It’s Always Worth It In The End

in Bali, Indonesia

Lourika van Tonder Batista is spending a few months running an ecolodge in the rainforest of Bali with her husband Sergio Batista. A day in the life, far from their home in Santa Barbara.

This story doesn’t begin with Lourika van Tonder’s breakfast, which would have been made up of a large cup of coffee with a dash of milk and a tiny spoonful of sugar - because Balinese coffee is very strong - some fresh fruit juice and toast with marmalade. Why? Because we completely underestimated the road up to Sarinbuana ecolodge. We had left Ubud in the early morning and turned our rented car towards Tabanan, only to realise that Bali has a small, yet significant flaw: There are as good as no road signs along the main roads. All you can do is follow the curves of the road on your map and hope that you take the right turn-off at the right curve. And so far that hadn’t worked. We turn back 20 kilometres too late. No problem. A left turn at the big bridge – «See, I told you so!» – and then left again at the police station; those were the directions we’d been given, anyway.«But the road to the right looks so nice, there’s a median and no potholes! Oh well, surely it can’t be that bad.» It was actually kind of fun at first. «Now this is an authentic adventure!» – «Who else gets to experience this?»

But the higher the road – if you can even call it that - snaked its way up the mountain, the deeper our morale sank. After an hour and a half of carefully avoiding potholes, not even the prettiest temples, rice terraces and scenic rain forest views could raise our spirits. Only the inhabitants of the small hill villages managed, for a few seconds. They smiled and laughed at us as though we are their long lost neighbours home at last. Just as the friend and driver’s expression was growing stony-faced, as the car seemed to be groaning, and even the surfboard in the back looked like it had lost interest, we arrived at the top of the mountain. Two hours late.

So it’s almost midday when we finally get out of the car and smile gratefully at the sign that announces «Sarinbuana ecolodge». Across the way, six Balinese men and women of all ages are sitting in front of an obviously new warung, a kind of small kiosk found all over Bali. The mystery of who would buy anything from them up here won’t remain a mystery for long. We greet them politely, and one woman asks: «You friends of Lourika? That way!»

We follow a narrow, paved path through the jungle for around 200 metres, past huge white butterflies with black spots, trees as tall as the tallest houses back home, surrounded by the sound of crickets, geckos, frogs, birds and all the other animals the jungle has in non-stop supply. Lourika greets us in one of those dresses with the leaf pattern that you find all over the island south of Ubud. Hers, knee-length, is grey with white leaves. Her naturally dark brown hair falls to her shoulders. She wears glasses for her short-sightedness, which she removes, like lowering a barrier, when sitting opposite someone.

Just like now, at lunch. Everyone’s hungry – she from work, we from the long drive. The Sarinbuana ecolodge restaurant serves Indonesian classics like nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), or nasi campur (rice with various other ingredients), but it also serves lush salads. The vegetables mainly come from their very own vegetable garden, located on the grounds of the lodge. Lourika and Sergio have been managing the lodge for two months. They plan to stay for two more. «This opportunity just manifested itself, there’s no other way to say it,» Lourika tells us. «I was searching for something like this and ended up on the ecolodge’s website.

While I was surfing the site, I saw that they were looking for a couple to run the lodge for a few months. We arrived here a month later.» They quit their jobs in Santa Barbara, California, subletted their apartment and handed their dog Nelson over to the care of Lourika’s father. «I just hope he doesn’t get as fat as my dad’s two dogs,» Lourika jokes, but her crooked smile shows that she means it seriously.
«This opportunity just manifested itself, there’s no other way to say it.»

Getting used to new situations is nothing new to Louika and Sergio. Born in South Africa, she studied social anthropology in San Francisco and then moved to Buenos Aires. She worked at one of those hip social clubs, a job that almost burned her out. «It’s hard to live an expat life on an Argentinean wage.» She left Buenos Aires after two years there and travelled to Paris, where she couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to go to Portugal. There she volunteered in an agricultural project – which Sergio was also a part of. Sergio Batista comes from the Azores. Tall, curly-haired, so tanned that his light-brown eyes are lighter than his skin, he has a child’s enthusiasm for everything. He’s the kind of person who can talk to anyone, even little Balinese grandmothers who don’t speak a word of English. When Lourika decided to move to Santa Barbara after the farming project, he soon followed, and they got married. That was less than two years ago.

