Last weekend I did a very un-Caroline thing and took a two night trip to some rural villages of central Bali by myself. Organized by a start-up called Troveko in partnership with a local non-profit called ProjectKalpa, this trip was part of a pilot program that's aiming to introduce Westerners to the Subak system that have existed in Bali since the 9th century.
What's a subak system Caroline? OMG thanks for asking! I'll copy my answer from the organization's site because they do a way better job of explaining this ancient system than I ever could.
The cultural landscape of Bali consists of five rice terraces and their water temples that cover 19,500 ha. The temples are the focus of a cooperative water management system of canals and weirs, known as subak, that dates back to the 9th century. The subak reflects the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana, which brings together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature.
This philosophy was born of the cultural exchange between Bali and India over the past 2,000 years and has shaped the landscape of Bali. The subak system of democratic and egalitarian farming practices has enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in the archipelago despite the challenge of supporting a dense population.
The subak communities that I visited have been managing the water source and farming the same rice fields for centuries. In fact, these rice fields are terraced so beautifully not for aesthetic pleasure, but because the Hindu culture doesn't believe in reconstructing the land. This recently-named UNESCO World Heritage Site has been sculpted this way from the beginning, and it was magical to be able to see this ancient way of life still in action today.
I had the opportunity to stay one night each in two different villages that are part of two different subaks. Throughout the weekend, I had the amazing fortune to be paired up with my travel buddy from ProjectKalpa, Indira. She's from a village in Keramas, and is one of the smartest, most fun-loving people I've ever met. She is an encyclopedia of knowledge about Bali, especially the Subak system, and was part of the group from her University that got this region recognized as a World Heritage Site. She's a badass.
Night #1 we stayed in the village of Tengkudak at the home of Nyoman Sutiani & her brother Wayan. We arrived bright & early and started off with a trek through the jungles of their backyard, complete with Indira pointing out every single fruit, tree, and herb that was edible. We settled on some papaya that was ready to eat as our morning snack. The L.A. girl inside of me was thrilled at eating something that we picked from a tree in the backyard instead of packaged fruit from Trader Joe's.
Next we ventured to the temple, named Pura Luhur Batukaru. This is a pretty famous temple in the region and is one of the directional (a.k.a. important) temples in all of Bali. It's situated at the base of Mount Batukaru, which is the second-highest volcano on the island (and still active) and has a really famous shrine for the God of Mount Batukaru, who the Hindus rely on for their water. Check out my temple-appropriate outfit (my own tshirt):
Pura Luhur Batukaru was absolutely gorgeous. Given its geographic location, there's an insane amount of vegetation and a secluded walk to a river. Just being on the temple grounds made me feel instantly more connected to nature and the spirit of Bali. Additionally, I was able to pray in two different areas of the temple and learned about the symbolism of the Balinese Hindu prayers. Flowers and incense are key components of prayer, as well as rice, a symbol of abundance and prosperity. I really connected with the Hindu belief that every living thing, whether human, animal, or a plant, has a spirit. Growing up in Catholic school we were taught the "The Golden Rule", and the Hindus similarly believe in treating everything with the reverence and respect with which you'd want want to be treated.
That night we were invited to attend a ceremony by Ibu Wayan, the matriarch of the second village we'd be staying in. Throughout my three months living here, I've noticed Balinese have a lot of ceremonies but I could never quite figure out the reason for each occasion. This night in particular was the third and final night of their temple's 'birthday', and we'd be attending with Pak Nyoman and his family. Pak Nyoman is the head of the subak in Jatiluwih, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. He's in charge of the water distribution for all 19 subak villages in Jatiluwih and he's been doing this for over five years. Basically, he's a big freaking deal. I felt really legit showing up to the ceremony with him and his family, and they couldn't have made us feel more welcome.
The next morning Ibu Nyoman taught me how to make breakfast. We made corn fritters (perkedel) and pare, a green vegetable that is pretty bitter. I felt especially Balinese cooking over her wood-fire stove.
After a drive around the village's rice fields and finding heaps of rice in storage, we bid our goodbyes to Nyoman and Wayan (Indira instructed me how to thank them for letting me stay in their home in Bahasa Indonesia), and then we were off to Jatiluwih, village #2.
Here's the website section on Pak Nyoman and staying at his home in Jatiluwih . I'll let you guess why I wanted to stay at his place:
Yep. This weekend among gorgeous rice terraces also included three Balinese golden retrievers, and I was stoked. As different as their home is from mine in Los Angeles, I learned people are just as capable of spoiling their pets in Balinese villages as they are in America. These dogs live the life -- they get rice (from Pak Nyoman's rice fields) & chicken twice a day, and spend the rest of their time napping or going on a walk around Pak Nyoman's massive property.
This family was so welcoming. With Indira's translation help, I was able to ask Pak Nyoman about being the head of water distribution for such a large area of land. He told me that on average, over 100 hectares of rice fields become other properties PER YEAR! That's insane. This ancient way of life is in decline because many rice farmer's children often go to South Bali when they get older and get a job in tourism instead of staying at home and continuing the family tradition. Simply put, they don't want to be rice farmers. They can get a job in a hotel or in a restaurant where tourists go and make more money. Still, rice farming is an ancient part of Bali's culture-- it IS Bali's culture. I felt so privileged to be able to witness this way of life before it possibly vanishes altogether.
We ventured around Pak Nyoman's property and Indira found a cocoa tree with the fruit ready to pick. We took our snack on a walk through the famed Jatiluwih rice terraces and spent hours gazing around and chatting, mostly with me asking her a ton of questions about rice farming, the government, and general Balinese life.
Next was the hot springs. I'd actually never been to one before, and I was the only bule (white person) at this one, making me a quasi-celebrity. One dude even asked to take a picture with me! I found it a little intimidating but also pretty hilarious. The hot springs were amazing and totally unique to this region.
We had an early bedtime, and woke up at 5:30 to watch the sunrise over the rice terraces. My mom can testify that I'm not a morning person by any means, but I willingly woke up before the sun that day. It was a bit cloudy but I didn't even care. I took pictures, but throughout this entire weekend photos didn't do the beauty of this region any justice. I can't explain how surreal it felt to be on Indira's scooter, whizzing through the fields with emerald rice terraces surrounding us. Hearing the soft sounds of nature and the wind whipping through the mature rice crops made me feel so connected to Bali. In that moment, I felt more grateful than ever that I've been able to spend time in this unique place the past few months.
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I'll be honest with you. Before going on this trip, I had a ton of anxiety. I had never done a trip without any friends or family, let alone a trip where I'd be in a rural village having completely new experiences. Thanks to Indira and the two families that generously opened up their homes to some random Californian, however, I gained much needed perspective and a new appreciation for the Balinese way of life. Being so connected to nature and away from the touristy area of Bali was completely renewing; taking this trip to learn more about ancient Balinese customs and beliefs was an invaluable experience. It may have been very out of my comfort zone, but this weekend was so special and I can't wait to go back.
Although my trip was only two nights, I learned more information than I can fit into an entire blog post. So, if you have any questions, please ask!
Or better yet, read more about the Subak and the two families I stayed with and click here.