Elephant Safari Park

The Elephant Safari Park and Lodge in Taro provides a peaceful sanctuary for displaced elephants, and a highly enjoyable experience for visitors to the island; but it is the story behind its creation, and the history of the gentle giants that ramble across it, that make this park so unique. It’s a chronicle of disappearing forests, neglected elephants, dramatic rescue operations, and a man with a mission and the will power to see it through. His name is Nigel Mason.

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 “The elephants are our star attraction, so we treat them like stars,” says Nigel as an 800-kilo elephant called Desi playfully wraps her trunk around him. “Look, they are so gentle you can put your hand right in their mouth,” he demonstrates. I content myself with feeding our large friend bundles of young coconut leaves, for which I am rewarded with a great big elephant hug, I scratch the trunk that has a firm grip on my waist – its not exactly soft, but the all encompassing embrace is kind of nice.  30 elephants live in this lush oasis, with a landscape painstakingly created to replicate their natural habitat, the low lying rainforests of Sumatra.  As we wander around I find a flurry of elephant activity; some carry guests on forest treks, others kick soccer balls, or wade in the bathing pool soaking up trunks of water to give themselves – and anyone who happens to be nearby a shower.  A very cute baby elephant runs amok, trunk madly swinging, playing like a frisky puppy, he is one of three babies born in the park (a successful breeding program is a sure sign of animal wellness.) Although I had originally been reluctant about visiting the park – animal theme parks in Asia can be depressing places – I end up having a really inspiring and very happy day, surrounded by  these magnificent animals that are so obviously well loved and cared for. “We offer a complete elephant experience,” says Nigel, “we’re able to be really interactive, and guests can get close to the elephants in a way that they never could in a traditional safari park.”

Refugees

While you might be reading this and thinking,  “Surely these elephants would be better off in the wild,” the answer is yes, in an ideal world they would be, but these animals are refugees from the ongoing war of  man vs nature, that has seen the destruction of around 30 million acres of rain forest in Sumatra in the last 30 years.  “The species have been hounded out of Sumatra,” says Nigel. Rampant logging has destroyed much of their natural habitat; the rainforest that was once their home steadily replaced by oil palm and acacia plantations. Unfortunately an elephant isn’t discerning enough to differentiate between natural forest and man-made plantations – he just sees food.  A single hungry elephant wandering through an oil palm plantation can wreak havoc, eating up to 250 kg a day – that’s a lot of plants, and a lot of lost revenue. “Elephants are migratory,” says Nigel, “they follow fixed routes that may take 12 months to complete. The problem is, when they get back to where they started a year ago, the forest might be gone, replaced with an oil palm plantation for example – and believe me, oil palms are very tasty for an elephant, so suddenly people’s livelihoods are being destroyed.” Deemed as giant pests, farmers and plantation owners sometimes resort to poison, using pineapples laced with strychnine. The ‘lucky ones’ are rescued and relocated to Government training camps, forlorn places that lack the facilities and the funds to properly care for the elephants that literally waste away. Nothing evokes the magical allure of the jungle like an elephant, but for the 2000 or so endangered elephants living in increasingly fragmented pockets of Sumatra, and for the 700 incarcerated in the camps, the future is grim and uncertain.

