A Foray into Bali’s Green Heart
If only more Wednesday mornings began like this. Wide awake, I soak up the passing scenery and perfect blue skies from the leathered interior of a 1961 vintage jeep. I’ve temporarily swapped the traffic-clogged streets of Jakarta for quiet Balinese village roads lined with penjor – tall, drooping bamboo poles that sport decorations woven from dried coconut fronds and young palm leaves. It’s just a few days before Kuningan, the end of a major local holiday when the gods and spirits of the ancestors are believed to descend to earth.
I’m en route to a “forest bathing” experience in Bali’s north-central highlands, part of a work trip centered on the southern resort enclave of Nusa Dua. Seated next to me is Megan, an L.A.-born, Bangkok-based food journalist who is seeing rural Bali for the very first time. Megan’s wide-eyed wonder reminds me of my own experiences nine years ago, when Bama introduced me to the island’s timeless magic. Eventually, the young driver at the wheel maneuvers our jeep into a narrow valley where the rice terraces and coconut palms are bathed in the dusky rays of the early morning sun. Megan squeals with delight. “It’s so beautiful!”
Knowing what lies ahead, I reply with a grin. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
* * *
A few hours earlier, I had turned off the alarm well before it was meant to go off at 4:30 a.m. The whole night was spent tossing and turning; I’m not sure I managed even an hour of proper sleep. Perhaps it was pure excitement coupled with a little too much cold-brewed coffee at a tasting session the previous afternoon. Together with a handful of others, Megan and I leave the deserted hotel lobby at sunrise. We cruise down the elevated toll road stretching the length of mangrove-lined Benoa Bay, admiring the super-sized full moon in the south and watching the skies turn flaming pink and orange above the silhouette of Mount Agung – Bali’s highest and most sacred peak – in the northeast.
In densely populated southern Bali, we pass schoolkids hitching a ride on their parents’ motorbikes, pickup trucks laden with fresh produce destined for local markets, and countless signs advertising babi guling – Balinese spit-roasted suckling pig. The gradual transition from an urban environment peppered with cafés, malls, and furniture stores to archetypal Balinese countryside unfolds over the next two hours. Megan’s jaw drops as we reach the road skirting Jatiluwih village, which overlooks a horseshoe-like landscape of paddy fields peeling away to the east toward Mount Agung. Happily, it hasn’t changed much since I first came here with Bama in late 2013; the jeep parks below the same breezy restaurant where the two of us enjoyed an early lunch all those moons ago. What’s new since that initial visit is a hand-painted illustrated map of the area and a large red sign across the street, spelling out the name JATILUWIH for visiting Instagrammers.
Our group spends no more than 20 minutes in Jatiluwih before carrying on to Bedugul. This highland region is a staple on the regular tourist circuit thanks to its mountain scenery, famed lakeside temple, and cooler temperatures – making it just the place to grow heat-sensitive vegetables and fruits like strawberries. An observant traveler will also notice the many roadside market stalls run by hijab-wearing vendors. While Bali may be the sole majority-Hindu province in all of Indonesia, Bedugul is home to a well-established Muslim community of Sasak people from Lombok, the island next door. Local Hindus and Muslims alike have farmed the fertile soils on the shores of Lake Beratan, whose waters lie at an altitude of 1,240 meters (approx. 4,070 feet) above sea level, for generations.
When we arrive at the jetty the lake is perfectly still; there’s not a single ripple on the surface. Megan and I are quickly introduced to Pak Ram (short for Ramidin), a kind-faced conservationist and forest ranger who was born and raised in Bedugul. He briefs us on several dos and don’ts, and promises a fresh perspective on Pura Ulun Danu Beratan – one of Bali’s most-photographed landmarks. “We’ll see the temple from the best angle,” he assures us. Another person joining the excursion is Audria, a young Bali-based educator and entrepreneur. She returned to Indonesia after majoring in urban sustainability at Seattle University, and went on to establish Little Spoon Farm, an organic operation focused on regenerative agriculture. It’s not the first time I’ve met someone during my work travels who has left me questioning my own career choices.
After donning our lifejackets, we pile into three jukung outriggers for a leisurely paddle across the lake. Pak Ram touts the traditional vessels as a quieter and more eco-friendly alternative to the gas-guzzling speedboats some tourists prefer. I’m ecstatic to discover that I haven’t forgotten my dragon boating technique, even though I’ve been out of practice for eight years. As a breeze picks up, the helmsman aboard our jukung swings the craft parallel to shore, aiming straight for the man-made islets crowned by two of Pura Ulun Danu Beratan’s pagoda-like meru shrines. To my surprise he steers us directly into the narrow lily-filled channel separating the towers from the rest of the temple on land. At such close quarters I can make out the stone carvings and finer details adorning each one. Pak Ram waves to a friend on a nearby boat with their dog.
