As told to Kathryn Bonella April 15, 2007
WILD accusations, controversial TV reports and harassment by complete strangers are just a few
of the daily horrors Mercedes Corby faces. Here, the
32-year-old talks about a happy childhood, the day
of her sister's arrest and the hell that followed.
Big changes ... Mercedes Corby had intended to raise her children in Australia, but has vowed to stay in Bali as long as her sister, Schapelle, remains in her "cage". / The Sunday Telegraph
Before Schapelle was arrested in Bali two-and- a-half years ago, I enjoyed a happy life.
I’d never had to endure any major crisis; I didn’t really know what stress was before that horrible day.
Then my carefree life vanished into yesterday.
Never could I have imagined the pain and turmoil that would come to fill the daily lives of my whole family.
I’m the eldest of six children – three boys and three girls – and I loved growing up in a big family.
Until I was 10, I had just two siblings – Schapelle and Michael. We had a tight bond, with only a year between each of us.
Schapelle and I were best friends, sharing a bedroom, friends and clothes.
We did everything together.
We could spend hours sitting in the grass making daisy chains or putting together dance routines.
Schapelle’s always been a bit shy and I’ve often felt very protective of her – although she can definitely stand up for herself when she needs to.
Our parents split up when I was five, but it didn’t affect us much, as we still saw heaps of Dad.
Mum and Dad stayed close friends and although we lived with Mum, we spent most of our school holidays up on Dad’s land at the beach.
Despite the age gap, we were also very close to our three younger siblings.
Our home was full of people, fun and laughter. We were an outdoors family with Mum forever telling us, “Get outside, you kids.”
I spent most of my childhood playing sports, riding bikes, at the beach, and Mum took us on regular weekend camping trips down the coast.
As teenagers, Schapelle, Michael and I got hooked on surfing. We joined a local Gold Coast Surf Club and spent our weekends patrolling the beaches and hitting the surf.
My close school friends were also in the club. We had a lot of great times. To me, there’s nothing better than the sun, surf, being fit and being able to share it with family and friends.
I became the surf club’s first-aid officer in my late teens. We competed against other clubs, with my team often making the state finals.
The training has come in useful several times in Bali, including helping to resuscitate Schapelle’s former lawyer, Robin Tampoe, when he got an electric shock from an unearthed microphone.
He was singing poolside when he was suddenly flung high into the air before splashing unconscious into the swimming pool.
I also used the training in the aftermath of the second Bali bombing in 2005, when a bomb exploded just doors up from where we live.
I liked school and breezed through the subjects I enjoyed – physical education and health.
But often I’d fall asleep at night with an unread text book flat across my face.
Books bored me a bit; it was the outdoors I loved. I was a keen cross-country runner as it came naturally to me, and I was also school athletics champion for a couple of years.
Mum worked hard to give us everything she’d missed out on in her own childhood. She’d done
it tough, spending her early years in and out of orphanages.
She’s never complained or felt sorry for herself, but it made her determined to give us a good life.
She’s the most protective, loving, generous mum we could ask for. She worked two or three factory jobs to pay for nice clothes, holidays and after-school classes.
She sent Schapelle, Michael and I to tae kwon do classes. Schapelle and I also did ballet lessons for about 10 years.
Although I was a bit of a tomboy, I loved dancing, concerts and costumes.
I saved most of my costumes to pass onto my daughter, Nyeleigh, who now does ballet in Bali.
One night at a Gold Coast club when I was nearly 18 changed the direction of my life forever. I won a mechanical surfboard contest; first prize was a holiday to Bali.
That trip had a huge impact on my life. It ignited a passion and hunger to travel and experience new countries and cultures.
Within a year of that trip, I was on a flight to Japan for an 18-month working holiday. I waitressed, taught English and sold jewellery to make money.
I also learnt judo and studied Japanese until I was fluent.
In 1993, I met my Balinese husband, Wayan. He was a professional surfer, sponsored by Rip Curl and competing throughout Asia.
He tells the story differently, but he chased me for a while until I fell in love with him.
We lived between Japan and Bali while he was surfing until we settled on the Gold Coast in 1998.
We returned to Bali in 1999 to marry in a traditional month-long Hindu ceremony.
I became Hindu just before we married and, although I still have a lot to learn about the religion, I do my best to understand, learn and teach our children.
After the wedding, we resumed life in Australia, and were soon looking forward to the birth of our first son, Wayan.
Every first born in Bali is called Wayan. After he was born, my husband started to really miss Bali and felt a longing to bring his children up within his culture and near his family.
I felt the same about my home and family. It was very hard for both of us. I think having a new baby gave us both a strong primal urge to be near to our roots.
We finally agreed to keep living in Australia – where we felt our children would get a better education – and try to return to Bali every year for our holidays.
In 2004, we decided to take a five-month holiday to Bali, before Wayan started school on the Gold Coast.
