Bali: Day One in the Cultural Heart of the Island of the Gods

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

How do you get from the spot you are staying in to the town you need to do things in when an angry local accuses you of trespassing? Day one in the cultural heart of the Islands of the Gods gets off to a confusing start.

Rice paddies in Bali are thousands of years old, and they are watered by a democratic irrigation system that ensures an even distribution of water to all farmers from the uppermost source in the island’s highlands to the sea.

I am in Bali to attend the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I arrive a couple of days early to get my bearings.

The friend I am staying with doesn’t have Wi-Fi. I have lots of errands to run – changing money, buying suntan lotion, not hyperventilating in the un-air conditioned heat. And I have to have something to eat. My stomach is growling.

Plus I need to check my emails, finish writing an article I have been commissioned to write for a print publication, AND deal with my blog … It doesn’t write itself.

Translation: I have to get from my friend’s villa to the nearest commercial centre, where I can get all of these things done. My friend assures me it is “just across the rice paddies and just down the road”.

Yeah, right …

I’ve usually got a pretty good sense of direction, but I don’t usually have to make my way through rice paddies. In case you didn’t know, rice paddies are not always laid out in checkerboard fashion.

The elevated paths that allow you to cross among them without getting your feet wet are sort of laid out at random. They can be a bit “haphazard”.

Not only that, I’m not sure exactly what to do when I get to the other side, where a warren of alleyways surely awaits. 

No Trespassing!

No sooner do I exit my friend’s property than I hear someone shouting at me. I look up, and I see an elderly Balinese man, who is yelling something that I cannot understand. He crosses his arms across his chest. I assume he is a village elder.

I don’t understand the words, but I do understand the body language: He is accusing me of trespassing. Thinking that I have misunderstood my friend’s directions, I return to his house to tell him what is going on.

I assume that maybe I have taken the wrong path and should be going a different way. My friend accuses me of “complicating things” and asks me why I hadn’t just “kept on walking” when the man yelled at me.

I say: “I’m new here. I don’t speak the language. I don’t understand the customs. When someone starts yelling at me and indicating that I shouldn’t keep walking, I stop walking. It’s that simple.”

My friend instructs me to cross the rice paddies and ignore the old man. He will deal with him.

Heated Exchange

As I do, I hear a heated exchange. That night I am told that the “village elder” had, in fact, just leased some land to grow rice on and did not, in fact, own the path I had walked on.

The path had been built by a foreign resident living in the vicinity “for the common good “, and he has not restricted access to others.

The old man had, in fact, been traipsing with abandon across my friend’s land to get to and from the paddy he had leased.

If this story has a moral, I don’t know what it is. I usually stay at hotels, where I know exactly where I can and cannot walk.

Let the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival begin!

Look over my shoulder as I go for a  Walk Through the Rice Paddies of Ubud on Facebook!

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