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From Sumatra to Bali

It’s not like Nigel, as a child growing up in England and Egypt dreamt of one day coming to Bali to rescue elephants, but with a life that can only be described as adventurous and colourful,  it somehow makes perfect sense that this is what he ended up doing.  At the age of 15 he immigrated, alone, to Australia, making a living digging ditches and picking fruit, followed by a brief foray into the music industry. A spontaneous trip to Bali in 1980 sealed his fate, when he fell in love with the island, and not long afterwards with Yani, the beautiful Balinese woman who would became his wife. By 1989 they were running Bali’s first white water rafting tours, which soon morphed into the company Bali Adventure Tours. Nigel describes himself as an animal lover, but the elephants came into his life quite by accident when he met a man who had bought nine Sumatran elephants to Bali as a tourism venture, but was having trouble taking care of them. Nigel was so moved by the poor condition of the elephants who were living in a dried out rice field, that he knew he had to do something. “They deserved a whole lot more,” he says.  He secured some land in the hills of Taro, north of Ubud, and in 1996 opened the Elephant Park, originally as an adjunct to the rafting business. But Nigel is not a man who does things by half, once he took on the first batch of elephants, he set out to find out everything he could about the animals and how to best look after them. Within a year he was on his way to Sumatra to rescue eight more elephants from the government camps, returning with a ten -truck convoy that travelled six days non-stop to bring the animals to their new home in Bali. By 2000 the park had expanded and improved, to include landscaped gardens, a restaurant, a museum, water treatment, a sustainable waste disposal system and a breeding area. Ready to rescue more elephants, Nigel returned to Sumatra in 2001 planning to bring back another ten, but this mission turned into a four-year heart-wrenching bureaucratic nightmare, in the midst of which Bali was bombed, tourism plummeted and businesses across the island collapsed.  Finally in 2004 the paper work was in order, the funds secured and ten Sumatran elephants, including two babies were loaded onto trucks for the arduous trip across three islands to bring them to Bali. An Australian film crew documented the road trip and the resulting film ‘Operation Jumbo’  (available at the park) makes riveting viewing.

 

Some things you didn’t know about elephants

We walk on to the museum, where I get a crash course on the anatomy, myths and history of elephants. The collection includes original Dr Seuss and Jumbo prints, a 15,000 year-old giant wooly mammoth skeleton, and a pretty decent elephant painting by Ronny Woods.  I learn that in the past many elephants lost their lives so their tusks could be turned into billiard balls and piano keys. Moving on to the sprawling open-air restaurant, we take a seat overlooking the bathing pool and the picturesque gardens. Nigel tells me that the Sumatran elephant is the smallest in the world, up to five times smaller than its cantankerous African cousin. While they can be gentle and playful, they have strong and unique personalities and get bored and despondent if they are just hanging around.  They also need to exercise, so join the daily rotation for elephant rides, (the weight of two people is easily borne by an 800 kilo creature;) lodge rooms have their own docking station so guests get door to door service.  And yes, the adage about elephants having incredibly long memories is definitely true – Ramona, who came by truck in 1996 has gone on to become an exalted painter but she still dances, a trick taught to her by young boys during her days as a youngster in an elephant camp in Sumatra. As we chat, her baby, Guntun, the park’s cheekiest resident and expert gate opener streaks across the grounds, bellowing like a trooper, Nigel tells me that he has also developed his mothers aptitude for painting.

 

Elephant Art

While an elephant skillfully kicking a soccer ball or wielding a paint brush may seem a little gimmicky, I learn that in the wild they will often kick around coconuts, or use sticks, pebbles and leaves to make pictures in the earth. Nigel explains that the park elephants  are given the freedom to express themselves in whatever form appeals to them; those that have a natural aptitude for painting are actively encouraged, with results that can only be described as abstract.  Each has a different style – although Ramona’s mahout (handler) says “She paints only when she is inspired; ” some of her pictures have sold at Christies for over $3000. The elephants were taught to paint by the founders of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project, who visited the Park in 1999. The aim was to produce saleable art to help raise awareness of the plight of these gentle giants, and to raise much needed funds for the park’s Sumatran Elephant Foundation. While Nigel hopes, in time to bring more rescued elephants to Bali, for now the Sumatran government has halted transmigration, so proceeds from the foundation are used to provide elephants in the camps with extra food, medicine, veterinary care and vitamins.

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Nigel breaks off from our interview to grab a chainsaw – it seems that one of the trees bordering the bathing pond is dead and in danger of toppling over, tourists gather round to enjoy the spectacle as he skillfully lands the offending trunk in the pond wades through to attach ropes and supervises as two elephants effortlessly haul it out.  His absolute commitment, accessibility and hands on approach to everything certainly accounts for a large part of the park’s success, as does his dedication to the environment.  For him, “Conservation is not just something that we should do, but something that we have to do.”  The park has been built to have a minimal impact and acts as a role model for safari parks around the world. “ We don’t just protect the environment, we remove anything that could damage it;” waste water is turned back into pure water through an advanced filtration/treatment system; manure (truck loads of it) gets turned into fertilizer, and 90% of the 150 staff are from Taro. The village also receives royalties from elephant treks and earns money through supplying food to the park.

