The Incredible Life Story of Nila, Owner of Sari Organik, an Organic Farm right in the Heart of Ubud
Sitting at a table in the open air bamboo construct that is Sari Organik’s Bodag Maliah restaurant, gazing out at the breathtaking natural scenery, I wait patiently for Nila – founder and owner of the innovative organic farm situated so close to the center of town that if you listen carefully you might just be able to hear the words “taxi” and “transport” – to finish up a meeting with one of her employees. In the midst of setting up her company’s third location, a restaurant and central food processing location in Penestanan, Nila undoubtedly has a lot on her plate. However, this is not a woman who is afraid of hard work. Despite simultaneously keeping tabs on her farms and restaurants in Ubud and Kintamani, personally teaching her staff to run the business from the ground up, and monitoring a batch of Salak (snake fruit) wine, Nila is nice enough to spare me a couple hours of her Saturday morning to tell me her story. She hopes to put it in writing herself one day, and hopefully this teaser does justice to what truly is a fascinating tale.
Nila was born in a small village in Kintamani, a lush area surrounding Mount Batur in the north of Bali, called Bayun. Her father was a part-time farmer, part-time blacksmith, growing what he could to help feed his family. They lived hand to mouth, and Nila was restlessly unsatisfied. From an early age, she saw the difficulties in the traditional Balinese village lifestyle.
“When I was young, I didn’t want to be Balinese, I didn’t want to become Balinese, and I didn’t want to marry a Balinese man.”
Her dream was to leave Bali for Java and earn enough money to support her family. To do so she first had to save up for the bus and ferry tickets; a daunting task for a 12 year old with very little education. She left Bayun for Singaraja, where she took whatever work she could find. A weaver, a pembantu, a mechanic’s assistant; she was unafraid to tackle any task and became somewhat of a Jill of all trades.
One of the Many Mountain Villages of Kintamani
Jaunt Through Java
After a couple years, she had put away enough money to purchase a bus and ferry ticket to Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. All alone in East Java, she had no job leads. But Nila is a woman guided by intuition. Before she even arrived in the city, she had received a job offer.
“I met a very nice Dutch man on the bus. He asked me if I could take care of a pig, and I said sure, no problem.”
Upon their arrival at his home in Surabaya, Nila was taken upstairs to the second floor of his three-story house.
“I was very surprised because I’d never heard of anyone keeping a pig indoors before. Then he walked me to a crib and showed me his infant child. I was so confused, but I took the job anyways.”
At the time, Nila spoke very little English. The man had said the English word baby and she had heard the Indonesian word for pig, babi. Being unafraid to meet any new challenge, she happily agreed to take care of the pig for him. Luckily for her, the job turned out to be much more enjoyable.
“I worked for the Dutch family for around three years, and my salary was 7,500 Rupiah per month, which, back then, was a lot of money. I was able to save most of it because I lived with them and they provided all my meals.”
She sent most of it back to her family in Bali, but it still wasn’t enough to make a major impact. She took what little money she had left and bought a bus ticket to Malang, a large city nestled in between several volcanoes to the south of Surabaya, to live and work with her uncle in a small mountain village nearby.
“Back then, there weren’t many doctors in small villages in Indonesia. I worked as an assistant to a doctor’s assistant, and I enjoyed the work. It feels good to help people. But I knew that if I was ever going to make enough money to help my family, I needed to go to Jakarta to get a high paying job.”
Working with her uncle helping people in Malang was therapeutic, but it wasn’t lucrative enough to lift her family out of poverty. Nila knew that Jakarta was the only place where she could earn enough to truly do so. After sending the remainder of her money back to her family, she couldn’t afford a bus ticket, so she negotiated an agreement with the bus driver.
“I travelled all around Java with the bus; I helped with the passengers’ luggage and the driver let me travel for free. I ate on the bus, I slept on the bus, I lived on the bus. Whenever we stopped at a restaurant, I cleaned dishes and did whatever work they needed me to do in exchange for food. It was a hard life, but I’m a tough woman, I was able to handle it.”
Jakarta at Last
The long, circuitous journey across Java left her in a bus station in Jakarta broke and alone, but not dispirited. From bus dweller to bus station squatter, Nila kept her chin up and worked as hard as ever, despite living amongst peers who took quite divergent paths.
“Many people lived in and around the bus station. Most of them were thieves, beggars, drunks and gamblers. But there was a big market right next to the station, so there was always work, and I never once thought about stealing. The criminals were my friends, and they didn’t understand why I wouldn’t even steal something as small as an apple, but I told them that as long as I was capable of working I would.”
Life isn’t easy for anyone living on the street. This holds especially true for teenagers. Even more so, this holds true for women.
“The streets of Jakarta were dangerous for a young girl like me, so I pretended to be a boy. I always wore a scarf around my neck and head to cover my adam’s apple, and even though my hair was long, I was able to fool people into thinking I was a boy. I didn’t want anyone to know who I was, so I made up a new name too. I called myself Bali.”
