‘Look! Look!’ shrieks Sumadi, jabbing her finger at the looming figure swooping across the rice field. The bulbous orange beak is a giveaway in Bali – this is the Javanese kingfisher. Set against a backdrop of broccoli-green forest, the outline of a volcano and contoured paddies, it’s an uplifting spectacle.
We’re in Ubud, the equivalent of a green belt, just two minutes’ walk from the main street of this popular tourist town. I’ve taken my sons on a walk with Sumadi, a local bird guide, who has both the manner and gait of a Balinese David Bellamy, oozing knowledge and enthusiasm. Every now and then she lurches with her stick to send some insect – a preying mantis, a golden orb spider – spiralling to the ground where she cups it in the palm of her hand for inspection. We see other Balinese treasures, Javan pond herons, all kinds of swifts and the Pacific swallows whose name echoes the long journeys many birds must take to reach these shores. The boys startle a monitor lizard and slurp, dribbling as they do, from guillotined coconuts. We share the footpaths and ridges between rice fields with a handful of other foreigners and I’m struck by how courteous the moped drivers are who also use these tracks.
I like Sumadi a good deal, and so do my sons. She somehow keeps them hypnotised by Bali’s wildlife for another hour – that’s three hours in the tropical heat. ‘Look! Look!’ she shouts once more. We stare vacantly, this time missing some avian must-see. ‘Breaking-back work,’ she smiles, pointing to the elderly lady setting out, one by one, the young rice plants in the paddies. Sumadi is making the point gently for Western ears and eyes that while this setting is idyllic for us, it is definitely less so for those who shape this view.
Their toil is at the heart of swift change in Ubud. The rice paddies are vast but the landscape is increasingly dotted with stand-alone Lego-like blocks that seem to have fallen from the sky. These are guesthouses, boutique self-catering holiday homes, positioned to provide their occupants with serene views of the paddies. They may be a blot on the landscape but this has not slowed their inexorable spread. As the rice paddies are drained to create space for more guesthouses, the Western, Australian and Chinese occupants of these properties, who sit on their verandas with a sun-downer, are increasingly looking not at Javan kingfishers or some Balinese idyll, but at one another.
‘It’s a problem, it cannot go on forever,’ Sumadi sighs loudly. Working in the fields is hard labour and brings relatively little financial reward. Despite being a ubiquitous Indonesian staple, rice (or nasi) can be awkward to grow and it is not unknown for families to lose whole crops. ‘So people sell their land, they get more for it than they will ever get from growing rice,’ says Sumadi. ‘Most people around Ubud are rich from the tourist trade, and so most agricultural activities are farmed out, or sub-contracted to poor peasants away from the tourist track. There are planning laws, but money talks, not only in Bali, but everywhere.’ What's more, few people under the age of 40 work in the paddies around Ubud and the harvest is increasingly carried out by Javanese migrant labour.
I ask Sumadi whether Balinese children ever come and play in the paddies. Not so often, she replies. ‘People think more and more that if you go to the rice fields you are uneducated. I offer to take school groups out here and the teachers are sometimes afraid, they ask me if it’s safe.’
The walk stirs a helter-skelter of emotions. Mass tourism arrived in Bali in the 1960s and intermittent moratoriums on hotel developments have been imposed ever since to no obvious effect. Even so, Bali steadfastly remains a place that appears to use tourism to reinforce and bolster its culture, not the other way round. The sincerity with which the Balinese greet you is entirely uncontrived – it can take a while to park your cynicism.
Back in Ubud, a short walk from the main road and the Royal Palace, I find a textile shop hung with eye-catching shawls and wall hangings. It is run buy a co-operative called Threads of Life which seeks to maintain traditional knowledge of weaving and rediscover local practices while allowing weavers to apply their own modern interpretations. ‘Textiles are the most accessible way for tourists to understand Balinese culture,’ says William Ingram, co-founder of Threads of Life and author of A Little Bit One O’Clock: Living with a Balinese Family. ‘They are used in ceremonies and festivals, they identify you in death to your ancestors in the next life. That goes back 2,000 years.’
