TIRTA GANGGA, BALI — Bali is all about water. Ponds alive with lotuses and frogs; streams pitching from the ambrosial urns of stone goddesses; waterfalls down stone walls covered with butterflies and fronds. It’s the rainy season here; fat drops fall from the palm trees overhanging the road, and off the thatched eaves above temple doorways. There is so much moisture here, and so much vegetation, that one is hyper-conscious of being a mammal; Bali is a chlorophyll world, and we just live in it.
To inhabit Bali is to surrender to its sheer profusion of life, and to learn to live in harmony with the frogs and reptiles and beetles, the ants and lizards, that share this island world. For the visitor, that begins with letting things in; it’s rare to find rooms with screens on the windows, or even with windows at all. For someone like me, with an average squeamishness threshold, there came early on a moment of surrender: one long, creeped-out shudder, followed by a sigh of release.
And with that acceptance, Bali accepted me. Strange crawling creatures cease to bedevil my ankles, or make threatening noises at night (at least, they no longer sound threatening.) It’s like the moment when, after walking into a strange bar, one sits down and orders a beer; the faces cease staring, and the jukebox starts up again. Someday you may be one of the gang, borrowing money and remembering birthdays. Meanwhile, you’re welcome to finish your drink in peace.
That quality — receptivity — makes Bali a very feminine place. Except for a few historical spasms (most recently in 1965, when a communist purge set the Balinese against each other with machetes) this is a famously non-aggressive land. Most of the world, and all of the west, knows this intuitively; that’s why the Kuta Beach bombings, in 2002 and again this year, seemed so outrageously inappropriate: like visiting an enchanted forest to slaughter the unicorns.
But Bali, despite its mythic appeal, is not a place frozen in time. Its culture and religion, with scores of gods, demons, and spirits erupting out of the mountains and forests, is as vital today as it was 500 years ago, before the Dutch corralled the island into the East Indies.
One afternoon in Ubud, strolling through the Sacred Monkey Forest, I wander down a steep flight of stone steps to the river. Ornate statues are everywhere; even the stairway is flanked by dragons. At the bottom sits a small temple complex. To my left — on a rocky outcrop overlooking the muddy, raging torrent — sit two gigantic stone lizards, covered with moss, staring greedily at the water. I’m enchanted by these reptiles and their ancient artistry — even after I spy the artist’s signature, showing they were created in 1997.
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On a bright but overcast morning, I set off for the east coast of the island with Arnaz Mehta, Seacology’s Bali representative (and, not coincidentally, the wife of marine biologist Mark Erdmann, who helped me out in Sulawesi). Arnaz is a lovely woman, half Japanese and half Indian; she had her third child in October, and has brought the infant along.
Our destination, two hours northeast of Ubud, is Tirta Gangga: a water palace built in 1948 by a Balinese rajah after the local subak, or water-priests, determined the water had the same healing properties as the holy Ganges in India (Tirta Gangga literally means “Holy Ganges Water”). The original garden was damaged by the deadly eruption of nearby Mount Agung in 1963, and again during the massacres of 1965. The past few years have seen a heroic restoration effort, in which Seacology played a small but crucial part.
“This isn’t really a normal project for us,” Arnaz says as we drive past roadside stalls selling durians and home-pressed coconut oil. “We usually require a trade-off of some kind; a protected reef or forest. In this case, the only benefit was to take pressure off the local environment. But we did want to have a Seacology project in Bali — and, as you’ll see, it is a special place.”
Tirta Gangga is not on the typical Bali itinerary — on a good day it may see 100 visitors — but I’m thrilled that it’s on mine. The water palace is a four-acre oasis of Balinese bliss, an artfully landscaped wonderland of fountains, flowers and frogs.
Ten thousand gallons of water pour into the complex each minute, all from underground aquifers (the same springs also provide drinking water for the nearby town of Amlapura). A modest admission fee gains entrance to the grounds; for another sixty cents (free for locals), one can swim and bathe in the sacred, spring-fed pools.
“The Balinese consider all water sacred, infused with healing powers.” Emerald Starr, who directed Seacology’s WasteWater Garden project at Tirta Gangga, leads us around the grounds. He’s a lanky and engaging man, clad in a blue sarong and a Lost Boys T-shirt. Starr knows Bali intimately, having lived on the island for 18 years.
“Spring water is especially sacred, and different springs have different healing qualities,” he continues. “When there’s a ceremony, the subak gathers water from various springs at different times of the day — usually before the daylight touches it. The water is empowered with chants and prayers, and used to purify the community.”
(Note: Oddly, the Balinese don’t have the same relationship with the ocean, which is considered a dangerous and mysterious place. “When the Javanese came to Bali in the 1400s,” Starr tells me, “they settled the fertile farmlands, and terraced and planted rice fields. The original Aga people were squeezed out to the edges. They’re fishermen, and still have a strong connection to the sea. But most Balinese, who originally migrated from Java, believe that all blessings flow down from the mountains. The mountain is holy and sacred, while the sea is the lowest point.”)
