So what is the view that the “average guy” sees in this maelstrom of building and economic boom going on in Bali these days? The second in a series of ‘short takes’ done in cooperation with Jakarta Post’s Bali Buzz, where it appeared initially. 

text and photos @Rio Helmi

If you mention Bali in a conversation overseas, it’s a good bet that 75% of the people within earshot are going to start visualising lush, green ricefield terraces disappearing off into infinity. It’s true, that scenery is still around in Ubud. Every time I post an image like that on the Ubud Now and Then Facebook page we’ll get comments from people either pining for Ubud or telling us with fervour they’ll be here ‘in a few weeks’ and are counting down the days.

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And then there’s all those smiling people working in the fields. But if you look a little closer sometimes you can see that the smile is just a little wry. One morning I was up around the back of Buahan at around 700m above sea level, looking for that beautiful, crisp, Bali dawn light you get in the mountains. As I scanned the scene where I had shot a brilliant dawn some weeks earlier, I spotted a farmer squatting on the pematang walkways between ricefields, cutting grass for fodder for his cows.

We started chatting; one of the simple, genuine pleasures such encounters in Bali can offer. ‘What type of rice are you planting here?” I asked. “Are you using the Legowo system?” The Legowo system is a progressive way to plant rice with more space between rows and less seedlings in a clump. As a result the plants need less water and get more sunlight; doing so is somewhat counterintuitive for the average Balinese farmer, but for several years a select few farming communities have had convincing results with their yield.

Wayan Jejel stood up, small but burly for his size, cigarette in hand. “No. There’s a couple of guys down the way that are doing it. I’ll wait and see how they go. I’ll stick with this for the time being.” His face was somewhat surly, and clearly making small talk wasn’t his forté. Squatting down again, sickle in hand, he cut the grass in short wrenching movements. He volunteered, “Not only is the grass for fodder but it is important to keep the pematang neat and trim… because it’s also where rats hang out. Nowadays it’s always the seasons for rats.” “Ah yes nowadays there are rats everywhere,” I suggested. “Yes” he answered drily, “Two-legged ones too. And basically whatever kind of rat, it’s their nature to gnaw away at the hard earned results of others”. He flashed a grin that momentarily transformed his face.

Wayan then turned the conversation to the surveys that have been done on farmers in his area. “We’ve had various government bodies come and do surveys. Nothing much seems to come of it though”.

Wayan inherited his ricefields from his father and forefathers, and he has a bit of dry field land as well. “I have to try and plant other crops like bananas to cover the shortfall. Of course a lot of people are tempted to alih fungsi (change the function) of their land at least, if not to sell it outright. I’m not for it but it is hard to make a living as a farmer. Sometimes we’re lucky just to get back what we put into it. But it’s true that if you sell your land you have a pile of money – but then you spend it all and you’re stone poor again.”

“Yes,” I venture, “but then again everyone seems to have a motorcycle.” He gives me a slightly dismissive look; “Of course. Everyone nowadays, no matter how poor, has to have a bike. In one compound there are at least three or four, even if they are all jury-rigged wrecks. You can’t survive without them. They are the replacement for our feet. Work, school, how you going to manage that without one?” Clearly I am the idiot here.

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It turns out that Wayan also works as part time laborer, and raises pigs on the tiny plot of land he has bought near his ancestral family compound. When I visit him there a couple weeks later I see a neat little two-room cement house. For a man of his means, that house surely came from a lot of hard, daily toil.

He’s surprised to see me here, “How did you find me?” he asks in a not necessarily welcoming tone, cradling his morning coffee glass in one hand cigarette in another, polo shirt rolled up above his stomach. The pig sty he leans against is almost bigger than the bright new house set in a messy chaotic excuse for a garden, and pop music is blaring out into the cool morning sunlight from a flashy ghetto blaster. No humble, orderly rural charm here. He is in no rush to offer me a seat, much less a coffee. I get the impression this is someone who might not have a lot of refinement – but he has plenty of ambition. I also begin to see he is a mixture not only of earthy practicality; there’s touch of casual brutality born of tough struggle.

At one point as we squat in his yard chatting, I suddenly feel something cool and smooth drop on to my wrist, almost encircling it like a bracelet. It’s a thin, maybe 50 cm, oriental rat snake (lelipi jali). In surprise I instinctively flick it off into the weeds. Wayan and I stop to discuss what kind of snake it was, then go back to our former conversation.

He stands up casually and picks up the spine of a palm frond. Fossicking briefly through the weeds, he finds the snake and lifts it up. I think he’s just going to chuck it out the back as it’s relatively harmless, but without warning he drops it and in one fluid, lighting fast motion whirls the stick over his head and whacks the snake on the head. I’m totally taken aback and feel really remiss for not being fast enough to stop him. “Is it dead?” I ask lamely. “Not yet but he won’t make it, I hit him on the head”. “But it wasn’t poisonous…”. He counters: “All snakes are poisonous, just a matter of degree..” With the snake dying, it seems pointless to argue further. The whole episode has rattled me.

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We move over to the house, a much simplified, miniature fascimile of the classic dream town house in Bali. Several fighting cock cages are lined up against the weeds in front of the verandah: cement, white tile, faux wooden doors with cast molding patterns. “So what have you found in your survey of Bali?” he asks. Not quite sure where he got the idea I was doing a survey, nor liking the idea, I venture that it seems the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. He spits out: “Bah – that’s not just Bali, that’s all of Indonesia”.

Our chat meanders aimlessly, eventually I take my leave. As I wheel my bike around, he says with a touch of churlishness mixed with a gambler’s hopefulness: “Do you want to buy land up in the next village? It’s pretty much all owned by foreigners now…” Gone is his attitude of disapproval of a couple of weeks earlier towards people selling their land. Today it’s Wayan Jejel, farmer and hustler.