The Ubud Festivals 2014

When it comes to festivals and celebrations, Indonesia, a country which is filled with various tribes in each islands in the archipelago, has tons of it. Each tribe has its own beliefs and celebrations, stemming from the ancient beliefs and traditions, which now have mostly integrated in the 6 (or seven?) state-recognised religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian, Catholic, Confucianism, and Bahá’í). Were we to follow all the traditional ceremonies and celebrations, I think every day would be a holiday since we’re just full of these things. Bali, claimed as the islands of the gods, is no exception as well.

Last September up to this early October are important months for Balinese, especially to those living in Ubud. First of all, starting from the 29th of September, one of many major religious festivals, were held in the historic Gunung Lebah Temple.

The religious festival comprises six different major rituals: Karya Mamungkah, Tawur Panca Wali Krama, Penyejeg Jagat, Tawur Pedanan, Ngenteg Linggih and Pedudusan Agung. As part of this, there are large-scale temple dedication and purification rituals coupled with major sacrificial rituals to appease nature’s spirits. In addition, Ubud locals – as the temple’s main custodians – will participate in declaration of faith rituals. All these elaborate rituals mark the completion of the extensive renovation project of the temple and will officially announce that the temple site, which for months was a chaotic construction zone, has been elevated and sanctified to serve its former purpose as the throne of the divine.
Colourful street processions, lively rituals, and captivating performances of unique traditional arts will become a common sight throughout the time of this religious festival. As always, the Ubud community will warmly welcome visitors who want to witness this majestic event. Please, show them your respect by dressing conservatively – wearing a sarong is a must – and donning the traditional udeng headgear will surely win you the locals’ affection. Make sure to ask permission from pecalang, local guardsmen usually dressed in black with chequered sarongs, before entering any part of the temple. ‘Follow what the locals do’ is always a good strategy.
Gunung Lebah was constructed in the 8th century by Danghyang Markandya, one of the most revered sages in Bali. Markandya is believed to be responsible for introducing Hinduism to Bali, opening the first settlement for Javanese migrants in the present-day Taro village, and carrying out the initial works in the construction of the Besakih mother temple. Gunung Lebah temple lies next to a merging of two streams, locally known as Campuhan, thus, the name of the area. Balinese believe that a campuhan has a potent spiritual purification and healing property and to this day the Hindu devotees have still frequented Gunung Lebah and its campuhan seeking that liberating absolution.

(Source: The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival official website)

Gunung Lebah Temple
Gunung Lebah Temple

It was a huge celebrations where people wearing traditional clothes marched on the street every day, bringing offerings and arak-arakan or some kind of statue together to the temple. Streets were closed to all motor vehicles so most people going the same path as these people marching would have to leave their vehicles somewhere and walked.

Tourists coming from across the country and the globe were treated with such spectacles as they swarmed in Ubud. Not only that, another wave of tourists were also crammed up in Ubud as some of them flew to this lovely city to join, participate, and volunteer in a more recently established festival: The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The official poster of UWRF 2014

This festival, shortened as UWRF, was first created in 2003, a year after the first Bali bombings which killed 202 people and injured 204 others, and was meant as one of many ways to attract tourists into the island again (Bali was like a dead city after both bombings). Yet concerned with the growing pollution and congestion of traffic and trash in tourism spots such as Denpasar, Kuta and Seminyak, the festival tried to attract a whole different kinds of tourists: the supposed literature and culture lovers. Not only trying to invite writers around the world, the festival is also a medium for emerging Indonesian writers to share their works and passion as they submitted their short stories and/or poems to be later published into a book of anthology which would be shared and sold at the festival. It’s a way to find new writers and get to know them as well more closely. As if that’s not enough, every year, the festival also invites people from literally everywhere to join the festival as volunteers. Albeit unpaid (it’s volunteer work, seriously), each volunteer would get a four-day pass which is valid for all main events during the 4-day festival, as well as a meal (lunch) for each time a volunteer is rostered, depends on what position they are volunteering for or what they get.