 

How to help

Wild life and conservation groups applauded the declaration of the Tesso Nilo National Park in the Riau province of Sumatra in 2004, which has a forest block that is large enough to support a viable population of Sumatran tigers and elephants. “It’s a step in the right direction” says Nigel, but perhaps a case of too little too late, and a road has already been put through it, giving easy access to illegal loggers.  He encourages people to help the elephants by supporting the foundation through donations or buying art work, but for him the only way to really save the elephants, the orangutans, the tigers and all the other jungle creatures of Sumatra is to buy back large areas of forest to be used for national parks,  “But this, ” he says “would require large amounts of money from someone like Richard Branson or Bill Gates……..We live in hope.”

 

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Saving the reefs of Northern Bali

The Indonesian archipelago is home to the richest assortment of coral species in the world, but its reefs are vanishing as global warming, pollution and unsustainable fishing and tourism practices take their toll.

Indonesia’s appalling conservation record is well documented and it would be easy to write yet another article about imminent disaster; but I am sick of all the doom and gloom, because with destruction comes regeneration.  While politicians  and environmental agencies gather in endless global summits and engage in pointless debates about how to fix things,  often the most effective change is happening at a grassroots level, and I knew that somewhere in Bali someone would be doing something to save the reefs.

I find my story in the north of the island, in a humble village that sits in the shadows of the mountains. Just meters off  Pemuteran’s  black sandy shore lies the  Karang Lestari (Everlasting Reef) Project, one of the largest and most ambitious coral restoration projects in the world. A reef that had badly damaged is once again thriving due to a unique technology called Bio-Rock, which uses electric currents to stimulate the growth of coral.

I have no idea what to expect, but this is unbelievable, a kind of futuristic underwater fantasy world. Fifty large steel structures span over 1000 feet and take the form of a caterpillar, a whale, an igloo, a dome, a tent, and a  flower,  all covered in a profusion of brightly coloured coral. Hundreds of tiny blue fish hover above the dome, bat fish flitter amidst the flowers. I see starfish, lionfish, a school of snapper and cheeky little Nemos everywhere. Soft pastel corals sway in the current and purple tipped table corals sprawl across the metal bars. The reef surrounding the structures is also thriving, everywhere I look I see life and vibrant colour. Natural power is the plan for future structures (which includes a Goddess rising from a lotus.) Reef Seen Aquatics Dive Center have already set  things in motion,  sponsoring two structures, a bio wreck and a giant turtle that are powered by solar panels.

Bio-Rock utilizes Mineral Accretion Technology which stimulates the growth of naturally occurring calcium carbonate, the substance that forms coral. Low levels of electric current (dc) are rigged to the structures which are then planted with coral fragments, minerals are attracted to the coral, the coral adheres to the structures and grows at an accelerated rate of up to five times. It also produces a veritable super coral that is hardier and more resistant to changing water temperatures and pollution. Healthy coral brings fish, and when combined with a ‘no fishing’ policy, it acts as a breeding ground thus replenishing fish stock for outer reefs.

Back on land, I spend time with Komang the Manager of the Bio-Rock centre, he has been involved with the project since its beginning and his dedication and insight is inspiring. He tells me that, “Bio-Rock is good because it brings the tourists, which bring money to the community, and it also brings fish so it keeps the fishermen happy.” Herein lies the true significance of the project because along with reef restoration came social and economic rejuvenation.

Traditionally Pemuteran was one of Bali’s most impoverished fishing villages. During the nineties tourists started to trickle into the area drawn to the stunning reefs. But in 1998 double catastrophe struck; El Nino sent warm currents across the globe causing mass coral bleaching; and the Asian economic crisis sent waves of starving itinerant Indonesian fishermen into Pemuteran, where the bounty was plentiful. They were armed with  dynamite and cyanide (used to stun fish to gather for aquariums) and the peace was shattered by exploding bombs.

All too often conservation conflicts with traditional resource users. How do you tell a starving fisherman that he cannot take the fish? Komang says that he couldn’t blame the fisherman because “They were only looking for this time, not the future.”  They didn’t know any better. The key to sustainability is education, and the availability of viable alternatives, and behind the scenes a group of colourful characters had been providing this.  Chris Brown the owner of Reef Seen Aquatics and a long term and well loved resident had worked tirelessly with the community  and village leaders to instill the need for sustainability and was joined by Pak Agung, the Balinese owner of  Taman Sari resort; and Rani and Narayan, ardent divers who were former members of a large religious community.  Chris tells me that “You have to take things slowly, so that they get done quickly and slowly but surely the fishermen understood. In a unique turn of events Adat (traditional) law was applied to create a no fishing zone and the Pecalang laut (marine security forces) were formed to chase of the cyanide fishermen.