Ingram is mindful of the value of cultural diversity and how this can be affected by small day-to-day decisions. He admits the textiles and batiks must be aesthetically pleasing in order to sell, but Threads of Life does not dictate their appearance. ‘You have to avoid the “sorcerer’s apprentice syndrome” – you find something that sells, everybody copies it, you sell hundreds of them but the quality goes down and the cultural integrity disappears.’
Ingram maintains that cultural integrity still exists in Bali. ‘The Balinese ritual calendar has lots of festivals and everyone takes part,’ he explains. ‘Several factors are at play to make that happen. The festivals are very theatrical, very emotional. The Balinese are Hindu in a Javanese archipelago, so there are parallels with how the Welsh and Scots see themselves within an English majority.’
While the culture is robust for now, you can’t help wondering at what point it becomes diluted. ‘The challenge is that commercialism and homogenous strips of shops are certainly here,’ says Ingram. ‘But behind the scenes, Bali is perhaps more resilient than others might be. There’s a pride in being Balinese that has been reinforced by tourism.’
That pride, Ingram believes, will survive whatever tourism throws at it. Those that lose out may actually be the tourists. ‘If Bali becomes a lifestyle rather than a cultural destination, people will come here and not even know it’s a Hindu country. Culture will slowly take place more and more behind the scenes. It will be harder for visitors to access that. People used to invite you to a temple, but the time will come where you have to find someone to take you there.’
Ubud is much more pleasant than might be expected of a sub-tropical traffic-clogged town, but we’re keen to see Bali’s hinterland. It took time to identify a place to stay as we wanted to avoid the sort of developments sprouting from Ubud’s paddies: somewhere that had not been built at the expense of clear-cutting rainforest. And, while acknowledging the carbon footprint involved in our journey from Europe, we were seeking somewhere that drew heavily on local sourcing and employment. We found it at Bali Eco-Stay, situated on the flanks of Mount Batukaru, a couple of hours’ slow and painstaking drive to the west of Ubud.
A collection of six bungalows have been carefully built into the landscape using local renewable timbers such as bamboo and coconut and constructed by local craftsmen using traditional skills. No rice paddies were lost or displaced though it still looks over sculptured rice fields. There is a 12m waterfall, views down to the ocean and – in the middle of the night – hilarious burping geckos.
The lodges are the creation of Australians John and Cath Bludstone. ‘We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the rest, so we went down the eco route. The plus was this is also our passion,’ says John. ‘Every Tom, Dick and Harry is building concrete monstrosities. There are virtually no regulations and those that are in place are flouted. We need regulations enforced, the roads improved and a halt to development until infrastructure has caught up.’
An organic permaculture garden provides the resort with most of its fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, along with locally-grown coffee, palm sugar, vanilla, eggs and coconuts. John admits that dairy products come from New Zealand (‘it makes the best creamy ice cream’) and the olive oil from Spain. ‘But the majority is local. If we stuck to an Asian menu, all goods would be local. Permaculture is such a well-rounded system, it incorporates landscape design and waste water systems.’
All water is sourced from a river and spring, and recycled back via the gardens. A hydropower system is in place and John’s aim is to be entirely off-grid in the foreseeable future. Bali Eco-stay is co-owned by Balinese partners. ‘You really need a Balinese partner to negotiate the bureaucracy,’ says John. ‘I also saw it as unethical to purchase land off the indigenous people.’ The land was leased, not purchased from the original Balinese land owners, Agung and Mini, who are an integral part of the business as office manager and restaurant manager. Staff are paid a premium above local wages, and all profits are reinvested in the local community and support schools programmes which visitors are encouraged to visit.
I am encouraged by the Bludstone’s ethos. A dreamy view opens out from the dining room, with the hills fading away south to the coast. The clutter of Bali’s capital, Denpasar seems distant. But it’s important not to forget the rest of Bali. ‘The infrastructure is not keeping pace with the rampant development,’ says John. ‘Unless drastic action is taken, Bali will grind to a halt. Then the developers will have gone and the ever-welcoming Balinese will be left scratching their heads.’
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