Rice is arguably Bali’s most important crop and much of it is grown on picturesque terraced hillsides. Some of the most spectacular terraces are in the inland hills of eastern Bali. While staying in Tirta Gangga we took a guided hike through rice paddies seeing it in its various stages of growth and learning a lot about how it is grown.

Rice terraces near Tirta Gangga in eastern Bali
Rice terraces near Tirta Gangga in eastern Bali

(see slideshow below)

Rice requires plenty of water and we saw an extensive system of canals, ditches, diversion gates and other infrastructure needed to properly distribute and apportion the water that flows from the nearby mountains. Irrigation cooperatives, called subak, allot water and maintain the distribution system based on centuries old practice much like the acequia system in New Mexico. The canals we walked along were well maintained and over by Sidemen we saw workers installing new rock-lined waterways. A team of 8 or more men were digging ditches, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, preparing concrete and cementing the smaller rocks into walls to form permanent canals, all a part of the subak organization.

Flooding is only a part of the growing cycle where plants sit in water, at other times they are left to normal precipitation patterns and water is diverted elsewhere. It is possible to grow two to three crops per year on the same land and it was in all stages of development within the area we visited. Field preparation is done using human or animal labor and once soil is turned over in preparation for a new crop it is flooded for a month while seedlings are grown in beds nearby. Once the soil is prepared and seedlings are ready they are planted by hand and the field is flooded for some weeks. Later the fields are left to dry and the grass grows to maturity producing heads of the grain. It is harvested also by hand often gathered in attractive sheaves and later thrashed and left to dry, often on plastic on or along roadways.

There are a number of rice cultivars and there is ongoing research to improve their characteristics. Traditional varieties are still grown and indeed prized for their flavor and color but most of the rice is white rice. Because there is little opportunity to expand arable land, the major focus has been on improving yields. In its early years the so called “green revolution” relied on increased use of fertilizer and pesticides but through sustained efforts promoted mainly by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) a lengthy and complex breeding effort has produced varieties referred to as “green super rice”. Varieties from throughout the rice growing regions of the world have been meticulously selected and bred using standard breeding methods to produce new cultivars that have much increased yields while being more tolerant of drought, flooding and pests while also requiring less fertilizer and chemical applications. Unlike the genetic modification we are familiar with, lead by big corporations, these varieties are obtained from interbreeding normal rices and not by gene insertion to produce patentable characteristics such as herbicide and insect resistance.

The super rice we saw had much shorter stems and much fuller heads than traditional varieties growing nearby. In addition to much increased yields we were told these super varieties can produce three crops instead of the normal two for older kinds. In the absence of abundant water in many areas, only one crop can be grown and other crops such as beans, peanuts and tapioca are grown at other times. Plants growing along terrace walls that we would call weeds were also harvested for livestock feed. People were tending the rice pulling weeds which were then placed in the irrigation ditch to rinse them and were fed to pigs. Our guide continually reached out at the elephant grass to capture grasshoppers that he later gave as a treat to his fighting cocks when we visited his home.

The rise in tourism (80% of Bali’s income is from tourism) has caused serious social upheaval in rice growing areas because as land is purchased for development the farmer gets a large one-time payment which is quickly spent leaving the farmer without land for future income. In addition the resorts and villas, that we so enjoy, use plenty of water and produce plenty of waste water that works against agricultural sustainability.

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Motorbikes are the major form of transport in much of Southeast Asia and Bali is no exception.  This collection of photos tries to express their ubiquity and function.

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Rupiah and Dollars

What is the value in dollars of this cash from my pocket?
What is the value in dollars of this cash from my pocket?

Each time you go to a different country you are likely to encounter a different currency and trying to keep track of what you are spending or how much things cost in your own currency is often a struggle. That is certainly the case here in Bali where the currency is the Indonesian Rupiah. All transactions are made in cash in local currency and the constant use of credit cards we use at home that keeps our pockets empty of cash doesn’t exist here. That presents a calculation problem all the time.

Today the exchange rate is 13,187.48 Rupiah per dollar (Rp/USD). Since the exchange rate fluctuates daily we use 13,000 Rp/USD but even that causes a problem, after all there’s a bunch of zeros to deal with and besides 13 is a prime number. I never learned my 13 times table and there are no shortcuts when calculating in prime numbers so estimating is tough.

