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Rice paddies, like paradise, but with hell just beneath the smooth surface of the waters

thirty-three seasons in hell: a prologue (I)

by Susi, 26 April 2018


Eight years ago, an interview and profile of me appeared in the magazine BaliSavvy, “the official American Express® guide to the island”.

This afternoon I happened on a copy of it in my messy archive of the eight plus years in hell I have endured between March 2010 and now. Reading it today affected me enormously. My hands are trembling. My mind is a blur.

I have decided to post that 2010 interview here in several installments, as a prologue to a writing project I call “Thirty-Three Seasons in Hell”.

Here is the first installment of this prologue which is entitled . . .

2010: Jadis, Si Je Me Souviens Bien

Would you tell us where you’re from, and how fate brought you to Bali?

Fate didn’t bring me here! Thai Airways did.

I never meant to come to Bali at all. I was coerced into it in 1995 by my sister, Emily, who was living here then. I resisted, because I thought of Bali a touristy place, where nice English girls went during their gap year, en route to Australia, and, as I understood it, drank a lot of Bintang beer with Australian footballers, bought garish Garuda woodcarvings as souvenirs, and got a tan.

I was based in Hanoi at that time, and eventually agreed to visit Bali for two weeks. That was fifteen years ago. I’m still here.

I hadn’t read anything about Bali or Indonesia, and as my Thai Airways flight was landing, I suddenly felt guilty. I hadn’t even cracked a Lonely Planet guide or anything else about Bali, ever. At that moment I decided to go with the blank-slate approach, to commit to an experiment in unmediated acceptance of things just as they are. I studiously avoided all written information about Bali, even when Emily’s friends all proffered their copies of Eiseman, Covarrubias, Koke, and McPhee, urging me to read them. Although curious, I declined, deciding consciously that I would simply observe everything around me, as objectively as I could.

Then I caught Legionnaire’s Disease and almost died, although I never went to a doctor. I was so trounced by the illness, I decided to stay right where I was for six months, in a rented bamboo bungalow in the middle of the rice fields near Ubud. I would do nothing. Plan nothing. Write nothing. Initiate nothing. Just live, breathe, heal, and wander around taking in whatever presented itself to me, without judging, intervening or controlling any of it. And that is exactly what I did.

The friendships, inspirations and knowledge I gained during those six months made it impossible to ever leave Bali, and I haven’t. So that is how a two-week break from Hanoi became a life in Bali.julia roberts on a bicycle in the rice fields, upended

My Bali story is arguably like a broad prototype for Eat, Pray, Love. My story, reduced to mere bullet points, goes something like this:

• Divorce.
• Quit hot city job.
• Retire at 35 to write and travel.
• End up in Bali unintentionally.
• Live in Ubud palace for seven years.
• Write. Publish.
• Study Indonesian and Balinese intensively.
• Hang out with high priests and shamans and princes and scholars and all that.

(That’s the Pray part.)

• Convert palace garage on Monkey Forest Road into a shop, in partnership with Ubud rebel prince.
• Un-retire due to unintended success in the antiques trade.
• Gorgeous, charismatic Italian genius, resident in Bali, finds me and sweeps me off my feet.

(That’s the Love part.)

It’s so maudlin when I put it that way! I can hardly stand it myself! But the reality was far different — more nuanced and more mundane, more quotidien, and much more nitty-gritty.

Consider living in a 50’s era fan-cooled room for years on end, with no kitchen, no hot water, a squat toilet and a cistern-type setup for bathing (called a bak mandi), in a traditional Balinese compound in the middle of Ubud with three generations of a Balinese family and their servants sneezing, squawking and squalling all around you, all around the clock.

I never felt any hardship in that. Not in the least. It seems strange to me, even now, but I never felt deprived or ascetic about it, nor did I intend to. I was just doing what seemed most interesting, and most comfortable, in the moment. This approach eventually brought me to a specific spot, at a specific moment, where I met someone who I never looked for or cared to meet — my husband, Bruno. The spot was the front courtyard of Haji Daeng Iskandar’s house and showroom in Kerobokan. The moment was some nondescript late morning, with nondescript weather, in the early 00’s.

I didn’t find Bruno, he found me. And it was purely by chance, because I just happened to be exactly there, exactly then. The rest is legend. So to speak.

And there we have it. My story is — surely — more interesting and more broadly meaningful than the EPL movie was! It lasts longer and goes deeper. Speaking of longer and deeper and other matters, my husband, I firmly believe, beats Xavier Bardem in every department. With all due respect to that talented actor, of course.

Xavier Bardem with Julia Roberts, in the Ubud market during the shooting of the film "Eat, Pray, Love"

I did the Pray and Love parts. And now comes the happily ever after part. We have our Ubud shop (Macan Tidur), a new gallery in Seminyak (ICON), and an international business providing the best that Indonesia has to offer to discerning clients all over the world. More importantly, we have enormous love and respect for one another.

There’s one crucial footnote I want to add to this EPL “compare and contrast” thing. My husband is very Italian and we visit Italy often, so the Eat part of the story is happening after all. I eat in gleefully in Italy, as Elizabeth Gilbert did. And I eat passionately at home in Bali. Bruno is a fantastic chef who loves to cook, plus we’ve got a killer kitchen, so we eat at home a lot, and eat very well indeed. Therefore, my version of the story goes: Pray, Love, Eat!

Do please bear in mind, my story as I’ve related it, had already sailed off into the sunset, in real time, well before Elizabeth and the Gilbertines (the EPL devotees) came on the scene! And do please also tell the world’s movie producers and literary agents they can reach me through the office at ICON Asian Arts. Thank you. Preference will be given to agents who aim to sell the film rights for an enormous sum before the book is even written. Then I can afford a ghostwriter. Less work for me. I’m joking, of course.

But I need to get back to your question. Since you asked where I’m from, I should answer. During the first twelve years of my life, our family moved seven times, so I suppose I was raised as a nomad from nowhere and everywhere. I went to school in the Seattle area and to university in Scotland. I’ve lived in Bali longer than any other place on earth, and I don’t see myself moving away from Bali. So the nomad has settled, it seems.

There is so much in this 2010 interview that gives me chills today. Bits that are prophetic. Bits that paint a picture of a fine future —  landscape of love, friendships, altruism, adventure, and beauty. That picture, however, was brutally destroyed by some inherent dark aspect of Bali, that so far has defied description in any language. The picture was destroyed as well, by fundamental aspects of The Indonesian Character (Manusia Indonesia), as described by Mochtar Lubis in the 1970s.

Looking closely at the BaliSavvy snapshot of life as I knew it in 2010, may give shape to the amorphous dark aspects I refer to above, and begin to reveal the shape of the vague but palpable toxicity that has tainted Indonesia, and all matters Indonesian, since the country’s beginnings. Stand by for my next installment of the 2010 BaliSavvy interview, here. It will be entitled Mauvais Sang.

An e-Book of the Mochtar Lubis work referenced above can be read here. Titles of this work in translation, vary considerably (The Indonesian Dilemma, The Indonesian Character, We Indonesians, etc.).


      • Susan Howell
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      • April 27, 2018

      Well done!

      • Rosalind Beasley
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      • April 28, 2018

      Your enormous talent reveals itself yet once more. Your story, yet to be completed, will be deep and provocative (intellectually, certainly, and likely otherwise) and well worth reading irrespective of who writes it. And better still, it will be without the reality aspect, the sequel and sequelae, always evident in America - "...get fat, become self-indulgent" - that befalls the rest of us who dine on sumptuous Italian cooking.

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