Rice - or - How I Got Lost in a Rice Paddy and Lived to Tell the Tale

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June 12th 2010
Published: June 12th 2010
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Black RiceBlack RiceBlack Rice

Four different types of rice are grown in Bali
I’m sure that most of the Balinese I encountered thought I was just a little nuts. (OK, maybe they thought I was more than a little nuts.) But I took a whole lot of pictures of rice paddies while I was there. There was just something about the shifting colors and light and shadows that I found really beautiful.

Rice is extremely important to the Balinese. In addition to being a food staple, it is central to their culture and their religion. You will see many women, and some men, with grains of rice pressed into their foreheads, or at the base of their throats. One woman explained it to me like this:

“The two things most important and most holy to Bali people are water and rice. Without water there is no life. Rice is our first food, and without rice there is no life. When we pray in the morning, we dip our fingers in holy water, and then in the rice, and then to ourselves.”

Rice is used in the daily offerings in the temple and in the offering baskets placed outside homes, shops, and at busy intersections. You will be served rice at every

Rice cultivation is all performed by hand. It is back-breaking labor in the hot sun.
meal, unless you order something distinctly Western (like pizza,) and even then it will be an option.

You really cannot avoid the rice paddies even if you wanted to. My hotel in Ubud, the most excellent Tegal Sari (more on that later,) was set in a rice paddy, and the view from my balcony was of the rice fields that came to within 10 meters of the building.

I had read about a particular walk through the rice paddies just north of the Ubud Palace. The weather had been miserably hot, rainy, and steamy, but it finally cleared up and I thought I’d give the rice paddy walk a try. The clincher was an older German gentleman who said the path, while a little muddy, was very beautiful, and about half way along there was a good organic restaurant called Sari Organik, with fabulous food and home-brewed organic beer. That sounded like a plan to me!

The walk starts off along Jalan Kajeng, a narrow street with a few shops and rental bungalows mixed in with family compounds. The street narrows to a paved path, and once across the river you are on a foot path through the rice fields.

The map showed the path leading north for a while, and then looping south. About halfway along the path heading south was Sari Organik, and shortly after that, the trail ended on Jalan Raya Ubud, one of the city’s main streets. Ever since I got lost in a shopping mall in Singapore (don’t laugh until you’ve experienced a Singaporean mall,) I have carried a small, cheap compass when I travel. I have a map, I have a compass, and I’m in an open field, how hard can it be?

I like to walk, and I was feeling pretty good about my decision to stroll through the countryside. There was a bit of a breeze, and a bit of shade, and I was mentally patting myself on the back for my wise choice. I walk through fields and alongside irrigation ditches. I see ducks getting fat on bugs and fallen grains of rice, and see farmers working extremely hard harvesting rice and preparing field for the new crop.

And then the trail ends.

Now, just a few minutes earlier an old woman carrying a hand sickle passed me going the other way, so I
Ducks with riceDucks with riceDucks with rice

Ducks eat the bugs and fertilze the field. Eventually they end up as bebek betutu, or Balinese smoked duck (with rice.)
know I haven’t walked into empty wilderness. To my left is a very steep, very muddy, set of footholds cut into a bank. I manage to climb up without too much difficulty, figuring this is where the trail loops south. Nope, the path only goes in one direction, and that is most decidedly north.

I walk for another hour or so, still going north, still looking for a trail that heads south. I see a small building in the distance, and figure that my compass must be wrong, and that the building is probably the restaurant. Nope, it’s an artist’s studio. Think about that for a moment: an artist’s studio/gallery on a rarely used footpath in the middle of a rice field. That would be like walking two hours into a wheat field in Kansas and finding a working artist.

I asked her why she chose to have her shop and studio in the rice field instead of in town. Her father-in-law owned the field, she told me, and let her put up a small building and stay in it for free. She kept ducks, which cleaned his fields of bugs, fertilizing them in the process. She could
Irrigation ditchesIrrigation ditchesIrrigation ditches

The water for the fields is held in common, and water distribution decisions are made by the temple priest.
sell the duck eggs, or eat them herself, and when she hadn’t sold anything, her father-in-law would give her rice. It was a good month if she sold one painting.

When I left her studio I was pretty hot and thirsty. I had just about given up hope of finding the restaurant and home-brewed beer; now I was just looking for a paved road. Where there is a paved road in Bali, there is somebody offering transport.

I could hear an occasional horn honk and motorbikes in the distance, so I headed in that direction. Another kilometer or so I came to a paved road in a residential neighborhood. I pull out my map and my trusty compass and try to figure out where the hell I am.

Soon, a thirteen year-old boy pulls up on his motorbike. “Transport?” he asks me. I ask him to show me where I am on my map. Either map reading is not one of his skills, or I have walked off the edge of the map. (The later turns out to be true; I’m still not sure about the former.)

Between my poor command of Indonesian, his broken English, and a lot of pointing and gesturing, we agree on a price to bring me back to Ubud. So here I am with a boy, a bike, no helmets, and my faith that he knows where we are going. We ride back on twisty, narrow, poorly paved roads, and we make it in one piece.

But for the life of me I still can’t figure out how I got lost. How hard could it be?

Bali, May 2010

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