Dancing with Saffire

Just returned from a Nia class with the amazing Saffire, the newest in a rather awesome line up of teachers to arrive at Desa Seni over the last couple of years.  I met Saffire last year as he rocked the Bali Spirit festival with his unique blaze of rhythm and movement and was one of the first to sign up for his three day Nia/Shamantra workshop at Desa Seni where we  learned to express ourselves through dance and stillness,  to vocalise and dance to our inner emotions as he challenged us to go beyond our boundaries, to listen to our bodies, to dance into being…… People keep asking me what his classes are like – but its hard to describe, I guess you could start by saying that its about joy and movement and liberation and laughter and fun. About  truly dancing like no one is watching – giving yourself space to move, then shaking everything up and out, and feeling absolutely amazing while you are doing it. The best thing is  – the buzz stays with you.

The Nia technique is fundamentally about unifying the body, mind, emotions and spirit with high energy dance that borrows from martial arts , yoga and healing practices. It is a form of self healing through a combination of choreographed dance  and free form that sees movement as a pathway for transformation, a way of dancing through our barriers.  Saffire is teaching three  Nia dance classes at Desa Seni each week. He also facilitates his own creation, ‘Dance into Being’ on Saturday nights, its a little bit like a guided ecstatic dance that incorporates sound and rhythm  – although describing it like this just doesn’t seem to do the experience justice –  I could just say its about losing yourself in the music and finding new ways to move and express yourself which is such a completely liberating experience.

Inherent to Desa Seni is the notion of community  – or ‘kula. ’ For Saffire true community happens “When everyone moves to the same pulse. Each may have a different relationship to that pulse, but the single pulse is what holds the center of community. Communicating with each other in this way with sound and silence, call and response, transmitting and receiving, a singular pulse is created, making music possible, making healing possible, making community.”

One of the things I love about Desa Seni is that the staff also have the opportunity to join free classes and workshops.  Obviously, there was a full turn out for Saffire’s staff class!

380237_352434454806079_1983308041_n

For scheduled classes check http://www.desaseni.com/schedule.htm

For more about Nia www.nianow.com

For more about Saffire www.shamantranow.com

Advertisements

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.

2

 “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.

 1

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.

 3

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.”

 

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