“Don’t go in the men’s shower. If you do the water will stop.” Within minutes of arriving at Tirta Gangga, Bali, I’m shown the bathing area and warned.
The day winds down, birds become silent, bats replace swallows swooping over the rice fields, frogs start their nightly chorus, and men and women call to each other as they bathe in communal showers.
The water is from the Tirta Gangga (Holy water of the Ganges) on the lower slopes of Gunung Agung – the 3142 metre, conical volcano that the Balinese consider the ‘navel of the world.’
Lying on cushions and gazing at the night sky I can understand why locals believe that heaven is paradise and paradise is Bali.
Of course it depends on the Bali you experience. Apart from two days in Ubud and Sanur, my Bali does not include the tourist traps of bars and cockfights – so this little village on the Indonesian archipelago feels like heaven to me.
I relax into the rhythms of the locals: early to bed, early to rise and lots of jalan jalan – walking aimlessly – and around each corner I find new and even better vistas.
My camera clicks its way through the rice fields in the various stages of cultivation: burning, flooding, ploughing, planting, weeding, cutting, threshing, and finally, drying the kernels on the sun-warmed roads. It’s here that photos of sculptured rice fields are taken for the postcards you’ll send your envious friends and family.
Tirta Gangga has grown around the Water Palace, which was built in 1947 by King Karangasem and is his final resting-place. Although the palace and pools were damaged by an eruption of the sacred mountain in 1963, it’s been restored to its past glory.
The water in the pools flows down the mountain in a constant, cool, clear stream, and is the lifeblood of the area. Locals believe swimming in the palace pools washes away their sins and the palace grounds are the centre of activities; I attend a concert there. The extended family – of the owner of my rented bungalow – and I share a picnic of fruit (mangosteen, banana, jackfruit) and nasi campur from the local warung (foodshop) while we listen to traditional and modern music and songs.
Balinese have only four first names, translating as one, two, three, and four, and which are given to both sexes. Wayan, the housekeeper, is a great source of information about customs and language. As in most Pacific islands, the yard is swept twice daily and a layer of dirt is removed along with any stray leaf, stone or blade of grass that dares to grow. Every evening, after she has bathed and changed into a good sarong with the usual temple scarf wrapped around her waist, Wayan, often with flowers in her hair, performs a ceremony. Small offerings or gifts are given to various deities to ensure all is well for us – a combination of thanks, prayers, and pleas for protection. Incense, flowers, and rice are placed at the entrance to the property, the bedrooms and kitchen, on top of the refrigerator, in the dinning room and, of course, in the spirit-house and small temple which every home has.
Each day I walk and each day people ask “Apa kabar? Mau ke mana?” (How are you, where are you going?) Each day I reply, “ Bagus. Jalan jalan” (I’m good and just walking.)
Wandering around these beautiful hills and valley, from one village to the next I see a very different Bali to that of most tourists. I sit and watch women carrying huge loads on their heads; see fields being ploughed and rice threshed; the activity at the market; children walking to and from school and talk with the hairdresser with his bicycle hair-dressing salon on the side of the road. I also see cattle being lovingly bathed, roosters having their feet soaking in the streams to ‘strengthen their legs’, and children weeding the fields to feed the pigs.
I become part of a farewell party. Flowers are strewn over the ground, incense is burning, and the men are drinking spirits from Lombok. Old men lead the singing and laughing exposes their betel-stained teeth.
As the cliché says- the best things in life are free – and so it is in Bali. Orange sunsets, green rice fields, a rich culture and best of all, getting off the well-worn tourist trail is still possible.