The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is over for another year and I am gloating at our success. With an audience increase of more than 20 per cent and endless praise from writers and readers alike, who wouldn’t be proud?
I decide to laze by the pool and finish reading I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor and festival guest, who lost his three daughters during an Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip.
My ”quiet time” is disturbed by the buzz of my BlackBerry. ”Mum, have you read The Age? I don’t think this girl has ever travelled.” It’s from Dewi, my daughter, who is studying in Melbourne. The message is confusing but she follows by sending a link. SMS’s and facebook messages come later. I can imagine Dewi reading it and simply saying, ”Oh my God”.
And so I read Carolyn Webb’s article ”Bali: Why bother?” Seems like we are in trouble again.
Why bother? I decide to ask the Balinese, because no one loves Bali more than they do. Through all the troubles Bali has experienced, I don’t know whether anyone has asked them for their thoughts. And nothing makes a Balinese happier than a fiery debate or a challenging discussion. I can see a panel session forming at next year’s festival.
In the meantime, the article hits the Denpasar papers and talk begins on the streets. ”We don’t want Ubud to lose its atmosphere because of these sellers,” said Cok Putra from the Ubud Palace. ”We are aware of this problem and will be taking this discussion to the villages.”
My husband, Ketut, sat and thought for a moment. ”Culture is our capital,” he said wisely (because he says everything wisely). ”The sellers should value that. Once upon a time, we knew everyone in Ubud but now we don’t know if we are local or they are local. Many people come from outside Ubud to make a living here and we feel we are in a foreign place. They should be aware about our identity, our ancestors and our future generation, not just about money.”
A Balinese friend said: ”The journalist claims to be interested in multiculturalism but doesn’t understand that not-nice, pushy are also a part of this. She maybe should not visit Bali, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Africa, all developing countries.”
I remember the way the Balinese apologised to me, continually, for what had happened after the first Bali bombings. Jakarta Postjournalist Wayan Juniartha once told me: ”The Balinese internalise problems and don’t blame others. Even if they vandalise something, they vandalise their own possessions, not someone else’s.”
I decide to dress like a tourist, and hit Monkey Forest Road to ask the drivers and ”touts” about the article.
Nyoman owns a motorbike and shuttles tourists all over town. In Indonesia, we call it ”ojek” and when I am in Jakarta it’s the most effective way to get to meetings, or anywhere, on time. The motorbike is Indonesia’s family ”car”.
”Ubud, the life right now only comes from tourism,” Nyoman said. ”My father died when I was young and my mother had to look after eight of us. I only went to elementary school. We cry when there are no tourists.”
I asked for Nyoman’s thoughts on other taxi drivers. ”Oh yes,” he says, ”some of them of Monkey Forest Road are not nice. I love Australians and I have many friends there and I get a lot of business because I am friendly. I am never rude to people.”
I wandered further down Monkey Forest Road and approach a group of drivers chatting and laughing. I arm myself with a smile and ask them about their work.
”Lots of drivers are from outside Ubud and outside Bali nowadays,” one says.
I explained the article to the drivers. ”Wherever you travel the culture is different,” one responded. ”If you go to India, Bali, Thailand, it’s different. We think the journalist has exaggerated the story and doesn’t understand. If you are looking for something ugly you will always find it.”
So, you don’t think you have upset travellers with your persistence? ”Generally, the Balinese have good manners. We are not rude to people. If we see them we ask if they want transport. I never pester them.”
Over more than 20 years, I have heard tourists blurt out the most atrocious complaints to people here and they have always responded with grace and charm.
How about we limit the drivers on the street? ”Oh no. Please. We have to eat. You already know our situation.”
And what about the tacky souvenir shops? Isn’t it called supply and demand? On my walk, I pass my favourite shoe shop, dress shops, galleries, scented oil shops, cafes and massage places. And wooden penises? Who cares. I have always loved the Balinese sense of playfulness and freedom of expression that says it like it is. Thank God the missionaries never made it here.
It’s late afternoon when I start walking back home. The young folk are selling tickets to traditional dances, on the street. I shake my head to say no and walk on. It’s Bali’s equivalent to a newspaper round for teenagers. I bump into a friend brandishing a pile of Legong dance tickets on the main road. She is roughly my age. I ask her how much she makes on each ticket, calculating in a night she might make $5. I know that her daughter has a thyroid condition and will at some point need an operation and her husband died many years ago. Her son works for us. I feel sad that this woman is traipsing the streets at night to make a few dollars.
”I don’t have anything. I just have a heart,” says Nyoman, the motorbike driver. ”Not all people are wealthy. We must respect the poor people.”
I have spent the past few days asking tourists: What do you feel about the article and have you been hassled? Not at all. We just say no and keep walking. That’s Bali.
Carolyn Webb’s reaction is perhaps more about where we are in Australia right now and not so much about Bali because in spirit, she was never really here. There’s a whole magical world that lies beyond Monkey Forest Road, a village that cares about the well-being of each other; about family, neighbours and community. ”The things that matter,” my husband always says.
One of the greatest joys in Bali is simply talking to the local people; a chat to find out who they are, what motivates them, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. Value the difference, they say. And it’s no secret that I love the Balinese; after all, my husband is Balinese, as are my children.
So on that note, I must leave you to attend a village wedding, the fourth this week, and when I get back, I will continue reading I Shall Not Hate. And maybe next year we will invite Ms Webb to appear in a panel session at the festival, called ”Bali, Why Bother?”.
Bali-based author Janet DeNeefe is director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.