We had our little girl, Nyeleigh, by then, and felt it would be our last chance to give the two children a real taste of their dad’s culture and spend time with his family.
We planned to be home by Christmas. But it didn’t work out. We didn’t get home. Instead, our lives turned to hell.
Nothing could have prepared us for the shock and trauma. It was incomprehensible. We’d been in Bali for about eight weeks when Schapelle was arrested on October 8, 2004, at Bali International Airport with 4.2kg of marijuana in her boogie-board bag.
She’d come to Bali for a two-week surfing holiday and to help me celebrate my 30th birthday – a milestone I was dreading.
Then, suddenly, my little sister was facing the death penalty.
We’d crashed into a whole new life. It was surreal. I felt a darkness fill my heart. It’s never shifted; it won’t until my sister is free.
I lost 10kg through stress-induced vomiting and diarrhoea in those first few weeks.
Pain and distress hit the moment I woke up and, most of the day, I felt as if battery acid was burning holes in my stomach.
Seeing Schapelle each day in a small concrete cell was shattering. We had to talk through the bars.
She would always try to be brave, but could rarely stop the tears pouring down her cheeks.
We were both so scared. We’d clasp each others hands for comfort. Saying goodbye each day was soul destroying. It was the hardest and loneliest feeling in the world to walk away. I usually didn’t make it far before I threw up.
Often I’d hear Schapelle’s faint voice calling after me in the distance: “Bye Merc. I love you Merc.”
I’d turn around to wave to her, and see her clinging to the bars like a terrified child, watching me walk away.
I knew she usually collapsed into a sobbing mess after I left. I’d call back, “See you tomorrow, Schapelle,” trying to keep my voice steady, “You’ll be OK.”
But we both knew that nothing was OK. She was my precious little sister, who I’d always loved and protected, and there seemed absolutely nothing I could do to protect her now.
Two-and-a-half years later, we’ve adjusted as best we can. Time has helped us to live with this situation. We will never accept it – we’ll keep fighting. But we’ve started to build a new life in Bali.
I owed it to myself, my kids, my husband and Schapelle to put some normality back into our daily lives.
I was a social recluse for the first 18 months. I couldn’t go out and enjoy myself, even with close friends.
I’d get too upset thinking about my sister locked in a cage – as she calls it.
My whole life was focused on our fight to prove her innocence.
I’d spend hours online and on the phone desperately searching for help and answers.
I still do, but I also have to make the best of this precious life. Schapelle wants me to do that.
She’s losing her life day by day. She doesn’t want that for me, too. She’s so pleased when I seem happier. That’s Schapelle; always concerned about others.
We live a very basic Balinese lifestyle, sharing a family compound in the heart of Kuta with 30 members of Wayan’s extended family.
Life here is in stark contrast to our life in Australia. It’s spiritual and simple. The compound comprises six small houses and two large ornate Hindu temples, which house the ashes of family ancestors.
Wayan’s family is very spiritual – typical for Balinese Hindus – with daily life full of ceremonies, prayers and offerings to the gods.
For example, each morning, the women in the family carry little woven baskets full of flowers, rice and burning incense to the temples to make offerings to the ancestral gods.
This is strictly done after showering, but before breakfast.
In the first few months after Schapelle’s arrest, I did this each day, praying to the gods for help, hoping they’d fix things. I’m a little less diligent nowadays.
We live in Wayan’s uncle’s house rent-free, as he lives in Jakarta. It’s very primitive, with old fans to move the stifling air, a squat toilet, and a bucket and ladle for showering.
It’s the way of life, so I don’t complain, although I do often make a dash to the local hotel swimming pool shower to wash my hair.
It’s amazing how hot running water has become such a luxury. Fortunately, now we have a washing machine; for the first 12 months, I washed everything by hand.
We don’t have a stove or oven, which means we buy takeaway for lunch and dinner from small local restaurants or the food carts on the side of the road.
Life is always hectic. I get up early to make the kids’ lunches before Wayan takes them to school.
During the day, I usually race around on a motorbike, as it’s quicker – the roads around Kuta resemble a schizophrenic car park. The Balinese are crazy drivers. They’re gentle, peaceful people – until they get behind a wheel. They change, turning mad; ducking, weaving, stopping, starting, honking their horns.
These days I drive a bit like a crazy Indonesian myself – it’s the only way you can get anywhere.
Sane drivers could sit in the same spot for hours.
I visit Schapelle most weekdays, usually taking the bike and picking up some lunch for her en route.
I try to vary her meals, taking anything from noodles to fish and chips.
Once a week, I do a major grocery shop for her at the western supermarket. She gives me a shopping list; she usually needs everything from cleaning products and toilet paper to lipgloss and chocolate.
For the first year, I visited Schapelle twice a day, but she’s adapted as best she can and now speaks Balinese, so she isn’t quite as reliant on me for her sanity.
Writing the book My Story last year also gave her strength and a sense she wasn’t just a voiceless victim.
