Calling all writers…UWRF 2015!

Calling all writers…or readers, poets, short story tellers, journalists, memoirists, documentarians, stand-up comedians, photographers, political activists…

Despite the creeping menace of censorship that threatened to shut down the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, the show has gone on with a few parts missing. It’s gut-wrenching to know that there is still such fear around freedom.

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

Brave soldier, Philip!!!

This year I waffled. Should I volunteer again? I’ve given time and energy to this event for the past three years. I’ve met people who have become important to me, dear friends like Philip, faithful soldier, who is back from San Diego, USA, to offer his blood, sweat, and tears for the cause.

Or…

Should I buy the 4-day pass?

Being the decisive person I am, I vacillated right up to the day before the festival. By that time it was far too late to volunteer so I had the option to buy a ticket…or not. That morning I woke up to a lecture, stern self-talk from left brain to right that went something like this: “Idiot! You call yourself a writer. Here you are, living walking distance from one of the most celebrated writers’ festivals in the world, and you’re actually wondering whether or not you should attend? What are you thinking!”

I didn’t walk, I ran to the box office as soon as it opened and bought my ticket. That very evening was a kick-off book launch at Nomad, a popular restaurant at the intersection of Jalan Raya and Gautama streets. As soon as I walked in, a glass of wine was shoved in my hand and a tray of exotic canapes held under my nose, compliments of Nomad. Stormy

The book being launched was, Stormy with a Chance of Fried Rice, in which author, Pat Walsh tells the story of his twelve months in the megacity of Jakarta where he lived while editing the painful human rights report entitled, Chega! which recounts the horrors of victims of the Suharto years in Timor-Leste.

That set the tone. This morning at 8:30, Ketut dropped me at the Neka Museum where the first session of the day was a panel discussion by four Indonesian writers.

nekaKetut is always a little shocked when we arrive at a destination and there’s nobody there. I like to be early, especially when I expect a standing-room-only crowd and want to snag a seat toward the front.  neka2As it turned out, I had my choice of seating, but within twenty minutes the shuttle buses arrived and the place was jammed with humanity.

PanelWhat followed was an hour of fascination. Two of the four authors spoke in English and the other two had interpreters. What was brought home to me with poignant clarity as I strained to understand the writers who spoke in Indonesian, was the beautiful complexity of that language. I’ve studied enough to understand most of what was said. But I was unprepared for the impact of hearing the message twice: first in the panelist’s own language, eloquently, with humor and subtle cultural nuances, then in English. Being unable to understand a speaker in his own language is like seeing the sunrise through a shaded window. Now, suddenly, the shade had been thrown open and the fullness of morning shone through.

XinranThat heady experience was followed by an interview with Xinran, the feisty Chinese woman who wrote Buy Me the Sky, a book that tells how the one-child policy in China has turned the family structure of that country upside down. As luck, or fate, may have it, the headlines this morning CHINA ABANDONS ONE-CHILD POLICY AFTER 35 YEARS appeared just hours before her interview.

The next group comprised of a journalist, an attorney, and a ‘citizen’, hashed over Jokowi’s first year as the seventh President of Indonesia. In his campaign, touted as a man for the people, he went up against the military might of Prabowo and won. But not much has changed. Does that sound familiar?

All this before lunch.

One of the problems at this festival is a mixed blessing. There are simply too many choices. I heard four of the twenty-four offerings available to me in the main program today. I could have attended six if I wanted to skip lunch and by-pass another book launch. I opted to eat. And the opportunity to learn about Indonesians who were drawn into the colonial quest for pearls from Adrian Vickers, who wrote The Pearl Frontier, seduced me. The lure of a little more wine and tasty appetizers my have had some influence on my decision to by-pass another panel discussion and go for the launch.

