Voices from the rice field… how Bali lost it all

Come with me for a moment, away from the roar of mad thinking and the crush of despair –  there is a voice in the garden, a song in the rice field…  

I fled back to Bali with a face sucked dry by the Antarctic winds that gnaw on the bones of remote southwest Australia.

The winter had eaten the honey out of me. And that small town, bespangled with tiny flowers as it was, had worn me out with its dangerous lusts and frontier wounds, still bleeding despite all the buried bones, and the new mansions and tarmac and fleets of four wheel drives.

The day I left there were fires all around us.DSCF0204

The bush was roaring as eucalypts exploded in the first Aussie bushfires of the season.

The road was melting as my brother and I blazed north to Perth.

An Indonesian volcano had shut down the skies, and Kalimantan was boiling all its babies, oozing with uncontrollable fires caused by industry there, as the French succumbed to gunfire on the eve of those sick bargains struck at the Climate Change Convention, to haggle over the boons of our broiled earth.

In Bali, as usual, the streets were littered with plastic, and an endless cascade of pretty flowers. The tropic heat socked me with its fragrant punch as I tumbled out of the tidy neurotics of West Australia into the gorgeous sweaty bosom of divine bedlam that is my beautiful, ruthless, wild-at-heart Bali.

The rain hadn’t come.

In Ubud the rice was scorching in gluey paddies. From my little bungalow, in the last remaining rice fields, I watched the last farmers of Ubud at dusk, squatting over their waning crops, staring toward the blood-red sky, for weeks.


My Balinese friends were saying “it is too the very hot!”

When they looked skyward they said they saw lasers, and not storm clouds in their sacred heavens. There is a hushed but steady conversation going on among the sons of the last farmers in this heaving tourist town – the lasers are stopping the rain, they say. Rich people are shooting the storm clouds so they can schmooze a month longer at cocktail parties.

The water is so low in the fields that there are rumours of rustling at night. Thieves have been cutting away at the mud paddy walls to channel the last precious water from their neighbour’s paddies.

Wayan is a taxi driver. For years now, on my long stays in Bali, he has taken me on my excursions out of Ubud and into the furnace of the main city, Denpasar, or on my regretful rides to the airport. He tells me stories about his life, listens to mine, and navigates us through the whirl choke hustle of his tiny island.

He has given up his career as an artist to drive this rented taxi. Trained since he was 14, with legendary Dutch artist Rudolph Bonnet, a darling of the world art scene, Balinese royalty, and credited with spear-heading projects to conserve and promote the incredibly rich natural talent of indigenous painters – Wayan says he’s lucky to get $100 for a painting these days.

bonnet2    bonnet4

Bonnet’s art, which was nurtured and trained in the Balinese style, fetches up to US$1 million at auction.

“It was better before,” sighs Wayan, “when the people loved the Bali for the art, and the nature. Then I could paint and sell. Now, not possible,” he smiles.

“The people only they come for the buy fashion and other things. It is better I work with the tourists, in taxi, at hotel, cleaning. I have my family to pay for the life. And my sonDSCF0325, he not like painting. I have nothing to teach him. He just likes the handphone, and the watching television. So me, I just be hoping the tourist will like me and my car.”

Bali is visibly blooming and disintegrating under the thrust of progress, development, and a surge in tourism that never seems to let up. Prosperity and poverty are both escalating in this global hotspot which sees billions of tourist dollar, while the local wage still wallows at about US$50 a month.

The impact of the world-wide upheaval of developing cultures is nowhere more apparent to me these days than in the disheveled and desiccating oasis of Bali.


Wayan loves flowers. He loves white roses best. He loves going to the gym, and showing me the muscles he makes there. He loves music too, and often, as we set out he will roll up the windows, turn down the AC, and sing to me with unabashed joy, the gayatri mantra.

He sings if I am sullen on the road, or if I’m leaving. He sings when the crush of traffic is making us impossibly late for an appointment. This chant, he tells me, so pleases the gods that they can’t help but shower down beauty indiscriminately to Earth whenever they hear it. He sings it like that – as if he could just see all the white roses cascading about us.

Today he sings because I ask him to. I tell him my heart is hurting. Another bad love story.

He sighs, “Ah, the very very bad and stupid man!” and chants again. “Don’t worry Jaydee,” he says. “the gods, they take this one away so they make room for one of their own. It will come. Sing!”

So we do.

The city thickens around us. A chaos of billboards advertise Guinness, bridal wear, handmade spear guns, surf boards, bikinis, puff wicker storage chairs, silver, gold, kitchen fitouts, iphones and botox. Men push bicycles kitted out as restaurants, street sellers wilt beside bbq corn. There are stall of fresh cut watermelon, racks of sunglasses and smoky griddles of satay between endless high fashion windows of bling, and beggars, bent dogs, and huge advertisements for Bali Marine Park’s latest exhibition, From Predator to Prey.

The road is a mash up of thousands of motorbikes, vans, trucks, and bashed up lorries bearing tiny dark work boys in open flat beds, covering their skin from the hazing sun with sacks and shredded t-shirts. If you smile at them, they beam back at you with an innocent joy extinct in richer places.

A man in a flower truck clips our wing mirror at a tangled junction. I glance at him, he smiles and giggles. Wayan waves at him cheerfully as we all press on for our place in the throng.

I ask Wayan, like I always do, how is life with him? How does he feel about all this? And he sighs at me, and sinks a little.

“Jaydee…. We learn the many, many things this time in Bali,” he tells me. “It is difficult for us, we are need the the too many every thing. I thinking for now, what I know is the true; our parents, and their parents – they had the better life.”

