The Woman in the Picture

Look closely at the picture below. Notice anything?


Probably not. It’s an altogether uninspiring (let alone not particularly well framed) picture, taken yesterday afternoon, of a group of people hanging out at one of Ubud’s busiest intersections – where Jalan Raya (Main St) meets Jalan Suweta. The entrance to the Royal Palace, home to one of Bali’s wealthiest families, lies over my right shoulder.

It reminds me of a video that went viral a few years ago: A study on selective attention illustrated how that which doesn’t ‘belong’ in a given situation will often remain unobserved by people, even if it passes right in front of their eyes. The presence of something that doesn’t ‘fit’ into a given scenario will go largely unnoticed because viewers are focused on – or distracted by – the ‘main’ event, to the exclusion of everything else.

The scene in my photograph, with its abundance of sights (and to those in the frame), sounds and smells, overshadows a quiet and unobtrusive presence that remains unnoticed by most tourists – partly, no doubt, because it’s a corner that buzzes with activity, touts peddling tickets to this evening’s dance performance, drivers calling out TAXI(!!) and motorbikes turning corners so quickly they nearly mow down pedestrians. The cacophony blocks out what might otherwise be seen if people slowed down, stopped talking – and quietly observed.

Look again: She’s right there, with her back to us, standing beside a garbage bin. When I spotted her in the crowd, Ubud’s bag lady was spooning up the last bits of meat from a coconut someone had discarded.IMG_0926I don’t know if it’s the first meal she’s eaten all day, or whether she will have enough food to fill her stomach later. But every time I see her, I wonder where she goes at night, who takes care of her, where is her family…

Not long ago, I mentioned my concern about this woman to a couple of Balinese and longtime ex-pat friends. They assured me that, due to the centrality of the family in Balinese society (nuclear and extended), and tight-knit structure and communal obligations in each banjar, she was most certainly being taken care of; not to worry, she had a family and a place to lay her head down at night. Perhaps, I was told, this was just the way she spent her days. Hard to imagine, even harder to believe…

But I chose to believe them because it was too disturbing to think otherwise.

Last night, as I left Betelnut (where Hubud’s Pecha Kucha monthly event had just wrapped up), and walked by Casa Luna, the beam from a street light caught my eye. As I traced its path down to the sidewalk, the rays landed on what looked like a bundle of rags. There she was, the bag lady, asleep on a step in front of a shuttered shop.IMG_0939I’m not sure whom one approaches to ask why a Balinese woman is alone, destitute and living on the streets of Ubud; the tourist police? The Royal family? The chief of Ubud’s traditional village organization? An NGO? A pedanda (high priest)? I don’t know. But, now armed with picture-perfect proof, and puzzled as I am about where her angels are and what they’re up to… I’m likely to keep asking around until I find out.


  1. When I was here a year ago I never saw women and children begging in the streets of Ubud. Now there are increasing numbers of them. And this is the first I’ve heard of anyone, male or female, without a roof for the night. Does anyone know what is happening here?

  2. This is a very sad story and I’m happy you don’t have to witness the sights that I see in Jakarta everyday. It would make you weep Amit, really, really weep. I don’t know, I don’t pretend to even know but, two things spring to mind here – One is a mental health issue (something that families don’t like to deal with) and secondly Arak. My guess is the former and not the latter. I shall email you a link later, you may have seen it but if you haven’t it will give you some idea where I am coming from on this. Love Lottie xx

    1. I’m sure you’re right dear Lottie, I’d probably have a much harder time in Jkta. These sights sink right into the depths of my soul.. I’ve considered the mental health angle too over the months as I’ve seen her around town, more so than arak (!). I hope she’ll tell me why she is sleeping on the street when I find her next time…

      1. Absolutely. You’ll just have to see.

        There is a man who lives not far from me under a bridge. He collects plastic bags. I feel pretty sure he must be psychotic. I think my smile helps. But who knows? He smiles back.

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