Early again, a friend and I settled in at The Elephant, another of Ubud’s fine eateries, and I ordered an Americano mocha. That, of course, identified me immediately as a coffee dunce. “Do you want an Americano…or a mocha,” the very respectful, very young wait person asked. I revised my order and the mocha was delicious. It’s the reason I’m still awake and able to write this post.

9780824840020Adrian Vickers mesmerized his crowd. We heard about Broome, Australia, where Asians who were indentured into the pearl trade lived and many intermarried with the aboriginal people there. The fishermen of Indonesia knew where to find the pearls, but most of the first divers  were Japanese. Later, Indonesians learned how to free-dive, braving sharks and sea snakes to plunge into the depths for the treasures at the bottom of the sea. It wasn’t the divers who got rich. Like so many other tales of Indonesia, this, too, is a story of exploitation.

I can’t believe how my horizons have been broadened, my awareness heightened, my sensitivities enhanced, my consciousness raised. Being in the presence of these brilliant minds humbles me, makes me want to be a better person. It’s heartbreak and joy all in one package, and it’s only the second day.

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Tiny Dancer

Does Dewi have an 18 year old sister!?! Grabbing my camera, I make no pretense of a polite, “May I please…!” I dash across the lawn my finger clicking shots as I go. Barely acknowledging the presence of her mother and grandfather, who are watching her in stunned silence, I ask the tiny dancer to pose. She cooperates with the poise and practiced perfection of a seasoned veteran.

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This child is five years old. She is learning the traditional Balinese dances and this is her first full regalia performance. She has already spent hours with makeup and hair, and as soon as I have the courtesy to go home, they will be off.

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Her mom tells me that Dewi sat absolutely still through it all. This child who is perpetual motion embodied, sat still? For hours? I try to visualize a Dewi at rest and it’s a stretch. But as I ask for pose after pose, she complies without protest. Here is a star in the making, a true lover of the art of dance.

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Extracting a promise that I will be invited to any such future events, I grudgingly let them go. The next day I’m given a blow-by-blow of the evening’s wild success. Dewi shows me photos on her mother’s camera. Her hands form the precise mudras that accompany complex footwork. She twirls and her beaded scarf blurs in the photo. She is a vision! And she’s only five…years…old…!!!

He said…She said…

This day began, like most in my blessed Bali life, with Ketut. He appeared punctually at 8:45 with my breakfast and the daily profusion of fresh flowers: blood-red hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, and the lovely golden throated bloom that neither of us can identify.

But today was markedly different. His appearance with food was not preceded by the call-and-response mantra between me on the balcony and him in the garden. Every day for the past three months the pleasantries of “Good morning, how are you? Good, and you? Good. How did you sleep? Good, and you? Good, thank you,” have been exchanged from my lofty perch to his earthy one, followed by:

“You want eat?”

“Yes, please, papaya, toast, tea.”

“You want now?”

“Yes, please, now.”

Nine days out of 10 I order the same breakfast. I am bored hearing myself repeat it.

So yesterday, armed with my dictionary, I said, “Ketut, breakfast is always the same. Why don’t I eat every day at 8:45 a.m. You bring papaya, toast, and tea at 8:45. Does that work?” We agreed that if I anticipated wanting a variation on the theme I would alert him the night before, otherwise he would appear at 8:45 with the usual. So there he was this morning, 8:45 on the dot, beaming.

Feeling almost giddy with a new system that seemed far superior to the old one, we chatted away as I ate. I asked him about his childhood, what did he do when he was little. He made a chopping motion with one hand and said, “For cow.” We have spent enough time with each other by now that even the most cryptic of phrases, with accompanying hand signals, is decipherable.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “You cut the food for the cows. How old?”

“Ten,” he said.

“What did you do when you were younger?”

“Play,” he said.

“What did you play?” I’ve been to his village. There are no toys, no kiddie parks, no swing sets.

“No have…” he stopped.

“No toys, no games?” I supplied the missing English words.

“Ya, no many many. Play in…” he made horizontal motions with his hands.