“Before this coming, my parents, they had all. For them and for some few people here still – just the last ones – they knew what it was; the all.”

The all? I ask.P1060171

“Yes, the all – you know? You remember this one?” he says.

And I say no. Because after 20 years pretty much full time traveling and interviewing and working with upper middle class educated white people from across the world, I am confident to say that no – we no longer have any idea what ‘the all’ is – and we’re suffering for that.

“The ones before this change, the progress coming, they understood that it is not possible, this life chasing every thing. For them, before money, before what they tell us is freedom, they had the rice and with the rice came the all.”

“In my village, the people, they never had the every thing: but only the rice, just the each other, but they happy.

“They need water; they go to the rice. They want food; there is rice, and many, many things inside the garden. There was the medicine, the sounds for  the music, the art, the place to be free, or to prey and be safe with the life. For my grandmother, and my parents, the life oh – it was so easy then! Just come to the rice field. All is there; the food, the cool water, the gods, the beauty, the happy.


“But for me, not possible this. We lose this connection and now we need pay for the every thing; the food, the water, the motorbike, the phone, the clothes, the electric, the school, the happy, the ceremony. The people now, we are always busy, always running for money to get what our parents had for free. We are busy, busy, busy and worried all the day, and night.

“When we lose this, the rice, we lose connection to the land.., We lose something very important: our painting, our dancing, our quiet heart – the love. We lose this – you know? – we lose the sweet in the mind.

“We lose the really free. The helping each other for the love, and not the money. 

“But it is not the too very bad Jaydee. Not all is lose because we still have the ceremony and the song, the family is still a little bit strong like before.

We are the very very lucky, we have religion. We know how to love the god and be grateful. This is the safety for us, from here we try to learn.

We don’t understand every thing for now – how it is possible, this? How it is good, this? To lose the all for the everything? We still be need learn, and the gods, I am for sure –  they will protect us. So come – Jaydee – let’s sing!

girl at prayer

23 thoughts on “Voices from the rice field… how Bali lost it all

  1. Ah – Jade – you still inspire me!!! (and yes, I’m still heavy with the exclamation points!) I haven’t written anything much since my grandson died tragically last year, but I’ve read an awful lot, and now I’m inspired again to pick up where I left off. Remember Vilca and my 80-year old Austrian/Canadian friend who insisted it was paradise and she wanted to move, live and die there? Well, she almost did – die there that is – when she was attacked one night right in front of her apartment (in la casa amarilla) by a thug and thrown down on the ground. Luckily, someone came to her rescue. The next day, she moved to Loja, and she seems to really like it there (too small, backwards and provincial for me).

  2. Well expressed Jaydee and Wayan, and now, back to the loss of honey and dangerous dry winds? 🙂

  3. What a nicely written, but very sad, post. I visited Bali in 2001 and came back with a heavy heart at seeing what progress was doing to the people and to the beautiful land. If there are gods, may they spare the sweetness of heart in Bali.

  4. It’s true, that changes are immense. Some say the Balinese are buckling under the pressure (and oppression). I have always found them to be just such inspiring people. If only we had the ears to listen…

  5. Excellent!! I love a good lashing with exclamation points.
    Very sorry to hear this news about your grandson. I send you a hug.
    And about your friend in Vilca – well, I did try to tell her! Silly girl.
    It would make my heart warm to know you are writing, Ingrid. Keep going. Dive in.
    with best wishes. xx

  6. I love your posts. I take the time to read them in my busy, Internet skimming life. Normally I enjoy deleting emails that I don’t need to read. It’s very satisfying. But I always save yours for later. For when I’ve got time because, in my busy Internet skimming life, time is all I can give you. Oh and a comment. I can give you this comment. Have you published any books yet because I’d like to buy! With money ha ha!

  7. Seems so sad that the lack of control in building accommodation and malls – cement and glass has impacted so severely on the local life – currently my friends tell me Kuta is flooded with inadequate drainage and lack of tourist – best wishes for their survival! They are a lovely gentle people with a great family values!

  8. I see this every time I go to Bali. 35 plus years visiting and seeing changes. It is so so different . Still charming but ubud and the beach areas are full on 100% tourists dives. Fancy cafes and shops. No interest to me at all.
    They are over building and those that have lived there 35 years just have to accept the new Bali. Still not a bad place to park oneself. If you like more traditional areas just go anywhere in Indonesia …. Way more real…

  9. Read this link in UC group on fb. Good writing! it is not shocking truth and seems inevitable. How Bali lost more rice fields or lands to growing vegetables. I am Indonesian, live in Bali. I once asked Balinese taxi driver when he drove me from the airport – asked him as I rarely see green fields in Denpasar area, alot of massive buildings. The said truth is he said he wants to live happy, to be a rich man. If he had lands, he sure would prefer to sell it, to buy things for family. Why they dont want to be farmers because they won’t be rich for farmings. An honest response from him that made me speechless but acknowledge it.


  10. I was shocked at how busy and polluted Bali is… Couldn’t figure out if ‘Bali’ was just a marketing ploy or lost culture catering to $1 beer seeking bogans and wannabe hipster yogis.

  11. Bali is simply reflecting the same thing that’s going on everywhere – and the cost of that to all of us. What’s beautiful in Bali is that there is very little disguise or ‘management’ of the actual impact of development, deforestation, pollution, separation from nature and community, and exploitation of local labour. What you see there is just a raw sketch of what has been made invisible everywhere, and is probably worse where you come from.

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