Foraging in Bali

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A walk on the wild side

Foraging is one of the hottest gastronomic trends to sweep across the globe, with chefs and home cooks alike heading out into the country to gather wild vegetables, herbs and forest fruits. Here in Bali, foraging has always been a way of life, and the beautiful landscape is rife with wild greens, tropical fruits, roots and edible flowers.

The forests, river banks and fringes of Bali’s picturesque rice fields host a plethora of wild herbs, spices and fruit trees, and in order to learn more about Bali’s wild side, I join a fascinating, customised rice paddy walk with Bali Eco Cycling Tours (www.baliecocycling.com). We begin in the coolness of early morning and make our way through the ancient lichen-covered temples of Goa Gajah on the outskirts of Ubud. Weda, a rice farmer from Ubud is my guide, and is passionate about foraging, deeply knowledgeable and has a great sense of humour. The narrow trail leads us along the edge of a steep riverbank shrouded in sub tropical rainforest, where gnarly roots of giant trees cling to the ravine, and dappled sunlight dances through the leafy canopy. We stop to pick fragrant stalks from an [ilak ]bush – used in place of sticks in sate lilit (minced fish satay). Nearby, the leaves of a [simbaman] bush are used to flavour a uniquely Balinese dish known as [be cundang] – where the losing rooster in a cock fight is cooked up and presented in a victory feast. Crossing the muddy creek Weda points out my favourite Balinese delicacy, dainty fern tips, that are tender, juicy and fabulous with shredded coconut.

 

IMG_8251Climbing up the ravine, we pass a heavily laden soursop tree – its leaves are believed to have a similar effects to chemotherapy when it comes to treating cancer. Winding through a dense coconut grove we see immense jackfruit trees, their large bulbous fruit makes a great addition to curries, soups and [rujak] – Balinese spicy fruit salad. Suddenly the forest opens up to a glistening verdant sea of green that stretches as far as we can see. This is the Bali of postcards, and a view that I never seem to tire of. Palms and big-fronded banana trees line the path that threads across the sawah (rice fields), where dragonflies flitter and the sound of trickling water is ever present. The ancient irrigation system, known as [subak], allows a number of edible plants to thrive spontaneously along the edges, including succulent lentor (snake beans), tiny wild eggplant, and pumpkin – the deep yellow pumpkin flower makes a very tasty tempura. The cassava tree has pretty umbrella-shaped leaves, and its starchy roots are used to make[tape] (tapioca), while its young leaves grace pork soup. Wena shows me a bunie tree, in season it will have delicious dark berries that taste great in jam and also in rujak.

We spot papaya, cacao and mangosteen trees, and young cows resting under the shade of massive durians. Taking a break, we sit on the edge of a small ridge and eat sumping, and bantar,  traditional Balinese sweets of sticky rice, coconut milk and sugar, and enjoy the sound of rindik from a distant temple that mingles sweetly with bird song and rooster crows, and the gentle rustle of a breeze in the palms.

IMG_8270 Finishing in the charming restaurant set amidst the rice fields, we sip fresh coconuts and feast on organic rice, smoked duck and chicken and tofu skewers.
If you would like to know how to cook with Bali’s native herbs, fruits and spices, the following offer an authentic village style experience, including visiting the local markets.www.lobongcooking.com 

www.paon-bali.com    www.payukbali.com

www.balinesecooking.net   www.ubadubudbali.com 

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Elephant Safari Park

The Elephant Safari Park and Lodge in Taro provides a peaceful sanctuary for displaced elephants, and a highly enjoyable experience for visitors to the island; but it is the story behind its creation, and the history of the gentle giants that ramble across it, that make this park so unique. It’s a chronicle of disappearing forests, neglected elephants, dramatic rescue operations, and a man with a mission and the will power to see it through. His name is Nigel Mason.

