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Christmas Eve -- Bali-style

Like every other Asian resort locale catering to Westerners, Bali really gears up for big dinners on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Almost every hotel lays on a special buffet dinner with Balinese entertainment to mark these occasions. I’m actually amazed that there are enough dancers and musicians to staff them all on the same night, but in fact virtually all Balinese do some sort of art or performing in their spare time, and traditional dancing is a favorite pastime.

We’re not really into big faux-parties, but we did have to eat. Plus we thought a dinner-dance would be a way to sneak in the “c” word (shhh! It’s “culture”!) without the kids realizing it. Bali features about half a dozen major story-dances, and we didn’t want to leave without getting a taste of some of them. Besides hotels, the only other way to see them is to find out which village is holding a special festival that day, then drive deep into the countryside to take in the shows, which always start very late at night. Under the circumstances, the hotel option stacked up okay.

Besides all that, our hotel, like most others in Sanur, automatically charges for New Year’s Eve dinner for all guests booked into the resort over the holiday. Knowing we were committed to the Puri Santrian for New Year’s, we sought a non-hotel venue for our Christmas feast.

Sharon consulted our Lonely Planet guidebook and found a listing for a local restaurant called "The Agung and Sue Watering Hole," at the north end of Sanur beach. LP said that it was noted for its excellent Thursday night legong dance performances and was a favorite hang-out for dance-appreciating locals. When Sharon called, she learned that the week’s performance had been shifted to Friday for Christmas Eve, when a special meal would also be served. Sounded good. And the price – about $4 per person, compared to the $60 per person we’d be paying for the hotel’s New Year’s shindig - was a total bargain. We booked right away, and they said they would send a car to our hotel to pick us up – free of charge. Nice touch!

Turned out that the restaurant was lucky we hadn’t checked it out in person. We arrived to find that the place was indistinguishable from the multitude of similar joints along the road, complete with tattered laminated menus, cheap glass-covered tables and rickety bamboo chairs. Passing by, we wouldn’t have given it a second look.

Not only that, but we were the only people there. And the entertainment was scheduled to start – NOW! Where was everybody else? Other Christmas celebrators? The music-loving locals? Anybody?

All four of us grownups started exchanging glances, speaking the universal, silent language of “Should we bail?” But before we could beat a retreat, a smiling young woman was escorting us to a table that had obviously been specially set for our party of seven. Several other staffers quickly placed menus in our hands and welcome drinks on the table as our hostess walked proudly along the buffet table to show us the whole spread.

Tons of food here. All painstakingly prepared, ready to eat, with beautiful decorations adorning the table.

We felt like if we left, we would blow their whole night – and then the kids spied the big platter of chicken satay on the buffet. We were committed. “It’s okay,” Sharon whispered. “It’s so cheap that if we hate it we can always get something to eat later and still come out ahead!”

We toasted the evening with our rum-laced welcome drinks (no rum for the kiddies, of course) and let the night flow where it would:

Just as we were enjoying our chicken soup first course, the warm-up act took the stage.

Our intitial surprise quickly turned to disappointment, then into an endurance feat to see if we could outlast this act and wait for the dancing to begin! Far from offering a traditional introduction to the legong dance to follow, the act was a five-man rock band (lead singer, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums) made up of high school kids playing covers of John Denver songs at half-speed (with an occasional Santana tune thrown in). They sang with thick Indonesian accents, obviously phoneticizing the lyrics without understanding them, and, in true garage band tradition, turned up their amps up to an ear-splitting howl. By this time, two other couples had wandered in, so at least we weren’t suffering alone.

By mid-set, we had all stuffed ourselves with nasi goring, gado gado, and stick after stick of satay, and figured that we’d just leave before the dancing using the excuse (not far from the truth) that the kids were tired. (Tired of the music, if you want to know!) But just as we were on the verge of leaving, silence mercifully fell. We applauded the band’s departure heartily – but not so much as to encourage an encore. Politeness only goes so far.

The manager announced that the dancers would be out shortly – and minutes later, the lights were adjusted, recorded music went on, and two young girls came out in elaborate costumes and make-up to begin the traditional welcome dance.

We may have been expecting a glitzy floor show type of thing, but this turned out to be much simpler and somehow much more compelling. For one thing, these dancers were not professionals, but students from a local dance studio and their teachers. They were all excellent, and their age was also appropriate, since the welcome and legong dances are traditionally performed by very young girls. Having kids on stage was, of course, more interesting to the kids in the audience as well.

The low light made it challenging to convey the beauty of the costumes, so Sharon took just a few photos of the welcome dance before settling back to enjoy the hypnotic gamelan music and to watch the tiny but precise movements of fingers and toes as the girls swept around the stage.

For the final dance, the lights were turned up a bit, so we got a few recognizable shots of the barong – a mythical creature that despite his unusual visage is actually good-hearted. This one had us all laughing with his movements; we may not have known the particular story he was acting out but it was very apparent when he was pretending, unsuccessfully, to fight something, and then repeatedly befuddled by his opponent.

His costume was really amazing, as were his movements: in Hollywood it might be described as Bali meets Frankenstein, doing slo-mo hip-hop. You had to be there to appreciate it!

At the end of the dancing, the girls came off the stage and tucked a flower behind each guest’s ear. We took a lot of photos of them, wanting to show our appreciation of their talent.

When we asked the hostess where we could get a cab to return to the Puri Santrian, she looked surprised and said, “Of course, we will take you back!” And of course they didn’t charge us for the return trip, either.

Not at all what we had expected, but definitely a Christmas Eve to remember!

Next: Bali's real animals!


Bali chapter shortcuts: Intro Xmas Eve Zoo Temple Market Balinese Beauty Tsunami
Batik Monkeys Rafting New Year's Biking Elephants Sea Sports Cremation Dress Up Missing!

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