Friday, October 28

singapore stroll

Originally, we were going to Singapore to renew our sponsored visa, however, just prior to boarding we reassessed dates and prices and realised we were better off returning to Indonesia with a visa on arrival, thus leaving our one day in the city free to explore.  We were grateful for the offer to stay with friends and prepared to snuggle on the lounge if necessary. This was before we arrived and discovered their five bedroom apartment occupied the entire 14th floor. 

The order, cleanliness and efficiency of Singapore is a welcome change from the disarray of southern Bali.  Spotless public transport whisks you on time to a cheap curry, and wide pedestrian thoroughfares free from neck-snapping holes are most appreciated. We have no problem with the often criticized "sterility" of Singapore; if we have to spend time in an urban environment, we are happy for the masses to move in a polite fashion, for facilities to be well maintained, and systems in place to remove sewage to a distant treatment plant. 

We began our day at the recently completed Marina Bay complex where an extensive boardwalk links the City Gallery, lotus inspired Art Science Mueseum, and the world's first DNA double helix bridge.  I was going to visit Louis in his floating glass temple to cloth, but I thought my thongs may not be welcome.

The clouds were dark and threatening over the outrageous cantilevered boat shaped Marina Bay Sands Sky Park. The length of  four and a half A380 jumbos, with an impressive 12,400 square meters of space, the Sands Sky Park is 57 stories high and can host up to 3900 people.  For $20 you can buy the privilege to view Singapore from the observation deck. We declined and continued along the Esplanade to the historic Fullerton Hotel. The sky opened and we doged suits with umbrellas as we ran between covered walkways to lunch at the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre.  In the hub of the financial district, the market is the largest Victoria cast-iron structure in south-east Asia and worthy of a title as National Monument. The intricate Scottish filigree iron lace and hundreds of fans spin above a lively lunch crowd and  a multicultural selection of cheap and cheerful hawker fare, including questionable organ meats, chicken necks , MSG soups and oil sponges. 

Our hot tip for a coffee and bookshop combination is the upcoming creative area of Duxton Hill.  Along Duxton Street, the karaoke bars and strip clubs have gone and made way for an influx of design agencies, restaurants and boutique stores. A tiny sign beckons you up a dark staircase to the top floor of a refurbished shophouse and the hidden cafe Group Therapy (review coming soon at Crema and Crumbs), while nearby Littered with Books is a double storied haven for wordsmiths. Spurred on by caffeine, we spent the late afternoon walking in Mount Faber Park to Henderson Waves bridge and topped up the tank in Chinatown with a steamed red bean bun and slab of pineapple. 

Coming up next...Penang

Sunday, October 16

book club breakfast

After two days coffee free, there wasn't a chance I was going to miss out on the caffeinated discussion at the Book Club Breakfast.  I was invited to photograph the event, an informal panel about "Writing from the Soul" with author Dipika Rai, poet and hotelier John O'Sullivan, and restaurateur and blogger Karen Waddell

Held at the recently opened Il Giardino restaurant in the grounds of Han Snel Bungalows, the breakfast buffet included Italian delicacies such as ricotta filled cannoli and mushroom bruschetta, with free flowing espresso and crisp almond biscotti. Ibu Made Siti (Mrs Snel) made an appearance and ordered a cappuccino; embracing the new offering among her lotus garden. 

John spoke of finding a flow in writing, even if that means creating "artificial steps to get traction and overcome fear."  He said "don't be afraid the words are going to strangle you, you won't get the bends if you come up slowly. Fear is like a mist that impregnates you and gives you a reason not to write.  Ignore it, do whatever you need to, whatever is authentic to you." Dipika echoed the sentiment of fake it till you make it. "It will happen, just kick yourself out of the door." 

Taking a sabbatical from his time as general manager of the Four Seasons Resorts to focus more on his writing, family and the "latent accessible spirituality" in Bali, John spoke of the difficulty to stay sensitive to a "duality of purpose between work and writing."  His desire was to create a space, a time to recalibrate away from the eternal churning of life. "I want to be able to eat little hearts off cupcakes; to take my kids to school and watch them pick their nose in the rear view mirror.  I want to break the cycle and find out who I am."

Karen, the founder of five restaurants in Ubud explained that she doesn't try and fit in eight hours of writing each day, preferring a "much saner approach, but with enough time to keep the ferment going."  She said she aims to be consistent "so the mind keeps moving", and sees the writing process as an "escapists world where we set the rules and it travels with you."  Dipika writes first thing in the morning, before she even pats the dog, then jots down ideas as flashes come into her mind throughout the day.  She urged writers to be disciplined but not debilitated, "even if it is only five sentences a day."

