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Notes From A Spice Island

July 16, 2014

It was summer, 1995 when I first set foot on Indonesian soil and I loved it from the get go.  Air tinged with clove cigarettes, the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business, the craziness of the rickshaw vs moped vs car vs people, the temple rituals, the living culture, the rhythm of life.  Just being there woke me up from the slumber that had been my teenage years.  Re-living that as a 39-year-old as I prepare to enter another phase in my personal life felt like coming home.

Home is a funny word really as I am under no illusion that genetically I don’t belong to this place. My fair skin is burned within a blink of an eye and blink they do as the sun streamed onto me through the intense humidity.   It wasn’t long before I remembered how that moisture softens the skin making it prone to blisters, infection, disease yet I still felt alive here.  Rested, connected and real.

And it’s not that I don’t love Australia, Australia suits me too but for different reasons.  It suits my need for space, big skies, trees, bike trails and an easy home life.  It is my right brain place, my working hub and safe retreat for growing up my family. Maybe I haven’t gone bush enough here (Australia) yet, maybe this will become my left brain space too but for now geographically my creative spirit sings on Southeast Asian soil for reasons I can’t fully explain.

My return to this lovely part of the world was for work and while I didn’t quite manage to retrace the adventurous steps of my earlier trip (which took in Kalimantan and Java) I did manage to see a little bit more of Bali.

Bali is beautiful and while it has undergone significant infrastructure changes over the last 19 years the people, vibe and countryside remain eerily similar.  We took a car up to the hills where my focus was on agriculture and agri-tourism.

Bali is a volcanic island and this, paired with its tropical climate make for great growing conditions although land set aside for farming has been in decline for decades on the back of the tourism boom of which (regrettably) I am playing a part.  Rice paddies and terraces change into Mangosteen and orange fields while further along the road we hit the coffee and cocoa plantations which co-exist with a living  herb and spice rack of Vanilla, Cocoa, Clove, Ginger, Ginseng, Rosella, Cinnamon, Saffron, Lemongrass and Citronella growing well.

I am told that the agriculture in these parts is all organic.  I am not sure if certification is a big thing here, I expect not as certified organic is somewhat of a western ideal but I have found much evidence to support this natural way of farming the land.  Ducks frequent rice fields where they feed off slugs thus reducing crop damage and eliminating the need for spraying.  Mixed farming and companion planting is common due in part to the small-plot agricultural history of this island. Vetiver grass is frequently used to conserve soil and water while cow manure is used as a natural fertiliser (it is common to see cows in stalls on the land – something that to western eyes might seem cruel or restrictive.  I couldn’t comment on how long the cows spend in these stalls or how they feel about it but their role in the organic farming process seems to be integral).

Being a long-time tourist mecca Bali was one of the first to notice the negative impacts of the intensive farming methods brought in during the 1970’s rush to become self-sufficient rice growers.  By the mid 1980’s this was turned on its head and a return to organic or ‘traditional’ practices was back in favour as a way of ensuring the islands future.  Several NGO’s set up to help facilitate this change including  the Bali Organic Association (growers of earth worms), VECO-Indonesia (sustainable farming practices) and the Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture Foundation.  For me as an outsider I felt excited by this journey  towards a more sustainable future and was excited to share what I saw out in the field with you, my readers.

I hope that this trip was the first of many to come as I delve deeper into the flora and fauna of these beautifully rich and mysterious spice islands but for now I’ll leave you with some of my favourite shots!

Bali Agricultural Tour, July 2014

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