Bali | Turning Back Time In Tegalalang

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Oct 13, 2015 | Tegalalang, Bali

Dewa picks me up and I tell him I want to get out of Ubud for the afternoon. Please, I say, take me somewhere green. And so we drive through winding roads, past small villages until we reach the Tegalalang rice paddies, so green they glow electric in the sun. We share lunch in a café perched above the fields, relieved that we’re not caught in a crush of tourists. He takes me off the beaten path and we walk along the ridges, looking deep into the valley and across to the postcard-perfect rice terraces. Dewa points out fruit trees and plants, teaching me the name of each. He’s excited to discover wild strawberries and eagerly picks the remaining ripe ones for me. I don’t know which makes me happier—his excitement, or the taste of the berries.

We walk along the narrow, winding path, coconut palms, betel nut and banana trees soaring high above, the rice paddies dappled in mid-afternoon sun. We climb high into the forest on rough steps, hand-chiseled from the earth until we reach a path at the edge of the village. The sounds of roosters and a barking dog signal there’s a family compound ahead. We approach the stone entrance and the dog bounds towards us, barking at our heels. We look through and see an elderly woman sitting on a bale weaving coconut leaves. A line of ducks marches past her and two roosters parade themselves, calling loudly. She exchanges greetings with Dewa and welcomes us in. I feel as though time has turned back 100 years.

She moves slowly, shyly, taking my hand in hers. We’re introduced to her husband whose sight is failing and whose movements are even slower. She sits beside him on the cool stone platform, both of them eyeing me curiously, smiling all the while. Dewa learns that they’ve lost their son to diabetes only four months ago and carry their sorrow deeply. They have three daughters, all married and living as tradition dictates, within their husband’s family compound. Their son was unmarried so I ask Dewa who will help to take care of them now and he tells me, only somewhat reassuringly, that their nephew visits occasionally. Their compound is small and arranged around a central courtyard. The stone temples appear ancient to me. There are two small rooms with only a mattress on the floor in each for guests. A separate wood structure, intricately carved and painted, is where they have their bed. But they say they prefer to sleep outside, in the covered space that adjoins the other two rooms. Her husband sits here now and I sit beside him on a foam mat covered in Disney characters. It catches me off guard. And there they are, Princess Anna and Princess Elsa, in an old Balinese family compound in the woods … (I silently thank all the gods that Bali isn’t stamped with Disney). We chat and as Dewa translates, their smiles nearly upend their faces.

I climb the steps that lead to the family temple with shrines hidden behind a stone wall. They’re mottled and grey, pitted by years of exposure to sun and rain and I can barely fathom their history. The energy within this enclosure is reverent and I feel my heart beating slowly, contentedly. Dewa shows me the kitchen, a room so tiny and low, that after bending to enter, I can just stand up straight. A single bare bulb hangs and it smells of wood smoke and herbs and the dampness of the earth. There’s a tiny stone oven tucked in one corner, blackened and filled with ash. A slip of sunlight finds its way through an opening in the roof, upheld precariously by bamboo poles and bolstered with wood. A few pots and a ladle made from coconut shells sit on a shelf. I imagine she’s spent 50 years cooking within these stone walls, with barely enough light to find her way.

She settles onto to the bale again, the dog resting at her feet, and reaches for betel nut and leaves. She mashes them in a golden pestle, chews, then spits out the paste. Dewa tells me that as a younger generation understands the health risks (oral cancer and other diseases) this ancient practice is discouraged. But it’s a custom that’s still widespread among elders, and this granny is happily partaking in this stimulant. She goes back to weaving the leaves of coconut palms for baskets, chatting as her fingers move. She sells these at market along with ladles and pots she makes from the shells.

I ask Dewa if it would be impolite to take photos, and whether I could give them an offering in exchange. He feels this is okay but respectfully asks, and minutes later they humbly and shyly allow me to take photos. I wander quietly around the compound and as they chat with Dewa I pull out my camera. As our visit ends she shows me her pig. When I ask if there’s only one, she laughs and looks at me as if to say one is plenty!

We say our goodbyes and she graciously accepts the offering I press gently into her hand. Terima kasih, I tell her. She clasps her hands to her chest in prayer and bowing slightly, she thanks me. My brain does somersaults as we walk away. I turn and look back to wave. She’s still standing at the stone entranceway smiling, and waves one last time.

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