Traversing Bali – Beyond beaches, bars and shopping
Bali is like my second home and I am there a few times a year, either for work or to visit friends over the past 25 years. The small island, shaped like a chicken, is rather small with a population of about 4 million but each year more than 5 million tourists visit this “paradise Island of Indonesia”.
Like many other visitors to the Indonesian island, I am also amazed and awed by the sandy beaches, temples, watering holes and of course shopping. But over the years I have come to realize that Bali is more than that, it has lots of human and natural resources, and products which is not often fully made used by the Balinese people themselves.
So I decided to go on a trip to different spots across the island with several local Balinese friends to see what is actually happening on the ground, and see Bali beyond the Kuta-Legian, Seminyak-Canggu, Nusa Dua and Sanur popular tourist areas.
Home of Bali’s Salak (“Snake Fruit”) – Dukuh Sibetan
Our first stop was Sibetan, about 1.5 hour’s drive from Denpasar, on the eastern side of the island. Like many other villages in Bali, Sibetan is also a frequent target destination for foreign and local Indonesian visitors to see Bali’s natural environment and communities.
Fortunately my local friend, guide and driver is a local boy of Sibetan, which meant I had great access to their community and lives. The village is still quite traditional in its architecture, has a majestic breath taking view of the blue ocean and famous Mount Agung volcano, which incidentally erupted a few months after my visit!
We spent the night in his house, where several local leaders shared stories about the famous “salak” or “snake fruit” of their community. It seems when the volcano erupted in 1963, villagers struggled to return to their farming activities but one of the few crops they could plant was the salak fruit which was actually in existence on their land for the past few centuries. Since then, they have managed to produce different varieties of this fruit and cleverly turning it into wine, vinegar, sweet drink, and even sweets.
My timely visit actually coincided with a big local ceremony and festival which was happening the following day. Since my guide was a local “kampung boy” (village lad) from Sibetan, I was able to venture around the community, gain access into their houses and temples to watch them prepare for the big event. Local men and women were busy building make shift huts from bamboo, baking and cooking local treats and cakes, weaving baskets and vessels, and assembling Balinese Hindu “sajian” prayer offerings of flowers and fruits.
As we were about to depart, our local leader friend excitedly took us to a spot he described as a strategic location to set up a snack and food stop to raise income for the community. We got to see the stunning panoramic view at “Pemukuran Hills”, definitely an “instagramable” location which overlooks the vast blue ocean on one side, and the undisturbed dense forested hills as a backdrop.
Rice Barn” of Bali – Tenganan
Driving eastward for an hour we arrived in the traditional village of Tenganan, regarded as the “rice barn” of Bali. Tenganan is an ancient fortress village, believed to be 1,000 years old. It has managed to preserve the traditional Balinese way of life, customs and practices and it is also a popular tourist destination in Bali.
Tenganan, besides having one of the most intact forests in Bali, is also the haven for a wide variety of local plants, flora and fauna, which are essential items for their daily prayer offerings, ceremonies and rituals. The village is also surrounded by vast rice field plains that it is well known for.
My visit here was not actually to do the usual tourist routine, but to visit an old friend Pak Sadra, a well known local healer, acupuncturist, and one of the leaders of the Ashram Gandhi, a local clinic where local and foreign visitors can avail of traditional treatments and participate in their activities. (http://www.ashramgandhi.com/).
We headed straight to his house in the middle of the village. While sipping hot coffee and snacking on home fried “pisang goreng” (banana fritters) in Pak Sadra’s humble home, he explained that Tenganan has many unique traditional practices which were different from other parts of Bali.
He shared about equal land rights between women and men, and also that Tenganan folks are forbidden to marriage outside the village. Another strange but true fact is that Tenganan’s unique double weave technique which is used to sew their traditional “Gringsing ikat” cloth cannot be taught to outsiders. He also cautioned that visitors including other non-Tenganan Balinese are not allowed to spend the night in the village.
It is always enlightening and eye opening when chatting with Pak Sadra, who also served as a local parliament member some years ago. It all made sense when he explained that Tenganan’s basic philosophy actually revolves around interconnectivity, as reflected in the intricately woven ikat cloth which uses natural dyes produced from ingredients of the forests surrounding the village.
After a sumptuous lunch meal in Pak Sadra’s home, we headed out again to our next destination, a 2-hour drive towards the Northeastern part of Bali.
Cashew Nut Haven – Muntigunung
Not many visitors to Bali will venture all the way to the northeastern tip where the remote hamlets of Muntigunung lies, and where the lucrative cashew nut farming and production is carried out by several social enterprises working with local villagers to upgrade the lives.
This was my first time to visit this area, and as I entered the premises of the community based operations, I was quite amazed at the meticulous way the village women carried out a cottage industry style operations. They collect, dry, shell and sort the nuts, and later process the clean nuts to produce different flavors, then pack and ship them out to several outlets including high end hotels in Denpasar and other parts of Bali.
The manager of the operations shared with us that this part of Bali is really quite dry throughout the year and it is really hard to grow food crops such as rice, vegetables and some fruits. However this particular weather favors cashew nut cultivation. One of the women working there shared that initiatives like this give them a chance to secure much needed income for survival, otherwise their kids would end up begging in the streets of Denpasar!
Tan Jo Hann
Tan Jo Hann is a community organiser and travels extensively all over Indonesia