Benny Rachmadi and Muhammad Misrad pose against the colorful backdrop of the enlarged cover of their new book Benny and Mice: Lost in Bali. (JP/I Wayan Juniartha)
Two of the country's most popular cartoonists decided one day to travel to Bali and get themselves lost in the resort island for about a week.
It was a simple plan with hilarious results.
"It was kind of being lost in a productive way," Benny Rachmadi said.
The results were a cartoon book on Bali, an exhibition featuring the cartoons inspired by the brief sojourn and, Rachmadi gleefully admitted, an expanded understanding about Bali.
"Things that are considered inappropriate in other regions in Indonesia turn out to be appropriate and acceptable here in Bali," he said.
Funny as he was, Rachmadi was certainly not referring to anything particularly profound or significant with that statement.
"Here, in Legian and Kuta, a Western woman can ride a motorbike wearing nothing but a skimpy bikini. This scene does not trigger a public outcry. Imagine if she did that in Jakarta," he said.
Things that are not particularly profound but are definitely hilarious form the primary theme in the cartoon book Benny and Mice: Lost in Bali and exhibition of the same name that opened last Saturday at the Indonesia Cartoon Museum in Kuta.
The book was written, well, drawn by Rachmadi and his equally funny albeit slightly smaller colleague Muhammad Misrad. The two cartoonists gained nationwide popularity after their collective creation -- a comic strip featuring Benny and Mice -- became a permanent feature in the Sunday edition of the country's largest daily Kompas.
The comic strip features two main characters Benny and Mice, who are surprisingly more the alter egos of the two cartoonists than fictitious characters. Benny is tall, slender, soft-spoken and a bit shy, not unlike Rachmadi, whereas Mice has straight hair and an infectious smile and laughter, and is adventurous and quite friendly, a true projection of Misrad.
"We want to make fun of others through ourselves. Benny and Mice are the medium through which we manifest various attitudes, behaviors, trends and situations that should be laughed at," Misrad said.
Prominent Balinese art connoisseur Agung Rai, who launched the book and opened the exhibition, praised the two cartoonists for their ability to capture the funny side of Bali, the Balinese and foreign tourists.
"Bali is the melting pot of various world cultures. It is an island of multiculturalism. Benny and Mice have been able to capture the unique character of this island and its people. Sometimes their treatment is a bit cynical, but their work never fails to trigger a wide smile or spontaneous laughter," he said.
Rai wasn't exaggerating. As he inspected the 38 cartoons on display in the exhibition, he repeatedly burst into laughter.
The materials for the book, Rachmadi said, were compiled during their weeklong vacation in Bali in October.
In one cartoon, the book’s authors identify the common characteristics of Western backpackers, including their tendency to wear fake Oakley sunglasses. (JP/I Wayan Juniartha)
"We have published many cartoon books on various aspects of Jakarta and its residents. Some of our fans asked us to send Benny and Mice to other regions in the country. Our publisher agreed with that idea, so they dispatched us to the Island of the Gods," Rachmadi said.
It was their fourth visit to Bali but both agreed to treat it as their first.
"Our approach was very simple. We visited the island as if we were both newcomers. We deliberately positioned ourselves as a couple of naive, unrefined rural folks who were visiting the metropolis for the first time. By doing so, we could experience the culture shocks that Bali, Balinese people and the gigantic tourism industry deal to newcomers," Misrad said.
The two employed a similar approach in their previous projects focusing on Jakarta and its different brand of modernity, the kind of modernity that, in the words of Rachmadi, "could purchase a state-of-the art cellular phone but hasn't the faintest idea how to operate it".
This approach bears traces of Lat (Mohamed Nor Khalid) influences. The prominent Malaysian cartoonist, whose book Kampung Boy sold more than 100,000 copies, is Rachmadi's and Misrad's favorite cartoonist.
To make the approach more authentic, they arrived in Bali with a very low budget, although both refused to reveal the exact amount of money they set aside for the trip.
"Our budget was so low that we couldn't afford to have that mouth-watering seafood dinner in Jimbaran," Rachmadi said.
"We couldn't even afford the grilled corn on the cob sold by a street vendor on Jimbaran beach, let alone the soft lobster offered by beachside seafood restaurants," Misrad added.
That bitter experience apparently left a deep scar on their aesthetic subconscious, shown through the exorbitant prices for food in Jimbaran that feature prominently in their book.
During that seven-day tour de Bali, Rachmadi and Misrad visited several famous spots in the island, from Uluwatu in the south to Bedugul in the north, from the crowded Kuta beach and Legian streets to the less crowded but no longer tranquil Ubud.
Along the way, they acquainted themselves with foreign tourists, Balinese, the monkey tribes of Uluwatu and Alas Kedaton, a seller of the cheap nasi jango in Denpasar and attendants at a Kuta souvenir shop who were friendlier toward foreigners than to their fellow Indonesians.
Yet they also had a chance to experience true Balinese hospitality offered by their drivers, Putu and Ketut, from whom Rachmadi and Misrad learned various mundane and mystical aspects of Balinese Hinduism.
After the end of the vacation, Rachmadi and Misrad spent five weeks creating the book. They shared ideas, discussed angles and argued over the focus of each page of the book. Yet never did an argument escalate into an emotional and abusive burst of outrage.
"We have never been mad at each other. We have been friends for 20 years so I think we have gone beyond the point of intending to hurt each other. To be honest, I am fed up with him," Misrad said.
"The feeling is mutual here," Rachmadi retorted.
The two cartoonists, like their alter egos Benny and Mice, have reached the stage where they can operate as a single entity. Rachmadi produced half of the book and Misrad worked on the rest. Both created drawings that were perfectly similar in every respect.
"Even Benny's wife couldn't differentiate which page was drawn by Benny and which one was by me," Misrad said.
Benny and Mice: Lost in Bali is the duo's 13th cartoon book and will definitely not be their last.
"Lost in Bali is an ongoing project. There are still many ideas swirling around in our heads, hopefully Lost in Bali Part Two will be published soon," Misrad added.
The work in Benny and Mice: Lost in Bali is clearly a collection of fragmented events, anecdotal conclusions and, to some extent, overgeneralizations that barely scratch the surface of the island's sociological and cultural dynamics.
The work is not as deep or poignant as the work of some of the island's best cartoonists, such as the work of Jango Paramartha that captures the ongoing battle between the island's frail culture and values against the onslaught of modern tourism and the machinery of global capital.
Yet, given the brief observation period and the very low "research" budget, Rachmadi and Misrad have produced an outstanding piece of humor about the island that more often than not has been taken far too seriously by the outside world, and by the Balinese themselves.
Benny and Mice: Lost in Bali
Dec. 13-31, 2008
Indonesia Cartoon Museum
Jl. Sunset Road, Kuta