Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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Cemoro Lawang

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A sign for the village of Cemoro Lawang in the sandsea, with volcano Bromo in the background.

Cemoro Lawang is a tiny village at the edge of the Tengger caldera and were it not for Bromo’s close proximity, it would likely have never seen tourists. Most residents here are farmers, though some are now part of a growing tourism industry that serves tourists to Bromo as hotel staff, restauranteurs, and tour guides. The wealth disparity between the visitors like us and the residents here generates a feeling of desperation, where streetside vendors sell Bromo souvenirs half on pity. Part of the reason is that we’re (once again) in a tourist town during the off-season, when times are hardest. But part of it reflects an economic shift wherein people realize that tourism-related jobs, even one that requires standing out on the cold street selling Bromo kitch, will make far more than any farming work. We might visit Cemoro Lawang one day to find the fields replaced by artisans’ shops and tour agencies in their place. But for now, the dominant feature of village’s landscape remains rows of neatly-planted spring onions, nourished in the volcanic soil.

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Farms cover the hills in Cemoro Lawang.

 

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A field of spring onions stretches off into the horizon.

 

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A farmhouse surrounded by fields of spring onions.

 

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A man carries his farm produce into town.

 

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A woman burns garbage at the edge of town.

 

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Our hotel in town, the Cemarah Indah.

 

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The entrance to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, with a tour jeep parked in front. The poles hanging over the streets are charms, important to the Tengger people who inhabit this and nearby villages.

 

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A view down the hill into town on a foggy day. The proximity to the Tengger Caldera means that most days start or end with fog.

 

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A communications tower in Cemoro Lawang disappears into the fog above.

The Jakarta-Yogyakarta Train

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Passing the edge of a city by train, Jakarta->Yogyakarta.

We’re bound by train to Yogyakarta, the “cultural capital” in southern Java that’s affectionately referred to as “Jogja”. Though a flight is only an hour compared to the train’s nine-hour trip, it’s nine hours well-spent admiring Java’s scenery.

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Trees silhouetted against empty rice paddies.

 

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Rice paddies thick with the greenery of rice plants in Southern Java.
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Javanese dwellings on stilts.

 

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A passenger texts while catching a ride on an ojek.
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An unfocused photo of construction work on a river (likely for a bridge). 

This is the most densely-populated island in Indonesia, and villages, fields, and rice paddies speed by every second. Each moment is a snapshot of Java beyond the cities, where most people farm and know no other way of life. As we speed by, I imagine all of the knowledge they must have about farming and the seasons of Java—how to start rice shoots growing, when to plant them in the flooded paddies, when to harvest the rice plants, when to let a paddy lie fallow. I try to imagine what it must be like to push the rice seedling into the muddy water, feet sunk into the same mud that will nourish this rice plant as the sun beats down on my back. It’s hard work and I’m lucky I don’t have to do it, but I want to know how it feels.

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Terraced fields near one of Java’s many volcanic cones.

 

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A man plants young rice seedlings in a flooded paddy.
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Farmers escape the heat of the day in a dwelling on the rice paddies. Most fields and paddies we passed had a shelter to hide from the sweltering tropical sun.

 

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A farmer walks through lush, peridot-green rice paddies.
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Farmers dump harvested rice from sacks for husking.
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An ojek stands before a harvested rice paddy.

As people increasingly flock to Indonesia’s cities (a worldwide trend), the passage of this agricultural knowledge halts. Maybe one day it will disappear entirely, forgotten or as good as forgotten, left only in written texts. But hopefully someone here will see value in this knowledge and keep it alive.

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An island in a sea of rice paddies. The erratic growth of the rice here might be from grains lost from the last harvest in a field now fallow.