Vacations & Travel - - Contents -

Award-win­ning au­thor Jock Serong trav­els to Bali’s renowned Ubud Writ­ers & Read­ers Fes­ti­val.

I’ve got plenty to process on the two-hour drive north from Den­pasar to Ubud. I’ve some­how been in­vited to speak at the Ubud Writ­ers & Read­ers Fes­ti­val, one of the world’s great lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, along­side Some­one Very Im­por­tant, and the nerves aren’t go­ing well.

Luck­ily, my driver’s up for a chat, and that Ba­li­nese friend­li­ness is im­pos­si­ble to re­sist. “Aussies don’t have a sea­son any­more,” he tells me. “They just keep com­ing, all-year round.” In re­sponse to the pres­sure, the gov­ern­ment has built toll roads, such as the one stretch­ing from Sa­nur to Nusa Dua via Benoa Har­bour, so it’s now pos­si­ble to drive at a very un-Bali 100 km/h.

But why would you do that, when there’s jun­gle by the road, banyan trees arch­ing over­head, ped­lars and smil­ing kids and that warm, scented air?

I’m stay­ing in a villa at the low-key Sa­pu­lidi Re­sort on Ubud’s south­ern fringe. The rooms re­sem­ble tra­di­tional huts – air-con­di­tioned but other­wise au­then­tic – set in a pic­turesque clus­ter among wind­ing shady paths and rice pad­dies. The pad­dies are not or­na­men­tal: every morn­ing the work­ers shoo the ducks away and tend to the bright green shoots, backs bent to the sun. Med­i­ta­tion, mas­sage and yoga are the fo­cus at Sa­pu­lidi: I’m awo­ken at dawn on the first day by waves of dis­em­bod­ied hol­ler­ing from a laugh­ter med­i­ta­tion ses­sion by the pool.

A wan­der from Sa­pu­lidi’s break­fast bar to the pool re­veals a riot of trop­i­cal life: drag­on­flies on the reeds, a lizard scur­ry­ing ver­ti­cally up a co­conut palm with a but­ter­fly in its mouth. And, in my room, the ever-present bark­ing of geckoes. I be­come a lit­tle ob­ses­sive when I’m ner­vous, and soon enough I’ve de­vel­oped a fix­a­tion: if I see one gecko on the walls, I have to find three. Or some­thing uniden­ti­fied and bad might hap­pen. Usu­ally, though, I can find a se­cond and third within sec­onds of spot­ting the first one.

Ubud is no longer a sleepy tim­ber vil­lage in the jun­gle. It’s a busy town, crowded with the ojeks and vans that fill the streets of Seminyak or Kuta. The main thor­ough­fare dips into a deep river val­ley near Bridges Restau­rant where the jun­gle canopy drapes its fronds from dizzy­ing heights, all the way down into the traf­fic. Passers-by on the foot­path have tied the fronds into bows at eye-height.

There’s a me­dia event on the fes­ti­val’s first night, held at the beau­ti­ful Alila Re­sort north of town. The set­ting is spec­tac­u­lar: a long, wide stone stair­way de­scend­ing to a breath­tak­ing hori­zon pool (re­cently in­cluded in the Condé Nast list of the Top 50 pools in the World) and a misty jun­gle val­ley be­yond. I’m alone at a party that looks like it will pro­duce

Sal­man Rushdie any minute. While study­ing the float­ing can­dles on its sur­face (and tak­ing care not to fall in, in front of Aus­tralian writer Marieke Hardy), I meet Janet DeNeefe, the ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralian pow­er­house be­hind the fes­ti­val and other Ubud high­lights such as the In­dus and Casa Luna restau­rants. Janet wears the tra­di­tional kabaya with a scar­let sash and a sarong. She’s mar­ried to a lo­cal, speaks flu­ent Ba­hasa and man­ages a large team to or­gan­ise the fes­ti­val, which she says spans the en­tire year. But there’s no sign of stress in her con­ver­sa­tion; on the con­trary she’s re­laxed and friendly. Janet’s lined me up to speak along­side Ed­in­burgh crime fic­tion leg­end Ian Rankin. By all ac­counts he’s a won­der­ful guy but the idea of mix­ing it with Rankin – and the crowd he’ll pull – is frankly ter­ri­fy­ing. I’m not sure whether to thank Janet for the gig or fake laryn­gi­tis.