As one of the volunteer in the Interpretation team in the festival, I was treated with all those stuffs and festivals, which happen to be things I like as well.

Of course, there’s a downside: there were a lot of spendings, and I mean A LOT. Ubud offers many temptations, starting from restaurants, museums, art exhibitions, and temples where they usually held traditional dances for tourists to watch (not free, of course). But I’d say those spendings were worth the while, and the benefits and satisfaction I got definitely outweigh those expenses I spent (yep, I already waved my savings goodbye).

Although you really had to pay for the transportation and accommodation during the festival by yourself, they made it really easy for you to find cheap accommodations through the facebook group specially created for the volunteers. Each year, they would always create a new group for people volunteering at that year’s festival, and that’s where you first got to know them and shared information about anything you need to know: being a volunteer, Ubud itself, transportation in Ubud, as well as accommodation. Therefore, to save some money, most volunteers looked for accommodations with shared rooms, where they then posted the and find roommates through the facebook group. The room I rent costed me IDR 1,200k for 7 nights, and I get to share the expense with my roommate. Oh, and there’s breakfast provided, too, so I didn’t have to pay extra cost for breakfast (sorry to sound a lot like a cheapskate, but I really was on a tight budget–which was very, very difficult to manage as you’d read later). The place was about 20 to 30 minutes walk to the venues where they held most of the events (the main events, the volunteer orientation, etc), and the only thing that’s making it so long to walk there is the terrain which requires a lot of going up and down the hill repeatedly. I had to walk back and forth for two days straight, especially because the road was closed to all vehicles due to the Gunung Lebah ceremony, and I think by the night of the second day my feet felt very sore. I thought it would be a piece of cake, of course, considering my journey to work almost every day also takes 30 minutes on foot. Luckily, though, on the first day of the festival, there would be a shuttle bus, going back and forth from the restaurant called Casa Luna (which is very, VERY CLOSE to where I was staying) to the venues every 30 minutes, starting from 8 AM. I thought I’d treat myself for a foot massage if my feet were still very sore, but by the end of my third day at Ubud, I hardly felt tired from walking.

But that’s not all.

Other than feasting on seeing two major festivals, we were also invited to watch the ceremony of Agnihotra on the night of September 30th, at one of the venues.

Agnihotra is a healing fire from the ancient science of Ayurveda. It is a process of purifying the atmosphere through a specially prepared fire performed at sunrise and sunset daily. Anyone in any walk of life can do Agnihotra and heal the atmosphere in his/her own home. Thousands of people all over the world have experienced that Agnihotra reduces stress, leads to greater clarity of thought, improves overall health, gives one increased energy, and makes the mind more full of love. It is a great aid to drug and alcohol deaddiction. Agnihotra also nourishes plant life and neutralizes harmful radiation and pathogenic bacteria. It harmonizes the functioning of Prana (life energy) and can be used to purify water resources.

Source: Copied and pasted from one of the post from the UWRF facebook group.

Later I found out that Agnihotra is also a name of a caste in India.


So after being feasted on the spectacles of the marches, the fire purification ceremony, the festival finally started.

Day 1 (1 October 2014) – GALA OPENING

My day started a bit early. Being in the interpreter team, we were supposed to meet the writers we’re supposed to be interpreting for, and their liaisons. I met 4 brilliant guys whom I was going to interpret–three of which write short stories which are published in the festival’s anthology and 1 wrote a play for the theatre. It felt a bit timid and awkward at first (might be due to my poor social skill, partially), but eventually we slowly broke the ice. I was really nervous about my first interpretation work so I asked them to tell a little bit about themselves or mentioned an excerpt of whatever they were going to say in their panel sessions where I would be interpreting afterwards, as practice.

