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Displaying items by tag: Searching for Cows in Bali

Monday, 25 April 2011

Searching for Cows in Bali

When traveling alone, it’s often helpful to have a secret mission. It keeps up the morale and gives you a pathway into your surroundings. In a foreign land, a secret mission is especially useful, helping you to look like you belong there—you’ve come for a reason, and you know what you’re doing.

My goal was to find out how those cows got up onto that mountaintop.

Seeing cows might not be high on most travelers’ priority list when they come to Bali. With an island full of colorful ceremonies, ornate temples, and surfers’ havens, livestock doesn’t command much notice. But, when I arrived in the town of Candidasa (“Chan-dee-dasa”) to find it a bit too touristy for my tastes, I looked up to see a group of local bovines and felt they just might have the answer.

Kalimantan And November 233They stood high on a rounded precipice overlooking the village, which overlooked the sea. The hill where they stood loomed over the other hills it sat upon, the sides so steep and rounded I couldn’t see how cows could climb it. Did people farm up there too? I wondered, imagining what might lie in that hidden world. Did people live there? I’d visited a nearby village of Bali Aga, where I met indigenous Balinese people who were here before Hindu settlers came long ago from Java. In this dusty little village, people made (and sold to tour groups) traditional crafts like musical instruments and hand-woven sarongs. Maybe more lived high upon that hill, I thought.

I decided that finding those cows was my mission for my brief stay in Candidasa. Traveling by myself, I wanted to avoid the typical tourist activities and crowds, in part because after months of traveling I was tired of people asking why I was sendiri, alone. Women in particular must expect these questions when traveling by themselves. Having the same conversations over and over, and constantly feeling I had to explain myself, grew exhausting. Discovering my own purpose, something off the beaten path, gave me renewed energy and led to more engaging conversations that focused on something new, interesting, and special to the place.

I imagined what Candidasa must have been like before the strip of ocean-front restaurants and bungalows sprang up, and if whomever lived on top of that hill—if anyone—had been affected much by the tourism. Candidasa was still a small-ish village, and tiny compared to the surfing mecca of Kuta. Travelers can certainly connect with nature without going too far. For $10, I Kalimantan And November 175stayed in a lovely bungalow by the ocean where at night I heard nothing but surf. The day before, one of the fisherman-by-night, guides-by-day took me to a snorkeling spot out beside the sea stacks, the huge rocks jutting out of the sea. I enjoyed snorkeling above the coral, feeling like I was flying through the air as I gazed down at the colorful fish below. But I still craved a closer connection with the past, something unstructured. And as nice as the visit to the Bali Aga village had been, I wanted an experience that was fresh, and all my own.

I asked a couple of people if there was a village up on the hill, but no one seemed eager to go. Then I talked to a young guy named Han, the friend of a young woman I’d been chatting with in the sarong shop where she worked. Amiable and easygoing, he worked as a tour guide and said he’d be happy to show me what’s up there, though there was no village on the hill. That’s okay, I said; something was still drawing me there, and I couldn’t leave Candidasa until I went.

We found a concrete path leading up the hillside, and followed it, passing a group of women and chickens by a simple concrete dwelling weathered by long years standing by the sea. Soon, we came to a dirt path and followed it on its windy way up the mountain. A woman walked by, eyes purposefully ahead, but a slight smile glimmering on her lips. She looked young and agile at first glance, but as I looked more closely, couldn’t begin to pinpoint the age of her weathered, wizened face. Like Changing Woman, that Native American legend whose form moves through the cycles of age continually, she seemed timeless. And apparently, she was en route to find the cows.

She paused along the trail where it skirted the forest line beside the sweep of grassy meadow, and as we caught up to her, I greeted her in Indonesian. “Selamat pagi, apa kabar?” (“Good morning, how are you?”) She just smiled shyly and continued along. “She doesn’t speak Indonesian,” Han said quietly. We were united, at least, in one purpose—finding the cows. This was her daily work, he said, watching over them to make sure they stayed nearby.

Kalimantan And November 237The path wound up from one gorgeous viewpoint to another, looking out on the small, rocky islands, and the expanse of Nusa Penida across the water. Travelers sometimes took a boat to that sparsely populated island for the day (I’d heard it offered no rooms for tourists, though I suspected a fortunate traveler might be invited to stay with a local). We stopped to look at one of the Gili islands that appeared through the mist, and even the aloof and barely visible Lombok, far away and barely visible. Below, the steep sweep of the valley plummeted to the next abrupt slope where villagers had once formed terraces into the land that were now eroding away, being absorbed into the hills once more. The still presence of trees with their gently shimmering leaves seemed to hold the spirit of the mountain in their intertwined roots, grounding it in the damp reality of soil. 

We moved higher still, the soaring green mountains shrouding us in stillness. I heard the lazy clanking of a bell, and knew she was just through the bushes. We’d seen a few up on the hillside, staring down at us in wonder, like children in a remote village seeing a white person for the first time.

Kalimantan And November 223

“Shhh,” said Han, creeping slowly ahead and gesturing to our left. We crept out of the trees, and into the open expanse of the hilltop. All the world swept around us in a breathtaking panorama of sea, sky, and soaring green hills, but I gazed only at her, and the cows. She’d found them, a small group of those beautiful doe-eyed creatures with delicate, rich brown faces and bodies. Two more were walking toward the woman, as the others grazed serenely around her. Her face still held that gentle, serene glow that seemed to express the beauty she felt in her daily task of keeping the cows. Watching her, and the gentle creatures grazing around her, I said a silent thank you to them for letting me into this moment, sensing and feeling more than any conversation could have told me, or even body language could express. It was a moment beyond words, a poem written long ago in a language only the spirit can understand.

Getting There

Candidasa was easy to get to; I booked a shuttle ticket from Ubud. The bus made a brief stopover at a warung, a small restaurant, and then my fellow passengers and I boarded two separate shuttles taking us to our different locations. All together the trip took almost two hours, and before long I was sitting by the lush garden at my hotel watching the surf. In November, finding a place to stay was easy; few tourists were around. The friendly fisherman on the sandy beach below immediately began to pitch their snorkeling excursions, which visitors during the low tourist season should expect. Many people here, like elsewhere in Bali, speak a reasonable amount of English, though speaking even a little Indonesian is usually appreciated.


Finding a tour guide is usually easy in villages like Candidasa, especially during the low season when most of the men and teenage boys seem to be looking for work as taxi drivers or tour guides. This typically means taking you to the white sand beach a few kilometers away, or to the Bali Aga village. You could also rent your own motor scooter, if you prefer. If you’re looking to learn about the culture, of course you’ll want to talk to your guide first to find out how much he knows. This goes for guides from agencies as well as guides you’ve met on the street. If booking a tour through one of the many agencies you’ll find in cities and villages around Bali, ask if the guides know a lot about your area of interest, like nature or cultural history.

If you want to stay in a really laid-back village, though, head further up the east coast to Amed, a more remote fishing village. You’ll find bungalows and restaurants, but not a lot. There’s more of a beach here than at Candidasa, too, and for $10 (in the low season, anyway) you can find a decent room right on the beach, with a shaded porch looking out on the ocean.

You’ll be able to ask lots of locals about any questions you have. As you walk down the street, people will ask you where you’re going and what you want to do, and offer you a ride.

©Melanie Jae Martin

Her blog is The Story Grove:

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