Wednesday, May 26

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Rice paddies

I feel bad for Kansas and Iowa and all those other states which effectively function as enormous corn and wheat fields. "America the Beautiful" may celebrate the amber waves of grain, but I understand spending the better part of a day driving along I-35 through a landscape decorated only with said waves and punctuated by the occasional period of a town and its exclamation point of a water tower can be rather difficult. That may be why people prefer they remain fly-over states.

Rice production in Bali, however, is absolutely celebrated to the point that its become part of the island's attraction. A voluntourist is staying at the center now, and she told us about her time in Ubud where she spent a few hours on a tour of the paddies. The guide told them all about the techniques and process and local superstition toward walking sunset. That's when the red lights appear. I just don't ever see the Nebraska State Tourism Board managing something like that.

Not that I blame Bali for taking advantage. The rice paddies are absolutely beautiful. It has something to do with the rest of the island's environment, I think. If you can see more than a hundred meters in any particular direction it means you're either on the ocean shore or nearing a mountain summit. It's almost claustrophobic how tight in the coconut palms and banana trees and other flora press in. But then you break through into a field of rice paddies and see the terraces climbing the mountain sides, it's something special.

It's the utter sameness of the mass farms that gets to those driving by, I think. It's the sense that so far as you can see behind you and so far as you can see ahead, there is no difference, the sense that you can fall asleep for two hours and wake up feeling that you have moved no farther ahead because the landscape is the same. This is not the case with rice paddies. They take their shape according to the contour of the mountain and every edge is defined by a line of long grass just wide enough for a single person to walk along to the next paddy down. Scrub trees dot these lines. At the occasional intersection a crude hut stands on stilts to give the farmers a break in the shade. Taut line are pulled across paddies with sheets of plastic and torn cloth tied on and blowing in the wind to keep away birds. So far as I can tell, there is no set season for planting and harvest. I have seen workers wading through the mud with hoes or pushing on cows with plows. I have seen them planting seedlings. I have seen them cutting and beating the long growth. I have seen the stubble patches and the fires lit on them. I have seen all of these stages from a single vantage point on a single day.

I hope this picture does something to capture their magnificence.

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