Foraging in Bali

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A walk on the wild side

Foraging is one of the hottest gastronomic trends to sweep across the globe, with chefs and home cooks alike heading out into the country to gather wild vegetables, herbs and forest fruits. Here in Bali, foraging has always been a way of life, and the beautiful landscape is rife with wild greens, tropical fruits, roots and edible flowers.

The forests, river banks and fringes of Bali’s picturesque rice fields host a plethora of wild herbs, spices and fruit trees, and in order to learn more about Bali’s wild side, I join a fascinating, customised rice paddy walk with Bali Eco Cycling Tours (www.baliecocycling.com). We begin in the coolness of early morning and make our way through the ancient lichen-covered temples of Goa Gajah on the outskirts of Ubud. Weda, a rice farmer from Ubud is my guide, and is passionate about foraging, deeply knowledgeable and has a great sense of humour. The narrow trail leads us along the edge of a steep riverbank shrouded in sub tropical rainforest, where gnarly roots of giant trees cling to the ravine, and dappled sunlight dances through the leafy canopy. We stop to pick fragrant stalks from an [ilak ]bush – used in place of sticks in sate lilit (minced fish satay). Nearby, the leaves of a [simbaman] bush are used to flavour a uniquely Balinese dish known as [be cundang] – where the losing rooster in a cock fight is cooked up and presented in a victory feast. Crossing the muddy creek Weda points out my favourite Balinese delicacy, dainty fern tips, that are tender, juicy and fabulous with shredded coconut.

 

IMG_8251Climbing up the ravine, we pass a heavily laden soursop tree – its leaves are believed to have a similar effects to chemotherapy when it comes to treating cancer. Winding through a dense coconut grove we see immense jackfruit trees, their large bulbous fruit makes a great addition to curries, soups and [rujak] – Balinese spicy fruit salad. Suddenly the forest opens up to a glistening verdant sea of green that stretches as far as we can see. This is the Bali of postcards, and a view that I never seem to tire of. Palms and big-fronded banana trees line the path that threads across the sawah (rice fields), where dragonflies flitter and the sound of trickling water is ever present. The ancient irrigation system, known as [subak], allows a number of edible plants to thrive spontaneously along the edges, including succulent lentor (snake beans), tiny wild eggplant, and pumpkin – the deep yellow pumpkin flower makes a very tasty tempura. The cassava tree has pretty umbrella-shaped leaves, and its starchy roots are used to make[tape] (tapioca), while its young leaves grace pork soup. Wena shows me a bunie tree, in season it will have delicious dark berries that taste great in jam and also in rujak.

We spot papaya, cacao and mangosteen trees, and young cows resting under the shade of massive durians. Taking a break, we sit on the edge of a small ridge and eat sumping, and bantar,  traditional Balinese sweets of sticky rice, coconut milk and sugar, and enjoy the sound of rindik from a distant temple that mingles sweetly with bird song and rooster crows, and the gentle rustle of a breeze in the palms.

IMG_8270 Finishing in the charming restaurant set amidst the rice fields, we sip fresh coconuts and feast on organic rice, smoked duck and chicken and tofu skewers.
If you would like to know how to cook with Bali’s native herbs, fruits and spices, the following offer an authentic village style experience, including visiting the local markets.www.lobongcooking.com 

www.paon-bali.com    www.payukbali.com

www.balinesecooking.net   www.ubadubudbali.com 

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Amed

Photograph Cdelacy for www.apneista.com

Famed for its pristine reefs, Amed lures divers from around the world, but there is much more to this scenic coast line than ship wrecks and coral gardens.

Tucked into the north east corner of Bali, where rugged mountains tumble to a cerulean sea, Amed basks in glorious isolation. Peaceful fishing villages cling to the coast where black sand is lined with colourful jukungs (fishing boats) and tranquil bays teem with marine life. Often described as sleepy, the region is gently waking up and provides a quirky, unspoilt alternative to the buzzing south. Amidst the rustic home stays and charming boutique hotels traditional life continues much as it always has. Fishermen set sail before dawn, farmers tend to cassava and peanut crops, and the white crystals of the salt pans glisten in the sunlight.