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 “The elephants are our star attraction, so we treat them like stars,” says Nigel as an 800-kilo elephant called Desi playfully wraps her trunk around him. “Look, they are so gentle you can put your hand right in their mouth,” he demonstrates. I content myself with feeding our large friend bundles of young coconut leaves, for which I am rewarded with a great big elephant hug, I scratch the trunk that has a firm grip on my waist – its not exactly soft, but the all encompassing embrace is kind of nice.  30 elephants live in this lush oasis, with a landscape painstakingly created to replicate their natural habitat, the low lying rainforests of Sumatra.  As we wander around I find a flurry of elephant activity; some carry guests on forest treks, others kick soccer balls, or wade in the bathing pool soaking up trunks of water to give themselves – and anyone who happens to be nearby a shower.  A very cute baby elephant runs amok, trunk madly swinging, playing like a frisky puppy, he is one of three babies born in the park (a successful breeding program is a sure sign of animal wellness.) Although I had originally been reluctant about visiting the park – animal theme parks in Asia can be depressing places – I end up having a really inspiring and very happy day, surrounded by  these magnificent animals that are so obviously well loved and cared for. “We offer a complete elephant experience,” says Nigel, “we’re able to be really interactive, and guests can get close to the elephants in a way that they never could in a traditional safari park.”

Refugees

While you might be reading this and thinking,  “Surely these elephants would be better off in the wild,” the answer is yes, in an ideal world they would be, but these animals are refugees from the ongoing war of  man vs nature, that has seen the destruction of around 30 million acres of rain forest in Sumatra in the last 30 years.  “The species have been hounded out of Sumatra,” says Nigel. Rampant logging has destroyed much of their natural habitat; the rainforest that was once their home steadily replaced by oil palm and acacia plantations. Unfortunately an elephant isn’t discerning enough to differentiate between natural forest and man-made plantations – he just sees food.  A single hungry elephant wandering through an oil palm plantation can wreak havoc, eating up to 250 kg a day – that’s a lot of plants, and a lot of lost revenue. “Elephants are migratory,” says Nigel, “they follow fixed routes that may take 12 months to complete. The problem is, when they get back to where they started a year ago, the forest might be gone, replaced with an oil palm plantation for example – and believe me, oil palms are very tasty for an elephant, so suddenly people’s livelihoods are being destroyed.” Deemed as giant pests, farmers and plantation owners sometimes resort to poison, using pineapples laced with strychnine. The ‘lucky ones’ are rescued and relocated to Government training camps, forlorn places that lack the facilities and the funds to properly care for the elephants that literally waste away. Nothing evokes the magical allure of the jungle like an elephant, but for the 2000 or so endangered elephants living in increasingly fragmented pockets of Sumatra, and for the 700 incarcerated in the camps, the future is grim and uncertain.

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From Sumatra to Bali

It’s not like Nigel, as a child growing up in England and Egypt dreamt of one day coming to Bali to rescue elephants, but with a life that can only be described as adventurous and colourful,  it somehow makes perfect sense that this is what he ended up doing.  At the age of 15 he immigrated, alone, to Australia, making a living digging ditches and picking fruit, followed by a brief foray into the music industry. A spontaneous trip to Bali in 1980 sealed his fate, when he fell in love with the island, and not long afterwards with Yani, the beautiful Balinese woman who would became his wife. By 1989 they were running Bali’s first white water rafting tours, which soon morphed into the company Bali Adventure Tours. Nigel describes himself as an animal lover, but the elephants came into his life quite by accident when he met a man who had bought nine Sumatran elephants to Bali as a tourism venture, but was having trouble taking care of them. Nigel was so moved by the poor condition of the elephants who were living in a dried out rice field, that he knew he had to do something. “They deserved a whole lot more,” he says.  He secured some land in the hills of Taro, north of Ubud, and in 1996 opened the Elephant Park, originally as an adjunct to the rafting business. But Nigel is not a man who does things by half, once he took on the first batch of elephants, he set out to find out everything he could about the animals and how to best look after them. Within a year he was on his way to Sumatra to rescue eight more elephants from the government camps, returning with a ten -truck convoy that travelled six days non-stop to bring the animals to their new home in Bali. By 2000 the park had expanded and improved, to include landscaped gardens, a restaurant, a museum, water treatment, a sustainable waste disposal system and a breeding area. Ready to rescue more elephants, Nigel returned to Sumatra in 2001 planning to bring back another ten, but this mission turned into a four-year heart-wrenching bureaucratic nightmare, in the midst of which Bali was bombed, tourism plummeted and businesses across the island collapsed.  Finally in 2004 the paper work was in order, the funds secured and ten Sumatran elephants, including two babies were loaded onto trucks for the arduous trip across three islands to bring them to Bali. An Australian film crew documented the road trip and the resulting film ‘Operation Jumbo’  (available at the park) makes riveting viewing.