Whether writing, painting, dancing or composing, it is imperative that we carve time for ourselves, choose to incorporate creativity into daily life, or as John put it in his thick Irish brogue, "dig your own furrow."

Saturday, October 15

lunch with Alexander McCall Smith & Jennifer Byrne

I was thrilled to receive the honor of official photographer at the Literary Lunch with Alexander McCall Smith, one of the world's most prolific and popular authors.  The event was chaired by Australian journalist Jennifer Byrne over a three course lunch at the splendid Maya Ubud Resort & Spa.   Alexander shared humorous stories of Botswana, psychology and the ways of a frantic writer.  While the rest of us were swanning around the festival and taking long coffee breaks, Alexander penned 5000 words in less than 24 hours. I was just as excited to meet Jennifer, the face that introduced me to current affairs on 60 Minutes and Foreign Correspondent in the late '80's.  

beat 'till stiff : peta mathias

Between voracious gulps of red wine and a sensual rendition of an Edith Piaf classic, author, chef and television presenter Peta Mathias gave the audience advice on face cream, tattoos, boil treatment and how to stop strangling your mother, at the launch of her new book Beat ‘Till Stiff.  In the relaxed surrounds of Casa Luna restaurant on a cool and wet Ubud afternoon, wine and coffee sharpened the crowd to the inner workings of multiple female orgasm and germ transfer between Catholics. She warns mockingly that “one minute your holding a sinner’s hand in church and the next you’re in a coma in the infectious diseases ward.”

Beat ‘Till Stiff is a women’s recipe for living through a collection of stories about transformation. While her publisher was reluctant to agree to the provocative book title, Peta persisted and won, believing that “the most obvious transformation, if you are a cook, as I am, is the magic of eggwhites if you beat them, because they start out looking like a horrible pile of snot, which no one would want to eat.” Something happens to turn them into glorious peaks, a metaphor for the unexpected changes in life.  

Beat ‘Till Stiff follows the success of her humorous guides to the sexes - Can We Help It If We’re Fabulous? and Just In Time To Be Too Late.  While an authority on women, her latter analysis of manhood required her to delve into men’s fashion, psychology, and the sweaty realms of rugby. It was an enlightening experience and she recounts that “in interviewing these men, particularly about topics like family, relationships, sex and love, I just wish that I had asked these questions when I was in my twenties, and I wouldn’t have told so many men to f**k off and die.  I would have been a little bit more patient.”

In researching stories for Beat ‘Till Stiff  Peta interviewed sex therapists to garner theories of why women have the potential for multiple orgasms, grimaced through the pain of a tattoo - with advice to “take the drugs first, not after” - and channelled Edith Piaf’s sordid ways in the south of France.  She faced her accountant and the “ugly pieces of paper” at tax time, discovering she had spent $8240.05 on her appearance; almost the same amount as she had spent on five months rent in France. Arguing that “it costs a lot just to keep your act together” but   outraged at the amount, Peta called a friend who consoled her by saying “what, you only spent that much?  You’re an underachiever, go and get some more botox.”  Poppy red lipstick and fiery red hair are her signature, and Peta admits to a penchant for designer clothes, believing that they fall better and that she “needs them for mental health”. She eschews fitness, claiming she doesn’t need to go to the gym because she gets “so much exercise slapping all this cream all over myself.”  

Peta is a “big fan of therapy” and credits it to healing the complicated relationship she had with her mother.  She explained that “if you are still fighting with your mother at middle age, it means you haven’t outgrown childhood, you are still in a childhood emotional state of parent and child rather than two women. Once I got over that I saw my mother as a human being and a person for the first time and we both stopped being absolutely hideous.”   However, she is convinced that her mum lied about the origin of her disgusting childhood boils that had “aliens crawling out of them.”  

A “recovered Catholic” and ex-nurse, Peta outgrew being a chef at 45 and decided she wanted a career change, but didn’t know which direction to head.  With advice from the book “What Colour is My Parachute”, she re-read her school reports to see where she had excelled before being directed  by others.  “I looked at them and I wept, because I couldn’t remember who that girl was.  She was so different, this child, from the woman I had become.”  As a student Peta shone in singing, music, composition, English, French & Latin, “and with those god-given talents I went to Auckland hospital and became a nurse and washed bed pans, and I wasted five years of my life. It certainly taught me what I didn’t want in life”  After this she became a counsellor, then moved into cooking at the age of 40.  To those still searching, Peta offered the supportive words “It is never to late in life to start a new occupation.”  With a passion to write she published her first book aged 45, and the television series “Taste New Zealand” followed. Seventeen years later with twelve books to her name, her advice to aspiring writers is to “read writers who you admire,  read and read and read, then sit down and write and write and write.”  Through sheer self discipline, this is how a “nurse ended up in Bali drinking red wine.”

how to make gravy

the soundtrack of my days

How many notes in a saxophone and how much tomato sauce should you put in the perfect gravy?  Paul Kelly, Australian national treasure and a personal favourite was in Ubud to answer these question, launch his “mongrel memoir”, speak about his craft as singer/songwriter, and perform for eager fans at a fundraising concert.

