There’s a hint of frangipani and sandalwood incense, and a buzz of chattering in several languages, as I head up the steps into Bali’s Indus Restaurant, Ubud. In the foyer, there are books galore, by all manner of literary movers and shakers.
The Writers and Readers Festival is back, thanks to the efforts of its dynamic founder Janet DeNeefe and her husband Ktut Suardana.
It takes more than a pesky pandemic to keep these two from doing what they love, bringing people together in glorious Ubud to talk about books and ideas.
After two years absence, we again have the chance to listen to all manner of articulate thinkers, sharing their ideas with an attentive audience.
There are so many sessions, over three or four days, it’s impossible to attend them all.
I like to spend a bit of time wandering through the rice fields on my own, stopping at tiny cafes to contemplate my naval and chill out, before heading back to the main drag for more mental stimulation.
Some highlights for me this year were hearing investigative journalist Drew Ambrose and Indonesian journalist and human rights activist Andreas Harsono tell us about the risks they take in bringing us important stories. Both have had their share of hair-raising moments in their quest to get the truth out there.
I also was riveted as Australian lawyer Elaine Pearson, the Asia executive director at Human Rights Watch interviewed US author Matt Easton on his book We Have Tired of Violence about the mid-air murder of activist Munir Said Thalib. Munir was poisoned on a Garuda flight to Amsterdam in 2004. Munir’s tenacious widow Suciwati sat on the stage by their side; she too has just written her memoir.
And there wasn’t a dry eye in the room as Janet DeNeefe interviewed Ni Luh Erniati, the widow of Sari Club head waiter Gede Badrawan, a victim of the Bali bombings in October 2002, and Haji Bambang, a Balinese Muslim community leader who helped rescue many young people from the Sari Club, many of whom died in his arms. Also on the panel was journalist Deborah Cassrels (who has written a book, Gods And Demons, abut her time as a Bali-based correspondent.)
Another highlight for me was attending a lunch at the fabulous Four Seasons in Sayan, while listening to a panel talk about wellness. The panel included author and journalist Tim Baker, who has just written a memoir, Patting The Shark, about living with cancer, and Brigid Delaney whose book Reasons Not To Worry enlightens us about Stoic philosophy and how it can help us breeze through life.
This tactic came in handy when, trying to catch a cab to meet a friend across Ubud, I found myself caught up in a street procession, meaning it was of course impossible to drive anywhere. I had to walk along with the noisy pageant, flanked by dozens of Balinese gentlemen, striking in their glorious white ceremonial garb. Several tourists on the side of the road looked a tad irritated that an imposter like me was mucking up their photo opportunities, but, as they say in Bali, sing ken ken!
Next year will be the big 20th anniversary of the Ubud Writers Festival, held in late October, and it promises to be an exciting one.
If you’ve always wanted to attend this festival, this would be the time to do it!