Rice and Peace

Trip Start Jan 07, 2012
Trip End Mar 22, 2012

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Flag of Indonesia  , Bali,
Saturday, February 25, 2012

We knew we would come back to visit Ubud (the ultra popular cultural capital of Bali) when we came back from Java, but seeing so little of Bali didn't sit too comfortably with us, so we hunted in the guide book and found an interesting village named 'Tirta Gangga’ in the East of Bali. No beaches, but the guidebook promised very little tourist action, an intriguing water palace with bathing pools and the most beautiful rice fields on the island, so there we headed (with some difficulty) from the port of Padangbai after pulling up from the Gilis.

A couple of hours on the road got us to the ‘village’ which was basically this water palace on one side of the road, and two warungs (local eateries) and a home stay on the other. With very few white people in sight it felt like a great corner to explore. We checked into a basic room and arranged to do a few hours hiking early the next morning with the son of the owners, who were recommended as the most experienced guides. Then we headed over to the water palace, and after waking the security guard up so we could buy a ticket we entered the vast gardens full of ponds teeming with large koi, statues rising out of the water with sporadically placed fountains spraying mist into the hot afternoon air. It was impressive and very fun to walk around, the stepping stones through one of the pools were great but I was worried there would be a fake one that would sink…

The funny thing about the epic gardens is that Amlapura’s raja, the last king of Karangesem had built them in 1948, just because he (I quote) ‘liked water’, and it wasn’t dedicated to any Hindhu God or anything normal like that. Brilliant. So after splashing about and finally trying Bali’s local black rice wine in a restaurant we had to ourselves, we got an early night to get up at 6 (I know, we were shocked too) for our hike. We began our walk through the rice terraces and by 8am we were drenched in sweat, covered in insects and Lucile had one soaked boot from slipping into some poor farmer’s rice field… So it was tough going, but it was excellent. All the fields were so vibrant, the local farmers so friendly and the whole time we had fantastic views of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest peak (around 3293m) a volcano which last swept away nearby towns in 1963, and is now bubbling away again...

We’d started by leaving the main road to walk along the thin streams that are diverted from central rivers. These small offshoots are then split again and again before trickling into the terraces that have just been harvested, in order to feed the new rice seeds for the next crop. This complex system of irrigation which feeds all the fields on these hills is an agricultural masterpiece, and it was great having it explained to us by a local instead of a geography teacher. Locally it’s referred to as ‘sanak’ although I told Boudhi I prefer rice as a full meal (dad joke, 10 points). We then moved on walking along the narrow corridors of grass around the terraces, which means you’re always having to tear yourself away from the beauty around to check where you’re stepping, and this was where Lucile went for a little swim.

The farmers don’t usually allow guides to bring tourists to their fields through fear that crops might be damaged, but Boudhi’s family are popular in the village and they often offer the farmers certain foods and cigarettes meaning we were allowed this great access, and could look around their homes whilst Boudhi would catch up with them all. As the land changes hands often they live very simply and don’t build any houses with foundation as they move every few years. Without walls or windows they’re practically just living out in the fields with a few bamboo screens and a corrugated iron roof. They don’t even have cable television, it was disgusting. On one particular stop a farmer showed us eight or so eels he’d caught from the river, all tied to this wooden ring which he then merrily proceeded to gut in front of us. One had a long spike down its throat and its guts on the floor and it was still wriggling like mad, I guessed it was just nerves going nuts but it looked so much like it was still alive, it was a teeny bit gross.

So after politely finishing my generous portion of raw, dead (but still moving) eels, we moved on and exited the rice paddies to head uphill through some light jungle, which was a tough walk but promised some amazing views of the rice fields. We stopped by at Boudhi’s cousin’s place half way up, his family had a few small more modern huts in a sort of compound in the trees where we were offered tea and with a very long stick with a knife attached to the end, Boudhi’s cousin kept pulling exotic fruit down from the green rafters around us for us to try. Wanting to practice his English we even had a surreal conversation about the global recession. He asked me what unemployment was in England, not knowing I guessed around 15%, he said ‘oh that’s bad, but you know in Indonesia, it’s closer to 45%’. I was about to say ‘haha, we win’ but he explained that it didn’t matter because in Indo so many people can live off the rich ecosystems around them, so modern employment isn’t such a necessity for survival as it is for us.

We continued on and Boudhi wanted to stop to watch some cocks being trained by local guys, as cock fighting is still a big cultural tradition here. It was a little odd watching it, and I’m glad we didn’t see an actual fight. Apparently one or the other is usually dead within one minute at a real event. I didn’t want to ask what happens to the victor, they’re probably eaten or something in some cruelly ironic ceremony. After seeing some beautiful views around the rice fields we headed back down to the home stay to chill for the afternoon, and we even both treated ourselves to a reflexology massage from ‘Rudi’ (everyone’s names in the village seemed to have to fit some sort of rhyme scheme) a charming Balinese guy who gave us ‘student price’. Feeling my big toe he said I had a strong heart, and I really needed it for the torture that ensued, it felt good afterwards but his massive thumb jabbing into the sole of my foot for half an hour was a lot more painful than expected.  

So our short but sweet time in Eastern Bali ended, and the next morning we got up early to head to Borobudur, our jump off point in Central Java some 500km away. We decided to do the journey there all in one go, and then slowly make our way back East in shorter hops, stopping in cultural cities and colonial towns to end up in Bali around a week before our flight out. We caught one of the many ‘bemos’ early the next morning, which are very cheap minibuses with no doors plying the main roads picking up fares, and drop you off when you shout ‘stop’ loudly enough. Our bemo rides that morning were about four or so hours, and although it was great to start travelling mega cheap with the locals, it was pretty uncomfortable, or as I kept saying to the passengers around me, my bumbum hurts. Our trip to Borobudur took us around 27 hours from that morning’s departure, involving two minibuses, a coach, a ferry, another local bus and a short ride on a donkey. We arrived at the quiet village of Borobodur around midday the next day, and the Java Jaunt began.

Sneak preview: Java’s all done, and we’re still alive. Woo. Today is the two week countdown to the end of our trip, so the next few blog entries will come thin (well, you can always hope) and fast. Until that time dear reader, you stay classy, and I’m off to visit some temples.
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