For almost twenty years, the songs of Paul Kelly have been the soundtrack of my days.  I borrowed his lyrics to communicate with an ex-boyfriend when the confusion of dysfunctional young love shrouded my own voice.  I received scribbled replies from another track on the same album - a relationship commentated through a play list.  Paul’s songs carried a force of brevity and poetry that my own words lacked.  When I hear the songs again today, they crack the fragile surface of my memory. I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.  

Before ipods could fit an entire music library, I travelled with five mixed tapes and a walkman; PK’s music a link to home, a haven on a crowded train and the accompaniment to a daily changing visual world.   His music was there at my wedding ceremony, the melody of ripe love, and each album meets me at a new page of experience, binding together the chapters of my adulthood.

I have stood jammed against the stage at many concerts, from Perth to Edinburgh, and amassed a precious collection of play lists from beneath his feet.  Acoustic and full band, sit down auditorium and intimate pub rock; the man in black has captivated my spirit through his raw story telling. 

I was one of many crowded in to hear him speak about his craft and read from the pages of his “mongrel memoir”, and not the only one to be moved by his lachrymose acoustic renditions of “How to Make Gravy” and “Careless”.  He charmed long time fans and made new ones;  all in a bright pink floral shirt.

Saturday night he performed with legendary slide guitarist Lucky Oceans at the new Betelnut club next to Casa Luna.  For some unknown reason the ticket numbers were capped at a number far less than the venue could hold, which left a gaping hole at the back of the bar, but for those up close it was a treasured experience.  I witnessed what must be the first ever male paper-fan-dance to Paul Kelly music; think middle aged Aussie channelling a female Balinese dancer after a few beers and you have a visual. 

I was helping to run a silent auction in the foyer so I didn’t get to see the entire concert, but was able to steal away and catch a few favourites. At the conclusion I souvenired the playlist and asked Paul to sign it like a hopeless groupie.

Monday, October 10

pen, paper & pineapples

Back in the world of hot water, daytime power, frogs, traffic, pineapple, tree ferns and soy lattes.  The gentle chorus of nature is replaced by an assaulting symphony of motorbikes, roosters, gongs and whistles; the midnight ablutions of the neighbour in my left ear and electric planers at dawn in my right.  The incessant buzz of humans existing in the urban environment. You may have guessed by now I am not staying at the Four Seasons. Earplugs ease the transition into sleep, although a rat chewing on my hair at 3am brings a swift end that dreams.  I knew my hair was dry and well overdue for a haircut, but when it became attractive nest building material I was straight to the salon for a $4 trim, and tucked the mozzie net in with greater diligence.  In revenge, my rodent friend has snuck off with two of my g-strings to furnish his (or her) home.
I am in Ubud with a host of other wordsmiths and bookish types for the 8th annual Writers & Readers Festival. I have been so caught up rediscovering busyness that I haven’t had time to punch the keys.  I even had a schedule, a reason to keep time beyond sunrise, sunset and the movement of the tide.  How do you lot out there keep this pace up everyday?  This is my second festival as a volunteer and first as an official photographer, a role I have relished, although the speed of the media turnaround is far greater than my usual meanderings – you mean you want it today?  My adrenals are wondering what is the emergency?  Late nights, too much coffee, deadlines, nerves and excitement.  This koala is way out on a coconut frond with blood shot eyes and a reignited caffeine addiction.

If you will allow my ego a little screen time, I must share the highlights of my week.  Lunch at the Maya with Alexander McCall Smith and Jennifer Byrne, staying up way past bedtime with Paul Kelly and Lucky Oceans, lounging with actor Steve Bisley, and laughing over coffee with Irish poet and manager of the Four Seasons, John O’Sullivan.  I learnt how to get inside an editors inbox with Australian journalist Benjamin Law and the theories behind multiple female orgasm with Kiwi celebrity chef, author and tv presenter Peta Mathias.  It is testament to the length and breadth of these people’s careers that I have even heard of them, having missed large chunks of the past ten years music, tv and movie scene.  

Now that the festival is over for 2011 and the writers and readers take flight across the globe, I’m heading south to meet up with Aquaman for our visa run to Singapore tomorrow.  I hope you enjoy the posts to come from my time at the festival and I urge anyone interested in words to attend next October. The literature world weaves a wide cloth, and volunteering is a fantastic way to get beneath its warmth.

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