Bali Belly Book Fest

Volunteering at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 


“Yeah, right, like I’m going to spend my time in Bali working on a conference.”

When I suggested we might apply to volunteer at the 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF 2014), my wife resisted. 

Michèle’s had reservations about marking a milestone birthday and devoting her dream vacation to work similar to the conference manager job she sought to vacation from.  

 (When a woman passes 50 years of age, you’re supposed to refer to it vaguely as a “milestone”).   

But more information swayed her, and by the time we sat down to type our case into the online application forms, both of us thought we would be privileged and a little cool if we were accepted.

We never thought we’d have trouble just showing up for work. 

An Inspiring Event 

Michèle and Dr. Suardana

The Festival, an arm of a not-for-profit Foundation (Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati) co-directed by author and restaurateur Janet DeNeefe and her husband Dr. Ketut Suardana, who launched the ven t over a decade ago as a “healing project” and a peaceful, constructive response to the 2002 terrorist attack now known as the first Bali Bombing  

(You know - something other than despair, unfocused anger, blocking an entire religion, or invading a randomly chosen Middle Eastern country.)  The Festival’s original theme “Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang” or “Through Darkness to Light” says it nicely.

As a bureaucrat whose goals sometimes include getting out of bed and making it through the day without screwing up too much, I was inspired by this and the UWRF mission:

to create a world class festival that celebrates extraordinary stories and amplifies brave voices tackling global issues and big ideas” by linking Indonesian writers with “the world stage” to expand “the readership of contemporary literature across genres and cultural divides.”  

Not too timid for an event based in a mid-sized Indonesian village up amidst the rice paddies, forests, and ravines.  Canadians have trouble with boldness.  The “international” writers festival in my home town humbly aspires “to recharge our imaginations” and provide a “comfortable environment for all guests.”

Even more striking than the UWRF words (you would expect a literary event to be good on that front) is the fact of its achievement.  Despite inevitable challenges and setbacks (see V.S. Naipaul’s bailing for dollars story), the UWRF doesn’t hesitate in calling itself “Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned cultural event” and major newspapers list it among the top literary festivals in the world. 

It can draw up to two hundred writers and artists for panel discussions, book launches, workshops, film screenings, youth programs, and symposia.  Even ascribing some of the success to Bali’s inherent attractiveness, most reasonable people would term this as something Michèle and I could learn from.  Interestingly, this year’s festival honoured “Wisdom and Knowledge” and Saraswati, the Balinese Hindu “goddess of learning.”

So, my wise goddess and I were keen about the prospect of contributing and meeting new people as Festival volunteers -  but we did not plan on being accepted.   The benefits of volunteering at the UWRF include a Four-Day Pass and other privileges which the organizers justly direct to young Indonesians, writing students, and others with limited means.  As a couple who would not pass as either Indonesians or young and who have the means to fly half way around the planet, we went ahead making our plans for the trip to Bali allowing for the possibility of, but not depending upon, acceptance as part of the Festival team.

"Please pull this rabid monkey off my groin"
The other planning included securing visas from the Indonesian Embassy here in Ottawa (you can purchase a visa on arrival in Bali, but it was great, at 1 AM, to jump over the long, rumbled, red-eyed, visa purchasing line up at the Denpasar Airport).  Another part of the preparation was travel medicine.   On the advice of the specialist, we renewed or secured shots for tetanus, flavours of hepatitis, cholera, malaria, and travellers’ diarrhea.  The only risk we took was to ignore warnings of a rabies outbreak in Bali.  Assuming that one would seek medical help anytime bitten by a foaming animal anyways, we passed on the prophylactic rabies treatment -  and instead, I spent time memorizing the phrase: “Tolong bantu saya menarik monyet ini fanatik dari pangkal paha saya” (Please help me pull this rabid monkey off my groin.)

People are Painfully Cute
I would be telling a different, less interesting story if our application was declined.  So, as you may have guessed, we were advised a few weeks before our departure from Canada that we would be on the “Yes List” and that we would be part of the team manning and womanning “the Green Room” for two of the Main Event sites.   As we learned, this meant distributing bags and passes, keeping records, and maintaining the room as a space where writers, panel moderators, and chairs could collect their thoughts before going into their sessions.  Volunteers devote at least four hours on each of four days of the Festival to helping out as well as attending the Orientation session.

It’s a pretty good deal. 

We arrived in Ubud about a week before the Festival, and after checking in with the painfully cute UWRF Volunteer Coordinators, Ochie and Paris, we tried to make the most of our non-volunteering time by tripping around the island visiting temples, trekking through rice fields, and drinking and eating Indonesian food ranging from the mainstay Nasi Goreng to the cat feces formed coffee, Kopi Luwak.  It all seemed good. 
The Alaya Resort, our hotel, was even nicer than the striking online images, and the Balinese people were consistently, authentically, and humblingly kind.  

