Ignorance Is Not Bliss

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I didn’t cry right away.

My expectations for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2017 were low. It would be my sixth year attending this epic literary event in the town in Bali where I live. Perhaps it was due to the volatile shaking of Mt. Agung threatening to erupt just fifteen miles away. Perhaps it was because my friend and fellow writer, Carol died two months ago. Her wry humor and cynical critiques wouldn’t be part of my Festival experience this year. Whatever the reason, I approached the first day’s events with little more than casual interest.

As always happens, two minutes into the program I was hooked. An Indonesian woman, Nh. Dini, now in her 80’s, but with more attitude and spunk than anyone half her age, traced her colorful life from flight attendant to environmentalist to her courageous and ongoing battle against gender discrimination. When told that her bold opinions might get her arrested, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t care,” she said.

Ms. Dini was followed by anthropologist, Nigel Barley, who mixed fact and fantasy to write, Snow Over Surabaya, a historical novel about Surabaya Sue, best remembered for her work as a radio broadcaster for the Indonesian Republic during the struggle for independence. Sue was somewhat of an embarrassment to the Indonesians, it seems, with her love of attention and her unorthodox lifestyle.

The discussions had me entranced, but not tearful.

After Nigel, a panel of expatriate authors pondered how we relate to the places we leave behind when we relocate and re-imagine our lives. Their thought-provoking questions echoed my own as they talked about the widening gaps in frame of reference the longer we’re away from our places of origin.

It was approaching 1:00 p.m. Although still dry-eyed, my stomach growled ominously. A break for lunch does not exist at the Festival, but the food court wafted mouth-watering aromas across a section of parking lot where tables topped with red and white checked cloths waited for the catch-when-catch-can, hungry crowd.

These food vendors knew how to entice. Their exotic dishes rendered to perfection sat on display. I drooled over them all and finally pounced on terong ayam, a spicy dish of chopped chilies (lots and lots of chopped chilies) with bits of chicken and other vegetables. At another booth I added a springroll with tamarind sauce and stuffed tofu, then grabbed a latte to make sure I stayed alert for what was still ahead.

Tummy full and happy, I rushed to the next venue and settled in for charismatic Robert Dessaix as he bantered with the moderator over The Pleasures of Leisure, his devilishly humorous take on a stressed-out, overworked world. He asked us to consider how taking leisure seriously could give us back our freedom and deepen our experience as humans. I thought of my daughters, the toll of working too long, too hard, and their complaint that there’s not enough time to create the kind of lives they really want. I thought of myself doing the same until age 62 when I finally quit the rat-race and embraced my current life of focused idleness.

Over four days, I attended nineteen panels, two book launches, and one documentary film. The experience of this Festival, as one friend put it, is like gulping intellectual stimulation from a fire hose. Concerns from every corner of the globe, political, environmental, ethical, social, literary, journalistic and more, are raised, debated, and explored by the people who are living the issues.

For the first three days I was entertained, shocked, and enlightened. But day four infused me with agitated inspiration. Each presenter was more passionate about their work, and more driven to make positive change than the one before.

And then Nila Tanzil took the mic. The tears began. I can’t even write this without crying.

A forty-something fire-ball, Nila looked seventeen. Her corporate career was humming along, propelling her to the top of her game when she heard a statistic: her country of Indonesia had the second lowest literacy rate in the world. She was horrified.

The fact that Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands, and villagers in remote areas have limited electricity, or none, and no running water, suggests that education and books are not uppermost in their minds. Nila went to those villages and asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had two answers: teacher, and priest. Those were the only occupations besides farmer or fisherman that existed for them.

Determined to make a difference, Nila personally funded a library in one of those remote areas. She was told by the villagers that they wouldn’t go into official buildings. They felt they had to bathe, put on their best clothes, and wear shoes to enter such important places. Adding a library to a school wasn’t the answer either. Schools were often a distance away and school libraries usually consisted of textbooks. They were synonymous with pekerja rumah, aka homework; not where kids tended to hang out.

Nila wanted books to be accessible after school, on weekends, whenever children had time to read. She approached individuals in the village and gained their cooperation. Her first libraries occupied a corner of someone’s home or shop and contained about 200 books. Every few months the books were rotated providing a fresh supply of reading material.

At some point she quit her corporate job and formed Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Garden) a non-profit that has, to date, established 63 libraries on 15 islands in Eastern Indonesia with more on the way.

I’d just sat through hours of talks about things that won’t change in Indonesia, or the world, unless people change. And people won’t change unless they have knowledge. Knowledge is obtained by access to information through reading, yet vast areas of the country still have no books.

What Nila is doing will alter the face of Indonesia. It may not be this year, or next year, but it will happen. The need for more books, and more libraries, in more villages is beyond imagining.

I found Nila afterwards, thanked her, and told her I wasn’t a professional fund raiser and I wasn’t rich, but what she was doing resonated deeply in me and I wanted to help.

