Awaking to the surround-sounds of Sunday morning in Ubud, I spent a few minutes reflecting on my stay in Mongan (Tabanan). What struck me more than anything was that the limits placed on my ability to work with the earth gave me more free time above ground, thereby liberating me to explore, and chalk up experiences and interactions off the track & trail I’ve come to know so well. Oh, what discoveries I made!
Not only did I lurk around the ducks, watching them run amok in the fields as soon as they spotted me from a distance; but I also stood by silently (and sadly) when they were rounded up to be shipped off to another region of Bali; presumably, to other rice fields. But who knows?
I observed with intense curiosity how the farmers harvested, winnowed and flooded their fields; dressed their scarecrows, built up new terraces or shored up eroding ones, using nothing more than scythes, shovels and bare hands. And I gazed with awe at the sudden and surreal sight of a flock of Hash Harriers dashing through the fields, dressed in running regalia; a threesome nearly knocking me over, apparently oblivious to my slower pace.
Closer to home, I looked on as Ibu Renate arranged offerings all over Mita’s car and Bill’s bike. It was Tumpek Landep, after all, the festival when weapons of war are honored or, in contemporary times, when all vehicles and other items made of metal are given due respect, attention and… the full palm-floral monty.
Kadek (Ibu Koko) took it upon herself, all the while running her little food shop on the road, to be my first Balinese language teacher, teaching me the equivalents in Indonesian, while I racked my brain to make sense of it all in English too. The neighbors – Agus in particular, a little boy who squeals at the sheer sight of me – gathered around, seemingly impressed by my efforts and diligence (my notebook was always open to the list of words and phrases I was compiling) and amused at my butchering of their beloved Basa Bali.
One early morning, I set out for the family temple, decked out in full adat (ceremonial) clothing – and my work/rain booties. What a sight I must have been. I would wager that the temple’s resident Lady Spirit wasn’t all that impressed with my fashion sense.
Later that day, with no excuse, I had plenty of time to visit Ibu Dani in the lower-set part of Mongan (the banjar/hamlet), set further away from the main road. It was my first visit to this more remote part. The barking dogs, not accustomed to my presence, were reminder enough. Ibu sent me off with a couple of low green-skinned oranges newly plucked off her tree.
A village elder, Mbok (grandmother) Mah-hee-ya, also took on responsibilities as my secondary Balinese teacher. So when I joined her one day as she hiked to her rice field in bare feet and conical palm-leaf hat, she made sure to test me on a few words, correcting my errors with grace, wrinkles and a wide, toothless smile.
Incredibly, S spent some of his precious free time (on break from the laborious endeavor of overseeing the installation of a submersible water pump) instructing me on the finer points of bananas. I knew, from visits to Balinese markets and supermarkets that choices were extensive. But imagine my surprise when I learned that 19 – yes, nineteen! – species of banana had been planted in the garden. S patiently explained how to tell one species from another, ways to determine if the bananas are ripe, what happens to the flower and its petals. I’ve forgotten most details by now, but at the time it was fascinating.
I didn’t know what to expect when Pak Ketut, formerly a teacher and nurse, now retired, made me promise to visit him on his sawah (rice field) one morning. With a little directional help from Ibu Dani’s father (in a barely coherent mix of Balinese and Indonesian) – go straight on the path, turn left at the cows and you should see him there – I managed to find Ketut, dressed in his finest farmer gear. I followed him out of the field, down to his shed where he changed into a new set of clothes, grabbed a black pail and we traipsed down to… his fish pond.
A large pool built five years ago, with a lotus plant rippling in the middle of the water, Ketut pointed out (but didn’t have to) a multitude of little fish swimming below the surface. We squatted side by side as he pulled out nano-sized worms, molding their slimy bodies onto the hook. Then he handed the rod to me, I’d dip it into the shallow waters and ta-da! Within moments, a little creature was already squirming underneath. Memories of fishing a long time ago with my great-uncle came flooding back. It was a sweet bit of nostalgia, coming back to life here in the middle of Bali.
But some of the more unexpected teachings came from a man who lives in (the even further, ever more remote part of) Mongan and who, until last year worked as a security guard: ‘Gung (aka Agung) the gardener displays the kind of passion and a near-obsessive attention to detail and layout that one would expect to see in a more seasoned professional. Yet there he is, from morning till late afternoon, tilling, digging, planting, chopping, weeding, arranging, seeding, sweeping.
What I learned from ‘Gung was just how much nature can teach us about the world and about gifts from the earth. He taught me about the chickens, about long beans and wing beans, about differentiating between broccoli and kale leaves (not as easy as I thought when the florets are absent). ‘Gung showed me how one kind of paku species is soft and fluffy (ergo edible and tasty when fresh), while the other has harder leaves and is only used for making hats.
He walked me through the jungle, knife in hand, demonstrating – through show, tell and sounds – how not all bamboo is created equal. Four species thrived in the jungle surrounding the retreat, another two beside his home. The wood and fibers of each species, and within the species, whether young, ‘teenager’ or old, had its own purpose; young bamboo tali is used to tie poles together while old and sturdier tali is used for building houses and bridges.
The crème de la crème was watching ‘Gung slice off some sharp ‘n pointy leaves off a fallen dead branch from a betel nut tree. What was he doing? I wondered aloud. Making a game for his son, he replied. Whereupon, he lifted the branch, placed one foot on the larger and leafier part and demonstrated how kids play with it, dragging each other up and around… just like a sled.
Turns out all I had to do was hang up my gloves and spade, let the labyrinth breathe on its own – and open my eyes to more gems of beauty, wisdom and love.