Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bali beckons 'literary tourists'

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival offers culture in a paradise.

Ubud, an enchanting town in tropical Bali's undulating hills, has arrived with panache on the global literary scene.

Judging from this year's splendid 2010 Writers & Readers Festival, it would be worth blocking out Oct. 5-9, 2011 for some top-class literary tourism. The 2011 theme is "Nanduring karang awak": Cultivate the land within" — a line from an old Balinese poem. Attendees will be encouraged to explore the great global commons of mind and heart in just the spot to do so with stunning views of Mount Agung.

In the wake of the Bali terrorist bombings in 2002, which left locals scarred and tourists scared, Janet de Neefe, a long-term Ubudian, decided to try to transform a disaster into an opportunity. Mix a bit of paradise and lavish creature comforts, add a dash of cultural magic, stir with persistence and presto . . . Ubud has become one of the top literary festivals in the world.

Now in the top six of such festivals, according to Harper's Bazaar, Ubud attracts an impressive array of writers from around the globe and draws devoted pilgrims in ever-greater numbers.

For writers, the call to duty in idyllic Ubud is almost as hard to resist as it is for the growing audiences of readers.

Booker Prize-winner Ann Enright ("The Gathering"; 2007) admitted it was hard to tear herself away from her home in cold and rainy Dublin, but she was rewarded with rapt audiences eager to imbibe her thoughts about her books, writing and the human condition.

Among the others who joined her in Ubud this year was self-styled "faction" writer Tash Aw, the Malaysian author of "Harmony Silk Factory" (2006) and "Map of the Invisible World" (2010); as well as Christos Tsiolkas, the controversial Greek-Australian author of "The Slap" (2009), who defended his use of vulgarity, arguing that critics are guilty of class bias and that he doesn't just write for the privileged.

But writers beware, this is no laid-back lotus-eating holiday, as the organizers have them — young or old, famous or not yet so — performing yeoman's work on panels and in individual sessions.

Despite the demanding schedule, by all accounts it's an energizing experience as there is so much interaction between writers and with readers in a variety of settings. Perhaps the most enjoyable is over dinners and drinks at places ranging from Ubud's swankiest venues to some of its legendary watering holes such as Naughty Nurni's, as famous for its dry Martinis as its succulent ribs.

And what a feast it was this year, with 135 writers from 27 countries spread out over 183 panels and workshops with 37 special events organized around the theme of "Bhinneka Tunggai Ika: Harmony in Diversity." One of the highlights was the increased attendance of Indonesians and the chance for readers to discover the work of many Indonesian writers.

Readers have an opportunity to meet their favorite writers and discover new favorites in an intimate setting that maximizes interaction and closes the chasm that often separates artists from their audiences. The venues are cozy, often bursting, but relaxed and friendly, creating a wonderful festival vibe where interaction and exchanges flow easily and informally.

It is 25 years since my first visit to Ubud, and today there are only a few traces of what was then a simple, unhurried, tranquil artists' village of unpaved roads lurking under vast canopies of greenery and spartan accommodations nestled in terraced rice fields.

Yet the transformed Ubud remains enchanting, and weary visitors can now enjoy far more pampering and tastier grazing options. But old Ubud hands can't stay away from the roast suckling pig served at Ibu Oka's in the center of town, across from the palace. Same great food, same low prices, but now this overgrown shack has added real tables and chairs on its crowded terrace — a comfortable upgrade that detracts nothing from the scruffy ambiance.

The new Ubud boasts a slew of five-star hotels, including the plush Aman and Four Seasons that help support the festival and offer special packages. For those with tighter budgets, there is a range of options from pensions to excellent hotels at reasonable rates, many of which can be found on the festival website.

Organizers have transformed this festival from its original shoestring operation to one that boasts significant corporate sponsorship, perhaps most abundantly evident in the ubiquitous Citibank hospitality vans and banners fluttering all over town. Seldom does corporate social responsibility look so commendable as it does at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.


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