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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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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Sanur is gearing up for its annual “Bali Kite Festival” or “Sanur Kite Festival” held in mid-July. Unfortunately we will miss it but we are already getting a taste of the passion Balinese have for kites and kiting.

Dragon kite overhead
Dragon kite overhead

(see slideshow below)

Each day we watch from our balcony as dozens of kites are flown around us. From the simple kite of our childhood to complex forms such as owls and dragons they get larger, more numerous and complex each day as kiters practice for the big event.

While we were out on a motorbike yesterday approaching Sanur from the south Stephen caught sight of some large kites being flown down by a beach. We took the motorbike down the nearest lane to discover the place swarming with crews flying enormous kites and throngs of onlookers.

We got up close as one crew prepared to launch a 4 meter dragon kite with a tail of about 60 meters. A dozen or more men and boys huddled around completing various tasks of assembly. The framework, entirely of bamboo is cleverly fitted together to give a strong yet lightweight frame that can be assembled and disassembled for storage and transport. Many kites being flown were of similar dragon designs. Once the body was assembled the crew attached the head assembly, an intricate and highly decorative dragon complete with filigreed headdress, feathers and fur and breathing carved fire from its fanged mouth.

The designing, making and flying of these monsters is a team effort by whole villages and as you might guess has religious significance as well. One of the last steps in assembling the dragon was to attach a 2 meter strap across the width of the kite; it was tensioned by a long strand of flexible bamboo and fastened into place by an ingenious collection of bamboo, string and masking tape. The strap is a noise-maker, one above and another below the frame. Once the kite is airborne the straps vibrate giving an eery drumming noise meant to frighten evil spirits.

Several crews were flying these nearly identical dragons with varying degrees of success. Getting them off the ground is the difficult part but once aloft they are magnificent and the strong winds tend to keep them there. We don’t think we have seen everything yet, we expect them to get even larger and more varied in design. It was fun nevertheless to see the enthusiasm as these cooperative activities took place.

Numerous dragon kites in the air
Bamboo framework is assembled on the ground
Kite is lifted to make attachments on underside
Elaborate head assembly with bamboo framework is attached to body. Note detail of head decoration
Finally straps are attached. Tension will cause them to vibrate creating an eerie sound
The tail has been attached as the crew prepares for launch. Note strap across top and another crew readying their kite behind
Kite with long tail being launched
Several nearly identical dragon kites in the air
Aspiring kite flyers. Note string wrapped around water bottle
Dragon kite overhead
Dragon kite overhead