 

Some things you didn’t know about elephants

We walk on to the museum, where I get a crash course on the anatomy, myths and history of elephants. The collection includes original Dr Seuss and Jumbo prints, a 15,000 year-old giant wooly mammoth skeleton, and a pretty decent elephant painting by Ronny Woods.  I learn that in the past many elephants lost their lives so their tusks could be turned into billiard balls and piano keys. Moving on to the sprawling open-air restaurant, we take a seat overlooking the bathing pool and the picturesque gardens. Nigel tells me that the Sumatran elephant is the smallest in the world, up to five times smaller than its cantankerous African cousin. While they can be gentle and playful, they have strong and unique personalities and get bored and despondent if they are just hanging around.  They also need to exercise, so join the daily rotation for elephant rides, (the weight of two people is easily borne by an 800 kilo creature;) lodge rooms have their own docking station so guests get door to door service.  And yes, the adage about elephants having incredibly long memories is definitely true – Ramona, who came by truck in 1996 has gone on to become an exalted painter but she still dances, a trick taught to her by young boys during her days as a youngster in an elephant camp in Sumatra. As we chat, her baby, Guntun, the park’s cheekiest resident and expert gate opener streaks across the grounds, bellowing like a trooper, Nigel tells me that he has also developed his mothers aptitude for painting.

 

Elephant Art

While an elephant skillfully kicking a soccer ball or wielding a paint brush may seem a little gimmicky, I learn that in the wild they will often kick around coconuts, or use sticks, pebbles and leaves to make pictures in the earth. Nigel explains that the park elephants  are given the freedom to express themselves in whatever form appeals to them; those that have a natural aptitude for painting are actively encouraged, with results that can only be described as abstract.  Each has a different style – although Ramona’s mahout (handler) says “She paints only when she is inspired; ” some of her pictures have sold at Christies for over $3000. The elephants were taught to paint by the founders of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project, who visited the Park in 1999. The aim was to produce saleable art to help raise awareness of the plight of these gentle giants, and to raise much needed funds for the park’s Sumatran Elephant Foundation. While Nigel hopes, in time to bring more rescued elephants to Bali, for now the Sumatran government has halted transmigration, so proceeds from the foundation are used to provide elephants in the camps with extra food, medicine, veterinary care and vitamins.

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Nigel breaks off from our interview to grab a chainsaw – it seems that one of the trees bordering the bathing pond is dead and in danger of toppling over, tourists gather round to enjoy the spectacle as he skillfully lands the offending trunk in the pond wades through to attach ropes and supervises as two elephants effortlessly haul it out.  His absolute commitment, accessibility and hands on approach to everything certainly accounts for a large part of the park’s success, as does his dedication to the environment.  For him, “Conservation is not just something that we should do, but something that we have to do.”  The park has been built to have a minimal impact and acts as a role model for safari parks around the world. “ We don’t just protect the environment, we remove anything that could damage it;” waste water is turned back into pure water through an advanced filtration/treatment system; manure (truck loads of it) gets turned into fertilizer, and 90% of the 150 staff are from Taro. The village also receives royalties from elephant treks and earns money through supplying food to the park.