The 50 minutes it takes to traverse the lake feels more like 20, and between strokes I strike up a conversation with our guide, who is sitting right behind me. Bali might be the epicenter of Indonesia’s environmental movement, with NGOs dedicated to cleaning up local beaches and waterways, a growing interest in regenerative farming, design studios that build sustainably with bamboo, and even a zero-waste hotel and entertainment complex. But Pak Ram doesn’t think the majority of residents are any more eco-conscious than those in other parts of Indonesia. I ask offhand if gabus, a kind of tasty freshwater fish known in English as snakehead murrel, are found in Lake Beratan. “There used to be a lot, but they’ve become rare. Gabus are very sensitive to pollution,” he says. Like Audria, Pak Ram supports a wider adoption of organic farming to reduce the amounts of pesticides and fertilizers flowing into the lake.
Disembarking on the opposite shore, we follow a dirt track through well-tended farmland. Beside the path there are chayote and arabica coffee berries ripening on the branch; we’re handed sprigs of wild cinnamon leaves that release their fragrance when crumpled and rubbed between the palms. It’s not long before the fields give way to stands of tall rasamala (Altingia excelsa) trees. Pak Ram is clearly in his element. Grinning from ear to ear, he declares himself an anak hutan, or “child of the forest”, and tells us these woods have always been his playground. Soon, we cross a dried-up rivulet carved out by torrential downpours just a few days before. Heavy rain, unfortunately, means there’ll be leeches. Long pants offer some protection, but my socks only go a little past my ankles. I fervently hope that spraying the exposed skin with tea tree oil and yuzu–scented insect repellent is enough to keep the bloodsuckers away.
“Do you hear that?” Pak Ram pauses for a moment. The melodic oop oop in the distance turns out to be the call of an imperial pigeon. Other curiosities we come across include the overgrown remains of a megalithic site; a prehistoric-looking dragon fern, named for its scaly trunk; and a poisonous latang plant. Anyone unlucky enough to inadvertently rub an arm or leg against its large leaves can expect an intolerable itch that lasts for three days. Our guide points out the solitary leaf of a Nervilia punctata orchid on the damp forest floor. “Some people come here to pick wild orchids to sell,” he adds. Further on, the sound of running water draws us to a nearby brook. I dip my fingers into the crystal-clear water – it’s refreshingly cold to touch. With a little help from Pak Ram, we perch ourselves on the larger rocks strewn along the middle of the stream for a group meditation. “Let’s take a few minutes to be silent, focus, and really be intentional,” Audria says. Turning on her pocket music player, she bathes us in the ethereal hum of a wooden mallet circling the rim of a Tibetan singing bowl.
Part of the reason we’re here is to forage for edible plants. Our group snacks on a begonia’s sour leaves and the unripe fruit of a Javanese long pepper (the Balinese name is tabia bun), which releases a lemony flavor that builds and lingers the longer you chew on it. The taste is nothing like any fresh peppercorn I’ve had on my previous travels. Pak Ram peels the stalk of another begonia species for us to try – its vivid pink hue and intense tartness reminds me of rhubarb, one of the few foods I genuinely dislike. We take turns laughing at each other as our lips pucker and faces contort in a grimace.
Then it’s time to go higher into the dense jungle, following a narrow trail cleared by Pak Ram and his trusty machete. With a smile, he beckons us into a clearing, where he taps on the roots of young lianas dangling down from the trees. “Now I’ll show you how to find drinking water when you’re lost in the forest.” I watch, enthralled, as the ranger chops off an L-shaped section, then uses vines to tie a large leaf to the lower end for an improvised funnel. One by one, we come forward and tilt our heads back while he pushes the upper part forward to squeeze a few drops into our mouths. The liana water has a subtly sweet flavor.
Just up the trail, Pak Ram splits a buah lem in half. The small inedible fruit yields a milky sap, which gains a stretchy, rubbery consistency after a few minutes’ exposure to air. “This is like natural glue,” he says. All the while we keep an eye out for leeches. Megan lets out a shriek when she spies one wriggling on the outside of her shoe. In a flash, our guide comes to the rescue and brushes it off with a stick. But the bloodsuckers are quickly forgotten when we emerge from the thick undergrowth into the large grassy lawn in front of Pura Tirta Mampeh. Guarded by a worn Ganesha statue, the modest Hindu temple sits on a raised platform beside a sacred waterfall used for melukat cleansing rituals. Most of the sanctuary is hidden behind high stone walls, but we can see a tile-roofed pavilion with painted woodcarvings peeking out from the top of a stairway.
I’m famished. Eating breakfast on the go – a box of small pastries and a banana – while bouncing along twisting country roads didn’t seem like the best idea at the time. As it turns out, Little Spoon Farm has prepared us the most unusual lunch boxes I’ve ever seen: modified bamboo tubes with straps of woven rattan slotted through carefully drilled holes and a lid that swings open. Inside, we find a trove of delicious morsels wrapped in banana leaf. There’s lawar – a classic Balinese vegetable-and-shredded coconut dish, this time featuring young jackfruit; spinach leaves stir-fried with garlic; a slab of fried tempeh; shredded, spice-rubbed chicken; and fluffy white rice. Napkins, forks, and spoons are passed around as we sit cross-legged on the grass and tuck in, tired but happy. ◊