A Balinese baker’s story

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was cynical about some tourists in Bali. Not all of them, and not everything about them. But they would gush stories about how they loved such and such a Balinese, that they were family,  after knowing them for ‘years, which would amount to about 10 weeks in a lifetime.

“Wayan, they are like family,” they would croon.

“Yeah, right!” I would think, along with almost every expat I’ve spoken to.

Bali Soul Journals is about the heart and soul of Bali, and after speaking to several Balinese these last many days, I have changed my mind.

Ketut settled it for me once and for all this afternoon. Here is her story, which explains why the heart of Bali, the true heart of Bali, is grateful, loving and kind. A genuine heart that connects with people, and with a love of Australians that spans decades.

Before I go on, I should preface this by saying that many of the stories date back to the 1980’s. This is when Bali was very different to how it is today. Palm trees stretched down to Kuta Beach where the Hardrock Cafe now stands. Sandy paths weaved their way down Jalan Melasti and connected the tracks to the sea. Balinese were unhurried, grateful for the tourist dollar, but more so for the chat, the banter, the laughs. Aussies brought a spark to the island, and they brought big hearts.

Today, things are different in Kuta. There is the notorious Kuta Strip which used to be about Arak, guitars and girls. Now, this short zone is tainted with drugs, knives and the fear of methanol, tarnishing the reputation of Bali, a source of fascination for journalists, and without doubt a risky street to dump your inhibitions and get drunk in.

Tourists have different expectations of Bali. They want it fast, western and quick, with a dash of Balinese wit and warmth. Some tourists treat the Balinese appallingly, some, with reverence. Some locals take advantage of big hearts. So perhaps my cynicism won’t evaporate completely.

But Bali Soul Journals is for the conscious traveller, or the awakening traveller, with stories to connect you with a Bali that has a spiritual heart and a staunch soul. Through the beauty of Ketut and her family, this is a journey you will want to take.

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Ketut’s story

Ketut was born in 1970 into a large family in a village not too far from central Bali. She had two older sisters and a brother, and one younger sister who works with her today.

When she was 10, her father ‘left her’. “You mean died?” I asked, confused. Balinese men in general don’t abandon families.

“Yes”, she replied. Mati. Dead.

This left her mother to bring the children up alone. As a farming family, this was never going to be easy.

“I went to school,” she explains. “I was lucky.”

She tells me that back in the nineteen sixties, Balinese children rarely finished school, they were needed on the land. This was through many turbulent years, from the 1963 eruption of Mount Agung which killed thousands, and created economic havoc, forcing many displaced Balinese to be transmigrated to other parts of Indonesia.

Mirroring the widening of social divisions across Indonesia in the 1950s and early 1960s, Bali saw conflict between supporters of the traditional caste system, and those rejecting these values. The opposition was represented by supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) which fuelled tensions by the PKI’s land reform system.

At least 500,000 people were killed across Indonesia when an attempted coup was put down by troops led by General Suharto and an estimated 80,000 were killed in Bali, roughly 5% of the population.

It was this world that her siblings were born into and a child was lucky to attend school, never mind complete two or three years of elementary school.

By the time Ketut was born in 1970, Bali was beginning to feel the beat of tourism and at 15, she was given a choice. Leave school now, get a job, and you can buy jewellery. Or, finish school, get a job, and wait to buy jewellery. Of course, every girl wants to buy bling and a Balinese girl loves gold. But despite that she was given a choice, she felt she did not have one.

Education would have to wait, and Ketut got a job. The reality is likely that the family needed her contribution and school was seen as unnecessary, particularly by those who had never thought to finish or who couldn’t finish. Education was just not seen as a priority when food was needed on the table.

So she started work in Legian at Puspasari, now the Casa Padma Hotel. She was interviewed and after a quick appraisal of her looks and figure, told she could begin as a waitress.

Ketut immediately began crying, saying “No, no! I cannot, I cannot speak English!” So instead, she began work in the kitchen.

Some 18 months later, she gained employment at Sea Breeze in Legian, next to Kopi Pot. It was there that she began to build on the English she had gleaned from listening to bar staff after hours and fragments of chat from tourists. Barmen would teach her how to make the infamous Arak Attack, a highly fuelled blend of cordial and locally brewed alcohol.

By the time she got her first dictionary, she was already starting to speak the language.

Back in 1986, her monthly wage was 40.000 rupiah. The Australian dollar was fetching about 1.500 rupiah. For $26 a month, she worked eight-hour days, six days a week. Putting this in perspective, I was earning $3,000 per month as a trainee police officer.

For a young, attractive Balinese girl, there were tips and other opportunities to make money. Ketut laughs. One man once said to her, “Come to my room.”