 Their friendliness embarrasses you into smiling more.  
Several times a day, we found ourselves saying that this could be our best vacation ever, and we were looking forward to the intertwining of work at the Festival, tourist activities, and attending Festival events.

Luke warm Kopi Luwak - Wisdom and Knowledge ?
The first sign that this juggling act might be trickier than we anticipated came while visiting Uluwatu on the Southern tip of Bali.  We were posing for a photo when a monkey came up the cliff, reached around from behind Michèle’s head, pulled her prescription glasses off her face, and took off down the hillside.  Chewing on the frames, the monkey seemed satisfied and unlikely to surrender the glasses, but a local woman enticed him to drop them in exchange for some fruit.  A long, young Australian reached over the rail to retrieve them for Michèle. 

For a while there, we were reviewing the implications for a semi-blind vacation and vision-impaired work on an event celebrating the written word. At that point, we had just learned that our Festival work would begin earlier than expected because the Green Room task of gift bag distribution actually needs to start before the Festival begins.  This meant rescheduling one of our day tours of the island; not a big deal, but a gentle reminder that when you commit to something like volunteering on a vacation, it means doing something other than just what you feel like on any given day.  Michèle and I assumed that we were awarded this privilege over others (I heard that a few hundred applicants were declined) as grown-up, presumably dependable workers. We thus felt a duty to not only stick to our assigned times, but to get there earlier and stay semi-sharp.

At the Alaya resort, which is centrally located, you can walk out the door to a long line of restaurants, stores, and artist’s studios. (Just don’t try to cross the scooter-filled street). It’s close to some UWRF special events and book launches, but it could be said to be right across town from the Main Festival sites and the location of our volunteering Green Room.

I started to appreciate this on the second day in Ubud. 

As our half-way-around-the-world jet lag started to fade, Michèle turned her body over to the Dala Spa, and I walked all the way to Indus restaurant.  It took just a little over an hour, an okay walk but far enough to make a difference when you hope to shuffle back and forth between festival events as well as doing four to five hours on site.

Buzzing Bees and Bumping Knees

The distance also sunk home when I took a scooter “taxi” ride back through town. 
The traffic gets crazy. 
Aside from the fact that they drive on “the wrong side of the road” as an American hotel guest put it, they have no direction signs, signals, or traffic police - and it is incessant and really screwy with the scooters buzzing around like a cloud of bees expanding and contracting to squeeze through every crack between cars.

This is problematic when the passenger on the back of the scooter is 6 feet 4 inches and has legs that point out to triple the normal width of the vehicle. My knees brushed the sides of three cars during that ride before I learned to yoga them into a new type of lotus position. So, we devised a plan to, each day, take the hotel shuttle, get a car taxi, or walk to mid-town and take the Festival shuttle bus from that point on. We felt safe in the plan as ad hoc taxis are everywhere - usually the drivers want a flat fee of 50,000 Rupiahs or so. Travel Guide books say using the taxis with meters is better, but this was rarely an option and in the end the flat fee really worked for us – for reasons I will now detail.
Novel traffic issues came from the unanticipated announcement that ceremonies would be launched to inaugurate Ubud’s newly renovated Gunung Lebah Temple earlier than expected.  Balinese Hindus have ceremonial processions all the time, often related to very parochial events and occasions, we saw one while at Lake Battun.  But the Gunung Lebah would be a mega-happening according to people who have been living in Ubud for decades.

“This is a bit of a surprise – we wanted to avoid a conflict with the Temple ceremonies,” said one of the Festival organizers. “It is going to be a problem, but we need to look on the bright side – we need to compromise and be patient.” 

In this spirit, the Festival staff took the disruption with grace and taught us to look at the beautiful processions as another great part of the experience, although we did wonder for a moment how it would impact on our transport back and forth. 
Formally, we were notified that starting the Monday (September 29th_ our first day at the Green Room) the roads through downtown Ubud would be closed down intermittently as people from all hamlets in the region and other parts of Bali escorted their temple effigies to the Ubud Temple.  Toss in the fact that the week included Saraswati Day, followed by Hari Banyu Pinaruh, a day for the ritual cleansing of 70 trucks full of devotees at a nearby beach – you haven the perfect procession-traffic jam storm.

We studied schedules diligently.  But old time Ubuders advised that this timetable should be best considered guideline. 

“Isn’t this great ?” was the way we conveyed all this information to arriving writers and their drivers.