This blog post is my first step. Below are links to the Taman Bacaan Pelangi website, Nila’s TED Talk, and her personal website. There are clips to watch of the kids she’s helping. Her voluntourism company, TravelSparks, invites travelers to spend a bit of their vacation volunteering at one or more of the libraries. She’ll arrange everything.

You can’t come to Indonesia without feeling something. For me, it was love at first sight. But the problems are glaring and the elite have intentionally kept the masses uneducated. I believe that time is ending because people like Nila see a different future. I’m crying again.

Take a look at the links. If you feel inspired to contribute something, a bookshelf, books, cash, please DO IT. I’ve never felt compelled to help like this before and I hope to learn how to do it better. But for now, thank you for reading.

NILA’S FESTIVAL VIDEO     (Yes, I cried through this, too!)

WEBSITE

TED TALK

NILA TANZIL

DONATE

Some things are so easy…some aren’t.

For instance, shopping is easy. Ketut and Wayan do it for me at the traditional market every  morning. Laundry is easy. I put it in a bag and it comes back clean and ironed, even the washclothes! Cooking: I don’t have to if I don’t want to. Cleaning is done for me. You could say I’m spoiled rotten, and you’d be right. But it is Indonesian law for ex-pats living here. We must employ at least one local person full time as domestic help.

Getting around is easy. I’m within walking distance of everything I need or want: Angelos Shop where I buy all-natural lotions and body creams; Bali Buda Bakery for the best sourdough bread you’ve ever tasted (get there before 10 a.m. because they sell out); Eve’s Spa for pedicures; (Wayan from Angga Sarira Spa comes here with her magic hands for my massages); El Mexicano for killer nachoes; Mama Mia’s for homemade limoncello; and Rai Pasti Tailor for exquisite new clothes.  I walk to writers’ group meetings once a week. It’s about three miles round trip and there’s a wicked hill, but the aerobic workout keeps my heart beating. When something sends me further afield I have the back of Ketut’s motorbike. In a downpour I go with Kadek by car, or stay home.

Writing is easy. There’s inspiration and support all around me. Ubud Writers Festival is a yearly event that brings authors from many countries to our little hamlet. It’s five days of full-on festivities for all who love words: readers, writers, speakers, and listeners. And it’s a phenomenal opportunity for volunteers who are given a pass to the main events for helping out. I did that for my first three years here and met people from all over the world who had also donated their time. And then there are my friends in the writers’ group. Much more than just my writing has benefited from those relationships.

But the things that aren’t so easy? They’re like my shadow side, the part that challenges and keeps life interesting. Yesterday, for instance, I made a trip to Denpasar, Bali’s capital city, for an eye test. My problem wasn’t vision. I needed the test in order to renew my Minnesota Drivers License. There are scores of little shops in Ubud that test visual acuity, the exam that determines how close you are to 20/20. But to satisfy the State of Minnesota, I also needed a peripheral vision test. The locals I asked looked at me like I’d suggested they rob a bank. “Cannot! Not in Bali. Maybe Jakarta.”

I wrote a nice letter to the head of the Department of Motor Vehicles relating my dilemma. They gave me an extra six months to complete the test. Six months later I got the warning email. If I didn’t submit results of my peripheral vision test by August 3, my license would be cancelled. What to do? Make a special trip back to the States for an eye test? That’s one expensive exam! Let my license lapse? After all, I don’t drive in Bali, but I do want the option when I’m in the U.S.

On a visit to Dr. Krishna at Ubud Care Clinic for a routine check-up, I mentioned in passing my distress at not being able to get the necessary eye test. “Oh Ibu! There is such a machine. But the only one in Bali is at Sanglah, the teaching hospital in Denpasar. I think you must go there.”

“Really? Are you sure it measures peripheral vision? Nobody else knows it’s there.” He looked mildly offended but assured me that indeed it existed. I called Sanglah Hospital as soon as I got home and he was right. I didn’t need an appointment but could come on Monday between 8 a.m. and noon for an exam. “The eye clinic is in the Amertha Wing,” she said. “You can go directly there.”

At 7:30 Monday morning Ketut saddled up the motorbike and I climbed on behind him. At 8:45 we arrived but we weren’t the first.

mmBless Ketut. Really. He’d been to Sanglah before when his cousin broke her leg and knew the drill. If we wanted to use my Indonesian insurance we would have to take a number. I told him it was just a small exam and I would pay. But Ketut is frugal. “Wait a moment,” he said, and darted between the masses of bodies.

I had a chance to look around the lobby. People waited in lines that snaked to a bank of small windows. Others sat in the few chairs, on the floor, or stood leaning against walls. Several people lay on gurneys. They were attended by family members and appeared very ill. I began to wish I was wearing a surgical mask. It was a space that very closely resembled the parking lot, but bodies had replaced motorbikes.

