Peter Nelson’s travels – Wayang Kulit

by Peter Nelson

Bali is separated from Australia by only a narrow strait, so whenever an Aussie wants a quick exotic holiday, he just zips across the water to Denpasar.  As in every other lovely tropical destination which unfortunately happens to be a handy place for foreigners to visit, Denpasar quickly became the Tiajuana of Indonesia.  Prices go up, the local kids become hustlers, and the proud tradition of age-old cultures often becomes something to imitate and market to tourists in the street right outside your hotel.

Sad, but true.  The only way to avoid this is to avoid other foreign travelers — at least the well-dressed ones.  Avoid the places they frequent, avoid the tours they take, avoid the places they eat.  And while you’re skulking around on the by-ways, not the high-ways, if you’re lucky, as we often seemed to be, you’ll stumble across some incredible experiences.  Like this one:

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One evening, we saw a small tent on the outskirts of town that seemed to be attracting some Balinese.  Soft hypnotic music and trails of incense wafted out its small opening.  What was happening?  We ducked inside.

Backlit by a flickering oil lamp, using two-dimensional puppets covered with buffalo-skin, the puppet-master of the wayang kulit manipulates his animated silhouettes through tales of Balinese myth and history.  Battles are lost and won, lovers separate and reunite — using only long sticks attached to the puppets’ heads and hands, the dalang tells his very dramatic story, with passion, with violence, with heartbreak, with redemption.  The audience is mesmerized.

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Wasn’t that hard to walk out of Denpasar.  It was nice to look at the green fields and hills.  But the rainy season was approaching, so you always had to carry wet-weather gear and be ready to run for shelter.

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Market day was a riot of color and noise.  Great bargains to be had.  How many people do you see wearing pants?