 

How to help

Wild life and conservation groups applauded the declaration of the Tesso Nilo National Park in the Riau province of Sumatra in 2004, which has a forest block that is large enough to support a viable population of Sumatran tigers and elephants. “It’s a step in the right direction” says Nigel, but perhaps a case of too little too late, and a road has already been put through it, giving easy access to illegal loggers.  He encourages people to help the elephants by supporting the foundation through donations or buying art work, but for him the only way to really save the elephants, the orangutans, the tigers and all the other jungle creatures of Sumatra is to buy back large areas of forest to be used for national parks,  “But this, ” he says “would require large amounts of money from someone like Richard Branson or Bill Gates……..We live in hope.”

 

A walk in the rice fields

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Bali Herbal Walks

I drive up to Ubud early in the morning, dark ominous clouds hang over the hills creating a moody backdrop. I hope the rain will hold off for the next few hours as I have signed up for a herbal walk, and trudging through rice fields in torrential rain isn’t quite what I have in mind. I meet my guide, Westi, a wise and gentle soul with an innate knowledge of all things herbal. He and his wife Lilir have been leading guests on walks through the ravines and rice fields of Ubud for twelve years. Their extensive knowledge of herbalism gained from their families, working in the field, and from years of studying with traditional healers.

The use of natural medicines, known as Usada, is a strong custom in Bali, as traditionally the only medicines that people had access to were those provided by nature. Most Balinese have some knowledge of natural cures and many families keep an apotek hidup (living drugstore), a small garden of herbs with medicinal properties in their yard. The edges of Bali’s fertile rice fields also host a plethora of herbs, fruit and trees that have therapeutic and health enhancing properties.

We head down a walled path way that edges along a steep ravine. Westi points out a magnolia tree, its leaves can be steeped in hot water and the resulting brew creates calm and balance. He adds that many Balinese women can’t afford perfume, instead enjoy the scent of fresh cut flowers such as magnolia, tied into their hair.

We wander through dense foliage, thick with trees, shrubs, and fernery that grows with untamed abandon. He tells me that unlike the heavily landscaped gardens that are popular in the island’s holiday resorts, a traditional Balinese garden is more wild and artistic. We come to a ylang ylang tree, with a solid trunk leading to a mass of leaves high above. He says the Japanese use it as ‘honeymoon oil’ which I guess makes it an aphrodisiac. Here in Bali, the flowers are considered holy and are used in offerings, but, “You have to be feeling strong to climb,” he says, “because it’s a tall tree and if you fall off, it’s all over.” Nearby, an avocado tree is sprouting with tiny green fruit; when ripe these can be used as a natural colouring and women blend the creamy flesh into a body mask which is highly moisturizing.

The path winds around the river and leads us up a gentle slope. We pass back yards where women are busy preparing morning offerings. Roosters crow, dogs bark and the air is fragrant with frangipani.

We find the dark red Indian long pepper growing on a climbing vine that clings to a stone wall. It is hard and shriveled and, as I discover when I taste a tiny sliver, very very hot. “The heat creates power,” Westi says, and is chewed by men as an aphrodisiac. I ask if women can chew it too, and he replies, “Yes, women are more equal now.” It is also one of the ingredients in boreh, a traditional body mask that relaxes the muscles and helps prevent rheumatism.

We head into a more open area, resplendent with the verdant green rice fields (sawahs) that Bali is so famous for. As with so much in Bali, the growing of rice is approached with an artist’s eye; just because something is practical, doesn’t mean that it can not also be beautiful. Palms line the path, butterflies flitter by and the sound of trickling water is ever present. We come across a couple of water snakes but they are timid and quickly slither away.  Westi points out the Balinese rice crops which are tall and stately and tells me that this is the best quality rice, as it is high in vitamins and nutrients, but only yields two crops a year. Nearby we see the Philippine variety which is more common, it is shorter, thicker and less aesthetic, but produces three crops a year and needs less attention.

