Text and photos by Rio Helmi



Born in Padang Tegal in 1980, Kadek Purnami says her clearest recollections from her Ubud childhood are from when she was around the age of eight. We had coffee at my gallery in Ubud.


Rio Helmi: What are your main childhood memories?


Kadek Purnami: I attended Ubud Primary no 1, which is now the Camat (district administrative) office. I still remember on Hanoman there was still a “pengak” (pop-up market) every morning. People would shop there for their daily needs, sort of like the Indomaret and Circle K of the day. Every three days the main market in Ubud would fall on “pasah” (on the Balinese pawukon calendar) so everyone on that day would shop there. In those days there were only a few shops in Ubud, they sold rice and canned stuff.


And another memory: the river that is on Dewi Sita, which is now between Batan Waru restaurant and Bunute, that was the river for Ubud and Padang Tegal people to bathe in. For us in those days it was big enough. People would even get their drinking water from there, from sort of rock basin where the water filtered through. But now it looks like a ditch to me, smaller and smaller as restaurants encroach on it.


RH: What’s your take on these changes you’ve seen?


KP: There is one more thing that has left a deep impression on me: Monkey Forest. That was where I played as a kid. The rice fields were vast, and we  used to be afraid to go there late in the afternoon because it was so sacred and spooky. Nobody wanted to live there in those days. When I was a kid we used to dare each other – the further south you went the cooler you were. But now it’s all finished and has become hotels, restaurants and what not. Finished.


RH: So in actual fact there has been a shifting of values, not just ordinary development?


KP: Yes, you could say there has been a shift in values. And now the “value” there has become so high (laughter). Nowadays the price of land there is exorbitant, and yet in the old days people always wanted to trade those rice fields for land elsewhere. That all started from 1990 up.


Another thing that has left an impression on me as a native of Ubud is that when Ubud became a (full on) tourist destination then everything possible became an exploitable element for the tourist industry. We, the natives of Ubud, no longer felt we had any public space. All we have is the football field for big events but there were so many places which could be used for simple social gatherings, to meet and chat. All the warungs are being squeezed out by Circle K, Indomaret, Alphamaret, etc. People in the old days would hang out at the warung to have coffee, perhaps buy just one cigarette out of the pack and chat with their neighbours there. The men would swap stories about politics, talk about their daily lives etc.


RH: And the women at the market…


KP: Yes, the women would chat at the market. The other day I took a count: there are more than 20 mini mart franchises in Ubud, which really cuts the income stream of the warungs. So now whatever small necessity people have, they get it at the mini mart – which has also created a trend for the younger generation to use those places to hang out. The mini marts are smart – they put out benches and have free wifi too.



RH: I wonder about that, because if you go into the small villages surrounding Ubud there’s a trend for local women to set up little stalls, just a table with local produce from their neighbours etc.  I think that’s healthy.


KP: Yeah it’s healthy.


RH: So why can’t this happen in Ubud? I mean that trend is so close to Ubud.


KP: Well everyone here works in the tourist industry.


RH: So they’re “employee minded”?


KP: Sure. They work as waitresses, room maids or whatever. They’re not going to take on any other work like selling rujak etc, even though people still like those things.


RH: Before people used to say that selling, stalls etc was a sign of semi unemployment. Coming back to what you said, it’s actually part of culture. How do you feel about this development?


KP: Well for me it’s part of culture, but not everyone in our society sees it that way. Maybe some only see it as a business for their own profit only. So for them – now they want to have a restaurant at the very least, rather than a small stall for locals. There’s more profit in selling to tourists.


RH: So Kadek, you are personally active in gathering together ‘cultural forces’ in the form of (emerging) writers. This is your passion. How did you get involved in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival?


KP: I did PR and communications at Atmajaya University in Yogya. When I came home I said to my father: “I want to work but not just for money in some company, I want to work in a foundation where I can give something back to others.”. I thought maybe a small foundation that could create a reading club for kids, an English language club, and so on – a learning centre. Some kind of social activity. Dad agreed: “You should contribute something to Ubud. You’ve been away for a long time. Do something for the arts…”Finally my father –in-law introduced me to Janet De Neefe.

