Saturday, 19 December 2015

Stark Realities: Life in Rural Bali

I am a fraud. I spend my days in my large rural home on an acre of idyllic land, in a village brimming with middle income commuters who feel hard done by having to spend their days in a cubicle to make a living to earn a wage that would be envied in a large majority of the world. I have an air-conditioned car, my choice of six bedrooms all unoccupied bar the one I choose to sleep in, a big screen TV, a home gym, a large Oak dining table where I read my cookbooks in the afternoon sunshine and two cats who live festively plump on homemade food.

I cook and write and feel somehow connected to the world by partaking in their traditions and cuisines. But I found out today it is all a farce. I found out that simply sharing in the flavours of a country doesn't mean you share in their experience. It doesn't put you in their shoes, in their homes or living their lives. I am like a spectator, looking in from behind safety glass just to be sure I don't get messy. None of it is real.

How do I know this, how can I be so sure that despite all my efforts to connect I am actually quite removed? I know this because today I stepped out from behind the safety glass and into the reality of life in a multi-generational family compound in rural Bali.

Barrelling down the narrow road on a mountain bike with no suspension I was certain I was going to die. Scooters, trucks and cars were all whizzing by me within inches of my wobbling uncertain wheels. Who's idea was it get on this thing anyway? Martin's of course. A number of years ago on a family trip to Bali Martin did a very similar bike ride with family. At the time I opted out just as I had been opting out of bike rides around the world my entire travelling life. But in the years since that trip Martin had not stopped talking about the family compound they visited on this particular bike ride and after initial refusal followed by foot stamping, crocodile tears and final submission I gave in.

Now Martin spent a number of years trying to convey to me what he saw and felt in this compound. I brushed it off. I am well travelled  I know how people live around the world, I know life in rural Bali is tough. So stepping over the threshold I was cocky, I knew what to expect. I was wrong. The realities of living in a multi-generational family compound in rural Bali is so far removed from life as I know it that I was confronted. Confronted by the smells, the penned animals, the flies and confronted by the sheer number of people living within one small space.

Martin likes to point out that this compound was much wealthier than the original one he visited. With four "kitchens" for four families and a money making bamboo business in the backyard this family in his eyes were well off in comparison. In my eyes I was taken aback.

Entering the compound and walking down the dirt track we were greeted by slow moving, mange ridden dogs. This is standard in Bali, street dogs seem to outnumber even chickens and I had already locked up my bicycle breaks that morning dodging one of these slow moving creatures who found a sudden spurt of speed to dart in front of my bike. As the yard opened up we saw that the whole back of the property was a bamboo forest in which a pair of leathery skinned Balinese men were whittling away at the bamboo to form large strips used to create matting and roofing. Unperturbed by the tourists they went about their work as we moved past and on to the pig pens the smell of which greeted us before the sight. We were presented with four cement pens around hip height the first of which contained the largest pig I have ever laid eyes upon. The great hulking grey and black mass lay on it's side stretching diagonally from corner to corner to fill the entire shit encrusted pen. As I watched it's breath move it's great stomach up and down I realised that there was no door to this pen and at a mass of at least 300 kilos there was no way for this creature to ever escape it's captivity. The thought (and the smell) took my breath away. Our guide, Eggy, explained that the pig before us was a breeding sow and that she was pregnant. Waves of bacon eating guilt washed over me. This pig was trapped up a pen no bigger than herself for the sole purpose of producing pork products. As we moved along the pens inspecting the spit roast suckling pigs to be, the free range roosters watched us with curiosity, I felt happy for a moment that at least the roosters were free to roam about until our guide informed us that they were used in cock fighting matches.

Rounding the corner from the animal menagerie we came upon the first of the buildings for human habitation, the kitchen. This is the room that had left the strongest impression on Martin and the one in which he had so tried to re-create through words for me. But there are no words that can bring this room to life for anyone who lives in the Western World where Ikea kitchens and their soft closing drawers exist. The room was around half the size of the pantry on the floor plans for the house I am about to build. Upon entering it took a few moments for the eyes to adjust to the darkness. Years of soot had layered the walls so thickly it was as if the room as been painted black. On one wall there was a small window with no glass, just a wide mesh covering the hole. On the floor there was a low cement pedestal with a hole to light a fire underneath and a pot of food sitting on top, the only method possible to cook on such a structure would to be to squat. On the bench sat a strainer of the days rice which was crawling with flies and Eggy described how Balinese families work together all day so choose to eat alone, entering the kitchen when hungry to help themselves to the days prepared food most of which was stored in a little cupboard to the side of the fly covered bench. As it slowly dawned on me that Eggy too came from a compound such as this I tried to wipe the horror off my face as to not cause offence. I can't imagine anything worse than seemingly wealthy white people coming into your home with judgemental faces of disgust.

Leaving the kitchen we came to a central open air, raised floor structure where at least three if not four generations of women sat weaving small offerings baskets for an upcoming festival. The withered old ladies sitting on the hard cement floor crossed legged with no visible signs of arthritic joints or stiff muscles, the babies suckling at their mothers teet while they worked and the toddlers making cheeky faces at our group as we discussed the funerary rites of the Balinese (which involves leaving the body on display in the open air for a week with daily injections of formaldehyde to keep the humid air from causing the corpse to rot). Situated around this central pavilion was each families separate bedrooms. Within each room was one mattress for the whole family to sleep upon together (which was a vast improvement from the floor sleeping situation of the other compound Martin had been to). Eggy explained that the more ornate of the rooms was for the youngest son who in every family is set in inherit everything. Quite the opposite to the English tradition where the oldest son inherits and a seemingly unstable situation. Eggy goes on to explain that he was the youngest son "the special one" in his family, set to have it all and with the luxury of the private abode until his father remarried and had more children and he was superseded. If Eggy was sad about his situation he hid it well.

Standing out in the oppressive heat swatting flies, listening to the thunder roll in for the first of the days storms and watching this family work together in some ways I was jealous. Jealous of a family unit that stays living together as new generations come along and older ones pass away. Western families have mastered the art of keeping each other at a distance, even the closest of families will never experience what the families in Bali have. But looking longer reality sets back in, their emaciated bodies clearly hungry for proper sustenance, a lack of even the smallest of luxuries, no bathroom facilities to speak of and that ever present smell that seeps into your every pore I long for the comforts of home.

I didn't take many pictures in the compound, it felt intrusive to capture their lives in such a way and post it all over the internet without their permission. Instead I will leave you with some photos of Bali. Bali gets a bad reputation in many respects due to the party lifestyle of the Kuta beach area but look outside of that stretch of tourist beaches and you will find a stunning country full of the most friendly people. The lush coconut palms stretch tall and border vistas of active volcanoes and working rice paddies and your tourist dollar that stretches a long way is always an appreciated addition to the economy.

Originally posted on Saturday, 19 December 2015 by