Tuesday 31 December 2013

A year in the life of an eco-travel writer

So, dear friends, here we all are again at the comet-tail end of the year, after another 365-day trip around the sun. Did you enjoy the ride? 

Reflections - Koh Chang, Thailand
Of course, in our Earth-world, today is traditionally a day to reflect on where we were this time last year, and what has happened between then and now. 

This used to be something I did in private, with pen and paper. Now we all share so much of ourselves online, it seems only natural that this be a place to record milestones too. It's been a big year of change for me - endings, beginnings, new ways of working, learning new skills, lots of firsts. 

So permit me to indulge in a wander down 2013th avenue, or rather come with me. Writing is invariably a solo act, and I often travel alone too. So I'd appreciate the company, and I can thank you along the way, for all the ways you've kept me going, and sane, during this year of adventures and upheavals. 

1. Camping in Cambodia - the year started in a deceptively normal way, with travel. The highlights of the trip were an overnight camping trip in the wilds of Koh Kong, and a couple of nights at the "hotel that wouldn't die", the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, in Phnom Penh. 

Simple beauty, Okinawa
2. Okinawa - before I knew it, it was February and I was on my first media trip of the year to somewhere I'd always wanted to go: tropical Japan. The best part, besides staying a night at the Zen-inspired luxury hotel Hyakuna Garan, was revisiting all the reasons I love Japan.

The sublime Treehotel, Sweden
3. New kinds of work. As well as travel writing, this year I started doing copywriting for Inspired Adventures, which organises fund-raising challenges all over the world, and worked on an eco-blogging project, writing daily stories on sustainability and fun ways to live green (reviewing the world's most beautiful eco lodges, for instance) for the Grand Tours Project - which saw Australian Keith Tuffley tackle all three of Europe's gruelling three-week cycling races to raise awareness for sustainability. 

Happiness is a Lord Howe holiday
4. Lord Howe Island - I got to visit my favourite little island in the world twice this year. Once in June with my lovely friend Emma, for a real holiday. And again in October for the incredible, inaugural Wilderness Challenge Week of adventures to the island's wildest places that are usually off-limits to tourists. 

Still miss that view...
5. I moved out, and dropped out, in July. Leaving the house I called home for 10 years was an adventure in itself. Lots of life lessons about what's essential and how to give away or responsibly dispose of the rest. It was also scary, stepping off into the unknown. But if I’ve learned anything in almost 20 years of freelance writing, it’s to not freak out in the face of uncertainty. 

Buddhas in Ubud
6. Ubud - for the month of August, my home was the delightfully eccentric Michi Retreat, just outside this little hippie-earthy town in central Bali, Indonesia, where I learned how to travel on my own dime, and at my own pace, again. In a word: liberating.

7. Learning - I learned to speak Mac, when I bought a beautiful Macbook Air so that I could design my first ebook using iBooks Author (more on this later), and to do more writing on the road. Mission accomplished: I had 81,093 words and 115 pics published this year, not including blog posts or the 19,506 words I wrote for the Grand Tours Project. I can also speak Kindle and iPhone now. I'm a fully equipped digital gypsy.

Behold, the king - at Ulusaba
8. South Africa & Kenya - I travelled with my dad for the first time in 20 years in September. We saw beautiful Cape Town, drove what is possibly the most scenic coastal drive in the world (to the Cape of Good Hope), went on safari at Ulusaba, visited Kibera slum and Karen Blixen's house in Nairobi, and did a camping trip on the Masai Mara. A trip of a lifetime.

9. In October, I was honoured to receive three Australian Society of Travel Writers awards, including Travel Writer of the Year, for the fourth time (still can't believe that). Big thanks to all the sponsors and the ASTW. You can read my winning stories here - about charitable tourism in Cambodia, that luxury hotel in Okinawa and the Arkaba conservation walk in South Australia.

