Rows upon rows of tiles, and mountains of coconuts are unlikely inspiration for a conscious travel blog. But as I cycled through one village in Bali this morning, their persistent presence forced me to think, “What can you teach me?” Conversations in my head with other people were replaced by earnest curiosity about my surroundings, and for some reason, this otherwise unassuming village was niggling me to ask more.
Was it to ask about the people? Coconuts and tiles don’t appear there by themselves. The proof is in the bustling of dozens of Balinese, dressed simply, often without a shirt or top, methodically moving them to a location that ultimately gets them closer to consumption. For these villagers, this is every day of their life and as a traveller, I’m learning to not just take in my surroundings (although, stopping to breathe in the views is a necessity) but to wonder about the stories that the onset of tourism is beginning to cover.
As I bump and grind my way over a trail with sparsely existent bitumen, dodging potholes, thin brown hands wave at me, their owner’s mouths stained red with betelnut, wide grins stretching lined faces into toothless canvases.
Children sing out ‘halo’ and practice their English with surprisingly clear Australian accents. They giggle and call out at me when I respond in Indonesian but their laughter is carried off behind me, and I’m yet to make out what they are calling out to me.
I am cycling through Pejaten, which is in the Tabanan District. Tabanan is a regency (kabupaten), which is divided into ten districts (kecamatan), and has a population getting close to half a million people, stretching over 839.33 km2. It is famous for its World Heritage protected rice paddies. Most tourists get as far as these, but I am fortunate and get to explore villages which have existed for centuries.
As I jiggle my way on the rough road past the streets of tiles, I can’t help wonder why there are so many. Like many Asian districts, villages tend to focus on one craft and this is certainly true for Bali, with wood carving, gold smithing, painting and silver work all flourishing in their own locations. But when I arrived home and did a little research, I was not prepared for the true story of Pejaten. These tiles were not there by chance, the coconuts were not by chance – both held an intriguing story. The only thing that was by chance, was that I was bouncing through their village wondering aloud to myself how and why they got into tile making. (A little like the curiosity that drew me into the shop of JJ Buttons in Kerobokan!)
Many years ago, potters were unable to live in the traditional Balinese village. The nature of their work meant that they were considered unclean. Pejaten is one such village.
Pejaten began as a potter’s village, however in the 1970’s, making roof tiles was introduced, the same style of tile which still lines the poorly finished streets, drying in the hot sun. The people of the village did not own rice fields, and were poor. Poorer than their neighbours, which in the middle of last century, was simply put, tough.
Each family had a small pottery with which they would carefully make pots on a slow hand-wheel. Once ready to dry, the technique of firing was the same as on the island of Lombok, on an open fire covered by rice straw. They made numerous types of pottery, from cooking and storage pots, to ceremonial ware. However as more materials became available, such as aluminum and plastic, their market was under threat as demand declined.
By the 1970’s they had reached a period of deep poverty. It was for this reason that the village head Mr. Tanteri had a vision – to make ceramic roof tiles. Initially, the tiles were made by one-by-one by hand, however a tile press was later introduced, as well as a clay-mill. This improved not only the quality of the tile, but the speed of manufacture. Tourism had begun to take hold of Bali and soon, the business was flourishing and more workers were recruited from Lombok and Java. But like all industries, if thought is not given to sustainability, it can quickly fall into decline, which is exactly what happened in Pejaten.
The clay was running out, and Mr. Tanteri start looking for new initiatives. Dutch artist and consultant Hester Tjebbes, along with Mr. Tanteri, considered new avenues and in 1985 she commenced a ceramic art project with Dutch foundation HIVOS as the donor. This project was based on the premise that the village’s output could be improved in an artistic sense by using new techniques that were aimed at the growing tourist industry. Clay needed to be imported in from other Indonesian islands. Already it would seem, the art of the potter’s wheel had been lost to a degree, as Hester taught a group of villagers to use it, but this time, making designs largely based on traditional Balinese art. She added a closed kiln with a chimney that created a downdraft which delivered better quality through higher temperature, at a lower fuel-cost.
Suddenly, the connection between the tiles and the coconuts became clear. I shake my head as I read this last bit of information. Kilns, heat, tiles, coconuts…fuel. My image of tourists drinking coconuts on a tropical beach was smashed as the reality of life in this village took on a whole new, living meaning for me.
I take a little video on my iPhone which I play back later. I am bouncing along the uneven road, chatting away to myself about what I am seeing. But now with a little bit of research, a whole new world has emerged.
By birth, a villager in Pejatan was required to live separately to the rest of the local villages. While the villagers of Pejatan struggled in their 1300 square metre village, the lush fields around them may have looked a little like the Jones’ family does to Westerners, except here, there was no keeping up with the Jones’. There was only survival.
This snippet of history has given me much to think about. We often think of Balinese being down-trodden by invasions and tourism, but they are also a community with their own taboos and rituals. Some of these are so ingrained and complex, a traveller has no hope of ever knowing all or understanding even a fraction.
The poverty in the village that I have learned of now gives some sense to the roads within it. They are rough and uncared for. Dodging potholes is definitely a challenge on a mountain bike. The main roads are very wide, which I assume was to ensure oxen or horses and carts were able to collect the large pots that would have been made decades ago.
Just outside the village, the roads improve dramatically, flanked by lush rice paddies reaching maturity. I’d ridden down a sealed road to a river, which had a thin bridge suspended over it. A narrow path leads up a steep hill, beautifully clean of rubbish and with only the occasional motorbike pausing beside me as we both cheerfully negotiated our space. I puffed and pushed my bike up what I categorise as an “uncyclable” hill, reaching the top out of breath but in awe of what lay around me. This stark contrast to the village of Pejatan became abundantly clear the more I learned.
“What can you teach me?” I’d asked the tiles and coconuts as I cycled through what was then, a nameless village. It was almost as if they were urging me to keep asking the question so that I could learn their secret past, that like many other stories, risks being lost as Bali opens its doors wider to the tourist.
The future of Pejaten seems at least for now, to be secure, with the care of Tanteris Ceramic Bali and the soon to be opened Museum Tanteri Bali. Pejaten is still small, with an estimated 500 potters making ceramics for tourists and export. But if my observation of the stretches of tiles and coconuts which triggered my curiosity is anything to go by, the craft of making quality tiles is also flourishing once again. I have mixed feelings about this. The more tiles that are made, means the more development on the island. But these are quality tiles and traditional, so will likely go to buildings sympathetic to the culture and landscape of Bali.
And on the other side of tiles, an artisan skill is being nurtured back to provide a better quality of living for the people.
I glance back through the images I took this morning of this old village that is entering the modern world of tourism, and am glad they have caring artists and historians guiding their journey.
Not all artisan skills have been so lucky, but with a model that helps locals understand their worth, taking them from being outcasts to respected artists, Bali is indeed moving into a very brave and at times heartwarming, new world.
“What can you teach me?” I ask.
I imagine that the bumpy wide streets of Pejaten whisper how the power of adaptation can bring new life to old, dignity to the fallen, and hope for the poor. I’m yet to learn more about this small village, which I will include in Edition II of Bali Soul Journals, but for now, there is a glimmer of hope that the essence of Bali I began to seek, is now showing itself to me in entirely new ways.
Perhaps because, as I noted in Bali Soul Journals, the doors of my own awareness are well and truly opening.
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Story: Clare McAlaney Images and video: Clare McAlaney
Meet the author
To meet Clare, visit her at the day market at this year’s Bali Spirit Festival in Ubud.