(edited by Jillian Schedneck)
Smiles, smiles—how the Balinese can project.
– John Olsen, journal entry, September 1973.
Mum hadn’t left Australia in 45 years.
It took us six months to convince her that a trip to Ubud—the sedate Balinese city where yoga comes with cocktails—would be the perfect way to celebrate her 70th birthday. Her counter arguments usually had a kind of patriotic logic to them (‘Why would you want to leave Australia? We’ve got everything we need right here!’).
To be honest, there were plenty of other sedate tropical cities we could have chosen that wouldn’t have involved Mum applying for a passport. But we kids knew best, and we wanted our Bali trip. After many rounds of reasoning, cajoling, and promising we would actually save money, Mum got on a plane.
From Mum’s home in Canberra, a trip to Ubud involves both Sydney and Denpasar airports, the latter of which terrified her with its blunt warnings about what happens to people who break Indonesian law. She arrives somewhat shattered, but happy to be in the same place as all her kids and grandkids for the first time in years.
My mother falls squarely into the category of people who are happiest when doing. She’s not a receiver of massages or a sitter and drinker of cocktails. So in many ways, a private villa staffed by people whose main job is to make guests more comfortable is her purgatory. We kids who knew best were completely aware of this fact, and completely ignored it. Maybe because we so wanted to see her relax for a few days. More likely because we wanted our Bali trip.
A seven-day family holiday is just right. Seven days factors in one to run around comparing hotel rooms, two for sightseeing, two for lounging, and two to wonder how much longer you can stand the whole thing. By day four, Mum is spending more time by the pool. On day six, as we sit down to her birthday banquet, she’s all but sparkling. She smiles more than I’ve seen her smile in years.
‘I just want to thank all my family for all their love and support,’ she tells us. This woman, who only ever left Canberra when absolutely required, now has her own set of tie-dyed pants and a matching Bali t-shirt.
Then it’s day eight.
Suitcases are packed and drivers booked when my brother-in-law walks into the villa’s flower-filled lobby, grinning like a kid who’s hidden his mum’s keys. ‘Looks like our flight’s been cancelled,’ he proclaims. We laugh. Our eyes widen.
On neighbouring East Java, restless Mount Raung is awake, sending out a plume of ash that’s drifting over Denpasar airport. Flights in and out are being delayed, then delayed further, then cancelled.
Panic sets in. What about work? What about school? What about Mum? By the time we get hold of our respective airlines to ask about the next flight out, every seat back to Australia is full for a fortnight.
My younger brother and his wife start calculating how much money they’ll lose if they miss two weeks of work. My older brother has his travel insurance policy in his lap and is diligently highlighting sections relevant to natural disasters. My brother-in-law continues to grin, giggling every time Raung’s towering ash cloud appears on the TV.
Mum goes back to bed. Eventually, we all sleep.
In the morning, the poolside orchids are the same surreal purple they were the day before. The woman who has been silently placing offerings around the villa each morning—delicate bamboo trays filled with bright flowers, incense and other treats—completes her rounds as usual. Roosters begin their chorus. Kites appear at unlikely heights in a spotless sky.
But now we’re not on holiday. We’re off schedule. Stuck.
Everywhere we go, the Balinese keep smiling.
When I stumbled on John Olsen’s collected journals, Drawn from Life, I kept re-reading his Ubud entries from 1973, wishing I could have seen the city during that time. Within five years, this Newcastle-born painter would be awarded an OBE (the Order of Australia came much later, in 2001, followed by the Archibald in 2005). But before all that, when he took this trip to Bali with his friends, it sounded like all he really wanted was a break from the Australian art scene and a few quiet G&Ts.
I’m sure Olsen wouldn’t have considered himself ‘stuck’ in our situation. To him, this would have been more time to sketch with a sweating drink in easy reach. More time to take in the colours and details. More time to understand the people.
‘I work in my brother’s field this afternoon,’ says today’s taxi driver. ‘Black dust all over me.’
Every day the ash cloud hovers above Denpasar, another day’s worth of tourists doesn’t arrive, and another day’s worth stays on, increasingly grumpy and nervous about parting with their Rupiah. We hear that one Australian airline is offering free tickets to Fiji for travellers who had booked for Bali. Basically, no one wants to deal with Denpasar.
The Balinese keep smiling—‘projecting,’ as Olsen put it. I try to catch their faces in quieter moments to gauge whether they share our escalating panic, but the smiles are fixed. I resolve to make more of an effort with my shoddy Bahasa and to spend my remaining Rupiah in a way that seems useful.
But it’s not long before Bali’s many gods decide they’ve had enough of our panicky family, and the wind swings in our favour. Mum’s flight gets out in a tiny window before the entire airport shuts down for the day, and my sister’s family gets home too. Only four of us—my brother, his wife, my partner and I—end up with an uncertain wait for the next available seat.
The rest of Australia now knows about the people ‘stranded in paradise’, and there’s reasonable outrage at our sickening luck. The four of us switch between guilty elation to tense frustration many times a day, as dodgy WiFi and dodgier airline staff thwart our attempts to book a seat home.
‘What if we just get a plane to Perth and work it out from there?’ my brother offers.
‘Darwin’s by far the closest option,’ my sister-in-law counters.
‘Yeah but it doesn’t matter how close anything is if the airport’s closed… Maybe we should look at getting a boat to…somewhere.’ That was my incredibly useful suggestion.
‘We just need to relax, and wait,’ says my partner.
Eventually, we decide to pretend Ubud just wants us to stay.
The 2015 Mount Raung tantrum sputtered on from early July well into August. Once we got home, only six days late, I compulsively checked each airline’s flight status page in a highly unscientific effort to calculate how bad things might be for the people I’d met. I now understood that peace and quiet are luxuries the Balinese save for the wet season. Half the year is given over to a cycle of entertaining, pampering, feeding and watering the tourists. I wondered about the French café owner whose Balinese wife made gado-gado so sublime it restored my faith in just about everything, the young Ubud hipsters who’d cottoned on to white tourists’ love of complicated health drinks, and the woman who would station herself outside the pricey gelato shop, hand outstretched, eyes straining to meet those of the people who walked past her and her children.
Earlier in 2015, Australians had been told to ‘#BoycottBali’ after the execution of two of the Bali Nine by firing squad. Mount Raung was the island’s mid-year drama. Then, in November, another ash-spewing volcano made itself known—Lombok’s Mount Rinjani cancelled its own crop of flights.
Our little part in it all felt like disaster, but the people in Ubud had a completely different interpretation. When I found Olsen’s journal, I suddenly had the words for it, and saw the line connecting 1973 to 2015: ‘Smiles, smiles—how the Balinese can project. A shining mirror on their faces, they align it so that it picks up the light. They can believe in your humanity, too.’
Alice Allan’s poetry has appeared in Cordite, Rabbit, Plumwood Mountain and Australian Book Review. You can find more of her writing at aliceallan.net.