Two guys on the flight from Sydney to Denpasar drink steadily for six hours from plastic cups. I am curled on the seats behind. Through the gap I can see the Australian flag flight pillows wrapped around each neck like a brace.
‘Hey. Hey, why don’t you go talk to her. Go on.’
‘Saving yourself for some exotic, ay?’ They giggle. They’re bonding. Never begin a travel story with a plane flight. I know this, but for all my writing about tourism and tourists and expats and such, I couldn’t have made these Australians up. I want to follow them around and record them. Instead, I grab my bags and head south.
This is where the real story starts. This is where the tales I know how to tell leave me, and where I see, feel, taste and am assaulted by new experiences. I am fresh from the arms of the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF) in Melbourne on an exchange that brings me to Indonesia for two weekends of the Bali Emerging Writers’ Festival (BEWF), and sends performance poet Khairani Barokka to Australia. I have never been to Bali and never thought I would. My imagination stops at boogie boards, sexpats, sunburn and cheap things – a party held together by hair braids and sarongs. I heave my suitcase into a car pointing north, thinking that the guys from the plane are probably more knowledgeable about the place than me.
I sleep, I wake up, my eyes are stupid with the beauty. I am in another car with some of the team from the BEWF – three men who are as dedicated to eating as they are to working. We climb the road from Ubud to Singaraja, through forests of squatting, bearded monkeys. We stop at Lake Bratan for the first of three lunches and afterwards Gustra Adnyana, the festival’s media guru, interviews me in a swan-shaped paddleboat.
‘We had these boats where I grew up,’ I tell him, desperate to tie together the contrails of where I came from and where I have ended up. But they dissipate. Nothing is the same (we’re not in Gippsland any more, Toto). Not the mountain lake, not the wooden pier, not the plastic picnic tables, not the 20-cent toilets. And the festival won’t be the same either.
Usually when you exchange something, you don’t get it back. Exchange is both a loss and a gain. You are supposed to give and take something away: an old book for a different old book, a conversation on the phone. At the airport currency exchange I handed over known money for unknown. When humans are exchanged, we are also expected to contribute and bring back. I wake up in Singaraja, the hot old capital in the north. There’s a pile of books on the bedside table and one of them is Compassion & Solidarity: A bilingual anthology of Indonesian writing. In ‘At Kawali, I Hunt Light’, Dian Hartati writes ‘I seek the meeting portal / bearing an engaged heart that hungers not for power’. I’ve just finished an MA that banged on about Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zones. In Imperial Eyes Pratt talks about the ‘space of imperial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.’
The meeting portal. Hunger without power. Is exchange beyond contact? It’s supposed to be an agreement. A shaking of hands as we pass into separate, unfamiliar rooms. Can I possibly leave something useful in Bali? Something better than a deflated neck pillow and an emptied bottle of Bintang?
I once wrote a piece for Women of Letters about my twelve-year-old self’s obsession with Annie, and the BEWF’s request for a 15-minute ‘art performance’ has me dusting it off for my first gig in Singaraja. I sing ‘The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow’ in front of a hundred-strong crowd. The audience talks through it and then applauds wildly at the end. I sit down and watch the other performances. I collect what I can. A trio of brightly painted siblings eats a whole watermelon with just their faces; black-clad dancers shuffle eerily across the stage; exquisite-voiced teenagers belt out some of the more beautiful tunes I’ve heard. I try to focus, to take, with a mind like clutching hands. I need to go to the toilet.
On the grass outside is a group about to go on stage. They are dancers, laid out in an impossible circle of limbs. Holding hands. Playing some sort of dance game. They look so calm, as though performance is something you’re born into, and I think it is here. I can’t see the nerves or the angst or the drama. No one is messing with the thick white makeup on their bodies or trying to squash in extra moves. There is just a close, focused circle. I take it, like a snapshot.
The next day I am running a workshop with about forty teenagers – school and university age. ‘Do you really need me to translate this?’ asks Kadek Sonia Piscayanti, their lecturer, who has been in conversation with me on the stage. Heads shake. We continue on foot. It is a two-hour workshop and I try to give, I do. I talk about character. I talk about music. I talk about myself. But there is a moment where I have to stand very still and focus on my eyes to stop them from crying. The kid in front of me has produced – in fifteen minutes for-goodness-sake – a wedge of splendour that just flaps off the page and around the room.
Bookended by festival weekends, I take a holiday. I see the volcanic lakes above Ubud, I feel the hot stones on my back, I eat the food, food, food and then quite suddenly, I meet the wrong mosquito. We make an exchange. She takes my blood and leaves saliva: a quick lick of her long tubey tongue on my pierced skin – routine, just to stop the clotting so she can eat – and I am plunged into fever. Chikungunya. It sounds like ‘chicken dinner’ (or chicken vagina, as one friend said), and it’s weeks before I can eat properly again and four more months before I can walk without pain.
The sickness stalls me but the festival goes on. The next time the BEWF team see me I am slow and red. I vomit, crawl around the hotel room trying to pack my tiny bag, fall into the car headed to Denpasar for the next part of the festival and sleep the whole way. The fever fades and there is a window of foggy health in which I speak on a panel about women’s stories, bop to the band Angka Ganjil, and perform ‘My Way’ – a writhing poem debased on the old song. The chikungunya rash has started and in the photos I look as red as a Kuta tourist with passed-out-on-the-beach sunburn.
Later, when I get back to Australia, EWF will become jealous that Bali got ‘My Way’ and I will perform it again in a giraffe onesie. On the same night I will meet Khairani Barokka – the other half of the exchange. Barokka is the sort of performance poet who can hold you completely still on the tip of her words, while exploding your mind with images.
‘What did you leave on your exchange?’ I will ask her between our sets. ‘What will you take away?’
She will say, ‘Left in Australia without a doubt: the detritus of many Crunchie bars consumed in great happiness. Hopefully the imprint of an Indonesian’s friendly voice, and a goofy face to put to Australia’s northern neighbour, chipping away at any fear or confusion about us. Taken away: memories of a loveliness not dissimilar to honeycomb-coated chocolate, all of listening, reading, performing, speaking, conversing with and being inspired by many wonderful writers of all backgrounds. Pictures of the bounteous graffiti in Melbourne bathroom stalls.’
What do I exchange here? (Not Frank Sinatra, he comes with me.) Any fat that was on my body I leave with the mosquito fever; any advice I have on how to write a short story stays in the dizzying heat of Singaraja, with forty students belting out the words. I leave my lovely bathing suit on a balcony, some shoes outside a room and a tube of toothpaste in every bathroom. I leave the idea of the page, or rather, I return to the knowledge that there is something beyond it. I take the gait of an 80-year-old with arthritic, twisted hands. I take away collected works from the last few years of the festival. I take the invitation to return again. I take the quiet moment before the performance starts, when nothing can change but everything can.
On the plane flight home I sit next to two young men so hung-over they can hardly move. I don’t have any stories about them.
Laura Jean McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia, a short story collection that explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. Her writing has been published in The Best Australian Stories, The Big Issue, Women of Letters, Going Down Swinging and The Lifted Brow. She is working on a novel.