The little girl looks at me with large brown eyes, lashes gently touching her cheek when she closes them. The rubber tube her mother has been using as a floating table for her basket while she collects seaweed, is casually flung around her neck, and she shyly raises two fingers in a salute as I click my camera. Her home is the village I have wandered into. It faces the strait between Bali and Nusa Lembongan, million dollar views betrayed by fallen down huts and the daily back-breaking grind of collecting seaweed.
Her mother has said it is okay to take photos of her children. She has four, with another only 20 days away. I don’t explain that I will later remove the meta-data. I am pretty sure she doesn’t know what social media is, never mind knowing that there are dangers in allowing strangers to take photos. She is surprised I speak Indonesian, but quickly gets over it and begins speaking a mix of Indonesian and maybe Balinese or perhaps words colloquial to her village. As she works, she explains that the green seaweed gets nine thousand rupiah per kilo, the brown only three thousand. I estimate she has gathered perhaps thirty kilos of the two, which took a good two hours along the foreshore.
While she stabbed it with a piece of wood that has been shaped to look like a snake’s head, three of her children play on a boat in front of the village. They don’t need supervision, knowing to follow her when she heads in to shore with a full basket. The fishing rod they have doesn’t look like it could catch a sardine, but she assures me the children often come home with a small fish to cook in the embers.
A little boy wanders out, her fourth and youngest. The village is on a large piece of land, possibly the last along this stretch now dotted with fancy French restaurants and four star resorts. The seaweed farms are still there, but they are being engulfed by the motorised boats that moor just off shore. The serious little man is carrying a plastic guitar which he is studying carefully. Balinese love their music and many learn it simply by strumming, watching and listening.
The village is where they spend the majority of their time – sorting seaweed, collecting, drying and preparing meals. Another lady is laying out her batch in the hot afternoon sun. A little boy, her son, sits in the shade, carefully observing some Spanish ladies who are picking over his small collection of fabric jewellery. One selects a bracelet and offers fifty thousand rupiah (about five dollars), and asks for change. He shakes his head, indicating he doesn’t have any, or doesn’t want to give any, so she graciously picks up another one and hands him the blue note. They smile at me, and share that they’ve bought something from him every day of their stay.
There’s something incredibly peaceful about spending time with these two families. Money doesn’t come easily but they aren’t asking for anything, smiling and enjoying the chat while they go about their daily chores. Hardworking, they are more than willing to explain what the pile of wood is used for and how much they will get for their efforts.
The little boy is not pushing his sales on the three Spanish women. They collect their new jewellery and he smiles quietly, perhaps knowing that they will be back again tomorrow. If not them, someone will walk along the boardwalk, see his long lashes and soft gaze and stop, offering more than a kilo of seaweed can bring his mother.
Seaweed farming is the main income source for many on the trio of islands – Nusa Lembongan, Penida and Ceningan. Introduced in the 1980’s, it rapidly grew to help families unable to grow rice, and limited in the crops that they could grow due to the arid nature of the geography. One man on Nusa Penida controls the entire market. I’d learned of this earlier, but one of the mothers again explains it to me, smiling at the thought of one very rich man who she feels controls the amount they receive for their crops. In reality, it is the global market that sets the price on the commodity, but regardless, she doesn’t seem to hold any resentment for the ultimate price they receive. It’s just another aspect of life to accept.
The people of Lembongan are part of the Klungkung Regency, which stretches across the water back to a small part of East Bali. They are mainly Hindu, evidenced by the number of Ogoh Ogoh proudly displayed by the side of the road. Tomorrow is Nyepi, a day of silence for all of Bali and the Ogoh Ogoh will be paraded through the streets that night, with burning wood and banging pots. The spirits that had been invited down during an earlier ceremony are being sent back to their rightful place and the new year begins for the Balinese.
Tourism has ventured onto the island, but it retains its villages and customs. Some say that it is like Bali was many years ago. In some ways it is, but with the modern age, a direct comparison is no longer possible. The turbulent waters of the strait, a coral reef and the seaweed farming combine so that the waters are crystal clear. On the southern edges of the islands, sheer cliffs face out to the Indian Ocean. Perilous and majestic at the same time, waves that can be many metres high pound against them year after year.
Local fishermen use traditional boats with stabilizers on either side. Brightly coloured they would once decorate the bays of the islands, but they are slowly being replaced by more modern alternatives. I took one around to Crystal Bay in 2012 with friends. The three metre swell created walls around us as the fisherman skillfully negotiated the treacherous waters. If you are up for an adventure, it’s well worth it but know the dangers before you say ‘yes’ to one of these boat trips. There are no life jackets. If there are, they are hidden underneath a seat and unlikely to be offered. But the views of the cliffs and the fury of the Indian Ocean will almost help forget the lurching boat that at times sails on the crest of a rolling wave that is silently making its way to the waiting rocks.
We sit in the back of a small truck which has a canopy and wooden seats that transform it into a taxi. The roads are rocky and poorly maintained but that’s part of the charm (as I try to convince my aching bottom that it is only a short trip). The jungle has grown in since my last trip, making the road one way. The driver toots several times before rounding corners. There’s not a huge need for it, as the roads are empty as the villagers prepare for the Ogoh Ogoh parade.
Nusa Lembongan is an example of an island at the turning point of tourism growth. It could go in one of two directions, but it will most certainly forge ahead. The first, will be to retain its authenticity, respect the need for sensible use of resources and disposal of waste, and nurture its people ensuring that there are incomes beyond that of just tourism. If I was able to hold a mirror up to the island, I would show it its beauty, that its strength lays in not having nightclubs or pristine resorts. I’d reach out to the people, who are gentle and smiling, trusting and peaceful. Perhaps there are some that are lured by the dollars that can be made in real estate, but I would show them that if this is tempered with a respect for what they are offering as hosts, that making money is not a bad thing. However, to not let it become the master. Live a life of service, share the magic of this special place, but keep true to yourself.
For conscious travellers, the three islands give the opportunity to understand a little more of the culture of Bali in the sense that Bali can be our teacher. This is particularly true for me.
As I left the small village to prepare its seaweed, a sense of peace came with me. I didn’t want to analyse it too much, in case I dissected part of its magic. I wanted to take it home with me, live in the now, even if that meant being repetitive. The raw simplicity of life on Lembongan is foreign to many visitors. As we charge through life in the West, or even in the south of Bali, life wanders its own course there – catch, grow, reap, prepare, eat, sell. Tourism bustles around it, but it goes on regardless. It’s a glimpse into how far we have departed from our connectedness with our community. I realise how I had all but totally disconnected from myself and was now, slowly, getting back in touch with things that mattered.
A soft smile, a sense of acceptance of what is, and of being completely and utterly immersed in the moment of ‘now’. And for a moment, that sense of total happiness is like a word flitting on the tip of my tongue.
There, but ever so slightly out of reach.
To read more about life on the island of Nusa Penida, purchase Bali Soul Journals where Clare takes you on three journeys, beginning with weaving on Nusa Dua, to a weaving master on Nusa Penida and seaweed farming in the region. Free postage in Australia – click on the Bali postage option. Free postage in Bali and Indonesia. $29.95 anywhere else in the world.
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Images and story by Clare McAlaney. Copyright 2014 Bali Soul Journals.
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