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Deasy and the Deities at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud

12 September 2018

“Growing up in Bali males were defined as leaders,” explained Deasy. “Overall it’s still a bit of a struggle for women as people still hold onto this concept.”

It’s still early in the day when I first meet the general manager of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, Deasy Swandarini. There’s a sleepy peacefulness radiating from the guest rooms but it’s clear her staff have been busy for a while. Towering Balinese prayer flags and local parasols in shades of saffron and gold are being placed at one of the property’s temples, in preparation for a local festival. Hidden away next to the lobby a dozen members of her team are practicing a traditional dance they’ll share with guests at a ceremony. Deasy eagerly pulls me along to see them, beaming like a matron. She would normally be by their side, and will be come showtime, but for now she’s just excited to share this slice of her culture.

We walk through the property past an impressive collection of local sculptures, from jovial elephants performing music to elephants carved into a lofty Balinese gate. Ganesha, the elephant god from Hinduism, is clearly omnipresent throughout the grounds. Even the resort’s name, Tanah Gajah, is connected to the deity.

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Every year, Deasy and the staff pray together with members of the local community, including the village chief, in a ceremony known as Tumpak Landep, a ceremony the Balinese hope will bring them luck and keep them safe in traffic.

When renowned Indonesian architect Hendra Hadiprana created the site as a family retreat in the 1980s he chose the name due to the proximity to Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) sanctuary, an ancient cave temple dedicated to the god. Although the property has now shed its homey roots, I’m reminded of this fact as I chat with Deasy. She’s got this warm smile the Balinese are known for, this air about her that’s instantly disarming, and from our first encounter I felt she was welcoming me into her own home, not a resort.

We take a seat at The Restaurant and as we look over the island’s renowned emerald green rice paddies, she shares her story.

Deasy grew up on the island spending most of her life, and all of her hospitality career, between its numerous tourist hotspots. Raised in the south of the island near Kuta, known for its surf and nightlife, and Seminyak, associated with high-end resorts and dining, the Bali-native had a traditional upbringing, growing up in a family compound.

Multiple relatives shared the same walled space and although there were seperate sleeping areas, facilities were collective. Life was tight knit and, especially at that time, there were a lot of family members sharing the same plot. This was back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when it was the norm to have a large family. Having eight to ten children was the average, and Deasy’s mother was number two of nine siblings.

In Balinese culture the wife normally moves in with her husband’s side of the family, but as Deasy’s parents separated when she was young, she lived with her mother’s side, growing up surrounded by a slew of aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as her mother and stepfather, and her two half sisters and half brother.

Deasy was exposed to the tourism industry from a young age. Her mum worked in hospitality, taking on various roles at hotels over the years from guest relations to event coordination. It seemed only natural that she’d be working in hotels too. She toyed briefly with the idea of a more scientific career, choosing to specialize in physics in senior high school, but realized hospitality was more her thing.

So in the ‘90s Deasy left her hometown for Jakarta to study at hospitality college and improve her English. After graduating in 1996 she took a position on the pre-opening team at Ritz-Carlton Bali. Just 21 years old when she joined, she was young, excited and determined to give her best, and she did for ten years. Deasy recalls this time in her life as her real hospitality training and what she learned there has informed who she is as a professional today.

Her siblings, for the most part, also followed suit and entered the industry. Her half-brother works in revenue management for a large hotel chain and one of her half-sisters is a wedding planner at another hotel in Bali. Only one sibling chose a different path, opting for medicine over management.

After a decade with Ritz-Carlton Deasy stepped into her first GM role. It was 2006 and the upper ranks at hotels were still male-dominated, and mainly by expat males. Even now with, an increasing number of women in management roles, Deasy tells me that people are still sometimes surprised she’s a GM.

“Growing up in Bali males were defined as leaders,” explained Deasy. “Overall it’s still a bit of a struggle for women as people still hold onto this concept.”

In spite of this Deasy has managed to work her way up the corporate ladder. Her first general manager role was at the Kayumanis Private Villas and Spa, a boutique resort in Nusa Dua, where she led the team for five years. More recently she’s held general manager positions at The Royal Santrian Luxury Beach Villas and Kamandalu Ubud, two upscale local properties. Her latest undertaking at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah is her first time in a general manager role for an international brand and it’s the first time the management company, GHM, has appointed a local female general manager to the property.

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On a regular basis, Deasy gets hands-on with the staff as a way to improve operational efficiency. Here, she checks on table settings in a restaurant that drinks in a view of Bali’s iconic rice fields.

“It’s all new, having a local lead a property,” said Deasy, smiling. “And I think we’re having really  positive outcomes. Staff are happy that someone who understands their culture is leading them and guests also are relieved by this.”

It seems fitting that The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, a resort with so many references to a deity known for helping believers overcome obstacles, is now led by a woman who has managed to break the glass ceiling.

It’s through Deasy’s understanding of the local culture, and through her own family, that she realizes the importance of finding balance between work and community commitments. Her team at the property have many obligations from family meetings and gatherings to local community events and religious ceremonies. And although these days many Balinese may be having smaller families and living away from the traditional shared compound style, the pressure from the local village remains.

“When the staff take a holiday it’s not really a holiday. They’re going back to their village to meet family commitments,” explained Deasy. “When managing the staff I have to help them retain a balance between work commitments and local committee, and village commitments.”

Deasy herself, who has opted for a more western-style living arrangement, is still incredibly close to her family, catching up with them in person every week. The devotion to family is deeply ingrained in the culture here. Deasy not only gets that. She lives it.

With three grown children of her own she has had to work hard to achieve her own balance, and credits her very supportive family for being able to do so. Her daughter is now living and studying in Australia and while she may not be following her mother into the industry it’s clear Deasy’s imparted some of her eagerness and drive on her eldest. She mentions that her daughter plans to start her own business either there or back in Bali. Deasy also has twin boys, who are now seventeen, and one already has plans to study abroad.

That evening, I meet Deasy again at the resort’s amphitheatre where villagers from a nearby setting are about to initiate a Kecak dance. It’s after dusk and bowls of fire cast eerie shadows over a temple dominated by two soaring columns of stacked elephants. Dozens of dancers emerge onto the theatres apron, chanting, and I have that feeling again, of not so much being at a hotel that’s borne of some far-flung financial initiative, but something organic and local. I glance at Deasy, for whom a ceremony like this is all but part of her DNA, and I feel like I’m in the grip of an authentic experience, something so many of us strive for when we travel.

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The Kecak dance interprets scenes from the Ramayana on the grounds of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud every Tuesday and Friday at 7pm.

My glance catches Deasy. She smiles, as if she is with me in my thinking, and then then she raises her forearms, ever so gently, flutters her fingers in mimicry of the dancers on stage, and she sounds the chant, just a couple beats by a woman who has gone so far and come home again.


Text by Karryn Miller for GHM Journeys and photographs courtesy of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah.
Featured image: In January of 2018, Deasy and the kitchen crew hosted the first of three black tie wine dinners scheduled for the year.

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Deasy and the Deities at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud
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It was the first meet with the general manager of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, Deasy Swandarini. They take a seat at The Restaurant and as they look over the island’s renowned emerald green rice paddies, Deasy shares her story.
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