Let’s say renting a motorbike costs 75,000 Rp per day. How many dollars is that? (Well, by estimating let’s use 12,000 Rp/USD and that would make 72,000 Rp equal six bucks, so we’re in there some where; see you can work with 12 but 13 seems impossible.) Is a hotel at 500,000 per night a good deal? How about 1,200,000? That last one’s kind of easy; it’s about $100 (1.3 million Rp=$100 doesn’t it?). If you go away for the weekend how many rupiah do you stuff into your pockets? In fact, we are going over to Java soon for a couple weeks and will want to take cash with us so what part of Stephen’s pay should she ask for in Rp compared to dollars? We paid our way over here and got some of the reimbursement in rupiah after we arrived; that was about 15 million, a rather large pile of paper.

Cash from the bank bundled in 10 millions of rupiah
Cash from the bank bundled in 10 millions of rupiah

The largest bill is 100,000 Rp or about $7.70 so large transactions require lots of paper. Money is often sorted into bundles of one million rupiah. So what about coins? There are 100, 200, 500 and 1000 Rp coins. What is the dollar value of a 100 Rp coin? They must not think they are worth much since they are made of some metal that so lacks density I think is plastic but perhaps it’s aluminum.

If one dollar equals 13,000 rupiah, what is the value of these coins in dollars?
If one dollar equals 13,000 rupiah, what is the value of these coins in dollars?


And to further complicate things, they use the metric system (I know that’s kinda backward but…) so what then is the price of gas in dollars per gallon if a liter costs 9000 Rp? Or what kind of gas mileage did that Xenia get on Lombok if we drove 370 Km on 30 L of petrol? But let’s not blame that problem on the rupiah exchange rate. No wonder on one cares.

Oh well, we encountered the same problem in Turkey where the exchange rate started at 350,000 Turkish lira per dollar and devalued so rapidly month-by-month that it finally exceeded one million to one. Stephen’s pay there was adjusted monthly for inflation and we had to adjust our calculations all the time.

See how dealing with such things can keep your mind young?

Nusa Penida an island off the coast of Bali

Passengers wade to a typical ferry bound for nearby islands. Note white box at center for sandals.
Passengers wade to a typical ferry bound for nearby islands. Note white box at center for sandals.

There are three small islands off the east coast of Bali. The largest of the three is Nusa Penida but also the poorest and least developed. Sounds like a reason to visit. This island is rarely visited by tourists unlike Nusa Lembogan which is favored for surfing and day-trippers and has many modern resorts.

(See slideshow below)

Fast boats to these islands are rated at about 30 passengers but often carry more and no safety equipment is visible anywhere. They are powered by a number of large outboard motors and make the trip in about 40 minutes. There is no dock for departures and boats leave from the beach in a haphazard manner that depends on the tides. Passengers wade to the boat through knee deep water after throwing their sandals into a box.

The earliest scheduled boat for Nusa Penida is 9:00 so when we got there around 8:00 we were hustled to an already overloaded boat that departed immediately. After wading out to it we were shown to the roof where about 10 young men and some cargo were already in place. There are no guard rails or hand holds on the roof, just a slippery fiberglass surface. Stephen and I were the only tourists on the boat confirming that this island is not on the tourist trail. Rather, it is a place to observe rural life and subsistence.

No one paid any attention to us when we arrived at Ped, the majority of the passengers, presumably Balinese or other Indonesians, were dressed in ceremonial garb and were on a pilgrimage to visit one of the temples. Residents speak a mixture of languages, including archaic Balinese and a dialect from Lombok, so we had trouble getting anyone speaking enough English for us to rent a motorbike. But when we approached a group of men surrounding a group of motorbikes we were soon on our way.

After leaving our luggage at a hotel we had selected, mainly because it had A/C, a pool and restaurant, we got some minimal directions and headed into the center of the island. The road rose steeply leaving the tropical forests and coconut palms for drier rather barren terraced farmland. The island is much too dry for rice cultivation and most of the inland agriculture is of a subsistence type, a mixture of corn and vegetable crops. Our trip was more or less a meander to see the island but we were also headed to Tanglad, a small village known for ikat weaving. We had a pretty good map with us showing a series of squiggles representing roads; the island is only about 15 by 20 Km. Getting up high-the highest point is about 1700′-happens fast. The roads are in very poor condition but there is almost no traffic except for motorbikes and a few trucks.