After the meeting’s done, I decided to kill some time in a local café and then visited the famous Blanco Museum which I’ve heard so much but never visited before. A friend told me the entrance fee was IDR 80 thousand, but I ended up paying only IDR 30 thousand. I wandered–a bit lost, to be honest–as I scrambled my directions to decide which paintings I wanted to see first. After some time looking at many paintings already, I heard a group of foreign tourists being toured by a local girl who was ushering at the entrance of the museum earlier, and I thought, “Damn! Should I have asked her for a tour earlier?” Since they simply told me that there would be guides inside and I could ask them whatever I want, I simply thought that I’d just enter and asked should I have a question. I ended up tailing the group every once in a while to eavesdrop the explanations on the paintings. It was a pity to tour the museum unguided. Lessons learned, though.

My feet were awfully sore after going up to the Blanco museum since the path leading there was very steep and most people who I passed were riding a motorbike or driving a car. But it was almost time for the press conference.

I was still quite nervous about doing my first interpretation so I decided to sneak into the press conference room, where I thought I’d see someone from the interpreter team interpreting. But in the end, I didn’t see any interpretation, since everyone there seemed to speak English perfectly, so I got out a bit disappointed. But it was not the real reason why I sneaked out earlier before the press conference ended. It was time for Louis Couperus.

One of the free events offered in the festival were its film events which were played everyday in different venues, where a list of award-winning movies and documentaries were played, and most of these movies are unlikely to be found in any websites providing torrent downloadable files. And the one playing on the first October was a documentary on Louis Couperus.

Who is Louis Couperus?

He was said to be one of greatest Dutch writers, who produced what is later claimed to be his greatest work: De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force). This is what has mainly drawn my attention to the festival and made me decide to join as a volunteer. And I was particularly attracted to this one movie because Couperus’s The Hidden Force tells a story in the Dutch East Indies, depicting a glimpse of what it was like back then in the colonial era of Indonesia. Of course, to ask for a glimpse of the view of the society’s lives, especially the natives in the movies, would be too much, therefore, as I sat nicely and watched the documentary opened with the only footage of Couperus in his old age, I smiled and watched still anyway. The documentary was made by Bas Heijne and was full of quotes taken from Couperus’ works, as well as Heijne’s interpretation of it. It was amazing to see the length of what Heijne did and went to in order to analyse and share his interpretation on Couperus’ works in the documentary. Somehow, Couperus’ visions and narrative, as read in the movie, somehow remind me of Chekhov’s way of thinking about his surroundings and about life. In the end, I got intrigued and put some of Couperus’ books in my wish-list.

Day 2 (2 October 2014) – Custodians, Krishna Udayasankar, The Nine Lives of Cats & Jalanan

The shuttle bus is finally here! Now I got the chance to give my feet more rests. I started my day even earlier because I wanted to attend one of the first main events of the festival, and the one I chose was “Custodians,” where they invited Nyoman Sadra of the Tenganan village and Clarrie Cameron of the Nhanhagardi tribe, a tribe of the Aboriginal people. What interests me the most was actually the fact that there would be someone from Tenganan in the panel. Tenganan is a desa adat (traditional village) at Karangasem Bali, where there live the people of Bali Aga, people who are believed to be the original Balinese (just like the Ainus in Japan). I’ve always wanted to visit Tenganan ever since I found out about the village because it is said that living in desa adat, the people still supposedly live in a traditional way, and they held high their customs and native beliefs, surely something completely different with the continuous-advancing modern world outside. Yet, back then when I was visiting a desa adat in Lombok, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it is actually good for the people themselves to keep themselves from modernity, and whether we all simply let them to live so secludedly to amuse ourselves with the sights and spectacles, just like keeping animals at the zoo (sorry, I know this is not the perfect comparison, and in no way people are comparable to animal, but I couldn’t find any more similar concept). Therefore, I was very much intrigued by “Custodians,” where they would discuss and share their experiences in trying to keep the traditions in their villages, especially with the increasing pressure of modernity from outside, brought into the villages by tourists coming to see the people like an amazing spectacle (yes, me included, since I so badly want to see Tenganan). Both were discussing about how they ended up to where they are now, entrusted to be the “custodians” of the old customs, and I remember Nyoman Sadra was saying that seeing how interested outsiders are in his village and how knowledgable they could be about the people of Tenganan compared to the little information he actually had back then about his own people and village, he was challenged to study his own culture. How could we ever allow outsiders to know a lot more than ourselves when it comes to our own culture and home? I feel exactly the same.