The Fear of Failure

Our first day in the Green Room was a little slow and we even thought for a while it might be a little dull.  We had few visitors, but then one arrived that made the day more interesting.  Michèle noticed him first.  Thinking a long wire was sticking out of the wall, she went over to investigate then noticed that the wire curled up and down.  It was a rat !! - eating the daily offering in the corner of the room.   This is something that would cause panic at home, but my Green Room partner was very cool. 

Still, it seemed worth reporting.  Michèle drew a picture to explain to the Balinese staff woman on site.

“Yes, we have lots of those in Ubud,” she said. “We should try to keep that away from the writers.” 

The Indonesian National Guard was not called out, and we realized that this furry fellow would be a feature of our week in the Green Room.  With that, our first day ended, we got a cab back to the hotel just as the first procession was forming.  We had another great Indonesian meal and went back to the sanctuary of our room with its ominously open concept shower, bathroom and large balcony.

I took off my watch, put my key in a basket, and then it happened.  I felt a blow to my stomach like a strike from a bamboo pole.  The pain lingered, and I wasn’t sure what was happening.
That night my lower abdomen felt like I had ingested a mallet-pounding Gamelan orchestra.  It sent out vibrations and launched waves that matched those off the surfing beaches off Kuta.  The stomach symphony kept me awake and seated all night.  As the sun rose, I could not imagine getting through a day that included our volunteer stint, the orientation session, and the UWRF Agnihotra – fire purifying ceremony – at sunset.  I plotted a strategy knowing that if I could just make it to the end of this one day, the following two would be days off from the Green Room. I was certain that this thing could only last 48 hours at most – and some online information about what is broadly known as “Bali Belly” seemed to confirm this.  At least, the information I cared to read and believe said this.

The street traffic was not as bad as we feared, but we had four trips back and forth to the hotel and once we left the cab and walked back from midtown as it was faster.  Most of the time, the cheery, chatty cab drivers made us think that a break in the traffic and relief was just around the corner.

Save one driver at the end of the day.

“Not good, not good, I think this is not good,” he said softly banging his head on the steering wheel.
 I managed to grit my teeth, to clench what needed to be clenched, and to time my outbursts for those breaks back at the hotel.   I sighed with relief from both ends of my body at day’s end.

The next day was no better in the body basement, but as a day off and a day with our hotel room as a safety net, I was determined to go through with the yoga class and the couples spa, which I had committed to earlier in the week in the context of Michèle’s milestone birthday wishes.   I felt no pressure from the outside.  My wife is great at not pushing me, or maybe just doing it in a way that I consistently fail to recognize.

I was prepared to drop out part way through the yoga class if necessary, and knew if my departure was announced by unfortunate sounds and smells,  the strangers in the class might forget my face if not the incident.  I did fear for the woman behind me whose sun salutations coincided with the terminations of my downward dogs.  Staring through my legs at her innocent face, I wondered who would be traumatized most by a failure of my sphincter.

Learning to Mediate sitting on a bowl 
At the spa, we also had escape plans as well and asked specifically that my stomach not be massaged while the rest of the two and half our treatment could be strong.  I forgot to say don’t scrub my stomach.   But again, I survived with dignity - if you forget the lemon grass sticking out of my butt after the bath.  We went to one mediation session, a routine Bali experience, but I declined the suggestion of going to another.

“I have enough time meditating over the porcelain bowl,” I said, thinking that I may be able to lead a workshop on the subject by the end of this trip.

We had light tea and I went to bed – off and on for the next ten hours.  I was confident that things would change the next day (October 3rd) when we were scheduled back in the Green Room.

And, the next morning, a big change did come on the medical front  -  Michèle’s intestines joined the adventure, and we now faced a return to volunteering with both of us compromised.

We might have used our free days to stay in bed or in close proximity to the bathroom, but we couldn’t resist the Festival Events.  They included Indian TED talker Devdutt Pattanaik’s presentation on The Hindu Trinity at the glorious Yoga Barn, and we found it fun to hear Robyn Davidson talk as we had been planning to see Tracks, the movie based on her walk across the Australian desert. It was the right thing to do.

Still, the next day back on site was tough at times.   The Green Room was busier, and now, Michèle

felt worse than me.  She had a cold in the head to complement the strain on the lower part of her body.  But again, it is a cool job and not too demanding, made better by having the early shift and the prospect of spending the afternoon in the hotel room if needed.

Outside our volunteer hours, we continued to try to see and do things on our Bali list.  Still, I was glad that we took the Balinese Cooking class earlier in the week when food was an unqualified positive. 