Along with their belief that spring water is holy, the Balinese believe it has the power to transform whatever it touches. This, Emerald explains wryly, was part of the problem: they were using the gardens not only for bathing, but as toilets.
“And those toilets, before the Seacology grant, were simply boards across the canal. People would squat down, and all of their waste would go out of the gardens and down into the irrigation canals that people outside the garden walls were bathing in. And irrigating their food, as well!”
A slender snake, bright green and slender as a whip, slithers along the path in front of us. “At the same time,” Starr continues, “hundreds of foreigners were visiting these gardens. They, too, had no choice but to relieve themselves in the local style. And that’s where the biggest disease threat comes from: foreign bacteria, from abroad and from other islands.”
Starr first came to Bali in 1988, and has worked as an architect and environmental engineer, bringing a holistic vision to all the projects he’s completed — including the Sacred Mountain Sanctuary, a high-concept eco-resort that he built in 1996. To minimize the environmental impact of that project he hired Mark Nelson, an engineer who’d worked with both NASA and the University of Gainesville designing a system that he called (and trademarked) WasteWater Gardens. Indonesia’s Health Department was so impressed with the technology, says Starr, they certified it for applications across the archipelago.
“The principle is simple,” Starr explains. “You’ve got a septic tank, which takes the solid waste. The water from the septic tank is what we’re purifying. That water goes into a ‘constructed wetland’ that is basically a watertight pond, filled with gravel and planted with water-loving plants.”
There are at least 40 or 50 such species, he says: cattails, lotuses, papyruses, certain palm trees, banana trees, lots of kinds of flowers.
“You need to have a variety of root depths,” says Starr, “so that all the levels of the gravel are filled with roots. They literally act as a filtration system, which purifies the waste water and transforms the toxins into nutrients for the plant growth. And since it’s all beneath the surface, you don’t get any human contact, or mosquito breeding. It’s a wonderful system; when the water comes out, it’s 97% bacteria free. You can even eat the fruit from the trees.” He adds, laughing, “But you might not want to eat the roots!”
There are four WasteWater Gardens at Tirta Gangga. All were funded by Seacology, through a grant to the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation. “The idea was to build a demonstration garden in a place that would be highly visible, and that could help not just the local community, but the larger Bali community as well — by showing off an environmental waste water system that was low-cost and very effective.”
They’re filled, by Starr’s design, with a variety of plants. Oleanders sink deep roots, while papyrus and fragrant white ginger fill the medium depths. Spider lilies grow shallow. The gardens are a small fraction of Tirta Gangga’s four acres; but they’re enough to solve the sewage problem.
Starr introduces me to Pa Yok, a Tirta Gangga landscape designer. He’s working on a planned amphitheater, with terraced grass seats.
“When I was small, there was no water in these ponds,” Yok recalls. “Rice and water spinach were growing here. Everything, all the pools and statues, were broken. The spring was coming out of the mountain, but the water wasn’t being distributed as it is now.”
I ask if the people didn’t mind giving up the space where rice and spinach were growing. Yok looks at me incredulously. “Everyone very much prefers it the way it is now. Not just foreigners; even the local people come here to enjoy.”
His words are demonstrably true. From 4 to 7 p.m., as the equatorial sun hurries toward the horizon, the two bathing pools are filled with people. This evening, nearly 40 people — mainly high-spirited kids — dart beneath the jets of water gushing from the mouths of monkeys and tigers, and somersault into the cool, clear water.
Girls and women soap up a few paces from the pools, unselfconscious as a camera-toting foreigner trots by. This shouldn’t surprise me; according to my guidebook, the Balinese believe they can’t be seen when they bathe. Some will even bathe naked, in rivers and canals along the roadside, secure in this cloak of invisibility.
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Before I leave Tirta Gangga, Starr introduces me to one final, essential character: Dr. A.A.M. Djelantik, the 86-year-old prince whose father built these gardens when Djelantik was 29. Djelantik is a public health physician, author, artist, and environmentalist; his anti-malarial work for the World Health Organization has earned him international recognition.
“My father’s vision was to build a rest house for himself; but having discovered the abundant spring, he built a garden around it for whole community.” Djelantik is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, and huge, silver-framed bifocals. Despite his bad hearing, he glows with intelligence and good will. “Even today people from the surrounding villages come here in big processions, to gather the holy water for their temples.”
Djelantik used to love swimming, but now he suffers from inner ear problems and can’t enter the water. Still, his face lights up when I ask if he believes — objectively, as a trained physician — that the water has curative properties.
“Of course!” he exclaims. “It’s fantastic. After swimming, you feel like a completely new person: refreshed and recharged. It’s the Balinese fountain of youth.”
With that benediction, there’s nothing I’d relish more than a final dip. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten to bring my bathing suit…. But according to my guidebook, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Half an hour later a pack of shrieking, pointing kids surround the pool — proving that you can’t believe everything you read.