10. Back in Sydney, while living in a hotel at my hometown (another first) and surfing again at Manly (bliss), I finished my first ebook, Adventures on Earth, which will be going live on the iBookstore very, very soon – it’s currently being reviewed by the Apple gods. I have trumpets standing by. In the meantime, have a look at the 30-second intro video:

Last but not least, I'm seeing the year out in South East Asia, first Koh Chang in Thailand, now Luang Prabang in Laos, brought to both places - in the spirit of this anything-goes year - by serendipity rather than any real planning. 

What will the next revolution around the sun be like, I wonder? May it be a good one for you, full of love, peace, kindness to all beings and adventures of all kinds. Over and out, until next year...

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Living the gypsy lifestyle

I've been thinking about the difference between "staying" somewhere, and "living"- is it just a matter of time? You stay in a place for two weeks, live there for two years. Lately I've been feeling that the time is irrelevant, at least for me, in my current circumstances. Not having a home right now, I seem to make a home out of wherever I sleep (except for planes, of course).

Writing - about Africa
- in Thailand
Since moving out and dropping out in July I've had four places I've called home. First, there was Michi Retreat, the artists' colony in Ubud - no artists in residence when I was there, for all of August, unless you count the eccentric professor who owns the place and understands what it is to be a nomad: he lived in hotels for 30 years before moving to Bali decades ago. 

Back in Sydney again, I lived in a small hotel too - in my hometown. My room at Manly Lodge was like a small apartment and had everything I needed - it was a short walk to the beach, and everything else, there was a place to keep my surfboard, the staff were super friendly (thanks, Jeff and Vincent, I've forgotten how to say "thank you" in Cantonese). 

I even reviewed it for The Sydney Morning Herald, as if I'd stayed there a weekend - in fact, I stayed there six weekends (and the weeks in between). I had a routine: surfing or swimming every morning, writing and checking emails in the cafe downstairs, walking to friends' houses nearby. Leaving it a few weeks ago was almost like leaving home all over again. 

My hammock, my home
My latest home-on-the-road was a small cottage at Blue Lagoon on the Thai island of Koh Chang. It was Walden (with apologies to Henry Thoreau) by the beach, one of the most adorable places I've ever stayed and the epitome of simplicity - just a bed with a mauve mosquito net and a light blanket, shelves to put my things on, a bathroom, a verandah with a wicker hammock and folding French doors that opened up one whole wall of the place. 

It, too, felt like home for the two weeks I had there. Maybe because I was working rather than holidaying or sightseeing (though the days were so long I did manage to read two novels, do some kayaking, and swam and did yoga every morning on the beach). 

Walden by the beach
And it's run sustainably (by a French-Thai cooperative), that's important for a home-that's-not-quite-home: fresh drinking water on tap (no need to buy water in nasty plastic bottles), a permaculture garden, chickens that eat the kitchen scraps (there's also a compost for restaurant leftovers). They also make their own biodegradable soap, detergent, mosquito repellent and, coming soon, shampoo. I've posted more pics on the No Impact Girl facebook page.

Now I am in Luang Prabang, Laos, listening to Christmas carols in a cafe that sells French pastries as monks in bright orange robes walk by and I look out on the Nam Khan, a tributary of the Mekong River. (The Lao people don't celebrate Christmas, of course, but wherever there are tourists, it seems, there is tinsel.) 

Beach sunset love, from Koh Chang
It's probably the prettiest town in South East Asia with its French colonial buildings and traditional wooden Lao houses. I'm looking forward to exploring. I don't even have any pictures yet because I arrived last night and it was foggy (and cold!) all morning and the sun has only just come out. 

So until next time, happy Lao Christmas, everyone. May the gypsy spirit be with you all.

Friday 22 November 2013

Africa, off the leash: 10 tips for safari virgins

Just the word "safari" conjures images of wild things untouched by man. It's the epitome of eco travel, offering glimpses of the world before we came along. A few weeks ago I went on safari in South Africa, with my dad, on a private game reserve adjoining Kruger National Park. 

