I had booked my trip to Bali and then realized I would be there at the same time as the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which I had long wanted to attend. When I looked at the program what interested me the most was an evening with Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig, whose wise, insightful work I have loved for years. One of his best known cartoons is a picture of a father and son enjoying watching a sunset on television, while out the window is a beautiful sunset they are missing.
Of course I would not be able to go on my own; it is one thing to be in Bali staying with my Bali family who help me with everything, but the rest of the island, with its large stairs everywhere, uneven paths and busy traffic is quite physically hostile for me, though the people are always helpful and kind. But joy of joys, my friend Niyati would have arrived from her world trip by then and she was game to go, so we booked a night in Ubud. I was interested in perhaps going to an afternoon session before our dinner talk, and one the following morning, but they only sold $100 tickets for a whole day, and at two hundred dollars for two sessions it was out of my budget. So we would content ourselves with just one event at the festival.
Rule number one when travelling: always be prepared for the unexpected and the odd misadventure or two. Before leaving Candidasa I showed our driver Ketut a map of where we were staying, a place about ten minutes out of Ubud and checked he knew where to go. I asked him “Shall I write down the address and map, to make sure we find our way?” But he said “No, that’s okay, I know where to go.”
Ketut is related to the owners of my homestay, and I have known him for many years. When he came to see me when I arrived this time in Bali I was shocked at his appearance, he had lost weight and he was in tears as he told me that life had become very difficult because his wife was sick, she was hardly able to walk and was in a lot of pain. Born with an ugly red growth on one side of his face, life has always had its challenges for Ketut and now with a sick wife, four children and not much money, life was very stressful for him. If he had been born in the West he would have had plastic surgery early on and his life would have been quite different. So I promised I would hire him as a driver on all my trips around Bali this time, to help him out.
As the crow flies it is probably only about an hour’s journey from Candidasa to Ubud but with so much traffic and congestion it was more like two hours. Unfortunately the roads in Bali have not kept up with the growth in vehicles, impacting on the quality of life and making getting around more difficult for everyone. When we finally arrived in Ubud we were stuck in a traffic jam, in the Monkey Forest Road circuit. After our third trip slowly around the loop, it dawned on me that Ketut had no idea where to go. I learnt that his way of navigating places he didn’t know, as with many other drivers in Bali I was to later find out, is to stop and ask locals, and I suppose eventually he gets where he needs to. But in the new Bali it can mean a whole of extra time being stuck in heavy traffic and for us it added about an hour onto our trip. Of course we had no map, because Ketut had said there was no need, but thankfully I did remember the basics from looking at it, and with better directions, I got us there in the end.
We then had to work out how I was going to navigate the various new obstacles at our unique and colourful accommodation. After a delicious lunch and a rest, that evening we headed off at 7.30 looking forward to our eight o’clock dinner and talk. We were getting hungry, having saved ourselves for what should be an excellent dinner at one of the top restaurants in Ubud. Except, unbeknownst to us, the restaurant is a little out of town on the most congested road in Ubud, and we crawled our way along what should have been a fifteen minute drive, and were late. In Bali they are always saying ‘Palan, palan’ or ‘slowly, slowly’ for a pace of life, not to rush around in the hot tropical heat, but to take things easy. Well the same applied to the traffic around Ubud, we went “palan, palan’ to the restaurant. Finally we arrived, eager to get in and not miss any more of the talk.
Then we see the steep, big steps leading down into the restaurant and my heart sinks. I was expecting some steps, there always are in Bali, but not usually this many, and not for a venue for a festival. Thankfully the welcoming girl, looking beautiful, dressed up in her uniform of traditional sarong and kabaya, helped me down, slowly and carefully each poorly lit step, with Niyati following behind with my cushion. The welcoming girl knew how to assist too, offering strength I could lean into, not just a token arm which many offer, which is of no help. While going down there is the help of gravity so it doesn’t require as much effort as going up, but it was tough on my bad knee, which didn’t like the impact of each step. When we reached the bottom of about forty uneven, large steps, I paused and took a few big breaths and then tackled the few steps up into the restaurant, which seemed remarkably quiet for the venue of a talk. I thought “Phew I’ve made it! At least I can stop and rest now. But where is Michael?”
I couldn’t believe it when the woman at the entrance points to the two flights of stairs up to where the talk is being held. I gather my strength for the next leg, keeping my attention on just one step at a time, not the whole lot. Once again it was with a hand from one of the staff supporting me. At least these ones were more civilized, well lit and not so steep and big, and had a balustrade to assist.
In another heart sinking moment, as we reached the top, I saw there was no one having dinner, just people sitting in rows. I’d mistakenly assumed having a talk at a restaurant, for the price being charged, would involve dinner. I had two mistaken assumptions that night, that in hindsight would have been good to check; that the ticket price included dinner and that I would be able to get into the venue, albeit with some help. I usually check about the accessibility when I go somewhere new at home, but this time I didn’t.
