From blogger to author at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival (an excerpt from Balilicious, which still stands today!)

Here I am as an author at the 2014 Ubud Writers’ and Readers Festival – woooow-weeee, I get a sparkly all access pass and everything! But it wasn’t so long ago I was a blogger, here in town to work on Balilicious – the Bali Diaries! Here’s an excerpt from then, which still stands today. Only today I get to talk on a panel about my self publishing experiences. If you’re in town, come say hi!

When I first volunteered to help out at the eighth Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, I had a somewhat exaggerated idea of what it would involve, especially as a member of the media team. Thanks to various media-type jobs in the past, I pictured swanning about for five days with my laminated VIP pass round my neck and a glass of champagne fixed permanently in my fingers. I pictured mingling with superstar authors and making intelligent observations on all things bookish, and being ever-so literary in really nice dresses.

None of that has happened.

As a volunteer member of the media team, I was given the title of ‘Blog Coordinator’ and it has been my full-time job to keep on top of all blogging matters. Among the chaos in a town that appears to have quadrupled its tourist population in the space of just five days, I’ve had to find the peace and quiet necessary to concentrate on coordinating a group of writers who’ve come from Australia, Java and elsewhere in Indonesia, who also volunteered their services for the cause. I’m pleased to report that so far they have all been covering the festival quite happily without access to any champagne, while sporting some pretty funky custom-designed Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival T-shirts. Go team!

The festival itself was founded in 2004 in response to the 2002 bombings as an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation. The festival’s founder and director, Australian- born Janet De Neefe, hoped to build stronger communities on the island she’d grown to call home through various arts and cultural programs. She succeeded, and this Ubud powerhouse is undoubtedly one of Bali’s most successful women … not to mention a downright lovely lady. I’ve met Janet De Neefe several times at Bar Luna, which is another one of her ventures. She came up with the idea for the literary nights in order to keep the festival in people’s minds all year ’round. (Their ‘coconut killer’ cocktails are a good incentive to keep attending, too!)

Having become an Indonesian citizen through her absolute devotion to the country, this switched-on entrepreneur, along with her Indonesian husband, has also opened two restaurants, a bakery, two guesthouses and a sewing room, which is responsible for making everything that’s used in her guesthouses. She also runs a cooking school, which I’ve heard is pretty cool, though I’ve yet to try it.

Through Janet and her team’s tireless efforts to score financial support through various sponsors, the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival has since been named by Harper’s Bazaar UK as ‘among the top six literary festivals in the world’ and by Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Asia-Pacific network as ‘the next Edinburgh Festival of Asia’. Oh yeah. This little town is officially on the literary map and it continues to attract some of the world’s most talented writers.

There’s been a ton of fantastic stuff going on this week; live music from temples, comedy shows and bands in all the favourite spots, even a man called Marzuki Mohammad, who regaled his audience with stories of a recent trip to New York and other states in America alongside his batik-wearing rap group, the Jogja Hip- hop Foundation. Surprisingly, a number of eighteenth-century Javanese songs mixed in with a bit of modern-day hip-hop have resulted in a musical sensation. Some of these tunes were even used in the city of Jogjakarta as a rallying cry during recent conflict. Impressive stuff.

One has to wonder if batik-wearing hip-hoppers would have the same effect in a western political activist’s march. Would they even be allowed on Downing Street with all that stuff? I would hope so. If you can’t at least try and solve an issue with a bit of eighteenth-century bopping, accompanied by novelty-value, loud-patterned clothing these days, well, stop the world, I want to get off.

Ubud is busier than I’ve ever seen it. Walking the regular paths you’re swept along in a constant flow of tourists, locals, expats and visiting literary types wearing glasses and crochet and floaty skirts. The buses have been squeezing themselves through streets so tight it’s a wonder none of them have got stuck, or at least taken out a line of parked motorbikes yet. But I can’t be concerned about traffic. There’s work to be done and blogs to write and Tweets to Tweet and intoxicated old writers to scoop up off the floor.

Drunk people are ‘a given’ at writers’ and readers’ festivals, right? I mean, it’s no great secret that writers are drunks. If we’re not high on caffeine, convinced that three cups of coffee before 8 a.m. is the only way to get a thousand words down by 10 a.m., we’re propping up bars, swigging gin and tonic, moaning to all who’ll listen that the coffee kept us up till 2 a.m. and we’ve been way too sleep-deprived to write anything decent for weeks.

There’s an old writer here (I’m not mentioning any names) who has been seen staggering ’round town on several occasions since the festival began, completely off his trolley. Yesterday he practically fell into our minibus as he accompanied my new friend Claire (who lives in Java and is here to blog) and me into town from the headquarters at Indus Restaurant. He reeked of booze and started slurring something about a session that morning, at which point Claire whispered, ‘I was there. He was drunk.’

So he was drunk in public at 9 a.m. and he was even more drunk in our minibus at 5 p.m. This was impressive work by any writers’ standards. When we deposited him at his request on a street corner, somewhere on Monkey Forest Road, he stood there on the broken paving slabs looking puzzled, in broad daylight, with no shoes on. Somehow he’d managed to leave them back at the headquarters. His shirt was unbuttoned, too, like he’d undressed and redressed himself in the dark. Bless him. People were looking at him like he was mad.

Drunken mad men in high heels were part of the scenery where I used to do all my work, in Sydney’s Kings Cross — so much so that I’d barely register the men with no shoes on at all. Here in Ubud, Bali, however, well, you just don’t see people like that. Especially not westerners, and especially not westerners over the age of sixty, muttering jumbled nonsense in a foreign language with their shirts undone.

Anyway, so far, I think the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival has been a fascinating study of humans in general, and there really has been some great stuff to attend and blog about. Being British, I’d never heard of the Australian singer Paul Kelly before, but he reduced a room to tears when he played a song called How to Make Gravy. Look it up, you won’t be disappointed.

I might not have met many super-famous people or got to swan around all la-di-da-ishly with a glass of champers but suffice to say I’m surprisingly fine with that these days. I am, however, invited to the Closing Party tomorrow at Blanco Museum, and the after-party at the nearby Bridges Wine Bar.

Bridges is renowned for being one of the classiest, most expensive joints in town, but it’s also one of the only places you can buy decent wine by the glass in Ubud, so naturally all the drunks will be congregating in that one spot. I’ll be strapping my shoes on tightly, of course, and buttoning up my clothes with extra precaution, just in case the drunk tries to lead me astray.


(This is an excerpt from Balilicious – The Bali Diaries (HarperCollins) available in all good book stores and on Kindle.

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