Could you help at the Ubud Writer's Festival?

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, on the pros and cons of volunteering at the annual writer's festival in Ubud, Bali

4 mins

Back in Bangkok, when I was frantically searching for information on how to find a reasonably priced bungalow, flat, or villa in Ubud for a month, I stumbled over this:

There is an annual writer's festival in Ubud, and it was happening during my second week in Bali.

Well, how about that, I thought.

I went to the website and nosed around.

They’re serious, I realised.

They were flying in Alexander McCall Smith, Junot Diaz, and Australian musician Paul Kelly.

But there were also plenty of writers I’d never heard of, and workshops along the lines of "turn your blog into a book contract" which can be done, but in truth probably won’t be. So I dashed off an email saying I'd be in town then and would be happy to be on some of the festival panels if they needed people who can talk about comic books/graphic novels, blogging, travel writing, or parts of Africa and the Gulf.

Or New Jersey. Though seldom does my expertise in tent camping in New Jersey come in handy outside of my brash adopted home state.

I didn't hear back for a few days, so I went back to the festival website, did some searching, then dug up the director of programming's email and sent the note directly to her. 

And still heard nothing.

Later I’d learn there had been a problem with this particular person leaving the festival organisers, but at the time, I was just annoyed no-one responded.

But, I reasoned, I was still in Ubud during the festival so I decided to just volunteer the normal way, for door work or box office work. Maybe I'd get to meet some people, I figured.

I filled out the form on the website and the volunteer coordinator got back to me immediately, rostering me without even completing the volunteering process. She was really friendly, efficient, and highly amused by my Kuwaiti comics job.

She also rostered me onto some special lunches – offered to get me to an Alexander McCall Smith cocktail event an hour away (I declined as I had no transport) – and gave me two "posh alerts". As in don't-wear-anything-filthy-and-old since two of these venues were high-end hotels.

I did look around town for something suitable and even went to the big mall in Kuta on Monday, but I didn't see anything any nicer than my black cotton skirt if I just got it ironed and bought a nice shirt to wear alongside it. Plus, I don't want to spend a lot of money to volunteer.

The "frock" hunt was on hold for the moment, but I still had to head to volunteer orientation, which was at 3pm near the supermarket down the hill from where I was staying.

I felt a little awkward, all alone in a big room full of people after travelling mostly alone for months on my round-the-world journey. I chatted a bit with the woman behind me in line, and then I got to the front of the line where I was to identify myself to Nina, the volunteer coordinator.

Nina was about 60-years-old, with a full head of silver hair pulled into pigtails with bangs. She was adorable.

"You're Marie! We must have coffee! Let's be friends!"

I laughed. "OK." And then I was whisked away, so she could keep registering the line of volunteers.

Nina and her Indonesian counterpart made speeches, and then we were sent off into small groups with our supervisors to learn our duties. My group was really small – me and one young German woman. Our supervisor, Louise, was a 50-ish American woman.

"You two will meet at Casa Luna on Thursday. The panel starts at 9 in the morning – what time did they tell you to be there?"

"7:30," said Eva, the German volunteer.

I laughed. "They told me 7:15."

"They told me 8," said Louise. "We'll make it 7:30 then. But I'm not meeting you at Casa Luna. I'll meet you at the venue at 8. You have to walk to it from Casa Luna." She showed us the map. The venue was near where I am staying, down the hill about ten minutes. I didn’t see much point in walking to a meeting spot at 7:30 to turn around and walk back toward home at 8.

"I’m staying near the venue. I'll meet you at the venue at 8 too," I said.

Louise didn't like this so much.


Yikes. I'm not good with edicts. But I wasn't here to argue with people. Good thing I didn't too, as I later learned the whole point of the event was we were taking the walk from Casa Luna to the venue through the rice paddies.

"Um, if you're not there, is someone else going to be there who knows the way?" I changed the subject.

"The writer knows the way. HELLO? It's HIS PANEL." She wasn't really winning me over.

"But isn't he the guest?"

"Yes. That's why he knows where the venue is." She looked at me like I was a complete moron.

"Fine,” I knew arguing wasn’t going to work here. “We'll follow the guest to the villa."

I could see where this was going – to a long walk with a bunch of lost people – but I didn't want to argue on every point.

"Now, you both have to be at the other event on Friday. Do you have transportation? It's far away."

What? I had to get myself somewhere far?

The German woman answered this time. "I'll take a motorbike taxi."

"OK, yeah, me too," I said. This event was at one of the "posh alert" places, so I realised this could get interesting on a motorbike.

The German woman only had two assignments and was dismissed. I had one more, something at a swanky hotel with a famous writer I wasn’t familiar with.

Louise told me volunteers weren't getting to eat at the regular luncheon at the swanky hotel and had to eat in the pantry or something.

"That's obnoxious."

"Yes, I agree."

Good, we were bonding a bit now. I had been startled by her no-nonsense attitude and by her demanding demeanor.

"So I'll see you on Thursday?"

"Yes, see you on Thursday morning."

I went upstairs to get my white volunteer T-shirt and bag of goodies. I looked around, feeling awkward again. Shouldn't I try to talk to someone? But people were still in their groups. So I left for the supermarket, then home.

And when I got there, I looked up Louise on Facebook.

And suddenly it all made sense.

She was originally from New Jersey.

The 10th Annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival will be held 11-15 October, 2013. For more details visit the official website.

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