Encouraged by community  efforts to conserve the reef, more colourful characters entered the scene; Dr Tom Goreau, an impassioned Jamaican marine biologist and Professor Wolf Hilbertz the German scientist who had discovered Bio-Rock. Together they had formed the Global Coral Reef Alliance and  donated their time and energy to Pemuteran, the first structures were placed in the sea in 2000. Karang Lestari has received numerous environmental awards and Government recognition, however it has been entirely sponsored by private donors and operates on the tightest of shoe string budgets. Recent initiatives include the opportunity to ‘Sponsor a baby coral’ and the establishment of PET (Pemuteran Environment and Community Trust) whereby divers can make a voluntary donation of RP 20,000 or more.

Similar projects have been attempted in other locations but without the support of the community are doomed to failure. A key to the success of Karang Lestari has been the implementation of other projects that enable the community.  Chris initiated the recruitment of ‘Reef Gardeners’ who are trained to maintain and protect the reefs, and a Turtle Hatchery which  protects sea turtles and their eggs. The Pemuteran Foundation, PET, and private tour operators also support these and various other programs aimed at education, tree planting and clean water.

To say the village is prospering would be an overstatement, but life for its inhabitants has improved dramatically. As  Komang tells me,  “Now no one is hungry.” Fishermen have been converted from hunters to protectors and have seen that conservation means more fish. Villagers have learned that by protecting the sea they benefit financially because the restored reefs bring tourists which create jobs and business opportunities, which in turn gives access to education and health care. Everybody wins!  It might just be one reef and one community, but it’s a step in the right direction and  Pemuteran acts as a model for fishing and diving communities everywhere.

For more information or to make a donation check the following websites, or take a trip to Pemuteran and see for yourself….

www.balitamansari.com

www.pemuteranfoundation.com

www.biorockbali.webs.com

www.reefseenbali.com

www.globalcoral.org

Bali Animal Welfare Association

BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association) was founded by Janice Girardi, a Californian native who rescued her first Bali dog in Kintamani 27 years ago, so beginning a one woman crusade to improve life for man’s best friend across the island. Her passion for animals and their welfare is consuming, and she is an inspiring example of how one person really can make a difference. For years she has been feeding street dogs and rescuing sick and injured animals, loading them on to a makeshift stretcher and driving them to the vet in Denpasar. In 2007 she formalized her position and along with one of Indonesia’s top veterinarians, Dr Dewa Dharma, created BAWA. Finding homes for puppies is just one of BAWA’s programs: The not-for-profit charity also supports a 24 hour clinic; an animal ambulance; a mobile sterilization clinic; an education program; and a range of community projects.

The care centre in Gianyar is run by a dedicated team of volunteers and staff and houses an average of 50 dogs and cats at a time. The level of care is heartening and eventually BAWA will find homes for all these animals, even if it means paying impoverished farmers with monthly rations of rice to take them on.

Dogs have not always fared well in Bali and the notion of having a dog as a pet is a new concept, but one that is slowly catching on. Janice describes education as, “The only hope for lasting change,” and her staff are active in schools and in the local communities. “The Balinese are learning that if you love a dog, it will return ten-fold,” she tells me.

BAWA survives soley on donations and the recent outbreak of rabies in Bali is consuming enormous amounts of resources as Janice and her team embark on an island wide mission to vaccinate dogs. For more informaion or to make a donation check http://www.balibawa.com

From Trash to Treasure

Bombastic Plastix recycles plastic bags and turns them into funky accessories.

 

They are handed out gleefully by cashiers the length and breadth of the island, used once and abandoned. Their fate − to float down rivers, ride the waves, wash up on the beaches or smolder in black smoky fires.…. In Bali there is no escaping  plastic bags.   But there is always hope, and a small company called Bombastic Plastix  is hard at work turning plastic trash into  funky fashion accessories.

