For many years, Bali pulled at my sister Alexandra. She’d read about its hand-dyed textiles, intricate wood carvings and fine paintings. She finally decided to go there for her 50th birthday and invited me along. I was ambivalent about the destination. Perhaps it was my college roommate’s off-key renditions of “South Pacific,” but Bali never once called to me.
From the air, the island looked like Costa Rica, only 16 long flight hours farther away. Even on land, Bali was in no hurry to impress: It wasn’t until well outside Denpasar, the capital, that the island shed her garish resort attire for a simple sarong, and big, flashy hotels gave way to small bales, or open-air huts.
Here, endless, luminously green acres of coconut palms and banana trees stretched for miles, framed by long rows of green beans, peppers, pineapples and watermelons. Greenest and lushest of all were the terraced rice fields, beautifully pleated like napkins, descending all the way to the ocean.
In some fields, solitary men walked behind water buffalo, tilling the soil. In others, small groups cut and threshed mature rice, beating the stalks against wooden racks to separate the grain from the chaff. In the center of many fields stood thatched huts for resting and wood-andbamboo shrines where the Hindu Balinese placed offerings to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess.
I was smitten.
I live in a country that has all but abandoned family farming and small-scale food production. Traditional Balinese life still revolves around villages surrounded by rice and vegetable fields. These villages are little more than clusters of thatched or stone houses with Hindu temples and perhaps a small local store.
Electricity came late to these enclaves—sometimes just 10 years ago—and most communities still have a central source of water. Here, women congregate to fill jugs that they carry home balanced on their heads. Mechanization is almost entirely absent on the farms; we never once saw a tractor. Farmers rely on hoes for weeding and scythes for cutting. Everyone grows rice, and most of it is for their own families or for local barter.
Rice is at the heart of every meal in Bali, served with bowls of fresh green beans, hot chili peppers and minced onions floating in coconut oil, and hot stir-fried peanuts. Traditional Balinese rice is red, but it takes longer to mature than white rice. It has gradually been replaced by higher-yielding, quickergrowing strains that produce three crops a year rather than two. Still, the old-timers say, the new rice is not as delicious as the red, which is now considered a delicacy and is quite expensive.
The Balinese diet is a vegetarian’s dream. Huge baskets of ripe fruits and vegetables with exotic names such as mangosteens, rambutans, salak and chayote can be had for pennies. One day, Alexandra and I passed through a small village that smelled both sweet and spicy. In the open air were long rows of hand-woven screens on which small dark objects dried.
A farmer stepped outside his stone house and scooped up some of the twig-like objects, crushing them and bringing them to us. From the smell we knew that they were cloves—musky and pungent. Across the street, cocoa beans dried on identical screens, emitting an overpoweringly sweet aroma. Several villages later, we passed stands of cashew trees. Then mangoes. In the end, we visited almost none of Bali’s famous craft shops.
We spent our time in the water, on bikes or on foot, watching farmers, feeding bananas to voracious monkeys and eating searingly hot food at open-air restaurants. One morning, we rose before dawn and climbed 1,700 steps to one of Bali’s most sacred mountain temples, joining the Balinese in eating fresh peanuts, dried breadfruit and durian chips as we climbed. On the day we left, we finally stopped at a batik shop, and I bought a shirt and scarves for gifts. But when I looked at them later, they seemed drab, as though the colors had stayed behind.
It was then that I realized what Alexandra had known instinctively—what had lured her to Bali in the first place: The island’s beauty could never be captured on a shirt or a scarf. It’s in the ancient irrigation channels that flow from mountain lakes; in the clasp of an old woman’s hand as she welcomes you; and in the shy green of the newly sprouted rice plants, whose gentle rustle is drowned out by the crashing of ocean waves. Since her trip, Lucie L. Snodgrass has been known to tie her bed sheets into sarongs and sing “Bali Ha’i” when no one’s listening.