My life is so different from what it once was.
I think these words often; usually when I’m crouched next to a well, washing insulated travel mugs, a bush knife and a Frisbee in cold water, in a plastic bowl. The times that I slipped delicate wine glasses and carefully collected crockery into a brushed stainless-steel dishwasher are literally a world away.
I think about it when we have dinner, Mark and me, sitting on the steps of our rented bamboo house out in the rice paddies of West Bali. Because there’s almost nothing that highlights the difference of lives, of places, more than the ritual of eating: where the food comes from, how it is prepared, how it is eaten.
One of the very first things I noticed about the shops out here in West Bali is that they stock very little, if any, fresh produce. Everything in them is wrapped in at least one layer of plastic and has a shelf life of years. That’s because people buy their fruit, vegetables and meat daily from the local market. It opens at 2am and by 6.30am, the last scattered leaves and dropped fruit are being swept away.
I love going to the market. We usually get there around 6am and have a cup of coffee in the lower section, next to the woman who sells snake-fruit, onions, potatoes and limes. By the time we get there, her daughter is dressed in her school uniform and is having her hair plaited into two braids, the standard hairstyle for Balinese schoolgirls. You can buy almost anything at the market: fruit that’s locally grown or that’s been shipped across from Java; jamu (a blend of medicinal herbs, for drinking); chicken; fish; bright pink or green cakes; plastic shoes; chillies; incense; ceremonial clothes; fresh flowers for Balinese offerings. This market is our local mall.
Perhaps my favourite time of day is early evening. Once we’ve packed our computers away and cracked open a chilled Bintang, I take Mark’s bush knife and Frisbee (which doubles up as a chopping board) outside onto the steps and prepare a few vegetables. There’s usually a light breeze in the evening, and children are still flying homemade kites above the paddies; little swifts are swooping to chase insects through the dying light, and the frogs are just beginning to sing.
At the base of the steps, a barbeque made to Mark’s specifications by the welders up the road holds a fire of coconut husks. As the flames settle into a heat ready for cooking, Mark strums on his ukulele, or sings along to the country music he’s turned up, or he simply leans his elbows back on the steps, stretches his legs out and enjoys being there, in this transition time of day. Usually, he’s waiting for me to finish with the vegetables so that he can use the Frisbee as his mixing bowl: he’s perfecting the art of making bread on a fire, and mixes flour with beer, sometimes adding bananas, or dates, or finely chopped onions.
Cooking on the grid will either be fish caught that morning by a fisherman from the village, or pieces of chicken we’ve bought from the woman who has a small shop in her house across the road. We buy coffee from her, too: strips of instant three-in-one mixes, which are the norm here. I always hope, when Mark prepares the chicken, that it’s not one of the fluffy little chooks we’ve seen running around the village that’s ending up on our fire. But it probably is.
We don’t have a kitchen in our bamboo house. It was built for short-term holiday stays, not wandering travel writers who stop by for a few weeks every now and then and call it home. The house has a water dispenser and a kettle, and a small fridge that freezes food if it gets too full; our grocery cupboard is a cardboard box. In the fridge are tubs of yoghurt – our breakfast staple, which we drizzle with honey collected in the jungle nearby – that cost more than double what they do in South Africa. It’s the one of the few extravagances we indulge in and we buy the yoghurt (as well as gin – our other treat) from a supermarket a two-hour drive away. Although local shops are jammed with SIM cards and cellphones and plastic-wrapped biscuits and instant noodles and bottles of Coke and fruit juice and water, we’ve not found any close by that stock yoghurt or gin. They’re usually only consumed by bule (foreigners), and there aren’t many of us out west.
Life out here, for us, is simple. If we were here permanently, we might have a kitchen and pots and spices and jars of things and maybe even a vegetable patch; but we’re never here for more than a few weeks before we head off somewhere on assignment. When we leave, we pack everything up so that other people can rent this house while we’re away.
We’ll be moving on soon, and within six weeks our veggie market, water well and bamboo house will be a world away. Soon I’ll be standing in my parent’s kitchen, mixing cheese muffin’s from my grandmother’s recipe book and setting the oven temperature to 180°C. I’ve missed baking. For the muffins I’ll buy cheese from Woolworths – vacuum-packed vintage Cheddar, 18 months matured. It’s an indulgence, especially for baking, but it’s one of my favourites and cheese that’s anything but super-processed is hard to find in Bali. I’ll chop herbs, picked from the vegetable garden, on a marble-topped counter that was once used in my great-grandparent’s farmhouse, and I’ll wash and rinse dishes in a double sink, in water heated by the sun, or by a log fire.
We’ll have the muffins, fresh out the oven, for breakfast and I’ll serve them on one of my favourite plates, made by my mum in her weekly pottery classes. On the table will be strawberry jam bought from the local farmer’s market and a fresh pot of coffee – brew from Kenya, perhaps, or a blend from Java. We’ll butter our muffins using bone-handled knives. Some of them belonged to my dad’s parents, who brought them to Africa from England more than 65 years ago; some of them come from the local second-hand store. I’ll never know their stories, although I wish I could.
As we have breakfast, the three dogs will be lazing on the steps outside, soaking up the morning sun before the heat of the day sets in; their lethargy might be interrupted by that instinctual need to chase a monkey, or a hadeda. There might be some mist on the hills in the early morning, or an eagle circling overhead; little weaver birds will almost certainly be flocking to the bird feeder that hangs from a paperbark acacia tree, just outside the dining room.
I will be a world away from Bali. From Spain. From Kenya. And yet with a meal at my childhood home, another journey will begin, and with that meal another reminder: my life is so very different from what it once was. The only constant, someone once said, is change. And yet it’s the constants – the rituals of eating, the return home – that highlight the change. And that’s what makes the journeys memorable.