Recycled products often get a bad wrap (no pun intended) because they are produced poorly with little thought for design. But Bombastic Plastix has turned recycling into an art form and their products – bags, purses, wallets,  are attractive in their own right, regardless of their ‘greenness’. Let’s face it, most of us want to do our bit to save the planet but there is nothing wrong with looking good while we are doing it.

It all started a few years ago, on Bombastic founder, Sam Miller’s kitchen floor. He was a man on a mission, armed with an environmental conscience, a keen sense of design, a heap of plastic bags and an iron. Through trial and error he discovered a way to fuse plastic bags into sheets of plastic fabric, which form the base of all his products.  “Its hardly like we are using all the plastic in the world,” he tells me, “but at least we are using some of it; and we are taking something that has a service life of 30 minutes  and converting in into something that lasts years.”

Check out the website, its great fun and really informative, and you will love Sam – he is one super cool dude!

http://www.bombasticsplastix.com

Bali Eco Lodge

With a picturesque setting on the slopes of Mt Batakaru Bali Eco Lodge provides a genuine haven for those looking to immerse themselves  in nature and to experience the true essence of  Bali.Charming, secluded bungalows with names like Tree House and Jungle Lodge cling to the hillside, wooden verandas offer birds eye views of  steep valley walls blanketed in thick rain forest; far below you can see the sprawling coast of Kuta – so near,  yet  a world away. The first thing you will notice is the bird song– woodpeckers, kingfishers and  parrots are at play in the forest canopy, black eagles streak across the sky ,  the looming peak of  Mount Batakaru creates a dramatic backdrop. Natural building materials include local timber, like coconut and jack fruit,  while floors are made of hand crafted terracotta tiles. Fresh cut flowers, colourful woven textiles, and warm patchwork quilts (the nights are chilly!) create homely comforts.

Being Green

The lovechild of dedicated environmentalists, Linda and Norm Vant Hoff, the lodge is about as  ‘eco’ as it gets, with well documented  green credentials, including the ‘Responsible Tourism Award’ in 2007 and 2010 (www.wildasia.net) The tenets of sustainability, low impact building techniques , effective resource and waste management, are all faithfully adhered to, everything is in perfect balance with nature; but we sometimes forget that there is more to the environment than  physical factors.  From Norm and Linda’s point of view,  an eco lodge is “Sustainably connected to the natural, built and social environment”; and the lodge has become a valued  extension of the village and community of Sarinbuana. While you enjoy the magical surrounds, delicious healthy cuisine and a range of activities, you can also relax in the knowledge that   your stay  here contributes to the local economy on a number of levels: The lodge employs  26  staff from the village and have trained locals as trekking guides and massage therapists. Ongoing community projects include extensive tree planting, free English, martial art and football classes for village children, the sponsoring of a university student; and ongoing additions and  improvements to the school. It also  acts as a role model for responsible tourism; promoting low impact activities, with an emphasis on walking, bike riding, and swimming in the waterholes. Enormous value is placed on the preservation and promotion of  local culture, with popular workshops providing genuine insight into everyday life in Bali and the chance to learn traditional skills.   Learn Balinese Calligraphy, Indonesian language, and how to play a traditional instrument, or join the  village ladies who teach the art of  creating beautiful temple offerings, table settings, and cooking;  while Pak Ketut, a remarkable and inspired wood carver (responsible for  the ornate carvings in the bungalows) shares his craft and his wisdom.

A walk in the garden

When Norm and Linda first took over the property it was dominated by wild grass and coconut trees,  eighteen years on the gardens are flourishing with over 100 edible and medicinal plants. The garden tour is a   fascinating and informative journey with Manager, Putri, pointing out all manner of herbs, spices and plants, and explaining their traditional uses. Look out for the fiddletip ferns  – they make a great salad served with shredded coconut and Lombok chili, while the dainty  ginger flowers are equally tasty.  Much of the produce served in the restaurant is picked fresh from the garden, or sourced locally, including coffee and cacao, and home made ice cream is flavoured with the vanilla that grows here. A meandering path leads down to the water holes passing sweetly perfumed orange trees, dense thickets of mulberry  bushes ,  dangling passion fruit vines and a plethora of heliconia. Wooden benches and open air pavilions are scattered about the property, ideal for yoga, meditation and soaking up the silence. If you are feeling more energetic take an early morning hike up to the top of Batakaru, the track leads through the largest rainforest in Bali, home to luwak (civet) leopard cats and monkeys, emerging at a peak with  view stretching over to Lombok and Java .

