Bali is one of the most popular places in the world for young couples to get married. However, this week the island hosted the families of two people who fell in love under very unusual circumstances – ‘Bali Nine’ Kerobokan Prison inmate Martin Stephens and his new Indonesian wife Christine Puspayanti.
There is a common expression in English: Love will find a way. Hollywood films tell stories of love that conquers all. Literature speaks of love that stands triumphant in the face of obstruction. We have come to learn that these are largely myths that do not transpire in reality. That is until unique love stories find themselves in the unexpected place of ‘the real world’ – stories unfamiliar to blockbuster films and forged fiction.
This is one of those stories.
Christine Puspayanti and Martin Stephens were married in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison this week. It has been five years since the unlikely couple first met and so it would appear love truly has found its way.
The couple first met casually in the ‘visitors area’ of the prison over 5 years ago. Christine began visiting with her church group in support of inmates who did not have local family or friends, however, soon she found her ‘support’ for Martin had grown into something much deeper.
The celebration was a small ‘hug’ of friends and family – of Christine and Martin – and Pastor Thomas (Christine’s Minister) presiding over the wedding. And with the support of the jail Governor, the prison hall was used for the reception.
Martin is serving his sixth year in Kerobokan prison and is understood to be a ‘model prisoner’. Visitors admire his manners and friendliness and are refreshed by the positive attitude he preserves. Seemingly so, Martin does his utmost to adapt to his present situation.
A prison does not often find itself in the monthly bridal brochure, particularly an Indonesian prison that has received much negativity in the Australian media, but Martin says that he has seen many changes since he has been there. His parents, Bill and Michelle Stephens, agree.
“Over the time we have been visiting Martin, successive gaol Governors have worked hard to improve conditions inside Kerobokan (Prison) for both Indonesian and foreign prisoners”. Michelle said.
“The prison now has computer skills courses and English conversation classes – which originally were started by Australians and have become very popular. They are now run by jail officials”.
Michelle explains how the Governor has permitted a ‘sports day’ where prisoners can play against inmates from other prisons. Kerobokan has also allowed and facilitated improvements in sport and exercise equipment – again put together by Australian prisoners – forming a small gym, ‘where they can do weights’.
Bill added: “Martin and fellow prisoners enjoy reading and have started a library that can be used by everyone to improve their literacy skills”.
“The visitors’ area is now completely tiled; the pond that used to harbour mosquitoes has been removed and stray cats have been evicted”.
“Church services are offered in English and pastors are able to visit. Martin also hopes to start a vegetable garden”.
Michelle adds that: “Art and painting classes are now run by the jail’s women’s association and prisoners recently contributed works to an exhibition and auction”.
The proceeds of this exhibition go toward more canvas and paints for use in the jail.
All this would seem in stark contrast to sensational, populist and best selling publications such as Kathryn Bonella’s Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009).
Publisher Pan Macmillan promotes the work as: ‘This account tells an ‘inside story’ of the most brutal, corrupt and truly bizarre jail in the world – situated right in the heart of the holiday ‘mecca’ of Bali. The goal’s greying walls touch paradise. Step outside and its sun-kissed beaches, five-star restaurants and luxury hotels. Step inside and it’s hell on earth’.
Journalist Kathryn Bonella has clearly made her reputation by writing in a very particular way about Kerobakan Prison having also co-written Schapelle Corby’s bestselling 2006 autobiography No More Tomorrows.
Bonella’s interpretation has produced an extraordinary, indeed ‘best selling’ reaction in the minds of many Australian readers – in particular conforming to deeply held stereotypes and prejudges about Indonesia. Reader responses from the book’s web siteinclude:
“I have just finished Hotel Kerobokan and am still in shock by what I read. I cannot believe the treatment that takes place inside this jail! I, like many others, was totally unaware. Your book has opened my eyes. I want everyone to read it. Thank you for writing one of the most powerful and real books I have ever read”.
And: ‘I have just finished Hotel Kerobokan. I could not put the book down. What a life theses prisoners are subjected too. My heart goes out to each and every one of them, particularly the westerners and mostly, the Australians.’
Both Bill and Michelle are familiar with these attitudes but own a very different outlook.
“I suppose people will believe what they want to believe. We just see things for what they are. And all our son wants to do is serve his time and come home. ”
Over the past six years the Stephens have cultivated a ‘deep respect’ for Indonesian people and culture. They were eagerly anticipating the wedding where this week they opened their arms to as Bill says: “Our beautiful new Indonesian daughter”.
Bill and Michelle lead typical modest, honest and hardworking lives, in the ‘blue-collar’ (working class) town of Wollongong, NSW. In their small house, the sunlight – almost intently – draws my eye to a photograph of Martin in a black suit. When I ask him about the photo, Bill beams: “Before he was convicted, Martin was actively involved in Australian ballroom dancing and achieved a good standard”.
Michelle proudly adds: “Martin has requested permission from the Governor to teach ballroom dancing to both prisoners and visitors. After careful consideration, the Governor has permitted a trial to occur with the first lesson held on 16th March 2011. The Governor also permitted males and females to dance together under supervision during this trial, as would occur in a regular ballroom dance class outside a prison.
Bill and Michelle Stephens’ honest response hardly paints a picture of ‘Hell on Earth’ – as others have described, just as the wedding of Martin and Christine in Kerobokan prison faintly compares to the ‘typical’ Hollywood love story.
Rather, it tells of a story exempt from fiction; and it tells a story ‘as it is’ – a tale where love takes on many forms; a genuine desire for Balinese authorities to improve prison conditions; the strong bond of two people built to defy all the odds; a growing understanding between two very different families and, indeed, two very different neighbouring countries – or simply put: two people dancing in a place where dancing has long been forgotten.
This love has overcome the most merciless and arduous of all challenges … reality: a true love story in the real world.
Martin Stephens is one of the notorious ‘Bali Nine’ and currently serving time in an East Java jail. Update: Martin Stephens: ‘Just take me out back and shoot me’