And Clarrie Cameron–oh my, I was very amused listening to him talking! I know that Aborigines are famous for their oral history and they’re all known as remarkable storytellers, but when this guy opened his mouth to speak, it was like watching one of those Indian movies where they have an elder speaking with… with… with the low, dark and bold tone, and lively intonation, putting music into every word he delivered as he told a story. Even as he coughed, there’s music in it! I imagined what it would be like to be one of his grandchild, sitting on the floor as I listen to him telling me a story. (Happy sigh.) As Cameron listened to Nyoman Sadre speaking, he closed his eyes (at some point I always wondered whether he actually dozed off for a minute or two) and making a nod here and there, and eventually said that he felt and experienced the same thing. And then he went and told stories of his childhood where I just couldn’t miss every single word (though it was actually a bit hard, since her wasn’t speaking in the British/American/Australian-English I’m used to hear, but it was such a delight). I am already a fan and putting his Elephant in the Bush in my wish-list (it never gets any shorter, really).

IMG_8202Then later in the afternoon, it was time for my first interpretation roster. I was interpreting for a Children’s Program where the speaker, Krishna Udayasankar would teach children to write their own fictions using cats and humans as the characters. I only met mrs. Udayasankar earlier that day, so I was a bit worried at first about interpreting for her to children, especially because this would be the interpretation into Bahasa Indonesia. I should’ve been more confident since it is my native language, but still, interpreting to children made me a bit giddy. But mrs. Udayasankar was very nice and easy-going. She told me not to worry about my interpretation and that I’d do just fine, and after she finished briefing me on what she planned to do in her session, a car picked us up to transport us to a Villa Kitty, where apparently they took homeless cats and kittens to be treated and hopefully, later, adopted, into a nice home with a nice family. The journey wasn’t very long, nor was it short enough, so I took the chance to inquire further about herself and her works, and when I found out that she was born and grew up in India, I asked her various questions about India, and we discussed Indian issues, especially the ones I could relate to to my own country: gender discrimination and castes differences.Perhaps this was partly triggered by a TED video I recently translated, where the issue also revolves around discrimination against women, and to be more specific: sexual harassment and rape. This two are ones of the pressing issues in India with more women coming out to speak against or testifying against this horror, as well as male and female figures who were put in the spotlight for their ridiculous and appalling remarks undermining the seriousness of these. And this leads to the hierarchy issue that occur, not only in terms of caste, but also gender. How people there could undermine someone’s speech or works simply because of caste, be it of higher or lower caste, although what is being said is true, or that it speaks for the wellbeing and defence of those of low castes. This partially stemmed from my curiosity of the Dalit caste of India as well (and I blame Mulk Raj Anand for writing Untouchables for this). I also found out that Agnihotra is a caste name as well at that time.

Although we initially expected the local schoolchildren who participated of 11-14 years of age, there were instead younger children coming. But mrs. Udayasankar brilliantly handled the situation with ease, and at some points, I ended up getting drawn into the session where I got very excited upon conveying mrs. Udayasankar’s instructions to the children. Although I was worried about using a more formal Indonesian and not speaking a word of Balinese, the staffs at Villa Kitty were very helpful and friendly, and they helped me convey the message in the local language. At the end of the session, the kids were lining up in front of mrs. Udayasankar, impatiently waiting to be able to read their stories to her although they weren’t asked to. She initially expressed regret of how she might not be able to read their stories, especially since 99% of those would be in Bahasa Indonesia, but of course that didn’t happen. As I interpreted each of their stories, I was amazed by the enthusiasm and the weight of each of the stories, which got me wondered, “How on earth a kid so little as him/her able to write such a story?” In a way, I felt that mrs. Udayasankar was radiating this positive energy and attitude, which the kids (and me) received, and got us all excited.


I got back from the event tired but I felt so blessed and lucky, and that was only my first roster interpreting! I got curious as to how it would be tomorrow and the days after, interpreting for other writers in the main events.

