Bali beyond the beaches
‘AN anthropologist came to our village and I helped him take blood samples from all the villagers,” Sadra loves to explain gravely. “We sent the samples to laboratories in Europe, Australia and America. The results were all the same.”
He punches the air triumphantly: “We have blood from India!”
The villagers of Tenganan Pegringsingan have long believed this to be so and the test results validate their claim to be descended from one of Bali’s oldest races. Traditionally the home of warriors, the village, near Candidasa, on Bali’s east coast, has retained customs and beliefs now very different from the rest of the island. The best archeological guesses estimate that the village dates from the 11th century, though not even Sadra, regarded as the local historian, can be sure.
Stepping into Tenganan is to enter another world, where everything has been thought about, has meaning and makes sense, in a way that makes large cities seem like giddy-headed toddlers.
Tenganan is one of four Balinese villages that, with the Wisnu Foundation (a local environmental non-governmental organisation), make up Bali’s new village ecotourism network (JED), which represents a fresh approach to tourism. Each JED village has experienced externally imposed tourism programs in the past and although each recognised the potential benefits they could bring, the villagers knew that in the hands of outsiders they could do more harm than good. One JED village, Nusa Ceningan island, put up the most spectacular fight, successfully rejecting a government plan to sell 90 per cent of its land to tourism investors for a large resort.
Designed, owned and run jointly by the five stakeholders, the establishment of JED is a brave step. Nothing like it has existed in Bali. JED is driven by the conviction of the village members that they have valuable cultural and environmental resources and that ecotourism is a way to benefit from and preserve them. Everybody gets something out of it. The trip fee from each visitor not only pays the local guides, cooks and those whose lands are crossed, but contributes to the village temple, the traditional council and the village conservation fund.
Of course, tourism can work like quicksand for small communities, which has not escaped the JED network members. The villagers have decided they will never rely entirely on tourism, nor will they change their lifestyles. They will restrict visitor numbers when necessary to make sure they can always prioritise the activities that form the foundations of Balinese village life.
For travellers, it means an opportunity to see a new side of Bali: quieter and more authentic than the tourism-oriented southern hubs. And each village is different. Kiadan Pelaga, in Bali’s central highlands, is an agricultural wonderland, surrounded by lush forest gardens where organic crops are grown among wild plants and trees. Cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa and chilli are in abundance.
“This plant is used in our temple ceremonies and this one for a high fever,” explains Wayan, one of the local guides. “This one we use to make roofs and this one is good fried with garlic.”
But the king crop in Kiadan Pelaga is organic coffee and visitors come away enlightened to the process and politics behind filling that morning cup.
Three hours by road to the east, Dukuh Sibetan lies at the foot of majestic Mt Agung. The volcano’s 1963 eruption left farmers with ash-coated lands and few agricultural choices. Luckily, snake fruit rose out of the dust to become the village specialty and residents of Dukuh Sibetan are authorities on this strange little fruit.
Through seed saving, they have formed something of a genetic bank and they also produce Bali’s only snake fruit wine; visitors are invited to learn how it’s made and to taste samples. Views from Dukuh Sibetan are spectacular, and short treks reward with vistas all the way to the ocean.
Nusa Ceningan island, tucked behind touristy Lembongan island on Bali’s east coast, is governed by sun and sea. Ninety-seven per cent of its inhabitants are seaweed farmers and, according to home-stay host Sita, the canoes heading out to tend their plantations “look like the morning market”. The northern tip of Nusa Ceningan is perfect for snorkelling, with a stunning variety of fish and colourful coral.
The southwestern end of the island is surrounded by deeper, rougher seas, crashing dramatically against cliffs. Here is the place to watch the sun set over distant Bali while the air fills with swallows from caves below, darting around to find their evening meal.
Back on the mainland, Tenganan is already visited by tourists, but most are accompanied by a guide from outside the area. Village network visitors to Tenganan, however, are hosted by a local resident.
This is the case in all JED villages and, in Tenganan, it means unique access to the stories of the village, walks through one of Bali’s most intact remaining temperate rainforests, and the slow unravelling of the mysteries of the village’s prized gringsing weaving, found here and in Japan and India.
Overnight trips to these villages are welcomed, at a home-stay or in locally run accommodation. The included meals are an opportunity to sample delicious, home-style Balinese cooking, prepared by the village women as much as possible from local organic produce.
It is still early days for this small community-based project and the JED network members continue to learn as they go. But the message is clear: no matter how many times you’ve been to Bali, don’t think you know it all yet.