I’ve lived amidst the rice fields of the Texas Gulf Coast much of my life, yet I had to
come to the Indonesian island of Bali before actually seeing how the stuff was
planted, tended, and harvested.  It is, of course, considerably more picturesque here.
The cultivation of rice, like nearly everything here in Indonesia, is a non-
mechanized, labor-intensive operation. Traveling through Bali one frequently
encounters small bands of rice-tenders sporting the traditional, round, peaked,
woven hats and bent over the low-growing crop. Other than a truck to haul the
accumulated load, we have never seen a machine associated with the production of
rice in Indonesia. Hands, backs, razor-sharp hand-held sickles, and woven baskets
appear to be the exclusive tools of the trade.
Alissa and I went to Bali at the end of Ramadhan—the holy fasting month in the
Muslim calendar.  The two days following Ramadhan are here called Idul Fitri
(elsewhere Eid al Fitri or simply Eid) and are marked by an exodus from big cities
like Jakarta.  Even before we left for Bali we saw a notable increase in the number
of over-the-road style busses as well as large, modified trucks—almost like troop
transports—collecting people on the roadsides.
It’s a time of large gatherings of family and friends during which people ask
forgiveness from one another for transgressions of the past year. (I’m not sure how
explicit one need be when recounting misdeeds, or whether a stock phrase suffices
— e.g. “forgive me my transgressions” vs. “sorry about that unseemly cuckolding
business on May 14th, 15th, and 21st.”) Those who return to their home villages are
obliged to bring with them gifts and money, since the mere fact that they live in the
city carries an expectation of relative prosperity.
The population and vehicle density in Jakarta, which is a constant and palpable
presence, took a dramatic dip. Just as brother Steve used to go for an afternoon
drive on Austin’s busiest thoroughfare during Superbowl broadcasts, we found
ourselves getting into the car for the slightest of reasons, simply because we could
get somewhere and back in a third the usual time. Although school was out for a
week, we know of a few families that stayed in Jakarta just to enjoy the novelty of it
all. And there were those who relished the notion of a week without staff in the
house, since most employees—domestic or otherwise—take the week off to return
to the family village. (I know, I know… we are cautioned against carping about the
burden of having household staff, but at times it just imbues the whole house with
an awkward, only semi-private feel.)
We experienced all this, however, for a relatively short period, since we all left
Jakarta early Saturday morning, the 29th of October.  Strangely, the four of us left
on three different planes. Arianna left with 23 other middle-school students for her
weeklong trip to China, Annaliese flew off to stay in south Bali with Gretchen and
Gretchen’s parents, and Alissa and I headed for central Bali. Mind you, a drive from
south to central Bali might take 90 minutes if one is caught on a one-lane road
behind a slow-moving vehicle, but the difference in both mood and geography of
the two locations is considerable.

So now we’re back to the rice.
Alissa and I stayed in a large town called Ubud.  It is definitely on the tourist maps
and the visitors who depart from the beachfront hotels and attractions usually end
up in Ubud at some point.  It is touted as the spiritual and artistic heart of Bali and
every street going in or out of Ubud is lined with colorful Hindu shrines
interspersed among shops brimming with paintings, wood carving, stone carving,
pen-and-ink sketches, and all manner of artistic expression. Frequently, in the spaces
between rows of small shops, one catches a glimpse of brilliant green. The rice
fields, even the stunning terraced rice fields of tourist brochures and social-studies
textbooks, might fill the landscape immediately behind a shallow row of stores.
Our bungalow was bounded on three sides by rice paddies. Lovely, yes, but we did
swat down a fair few mosquitos in the evenings. From our balcony we had an
intriguing vantage point on the older gentleman who was planting rice seedlings in
the padi just next to us. I recorded much of his progress and you will find the
photos somewhere nearby.
As of this writing our walls in Jakarta are bare of ornamentation; we left all our
paintings and wall decorations in Houston. In our first two days in Bali we
managed to rectify that situation. All the new additions to our collection are being
framed right now, but perhaps I’ll get around to a little photo essay when the oil
paintings, acrylics, batiks, and pen-and-inks are hung amidst the additional hand-
made furniture we’ve commissioned (all of which is to be delivered in late
Between trawling for art and collectibles, we also watched traditional dance
performances, had a few massages, struggled through this month’s book-discussion-
group selection, napped between the paddies and the pool, and Alissa was able to
see, for the first time, the batik process. We then left the more beaten path and got a
ride up north to Lake Batur, a large caldera lake next to the remains of what must
have been a huge volcano.  Like Krakatau, the original volcano must have blown up
spectacularly; now three relatively small volcanos partially fill the remaining
Interesting though the geology was, the area might be described as having “a stark
beauty”—a phrase I associate with desiccation and desolation. Blackened lava flows
darken a quarter of the largely barren mountainside.  The shores of the lake,
however, were fertile farmland, and I wandered among the fields as the sun rose. It
was with childish glee that I came upon a man driving two cows pulling a simple
wooden plow. This, I thought, is authentic.  This, I told myself, is what one sees
when one truly
Raising my camera, I asked permission to steal his soul. “Boleh?”
“Uang,” he replied. “Money.”
Yeah, well, okay.  Why not.  For about a dollar fifty I got the photos I wanted and
he got the equivalent of a day’s wage.

