Harvest time at Jatiluwih
We left Ubud at six in the morning, stomachs empty and eyes still heavy with sleep. Bli Komang had the habit of showing up half an hour early, which Bama and I saw as a chance to gain extra time before the afternoon rains. Both of us admired Bli Komang’s work ethic. “I’d rather be the one waiting than the guest,” he said.
Bli Komang took us through a dreamlike landscape too beautiful to ignore. I watched the morning mist burning off the rice fields and the glowing lines of coconut palms, their shapes reflected in the empty paddies at their feet. We saw the lower portion of a rainbow silhouetted against a thick cloud, and marvelled at the volcanic cone of Agung towering over the scene. Any yearning for lost sleep had immediately evaporated.
Eventually the road turned north and ascended into the highlands, navigating a series of dramatic switchbacks into the heartland of Bali’s vegetable production. Our minivan sped past a handful of villages, the open air market at Baturiti, and then a two storey high sculpture of a corncob rising out of a cabbage. But the sun had now given way to a blanket of cloud and constant drizzle. The rain accompanied us all the way to Bedugul, a lakeside town whose temple was now immortalised on countless brochures, tourism posters and even the 50,000 Rupiah note.
Pura Ulun Danu is best known for two small islands that seemingly float on Lake Bratan, each one sporting a pagoda-like meru roofed in ijuk palm fibres. I asked Bli Komang if ordinary folk – “orang biasa” in my jumbled Indonesian – could go there. “No,” he replied, “only the priest.”
On the shore, the main temple compound was closed to tourists, but it was ringed by well-kept gardens, whose lawns and pathways were being dutifully swept as we ambled around. The only other visitor was a lone photographer with his tripod; at this hour neither the souvenir shops nor the car park ticket booth were open.
Bedugul is home to a sizeable Sasak community from the neighbouring island of Lombok, where I had previously discovered one of my favourite Indonesian dishes – ayam taliwang. Along the main road there were several restaurants with the same promise of roasted, spiced chicken. “But those are not authentic,” Bli Komang explained, “they’re run by Javanese.” Instead he had something far better in mind.
The back entrance to Jatiluwih was marked by a small wooden sign, fashioned out of worn, recycled wooden planks, with an arrow pointing westwards down a leafy road too narrow for passing cars. Rainy season had come late this year, and the rice terraces were now a rich coat of yellow, ready to be harvested.
Jatiluwih is Balinese for ‘really good’ – a name that is self-explanatory but tells you little about the scenic beauty of this valley. It was recently inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its subak irrigation system, a practice that has existed for more than 1,000 years. Subak sits at the intersection of environmental engineering and Balinese Hinduism: the precious resource is allocated to the fields by priests in water temples.
While the three of us stood admiring the view, we caught a whiff of fragrant smoke emanating from a nearby shack: a roasty, rich aroma that was vaguely reminiscent of coffee. But I almost laughed when I realised what it was. “Burnt cow dung,” Bli Komang said, “They use it as a fertiliser – it’s all natural.”
Just up the slope, a restaurant had been built of bamboo pillars with a roof thatched in alang-alang. Breakfast was a tall glass of fresh watermelon juice and battered chicken with rice, presumably harvested from the paddy fields below. “You don’t mind if I smoke?” We shook our heads and Bli Komang slipped a cigarette between his lips. I watched as wisps of smoke curled into the morning air, the luxuriant terraces falling away and undulating into the distance. ◊