We sat quietly in chairs at the side of the small stage, and tuned into what Micheal Leunig was saying, delighting in watching him draw his well known characters projected onto the wall behind him, resigned to being hungry, and resolving to make the most of all the effort it took to get there.
He talked of a turning point in his life as a cartoonist for a major newspaper, during the Vietnam War. When he was particularly moved by the horror of it all and wanting to express what was in his heart, with the first cartoon where he broke out of his old mould, of Mr Curly with a teapot on his head. That was the start of Leunig bringing heart, the dignity of the human spirit and the sacred into the hard world of journalism. He talked of his creative process while needing to meet a deadline, but just allowing his pen to move where it wants, and getting himself out of the way and seeing what comes. It felt to me he was describing being in the moment and allowing an energy greater than him to come through. He talked of days when the drawing gets messy and complicated and feels like it is going nowhere, and he has to meet his frustration and sense of failure, let his ego go and continue on.
I loved when he said he just has to keep going, meet what happens and somehow get a result to meet that deadline. I loved when he talked of the fragility of the human condition, and how important it is to have love and the spirit represented in a media that is usually so empty of these most important human qualities. Quite often when someone asked a question he would say “I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of answers”. I loved his humility.
I was touched and inspired and so glad I made the effort to get to his talk. He gave me a boost in my tortuous working on this book. By 9.30, we were fading from a lack of food, but Niyati slipped downstairs to the restaurant to get some snacks on offer, which revived us to be able to stay until the talk finished at ten. Niyati asked “Do you want to go and meet him?” I looked at the queue of people already forming to meet him, and not feeling up to standing in it, I said “No I’m happy with the talk, that was enough, let’s go and eat.”
So down the two flights of stairs we go, with a woman in the queue tuning in fast and walking in front of me in case I needed help. We ordered some food, and I could finally go to the toilet. We shook our heads at how this inaccessible place, where there wasn’t even a toilet on the same level as the talk, could be a major venue of the festival. Thankfully in Australia there is far more awareness these days about having accessible venues and almost wherever I go some thought and effort has gone into making the venue accessible to all. As we sat and ate I was facing the stairs and I noticed my slight resentment at all the people so effortlessly going up and down them, not giving it a thought, taking for granted something so basic.
We were both tired by now and ready to head back to our hotel, but with some dread at the mountain of steep steps that first must be climbed. Niyati was sympathetic and empathetic; sometimes it is easier being the sufferer, than watching a loved one suffer and being able to do little about it. Once again there were ready hands to help, and I just focused on one step at a time. It is not a good idea to look up and ahead when climbing a mountain, eyes kept just on the next step, then the next; otherwise it feels too daunting. I got up to what I thought was the top, and was dismayed to see another flight, which nearly undid me, and then it was back to just one step at a time. By the last few I was tired and sore, my bad knee and neck and shoulders were complaining at the effort, at which point I had a man on either side hauling me up. I said to both of them “I will never come to this restaurant again, it is not friendly for me”, needing to say something about it and make a point. I was feeling annoyed at the festival organisers and at myself for not checking ahead.
I was so relieved to reach the top, and I was standing there recovering in the now quiet carpark, catching my breath, letting my shoulders relax a little, when suddenly Niyati cries out “Ah! Here he is!” I turn around and Niyati is lassoing Michael Leunig from the top of the stairs towards us. He is all alone on his way out and we have him to ourselves. He is quite tall with a mass of white curly hair, and he bent over slightly to us two small women. Niyati says, with hands in a Namaste position, “Thankyou so much, that was wonderful.” And perhaps in need of expressing her concern for me, she burst out, “And my poor friend Suchita here had to go through so much to see you, all those dreadful stairs.” He turns his attention to me, smiling, looks back at the stairs and says “Yes I can see”. He would have been behind us as we climbed the stairs.
I gush out “Thankyou so much, we love your work and I so needed to hear that tonight. I’m writing a book and it is not easy, and I’m inspired by hearing you; it was so helpful.” He continued smiling and said in a heartfelt, sincere tone “Thankyou so much,” as though he was touched. And he reached down and took my hands in his large soft ones and held them. We smiled into each other’s eyes and for me there was a meeting of hearts. It felt like we were standing there for quite a while, and it was me who drew my hands away; I was tired and uncomfortable standing for that long. Then we said our goodbyes and he headed to his waiting transport.
Niyati and I turned to each other with huge smiles and shining eyes, saying “Wow!” My heart was full of joy; it was like this extra special reward after all that effort, to meet and connect with one of my heroes. We were on a high all the way back to our hotel and felt blessed. It was a magical moment, wrenched from misadventures, which made it all worthwhile.