Amed’s attractions are not limited to single sites, you need to take in the big picture by immersing yourself in the dramatic natural scenery as you explore the ocean and the land. The name Amed generally refers to a string of  fishing villages joined by a  narrow road that dips and winds between the mountains and the sea.  Each upward swerve reveals picturesque half moon bays that will have you constantly reaching for your camera. This is the driest region of Bali and the sloping, parched red earth is strewn with boulders, brambles, black lava rock and wild grasses baked to a crisp coppery gold. In striking contrast,  branches of bougainvillea, hibiscus and frangipani frame the deep blue sea with vibrant splashes of colour. Low lying villages are set amidst palm groves and mango trees, where women collect firewood, chickens streak across the road in wild abandon and cows loiter in the shade of the banana groves.

A scenic road leads inland to the village of Bangle and gives a glimpse into rural life,  with terraced hills strewn with cassava and corn plantations and houses made of stone and thatch.  The village nestles in an oasis of greenery, thanks to a series of holy springs – each with a different taste. For a small fee one of the villagers will act as a guide.

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pura lempuyang  (the dragon temple)

Past Bangle, the rough road steepens sharply and leads to one of the island’s most important temples, Pura Lempuyang, known as the abode of the God Iswara, ‘keeper of the peace.’ Isolated on a windy mountain ridge with stunning views over the valleys, this mysterious and beautiful temple is a place of pilgrimage and spiritual awakening, especially during elaborate full moon ceremonies. The temple is more easily and safely reached on the inland road from Culik, and with 1700 steps to climb is best visited early in the morning. 

The Salt Pans

The Lombok Straight brings clean cold fast moving water from the north which mixes with the warm Bali tropical water to create a unique artisan salt which is stocked in gourmet delicatessens around the world. While the industry is declining, salt pans are still scattered around the shores of Amed, where farmers use ancient techniques to craft 100% natural salt by sun and wind evaporation. The taste is unique – mild and slightly sweet – and salt can be bought direct from the farmers who will happily give you a tour and explain the production process.

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In total contrast to the inhospitable landscape, the calm sea is home to some of Bali’s most beautiful reefs – a  veritable underwater fantasy world inhabited by frolicking sea horses, giant trevally, schools of barracuda, clown frog fish, reef sharks, turtles and a diverse range of hard and soft coral. The thriving marine life is attributed to  low level tourism, and the phenomenon known as the Indonesian Through flow which links the Indian and Pacific oceans with streams of nutrient rich cold water that nourish the reefs of eastern Bali.

The Liberty ship wreck in nearby Tulamben is one of Bali’s most famous dive sites, but the bays around Amed have plenty to captivate novice and experienced divers. Best of all, many of the sites can be accessed directly from the beach and are equally enjoyed with a mask and snorkel.  Highlights include the sheltered bay at Jemeluk with a vibrant reef teeming with tropical fish just meters off shore, while a short swim or boat ride to the rocky point, known as the drop off, reveals slopes covered in giant gorgonian fans and red barrel sponge corals. Further east, the Japanese wreck at Banyuning nestles on a pretty coral garden; divers can explore the lower reaches, while snorkelers also enjoy great views of the wreck covered in sea fans and soft pastel corals swaying in the gentle current.

graham abbott-free diving amed images (7 of 9)www.apneista.com

www.dive4images.com

free-diving

There is a whole lot more to free-diving than just holding your breath. Once the bastion of pearl divers and extreme adrenalin junkies seeking to go ever deeper, these days people are more drawn by the opportunity to explore the silence and the beauty of the underwater world in complete freedom. Jemeluk Bay has become a centre for free-diving in Bali and is home to the island’s first free-dive school Apneista , www.apneista.com which offers  two day courses combining advanced breathing techniques with yoga and pranayama.  Sometimes described as ocean yoga or underwater meditation, the free-diver is unencumbered by a scuba tank and can glide through the water like a fish. Moving slowly and gracefully, without a trail of bubbles, allows a far more intimate and natural experience with marine life.

