categorised as Severe under Victoria’s bushfire rating codification system, introduced after the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009. Part of the preparation for the day always involved this unnerving uncertainty about the weather- could we have a BBQ, maybe a picnic outside, what about a buffet on the veranda? None of these options were suitable for a blustery, terrifying total fire ban day.

On that day in question, three Christmases ago, I watched my mother sit quietly, sometimes with eyes closed, on a couch in the only air- conditioned room of our house, which wasn’t functioning very well given the constant door opening by excited children and desperate smokers. On phones and computers, others nervously watched the CFA ( Country Fire Authority) information site and weather reports: my brother received a barrage of anxious calls from his partner about her bushfire fears for her area. The happy young children opened an obscene number of gifts, someone forgot to bring their KK gift, a second- nephew didn’t know our names, younger generation partners said very little and you just knew they would rather be somewhere else, but that invisible hand of tradition forced them to attend. And I cooked, stood on my feet all day, ate very little, orchestrated and at times delegated, spoke to no one much, checked fire reports and found it hard to smile. I should have cancelled the day, my mother was struggling with the heat. One of the most unnerving aspects of the day was the fear of evacuating a large group of city dwellers who had no experience or theoretical knowledge of what to do if confronted with an imminent bushfire. The day did not make sense.

Pistachio amaretti. Much lighter than hot plum pudding. Rewriting tradition.

After the guests left, we sat among the mess and debris and breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly regarding the waste of leftover food and paper, discarded tissue hats and bits of plastic landfill from bonbons, dishes and cloths to be washed and furniture to be re-arranged, I realised that I felt deeply upset and exasperated. Never again. On that day, I made a firm resolution that our Christmas traditions needed to change.

Amaretti Siciliani di Agrigento. Perfumed with orange, spices of the Orient.

Since then, I’ve found some peace and no longer practice self flagellation about Christmas Day. As I was using my last piece of Christmas paper last week, one stashed from years before, I did so with real joy. The empty cardboard roll symbolised the end to another wasteful practice. I turned to my fabric stash and cut into a colourful Indian Sari to wrap a gift. I also discovered another stash of op-shop rolls of ribbons suitable for tying gifts. I assembled a small bag of assorted fabric oddments dedicated to this purpose, tucking it into the linen press. Like the Japanese gift wrapping, Furoshiki, I am pleased to send my fabrics and ribbons on their way- they’ll be reused, they’ll travel, they might even return. I’ve made a few batches of Amaretti biscuits, the spice reminiscent of a more ancient tradition of gifts, perfumed with the scent of orange. My adult children ask what food they should bring and I answer, whatever you like, something simple. Mr T now spends his pre-Chrismas days doing essential maintenance for our survival in the Australian bush, removing piles of fallen leaves and twigs from the front of our house, an ongoing task during bushfire season, a season that now stretches longer than in years gone by. Sadly, the season coincides with Christmas. We’re slowly getting our priorities right.

Baci di dama. Hazelnut and chocolate kisses.
The joy of red bottle brush ( Kings Park Calistemon) in flower at Christmas.

 

 

Bali, Tradition and Change. Witti’s Story

It was the sign on the little Warung that first caught my eye. The first item, Tipat Tahu Kantok, provided only one clue, Tahu (tofu), but the other elements remained a mystery. This was one Balinese dish I hadn’t come across before.

I asked the gentle man standing near the warung about the word Tipat and he pointed out some little palm leaf baskets hanging inside the Warung. Obviously, Tipat was some form of sticky rice steamed in these little baskets: the other elements of the dish were yet to be revealed. The other menu items looked tasty too. Plecing is a tomato chilli sauce and came with aforementioned Tipat, Sayur sounded like a vegetarian dish, Rujak, a spicy fruit salad, and some drinks. What a perfect little menu for a tiny Warung by the sea.

View from Warung Kak Esa

I returned the following day and met the delightful Witti, the cook and owner of this tiny new warung. We tried her tasty version of Tipat Tahu Cantok and began chatting.

Witti has witnessed great change in Sanur over 58 years, most for the better.

Witti has worked at the beach end of Segara Ayu, at the northern end of Sanur, since she was a girl. She regrets that she never went to school: in the 1960s, her parents didn’t consider school important and so she was taught to collect coconuts, make shell jewellery and so on. Of course Witti is literate and speaks three languages fluently as well as a smattering of other languages too. She learnt on the street and is a modern, well spoken Balinese woman, as sharp as a tac, happy and vibrant. Her own three children completed high school and now she proudly talks about her grandchildren and the soaring cost of education these days, a subject that all Indonesians worry about.

The beautiful Witti cooks up some tasty treats.

She remembers many aspects of life from the past quite vividly. She spoke of the day Mt Agung erupted. She was four years old at the time. That eruption was one of the largest and most devastating eruptions in Indonesia’s history, killing an estimated 1,100 – 1,500 people.

‘On February 18, 1963, local residents heard loud explosions and saw clouds rising from the crater of Mount Agung. On February 24, lava began flowing down the northern slope of the mountain, eventually traveling 7¬†km in the next 20 days. On March 17, the volcano erupted, sending debris 8 to 10¬†km into the air and generating massive pyroclastic flows. Cold lahars caused by heavy rainfall after the eruption killed an additional 200. A second eruption on May 16 led to pyroclastic flows that killed another 200 inhabitants. Minor eruptions and flows followed and lasted almost a year.’¬Ļ

Witti remembers crowding with others on the beach in the pitch darkness, as Mt Agung, looming on the horizon, spewed lava and fire into the air. She recalls the the rain of ash falling around her for days. As she spoke, I could see the terror of that childhood memory in her eyes.