“For what?” she would ask.

“My wife isn’t there!” the man would exclaim.

“Then why come to your room?” she would ask, bewildered.

Another man, an Australian, was keen to teach her English. She took notes as he helped her with conversations. Ketut had been promoted into the restaurant and was keen to improve her conversational skills.

“Good morning”, she would write.

“How are you?” she would ask, keeping to the script.

The first man she tried her new-found skills on turned beetroot red and began to splutter.

As Ketut tells us the story, she covers her face laughing and says, “I can’t remember what he taught me, but bad words!”

“Come on!” we encourage her, “Tell us!”

She erupts in laughter, trying to get the words out. Spluttering, she repeats what she said, giggling – the memory is still fresh.

“Good morning,” I read from my paper. “How are you?” I ask the man.

“Are you f***ing D***head?!”

Ketut throws her head back and Trish and I scream with laughter!

“Oh,” she says, “He tell me I make good friends if I say this, but this man (was) very angry!” Luckily, the restaurant was empty and she was told very quickly that these were not good words to use.

Another Australian Allan Miller from Port Hedland treated her very well. He had just got married, so she estimates that he would now be around 69.

His wife Reya (or Riya), she told me, was a good lady, just married “so not jealous”. Allan would come down to the bar but “she would only give him little money so he couldn’t drink too much.”

She knew it was her job to get them to drink more. It worked, with her pretty face, slim figure and bubbly personality. One day, Allan got so drunk he threw her in the pool, not realising she couldn’t swim. She laughs. These are the memories of good times in Bali, when fun was fun. Needless to say, Allan also got wet as he had to jump in to rescue her.

My disability daughter

Hardship can bring out the best, and the worst, in mankind. Ketut was to experience mostly kindness and compassion from Australians she fondly refers to as family or her heroes.

By the time she was 21, she was pregnant to her husband Nyoman. The baby was a beautiful girl but Ketut knew there was a problem when she wasn’t developing.

Hydrocephalus is a brain condition that gets its name from the Greek word for water (meaning “hydro”) and head (meaning “cephalus”). It happens when cerebral spinal fluid — the clear, water-like fluid that surrounds and cushions the brain and spinal cord — is unable to drain from the brain. It then pools, causing a backup of fluid in the skull.

Sometimes referred to as “water on the brain,” it can cause babies’ heads to swell to accommodate the excess fluid.

Here is the tragedy. If left untreated, it can lead to brain damage, and a loss in mental and physical abilities. However, with early diagnosis and treatment, most children can recover successfully.

She met one couple who were on holiday. They promised to send her money to get the urgent treatment required from a good doctor. Ketut waited, but the money never arrived. Six months later, the couple returned to Bali and sought out Ketut, worried that they hadn’t heard an update from her.

The money they found, had been used to buy drinks in the bar. It never made its way to Ketut or her daughter, who now has severe brain damage and has difficulty with motor neuron skills. She can’t control her tongue and as such, can only speak pigeon Indonesian, although she can certainly understand what is being said.

She sat next to me as Ketut told her story, which I sensed she’d heard many times before. At one point she vigorously shook her head, prompting Ketut to stop and correct her story. This young lady, now 22, is joyful, claps her hands frequently, and particularly enjoys playing high-five with me. That a human could drink the money that perhaps may have seen her grow into a young woman who could attend the ceremonies, go to school and marry, like her mum, is heart-wrenching.

One man from Cannington, Western Australia, was her family’s ‘hero’. Eric Evans would selflessly help her however he could.

Ketut speaks with love and affection of the many Australians she met and continues to meet. There is not any hint of self-pity. She does not tell her stories with an agenda of manipulation to get more. Ketut is simply a hard worker with a vision. To be the best baker in Canggu, and to give her daughter the best life she possibly can.

So with such a long background in hospitality, and personal attributes aplenty, it is no surprise that she is now owner of Oka’s Bakery in Jalan Batu Bolong, Canggu.

Never give up

I first met Ketut a few weeks ago when we moved just around the corner from her bakery. Delighted that she served gluten-free bread, I was keen to taste it.

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Now, gluten-free bread is difficult to make. It often tastes like cardboard and I had doubts that a Balinese baker could deliver something that was tasty. But I gave it a shot.

Without doubt, Ketut’s bread is the best I have ever tasted. She makes red bean potato, black rice spinach, and potato and spinach. She also makes thin pizza bases.

So how did a waitress and later manager come to own this humble bakery, along with homestays, at the back of Canggu’s busy main road?

Her husband Nyoman’s family owns the land, but they needed to get credit to make it happen. Taking a huge risk, they are now one of Canggu’s best customers of LPD, a local financial company. “We always pay on time,” she says with pride, “and, we have lots of credit.”