With only a few settlements along the way, we reached Tanglad and were shown to a home where a woman was weaving some rather uninspiring ikat. So we left, heading for the east coast. The road went down hill as rapidly as it had risen and we soon realized we must be on the wrong road because it went directly to the sea but our map showed us staying up high and inland with no connecting roads down below. We returned to Tanglad and yes that is the right road, maybe our map is wrong. As it turned out it was nicer to be along the coast anyway with lovely beaches and coves.

Soon we reached the seaweed cultivating area. Unable to grow things inland, they have found a different form of agriculture by growing seaweed in frames in the shallow water off the coast. The seaweed, once harvested, is left in the sun to dry. At first it is green but by sun-drying or by placing it in closed plastic bags, it bleaches turning nearly white. The dried product is not processed here but is shipped abroad to produce carageenan, a familiar thickening agent used in foods, especially ice cream. There are also a number of temples of significance to Indonesian Hindus along this route; we stopped to photograph one right on the waterfront.

The following day we headed in the opposite direction, toward the west heading for Klumbu, another weaving village. While passing through a small settlement, Stephen spotted a piece of ikat hanging on a line in a roadside shop. I tell you, how she can spot good textiles while moving along a pothole filled road on the back of a motorbike, I will never know but that’s been her eye for textiles from the beginning. An ordinary shop it was, a few textiles hanging above the petrol and water bottles, behind several motorbikes and under a blue tarp shade, and amongst the cookies and detergent and fruit. Shops like this one are meant to supply the local folks and having a tourist buy her ikat piece caused the woman running the place to burst into excited conversation with the woman at the adjacent shop.

The unmarked roads and inaccurate map lead us unintentionally to Crystal Bay, a gorgeous cove nowhere near Klumbu. As we tried to correct our path we became more lost and finally flagged down a boy to ask for help. He didn’t really know but as we gave up getting help, he said for us to follow him home.

We went several kilometers and ended up in the settlement of Sompang (maybe that’s where we were). He pulled into his enclosed yard and his dad immediately came out to greet us. A very humble place but so very welcoming. We struggled to communicate but the dad had some words in English, enough to learn that he had very recently lost his wife to cancer. They showed us with pride their bonsai tree and caged fighting cocks while chickens scratched around the yard. Grandma posed graciously for a picture.

We didn’t want this warm encounter to end, even with our limited communication this stay could have lasted much longer had we not needed to get back to the boat launch and Sanur. We never did get to Klumbu or anywhere near it really but who cares, it turned out to be a great adventure anyway.

We waded out to the boat early enough this time to get a seat inside leaving our sandals near the bottom of the box on shore. The boat sped to Sanur and brought us ashore at a stretch of boulders. We all waded to the rocks, found our sandals that had been dumped out among the rocks and struggled to the beachfront walkway. And so our adventure ended as this trip to Nusa Penida would end for any Balinese. We had fun and felt like we had finally seen what these islands were like not so long ago.


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Traveling in Bali

Not so many months ago I would have been hard pressed to tell you where Bali is or that it’s a province of Indonesia. I only had a vague idea and shared the common belief that it’s a tropical paradise.

Satellite map of Bali. We traveled from Sanur east of Kuta in southern Bali over the mountains via Bedugul to NW corner and from there to the Batur crater shown in Bangli in NE
Satellite map of Bali. We traveled from Sanur east of Kuta in southern Bali over the mountains via Bedugul to NW corner and from there to the Batur crater shown in Bangli in NE

Now after these several months we have gotten to know most of the island and traveled many of its roads and experienced its varied environment, culture, food and handicrafts. Living here as we do gives us enough time to get acquainted with it on better terms than a tourist might but it by no means lets us in on all its secrets; that would take a lifetime.


Suzuki APV
Suzuki APV

When Amy and her family were here we drove over 600 Km seeing the island from bottom to top in our seven-passenger Suzuki APV. We climbed Mount Batur volcano, we snorkeled on the northwest coast, we watched as cement tiles were made, all things I have described previously. Stephen and I have gone about that many miles on rented motorbikes at other times and have seen a lot more.

What has come as a real surprise is how populated this tropical island is; with a population of 4.25 million and a density of 1900 per square mile it’s rather crowded. Travel is slow and difficult with inadequate roads and complex topography that ranges from sea level to the tops of many volcanoes, including Gunung Agung the highest at over 10,000′. Up and down and over and around the many rivers and mountains and other natural impediments coupled with unrelenting traffic makes tough going. Nevertheless we sought adventure.