“Street? Yard?” I’m guessing.

“Ya,” he said.

“With other children in village?”

“Ya,” he said again. “Like this.” He pointed to the tiles on the floor of the balcony and pantomimed drawing lines. I got excited.

“Oh! You draw rooms on the ground? Pretend house?” He looked confused.

“No. Like this,” he said and began jumping from one tile to another. It was hopscotch! I leaped out of my chair bursting with laughter. “Oh! Sama-sama! In my country also!” Then we bounced around the balcony in an imaginary game of hopscotch wildly impressed with each other. After that we played jump-rope, and hide-n-seek.

These mundane occurrences are profound. They span oceans, decades, and vast cultural divides. They form a link where none exists between a 30 year old Balinese man from a remote mountain village and a 60 something woman from a place and culture he cannot even imagine. It says that maybe we are not so different after all. Once we were children. Once we played hopscotch, and hide-n-seek, and jumped rope with our little friends.

We did not intentionally pose like two peas in a pod for this photo!

We work hard to understand each other. His English is sketchy. My Indonesian is hit and miss, mostly miss. But there is a language that transcends all differences. It is blind to color, class, or creed. It is neither written nor spoken, but today we spoke it fluently. It is called childhood.

Getting What You Want

Oh sweet success! Who would imagine what a thrill breakfast could be? I’ve been here three weeks and until now the first meal of the day has been a rotation of 1) scrambled eggs, toast, strawberry jam, and fruit, 2) omelete, toast, strawberry jam, and fruit, and 3) banana pancake and fruit. I shouldn’t complain. In Minnesota I ate steel cut oats and fruit 365 days a year and loved it! But here? I was beginning to see the months stretch out in endless repetition.

My first attempt at requesting a whole papaya, cut in half, skin on, and peanut butter for my toast turned out badly. I was served my regular breakfast but the bowl that usually included watermelon, pineapple, and banana had only chunks of papaya. A bubble of desperation formed in my throat. That afternoon I went to Ganesha Bookstore and bought an Indonesian Dictionary. As soon as I got home I looked up the words for butter and peanut. Selai kecang. Good. Moving right along I found words for papaya, skin on, cut in half, etc. etc. The complex mixture of consonants and vowels were baffling and overwhelming to me. I found Ketut in the garden, and with sign language and the dictionary I tried again. The next morning the egg was absent, and the papaya appeared in quarters, peeled, on a plate this time instead of a bowl, with toast and strawberry jam. We had gotten a teeny-tiny bit closer.

About that time the afternoon meals were encountering the same issues. I realized that if I wanted to enjoy the wonderful Balinese food that I love, I needed to accelerate the learning curve. I needed flash cards! On an outing to CoCo’s Supermarket, I found wooden ice cream spoons and began writing on them the new Indonesian words and phrases I was learning. Then I practiced, and practiced, and forced my atrophying brain to simply memorize all those unfamiliar sounds.

Studying my flash sticks.

Fortunately, Ketut is a willing tutor. Each morning I tried out my emerging language skills on his Balinese ears and noted the subtle corrections he made in my pronunciation. Sometimes he had to look at the Indonesian word I’d written to understand my version of it! Take for instance, peanut butter. I was pronouncing it see-lie ke-kang. The correct sounds are seh-lay ke-chang. No wonder it had not shown up with the toast! But I’m slowly making progress and he is getting steadily more adept at interpreting my pantomimes. Then this morning his patience and my persistence finally paid off!

Half a papaya with skin and toast with peanut butter!

Bliss! You cannot imagine my excitement and the expressions of gratitude I showered on poor Ketut in English and Indonesian and probably a little leftover Spanish that still hangs out in my memory banks. After I finished the delightful and long awaited breakfast I scurried off to CoCo’s Supermarket and snatched up four more packages of wooden ice cream spoons. Getting what you want, especially when it’s food, is a powerful motivator. Wasn’t it Pavlov…?

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