Eight years ago it wasn’t a bakery, but a small warung with Internet, a huge thing in the recent past which would attract many surfers getting in touch back home.

“I always like bread”, she smiles.

So two years ago, she began, taking it “step by step”.  A friend from school who worked at the Hyatt connected her with a five-star chef who came out to teach her how to make bread. He was sure to let her know how fortunate she was, and within a short time, she was making what he told her was “5-star bread”.

“I need to know more”, she says, “but I was embarrassed. He ask no payment.”

Then one day, a man came in and asked her to come to his villa so he could sample her bread. Off she went with her price list and samples. However because she did not sell gluten-free bread, there could be no business between them.

So Ketut gave it a try. Finally she had a loaf she felt was passable and dropped it round. He was eager to pay her, it was that good, but “No!” exclaimed Ketut, laughing, “I cannot take money, it was just practice loaf!”

After that, a French lady came in wanting gluten-free bread. And then another, and another. Soon the orders were stacking up in the local area. To increase business, she would also drop into numerous cafes, restaurants and villas.

Now, two years in, Ketut is happy with her progress so far. “Don’t expect to make money the first few months”, she had been told by her friend at the Hilton. So she adapted patience, something that comes naturally to her, and hard work. The same doggedness that helped her learn English, a skill she values greatly.

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We asked if we could take a photograph. She was stunning in a kebaya and jeans, but she wanted to change into a sarong and change her kebaya to her Full Moon ceremonial outfit.

In Bali, the kebaya has a recent history. The Dutch, (who began their occupation of north Bali in 1849 and whose direct rule did not begin until 1882), are believed to have enforced the wearing of the kebaya. Once, Balinese women’s breasts were uncovered, except for formal and ceremonial occasions, during which a sabuk or pungran was wound tightly around the upper torso, covering the breasts.

It is also possible that it was not worn until the 1920’s, with other sources citing that new dress codes adopted by members of the royalty returning to Bali from Java were passed down through the caste system.

I looked at her still pretty face, complete with make-up and a huge smile, and felt a warm glow. She smiled and said we would need to be quick, as they had to get to the temple. Nyoman explained that this temple was new, along with another nearby, which was why I had heard singing all day. We laughed at how that sound is so peaceful, ringing out over the rice fields, while our pesky neighbour’s boom-boom is downright annoying.

Nyoman builds wooden houses and has a small display village set up on the short cut through the rice paddies to the Canggu Club. His English is not so good, so we chat briefly interspersed with my also not-so-good Indonesian.

Ketut gathers up some oranges and gives them to Trish. She grabs a bag of bread and says that it is for Brodie, our golden retriever. He hears his name, sees the bread, and spends the walk home jumping at the bread in anticipation.

Now with a family of her own, Ketut’s entire adult life has been for her “disability girl”.

When Nyoman arrived home, he rushed toward his daughter, his face wearing a huge grin as she gabled to him with delight.  He gives her a high-five, which he deliberately misses. Her daughter roars with laughter and the two cuddle and played with genuine affection as Nyoman grabs her waist to tickle her.

Both he and Ketut are completely natural. Their authenticity shines through in everything they do. Not to be the best necessarily, but to do the best they humanly can.

Ketut says that this is very important. She speaks of her spiritual health, and her bodily health, reflecting the words of JJ, owner of JJ Bali Buttons. “One day”, she says, “I will not be able to do this, even if I want to.” She talks of her mother and her mother-in-law, both with healthy minds but unable to physically do what they were once able. For Ketut, making hay while the sun shines is important.

And I have little doubt that while the sun shines, Ketut and Nyoman will work toward building and achieving dreams. Not lofty dreams. Just a dream for a secure life for their family, something to be proud of, something that they have built themselves.

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The interview was relaxed, informal and will be continued, but the Full Moon beckoned and they needed to leave. Until then, I hope you have enjoyed the first chapter in Ketut’s life. The second is just beginning and at 42, I have a feeling it is going to be a big one.

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…to be continued…in our upcoming book Bali Soul Journals. If you have questions you would like us to ask Ketut, please send them through using the contact form below.

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To find Oka’s Bakery, go down Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong, Canggu and over the river. It is about 500 metres on your right, just before the temple and the Banjar (which are on your left). Open everyday from early until late.

[Jl. Raya Batu Bolong, No. 27A, Br. Canggu 0361 844 5357 or 887 2252]

Text: Clare McAlaney & Photography: Trish McNeill

Copyright 2013. No image or text may be reproduced without express permission of Bali Soul Journals. Please use the contact form below if you would like to use this article for commercial purposes. The full article will be available later in 2013 with interview transcripts and the photography of Trish McNeill.

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