Buoyed intellectually - drained intestinally  

Sitting in on Festival events turned out to be a great way to distract the mind and confuse the bowels. We tended toward events with people we had met and liked either in the Green Room or elsewhere. We had shared a cab and later breakfasted with filmmaker Bentley Dean whose award-winning documentary First Footprints screened at the Betelnut Cafe. We also liked the bouncing Becky Wicks, someone who should not be allowed to drink coffee, so we sat in on her talk on publishing with two of her more sedate friends. Michèle is a fan of author Elizabeth Pisani - Indonesia, Etc. –and more so after she visited the Green Room - “Please, call me Elizabeth” - so we attended two of her events including her talk with Al Jazeera correspondent Step Vaessen, made lively by their disagreements around the finer points of Indonesian politics.
We really enjoyed novelist Amitav Ghosh’s session hosted and recorded by Australian broadcaster Michael Cathcart.   Ghosh, in an unpretentious way, let us look into the mind of a writer whose work challenges readers to see history differently and to read between the lines.  Our favourite event might have been Saturday night’s Women of Letters, a special format that features writers reading from letters written especially for the occasion.  On this one, the letters were addressed to “Dear  Missed Opportunity.”  The content of the discussion is to remain in the room, making it a unique occasion and making the audience feel special.  Without describing the letters, I can say that it is no secret that crime writer Val McDermid is a Scottish nationalist and that writer and educator Mem Fox is an Australian national treasure.  The format is a great alternative to writers “rambling” or just “reading” from their books.

We saw a number of famous faces up close, but were impressed most by the people who were enthusiastic and friendly as well as being profoundly interesting.   This group would certainly include former BBC correspondent Ashwini Devare and her mom, disruptive Sri Lankan author Manuka Wijesinghe, Western Australian elder Clarrie Cameron, and the surfing pioneers Phil Jarratt and Rusty Miller. Michèle was honoured to help Cyrus Mistry, a very gentle and seemingly modest man whose writing accolades are starting to rival those of his Canadian brother.  

Grey Hair - Green Room
 In fact, there were many very humble and modest people working in all facets of UWRF 2014.  Writer and garden designer Made Wijaya also presented at the Festival.

But within this mix, the two faces that made us smile most often were those of Judi and Eddie Jagger, two senior members of the Festival Team who were our mentors and support.  On our final day, they went beyond their duties by allowing us to, in turn, play hooky for brief periods to catch sessions and make the time pass quickly.    
These hooky breaks allowed me to watch a session with Canadian-born Sacha Stevenson, whose Youtube television channel tells us “How to act Indonesian with tongue in cheek and whose nationality and quirky outlook endeared her to us.  She spoke on a panel about the outsider’s perspective and later on a panel that was interesting to me as a venue where Canada was held up as the place with no sense of humour.  Michèle went to see Life After Fukushima featuring Keibo Oiwa, promoter of the Slow is Beautiful lifestyle and chaired by Japanese filmaker Eiji HanShimuzu, whom we knew from his immensely popular documentary “Happy".

 He was focused and intense in preparing for the talk.  But he seemed happy.
All this made us forget the fire in in our guts for a while.

We went to bed buoyed intellectually although drained intestinally.

Formally and officially declared “Lovely”

Closing party

With our volunteering duties done, we woke up for our last day in Ubud determined to see more, and we attended parts of five events, the Ghosh talk was one. Another was the closing party where Janet DeNeefe rightly summarized the week and all the events as “lovely !” 

With our flight departing at 2 AM the next morning, we left for the airport before 11 PM knowing that it would be a long time before we would get back to Ottawa.   Armed with Imodium and Sudafed from a Guardian drugstore, we braced for the multiple security stations, check-ins, line ups, customs and immigration, and processing at airports in Denpasar, Korea, Vancouver, Calgary, and then Ottawa. 

We made it into Ottawa at 1 AM just over two days after leaving the Alaya Ubud. 

When we got home, I found that I had lost over 14 pounds; Michèle had dropped six.  It was not the end of the illness and the awkwardness. My most embarrassing incident came at a clinic in Ottawa when the lid on my sample container came loose releasing noxious fumes in a crowded waiting room.  The staff, who may have been reading too many Ebola news reports, jumped into Hazmat mode spraying the counter, double bagging not only my sample, but my medical requisition forms, and telling me to leave.

A few weeks have passed, the cramps and odours have faded, and the memories are clearer.  It is also clear that we did not see everything we might have in Ubud.  The Festival alone had dozens of other events we would have liked to have taken in; Ubud has many museums and galleries that we did not see ; and we did not get a chance to sample all the food. 

We started to think the once unthinkable – going back and taking our chances - rolling the diarrhea dice again sometime.

“If you write about the trip, maybe don’t even mention the Bali Belly,” Michèle said, after we agreed that this should not define our time in magical Ubud.  “In any case, all this is going to be funny someday.”

Just then, I felt another rumble below the belt.  It was only my Blackberry on vibrate.  Still, it brought the other BB experience back to mind, and I balked.

“Yeah, right, like this is going to be funny someday,” I said.