Bad quiz night in Ubud

Until a few months ago, my partner and I were living in Bali, and one of our pleasures was the Saturday quiz night. Expats from many countries (no locals–they scratched their heads at the whole trivia-games concept) came together in Cafe Bunute for a couple of hours. The language was English, but much conversation went on in Dutch, Spanish and German, as questions were clarified. The numbers were added to by remote teams, people that had been local participants, but were now temporarily or even indefinitely living in another country. As many as five of those teams had completed the quiz in the previous few days, and were in the mix to see who would win on the night. Very much an honour system. Now we sometimes do it from Australia.

About last October, one night as the quiz was commencing, a young woman wandered in, alone, to our part of the restaurant. She was talking, apparently to no-one in particular at first, but then asking loudly what was going on. Several quiz participants called out for her to leave, then some stepped up to her and spoke to her directly. One held her arm as if to lead her away. I noticed the ‘pecalang’ (local volunteer police) moving into the area behind us, and the tension was ramping rapidly. All chatting stopped as people looked on.

It hit me then that she might be psychotic, hearing one or more voices, and not able to work out what was being asked of her. I went to her and asked the others to step back. I asked her if she could hear me. At first I couldn’t get eye contact, but when that happened she looked at me for a long five seconds or so, then said yes I can hear you. I explained that this was a private party, a quiz night, and that she was welcome to be in the rest of the restaurant but not here. She responded ‘So, OK it’s private, but could I please just stay here and listen at least?’ I showed her a chair where she could sit as long as she was just going to listen. She did so.

My attention had been completely on this interaction, and I was reasonably happy with the outcome. But as I turned around, I saw two things immediately. First was a sea of quiz participants’ faces all registering negatives—some concern, fear and confusion, but mostly people being pissed off at this young woman. The quizmaster looked particularly angry. Second, behind the quiz area, there were now four pecalang and the restaurant manager closing in, looking to evict her. I went to them quickly and said things should be OK now, and asked the quizmaster to resume.

For about ten minutes the quiz went along as usual, then the woman stood up, went to the quizmaster, took his glass of wine and returned to her seat. In the ensuing confusion, I took the glass of wine from her, the quizmaster demanded I get her out of there, and I guided her to the other part of the restaurant. But the pecalang pushed me aside, took her by the arms, and frog-marched her off the premises. I went with them as far as the street, trying in my best Indonesian to say this was not necessary, but having no impact. They went away into the darkness, her struggling a little and protesting, and I came back to the quiz, aware of intense scrutiny from my friends. A little hesitantly at first, the quizmaster resumed.

I found it very hard to calm down. I know there is no service available in Ubud for people with mental illness, so I don’t know what the pecalang might have done next. I was angry at myself for not trying harder to stop this spiral of confusion that ended so badly in in forcible restraint. I was thinking this woman was about the same age as my daughter, and how distressed she must be now, and how her parents would coped if they had seen this. I really couldn’t have cared less what the flag of Libya looked like, or who the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka was.

Later in bed, I thought about her with rising sadness and some anger. That night stays with me, despite lots of nice things people said to me afterwards about my actions. It hit me hard that such a cosmopolitan group of Westerners could have so little understanding about what severe mental illness looks like, and that many of them seemed to jump immediately to blaming the victim. I’ve tried to channel those emotions into working for better mental health services in Bali. So far, about a dozen people, all locals, have come forward for treatment as a result of a small project I’m involved with. I’m trying to be positive; to believe there will be a day when someone like that woman will be responded to with compassion and competent care. It’s going to be a long haul.

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