Day 3 (3 October 2014) – Great Greats, A Human Right, The Iraqi Christ, Tribute Night for Lempad & Lempad of Bali

In “Great Greats”, Nic Low, as the chair of the panel, guided the panels to talk about each writer’s cultural background and the role of elders in each of their cultures, as well as how the way the elders are treated affect them and their works. Each writer comes from a different, unique background, such as Fiona McFarlane from Sydney, Patricia Grace of Ngati Toa, Te Ati Awa and Raukawa iwi, Sulfiza Ariska from West Sumatra, and CLARRIE CAMERON! As I interpreted for Sulfiza from Bahasa Indonesia to English, I was captivated by his passion in writing. In his profile, it was written that writing offers him “hope and freedom from fear,” and all those are obvious as he shared his background. He was one of the Indonesian emerging writers elected for the festival, and in the anthology published in the festival, the short story he wrote is apparently a story of Chinese Indonesian who later got entangled in the horror of the riot in May 1998. And as he shared and talked about why he wrote, very movingly, it was obvious that it was emotional for him, and as I was interpreting, I was a bit worried if I’d get any part missing, especially the powerful emotion he delivered. But then the audience suddenly clapped, and I was crossing my fingers, hoping that that meant the message was conveyed. When the panel was over, people came to him to give their support and words of encouragement, and it was a beautiful sight. One particular person was touched apparently, a Nithya Siddhu, an educator and journalist from Malaysia, who eventually told me about a TEFLIN conference in Solo, which, although very interested, I was unable to attend (i was basically using all my leaves and day offs for the festival!).

IMG_8213“A Human Right” interested me since I thought it would be a session where they would discuss the issue and problems which has befallen the refugees across the globe even until now. Hassan Blasim and Mukesh Kapila ended up debating about the better way to create a better system for the refugees, with Blasim focusing on each refugee (stemming from his own experience as a refugee, I guess, where he apparently experienced tortures before finally getting an asylum in Finland), while Kapila focused more on the better system as a whole, learning from his own experience working for the UN. The chair, Drew Ambrose ended up having to draw André Dao back in the discussion once in a while, since the other two were getting worked up. The only writer I am familiar with is Hassan Blasim, and I only actually know about him when I scrambled through the list of the writers joining the UWRF, which led me to the famous The Iraqi Christ, which is a short, tragic story of a person ended up forced to do a suicide bombing, which is a part of short stories compilation by Blasim titled The Corpse Exhibition. But because of this, I got so excited upon going to hear Blasim for the first time, because when reading his works, I thought I’d like to know what is inside his mind, and then he debated with Kapila and started criticising on the European humanity campaigns in contrast to their negative attitude tendency toward refugees, and also on capitalism, and there he had me. I couldn’t take my eyes and ears off of him. (It’s too bad, really, that his movies aren’t available online and in the country.) I was resolved to watch him read his work, The Iraqi Christ, in his native language, at the Bar Luna basement later that day.

Then I headed to the Lotus Stageto watch a documentary of Lempad. To be honest, I’ve never heard of Lempad before. (WHAAAT? | Yep, I didn’t know who he was.) But as the documentary took us back to the pre-colonial times in Bali, the change after the Dutch invaded the island, then post-colonialism, the 1965 tragedy and the years that followed, until his death, relating the history of the country as Lempad and his family intertwined in it, I began to admire this guy. He’d been through a lot, and the way he created arts… He was marvellously talented. (I mean, how could anyone be so VERY TALENTED like him?) He painted, carved statues and building and temples and God knows what else, and he was loved by the people (at least it was depicted so in the movie). I suppose it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Lempad as a man who’d lived his life to the fullest.