When I was living in Yogya I was used to meeting up with friends to discuss ideas, what was happening in the world, student movements, and other stuff. When I came back to Ubud I was lonely – with whom could I discuss these things? It was like I had no friends. Finally when I joined UWRF I found a lot of friends I could discuss things with.


RH: You could say that at UWRF you aren’t simply implementing their agenda but you have initiated a new aspect of it: the Bali Emerging Writers Festival. That’s your baby isn’t it? I would like to know about that.


KP: When I work somewhere I always think: “This is my practice of devotion”. You see I really don’t know much about adat, I’m not much use in the context of tradition – though I do keep trying! But I think, what can I give? As this (BEWF) is my passion, this is what I can give. I enjoy meeting young people who are talented, and Janet then gave me a framework for it. This came about because I saw UWRF as being so exclusive, it’s mostly attended by middle-aged people up, Australians etc who live in Ubud and are financially independent.


But there is no place at UWRF for young people below 25, it feels too exclusive for them. There is a first layer, 50 and above, the first generation. Then the second layer is around 30-40 years old. So who is going to look after the third layer if they don’t have a framework – the way I see it if they aren’t given a vehicle then there will be no regeneration, new talent won’t come up. So I looked for funding and got it from a Dutch NGO, HIPOS, for the Bali Emerging Writer’s Festival.


I then saw that there are a lot of extraordinarily talented young Balinese, not only in literature. I began to gather those who were into photography, art, design, music. I embrace them all, trying to find ways to create links for them. I even found two young people who were so concerned with the Balinese language, they actually wrote novels in Balinese – I was so surprised.


RH: From the BEWF activity that you have initiated, have you seen any artists emerge from Ubud itself?


KP: Well I think essentially they have a different direction. At a glance I see they are active in the tourism business. Their focus is not culture. Amongst my own generation maybe I’m the only one working in this field. I am trying to introduce the generation below me to it all: “Hey check this literature out, look – this is another world of art”. They are so set in a direction by their parents who on average own a hotel or the like, so the kids go to hotel training school. They study in Singapore, come back and run their parents’ hotel or restaurant.


RH: Well nowadays the tourist industry is the new civil service. Before, everyone wanted to be part of the civil service, now they want to be part of the tourist service.


KP: Exactly. Unfortunately most of our people are middle class down. So they are only dreaming of becoming a GM or something, which for the time being is the realm of the expats.


Looking at the complex issues between expats and local people, between the palace and the people, between culture and business – most of these arise due to the lack of economic security. They’re still hungry – they think “How can I get some money? Ok let’s just do this..” If you are financially stable then you can think about things like art and culture. In the meantime they’re still struggling…


RH: But you yourself are in that position – and yet you want to think about art and culture.


KP: Yeah, people used to ask me: “You’re a volunteer, so what are you going to eat?” Well I just had to put aside all thoughts of a stylish lifestyle for the sake of this. So if, say, my wage is 3 million, then I have to live at that level, I have to suppress my desires for more. I can’t have all the latest gadgets etc.


RH: Some people use the term “idealistic”. I don’t see it as idealistic, rather as something practical because there is no other way.

KP: Well it’s a commitment. I have been doing this for 10 years. Sure I experience frustration, burn out etc too. For example when I can’t get funding… When I am touring Karangasem, Tabanan and so on I come home with an extra burden on my shoulders. All these young people say to me: “Please help us for next year.” It weighs on my heart because next year is election year, and I wonder if I can get funding in this climate, all funds will be directed to that…


RH: Well you are better off having a lot of talent around and no money, rather that having fund but no talent to work with… (laughter)


KP: That’s true, if you have money but no will then it’s tough. Yesterday I was thinking about it. If I didn’t do this work then who would? My work feels important, but only because there is this talent out there, not because of me.