Literary Magic in Bali

Last month I had the opportunity to participate for the second year in a row in the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the six-day festival, I taught two travel writing workshops, spoke on a panel about the evolution of the genre, and hosted a luncheon conversation with the co-founders of Lonely Planet, Maureen and Tony Wheeler.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this year’s fest was the biggest gathering yet, with more than 200 authors, musicians, and performers from more than 20 countries participating, and many hundreds of literature-lovers from around the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia, and beyond attending.

As with last year, I was exhilarated to encounter in panels and dinners and performances acclaimed and groundbreaking journalists, novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Egypt, Syria, Germany, France, Ireland, and England, as well as bright-eyed, book-hugging readers inspired by what these writers create.

One of the festival’s highlights was the aforementioned travel writing panel, facilitated by Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival. My fellow panelists were Tony Wheeler (who launched his new book, Tony Wheeler’s Dark Lands, at the festival) and two Indonesian travel writers, a vivacious woman named Trinity who was introduced as “Indonesia’s leading travel writer,” and a charming young man named Agustinus Wibowo, whose three books recount his arduous and illuminating journeys throughout Asia and the Middle East.

I was humbled by my ignorance of these authors and grateful that the festival introduced me to them — and to their works, which I have now been able to read in English translations: Trinity’s just-published account of far-flung travels in Indonesia, The Naked Traveler, and Agustinus’s Point Zero (to be published in English next year), which interweaves tales from his own adventures abroad with his account of returning home to be with his mother as cancer gradually takes her life.

Another gift of the festival was being immersed in the bounties of Bali, from the sinuous dancers and limpid gamelan music that officially opened the festival, to the numerous nighttime gatherings throughout Ubud, where I lingered late over satay, sayur urap salad, and Bintang beers, in graceful gardens under luxuriant boughs festooned with tiny lights, rapt in conversations that reminded me what the art — and heart — of writing is really all about.

All in all, it was an enchanted and enchanting week, and I’d encourage all literature lovers — writers and readers alike — to consider attending next year.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.