Barbie helps long-hidden sisters shine
Putu Restiti and her little sister, Alit, have felt invisible most of their lives, hidden in a run-down shack because they were born with twisted limbs some believe were caused by evil spirits.
They were kept out of school and had no friends. But like children everywhere, they had powerful imaginations. After being given a Barbie doll, they started stitching tiny, intricate outfits for her from their mother's sewing scraps. And in doing so, they created a new world for themselves.
Word of their beautiful and delicate designs spread. They were displayed for sale in Bali's top tourist area and neighbourhood kids started visiting, first to watch and then to request their own.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" 21-year-old Putu says to Alit after adding a final stitch to a traditional batik gown, pulling it over Barbie's golden locks and then tightening a clasp around the iconic doll's petite waist and high bust.
"Yes," the pigtailed 11-year-old whispers. "So sexy."
Indonesia's resort island of Bali — with its white-sand beaches, five-star hotels and throbbing nightclubs — attracts millions of tourists every year. They include everyone from Paris Hilton (who gushed to fans during a recent visit that she'd finally found "paradise") to backpackers and surfers. And with her starring role in "Eat, Pray, Love," Julia Roberts helped bring a different pilgrim to the "Island of the Gods": spiritual seekers.
But there is a dark side as well for children like Putu and Alit, neither of whom can stand nor walk because of problems that occurred during breech births.
Unlike the rest of the sprawling archipelagic nation, which is predominantly Muslim, most Balinese are Hindu. Their unique form of the faith stresses worshipping of ancestors — and a belief that prosperity can only be achieved with the blessings of dead relatives.
Those with deformities are said to embody the "bad" spirits of those who have lived before. An embarrassment to families, some are locked away. In the most extreme cases, they're abandoned, left to fend for themselves.
That's what led to the search for Putu two years ago.
Sakti Soediro, a volunteer with a health foundation that helps disabled youths, was looking through a midwife's files describing a breech birth nearly two decades ago in which the baby was born feet first and the mother nearly lost her life.
After the difficult delivery, the girl disappeared without a trace. She'd never gone to school or visited health clinics or hospitals, so no records of her were on file anywhere.
"We were determined to find out what happened," said Soediro, who looked for a month, first going door-to-door in villages dotting Bali's stunning coasts, and then venturing deep into the island's interior, where many still live in abject poverty.
After navigating a windy, dirt road that climbed the long-dormant Mount Batur volcano, she reached the rice-farming community of Songan.
There, in a concrete shack at the end of an alley, Jero Widiani, a seamstress abandoned by her husband years earlier, was struggling to raise five daughters on her own.
Three were healthy. Neighbours were not even aware of the two others.
Putu, the eldest, was sitting on the ground, her severely distorted legs folded beneath her as she sewed together scraps of material.
Alit, huddled beside her, was even worse off.
No bigger than a toddler, the little girl has a ribcage pressed tightly against her lungs, making it difficult to breathe, much less speak. She has no mobility in her legs and use, only, of her left arm.
Soediro came back a few days later with some Barbie dolls. When she returned a third time, the girls showed her a stack of miniature dresses, sarongs and shirts.
One had been fitted, beautifully, on the Barbie.
"It was amazing!" said Soediro, who has helped the girls sell the dresses in shops and occasionally at exhibitions for $2 to $4 a piece — bringing in up to $70 a month, enough to help feed the family.
Neighbourhood kids pay just 5 cents, but the interaction after years of isolation is priceless.
"They just want to be our friends," Putu says with a smile, as girls run in and out of the living room, others lingering curiously in the doorway. "And that's what we want, too."
"I feel happy now," she says, watching her mother scoop Alit in her arms and carry her to the toilet. "I'm more excited now to live."
As word spread, even Western tourists have been known to make the four-hour trip from the capital, Denpasar.
"They are inspiring," said Stephanie Crowe, taking a seat on the floor beside the girls and picking up tiny dresses, admiring their fine handiwork.
They don't have much, the Australian said, but they are surrounded, now, by friends and family.
"We Westerners," she said, "are all about looking out for ourselves and saving money so we can buy more things. We don't always realise the important thing in a life is our relationships, people, and what you can do to make someone else happy."
Putu, whose health is much better than her sister's, designs all the clothes and does most of the sewing. Alit helps when she feels strong enough, but this week the little girl was rushed to the hospital, where she is suffering from respiratory problems and a leaky heart valve.
Of the dozen Barbies and one Ken the girls have collected over the past two years, some of them knock-offs, all of them gifts, Alit has her favourite: a blonde-haired girl whom she has yet to rename.
She gently washes and conditions the doll's hair every day and then applies perfume and powder.
Though the family lives with next to nothing — there are no beds, cabinets, or even chairs — the sisters have created a miniature palace out of boxes for their Barbies.
They have used cardboard to make furniture. Tiny blankets stitched by hand are spread across the beds. And the walls have been decorated with brightly colored gift wrap.
"To me, Barbie is a princess," Putu says, shrugging off criticism that the Mattel dolls promote an unrealistic ideal about the feminine body.
"And for her," she says, smiling over at Alit, "they are beautiful fairies."