How do you eat an elephant?

First, the universe. Then, a galaxy. Within that galaxy, a solar system. Balanced in orbit, three planets away from the sun of that system: Earth. The northern and southern hemispheres. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Five degrees south of the Equator, the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. One of those: Bali. A dot a little off center on the map: Ubud.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

I wrote a mini Michener-esque intro to this post because it needed that perspective.

Jules Verne authored, Around the World in Eighty Days. There were very few books that captured my interest in the tiny library at Central School in northern Minnesota, where I attended grades K – 6.  By the time I was seven, I had blown through most of what those shelves had to offer, The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Races, The Black Stallion and Flame, Sue Barton Student Nurse, and the like. I was hungry for some unnamed thing that was missing from my literary diet. So I browsed the stacks for thick bindings with frayed, cloth edges, hoping to find treasure. I discovered Jules Verne. My eyes were opened to LITERATURE. There was no going back.

Then I grew up and forgot what I loved.

Decades later, Bali lured me. The village of Ubud, bursting with life, felt right to my remembering self. Nobody told me I had found my way to the home of the largest annual literary event in Asia.

The Ubud Writers’ and Readers Festival has taken me around the world in five days. Two-hundred-thirty-five writers from thirty countries came, by invitation only, to present at this festival. Thirteen were from the U.S. Thousands of volunteers, worldwide, applied, were screened, and a few hundred were accepted. Can you imagine the cultural differences? The diverse belief systems? The political prejudices represented by so vast a gathering? But all came, peacefully, joyfully, for the love of words. They spoke their truths and were heard.

As one of the volunteers, the immense privilege I enjoyed simply by my birthright as a U.S., English speaking, citizen was drilled home at the closing ceremony last night. Three of my Indonesian teammates approached me, huge smiles, radiating sheer goodness. They thanked me repeatedly and wanted to have photos taken with me. It was a joyous moment. Then one of the group said something to his friend in Indonesian. The most authoritative of the three reprimanded him, “Speak English when we are with Sherry,” he said.

I choked on that bite of the elephant.

Privilege rose up and swallowed my heart. I am in Indonesia, but the entire festival was conducted in English. There were translators who turned every native tongue into my language. The volunteers must speak English. The local Balinese patrons and sponsors, who contribute generously to this event, are not all fluent in English. Much of the rich content of the festival was lost for them.

So I sit here with the elephant of entitlement facing me, and I bow in humility to that elephant. It is with me wherever I go, simply because I was born white, in America.

Balinese man reading the Festival Program

Man Reading the Festival Program Photo by Muda Sagala

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. sageblessings
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 11:36:41

    Humility and gratitude. I feel it also…daily. The event sounds wonderful; so glad you could participate.

    Like

    Reply

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