Putu’s Impossible Dream

Today we left our beautiful, peaceful resort on the shores of the Indian Ocean and drove to Ubud for the middle section of our trip, which focuses on seeing local healers, experiencing traditional purification rituals, and learning more about Balinese spirituality. On our way, we stopped for lunch at Senang Hati, the only center in Bali that serves Balinese with disabilities, for a delicious lunch and tour of the facilities.

The story of Senang Hati’s founder, Putu Suriati, is an incredible one. Putu spent the first two decades of her life shut in a concrete room in her family compound because of Balinese attitudes about disabilities as the manifestation of evil spirits.

Yet Putu grew up to transform her own life and reality of so many others with disabilities in Bali. And it was one of our two tour guides, Judy Slattum, who played a key role in helping Putu access the resources to do it.

Rather than try to tell their remarkable story myself, I’m going to share an article about Putu written by Ibu Kat, originally published in Greenspeak, eleven years ago:

“In 1967, a bad batch of polio vaccine changed Putu Suriati’s life forever. She was two years old.

In those days, it wasn’t rare in Indonesia for children to contract polio after vaccination. Putu was one of the unlucky ones. Paralyzed in both legs, she spent the next 22 years in a small concrete room in the family compound in Payongan, only leaving it when friends carried her to the temple. Putu was taught to read and write by a relative and learned to paint when she was 10. She dreamed impossible dreams of mobility, travel, meaningful work, marriage, children and a home of her own. But she knew her fate was to spend the rest of her life in her tiny room under the glare of a single bare light bulb, and she battled despair and depression. Little did she guess that her path was about to cross that of a woman who’d be the catalyst for making those dreams reality.

In 1989, Judy Slattum was already a regular visitor to Bali, leading small cultural tours and encouraging her tour participants to sponsor the education of poor Balinese children. In Payongan, the village head told her about a young woman in the banjar who needed help. Putu was paralyzed, her father had been murdered, her brother had died of a stroke and her mother and stepfather were extremely poor.

“I was apprehensive about meeting Putu,” Judy confided. “The situation sounded so sad. I took a deep breath as I approached her little concrete room, prepared for a tragic encounter. But as soon as I entered, everything changed. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Putu welcomed me with a radiant smile.” That was the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day.

Putu earned a little money for the family selling paintings. One of Judy’s tour members bought painting supplies for her and asked if there was anything else she needed. Shyly, Putu asked for a wheelchair. A second-hand one was located in Seattle and arrived a few months later, compliments of Garuda Airlines.

Once Putu had wheels, there was no stopping her. Judy began taking her on excursions. The young woman who had never left her village toured the island, attended dance performances and sampled warung food. She was deeply impressed with the wheelchair access of the large hotels in Nusa Dua which were built to international standards. “She was astonished that she didn’t have to be carried up the stairs on someone’s back,“ Judy told me. “Being with Putu was a potent reminder about how much we take our mobility for granted.”

To this day the disabled in Indonesia are rarely seen outside their family compounds because disabilities are still often thought to be karmic punishment or the result of black magic and families are ashamed. People stared openly at Putu, but she refused to be embarrassed. “I just raised my chin and ignored them.”

Her painting career began to take off. She attended a 10-day painting workshop organized by Judy, which helped refine her skills and taught her to paint from the heart. Putu studied the Young Artists and Ubud styles. In 1992 she became the first Balinese woman to show her paintings at Seniwati Gallery, a collective of women painters sponsored by Mary Northmore. Five years later she put on a one-woman show there and sold all 25 of her paintings.

Despite her handicap, Putu was the main contributor to her family. All the money she made selling paintings went to put rice on the table and send her step-siblings to school. The family remained very poor. Judy once dropped in unannounced to find Putu bathing in the irrigation ditch outside the compound; the family had no sanitation. The two tourists with Judy each bought paintings for sufficient money to build a bathroom in the compound. Wheelchair-accessible, of course.

In 2003 another dream came true. Putu received a rare invitation to give an exhibition in Brisbane along with a wood carver from Ubud. Thrilled and fearless, she flew to Australia where she stayed in a hotel for 10 days. “I was so happy. I thought I would never have a chance to fly in an airplane,” she said. “I saw many exhibitions and was able to enter all the buildings with my wheelchair, it was amazing to me.” And she sold all her paintings.

