When I read The Lord of the Rings the first time my favourite bits were the ents, the Wood-elves, and The Shire. I understood the Shire as I grew up in the Cotswolds, which had thatched rooves and flower gardens tumbling over warm walls. My childhood was not idyllic like a hobbit childhood by any means, but I can’t deny the rolling hills, the round pubs and the Morris men dancing on a Sunday.
There is something about The Shire that is pristine and nurturing. Tolkien wrote it like that to show that the starting point of anything is home – soft, nourishing and womb-like, somewhere we all belong. Many of us never had that kind of home but we still remember it somewhere in our sinews. It makes us feel a yearning for what life should be like, what it was like in some fantasy time, before supermarkets and war and Donald Trump.
I couldn’t put my finger on it straight away, at Nyambu Village in Bali, but there was this feeling that I was in The Shire. Not just a reminder, but actually there. The wistful unreachable feeling of what home really was, the warm pinchable centre, I was feeling it right there. Everything was dusted off, the surface peeled back, to reveal people living as they should. And lots of little houses.
They live in family compounds, with a grand freestanding doorway up some steps and down some steps, for visitors and holy days. Inside the compound are small houses, with big rooves, for each family unit. There is a family shrine for human things like births and deaths, and a spiritual shrine for unknowable mysteries. The grandparents end up sleeping in the human shrine when they are old enough. There is a house for rice, and a house for cooking. Each compound is a tiny wendy-house filled village and its neat thatched and red tiled rooves can be seen over the compound walls and invite childlike curiosity. The grass-lined streets have celebratory garlands and banners made of wild things which nod and sway in the breeze, trumpeting quiet joy into the silent morning.
The villagers carry the water up from one of the 22 springs and at one of the springs they have built a pump between them. As I walk down into the forest towards the spring, there are wild monkeys, and there are two men and two women washing. Their skin is rosy brown and the women squeeze their hair and the men look on shyly. They are the bright and burnt colours of Gauguin. Down near this spring is an elaborate temple which you’d think was the central place of worship, given its splendour. But I am told it is just one of 67 temples in the village. Next to the temple, the villagers have built a pool for the monkeys to bathe in when it gets too hot in the afternoons. It has steps. Next to it is a banyan tree with a sarong to remind us that important spirits live in the trees and their sentience should be honoured. Someone has left an offering to the tree.
I follow Satya, my guide, back up to the street, in the heat and in a dream. At the top we pass the monkey scarer who stands all day between the field of young rice shoots and the monkey forest, with a red slingshot to brandish and not use. Elsewhere the villagers have built a vine trellis to grow grapes for the monkeys.
Satya is a welder he says. But when he shows me a gate he has welded I know he is not a welder but an artist fashioning delicate flowers to adorn his neighbours’ gates and enrich the world. He is an unassuming leader, with a gaudy green ring.
Satya smiles and smiles and drives me a few metres up the road, stopping to point out a komodo dragon in a stream. I watch it scuttle and it hollows out a new place in my brain for a creature that has never crossed my mind.
We drive further, and outside one of the 67 temples we look at the stone reliefs. He traces the ancient Hindu stories that amble across the walls of the temple, with turtles and herons and arrogant elephants. I listen.
We visit carvers sat with their legs dropping sideways, the wood forming itself into intricate, finely-tuned pillars of flowers beneath their hands. I ask who buys these works of art. He grins and says ‘We do – people save and buy them for their houses.’
The people spend their time carving and crafting and preparing hundreds of offerings, and then wash and carry water and cook in sacred kitchens and tend their fields and polish their ceremonial doors. They visit the trees and the springs and make their offerings and light incense and walk slowly back home in coloured sarongs. This is the work.
The rice fields are glinting in the sun, the small mud dams of the irrigation system allowing the water to trickle forever. Here, time can wait for monkey vines to grow, and we drink a peculiar drink that can only come from a fairytale. We buy it from an old woman at the side of the road. It is white and green and pink. The white is liquid coconut, this I know. But the pink is slimy sweet sticks and the green is large chunks of bright green jellied leaves that expand in your mouth. I look at my drink and have no idea how to approach it, standing in the street, as the old woman who sold it to us walks off, her basket on her head.
When I used to teach 13-year-olds, I did a project with them at the start of the year that they always loved. I would show them clips of films and excerpts from books of all the imaginary worlds in fiction. Narnia and Hogwarts, Pepperland and Gormenghast. The Shire. They would have to get inspired and then create their own imaginary world with labelled maps and poetic descriptions. They loved this project as they could people their world as they chose and tap into the fantasy of what if….
The last person I saw in Nyambu village was a Belgian on a bike waving as he meandered past. Satya said he arrived ten years ago, crippled and in a wheel chair. He married a Balinese woman, became a Hindu and now he is well.
Nyambu Village is an eco-project for tourists to see what real life is like; a smiling call out from another world. The villagers do not know they live in the Indonesian Shire. It is a real place in Bali, not far from Denpasar and Ubud. Nature and work and family and dancing tree and water spirits all co-exist and intermingle into life at the essence; what we all know it is in the end. What has been ashed on, plastic-ed on, smoked on, disintegrated by violence and disillusionment.
I can’t stop thinking about it. It makes me want to go home, to a home I know does not exist.
You can visit Nyambu Eco-village too.