Cultures collide at a Russian wedding in Bali
IT is a steamy night and I’ve fled the tourist hordes in east Bali to stay at Puri Anyar, the 17thcentury ancestral palace compound of a once-noble family. My host is Anak Agung Ngurah Oka Silagunada (Oka for short, thankfully).
So far this trip, I am surprised to find Russians outnumbering other tourists (I have dodged the Australian colony of Kuta).
I have come across Russians basting in the sun, arguing in five languages about the price of a tattoo, and gazing mesmerised at televisions showing blizzards and snowdrifts back home. Now I find myself gatecrashing a traditional Balinese wedding reception for a handsome young Russian couple.
I’m not really gatecrashing. I have been invited by Oka to attend the celebrations for travel agent Daniel and his bride, Katarina. But my presence is probably news to the bridal party.
A gamelan orchestra strikes up and Daniel and Katarina emerge, glittering in borrowed finery. They look gorgeous. It’s hard to discern where the bride’s fair hair ends and her golden headdress begins.
We take our seats at tables on a pavilion, facing the musicians. Festive food is served to us on raised plates carved out of wood, traditionally the preserve of nobility. If Yelena, Katarina’s impossibly young-looking mother, is surprised to find herself sitting next to an Australian stranger, she gives no sign of it. She is jetlagged after the long trip from Moscow and I’m probably just one surreal element among many.
Ever since Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall had a Balinese Hindu wedding ceremony in 1990, tourist nuptials have been big business here. When they split, Jagger claimed the ceremony was only a religious one, and hence not legal. (Locals who’d been sceptical of his claim to have converted to Hinduism felt justified.)
Oka tells me this is not a real wedding ceremony, just a reception. It’s important to him to feel that he is not commercialising the Balinese religion.
Anna, the matron of honour, translates Oka’s fluent English for the others. Daniel speaks Russian and Indonesian, while I speak a bit of Indonesian. We muddle through, except when I try out some Russian phrases on Yelena. Anna patiently explains: ‘ ‘ She doesn’t speak English.’’ So, obviously, my Russian is hopeless.
After a polite interval, the Russians ask if they can break out their alcohol. Vodka for the gentlemen, Irish whiskey for the ladies. I am still adjusting to the heat and the thought of fiery spirits is abominable. I stick to water.
The toasts and long speeches begin, each ending with cries of ‘‘Gorko!’’, a cue for the groom to kiss the bride. Anna explains that this traditional Russian wedding toast means bitter, to be assuaged by the sweetness of the kiss. Yelena, a single mother, makes a heartfelt speech and cries a little. I feel like crying too.
Before we leave the pavilion to watch the evening’s entertainment of traditional dance, Katarina gets ready to toss her bridal bouquet. Yelena and the maid of honour line up to catch it, each aspiring to be the next to get married. Western and Eastern traditions clash somewhat when the lilies bounce off the elaborate headdress. A second attempt sees the bridesmaid triumphant.
To join this tiny scrum would be to push the bounds of hospitality. I feel privileged enough, enjoying the simultaneous celebrations of two cultures. The pleasures of watching talented dancers, and of seeing the newlyweds take off in a gilded horsedrawn carriage, are yet to come.