Three years before that Putu had been selected to be one of a group of disabled people from around Bali to meet then-President Gus Dur at the Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur. The President, himself blind, ordered the government to look after disabled Indonesians. For the first time, Putu met others like herself. “I’d always felt so lonely and isolated. It was wonderful to connect with others and share our experiences.”

In 2001, a small group of foreigners started to organize outings to temples, beaches and tourist destinations for this growing group of disabled adults. For many, it was the first time they had been outside their villages (sometimes their compounds) or met others with similar challenges. Every adventure was hugely exciting for them. The next year they started aquatherapy, drama and ceramics with facilities made available by Ubud-based Janet Molloy and Suzan Kholik.

Putu was travelling to villages around the island, asking the village heads whether they were aware of any disabled adults, and eventually contacted about 25 people. Isolated for so many years, it was enormously rewarding for them to meet and create their own community. They dared to dream that they might establish a self-managed foundation where they could live, learn and work together. It was a daring dream indeed, in a culture where the imperfect were hidden in family compounds or warehoused in institutions. But Putu inspired her foreign friends to help them.

So 2003 was a big year. With the assistance of wheelchair-bound Australian Vern Corke and Frank Olcvary, the American director of Bali Hati, Yayasan Senang Hati (Happy Hearts) was formally established. Another American, Greg Adams, leased an abandoned school for the group. Another impossible dream had come true.

“It was a unique opportunity for people who had been isolated and without resources to work, meet others and obtain training and physiotherapy,” Putu explained recently as she showed me around. “We now have 270 members and 30 people live here.”

The main goals of Senang Hati are to raise the self-confidence of people with disabilities and encourage social, economic and physical independence and integration. Through excursions into the community, the members hope to break down the culture of social isolation around disabled people and increase community awareness of the rights and needs of people with disabilities.

The Senang Hati compound includes a showroom, a restaurant and kitchen, physiotherapy space, dormitories, a salon, production space and an office which is the nerve centre of the yayasan. It offers courses in computer, English and literacy, and leadership and assertiveness training. Perhaps most importantly, it provides wheelchairs to people who have never been able to move independently. The Yayasan’s managing committee has always been made up of disabled Balinese.

Once given the opportunity, Senang Hati’s members began to soar. Some found jobs with the government or in the private sector. Others are selling their paintings or handicrafts, with orders coming from as far away as Italy and Australia. Some have travelled to Java and overseas to participate in training or events. The Yayasan also has a small business taking tourists around the Tampaksiring area in motorbike sidecars. Senang Hati has a dance troupe which performs variations of classical Balinese dance from wheelchairs. Several years ago, a few members, including Putu, went snorkeling and were enchanted by this new underwater world. Since then, 15 of them have obtained their PADI diving certification and each year on Independence Day they plant an Indonesian flag on the ocean floor.

Senang Hati is a hotbed of romance. Since 2003, thirty couples have met and married who would otherwise be very unlikely to have a family life which is so important to Balinese. One of these brides was Putu herself. While on a trip to Bangli looking for disabled people she met Ketut. They married despite some initial resistance from her family, living first at Senang Hati and then in a rented room. Then another impossible dream came true; Putu become the mother of Putu Nova, now an engaging, healthy and clever 6-year-old.

There was still one dream left unfulfilled. Putu and Ketut wished desperately for a modest home of their own; they had spent most of their marriage living in a single rented room. When the Seniwati Gallery closed last year, Putu still had paintings in the permanent collection and Mary sold them for a good price. Then Putu won an award from Bank Danamon for people who have transcended their disabilities. The last impossible dream manifested. Putu bought a little piece of land and built a house.

The weather was overcast when I visited Putu and Senang Hati, but the radiance of her smile brightened the room. “I thought I would die alone and never have a husband,” she beamed. “Now I have it all.”

Think about that.

Putu is still good friends with Judy who, with her husband Made Surya, operates cultural tours and continues to find sponsors for poor students in Bali. Putu still looks for disabled people who are stuck hopelessly at home and invites them to join Senang Hati. She encourages them to dream large, because she’s proved that no dream is impossible.”

P.S. Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze: Freefall off the Tourist Trail is available is downloadable as a Kindle book on Amazon.

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