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Twenty Years in Ubud

By Ibu Kat

When I moved to Ubud almost 20 years ago, I contacted the editor of the Bali Advertiser with the suggestion that I write a column. I didn’t know anyone here and it seemed like a good way to meet interesting people. Perhaps I’d been sitting up late with Jenny and a bottle of single malt, a combination that has hatched many bright ideas over three decades.

The editor agreed.

I had no idea what I was getting into. I’d been a writer for many years and I knew a deadline from a dartboard, but these deadlines were remorseless. Every second Wednesday I had to pony up with 1,000 words that were interesting, relevant and true whether I felt like it or not. Sometimes I did not feel like it. Very often I sat down under the ticking clock with no idea at all what I was going to write about.

And so began a journey and a journal. I became a window to Bali and my life here for myself and readers. It wasn’t supposed to be like this; Greenspeak was meant to be a column on the environment. But those endless deadlines soon pushed me out of that box, and I began to expand my mandate to include my immediate, personal environment – my garden, my dogs, my staff, my pond, my street. I found myself holding the space for many small encounters and experiences and distilling them into 1,000 words of prose every second Wednesday. My editor Chris, bless him, gave me a very long rope. The only time he censored anything I’ve written was to remove an impassioned and possibly actionable paragraph about a manufacturer of baby formula.

The column led me outside to meet people who are creating positive change on this island – farmers, priests, social activists, Βalians, weavers, environmentalists, scholars. It led me into my garden to observe the plants and creatures there. The column was an excuse for me to contact all kinds of fascinating folk and ask them impertinent questions. It led me inside myself, to examine how I was so touched by Bali’s profound and quirky magic.

And I’ve learned so much… about rice cultivation, poverty, natural textile dyes, sexually transmitted diseases, reptiles, black magic, orphanages, bamboo construction, herbal remedies, natural ventilation, dengue fever, spices, scorpions, so much more.

The more I learned the more curious I became. With a notebook under my arm and a pen behind my ear I visited subaks, rural health clinics, water projects, farms, schools, composting toilets, temples and birthing clinics. I learned how knives and kites are made, how witches are placated and the correct way to hold a python (don’t).

The trouble with writing for a paper is that people tend to believe what they read and be influenced by it. So I had to train myself to be a witness, not a judge. Even if a situation had me raging, I had to present it from a place of calm balance because you would read it. I had to walk the talk, because of you. You kept me honest. You stretched me in all directions.

People my age who settle in this part of Bali often come from an academic or business life. They’ve taken a great leap of faith, leaving a world of reliable medical care, live theatre and good wine to live in a rice field. It’s remarkable what happens to them, over time. The right side of the brain wakes up and starts to dance in Ubud, this little town that is such a crucible of creativity. Tax lawyers and computer wizards take up painting, educators start designing hats. In Singapore I used to write corporate brochures and advertising copy. Now my keyboard clicked to tales of spirits from the undercliff and dragons in the bath.

I’m always pleased and humbled when people tell me they enjoy the column. That never gets old. It’s an odd feeling, actually, to write a story and send it out to the world for strangers to read. Sometimes those strangers wrote to me, and some of them became friends. A couple of times an enraged reader fired off a rant – my writing was too positive, too happy. Was I blind? Didn’t I see the piles of garbage and the mangy dogs and the corruption? Well yes, I do. But long ago I learned that people are just about as happy as they decide to be, and I’ve decided to be happy.

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Over a decade ago people started saying, “You should make a book of these stories.” I thought it over and took the concept to a Bali-based publisher who told me, “No one would be interested in a book like that.” So I took a deep breath and published it myself. Bali Daze (originally Dragons in the Bath) has now sold over 5,000 copies in hard copy and online. I think this indicates that people are indeed interested in the small stories of everyday life in Bali, cross cultural engagement and reptiles in the bathroom.

But Bali has changed a great deal in the past few years.   Outside my gate the town has become noisy and busy, and it’s quite a scene out there these days. Inside my gate Wayan Manis, my housekeeper all this time, remains a precious constant. Many dogs – Karma, Kipper, Kalypso, Casey, Chloe, Daisy, Hamish, Tika, Tilly and Bruno – have shared my home and garden. My life is small, now. I am content. I find I have less to say, so it seems like a good time to stop saying it.

So thank you, Bali Advertiser, for the discipline of two articles a month (later one) for so many years, giving me a platform for my occasional rants and material for two collections of stories. There’s no feeling quite like seeing someone smiling while reading a book I’ve written.

Thank you, Chris and Ratih, for your patience and understanding over cliff-hanger deadlines.

And thank you, dear readers, for all your feedback and support, for stopping me in the street to mention a recent article, for your emails and visits over the years. I’ll miss you, but I won’t miss those deadlines.

Bless you all. Over and out.

Ibu Kat

Bali Daze on Goodreads: here.
Bali Daze on Amazon.com: here.

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