Another sad memory involved the loss of many of her siblings. She was one of 12 children, but due to poor sanitation and lack of doctors and medicine, five of her siblings died at a young age. Still, she followed this with a smile- imagine having Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut ( the four Balinese names used in order of birth) repeated three times over. We all laughed together: yes, things have changed for the better. We also met Los, her older brother, who works along Segara Ayu at a little booth next door to Witti, offering information and selling tickets for the large boat tours further north. I am keen to chat further with Los about the old days, to see if, as a teenager, he remembers the chaos and horror of the civil war period that followed the earthquake in the 1960s, though most Balinese don’t want to talk of those times.

Vibrant modern Balinese woman, Witti in her brand new warung.

After we finished our Tipat, a tasty and extremely filling vegetarian dish resembling, in some ways, a gado-gado, Witti brought out a little plate of crispy fried Jackfruit, an unusual sweet taste sensation. Sweet and crispy, the batter was as light as tempura but golden in colour. We promised to return for breakfast the next day to try her crispy fried sweet potato, pineapple and banana, washed down with Bali black coffee. On other occasions, we simply popped in for a cold beer and peanuts. Witti cooks peanuts and garlic together and serves them hot and fresh on a large saucer. One Bintang beer, some fresh nuts, a good sunset and a chat: life is sweet.

Jackfruit ( nangka ) fritters at Warung Kak Esa
These freshly fried nuts are cooked a little darker and will be used in the sauce

More about Tipat Cantok

A Balinese Tipat Tahu Cantok is a common traditional Balinese dish that can be found almost anywhere in Bali. It’s made of mixed steamed vegetables (water lily, long beans and bean sprout) which are mixed with steamed rice cake( tipat) and fried tofu mixed with peanut sauce.  The sauce is made from freshly fried whole un-skinned peanuts, garlic, white pepper, coriander, purple shallot, chili and fermented soy paste. Tipat Cantok can be found in local small Balinese warungs but is rarely found in big restaurants.

Warung Kak Esa
Los’ dog, Chocolate, knows his way home after work.

¬Ļ¬†https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Agung

As a footnote to this post, Indonesians live with the fearful presence of volcanoes and earthquakes. With all that beauty and fertility comes disaster from time to time. Mt Agung continues to vent, there are still over 1,500 Balinese evacuees. Agung only tends to become news worthy in the Western press when it affects air traffic and the plight of the traveller. Meanwhile, we awake to the sad news of another earthquake, following one from 10 days ago, on the neighbouring island of Lombok. If you are looking for a reliable place to chip in a few dollars or euros for food and emergency supplies, follow the link below. If you have ever spent time in Lombok, or its Gili islands, you will appreciate how important this help is. Big or small, donations make a difference.

Update: Thousands (22,000) local residents of Lombok residents are homeless and without aid. If 1000 readers of this blog donated $10, $10,000 would be raised to provide immediate relief by those volunteers on the ground. If you can’t donate, please share the following link to your social media networks.

https://fundrazr.com/LombokEarthquake?ref=ab_3A65lLLlvoX3A65lLLlvoX

The Other Bali

It’s almost as if there are two Balis living side by side: sometimes they collide and intertwine, but most of the time, they exist in different time zones and spiritual planes. I’m always searching for the old Bali, or the other Bali, once the allure of warm swimming pools, unlimited breakfast banqueting and cheap trinkets begins to pale. The other Bali is always there: you can enter at any time just by going in the opposite direction, walking away from the tourist enclaves with their playgrounds¬†full of bling and beer. Walk in the opposite direction, down concrete lanes and into local suburbs or onto the beach before the sun worshippers arrive, or into a hidden Pura ( Hindu temple)¬† or an unassuming warung,¬† a simple tin shed right on the sand¬†for a coffee and a chat. Walking away might take you into the local Pasar (market) to buy a hand of bananas, or past a dozing grandmother, ancient, honey skinned and worn out, dressed in faded kabaya¬†and brown ikat sarong, long silver hair wrapped turban style, curled up in sleep on the front porch, or past younger women, balancing enamel trays full of¬†Canang Sari, flowers arranged in little palm leaf baskets, thoughtfully engrossed in prayer as they make their daily offerings to the gods and their ancestors. If you head to the beach at dawn in the hope of catching a glimpse of the holy mountain,¬†Gunung Agung,¬† on the horizon, you’ll find the dawn brigade, a busy uniformed crew of sweepers and cleaners, slowly but methodically removing leaves and rubbish, all signs of yesterday bagged up and taken away, the sand raked then watered down.

Boats at dawn, Sanur, Bali. 2018

This year marks an anniversary for me. I first came to Bali in 1978.¬†Over the last forty years, Bali has changed enormously, and like all change, the blessings are mixed but much of it has been beneficial to the Balinese. During the next fortnight, I hope to relate some stories in the words of the locals, mostly on the theme of tradition and change, a topic close to my heart. Chatting to the locals comes easily:¬†I’ll need a bit more bravado to seek permission for some portraits to accompany the stories.

Morning offering, canang sari, by the sea. Soon to be washed away.

Dawn, Sanur, Bali 2018