The beauty of the  Eco Lodge is  that it can be enjoyed on so many levels , hide away from the world in a secluded mountain paradise, or put yourself out there as you immerse yourself in the nature, culture and  community.  Make sure you spend some time with Linda and Norm so you can learn about their various eco projects around the island, including saving the Bali Starling, permaculture, solar energy.  For Linda the Eco lodge has provided “A chance to give back” but she makes it clear that she gets back as much as she gives.  For her the greatest joy is, “To be connected to the environment, the people and the  land,  making a living and a life with local people who are incredibly talented.”  Here the Balinese concept of life, known as Tri Hata Karana is firmly in place – the three forces of happiness – harmony with god, harmony with man, harmony with nature.

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge

Mount Batakaru, Tabanan, Bali

www.baliecolodge.com

Balinese Boreh

The colossal gateway of carved stone fringed by vast banyan trees, sets the tone for Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa, an atmospheric  resort deeply imbued with Balinese warmth and charm. The famed spa is set just outside the gates in a peaceful oasis of wonderful old trees, and makes a great day trip. Treatment pavilions encircle a lavish swimming pool bordered by frangipani and heliconia, and there is full access to tennis and squash courts,  gym, sauna and steam room. The cafe serves up healthy salads and sandwiches, as well as fruit mocktails like Coconut Nojito with mint and coconut cream, pressed lime and Bali honey. Beauty classes teach the craft of  creating traditional body masks such as Balinese Boreh, and scrubs like Javanese Lulur, as well as local sunburn remedies, and jamu (traditional herbal remedies.)

We tried

The spicy detox treatment based on ‘boreh’, a traditional rejuvenating treatment popular in the mountains of Bali, where nights can be chilly. The deep penetrating heat of local spices is also favoured by fishermen and farmers, as it increases blood circulation and relieves aching joints.

Our treatment takes place in a lush spa villa for two and starts with an invigorating sea salt and peppermint foot scrub. A nurturing massage with warm herbal compresses of fresh betel leaf, citrus oil, and fresh lemon grass lulls us into a deep state of relaxation. Next, a mask of fresh crushed ginger, nutmeg and clove is applied and we are wrapped, cocoon-like, leaving the  spices to warm our bodies and detoxify our skin. The treatment finishes with a cooling application of fresh cucumber to seal in moisture.

The Verdict

The delicious warmth of the spices heats the muscles and the joints, melting away tension leaving us in an atrophic state. The wrap also acts as an exfoliator, removing dead cells to reveal silky, luminous skin.

Also Recommended

Signature packages include scrubs, massages and baths. Try Latte Detox with milk and honey;  Fruit Punch with Papaya and Avocado; Royal Exotic with Lulur body scrub and yoghurt mask

www.nusaduahotel.com

Bali Spirit Festival

“There is no sense of us and them, just a sense of unity”

Jamming

A story written about the first Bali Spirit festival I attended in 2009 and published in Yoga and Health UK. I  have been every year since then – its the holistic highlight of my year.

The second annual festival, billed as a celebration of yoga, music and dance brought together 20 yogis and teachers, 75 performers and over 1000 festival goers. The festival kicked off with an opening ceremony on the evening of the 28th April, in the gardens of the Purnati Centre for the Arts. It looked like a fairy land, with sparkling lights, white marquees and lush tropical foliage and there was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement as we stretched out on the sloping grass for the evening’s entertainment. There was a traditional Balinese blessing;  African reggae music; American folk music and a fire dance fire show, just a small taste of things to come over the next 5 days.