Had we gotten up at 4am we could have made a guided climb and watched the
sunrise from the mouth of one of the volcanoes. We weighed our options and
instead went for a 9am bicycle ride. Lest you think us slackers, I point out that this
was a four-hour, nearly 50 kilometer bike ride. We rode from the rim of the former
volcano, through fields, back roads, and inter-village trails, back to Ubud. This was
a treat.
There were eight of us riding, including two guides. We stopped in some of the
smaller villages and, as promised, visited a characteristic Balinese home. I say
“home” rather than house because the layout is more like a small compound than a
Western house (the Balinese apparently refer to the closed-in Western structures as
“mouse holes”). The enclosure featured five or six free-standing, raised structures:
an open central lounging hut used for gatherings and ceremonies; a sort of
dayroom, where the kids were watching the ubiquitous television; the family elders’
sleeping quarters; sleeping quarters for the others; and a six-by-eight foot cooking
room (to call it a kitchen would be misleading).  Having recently forked over
significant sums to have our own kitchen in Houston renovated, Alissa and I couldn’
t help but remark upon the rudimentary kitchen. A fairly large complex of family
and household shrines occupied perhaps a fifth of the total space. In the back of the
compound they kept a fat, black porker and any number of chickens (none of which
we bothered to culture for H5N1).
Back on the bikes, we headed on toward Ubud. One of the guides and I had
dropped behind the group when I spotted a group of rice harvesters in a nearby
field. I stopped for a picture, but then the guide—who has grown up around the rice
fields—urged me to go over and harvest some on my own. One of the men handed
me his hand-sickle and I squatted (improperly, I’m sure) and grabbed the perfectly
hand-sized bundle of stalks. The workers were quite accommodating and we all had
a good laugh as I awkwardly reaped a few handfuls and then banged the sheaths
into a woven basket. Although he neglected to focus the camera, the guide
obligingly took a few photos.

We stayed another night in Ubud, then spent our last two nights in Candidasa, on
the southeast coast of Bali.  We were the only guests in the Nirwana Cottages, a
small collection of seaside bungalows. Here again, I specify seaside rather than
beachfront.  It seems that 15 years or so ago this part of Bali was “discovered,”
triggering a building boom.  For the foundations of the new hotels and associated
structures, the local builders just collected and hauled up the huge volumes of rock
and coral sitting so conveniently a few dozen meters offshore. Curiously, within a
few years of their grand openings, the resorts found their pristine white beaches
pounded away by the surf that was no longer held back by a protective barrier reef.
The hotels basically shut down and the Indonesian government dropped huge
cement cylinders to serve as breakwaters and promote coral growth. I knew none of
this when I made the internet booking. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not a
singular event around here.
Nonetheless, the area remains relatively attractive, and certainly suited our purpose
of doing nothing but lounging. We rounded out the week with a few more
massages, floated in the pool, took strolls along the water’s edge, and slept in. We
never did catch up with Annaliese, who was never more than two hours away but
busied herself in all sorts of ways that I’ll leave it to her to reveal. We flew back to
Jakarta Saturday afternoon, met up with Annaliese early that same evening, and
picked up Arianna at school before midnight. (I’ll try to get her to relate an account
of her travels as well.)

There is much more to Bali than we encountered during our week there, and we
may certainly return to that island, especially if we have visitors from other lands to
join us. But there are more than 13,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and we
hope to sample a few of the others, as well. There’s Flores, ancestral home of the
recently described tiny “hobbit people.” There’s Komodo, of dragon fame. Nearby
Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) is, after all, the second largest island in the world
after Greenland. And a mere few hours’ drive from here, between Java and
Sumatra, smolders Anak Krakata (“child of Krakatau”).
Just you wait and see…
Curvature at Lombok Strait.
Candi Dasa, Bali
Family shrine to dental health.
small village north of Ubud, Bali
A sower of seedlings.
Ubud, Bali
Did you know jackfruit grows this large? Do you
know jack about jackfruit?
Lake Batur, Bali
A real, live guy who plows with cows
Lake Batur, Bali
My new colleagues
north of Ubud, Bali
An alternative hat styling.
north of Ubud, Bali
A much-deserved, sound thrashing.
north of Ubud, Bali
Sunset on the steps of an unusual, white, seaside temple.
Candi Dasa, Bali
This fine fellow stares out to the sea from that same temple.
Candi Dasa, Bali
Javalogue 14: 29 October - 05 November 2005
the Javalogue