Schapelle now regularly has people visiting her in Kerobokan Prison, asking her to sign copies of the book.
She also gets about 60 letters a day from supporters, which helps her stay positive.
The kids also help to lift her spirits. Now they’re both at school, they only go in to the prison to
visit their auntie about once a fortnight.
The kids and Schapelle love to see each other. They still don’t quite understand why she can’t leave with us.
They used to ask about it all the time, “Why can’t Auntie Pelle come with us, Mum?”
They’d feel the sadness, too. They don’t say it as often now, although just a couple of weeks ago, Wayan asked, “When’s Auntie Pelle going home to Australia, Mum?”
“Not sure, honey.” He left it at that.
It’s my beautiful children who’ve helped keep me sane through this ordeal. Wayan is now seven, and Nyeleigh will be six in two weeks. With the simple innocence of children, they’ve easily slipped into Balinese life.
They spend a lot of time running around the compound squealing and laughing with their cousins.
They’re just little Balinese kids now. They’re happy and have adapted well.
Although we wanted our children to be educated in Australia, we’ve had to accept a different path for them.
What has happened to Schapelle has changed the course of their lives. We will stay here as long as Schapelle is in jail.
One of the few advantages to life here is that the kids are now trilingual. Wayan and Nyeleigh speak fluent English, Indonesian and Balinese. Wayan is also learning Chinese at school and, with his natural affinity for languages, he’s picking it up easily.
I speak to them in English, their dad speaks to them in Indonesian and they speak Balinese to their friends and cousins.
I get huge satisfaction hearing them switch effortlessly between languages, sometimes all three in one conversation, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Although I speak Indonesian and Balinese, I often defer to the kids to translate a word.
Their dad does the same in English. They’re our little walking dictionaries.
Last year, as we were taking back some control of our lives, Wayan and I decided to try for our third child.
It happened fast. In December I flew home heavily pregnant, leaving it to the last day it was legally possible to fly.
I was anxious about leaving Schapelle for too long. Eight days was the longest we’d been apart since her arrest.
I gave birth to a little boy, Nyoman – the Balinese name for third born – in early January and we flew back to Bali as soon as we had his passport two weeks later.
Schapelle was thrilled to meet him. She’d been fine while we were away, with my friends taking turns to take her lunch and do the shopping.
I have a very strong network of expat and Indonesian girlfriends in Bali now; they’re a wonderful support and very protective of me, particularly from the media.
The attention has created a lot of extra strain. We’d never had anything to do with the media before and thought we were doing the right thing by speaking to journalists, trying to get the message out that Schapelle was innocent.
Our lawyers at the time also told us to speak out so that it would push the Australian Government to help. It didn’t.
Many appalling and untrue things have also been written and said about my family and me.
It deeply upsets me, although I try to be strong and do my best not to let these cruel and nasty stories get me down.
I’ve been broken a few times, where my strength vanishes and I collapse into a lifeless heap on the floor.
But I can’t stay down for long. I know I have to pull myself together, not only for me but for my family and friends.
Recently, Today Tonight did a story after story degrading me in the most disgusting way and all with the help of my ex-friend Jodie Power. (Since this interview, Corby has filed a defamation suit against Today Tonight.)
Her lies and betrayal hurt me a lot, but my family and real friends have supported me and kept me sane.
Throughout this ordeal, my friends – other than Jodie – and my family have been a huge help and
I thank them. Without them, these hard times would have been a lot harder.
I want to say that
I’ve also met some very dedicated and ethical reporters whom I respect and trust.
One thing that angers me is when reporters who’ve never met me or my family call us uneducated or unskilled, even ‘trash’.
They know nothing about us. For the record, my father is a well-educated and smart man; he’s an electrical engineer and has had good jobs all his life.
There are Corbys who have university degrees. My mother has worked very hard all her life to support her family. These people don’t know us. They don’t know that I finished school, went to college, speak four languages fluently and am learning a fifth.
I now have three beautiful children and I take my role as a mother very seriously. My kids have been my priority for the past eight years. My husband and I have also started a business in Bali, designing swimwear for children.
I’m trying to live as normal a life as possible, but I’ve forgotten what it feels like to live without stress and strain and to feel good. My heart aches with sadness. My little sister is losing her life.
We never know what hell is around the next turn. People often used to comment that I looked very young for my age, now I know I look a lot older than I am.
I live with an aching heaviness, a deep sadness and a tightness in my stomach, like an elastic band has been twisted tightly around it. Will my beautiful sister ever get to have a family or enjoy her life?
I love my sister and I miss her. I miss shopping with her, going out to dinner. She’s my best friend and she’s locked away from us all.
I know she is innocent and I will keep fighting for her freedom and for answers. I will never stop. I will never give up.
My Story by Schapelle Corby and Kathryn Bonella (Macmillan, $35) is available from bookstores now. Mercedes Corby was not paid for this interview.