What Balinese rice fields can teach us: Life lessons in emerald green

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Take a walk through Bali’s rice fields, and you’ll find yourself bathing in a sea of emerald green. Part of the paddies’ magic might be that they are located just a few hundred meters from the traffic jammed, hot, sticky roads. In the rice fields, you find yourself in another world, one that offers calm and a gentle breeze of fresh air. The endless rice paddies are speckled with scare crows improvised from bamboo sticks, as well as rusty huts that give barefoot farmers a place to doze off. And then, far away on the horizon, glistening in the sun, still partially under construction, you’ll see a three story hotel complex that could as well be on Ibiza for all you know.

What does it mean to live in a country like Indonesia? On Bali, the average family of four lives on 50,000 rupiahs a day. That’s around 3 euros. Members of the expat community, and those longing to be part of it, spend the same on a single super food smoothie at one of the island’s hyped pre and post yoga hangouts. Conversations center around visa extensions and spiritual awakening. This island certainly is a place rich in contrasts. The locals smoke while riding motorbikes through thick traffic and they believe that the world lies on the back of a giant turtle. (Turtle moves = earthquake.)

Fifty percent of their working hours are spent on catering to the island’s tourists (at least that’s true for most locals, as 80% of the island’s economy depends on tourism). The other fifty percent of their time is dedicated to engaging in cultural activities: preparing offerings for gods and demons, practicing traditional dance and gamelan music, preparing and participating in religious ceremonies. Imagine just how productive these people really are. It’s like they’re running two economies: one that serves their pockets, one that caters to their spirits.

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Learning about rice farming on Bali sheds some light on the island’s cultural roots. Yesterday, I participated in an herbal walk through the rice fields, led by a trained herbalist. The top three most entertaining things I learned:

  • If you feel sleepy after indulging in local Balinese meals, it might be because the common veggie side water spinach is a natural narcotic.

DSC02742{Our guide showing us a water spinach blossom}

  • Rice is female according to Balinese believes. When the grains start to form inside of the plant, they bulge out the stems, just as a baby growing in a women’s womb bulges out her belly. The Balinese believe that the rice stems are pregnant and – just like human mothers – can experience morning sickness. They cater to the sensitivities of the plant during this time with special morning sickness rituals.
  • Subak, the Balinese rice field watering system, is protected UNESCO world heritage. It ensures an ecologically sustainable method of irrigation that is over 1,000 years old.

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Hearing our guide explain the cultural importance of rice farming and its all encompassing impact on the lives of the Balinese was astonishing. There’s something there about the importance of respect to others and to nature, something about the connection and dependence of humans to forces larger than themselves. Underlying the subak irrigation system is a three-fold system of harmony called Tri Hita Karana, which translates to something like “three causes of well-being:”

  • Harmony among humans: Subak regulates how much water each farmer can use for their rice field and lays out sanctions in case of disregard. A democratically elected rice field president oversees compliance. In this way, the system strives to achieve peace between farmers.
  • Humans in harmony with nature: In traditional Balinese rice farming, ducks serve as the only “pesticide,” and cow pee as the only fertilizer. Humans use what nature provides to grow the rice, and in return receive an all natural product. Birds that pick at the rice grains cannot be shot. Farmers are, however, aloud to shout at them, and our guide explained with a smile that this may serve as a form of therapy for farmers.
  • Humans in harmony with the gods: The water that feeds the rice fields around Ubud flows from the North, that is from the island’s central mountain terrain. Each farmer thanks the water gods by building a North facing altar on which daily offerings are presented. The Balinese also believe that the gods should be appeased through entertainment. They build wind chimes from bamboo that fill the rice fields with gentle sounds, and create elaborate bamboo decorations.

DSC02714{Offerings by the way side}
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{Bamboo chimes with figurines dancing in the wind}

Farming takes time. And so time is the most genuine present you can give someone according to Balinese tradition. Maybe that’s why the owner of the home stay I live in sometimes shows up at my porch with a fresh coconut in hand, so that we can sip coconut water in the shade and talk about the world for a few hours. Don’t get me wrong: the guy owns an iPhone and his kids play on iPads. But he has time, too.

Our herbalist guide said that Balinese think of the world in terms of contrasting forces: light and dark, female and male, traditional and modern. It’s the struggle between these forces that is life. Maybe it’s the same with my life. It’s a struggle between comfort and growth, the light and dark in me, the holding on to and letting go.

Building hotels in the rice fields on concrete foundations is a final decision, he said. Once you’ve done that, the land can never again be used for farming. There was some regret in his voice, and yet, he too makes a living from the tourists that come to the island. Tourists like myself. I am sipping on a 40,000 ruipiah green juice as I write this. Of course.

DSC02728DSC02725DSC02722{Papaya!}

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DSC02723DSC02732{“Last graffiti before hotel build”}

DSC02709{If you’re looking for a hotel in the middle of nowhere, this may be it}

DSC02705DSC02734DSC02774{Also, this is what my 11 euros a night, breakfast included, home stay room looks like. Sweet or what?}

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