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Photograph Courtesty Cdelacy for   www.apneista.com  

Healthy pursuits

Just being in Amed induces a state of peace and well being. Early nights are for floating to sleep lulled by the gentle murmur of the ocean; mornings are for rolling out of bed and straight into the sea; lazy afternoons call for languid lunches, siestas,   relaxing beach massages, or a spa visit. Usher in the evening with a sunset yoga class at Apneista, overlooking the beach, or check for workshops in the hillside yogashala at Om Shanti www.omshanti.com  A full range of detox and healing programs are offered at the luxurious Golden Rock Detox Centre www.theretreatbali.com while   Aiona Garden of Health www.aionabali.com offers personalised ayurvedic programs, and sells herbal teas, kombucha, homemade jams and chutneys in a delightfully quirky setting.

day trips

Amed makes a great base for climbing Moung Agung – best attempted in the dry season, and for visiting Tirta Ganga, an evocative water palace set in a maze of tropical water gardens filled with statues and stone fountains. Cycling is a great way to explore the countryside, and East Bali Bike tours www.eastbalibike.com have a range of options including tours from the slopes of Mount Agung down to the sea.

Stay

Life in Amed

Lean, Bunutan, Abang T  0363 23152 www.lifebali.com

A tranquil beachside haven with cottages, beach houses and pools nestled in enchanted gardens flourishing with frangipani and bougainvillea. The atmospheric Perfumed Garden villa is highly recommended, with its wonderful antiques, ocean views and private salt water pool.gardens life in Amed

Perfumed garden

Blue Moon Villas

Selang Beach T 0363 21428 www.bluemoonvilla.com

With a fabulous garden setting on a headland overlooking Selang Bay these stylish suites and villas enjoy panoramic ocean views. Request one of the beautiful Blue Angel Oceanfront rooms and relax in the private infinity pool clinging to the cliff’s edge.

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Good Karma

Jalan Raya Selang.  T: 081 337 531 133

Set in the shade of towering banyan trees and vibrant flowers these bamboo beach shacks are basic but charming, and just meters from the sea.

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Hotel Uyah Amed & Spa resort  (Salt Lodge) Jl Ketut Natih, Pantai Timur T 036323462  www.hoteluyah.com

A rustic, eco friendly resort that is partly solar powered. The sprawling beachfront property aims to preserve salt production in the region and is built around salt pans.

 Eat

Local style warungs and home stays offer traditional food, while resorts and hotels have adjoining restaurants serving Indonesian and western cuisine. Top picks include Warung Enak a crowd favourite with tasty home style cooking made from fresh organic produce – the health juice with turmeric, lemon and honey is excellent. Komang John’s Cafe (Blue Moon Villas) has expansive ocean views and serves up authentic Balinese and international dishes, with a good selection of daily specials and tropical cocktails. Life in Amed offers fantastic salads, Indonesian and western food and the best chocolate cake in the area.

getting there

The drive from the airport takes about three hours. Follow the road to Candi Dasa  then turn inland to Amlapura passing tropical hinterland and verdant rice terraces. The small town of Culik in the shadow of Mount Agung marks the gateway to Amed. There is also a longer, more scenic coastal route from Amlapura, but the road is narrow and rough in places. Public transport is limited, and there is much to see, so it is best to rent a car or motor bike.

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Yoga Music Art Dance a thon 2012

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I haven’t laughed so hard or for so long in ages, and herein lies the beauty of the event, we are supporting a worthy cause – and having an awesomely good time while we are at it.

2012 Yogathon, article published in Kula magazine 2012

After a week of torrential rain the clouds finally part, bathing Desa Seni in the glow of the emerging sun – an auspicious start to the second annual Yoga, Music, Dance A Thon.

I arrive to find brightly hued umbul (Balinese flags) flickering in the breeze and the path  strewn with frangipani and hibiscus – at Desa Seni the road to  wellbeing is always a colourful one. But today our practice has an even higher purpose, as all money raised by the event is directed to Ayu Kita Bicara HIV/AIDS, a program that promotes awareness through a series of work shops aimed at Bali’s youth. It is estimated that the number of people infected with HIV has tripled over the past five years; Ayu Kita Bicara aims to stem the spread of the disease by targeting Bali’s youth through a series of workshops. Last year’s event raised over $15,000 for the cause, an amount that we hope to match today.

