The intense sweet and faintly zesty redolence of lush forest instantly permeated the air as I opened the car window. The deep, earthy scent of the dirt road augmented the complex chemicals in the air, evoking my childhood memories of playing out in nature. I inhaled deeply, letting as much fresh air enter my lungs as possible, a much-needed change from the typical smells of a big city they are used to.
Our minivan shook and rattled, albeit mildly, as we went deeper into the forest to the entrance of The Menjangan eco-resort, a long but fairly smooth ride from Bali’s sole international airport in the south. Menjangan is the Indonesian word for deer, but two brightly colored blue kingfishers, flying graciously among the trees, were the first animals I spotted as our car got off the main road onto the gravel pathway.
The resort is located at the outer perimeter of the West Bali National Park – the island’s sole national park – in a zone called zona pemanfaatan, literally ‘utilization zone’. Its location within the protected wildlife sanctuary requires the resort to be run with sustainability in mind. As we arrived at the reception area, we were served a refreshing tropical fruit juice to welcome us. Right away we noticed the use of a reusable metal straw, instead of the more common plastic one, the first evidence of environment-friendly practices at the resort.
Gelgel, probably the resort’s most energetic staff member, told us to always close the door and windows of our room to prevent insects from getting in.
“We don’t use fogging because we’re at a national park,” he explained.
While James came to The Menjangan for work, for me the trip was purely an escape from the gridlock of Jakarta’s roads and the stress that entails. The manager of the resort, as James explained to me following his interview, is a Swiss man whose responsibility goes beyond ensuring good services for the guests. He is also a creative environmentalist who initiated the eco-banjar program, inspired by the Balinese community-based banjar system which brings all residents of a village to contribute and benefit from the banjar’s programs and activities.
Our first encounter with a member of the eco-banjar was on the water, when we went kayaking around the dense mangrove forest at Bajul Bay. Wayan, our guide who also works at the resort, was at first more interested in explaining the variety of mangrove species at the bay. Minutes after slowly paddling along the coast, at times through a jumbled mesh of mangrove roots, he came closer to a certain point.
“These trees have always looked this big since I was little,” he said. Interestingly he spoke to us mainly in Bahasa Indonesia, despite knowing that James comes from Hong Kong.
“Saya ndak pede bicara Bahasa Inggris kalau ada orang Indonesia juga,” he explained to me in Indonesian with distinct Balinese accent, and grinned. I don’t feel confident speaking English when an Indonesian is around.
Our visit coincided with the annual ‘trash season’ that brings garbage from both near and distant places, churned and carried by the strong currents of the seas. By now I noticed every time he saw floating plastic trash he would pick it up and place it on his kayak. I came closer to him and asked, while also mentioning about the eco-banjar I heard from James earlier.
“I’m also a member [of the eco-banjar],” he said. “We collect trash to be sold to recycling plants to earn more money.”
Such is the benefit of eco-banjar which not only keeps the environment clean, but also generates extra income for society.
Around 5 pm we decided to head back to the small pier where we started, in hope to catch the sunset despite the unpromising sky. Once on land, we took one of the Trenggilings – modified minivans mounted with metal hand railings and seats on top of the vehicles, and curiously named after an elusive and endangered nocturnal animal: the pangolin – provided by the resort to transport guests from their rooms to the beach and other places within The Menjangan.
Dinner was served at the beach – both at the wooden platform by the mangroves and shaded premises on the sand. But dining out in nature after nightfall could be quite a challenge. Bugs accompanied us both over and under the table, each attracted to different things: from the dim table lighting, to the food, also to our feet. However it was a small price we had to pay in return for unpolluted air, awe-inspiring views, and the well-being of the wild animals living in the national park.
The following day, as morning came, I was awakened by the noise from outside our room, breaking the relaxing tranquility that put me to sleep like a rock. But instead of car honks and motorbike roars, they were chirping birds, trying to outdo one another. Life is good, I thought to myself.