The bemo (a small minibus with somehow enough space to supposedly seat twelve adults and with enough character to run its own comedy night) turned through the contrast of grey concrete decorated with colour and chaos of the city streets. Twisting and turning, leaving behind the concrete structures, moped and vehicle pollution and instead moving forwards as the view opened up into the fresh air of the countryside and bamboo structures ahead.
The chaos cleared as simultaneously the sound of the water channels along the side of the rickety road took more prominence, they came into their own. It was now impossible to ignore their existence and not question their purpose.
In the city these waterways are mostly underground, often exposed by broken paving slabs and missing metal grills, threatening to trip and suck you into the dark and seemingly illness ridden hole of the abyss. Here in the countryside you could see that they were by no means riddled with filth or threatening but were the life source of the island and for many people beyond.
The bubbly constant flow moves gradually and purposefully downwards, around corners, over discarded burned coconut husks and other debris, it trickled in places and became more thunderous in others as multiple channels met at a simple but engineered junction. I follow the flow – it passes behind the giggles of children and the clacking of chickens, the sloth like dogs basking in the sun, it chases along the edge of a hillside and then, boom, out, into an awe-inspiring expanse.
I stand speechless and wide eyed, the beauty before me is breathtaking.
I look down, now carefully placing my feet on narrow raised strips of spongy grass, clover and moss that make up the embankments to these intrinsic waterways. Waterways that feed the soil and the soil that feeds the roots of the rice plant and rice that feeds nations. It is the waterways of Bali that feed and nourish the many rice paddies that in turn provide the island and its visitors with its staple food. This simple white grain is exported as part of Indonesia’s rice sales – the third largest producer of rice in the world.
Each grain of rice that we pour into the pot, cook, put on our plates, pass by our lips or scrape into the rubbish has been created by individuals who work together to help themselves and mankind survive. Manually and individually cut, manually thwacked, manually sifted and had the husks blown away by the air. Rice like many other crops really is using all the earth’s elements and in Bali they know that, each morsel is given thanks for, life is worshipped, life is valued. The fields are close to the main towns and often amongst the chaos is a sudden illumination of green – a reminder of why the water system is there, feeding the land and feeding their future.
The villages each have a hierarchy and within that, they make it a priority to ensure the waterways remain in good condition and that water is free flowing. This maintenance ensures a guaranteed water supply to the very last field and with a promise of water is the promise of a crop – rice. The hierarchy and the people who keep the waterways cleared are esteemed members of the community, for the value of their role is known. Without water, there would be no rice and without rice, many would go hungry. I suppose in some respects this is where we in the West have lost our connection with the basics. Our towns and cities are sprawling metropolis where the provision of water and the maintenance of the intrinsic networks are centralised or automated; on a day to day basis we make little thought to our lifeline, its availability and its worth and take no to little responsibility for this natural commodity without which we cannot live.
With the tap water in Bali being undrinkable and travelling on a budget I looked to conserve funds where I could, I found myself hunting down places that had free drinking water filling stations. I soon learnt that I was being naïve to rely on filling stations outside of Ubud, I was exposed to the grim reality that I had to pay for something I am used to having available at the twist of a wrist. I was forced to recognise how I take this valuable commodity for granted. Just expecting drinking water to be readily available and free for my consumption, clearly I had been in the West my whole life!
As we turn on the tap for a glass of water and turn it off again, do we really know why? Is it just a good habit we’ve developed? Is it to save water? Is it to save money? Or have we recognised that the value of this commodity reaches far beyond the fact that it is cheaper to use tap water than buy bottled water. Yes, we are saving water by not leaving the tap running, yes by saving water we are saving money, and using tap water rather than bottled water, we are saving on the production of plastic.
Yet do we make the connection that in order to have safe drinking water readily available to us it – via a tap or bottle on a shelf, that it has required meticulous engineering, networks of pipes and for bottled water – the additional creation of suitable packaging for it to reach us safely and uncontaminated. This all comes at a cost, a cost that many of us pay in our water rates or taxes, a cost that we pay when taking that bottle from the shelf to the cash register. However, surely the cost is much greater – that careless and unconscious demand from us isn’t just the monetary cost we pay. But those pipes, those water treatment centres, those bottling plants, they exist to meet demand. Yes they provide valuable jobs, yes they provide clean water to areas that need it. But let that demand be for what we need to survive comfortably, not the demand which is as a direct result of our careless and excessive life styles.
It’s not just about turning that tap off to conserve our valuable lifeline, just as rice requires water to grow, so too do many of the other food sources that we have on our plates and subsequently scrape into the rubbish. Having once dated a wine maker and helping out in the vineyard I became aware of just how much water is used in the wine industry. It doesn’t take much online research to find that wine production uses 29 gallons of water to produce a 4.2 ounce glass of water, but as the ‘Water Into Wine’ article by Protea Wines details, it takes 450 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound of beef and 127 gallons to produce just 1 ounce of chocolate!
It became apparent to me in Bali to use water wisely, I obviously needed it in order to survive, but I wasn’t excessive or wasteful in my use of it. I try to apply that logic to other things too – cutting back on those big portions that I know I’ll end up scraping into the rubbish, or I let treats, be just that, treats, not a daily indulgence. Let us respect the basics, have an understanding of where they come from and what is required to provide them to us.
Let us be aware of the value of our basics and let our basics not cost the earth.
And as a woman who loves her chocolate and our planet…