As a child she didn’t want to be Balinese. Instead, she had become Bali.
“I lived in the bus station for three years, doing odd jobs for the warungs (small shops or restaurants). I still didn’t want to spend any of my money though, so I ate whatever food they threw away. When they cut a mango, if there were any leftover pieces, I would eat them.”
Once again proving to be a master of thrift, Nila saved up enough to rent a room with a friend.
“My roommate was a ladyboy, and I was a girl pretending to be a boy. We got along very well.”
Stranger than fiction is the first thing that comes to mind.
One day, Nila wandered upon an international restaurant, and had the urge to work there. She went in and asked the head chef for any available job, telling him that she could work in any part of the restaurant.
“When I lived in the bus station and worked for the warungs, I watched them cook all the time. I learned just from watching. I told the chef that I knew how to cook, and that I was also willing to clean, waitress, and do anything else that he needed me to.”
He asked her for a resume.
“I told him that I was speaking my resume to him right there. He scoffed at me and said that I couldn’t work there unless I had a written resume. The problem was that I didn’t know how to read or write.”
Constantly on the go, working long hours, and living on the street, Nila hadn’t yet been afforded the chance to become literate.
“I was very angry at the chef for not giving me a chance, and upset with myself for not being able to write, but I wasn’t discouraged. I went straight to the market to find materials to use to learn how to read and write. But I still didn’t want to waste my money, so I picked out pieces of paper from the trash and started learning from them.”
Fortunately for Nila, her new roommate was more educated than she. With a little bit of help and a tenacious desire to work in that restaurant, Nila was able to write up a resume in three months.
“I bought three pieces of new paper, wrote my resume on it, and marched straight back to that chef and thrust it in his face. He laughed at my writing, insulted me by calling it chicken scratch, and told me to go away.”
Undeterred, Nila fought for the job she knew she deserved, and was more than capable of performing.
“I started yelling at him. I told him, I can cook, I can clean, I can waitress, I can buy ingredients in the market, I can do whatever you want me to. He didn’t believe me and yelled at me to leave again, but then the owner of the restaurant came in. He liked my intensity, and gave me the chance to back up my claims. His favorite dish was cow-tail soup, and he said if I could make it then I could have a job.”
Now, we here at Raw Food Bali don’t condone the dismemberment of cow-tails, but Nila’s ability to impress this man on the spot with no cooking experience other than watching warung chefs in the bus station market deserves praise.
“I said to him, ‘show me where the spices are,’ and he brought me to the spice rack in the kitchen. They were all pre-mixed spice blends in packets and I didn’t know what to do with them. This was my first encounter with processed, fake food, and I didn’t like it right from the start. I asked the owner if I could have 10,000 Rupiah to buy fresh herbs and spices in the market, and he obliged. I came back half an hour later, gave him his change, and cooked him up a delicious cow tail soup. He hired me after the first spoonful.”
Nila worked every job in the restaurant for six years. She learned how to run a restaurant from top to bottom. Soon after starting work, she started living in the restaurant.
“It was also a pub, and was open from 7 AM to 4 AM every day. I worked every shift, every day, and it didn’t make sense to pay for a room that I was only in for less than three hours a day. I moved into the restaurant, and slept sitting in a chair with my head resting on the table. I saved my money, and hid it in a different spot in the restaurant every night when it was closed so that no one would find it.”
Clearly born to be a restaurateur, Nila only left because of what she thought was love at the time.
“I got married to a Javanese man because I thought that’s what I should do, but we weren’t really in love, and he started lying to me. He was a gambler, and I couldn’t stay with him. I separated from him and moved to Singapore for a job. We had two children together, so after I left him I still sent him money to pay for food for the children because he had no job. Later I found out that he took all the money and left the children with his mother.”
Whilst in Singapore, Nila’s father died. As soon as she completed her two year contract, she flew back to Bali to take care of her mother.
Nila kindly requests a short break from the interview, as a local woman has seemingly materialized out of thin air to bless her. The woman, wearing a vibrant pink sarong and blouse, solemnly lights a few sticks of incense and waves them gently around in front of Nila. Nila brings her hands up to the prayer position in front of her mouth and graciously accepts a few light splashes of water infused with fresh herbs on her face and hair while muttering a prayer under her breath. She then takes three sips from the glass of spiced water, receives a frangipani flower from the blessing lady, and slots it above her ear. As surreptitiously as she arrived, the blessing lady departs.
After a quick glance of her eyes up and to the right to recall where she was in her story, Nila continues.
At Home in Ubud
“In the airport in Singapore I met a man who lived in Ubud. He gave me his business card and told me to come visit him when I arrived. It turned out that it was his friend’s business card, and that man is now my husband.”