The internet hasn’t been working this morning, which doesn’t sound like much of a problem in the jungle. But the lodge’s reservations come in on the world wide web, and they’re Lourika’s main responsibility. So she leaves us for a while and heads to the office, one of the four small houses the couple inhabit, located towards the back of the lodge’s grounds. Although it is a bit hard to tell where the grounds end and the jungle begins.

Three young dogs also live at the lodge, as lively and loud as a dog kindergarten. You need to move fast if you want to join Lourika and Sergio on the veranda, because the dogs quickly claim all the seats.

The Sarinbuana ecolodge gets its name from the nearest village, the highest on the mountain. It is difficult to imagine how the Australian owner Norm – who is on holiday but usually manages the lodge with his wife Linda – found his way up here in 1990. It isn’t a place you just happen to pass through. He must have liked it despite the total isolation. Over the last 25 it was her project, the site grew, house by house and path by path, into a lodge with room for guests. Through creating the Lodge they‘ve not only brought new jobs and opportunities to the area, but have also pioneered land conservation in Bali. Right now, there are six Germans visiting. They don’t let the arduous path stop them from daily excursions to the valley.

Today, the lodge is a small paradise. The guest houses sit between palm trees and greenery, the central vegetable garden flourishes sumptuously. Four monkeys live there, saved from previous bad handling. There are also the world’s loudest cat, the aforementioned dogs, lots of fish in ponds and the newest arrivals, two young rabbits. Lourika bought them a few days ago. «It felt like the coolest purchase in the world when I drove back up here with them.» Thelma and Louise, as Lourika named them, seem to feel at home here, even under the watching eyes and waging tails of the dogs, who would probably love to play catch with them.

We follow the path further up for around half an hour, in the direction of the local coffee plantations, which to a layperson’s eyes just looks like more forest. Sergio, who does most of the jobs that involve getting his hands dirty, has another vegetable garden up here. His enthusiasm for agriculture is palpable: «Almost everything grows here in Bali. You throw a handful of seeds on the ground and they just start growing. You can break a branch off a tree and plant it, and another tree will grow. It’s unbelievable!» Lourika shakes her head at his enthusiastic exclamations, smiles and probably thinks, „You’re the one who’s unbelievable!» It starts raining. It’s the end of April, the official end of the rainy season is still a week away. Lourika’s dress gets wet and turns dark grey. We turn back.

The Balinese rain forest is the home of the luwak, the civet cat, which is responsible for the world’s most expensive coffee. It refines the luwak coffee by eating coffee berries and excreting the indigestible coffee bean. Now the mystery of the warung in the car park is revealed: A bag of luwak coffee costs 20 dollars. That’s a lot of money in Bali. As more lodges and resorts are being built in the area, this could become a lucrative business. We see a civet cat at a Balinese family’s house. It lives in a small cage and blinks fearfully at us through the rain. Lourika sighs: «The poor thing. At least the other civet cats live in the rainforest.»

Lourika offers yoga classes for the lodge’s guests daily at 7am and 5pm. Today I join in, along with two older Germans, a man and a woman. Lourika guides us through the lesson calmly and clearly. It is obviously the Germans’ first time at yoga. «When it gets difficult, the real work begins. Like in real life», Lourika says and adjusts warrior poses. When they have trouble with the tree pose, which requires standing on one leg: «Don’t worry, it’s just yoga.» The room where the yoga lessons are held is, to put it lightly, magical: a treehouse pavilion several metres above ground, on a level with the rainforest canopy. We hold our hands, palms pressed together, to our hearts, and Lourika ends the lesson with: «We thank ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the teachers who have levelled this path for us. Namasté.»

At dinner around 7pm, we start talking about the future. Lourika and Sergio have no idea what they want to do after Bali. Their one condition: Nelson the dog has to be able to come with them. It doesn’t have to be Santa Barbara, but some ocean would be nice. The two of them actually haven’t even been in the water since they arrived here. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after. When the lodge is running smoothly. It’s important to take your time, even in paradise. In the late evening they usually sit on the veranda, in the company of the over-enthusiastic dogs. Sergio likes the radio on, Lourika prefers it off.

The boyfriend and driver and I prepare ourselves emotionally for the return drive. Only to discover, on the drive the next day, that there would have been another road. 40 minutes and not half as many potholes. «What do you mean we’re already on the main road?»

Want to know more about Lourika Van Tonder? Read her Profile