Day 4 (4 October 2014) – Korupsi, Secret of the Script, Sokola Rimba & Oceania Under the Stars

One thing that kind of disappointed me in the festival was that there wasn’t seem enough Indonesia-related issue. Of course, the themes picked and the issues discusses are pretty global, since it’s an international festivals, but the whole event was held in Ubud, INDONESIA, in the first place, so I was hoping that there would be more Indonesia-related issue. But then again, if we consider the types of participants coming to the festivals (which were mostly Australians and others from around the world), having too many Indonesian issues might not be appropriate, so this could just be my perspective as one of the Indonesian participants/volunteers. For example, in the event “Korupsi,” Elisabeth Pisani, Jacqui Barker, and Jill Jolliffe were discussing about the acute corruption happening in Indonesia, with Barker focusing on the corruption in the police department and Pisani talking about the issue in general, and at some point, both of them needed to occasionally explained the background of the issues they were talking about to audience who were mostly non-Indonesians. It was appalling upon realising–or perhaps, more like reminded (after all, I think most Indonesians already know how acute the corruptions in the country. We can’t thank Soeharto and the Cendana family enough for this) of how embedded corruptions are in the society. In the police department and army, it was like an agreement or a contract between our late president Soeharto and the army and the police as power and authorities were handed over into their hands, but in return, they ought to manage their own funding themselves, and this, in a way, encourage more corruption, even in a level as petty as in managing traffic, or making a driver’s licence. And what’s even sadder, Pisani supported this statement, making it clear that in her perspective, in some ways, corruptions are what keep this country stand on its feet. Admitted or not, hate it love it, there’s no easy way to put it: in a way, corruptions get our economy going, be it in a small or large percentage of it. And then she talked further about the integrated corruption in the society, starting from taxi drivers trying to charge you more (although I have a feeling that this is most likely to happen in Bali when you rent a car instead, especially if you’re a foreign tourists) into an unconscious act of corruption happening in the family system. Indonesians really make distinction between big time, company and government corruption, and the smaller scale, finger-pocketing corruption. A family would probably try using their connections at work in order to get their sons or daughters a better job, and they never think of it as a corruption. I remember my relatives offering me to have a little chat with someone at a school I wanted to go to, but didn’t get admitted, and none of them would think this as another form of corruption. When Pisani heard a similar story from one of her host family, she innocently and spontaneously blurted out, “You know, in my country, that would be considered as korupsi.” Then she went on saying that there was a long silence afterwards. They weren’t probably offended, or ashamed or anything, but they simply were too surprised to find out this news. It’s not corruption when you simply were trying to help a family member! And this is just a glimpse of how deeply rooted the corruption culture in the country. In a way, KPK ((Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commision) was making the right choice when they focus their cases on bigger scale of corruption, because I guess that’d be more black and white, if that’s even the proper term. What’s then surprising was when an audience was asking a question to Pisani and accidentally mentioned the word “If the Indonesian democracy still lives on in the future.” What’s taken me aback was Pisani’s reaction to it. She took a more optimistic attitude about the Indonesian democracy, believing that we would fight for our rights and that democracy would persist in the country, regarding the interference of the Red-White coalition formed by the losing presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, and his allies, all of whom are entangled in corruption cases. Our newly-elected president, Joko Widodo, dubbed as “the man of the people” would have a rocky path in front of him.


And then it was time for another interpretation roster, in another main event, “Secret of the Script.” Chaired by Geoffrey Williams, Jill Dawson, Aline Davidoff and S Metron Masdison talked about their inspiration that lead them to create their stories, and especially S Metron, since he was the only playwright in the panel. I ended up being useless, really, since S Metron’s English isn’t so bad, so he just needed me to be there with him as a living dictionary. Then at one point, he read a scene from his play, making it a bit like a readers theatre, with a bit of an act. In seconds, he became a completely different person, as he acted as a pissed passenger who missed his flight. Of course, it was obvious I like his reading in Bahasa Indonesia better, since, even though the translation is just as good, I think nothing could beat the original language in which the play is written. His play was also published in the anthology in the festival.

Then it was time to head for the ARMA museum to watch Sokola Rimba. It wasn’t originally a movie I wanted to watch, simply because I didn’t really know much about this movie, nor did I do any research about it. I simply read the summary and thought I’d skipped it. But then another volunteer friends told me what’s so cool about this movie, and they changed my opinion.

