A Look at Life in the Rice Fields of Sumatra

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Next to the jungle hills of North Sumatra lies Gotongroyong village. Most visitors will pass by this place on their way to Bukit Lawang, where jungle trekking is the main attraction. Travelers may admire the bright green rice paddies along the route with the jungle mountains making a beautiful backdrop. The nature of the region is truly spectacular, but only by venturing into the village can one gain a unique appreciation for the local culture. I was fortunate during my stay to encounter Mira, a smart and friendly young woman who guided me to her lovely home amid the rice fields. A quaint structure of only two rooms, it has a fish pond underneath and a small veranda at its front. It is immediately surrounded by medicinal plants and tropical fruit trees, then largely surrounded by the vibrant green rice paddies that extend in every direction. With the jungle hills in the distance, it is a beautiful sight indeed.

We had arrived on mountain bike from the home of her mother-in-law (a spunky, petite old woman skilled in traditional massage). From her house in the bordering village, we cycled over the small rocky streets, down the main road with the motorbikes whizzing by, and finally to the paths lining the rice fields. The narrow paths and wooden bridges connecting the rice paddies made me wonder if my bicycle and I would tip into the mud. This only added to the excitement because, for me, riding amid the rice fields was beautiful and amazing. The blades of grass cast a shade of green that can only be truly captured by eye, but also makes for lovely photographs.

Relaxing on the small veranda of her home, Mira boiled us some lemongrass tea while I took in the stunning scenery. She then ventured a few meters in front of her home to cut us some fresh sugarcane as a snack. We shared stories as we sipped tea and crunched on natural sweetness. She also gave me my first taste of red guava (a fruit both pretty and tasty) from a tree just in front of her house. After our snack I followed her on a short walk through the rice fields around her home. We navigated the muddy paths while her adorable cat trailed behind. Mira stopped at a small puddle where some little fish were swimming. “We always hunt together” she said as she scooped out small fishes and placed them within reach of her keen cat. We continued along the narrow paths where we could see her neighbors, off in the distance, harvesting rice. On our way back she plucked some fresh cassava leaves and told me she would teach me how to make a “diamond” necklace – a craft she had learned as a young girl.

Reaching her house she explained to me how the changing times have brought plastic dolls and store-bought toys, but when she was a child, they made their toys from nature. She tore the cassava leaf into a “diamond” shaped pendant then carefully split the stem to form the “chain”. We joined the ends with a small piece of wood as a clasp. With our first project complete, she tore a section from a banana leaf within reach of her veranda. She told me that as children, instead of barbie dolls, they would use young ears of corn (the ones with the long “hair”!) The banana leaf was nature’s material for making the barbie’s “mattress”. With a section for each of us, she showed me how to tear the leaf into strips, then weave them together into a tidy square. I really enjoyed this lesson; upon completion, our banana leaf “mattresses” resembled the woven walls of her home!

Mira is great at telling stories about her local culture and village environment. She uses this ability to give village tours to visiting travelers. With most tourists visiting the area to see orangutans in the jungle, the village tour is a unique experience that sheds light on the culture of the local people – how they are living now and how they have lived in the past. Tour participants have the option of walking or bicycling, experimenting with traditional arts and crafts, or even learning to cook the Indonesian cuisine. Mira’s small business not only makes her a clever entrepreneur, but also a female pioneer in a male dominated society. In her culture, the men are typically the ones to start the businesses and guide the tourists. There are hundreds of local guides, but finding a female in this line of work is rare. Thus, Mira is a wonderful example for the women of her community, proving that women too can be successful leaders and business people. If you find yourself visiting Bukit Lawang, you should certainly contact Mira for an inside look into the local culture. You can read more about her tours here, or find her on Instagram: Bukit_Lawang_Villages_Tour.

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