Akim funk buddah

The festival is truly multi faceted, bringing the spirit of yoga and world music to Indonesia and at the same time showcasing the culture, the music and the spirituality of Bali with a global audience.  In the spirit of sharing, the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival raises money for the local community with a focus on education and youth outreach. The zero waste policy was part of the founders desire to create an environmentally conscious event and there were bamboo cups, banana leaf plates, water bottle refilling stations and recycling bins for non organic matter. Amidst the market stalls were information booths on various non profit organizations such as SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society), Breath of Hope Yoga Foundation, The Pelangi School and Feed Our Earth Society.

dance workshop

Daytimes were about learning, and workshops took place in the elaborate pavilion or the elegant white marquees that sprawled across the expansive lawns. Palm trees created shade; the hum of the rainforest and the sound of the flowing river provided the soundtrack, while verdant tumbling rice paddies created a scenic backdrop. The  eclectic mix of workshops on offer included; West African Dance; Mayan Cosmology; Yoga and Pilates;  Holistic Hip Hop; Javanese Movement Meditation; Qi Gong; Didgeridoo Workshops; Hatha Yoga;  Sacred Middle Eastern Music Traditions. At times I felt a little overwhelmed, there was just so much going on. Did I want to purify my chakras; or join the Sacred Balinese Feminine Dance class; or attend a seminar on Ayurveda; or did I just want to lounge in the infinity pool which perched tantalizingly over the river.

infinity pool

My concerns that it would be full of really earnest hippy types dressed in white and talking about peace and love proved to be unfounded. Certainly there was a small element of that, but in fact the participants were as diverse a mix as the presenters themselves. There were professional women from the US and Australia; European backpackers; Ex pats; Japanese and Koreans and a number of Indonesians ─ predominantly yoga students from Java. I was a little baffled by all the ideological stuff: There is talk of cross-boundaries and cross cultural values of awareness: Of musical collaborations positively impacting consciousness: Of sharing with the collective…… What I do know is that I met really interesting people, learned lots of new things, felt incredibly inspired and empowered, and had a thoroughly good time.

yoga

Far from being a serious affair, what really stands out in my mind is the sound of laughter rippling across the grounds, and I am not just talking about Laughter Yoga, although it did have a huge turn out and the peals of laughter emanating from the workshop were so loud and so contagious that everyone in the vicinity was laughing. Sibo Bangoura had us all  giggling during his African Drumming workshops as he yelled out “Get the police”, every time someone missed a beat. In Rebecca Pflaum’s Kundalini Yoga class she makes us hold our arms up in the air for four minutes, “When it hurts and you can’t handle it a second longer, laugh and get over it”, she berates us. She then instructs us to lie on our stomachs and make fists with our hands for what she calls the butt beating asana, “This is for every time you have wanted to kick yourself in the ass”, she calls out.  In the Ecstatic Dance workshop, Ellen Watson has everyone dancing around being fairies “Spread your fairy dust”, she tells us. I felt kind of silly, in fact it took me five days to pluck up the courage to participate in a dance workshop; but the way I figure it, if a 60 year old guy with a moustache and a beer gut can dance like a fairy, well so can I, and its incredibly liberating to play like a child, to let go of inhibitions and of course we were all falling about laughing.

ecsstatic dance workshop

In the spirit of collaboration there was very little separation between the participants and the presenters. Sibo Bangoura came to Kundalini Yoga; Rocky Dawuni, the African Reggae star brought his young daughter to the Crystal Healing workshop; Movement teacher Sofia Thom joined the Celebration of Women Yoga class. And Rebecca the Kundalini teacher was usually the last one on the dance floor at the nightly concerts. And as we the participants pounded out African rhythms, or grooved to hip hop or learned the kecak monkey chant, we became the performers. Program Director Daphne Tse said that the best part of the festival for her was the “melding of all disciplines, seeing everyone from first time yogis to master teachers so eager to learn from the others, to practice different disciplines. There is absolutely no ego. They are Bali Spirit”.

healing circle

Nightly concerts took place in the amphitheatre, complete with stunning lighting and excellent acoustics.  Cocktails and beer were served and we were treated to some really incredible performances. Saharadja, featuring Javanese Jazz trumpeter Rio Sadik and his Australian wife Sally Jo, a classically trained violinist, played their electrifying jazz fusion: Rocky Dawuni got the crowd swaying to his mix of reggae and African beats: Indonesian, Slamet Gundono entertained us with his modern take on shadow puppetry: Sibo Bangoura and Australian based In Rhythm had everyone bouncing to the booming percussion, Sibo played his drum so hard the skin broke:  Hip Hop artist, Akim Funk Buddha was quite simply the funkiest dancer I have ever seen and mesmerized us with his moves: While Australian ensemble, Ganga Giri, provided the most unique and unforgettable musical experience of the festival with a spine tingling blend of traditional didgeridoo with tribal beats and dub.