The morning following their arrival, travel weary and jet-lagged, we headed out in the APV for the north coast of Pemuteran. Most tourists rent cars with a driver, avoiding the hassle of driving and relying on someone else to know how to get to their desired destinations. But we already had to squeeze to get the seven of us in the APV and a driver would have made things unworkable. We were frequently asked where our driver was but my passengers were kind enough to let me take my meals with them and share their lodging even though I got lost plenty and couldn’t figure out how to ask directions.

We escaped the density of the Denpasar area and headed up through the center of the island. City congestion gave way to rice terraces and as the mountains approached we found the APV straining to climb the extremely steep grades and the tight winding roads. Stopping to take a rest at Strawberry Hill, with a view of the steep mountain and forest below us, we encountered a roadside menagerie of exotic animals, including a giant fruit bat, a hornbill and a mongoose. Along the way we hiked through jungle to a waterfall and later got close to a bunch of monkeys in one of the many monkey forests-a place where a large colony of monkeys seem to establish their own kind of settlement.

High on the ridge of a volcano we skirted a couple of beautiful crater lakes. We stopped for a cup of coffee at a plantation and got a short introduction to the cultivation and processing of the beans. Plenty of coffee is grown in Indonesia, after all Java is synonymous with coffee. One of the greatest hypes is the so called “luwak” coffee, a bean that has been eaten by the civet, a cat-like creature and the bean is recovered in the feces causing it to obtain a magical wonderfulness. We see roadsigns for it everywhere, it’s available in fancy shops or at the grocery, it’s known the world over by coffee snobs as the reason to pay outrageous prices to have just one cup of it. I simply can’t accept its authenticity; we saw exactly one civet, that one in a cage and I don’t think there are many more in the wild. How many civets eating nothing but coffee beans (and excreting them unchanged) would it take to supply the pounds and pounds of this exotic bean? Never mind, kopi bali, normal Balinese coffee, is nothing to get excited over. It’s not roasted to my liking and it is ground to a fine powder and steeped in water and poured sludge and all into a cup where you can either filter it through your teeth or wait until it settles a bit knowing you will leave about half a cup of the sludge behind.

We snaked our way back down the other side to the northern coast and Taman Sari at Pemuteran. Stephen had booked us into a luxury resort. We had a four bedroom villa enclosed in its own walls away from the rest of the sprawling resort with its own swimming pool, an outdoor bar pavilion, several fountains and gardens. Each room

was really several rooms, a large bedroom with a massive mosquito net enclosed bed, a bathroom with sinks and a shower that opened onto an open air patio that had another open air shower and fountain. Each suite was more luxurious than any of us was used to but we adapted, spending time in our own pool and relaxing away the travel. We did do stuff while here over three days including snorkeling and visiting restoration projects that I wrote about in an earlier posting.

Two Balinese natives wearing frangipani blossoms.
Two Balinese natives wearing frangipani blossoms.

We got acquainted with the best of Balinese cuisine as well. The food was outstanding at nearby restaurants with service to match. I think every chef had gone to culinary arts school to study presentation. After being wowed by these meals so elegantly served we got a lesson from a chef on preparing decorative vegetables. He cut a carrot into blossoms, he then made fans by carefully slicing cucumber. All these things are served with a few flower blossoms on a carefully shaped banana leaf. I’m trying to master some traditional recipes but I don’t think my presentation will quite measure up.

We weren’t ready to leave Taman Sari and sink back into a run-of-the-mill villa with not much more than air conditioning, a pool and tropical gardens and pushing the APV over some more Balinese roads didn’t help much. We were headed to the Bali Botanical Gardens and a hotel within the grounds that Stephen had reserved. After we approached the wrong gate and were forced to turn back and enter a different way a couple of kilometers distant we were told there was no hotel on the grounds. However, on speaking to a different guard evidently more knowledgeable than the first, we were directed to the hotel. After all, the hotel had accepted Stephen’s reservation over the phone. We drove into the grounds and found the hotel sure enough, but it was dark and locked up. Change of plans. After searching around and getting lost and making far too many dangerous u-turns, we were finally escorted to an acceptable place for the night. The main reason for staying at the gardens wasn’t so much for the gardens actually but for the Bali Treetop Adventure Park within the grounds. That turned out to be a great adventure sure enough and I’ll outline it in a later post.

