By Molly E. McCluskey
Stand outside Jl Suweta 5 in Ubud, Bali, and you won’t know which way to turn.
Through one door is a glimpse of the world. An underground stop in London. Chinese dragon dancers in Bangkok. Holy week in Andalusia. Visitors, many of them international, are surrounded by a stunning gallery of photographs capturing cultures and experiences foreign to their own.
Through another door is a glimpse of the inherently local. A café with locally-sourced ingredients. Coffee as pure Balinese as its customers can stand. The only cupcakes in town, made from scratch in the tiny kitchen. Visitors, many of them local, are indulging in the tastes and aromas of Bali.
While it’s not unusual for visitors in each of the rooms to drift into the one another, each business has its own distinct clientele. The gallery attracts international visitors coming to see the work of a renown photographer. The café has its loyal locals who come in for their morning cup.
The man behind both, Rio Helmi, of the Rio Helmi Gallery and Localista Café, enjoys the balance in such a together-but-separate arrangement. “It’s symbiosis,” he says in a low, thoughtful voice with a hint of wry. “And I think it works.”
This sort of balancing act is not new to Helmi. Born to a diplomat father and a Turkish mother, Helmi found in Bali a home to which he returned between extended stays in Australia and Germany, and schooling in Switzerland. After school, he traveled across Asia, lived in India and returned to Australia, where he rediscovered his childhood love of photography. In the late 1970s, he returned to Bali, which has been his base ever since. Then, he lived in the still-remote village of Kuta, in a hut in a coconut field.
“Living here in the seventies and early eighties was like being completely immersed, being immersed right up to your neck, in Bali, and everything that is Bali.”
Fluent in Indonesian and Balinese as well as English, German and French, Helmi has spent more than thirty years capturing the stories of Indonesia and Asia. During the eighties, he worked as an editor with various domestic media outlets, including the Bali Post. His work has been shown from San Francisco to Sydney to Spain. Considered one of Asia’s leading photographers, his work has appeared in Harpers’ Bazaar, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and other global news services. His books include Memories of the Sacred, a retrospective of Bali, and extensive work on remote and isolated peoples throughout Indonesia. He’s a regular speaker at the renowned Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.
I don’t know all this when I sit down with him in his gallery one day last spring. The gallery had been closed when I first visited Localista, a still fairly new shop in Ubud catering to locals in a town that seems to favor tourists. My angle, how do you open and run a thriving local coffee shop with Starbucks a few blocks away, quickly changes as I catch my first up-close glimpse of his work. Spanning peace and conflict, the far and the near, the young and the old, each photograph is nearly an assault on the senses.
The gallery is cool on an otherwise humid Balinese spring day. With the doors closed and the air conditioning humming slightly, the white walls offer striking contrast to the heat of the photographs. We’re sitting on one of those low, hip benches with a small table dividing us, him facing one direction, I the other, both slightly twisted so we can talk. The door to the café opens and the heat from its patio seating rushes through as the woman overseeing the café, Yuli, brings us coffee and cupcakes. The sounds of a motorcycle passing by drowns out my thanks and her response.
“Things have changed a lot,” Helmi continues after Yuli returns to the café that Helmi’s daughter runs. “When I first came, we didn’t have cars on this road, we didn’t have electricity. Eight o’clock at night everything went dark, except when there was a temple festival on.”
The temple is the palace of Ubud’s last king, which is steps from the gallery and café. It’s home to the king’s descendents, public performances and a limited number of private, ornate suites behind an imposing wall designed to keep tourists at bay. I walk past it on my now daily trips from my lodgings to Localista and the gallery, and on my last night in town, I’ll be a guest in one of the palace’s suites. The road to it is always busy with tour buses and motorcycles and taxis. The performances are bright and festive, with the sounds carrying for blocks.
“There’s been a big shift even in the past few years,” Helmi says. “Since the eighties and nineties, the leaps tend to come. They get quantum. They get quite dramatic.”
He turns to acknowledge guests that have wandered into the gallery from the street, then pauses to look out the window, as though seeing a Bali of long ago.
“Now, there’s a lot of young kids who don’t know or haven’t experienced half of what I’ve experienced. Balinese kids. I notice it when we sit down, when somebody dies for example, and we all get together and we’re sitting and chatting and it really strikes me. The memories are quite different.”
Long known as the cultural hub of Bali, and more recently made famous by Elizabeth Gilber’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud is brimming with shops by local artisans. Away from the party culture of backpackers’ paradise in Kuta, or the luxury resort- enclave of Nusa Dua, Ubud tends to attract a more introspective crowd. But with booming popularity has come a downside; outside interests buying land has driven up prices on everything from basic needs to dining out.
“The higher prices at restaurants have driven the living rates up and it squeezes out the smaller people, which I think is very unfair,” Helmi says. “The real estate land grab has pushed prices up so high. There are a few people making a lot of money but there are also people who are not. Ubud is different (as a result).”
One clear beacon of change in Ubud is the Starbucks only a few blocks away from the gallery; with its Balinese-style gong and a back porch that overlooks the Ubud Water Palace. For the price of a latte or a scone, customers can skip the cost of admission to the Palace and instead have a vantage point for the nightly dance performances. If you go looking for Localista and instead settle for Starbucks, you’re lost, and perhaps a lost cause.
Helmi is quick to say there’s nothing wrong with Starbucks, per se, and even admits to drinking a cup on the road now and then. But he says few things top locally-grown coffee, wherever “local” may be. “It really hit me the last time I was in Spain,” he says. “Here’s this country with the most amazing coffee and they have a Starbucks there. So it raises the question, What am I doing here?”
Starbucks serves a purpose, perhaps, for the Westerns who come and can’t stomach Balinese coffee. It’s strong, and raw, and slightly greenish. My first cup of it gives me the shakes and makes me a tad queasy. Speaking with him, my hand trembles from a cup I had hours earlier as I take notes. You know you’re drinking Indonesian coffee, Helmi tells me, when your eyebrows stand up. But it’s not what’s being served in Localista.
“We try as much as possible to use local ingredients, but the local coffee is just too strong for people. Indonesians, we like our coffee like, “Bam!” you know?” He’s laughing as he says this, the raspy voice gaining octaves. “For us, it’s like, if you’re going to drink coffee, you drink coffee. Why mess around? Otherwise, have water.” But even at Localista, the local coffee’s been blended for a smoother taste.
“I was really excited about using only the local coffee for the espresso because I thought I’d found a guy doing quite a good roast,” he says. “I tried it on some of my Western friends, and they said, ‘You know, Rio, if this is the only coffee you’re going to run with, you’re going to lose business.’ And I was a bit sad about it, because I really wanted to have just local coffees.”
We’ve finished our coffee, our cupcakes, and our time. He has another interview on an exhibit he’s opening soon, and preparations to make for slideshow of local artists. The gallery frequently hosts such shows. Anyone who has anything interesting to share, can, he says. It’s the grown-up equivalent of show and tell.
I indulge myself with some time in the gallery, the photographs grab hold of me and won’t let go. Months later, I’ll be able to close my eyes and bring them back to mind. The door opens, heat rushes in. The guests from the gallery wander over to Localista and have a seat at one of the small tables vacated by customers who are now wandering into the gallery.
The Rio Helmi Gallery and Localista are located at Jl. Suweta 5, Ubud, Bali, and are open daily from 10-8. Visit the Rio Helmi Gallery online at www.riohelmi.com.
About the Writer
Molly McCluskey is a full-time freelance writer who, when not traveling, is based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
Photos via Rio Helmi