Ketut was back. “Must use that window,” he said. We joined the outskirts of a ragged throng. After standing there for about 3 1/2 minutes, he looked at my number and looked at the much lower numbers of the people around us. “Maybe not use insurance. Maybe pay private. A little more quick.”

“Great idea,” I said and we beat it outside into the sunshine. A request for directions to Amertha Wing took us ambling across the hospital campus to a cluster of buildings on the far side. While we walked I asked Ketut about people who came in an ambulance and had an emergency. Did they, too, have to take a number and wait? He reassured me that was different. Those people went to a special place. I’d noticed as we’d exited that forlorn lobby, an ambulance had pulled up and hospital attendants had extracted a woman on a stretcher. I wondered if Ketut had told me the truth or what he thought I needed to hear. I decided not to ask.

The Amertha Wing was far less populated. People looked prosperous and healthy with the exception of one child whose oozing red eyeball made my stomach lurch. The number on the desk counter said 20. Ketut pulled a ticket. It was 21. I did a happy dance.

It still took a good while to gain access to the doctor, but when I did, he studied my Minnesota Drivers License Renewal form for a long time. I told him all I needed was the peripheral vision test. I’d had the visual acuity test in Ubud and I showed him the results. He nodded and continued studying the form. He told me where to sit and motioned to his assistant. The visual acuity test commenced. “But, but…” I stammered. “Peripheral vision test?”

“Yes, later. Not here,” he said, and I shut up. The procedure completed, the doctor filled out the visual acuity section of the new form. 20/20, no need for corrective lenses. “Now you will follow her,” he indicated the woman who had just finished testing me and off we went, back across the campus and back into that congested lobby. But this time we bypassed the masses and took the elevator to second floor. At the end of a maze of hallways lined with people waiting, we arrived at an open door with a sign above: Glaucoma.

“Wait a moment,” our guide said. I glanced into the room. There were four uniformed hospital staff and two desks in a space smaller than a king size bed. She handed one of them my information, turned back to me and repeated, “Wait a moment.” After a few minutes I was invited to join the four others in that tiny space. Upon entering, as though synchronized they all pointed to a doorway on my right. There, in a dark cubical the size of a refrigerator, was THE MACHINE.

I remember taking a peripheral vision test at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Minneapolis once-upon-a-time. It took five minutes total. Maybe this machine was old, maybe I’m old, but the test took 10 minutes 21 seconds for one eye and 11 minutes 9 seconds for the other eye. All that time I was staring at an orange dot while pinpoints of light sparked on and off at random places on the screen and I pushed a button each time I saw a glow.

With watery, stinging eyeballs I stumbled out of the chamber only to see that the first doctor had made the journey across campus to join us in that cramped office. He took the chair behind one desk and a backless, blue plastic stool was pulled up for me. It was time to fill out that most important part of the form: the degree of angle for each eye and the total angle of the eyes when used together.

The form, of course, was in English. The doctors in the room spoke Indonesian, English was their second, third, or maybe fourth language. As I listened to their concerned debate on how best to answer the questions, I was struck anew at the attention I was being given, the time being taken, the respect shown for something as inane as a vision test for a drivers license. I wasn’t suffering symptoms of glaucoma. My vision was near perfect, yet here I was being helped with the same degree of care as someone in danger of losing their sight.

Consensus was reached, the form was completed, signed, dated, and officially stamped. “Now you go back to Amertha Wing for your Sanglah card and you will pay there,” the original doctor said, then knitted his brows. “Why do you need a test like this to drive?” I’d been wondering the same thing.

old lady driver

I shrugged and shook my head. “America,” I said. He smiled and nodded then indicated that Ketut and I would have an escort back to the Amertha Wing. It was now 3 hours since we’d arrived and it was our 4th trip across the campus at Sanglah.

I approached the desk. “You are Missus Bronson?”

“Yes.”

“Please wait a moment.” Of course. What else was there to do? When the bill was presented, it was $21 U.S.

“For everything?” I asked. The answer was affirmative.

Half an hour later we were back on the motorbike, peeling out of Denpasar as fast as the cremation parade would allow. Which means we were at a dead stop. It was the Sanglah parking lot all over again, but this time we were in the middle of one of Denpasar’s main streets.

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Traffic at 7:30 that morning had been sparse and we’d made excellent time. The trip back was a different story. But that’s why I love the motorbike. Sometimes we passed cars stopped for miles in both directions by cruising the white line down the middle. Sometimes we were up on the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians, avoiding the stagnated traffic on the street. Sometimes it was an in-and-out-zig-zag if there was enough room between front bumpers and back fenders.

Home at last, I scanned my precious eye exam document, attached the pdf to an email, and sent it rocketing across cyberspace to my daughter in Minneapolis. She messaged a few hours later to say she’d copied it and posted it next-day mail. The Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t accept emails.

That’s what I mean. Some things aren’t so easy. But those are the very things that make good stories, and I do love a good story!

 

 

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