An obscure village of 200,000 on the west coast of Bali, Negara is where my father was born. It is a country of fertile paddies that climb hills in elegant, terraced steps and spread out seemingly forever until they kiss the sea.
I had only heard its name mentioned a handful of times. In idle chatter, my father would let slip his dream of living in the Balinese countryside, spending afternoons watching the rice grass sway, listening to song of crickets and the trickle of surrounding creeks.
My father valued freedom in the big things and small: he eschewed desk jobs and office attire, as well as organized tours with prescribed timetables. He believed freedom was not material, but spiritual. Family legend has it that at one point he wanted to take to the open seas and become a sailor, but his greatest aspiration was to go to that great bastion of freedom: America. He succeeded.
When I decided to spend a year living in Indonesia, I resolved to visit Negara. I pictured the stylish rice fields of Ubud – a center of Balinese royal palaces and the artistic heartland of the island’s modern-day tourism – with its luxury villas, charming boutiques and yoga retreats.
The real Negara offers far less stimuli – no galleries, no industry to speak of, not even a movie theater. I stay with relatives who live above the general store they own on the main road connecting Bali’s provincial capital, Denpasar, and the port of Gilimanuk, the mouth of the sea route to Java. I sleep near the large sacks of cloves, their potent, dizzying scent greeting me each morning. Across the street, beside the auto shop my great-uncle started, is the home where my grandfather was born. Apart from its recent aquamarine paintjob, the house still retains its colonial-era features and resilient teak furniture.
The days warm up quickly in Negara, but life is slow. Mornings are passed visiting older relatives, rifling through their aged photos and cache of memories, filling in missing branches of the makeshift family tree I have sketched in my iPhone. Sometimes we visit my great-grandparents’ graves in the old Chinese cemetery. We shower flower petals – pink, purple, red – over the tombs to show our respect. For someone raised in the American suburbs these prosaic activities were otherworldly, magnificent in their simplicity, rich with meaning.
In the high heat of the afternoon, my cousins shut the store down and take me for a drive. First we stop at one of their two “gardens”. At first I pictured a manicured English lawn, bordered with pansies and decorative grasses. Instead, we drive up a narrow, unpaved road to a small lot where colorful fowl wander. From there we hike into a thickly wooded hillside. On either side of us are trees pregnant with fruit – chocolate, durian, rambutan, mangosteen, papaya, pomelo, among the dozen species available. A brown cow and her healthy calves roam freely on the hillside, feasting on grass, as does a family of long-eared goats. These visits always end with a drink from the garden’s enormous young coconuts – so massive they must be shared.
The area’s attractions include two beaches, Pantai Delod Brawah and Pantai Rambut Siwi. Unique to this stretch of coast is the ebony sand that lines the shore. Pantai Rambut Siwi plays host to a majestic Hindu temple perched on a cliff overlooking the glassy sea, while at Pantai Delod Brawah, a giant mermaid with salmon-colored scales greets us. She towers over us and her long black locks graze the sky. Her masculine body is rippled with muscles, but her gentle face betrays a deep sadness.
In traveling to Negara, and spending extended time in my ancestral home, I did not receive my father’s blessing. You are wasting your time, he reasoned. We came to America to embrace the future, yet you are trying to regress to the past. In my heart I respond that it was the traumatic events that drew us away from Bali, from Indonesia, that deserved his disdain, not this land of abundance; that the freedom of Negara was a dream that germinated in his heart.
Before the continents split and drifted apart, there was Pangea. This is Negara to me. Today our family has scattered to many corners of the globe, from British Columbia to Switzerland, from Los Angeles to Dubai, from Istanbul to Indiana, to pockets of Java. Negara remains. This verdant land that bursts with life and teems with ghost stories is at once exotic and homey. It is where I came from and where I can go, as a stranger and as a daughter, as exile and heir. My relatives fled Negara in pursuit of their freedom, and I came back looking for mine.
About the Author: Ade is a writer from Los Angeles living in Indonesia. More about her on her blog.