Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Love The Bali Writers Festival

Your body's just been pampered with a heavenly Balinese massage; now it's time to feed your mind with a talk by a famous author.. If you love Bali, and books, then the Ubud Readers And Writers Festival is a gift from the gods.

It's a chance to sip a fresh mango juice at a café overlooking a tranquil rice field, then wander down the road to mingle with literary types.
After an hour or two of workshops, debates, and lectures, it's probably time to find another café, tuck into some nasi goreng and continue talking about books with the friendly person you met at the last lecture.

The annual festival takes place each October in Ubud - Bali's cultural capital, in central Bali. Founded in 2004, the festival was dreamed up by Janet De Neefe, a Melbourne woman who moved to Ubud after falling in love with a Balinese man 24 years ago.

Janet herself is a best-selling author. Her book Fragrant Rice tells of her life with Ketut, with whom she has had four children, and the richness that Bali has brought to her life. (It's also peppered with recipes, as Janet is also a brilliant cook who runs several Ubud businesses, including two restaurants and a bakery.)

Deciding on the festival, said Janet, was "my way of bringing international visitors back here," after the Kuta bombing in October, 2002.

"The effect on our community at that time was enormous and Ubud suffered greatly," she explained. "Many people lost their jobs and for a long time a deep sadness prevailed.

After Fragrant Rice was published, she said, "I'd attended some writer's festivals and then it struck me; why not have one in Bali?"

"With its beautiful ricefields, tranquil surroundings, and wonderful guesthouses and hotels, I just knew Ubud would be an ideal venue."

She formed a committee of supporters, and got to work..

The week-long event begins impressively; with a feast, speeches, then a stunning Balinese dance held at the Ubud Palace. The next few days are a whirl of stimulating talks, food, and workshops, with visitors from Åustralia and across south-east Asia.

Former United Nations assistant secretary general, Shashi Tharoor and Man Booker prize winner Kiran Desai were two favourites at last year's festival. "It's so informal, you feel like you can wander up and ask these people questions without any sense of imposing on them," says Perth film-maker Melissa Hasluck. "I thought the festival was great."

I still have fond memories of the inaugural festival, when a small group of us signed up to join Tony Wheeler, the guru behind the Lonely Planet series, on a guided tour of Ubud. Through the ricefields we trekked, as Tony pointed out temples and other glorious landmarks. We then sat at a small restaurant and chatted about travel.

By day, Balinese volunteer drivers were on hand to whisk us from one venue to another.

A highlight for me was hearing a witty speech by festival regular Nury Vittachi, the Hong-Kong based author of the Feng Shui Detective series.

Inspired by his talk, I bought his book on the spot at the waiting trestle table and asked him to sign it.

We later bumped into each other at the beautiful Lotus Café, overlooking a sea of lotuses and an ancient temple. "Can I buy you a banana juice?" he said politely, as he and his three friends sat down. (Ubud's informality lends itself to this sort of thing.)

Nury, a veteran of many international writers festivals, was entranced by Ubud. "The local people I've met are so friendly and charming, and the children are gorgeous," he raved. "But I also find the expat community interesting. I can see how Bali has seduced them to stay indefinitely."

All the visitors I spoke to agreed they'd loved their week at the festival. Some of us stayed at five star hotels, while those on a budget were content to enjoy the charm of inexpensive home-stays. As ever, the meals were delicious and inexpensive. Aside from the festival, I managed to squeeze in some cycling through nearby villages, whitewater rafting and a stroll through the ricefields.

Try to allow enough room in your suitcase to amass a few treats; I flew home with not just a new Balinese painting, but an armload of books from my newfound friends..


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