RONAN O’CONNELL hunts for botanical treasure in Bali
Beauty products grow out of the Ubud jungle. Well, not quite, but their ingredients do. For centuries the Balinese people have been collecting what sprouts from the fertile ground around them and creating organic products for their skin. As I stroll through an Ubud rice paddy, this history is being explained to me by my learned companion, university-educated botanist Dewi Rustini.
Dewi runs the impressive tourism and beauty products company Ubud Botany Interactive. UBI has its own line of organic beauty products although, for the most part, Dewi is busy teaching tourists the secrets of creating such products from Bali’s natural bounty. She leads two workshops for travellers. One is a walking tour of the Ubud countryside in which she identifies and explains the plants used by locals to create traditional medicines and beauty products, the other is a 90-minute lesson in making skincare products from scratch.
While I only joined the UBI workshop because of my wife’s interest in organic beauty products, I enjoyed the session so much that on our next visit to Bali we did the walking tour with Dewi. She told me it was only a few decades ago that European-style cosmetics, heavy with chemicals, first became widely available in Bali. Before that, moisturisers, balms, sun creams, body scrubs and shampoos in Bali were typically locally made from natural ingredients.
“It’s really easy, just watch me,” Dewi says to my wife and I as she begins the process of making a traditional Balinese body scrub in the UBI studio in Ubud. She is right, too, it is surprisingly simple. As a beer-skolling, footy-punting working-class lad from Kelmscott, I never envisioned myself slicing aloe vera and avocado into dainty portions so I could exfoliate my skin. But here I am, all in and loving it.
My bogan sensibilities erode as swiftly as the guava leaves I’m crushing in my pestle and mortar. They’re in the bowl along with aloe vera, avocado, two tablespoons of fresh white rice, one tomato, and small portions of coffee and cocoa powder. All of these ingredients were grown within a few kilometres of here, Dewi tells me. After a few minutes of pestle and mortar action I’m left with a rough mixture which, my wife later tells me, is a fragrant and effective body scrub.
Next up is a herbal shampoo. “I could probably do with some of this”, I think to myself as I run my hand through my hair, which is damp with sweat caused by Ubud’s high humidity. I get five hibiscus leaves and chop them finely, take a short sliver of aloe vera and put this in a bowl filled with about 150ml of water. To create an attractive fragrance, Dewi tells me to add in magnolia, frangipani and ylang-ylang flowers. All I have to do now is crush this all together with my hands for two minutes then pour the liquid into a bottle. While this shampoo didn’t thicken my hair, unfortunately, it did make it smell rather nice.
Next time around in Bali, Dewi showed us how to find the ingredients in the wild. She guided us along a narrow path that pierces the picturesque Kajeng rice fields in central Ubud. Within minutes we come across hibiscus, aloe vera, frangipani, magnolia, coconuts and avocados — many of them buried in dense greenery, but Dewi has a keen eye.
Soon she points out useful herbs and spices which are growing in the jungle, including mint, ginger, vanilla, turmeric and cinnamon. Easier to spot are fruits and vegetables such as taro, cassava, bananas, papayas, jackfruits, and pineapples. We pluck one papaya to slice up as a snack while we take a rest. “I never would have spotted all those plants myself,” I tell Dewi as we eat this succulent tropical fruit. “It’s like you’re surrounded by a natural supermarket”.
This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.
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