Usually when someone says they are going to Bali, the sand, the sun, the sea comes to mind. That’s not exactly untrue because Bali does have wonderful beaches, surf spots and beautiful waterfront villas. But there is also an unexplored side to Bali that tourists tend to overlook. The living Bali. It’s people, culture and simple way of life. It’s that part of Bali that keeps that island so endearingly close to my heart.
I think you might have read about the time I went to teach English in Bali. In this post, I’m revisiting the village life. The side of Bali that most foreigners won’t encounter because even though Balinese are really beautiful friendly people, they still believe in the old ways and their village chief makes the rules where everyone abides. I was welcomed to this village and made a guest by the chief so villagers came by and taught me what they knew.
Instead of hiring my usual driver, I decided to try getting around by trishaw. I supposed that this would mean I get to enjoy the fresh air while soaking in the village sights. Well, it was either that or taking the scooter. I was in Bali for weeks and most of my shorts and pants were still in the laundry. I was forced to pick a dress so I felt the scooter didn’t seem like a good choice for that day.
It looks really bright in the photos but it was actually about 8am. I had left my villa around 7am that morning.
The little drizzle didn’t deter anyone from going about their daily business. Women just added on an additional plastic bag to their head before proceeding to pile on the usual items they had to carry around. It’s amazing watching them glide so elegantly and gracefully with all those items stacked on their heads. They could balance the plates on their heads even when they were on a scooter or bicycle. It’s just incredible.
Having a foreigner like me venture into a actual Kampong community is not a common sight. So some villages were curious. They rode their bikes out to go pass me a couple of times. Villagers would peer out of their windows and run to the doors of their huts when I go by. And the kids too, came out to play and chat with me.
Despite their curiosity, everyone was really friendly. They have all been informed that the chief had guests for the day. Communication is extremely effective in small villages like this one.
I thanked the men for being so hard working and getting me safely to the destination. They had taught me a couple of Balinese phrases that would be helpful for me to communicate to the rest of the villagers I will be meeting that day.
Once inside the chief’s compound, I was served a delicious coconut drink and asked about what I would like to know and learn about Balinese culture and village life. The chief house is also the only house in the village where I will be able to find a working “western toilet”. Yay!
I told them that I really wanted to learn all there is to learn about the their daily activities and lifestyle. I was not afraid to get down and dirty if I had to. What sort of crops they planted, what they ate, what did they do for leisure, their customs and traditions. I was sponge ready to absorb whatever they could throw at me.
I started off by exploring the garden. They explained to me the different plants and trees. The usual crops they planted in their own backyard and the herbs that they ate for medication. Seeing a western doctor is a rare occurrence and most ailments are solved with herbs plucked from their backyards and cooked according to recipes passed down from generation to generation.
It was quite an eye opener and I think that schools in Singapore should send children to villages to learn more about plants and nature. The cycle of farming may seem totally boring on textbooks but when you see how important it is to the lives of these people, you understand the significance and get interested.
They told me the bark of the tree with the red leaves was one of Indonesia’s favorite spices. I didn’t understand what spice they were referring to.
They cut a small piece of the bark for me and with one whiff, I knew exactly what spice I was dealing with. It’s cinnamon. This was probably my first time seeing, touching and smelling fresh cinnamon. Among the villages, what was common knowledge was not common to me and even with my years of studying, double degree and working experience, I was just a child in their eyes with lots to learn.
I had so much fun going around their gardens trying to see which plants I could recognize and what I didn’t. Here are some that I did know.
The durian tree. Some say the fruis has eyes and won’t fall on people passing below. I haven’t heard of many cases of people being hurt by a durian falling on them but I wasn’t about to test that theory.
Next I spotted a mangosteen tree. This was a tough one because the tree wasn’t fruting yet. But someone kindly put the label “Maggis” on it which was a big clue for me.
This one is a little more obvious. The starfruit tree. I heard that some buddhist are forbidden to consume starfruit. I’m not sure why. Any reader is welcomed to enlighten me on that story or to tell me if I’m wrong about that.
Unsurprisingly, there was the coconut tree. If you look carefully, you’ll see bamboo containers attached to the flowers to collect the sap to make alcohol.
Can you guess what baby fruit this is?
It’s a baby cocoa seed! Here’s how it’ll look like when it’s full grown.
I’m sure you can recognize the pineapples. The villagers were so kind, they let me pluck one!
The other fruit I got all excited about was the mangos. I love mangos and the Bali ones are really sweet.
They shared with me that in this village. They try not to waste anything. And one of the most useful trees is the coconut. The flowers produces sap which get made into alcohol, the shell is used for fuel to do their cooking while the husks are used to obtain Coir. An elastic fiber used for rope, matting, and coarse cloth. The coconut meat can be eaten on its own or used to make coconut flour for food or candies. The coconut water is a favorite drink with the young and old and is supposedly good for detoxing our kidneys.
The coconut tree trunk is used as building material and the root is used for medicinal purpose. Coconut oil is extracted for moisturizing the villagers’ skin and hair while the coconut leaves are used in their everyday lives for packaging, steaming food and decorative purposes. Basically, you could strip a coconut tree for dozens of uses and nothing goes to waste.
I love their naturally green philosophy and they offered to show me some of the things they made with the coconut leaves.
I’m sure you’ve seen coconut leaves made into grasshoppers.
Well, this is the less complicated version I learnt. LOL.
They were so good and so fast with their hands that it was really hard for me to keep up. Luckily, they were also really patient teachers and kept encouraging me.
In Bali, they give offerings to their gods every morning to ask for blessings and these offerings are usually offered outside their homes or shops in one of these coconut leaves boxes I learnt to make. The “toothpicks” that I used to prick and hold the shape of the box together is actually derived from the middle part of the coconut leaves where the midrib is.
I learnt to weave ketupats where rice could be filled and cooked to cube shapes.
They even taught me how to make my own traditional Balinese head gear.
It seemed as if I learnt a lot (which I did) but these were some of the easiest things they made with the coconut leaves. They could make tons of different sizes and designs of containers for steaming food, weave an entire bag/basket, plait mats for seating on and more! They are so creative at making nature work for them. I’m very impressed.
Of course this is only the beginning of my learning journey and I will share more about the authentic Balinese culture in posts to come.