Saharadja

I met Megan Pappenheim (who founded the festival, along with her husband, Kadek Gunarta, and Musical Director, Robert Weber) for lunch one day. We sat on the grass and ate organic nasi campur from banana leaf plates, a drumming workshop took place behind us and the heavy beat of the djembe resounded. She is incredibly vital and personable, a kind of one woman holistic dynamo and her passion for Bali and her local community is all too evident. This is a woman who really cares. Megan set up the website Balispirit.com in the wake of the 2002 bombing, its mission was to revive the islands stricken industries and to preserve its environment, culture and spirituality. The site, a kind of one-stop shop for all things holistic has proved to be enormously popular and now boasts over 150,000 direct hits a month. Since its inception at least 10 new yoga centers have opened up and around 40 retreat groups are converging each year. Her other ventures include a food café, a yoga shop and the Yoga Barn. She operates all her businesses under fair trade principles and employs over 70 local people, although the number doubles during the lead up to the festival. She tells me, “We are not here patting ourselves on the back saying we have done so much for the community but it’s a start, it gives an example, we want to inspire other people to do something similar.”

We talked about the huge amount of support and encouragement that the festival has gained, including that of the Bali Tourism Board as well as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. When one of the major sponsors dropped out at the last moment there were fears that the event would be cancelled, but most of the performers offered to waive or greatly reduce their fees. In fact the festival has run at a huge financial loss, but as she says “Its not about the money, its about the message,” and she is already enthusiastically planning next years event in which she is thinking of choosing an AIDS charity  as the beneficiary and hoping to get a condom company as a sponsor. She also wants to have more non-profit organizations in attendance, “creating an information warehouse”.

yoga in the lawn pavillion

We discuss the Bhinneka Initiative, the charitable arm of the festival. Bhin.n.eka tun.ggal ika translates as Unity in Diversity; its goal is to work with Indonesian youth to inspire new understandings of social awareness and global responsibility. It features various community based projects promoting holistic health and creative collaborations in music and dance. The musical outreach program featured Pre-festival concerts headlining Michael Franti, Rocky Dawuni and Tom Freund and raised over $20,000 for the Pelangi community school. As part of the Yoga Outreach program, Indonesian Muslim yogini, Pujiastuti Sindhu conducted free yoga workshops for the women of the surrounding villages of Ubud. International celebrity yogini Katy Appleton also conducted free pre natal classes at the Yayasan Bumi Sehat natural birthing clinic in Nyuh Kuning. I traveled with Katy to the clinic, a humble establishment, run by a non-profit organization which sees about 50 births a week. It’s a long way from London and her celebrity clients which include Sarah, Duchess of York and Paul McCartney. Eight heavily pregnant local women attended and she led them gently through a series of positions. Afterward Katy was beaming and said doing the class had been “a sweet honour and great fun and that she was looking forward to returning for a longer time next year to help out with another pair of hands and a smiling heart”.

Also under the Bhinneka Umbrella came Hari Cinta Keluarga (family day), the final day of the festival which was free for all and specially devoted to family with a range of family and child oriented workshops. There was a good turnout of Balinese, who joined in the pre-natal classes and the children’s yoga workshops. The local kids played drums with In Rhythm and Sibo Bangoura; danced to the sounds of Kirtan; and learned music with Lebanese artist Khalife, who will also be conducting a series of free workshops with street kids in Jakarta. Tom Fruend from California performed songs from his album ‘Hug the trees’ and had all the children dancing enthusiastically at the front of the stage.

face painting

The musical highlight of the festival came on the last night when the festival closed with the Siki Seka Jam which saw at least 15 of the performers up on stage all doing their own thing but somehow bringing it all together in a truly rousing finale that had everyone up and dancing. Seeing performers from so many nations and so many genres on the stage and playing as one captured the spirit of the festival perfectly. I thought about what Festival Director Amsalam Doraisingham said in his opening address, “You are here. This is your space and time. Let your light shine.” And when a thousand people let their light shine they create something that goes far beyond the individual. It has been a journey for all of us, we have learned and shared and created and we all take something away with us, a little bit of Bali Spirit I guess.

Jammming