Sokola Rimba is basically a retelling of Butet Manurung‘s story when she was assigned to teach kids who lived in the jungle in Jambi. In a way, the concept was a bit similar with Laskar Pelangi, but just a very tiny bit of it. Besides, both stemmed from true stories. We were taken along into Butet Manurung’s adventure as she discovered other tribes in a jungle with kids who were very enthusiastic to learn how to read. Then we saw how Butet struggled as she faced resistance from the jungle people as they believed that letting the kids study instead of working would lead a curse unto the tribe. But she didn’t give up.

I’m not really sure where I could find this movie, and I haven’t really looked, but I was glad I decided to come and watch. It was worth it, and it was definitely inspiring, especially for me as a teacher.

The last event of the day, which was also held at Arma was a series of performance under the title of “Oceania Under the Stars,” with Ontosoroh (the singer has a beauuutiifuul voice!), William Barton, and Tama Waipara singing in Maori.

Day 5 (5 October 2014) – The Storytellers, Indonesia Etc., A Weapon of Mass Terror, & Wiseracks and Otherwise

I had two interpretation rosters that day, and unfortunately of someone who’s not at all a morning person like me, I started very early that day. In “The Storytellers”, Clarrie Cameron (yes! I can’t seem to get enough of this guy!), Ishack Sonlay, Jared Thomas and Patricia Grace were talking about their cultural background and how they infuse it in their stories and poetry. Sonlay was the only poet in the panels, and in the session we got to hear him recited his poem in Bahasa Indonesia (with me interpreting the meaning afterwards), but what’s unexpected was that he did this alongside a background music–a traditional music sung in his native language. The music was taken from his phone, but it added a nuance into his poetry-reading. It was a simple poem, about the local people farming on their land, and Sonlay shared his native musical culture, where people would infuse music in almost everything they do. As they worked the land, and even when they tried to get rid of the crows, they’d sing, and they did it in rhythm.

Then it was finally time for another awaited event: “Indonesia Etc.” The session’s title is literally taken from Pisani’s new book of the same name, and this is probably the only event with the fewest people in the panels: There was only Elisabeth Pisani and Step Vaessen who chaired the discussion. Basically, Pisani talked about her travels in Indonesia (whom she keeps referring to her “bad boyfriend”), and she actually brought a map to show where she’s been to (she’d been to places I’ve never been, of course), and how she got to know Indonesian culture as she moved from one host family to another, and she observed and integrated herself in the culture. Of course, eventually the discussion would lead to the Indonesian history and the hot issue of the Indonesian democracy in the present days. Again, she restated her optimism on Indonesian democracy and how people would eventually fight for their right. In the end, I did managed to ask her how she could be that optimistic, because from my perspective as an Indonesian myself, despite the developing democracy and the growing political awareness and boldness of the people, I keep meeting and seeing people (especially young people, of course) who couldn’t care less about who’d lead the country, or people who’re easily manipulated by the issue of race and religion (take the case of Ahok vs the Islamic Front Defender, for example)–in short: a floating mass. But then she pointed how different the people she met outside of Java, and that they are not so easily swayed, actually, which is why, although it’s worrisome, she’s hopeful. I guess I’m just reading too many worrying news updates and probably meeting different kinds of people.

Elisabeth Pisani & Step Vaessen in "Indonesia Etc."
Elisabeth Pisani & Step Vaessen in “Indonesia Etc.”

Pisani praised Indonesia’s democracy in a way that it keeps growing. Even the way the Red-White coalition tried to tackle Jokowi in the government even before he was inaugurated is completely democratic (which makes it even more frustrating), so she’s positive that our democracy would not die so easily. Another thing she praised is the Independence Day proclamation, which marked Indonesia’s freedom from the colonial Dutch rule. Although what followed afterwards was indeed another military aggression and a still long struggle between the Dutch Royal Army and the guerilla Independence fighters, we managed to declare independence first. Back then Soekarno, Hatta, Sjahrir and all their followers didn’t back out simply because they didn’t have the official state yet (well, the youngsters did kidnapped Soekarno and Hatta to Rengasdengklok prior to the proclamation), they just declared it first! And this is worth noting so Pisani actually took the last part of the proclamation, “Hal-hal jang mengenai pemindahan kekoeasaan d.l.l., diselenggarakan dengan tjara seksama dan dalam tempo jang sesingkat-singkatnja” (Matters which concern the transfer of power and other things will be executed by careful means and in the shortest possible time), in short: ETC., as an inspiration for her book title.

