by Catriona Mitchell
Nowadays Nila is the owner of the well-known restaurant and farm, Sari Organik, located in the rice-fields of Ubud. But she’s a woman with a past. Nila lived rough on the streets of Java, sleeping in bus stations disguised as a man, then working 22 hours a day for years, before returning to Bali to get involved in the organic movement.
Are you from a farming family, Nila?
My family is from Kintamani and my father was a farmer. I had a very tough life because my family had no money. I had thought if I worked outside of my village, maybe I could help my father make money. This was difficult because I hadn’t been to school. I worked on building sites, carrying sand, like a normal Balinese girl. I ended up living on the street in Java.
How old were you when you went to Java?
About 14. The Dutch guy who sat next to me on the bus talked to me but I couldn’t answer because I didn’t speak Indonesian, only Balinese. We arrived in Surabaya. I stayed in the bus until the conductor finally told me in Balinese that the journey was finished. When I got off, it was dark, so I waited until it became light. I stayed there, because I didn’t know what to do.
Hours later the Dutch guy came back and found me. He said, “what do you want to do in Java?” I said “I want to work”. I knew the word ‘bekerja’ for work. Then he said, “can you take care of a baby?” I thought he said ‘babi’ [Indonesian for ‘pig’] and replied “Yes, yes!” because I had taken care of babi [pigs] a lot! He took me to his house and the wife was really happy and then they showed me to the baby’s room, and I was thinking “wow, the rich people put their babi in a really nice room”. In the room I saw twin babies, and I started crying.
You didn’t know how to take care of children?
Like all Balinese girls I had taken care of my brothers and sisters, but I didn’t know the modern way with diapers. But I stayed there for three years.
How did you end up living on the street?
The Dutch man’s brother was my first boyfriend. In the end I left because my father said, “don’t marry with the Dutch”. The Indonesians have a lot of trauma associated with the Dutch.
After that I went all over Java. I lived in the bus stations and hid the fact that I was a girl. I became a boy. I wore men’s clothes. Nobody knew I was a girl because I didn’t use make-up.
Were you scared?
I slept in the bus stations, I ate there and travelled sometimes without money. I had nothing, only thee pieces of men’s clothing. My hair was very long but at that time, many men had long hair. I had to tie my breasts with elastic. Otherwise, it wasn’t safe.
When did you decide to stop disguising yourself as a boy?
I had got to know Sumatra, Kalimantan, Aceh, Batam, also by bus – I carried luggage, heavy stuff, and after that I was thinking “if I’m like this all the time, I’ll never make good money”. But I had learned to prepare Padang food. So I tried getting a job in a fancy restaurant in Jakarta.
In the beginning, the manager was not nice to me. I couldn’t read or write and he ridiculed me. Within three months I had learned. A friend taught me. We were living together in one very small, cheap room by that time. He was a boy actually, but dressed as a girl.
He was a boy dressed as a girl, while you were a girl dressed as a boy?
Yes! We were very good friends. He taught me to read and write and then I went back to the restaurant. The manager said “you write like chickens scratch in the garden”. I said “Why talk about my writing? Give me any kind of job and I can do it.” I was very angry. And then the owner came in and wanted to know what was going on. “Well”, I said “I’d like to thank your manager – he doesn’t talk nicely to me but because of him I can read and write. I opened my mind.”
I continued “All people want a good life, so why don’t you give me a job? I can do anything in your restaurant.” The owner said, “Can you make Javanese food? “I can make that with my eyes closed,” I told him. And then he gave me two dishes to make. He ate it all up, and said, “you can work now”.
That must have been a happy moment.
I was very happy at that time. I became a girl again, and worked in the kitchen.
How long did you stay there?
I worked three shifts there, seven days a week. After about four years my friend died and so I said to the owner: “I can’t rent a house, can I sleep in the restaurant?” “How will you take a shower?” he asked. “It’s ok, there’s a shower in the parking lot.” I felt like that restaurant was my house. It closed at 4am, there was music until that time. And then I slept two hours. I opened the restaurant, set up the tables, and by the time the waiters came, the restaurant was clean already. I did that for more than three years.
And you cooked all the meals?
Yes, but just Indonesian food, not the Western food. The chefs laughed at me because I didn’t like to make food from packets, I liked to make everything fresh. “Why do you work so hard?” they jeered. They hid their recipes from me, but I kept my eyes open and learned from watching. I didn’t know the names of their dishes, but I knew the taste, because after people had finished, I tried what was left on their plates. I tried everything. The first time it was strange taste, but I really wanted to learn.
At that point did you have a dream of opening your own restaurant?
Yes. I said to myself “if I have money, I want to make small restaurant.”
When did you return to Bali?
When my father passed away. I wanted to take care of my mum, and then I met Oded. I’m still with Oded seven years later. Now we’re married.
At that time did you know about organic food?
I didn’t know about organic food, but before, no one was using chemicals in Bali.
How did you open Sari Organik?
Oded had lived here for many years already. He had a house but no garden, and I said to him “can we have a bit more land?” He took another piece of land and we grew vegetables. I ran a catering business. I taught cooking too.
One day I said “I want to make a restaurant,” and he said, “how about we build a restaurant here?” I said, “no, I don’t have money. I don’t want to borrow money.” And then he said, “Ok, I’ll build the restaurant. If the restaurant grows you can pay me every month and if not, I’ll lose my money.” It wasn’t a small amount of money! I replied “ok, I will make sure that restaurant grows!”
What kind of food do you produce here?
Almost everything except the olive oil and olives are local foods. I even have a local bean for hummus. It works very well. For pesto I use cashew and candlenut. I make tofu. I make felafel balls because I visited Israel, and pita bread because I stopped for three days in Egypt and came back and tried and tried until I got it. I learn everything by trying.
Apart from fresh, local food, what else makes Sari Organik unique?
I wanted a place people could relax, read a book. I didn’t want any wifi or music, I wanted nature. Now nobody talks face to face any more. They always talk with Internet.
You hire people who don’t have any other experience.
That is my idea because I learned form zero. From nothing. So I also want to teach people who have no skills. Waitress, bar tender, cook, everything – I’ve taught them all myself. I help people who really need it. We are helping small farmers also. Every day we need rice and vegetables. We have taught many people organic farming. They had been using chemicals for many years.
You’re also putting your profits to positive use.
Oh yes. We’re helping mentally disabled, with a school called Sari Hati. I also have a restaurant at Suly Resort, which supports the Bali Global Ashram for children; my idea is to teach the children to become cooks with real food, not with convenience food. Also, I’ve already finished paying Oded so we when we make a profit here, we share it with the staff. I’m very lucky, my husband has a good heart and also wants to help many people in Bali.