Parallel Worlds

[two pro travel journalists turn amateur bloggers]

Food: a journey between homes

food travel

[words by Narina Exelby / photograph by Mark Eveleigh]

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.

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12 comments on “Food: a journey between homes

  1. Hi Narina. My comment earlier (from my mobile) was met with a wall.
    It’s true that often our family homes contain a preserved version of our lives and whenever you enter, it’s like revisiting a familiarity, a 15 year old self and the rituals remain the same. In my case, the decor! It’s a good measure of how far our lives have departed from the old, or in some cases how much they two may have in similar, gauzy net curtains, or not. Would be nice to meet when you are here and would love to hear about your plans for the next adventure. A tin can for a kitchen – could you imagine this at 15? 😉

    • Parallel Worlds
      September 20, 2013

      Hi Ishay; I’m always fascinated by stories that at first might seem so ordinary – because as soon you look a little closer, you’ll see so many fascinating micro-stories. Picking apart the everyday often reveals these, and brings so much more meaning to what appears to be “ordinary”. I’ll be in Cape Town for a short while in January, and it would be lovely to meet you then. xx

  2. Anja
    September 20, 2013

    Love this story Nuns – can just picture you in your parents kitchen making muffins! Cant wait to see you 🙂

  3. susan@vadovia.com
    September 22, 2013

    Just spent the past two hours captivated by both of you and your writings. Looking forward to following you as you travel and share your wonderful stories. BTW…I have a mug with the Hunter S. Thompson quote that appears on your site. One of my favorite quotes.

    • Parallel Worlds
      September 22, 2013

      Thank you for such a lovely note, Susan, and for taking the time to read through some of our stories. Every day Mark and I appreciate the life we live, and we’re happy to be able to share our stories. Narina x

  4. passionplayph
    September 24, 2013

    What a beautiful post! I’ve started living in the province as well. In a small surf town called baler. I can totally relate to the market, making your own meals, and living simply. I love the imagery in your prose! You transported me to your parallel worlds!

    • Parallel Worlds
      September 24, 2013

      Thank you for your kind words. It’s been beautiful, calling west Bali home for a while, and we’ll miss this place when we move on. Hope to be back soon!

  5. learntstufftoday
    September 26, 2013

    Hi Narnia, thanks for such a refreshing post – an insight into life in Bali that we don’t see often 🙂 You make it sound so serene.

    • Parallel Worlds
      September 26, 2013

      THanks for your comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It really is serene out here. As I type, I’m listening to birds twitter above the paddies (which are currently being transformed into watermelon fields), and roosters crowing in the distance. Gentle music playing somewhere far away… it’s lovely here.

  6. Gaenor du Plessis
    October 20, 2013

    I’m playing catch up on a world that I have never experienced, and I’m not referring to the world that you live in as a nomad beachcomber, so forgive me if this post is a little after the time.

    You have an amazing strength to be doing what you are doing, and this account of culinary activities speaks to my heart.
    I recently moved to Europe with my picket fence family to be a picket fence stay at home Mum. The thought of you and your partner using a Frisbee as a chopping board makes me conscious of my irritation at having to ‘camp’ out at my new apartment next weekend while we wait for out furniture to be delivered.

    Thank you for the reminder that life does not revolve around comfort and convenience, and all the best for your writing travels.
    I envy you being able to buy vintage cheddar and making cheese muffins in Howick. Soon I hope to be able to find vintage cheddar in France (tongue in cheek comment…), and after a bit of practice with foreign ingrediants, I will find my claim to Strasboug fame, and send cheese muffins to school for my girlies mid-morning ‘gouter’ that are the envy of the expat community, and in time, the locals!

    • Parallel Worlds
      October 28, 2013

      Thanks so much for your comment, Gaenor! I hope Europe is kind to you, and that your adventure is a beautiful one. xx

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