Our next destination was Mt. Batur volcano. We followed the GPS and a couple of maps using three navigators and one driver. Heading east through the center of the island the terrain is a folded sheet with rivers and drainages mostly headed south. Roads don’t go through. Roads aren’t marked. GPS and maps are untrustworthy. But we saw a lot of country, some of it twice as we backtracked from this or that road that ended as a footpath somewhere. We did make progress and as we made a climb near our Mt. Batur destination we came upon a fruit stand really in the middle of nowhere; gorgeous fruits beautifully presented but who was going to pass by and buy all of it? We got to sample some of them, mostly tropical fruits that for me still have no names.

A abundance of tropical fruit beautifully displayed

We spent the night below the volcano on the shore of Lake Batur with a 4 a.m. wake up call for our hike to the top.

Mt. Batur seen from the rim of the caldera
Mt. Batur seen from the rim of the caldera

Snorkeling off Menjangan Island

z sunfishIn Bali’s extreme northwest corner is a large national park, Taman Nasional Bali Barat, that includes land as well as a large area of coastal reefs. On our family visit everyone was keen to snorkel off Menjangan Island, a part of the park. Everyone but me that is; I don’t much like water and especially water over my head so I just hung out while the bunch of Hemers and Stephen hired a boat and guide. Their guide had a camera outfitted to take underwater photos so I put together a collection of some of them here. Some of these creatures are very colorful while others hide with perfect camouflage.

composite 1




composite 2


The northern coast where we spent several days has experienced some tragic degradation to its ecology in the past. First, the colorful fish are threatened by over harvesting for the aquarium trade. Also turtles are endangered because they are desirable as a special food. Corals on the reefs have been damaged mostly because they are harvested to use as a source of building materials or as a result of dynamiting for fish.

In the area around Pemuteran, a popular resort and vacation spot, there are a number of projects meant to remedy that. Just offshore at our resort, Taman Sari, there is an experimental coral restoration project (http://tamansaribali.com/coral-restoration-project/). Apparently applying an electrical current to metal framework causes corals planted there to grow at a rate five times normal. A raft within swimming distance of the beach is outfitted with photovoltaic panels for a research project to measure the effectiveness of the technique.

Several kilometers away a turtle rescue and breeding project is underway (www.wonderfulbali.com/turtle-hatchery-pemuteran/). Fishermen are taught about the problems of over harvesting, taught to recognize signs of illness among turtles and to bring ill as well as animals injured during fishing in for care and rehabilitation. Additionally locals are paid a small amount for turtle eggs that are then hatched and reared in the facility for later release. Raising the level of awareness is leading to cooperation in these sustainability efforts. Protecting reefs, reducing over fishing and illegal harvest of fish and turtles will eventually help the local population.



Cement Tiles

Dutch Colonial style bungalows at Darmada.
Dutch Colonial style bungalows at Darmada.

When we stayed at Darmada (www.darmadabali.com), an inland resort near Sidemen, we were impressed by the decorative floor and wall tiles. Well, as it turns out the owners, an Indonesian-Dutch couple, also own the nearby factory, Sadustile, where these tiles are made so not only did we get to enjoy their beauty we got to see just how they are made.

(See slideshow at end)

Although they look a lot like ceramic tiles they are not, instead they are what are called cement tiles or encaustic cement tiles, a kind of tile made without the firing process that ceramic tiles require.

I know I have seen them many places, particularly in Mexico and in U.S. buildings built during the 20s or before but I just didn’t realize they were a different type of tile. Although they may be one solid color they are commonly decorated in a variety of patterns using many rich colors and because they are hand made they have subtle variability that adds to their richness. In addition they are durable and easy to maintain.

The manufacturing process is likely little changed since its development in France in the 1850s. A mold in the shape of the tile is placed on a smooth surface and the desired pattern made from thin strips of metal is placed in the mold. The tile is made up in three layers, the first will impart the various colors dictated by the pattern. A slurry of white Portland cement, white marble powder and natural mineral color pigments is added to the sections of the pattern to a depth of about one-eighth inch (3-4mm). The color penetrates deeply into the tile unlike most patterned ceramic tiles. A second layer of dry fine sand and normal gray Portland cement is added next followed by the third layer of moist coarse sand and Portland. The mold is leveled off and a die is placed over the cement mixture and a pressure of several hundred pounds per square inch is applied with a hydraulic press. The tile is placed face down on a piece of glass and the mold is released.. At this point the tile is very fragile and must be handled carefully; it is allowed to mature overnight but it will not reach anything like full strength since too little water has been used in the process so far. After a suitable time the tiles are transferred to a water bath where they remain for several days to allow the cement to react and reach full strength. Tiles are trimmed and placed on racks to dry out in preparation for shipment.


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