Be­tween each of my Ubud Writ­ers & Read­ers Fes­ti­val com­mit­ments I’m in the hands of Ubud’s driv­ers. These guys (and they seem in­vari­ably to be guys) are the joy that coun­ter­vails against the ter­ror of Ba­li­nese traf­fic. One lent me his own power adap­tor for the length of my stay. An­other stopped mid-traf­fic so I could pho­to­graph some­thing. They like a brief hag­gle over price but once it’s done, they’re all smiles. Noth­ing is too much trou­ble to them: ev­ery­thing is fun.

At the fes­ti­val’s Gala Open­ing at the Ubud Royal Palace, there’s drums and danc­ing and food pre­pared at lo­cal restau­rants. Dur­ing din­ner, I meet an ec­cen­tric elderly woman who’s think­ing about go­ing to New York Film

Academy but can’t work out how to op­er­ate the cam­era on the ta­ble in front of her.

The ap­point­ment with Rankin looms. I’d tweeted from Tul­la­ma­rine: he tweeted from Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Air­port. I tweeted ducks in a rice paddy: he tweeted a scor­pion in his ho­tel room. I’m count­ing more and more geckoes as the ten­sion builds. Over the days lead­ing up to my date with Rankin, I get to see panel ses­sions with Tim Flan­nery, Simon Winch­ester, Kate Cole-Adams, the guy who cre­ated Min­ions and a doc­u­men­tary maker who lived in the Mentawai Is­lands for 10 years. Each is fas­ci­nat­ing and well-at­tended: the speakers are to­tal pros and the au­di­ence ques­tions are whip-smart. There’s no room for bum­bling.

I count more geckoes. Three every time.

There’s a mem­o­rable lunch at Warung Pu­lau Ke­lapa, look­ing out at gen­tle rain over ter­raced gar­dens while I write. There’s cock­tails at Naughty Nuri’s, a grungy old bar near the fes­ti­val site that dates back more than 30 years – their whisky sour is per­fect. While I’m en­joy­ing one, a friend chooses to re­mind me that Rankin has sold 30 mil­lion books. Thirty mil­lion. I im­me­di­ately start scan­ning the rafters for geckoes.

There’s a din­ner at Plataran Re­sort, one of many high-end ho­tels that are dis­guised be­hind the crowded shopfronts.

The stonework has a way of look­ing an­cient: moss grows so fast in this cli­mate that a wall might be cen­turies old, or younger than me. Al­though I dwell on this, it’s the peo­ple at the fes­ti­val who move me more: Ubud’s not so much about the head­line mo­ments as the strangers you meet who might just change the way you think.

The day ar­rives, late in the pro­gram, when I must face my com­mit­ment. While I’m shav­ing I hear the fa­mil­iar bark of a gecko and I scan the thatched ceil­ing. Two. And no mat­ter how hard I look I can­not find a third. I go to the venue with a heavy heart, and find it crammed with ea­ger

“Ubud’s not so much about the head­line mo­ments as the strangers you meet who might just change the way you think”

pun­ters. My heart’s beat­ing out of my chest when Rankin shakes my hand and smiles.

As we’re walk­ing on­stage we pass a bar. He stops, or­ders two beers and puts one in my hand, laugh­ing. “We’re crime writ­ers, mate. They ex­pect it.”

And I know it’ll be al­right. •

Jock Serong won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fic­tion in 2015 with his crime novel, Quota; was short­listed for the Vic­to­rian Premier’s Lit­er­ary Award for Fic­tion with The Rules of Back­yard Cricket in 2016; and his third novel, On the Java Ridge, is a best­seller.

©Ang­garaMa­hen­dra/UWRF. Open­ing im­age: Stat­ues of Hindu Gods with of­fer­ings, Bali. Be­low, from left: Cof­fee run, Ubud style; Tra­di­tional drum­mers, clos­ing night party.

Poised on a ridge over­look­ing the lus­cious Val­ley of the Kings, Viceroy Bali ho­tel is a revered re­treat for vis­i­tors to Bali. Lo­cated just 5 min­utes’ drive from Ubud, the thriv­ing cul­ture and arts heart of Bali, the ho­tel feels like an­other world --...

Left: The au­thor, Jock Serong (left) with Ian Rankin.

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