Then I stayed at the NEKA museum where they held “Indonesia Etc.” previously, to watch another panels with Mukesh Kapila, Deborah Baker, and Anne Ostby in “A Weapon of Mass Terror,” chaired by Ashwini Devare. The so-called weapon discussed in the panel referred to the mass rapes happening in conflict zones and wars, though it wasn’t limited to just mass rape. What’s sad was that as Kapila observed the places he’d been to when he was working in the UN, most societies are indeed patriarchal, and especially in war zones, women are usually the target for rapes. Although not talking about mass rapes in times of war, Baker supported this negative attitude and discrimination towards women in the US just as well. In the end, Kapila shared an experience he once had where a woman came to him and told him the horror stories of the rapes she experienced, and the reason she did this was because she knew he was from the UN and she wanted him to share this stories to turn the world’s attention to the seriousness of this issue. Although initially confused, I think he finally took this experience as an inspiration for his book, whose excerpt he finally read in the session. This persuaded me to finally purchase his book, Against A Tide of Evil.


“Wiseracks & Otherwise” was the last panels where I had a writer to interpret for. Presenting Karim Alllam & Greg BlondiThe Muslim Show‘s creators, Sacha Stevenson the YouTube sensation, and Fadel Ilahi El-Dimisky who was one of the Indonesian emerging writers in the festival, Wayan Juniarta asked each one of them what made them decide to go to humours and satires to talk about important issues and how they embedded the message in such a serious medium as literature. Most of them said that initially they never intended to create such works, but they found out that people like it, and they realised that they could deliver good messages in it. Fadel emphasized on how it would be better to simplify the literature works he was making in order to get people to read them and receive the message he got. And although Stevenson did got backlashes from her YouTube audiences once in while, the majority of the responses she got convinced her that the message was conveyed anyway. Then The Muslim Show guys were asked if they ever received any problems or threat from the government because of their work, or whether they ever got their works rejected in a specific country. Humorously they answered, “Israel.” And another person asked whether they would want to reach out to different kinds of readers who, in a way, might be more sensitive or narrow-minded, to get them to be more open-minded to the critics and satire they were trying to deliver.

Before I started interpreting for Fadel, I did read his work first, and the short story published in the anthology is probably one of my favourtie. His work is contemplative, about a guy who kept getting confused, and through confusion, he made sarcasm on why people do bad things even though they know it is bad, and even during the panel he discussed this. “I was confused why there are people who pay so much attention about table-manners, yet pay so little attention to the traffic regulations. And this is only trivial matter, but what about bigger matters, such as corruptions?” Those were parts of his “confusion speech,” which got us all to think. In the end, he shared another short story that he made, A Love Letter from Mount Bromo, where the mountain wrote a letter to the central government, asking to move out to the capital because the regional government didn’t do their work properly and so it was fed up. Since it didn’t receive any response from the government, mount Bromo was annoyed, and so he exploded. Afterwards, the government finally responded, allowing it to move in, yet they were confused: should it move into the capital, where would the place be? And what would happen to the presidential palace with a volcanic mountain now being so close? What would happen to Monas? On the other hand, mount Bromo was able to move out of the region. It hated the corrupt regional government. But if even a mountain could be fed up with its government, then could we imagine how fed up the people would be?

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The UWRF as a whole provided me an escape and a retreat, where I could really recharge myself through meeting so many amazing people and writers, and where I got to talk to some of them, discovering the wondrous of their mind and heart, and by the end of the festival, I was completely overwhelmed that I didn’t think I could take it anymore. It was definitely worth it, and I was already thinking of going back next year…