It’s 8.00am, and with a full 12 hours ahead of us Daphna raises our energy with an uplifting kundalini class. Jocelyn Gordon then gets us into the swing of things with hula hooping on the lawn – the hoops bringing a whole new dimension to yoga practice.  Workshops are spread over three different areas, with 30 presenters signed up to lead the way. Cherie Rae enthusiastically leads a workshop entitled ‘Peace it’s an inside job,’ “Yoga is for the world, not just skinny people,” she calls out. I catch her afterwards at Jeff Von Schmauder’s Union Yoga – which  results in some rather amazing feats of balance, and some spectacular topples – “ I am so high right now,” she shouts.

Late in the morning dark clouds dance menacingly around us, before slinking off to the horizon – there is no place for rain today!  Following a healthy organic lunch in Rumah Uma many of us join Awahoshi  who lulls us into a blissful state with crystal sound,  succinctly summing up the vibe of the day when she says “You are here because you are amazing. ”  I join some friends in the  pool but am soon drawn out as “Another one bites the dust” rings out – its Charlie Patton’s Dancing Extravaganza and it looks (and sounds) like way too much fun to miss out on.

When I told a friend I was going to a Yogathon she said “Ooh that sounds like fun” in a tone dripping with sarcasm – if only she knew…. I haven’t laughed so hard or for so long in ages, and herein lies the beauty of the event, we are supporting a worthy cause – and having an awesomely good time while we are at it. EVERYONE is smiling! Desa Seni is in its element, today we truly are one! “ “How amazing it is when the Kula  (community) of Bali, from all over the island can come together and truly represent the meaning of  Kula ” says Desa Seni founder Tom.

As the sun sinks into the horizon flaming torches are lit as we join Kevin and Mel for inspirational Kirtan chanting. Finally, Hamanah Drum n Dance lead us in a high energy, butt shaking dance to the beat of the djembe, ending twelve hours of yoga, music and dance with a bang!

Yoga Desa Seni

Restaurant Desa Seni

 

 

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!

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

For more about Nia www.nianow.com

For more about Saffire www.shamantranow.com

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.”

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Magic of Desa Seni

 

At  Desa Seni  the path to well being is scattered with flowers…..

As my friend and resident Kundalini yoga teacher Daphna says, “It’s a place of peace and joy, from the moment you enter any stress evaporates…. it’s a happy place.”

Desa Seni has been keeping me sane for the past two years, a sanctuary that is most certainly my happy place, where I can escape from work and every day pressures, and  lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings and in the ancient practice of yoga. At early morning classes  I  watch the flowers unfurl as I stretch into sun salutations, while sunset classes are filled with the golden glow of dusk and the flickering light of candles against a crimson streaked sky.

I always feel like I am stepping into a fairy tale as I follow the stepping stones that lead through colourful vegetable patches and heavily laden fruit trees. Everywhere I look there is something of beauty that has been thoughtfully placed to create joy ; a quaint wooden bridge, an  ancient dug out canoe filled with flowers, a wooden statue decorated with frangipani, or a carefully labelled tree or plant.

I once spent a weekend at Desa Seni staying in one of the charming antique wooden houses gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago. My beautiful house came with a  written story that detailed its origins, and that of all the antiques that filled it. In the afternoon one of the staff dropped by with fresh fruit and herbal tea and when I woke in the morning there was a traditional Balinese offering placed on my verandah with a card explaining how to make the offering to my own small temple.

Tom, the ever-inspiring man behind Desa Seni describes how he saw the island “blooming and growing” but felt that no one was staying true to Bali. His vision incorporated farming, yoga, unlimited potential for creativity, and integration with the local community. His founding belief , “If we all give back, educate, inspire and nurture, the world will be a better place.” I love that Tom is a man of his word and Desa Seni gives back to the community on so many levels, from being organic and green, to free English and yoga classes for the staff, to organising beach clean ups and to sponsoring worthy organisations such as Sacred Childhood Organisation http://www.sacredchildhoods.org/ and initiatives such as Ayu Kita Bicara which raises awareness about AIDS in the community.  Through Kula magazine Desa Seni continues to spread the word and promote like minded people and businesses on the island.

Desa Seni reminds me to always take a little time for myself to reconnect with the magic and beauty of life – something that I sometimes forget. Here I see positive vibrations leading to action, and remember that we can make a difference. Love certainly isn’t all you need – but it’s a great place to start!

www.desaseni.com