I have never really given the rice paddies much thought beyond admiring them, taking numerous photos and regularly tucking into nasi goring. I learn that all farmers must be part of a rice co op a system known as Subak. There are 200 Subaks in Bali, seven of which are in Ubud. The one we are walking through is called Juwukmanis (Sweet orange organization of rice fields.) Water is set into irrigation channels to which everyone has equal access and although fields are individually owned, all members work together for the prosperity of all.

A few farmers are at work in the fields and a man in a rattan hat walks by with a stick over his shoulder laden with bushels of rice that have just been harvested.  A couple of small fires are burning which Westi tells me is sometimes necessary to rejuvenate the soil, the farmers decide what is needed. Natural insecticide is provided by a gaggle of ducks that are busy pecking away.

Small temples are scattered over the fields, and offerings are made to ensure good harvests.I notice a doll like figure dangling from a large bamboo stick and Westi tells me that this is a representation of the Rice Goddess Dewi Sri. It has been made from harvested rice husks, and is an offering of thanks to Ibu Purtiwi (earth mother.) He adds that after the rice has been planted, it is deemed  pregnant, and in the early growing stage, offerings such as sour fruit, which control nausea, are made to the rice goddess to prevent morning sickness.

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Although Balinese practice Hinduism, the more ancient practice of Animism imbues much of the spiritual side of life. The earth is considered female and the sky is male – when the two meet, as in human relationships, there is power. The wet season is considered particularly powerful as the continual rain from the sky pounds the earth nurturing everything that grows with in it.  Nature’s bounty is powerful, because it has been created by the union of earth and sky. The reason that there are so many problems in Denpasar he explains, is that there is too much cement and the gods are angry because the sky and earth never meet, there is a block.

“When we eat, we absorb the character of the food,” he tells me. “Holy men eat only duck which is a symbol of wisdom, roosters are no good to eat because they like fighting.” I ask about ritualistic animal sacrifice and he tells me that, “Whatever we need, we offer the gods, blood sacrifice symbolizes fertility and may be necessary to ensure a good harvest.” But before killing an animal a ceremony is held to bless it, so that the animal will come back to a better and higher life.

We come to the temple compound of the Subak, it is late morning and the clouds have dispersed revealing the sun in all its scorching glory. We sit in the shade, enjoying the rest and the peaceful rural scene that surrounds us. A farmer brings me a fresh coconut to drink, skillfully opening it with a long curved knife.

We continue on our way, stopping to crush Citronella leaves which release a strong aroma that repels mosquitoes. We inhale the scent of Melaleuka leaves which are also used as an insect repellant, and pick stalks of lemongrass which are good for colds.Outside a temple Westi points out a tiny little plant not much bigger than my hand, it’s a banyan, one of the most sacred of all trees, it seems hard to imagine that this scrawny  little thing will one day be a magnificent sprawling mass of branches and vines.

Westi and Lilir are both keen to revive and preserve the natural heritage of herbalism, for the sake of the young generation of Balinese, and for the tourists who flock to the island. With the help of Melanie Templar from the UK, they established Utama Spice in 1997 which produces a range of high quality herbal beauty products, including lotions, oils and soaps. Westi tells me that some of their clients were interested to know more about the natural substances they used, which gave them the idea of taking guests on  guided walks. He says that there goal is sustainable tourism “You must have an income, but it should be a positive income, whereby you also look after the environment and share ancient knowledge.”

I meet Lilir back at their little shop on Sweta street in Ubud, she is tiny in stature, but big in spirit, and bubbles with enthusiasm. She tells me that her family had strong healing traditions and the brood of 11meant that there was no money for doctors, instead all ills were cured by trips to the living drugstore – the family garden.It has been a pleasure to meet this couple who are so passionate and dedicated, and I feel like I have learned more in these few hours than I have in years of living on the island. Lilir invites me to come another time and sample her special tumeric tonic and to join one of her Jamu classes, but that’s another trip, another story.

Book one day in advance.

www.baliherbalwalk.com

info@baliherbalwalk.com