Notes on the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2013
This year I attended the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, but since it happened in October and it’s already close to the end of the year, I’m sure I’m the last person on earth to write about it.
The Ubud festival is a happy event but its origins are dark and grim. After the Bali bombings in October 2002, Bali suffered a serious drop in tourist arrivals, compelling its expatriate community to get together.
They decided to organise a yearly literary event to showcase Indonesian, regional and international literature and in October 2003, the first Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was held. That was how the Ubud festival came about- it was a reaction to the bombings and intended as a clear statement that Bali was slowly recovering from the attacks.
In a slightly macabre way, the Ubud festival is held in October, the month in which the bombings occurred. For Malaysian journalists, October is a tricky time of the year. This is usually when our annual National Budget is announced and because I was often one of the journos roped in to cover the budget speech, I either completely forgot about the festival or was never able to take leave.
But this year was different. I had quit my job in June 2012, which meant I no longer had to apply for leave. Suddenly I had the freedom to go anywhere any time I liked just as long as I had the money. So, hooray, Ubud festival, here I come.
This year was my fourth visit to Bali, but my first time during the festival. When I arrived, I realised how much Ubud had changed since I last saw it.
The streets were choked with traffic. It took me two hours to reach my hotel in Ubud, which is only 25 miles (40kms) from Denpasar Airport. I had never seen so many cars, vans and motorbikes jostling for space on the island’s narrow roads. There were more foreigners than Balinese in town, and I wasn’t sure whether I liked Bali anymore.
The talks and workshops I attended took me away from thinking about how Bali had changed. At a lunch talk with Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, I listened to how they left London in July 1972 in a minivan and eventually arrived in Sydney, Australia six months later with only 27 cents between the two of them. This overland journey gave birth to their first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, which was published in 1973.
A lot of people dismiss the Lonely Planet guidebooks as being inaccurate, no longer relevant or up-to-date, but what the Wheelers did was revolutionary. Not only did they show that it was possible to travel overland and long-term on a budget, with their early guidebooks, they also showed us how.
Occasionally when you look back, you realise how right and smart you were in deciding to do a particular thing. That one thing for me was signing up for Don George’s travel writing workshop. Don George is the Editor at Large and Book Review Columnist at National Geographic Traveler magazine and while I’d already read his excellent book called Guide to Travel Writing – also published by Lonely Planet- I wanted to hear those same words from the man himself.
Don talked about the writing process – how to find the story and to decide what a place is telling you. A place always has lessons for you, he said. When you figure out what those lessons are and what strikes you most about a place you’ve been to, you’ve got your story.
Don is a wonderful person- anyone who’s ever met him or attended his workshops will agree. He’s a wizard at what he does, passionate about good writing and most importantly, he’s generous with his knowledge, making him a great teacher. For someone who lives too far away to attend the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, I thought Don’s workshop was such a valuable experience.
The next Ubud Writers and Writers Festival will be from October 8-12, 2014 but as that’s still a long way off, I have yet to decide whether I’ll be attending. One thing I do know is that I’ve got a better idea of what I really want out of the festival.
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