Wayan Wardika shares an inspiring story of courage, commitment and struggle that all started in a small village in the heart of Bali. Speaking with Jane Ahlstrand, he describes the hardships of his childhood and university years, and his current efforts for community development and education.
Tell us about your life growing up in Bali?
I was born in 1978 in Taro Village, about 30 kilometres from the tourist hub of Ubud. Although that doesn’t sound far, back then it was like another planet. My parents were simple farmers. If we had something that we could sell, my mum would take it to the market. As a child, I was called Cebeng, which in Balinese means someone who moves around, here and there. That’s because every morning I would be dropped off at the home of one of my relatives so my mum and dad could go to work. Sometimes they would move me out at dawn while I was still sleeping, and I would wake up to find myself in someone else’s home.
How about your school years?
I remember well how excited I was the first time I went to school. For some reason I just really liked it there. I realise now that it was because it was like an escape for me. As the eldest child, I had to look after my younger brothers and sisters, and do chores at home such as collecting water, gathering firewood and washing our clothes. My freedom at school didn’t last long, though. My aunt saw how hard I worked and decided that I should be put to good use, selling sweets and fruits to my classmates at school. I would try my best as a salesman but I remember feeling disappointed at the end of the day if there were lots left over. Some days I would be scolded if I didn’t sell enough. In any case, I kept going and managed achieve top marks throughout primary school.
When it came time to enter middle school, I faced a huge dilemma. The nearest school was 50 kilometres away and I had no funds, no transport, and seemingly no possibility of continuing with my education. One day, an elderly man from Ubud heard of my story. He was an agent who sought out children from the poor villages and arranged schooling and lodging for them in Ubud on the condition that they would serve as parekan (servants) in the homes of wealthy aristocrats. After negotiation with my parents, and many sleepless nights, I was finally sent to Ubud to work as a parekan in the home (puri) of a royal family in order to continue my schooling.
From that moment, I had to adapt myself to a completely new way of life. In my first year, I felt exhausted, lonely and under pressure to meet the demands of the royal family. There were times when I regretted ever coming to Ubud, and thought of running away and returning to my family. Nevertheless, I kept going for the sake of my education. By high school, Ubud had become like a second home to me. I happened to be in the same grade as the young prince from the puri and despite his comfortable background, I always ended up getting much better marks than he did. I often helped him to do his homework and assignments. The puri also operated a guesthouse and I worked there as well, serving overseas guests. Because of this job, I picked up English and became quite fluent.
After high school, did you go to university?
Actually, after high school, I didn’t think about that. I was ready to find a job; however, because the prince would obviously be going to university, his parents thought I should accompany him as his attendant. But the prince felt that it would be much better if I went to university, too, perhaps knowing deep down that I was the better scholar. I will never forget the moment I filled out that enrolment form. I chose tourism as my major because I enjoyed my experience working with the visitors at the guesthouse. And at university, I had a wonderful time. I was even a participant in the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) in 2000, when I had the chance to visit Brisbane and undertake a work placement there.
What did you do after graduating?
Well, actually, that was really bad timing for me. First there was the 9/11 terrorist attack, and then the Bali Bombing in 2002. The tourism industry in Bali was paralysed. I ended up having to go and work as a butler in the Maldives to support my family before I could graduate. Then the 2004 tsunami struck and the Maldives were affected quite badly; I had to return home. At least then I managed to finish my degree. Since then, I have worked abroad on various cruise ships to support my young family.
What do you do when you return to your village?
I return about twice a year for 2 months at a time. I run an English Study Club in Taro for those 2 months. I want to give the kids in my village an opportunity to have fun and learn things that can help them later on in life. I don’t want to see them go through the hardships I experienced as a child.
At the moment, my biggest project is the Tegal Dukuh Pit Stop. About 16 years ago, my dad decided to plant hundreds of palm trees on his land. I built a hut there for my parents so they could have a rest during the day. It turned out that lots of cycling tourists enjoyed this spot too. Slowly, more and more tours stopped by. Last year, I decided to make it official, and the Tegal Dukuh Pit Stop was born, offering a free rest area for cyclists. My parents became quite popular as hosts and they made some money selling refreshments.
After that, I thought it would be better if we could involve more local Taro people in this project. I recently set up a camping ground there in the hopes that city kids and their families could enjoy the natural environment. I am really interested in grass-roots community development. I hope that through this project, the people of Taro can feel empowered, gain a sense of pride and take charge of their own destiny. That is my dream for Taro.
Jane Ahlstrand is helping the AIYA Blog relate the stories of Indonesians who have found success in youth from humble or challenging beginnings. You can read her other interviews on the Blog here.