After decades of life on the road and the street, yet another transport hub had played an important role in Nila’s journey.
“When I met Oded his son was three years old. He offered me room and board if I would help take care of his son, and I said no problem. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his son, and then later him.”
Sari Organik truly is a farm built on love. Without it, there’s little chance it would still exist. The conception of one of Ubud’s first intentionally organic farms wasn’t born out of business ambitions.
“When I lived in Bali as a child, none of the farmers used chemicals. Everything was organic. When I returned, it was exactly the opposite. I felt sick after eating their infected crops. I didn’t want to keep eating them, so I asked Oded if he could rent us a small piece of land for me to grow some vegetables on. He has a big heart, so he happily obliged my request. He borrowed a small plot, maybe ten feet by ten feet, and that was the birth of Sari Organik. That was twelve years ago, and that small plot is still part of the farm. We still live in the same house next to it.”
Slowly but surely they acquired more of the surrounding farmland until they had more vegetables than they knew what to do with. It became clear to Nila that all those long hours slaving away in the restaurant in Jakarta would come in handy.
“At first I just grew enough vegetables for us to eat, but then when they were growing so well we decided to get more land and start selling vegetables. We bought some land up in Kintamani and Singaraja, and leased more in Ubud. When it got to the point where I had too many vegetables to sell, I decided to start a restaurant. I had worked every job there was in a restaurant so I knew the business from the ground up.”
That was around six years ago, and now Nila is working on opening her third restaurant. I’d say she knows what she’s doing. When I asked her what kind of challenges accompanied organic farming and how she dealt with them, I expected a long list of mother nature’s cruel habits along with a set of complex, innovative techniques used to mitigate their damage. A slight sneer crept onto her usually cheerful countenance as, I can only conjecture, thoughts of lazy farmers spraying rice paddies with pesticides flashed across her mind, and informed me that there was only one major challenge.
The Sun Sets over Sari Organik’s Ubud Farm
“Hard work. That’s all it takes. Using pesticides requires much less labor. Our workers are out there every day, mixing the soil in the rice paddies by hand, monitoring and taking care of all the plants. One year we had some problems with mold, but for the most part our crops have grown well every year. You just have to pay attention to them and take care of them like a child. All the rice, all the vegetables; God prepared them for us. They were meant to grow on this planet naturally, but just like any living being, they require love.”
I inquired further, thinking that there must be something she does to fight off a few of the myriad of species of insects that call Bali home.
“Sure there are a few techniques we use to stop the bugs from eating the plants, but they are simple. We grow all the seedlings on a table and slick the legs with oil so that the ants can’t climb up them and eat the seeds. We grow lemongrass in the crops if bugs are eating them; it scares them away. There’s always a natural solution to every problem on the farm.”
Nila’s interminable work ethic and passion for organic food is contagious, and she is willing to share her knowledge with the rest of Bali. A few years back, she and Oded took a trip to the States and brought back with them an idea that many of Ubud residents are incredibly grateful for.
“We traveled along the west coast, and, especially in Oregon, there were many farmers markets. I loved them. The food was amazing and the people were so friendly. When we came back to Ubud, Oded and I contacted the few organic farmers I knew in Bali and we started the Pasar Organik.”
Now the market runs every week and the number of members has increased. Many more wish to join, but the space they currently use can’t support them. They are looking for a new venue to expand the market into a weekly organic and health food event with music, and food stalls, and more. If you know of anything, please contact them. Nila also offers local farmers the knowledge required to farm organically if they ask.
“I want every farmer in Bali to be able to grow organic vegetables and rice. If they ask me for information, I will give it to them. My dream is to have the whole area around Sari Organik be organic.”
A noble dream indeed. One I hope comes true.
With her story told, there was only one question left to ask. How much does she love raw food?
She chuckles and then proceeds to break my heart.
“I like raw food, but I’m not a fanatic. I designed all the raw food items on the menu and I like to eat them sometimes, but I like to eat cooked food too.”
She smiles, refuses to let me pay for the two delicious smoothies I’ve drank during the two hour long interview, and stands up. The never-ending grind of business beckons, and she’s got a full day ahead of her. I thank her for her time and amble through forty minutes of rice paddies surrounding the path back to my house that she hopes may one day be completely organic. For the first time, I notice a farmer with a large silver apparatus strapped to his back and a spraying device in his hand. I’ve made the same walk dozens of times, but only now does the ominous truth that every single one of the hundreds of rice paddies other than the few on Nila’s small farm is doused in chemicals settle into my consciousness. Maybe one day it will pack up and leave.
Bodag Maliah, Sari Organik’s Ubud restaurant and current processing location, is open every day from 8am to 8pm. You can contact Sari Organik to arrange tours of the farm and the kitchen, as well as tours of the farm in Kintamani.
Here are their contact details :
0361 – 780 1839 or 972 087