Our four nights at Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's luxuriously homely clifftop lodge overlooking the lowveld were amazing. The up-close wildlife encounters on our twice-daily game drives were out of this world.

Behold, the king
I’m talking sitting in an open-sided Land Rover within spitting distance of a pride of 14 lions dining on a buffalo they’d just killed: males conked out in the long grass barely two metres away, cubs climbing over the black-skinned bovine, lionesses growling at their offspring to mind their manners. 

We watched hyenas staking out a tree where, in the branches above, a leopard sat eating its latest meal. Followed a lone male leopard walking in perfect silence through the dry grass. Saw a family of cheetahs licking each other clean after dining on an unfortunate duiker (a small antelope).

Cheetah love
The incredible thing is: they look right at you, but seem not to see you. To the animals, the Land Rover is just an inedible part of their environment, something to walk around, or ignore.

It was my first time on safari, and I learned a lot – not just about the animals but about how to safari. 

So here are my top 10 tips for other safari virgins:

Dad and me, day 3, in khaki
1. Be invisible. Failing that, wear khaki. I know, you don't want to look like all the other tourists arriving at Kruger airport. But within a day or two, you realise the good sense of it. You're less likely to be seen by the animals, and it’s a good way to keep cool in the South African heat.

2. Be patient. Even in places like Ulusaba, where there's so much wildlife, you still need to wait for the rangers and trackers to find it. The animals are wild and roaming after all. It helps to be quiet too. The wildlife might be habituated to the vehicles, but can still be disturbed, and you're assured of a more authentic viewing experience if the animals aren't reacting to you. 

3. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. There aren’t many rules on safari and the few there are, will keep you safe. The main ones: never stand up in the vehicle (which alters its shape and might make some animals curious enough to investigate), never leave the vehicle (except with the all-clear from a ranger) and don't make sudden movements or loud noises. 
Walk like a leopard,
silent and stealthy
4. Do a walking safari (with an armed ranger). If ever there was an experience to wake you up, this is it. Your senses are on high alert. Which way is the wind blowing? You soon realise how defenseless most human beings are out here, which gives you a new respect for the animals that survive on their wits and instincts.

5. Put your camera down. You've brought the long lens, or the compact camera with mega-zoom, and it's great to get pics and video you can enjoy and share later. But remember to snap some internal pics too, with your eyes. Nothing beats watching wildlife in real time. 

Dignity in danger
6. Don't self-drive. You'll see and learn more game-driving with a ranger. You might even live longer. Stories abound of self-drivers leaving their vehicles (gasp) to take photos or not making it to camp by nightfall, and being charged (or trampled) by elephants. These aren't animals in a zoo.

7. Be respectful. You're not watching a nature documentary in your living room, either. Other people can hear you when you say, "He looks like Uncle John" or "Isn't it CUTE!". Try to resist the temptation to infantalise or anthropomorphise the animals too. They have dignity. They’re not cartoon creations, they're wild animals living wild lives.

Young leopard, listening
8. Listen. There's so much to look at in the African bush, it's easy to switch off your other senses. But open your ears and you’ll heighten your experience by hearing, say, zebras or other grazers making alert calls, the rumble of lions roaring.

9. Look after yourself. Sitting in a vehicle for up to six hours a day (2-3 hours at dawn and dusk) can give anyone an aching back. Make use of the free time between game drives to stretch, do some yoga, have a massage or a hot bath, or go for a walk around your camp (supervised if necessary).

10. Share your stories and photos with friends when you get back home. Put your good fortune to good use: by spreading the word about the preciousness of Africa’s wild things, and the importance of protecting them from poachers and other threats such as habitat loss. See WWF South Africa for more info.

Family love in the wild
One more thing: go with someone you love. There were times when Dad and I would look at each other on a game drive, hardly believing we were really there, watching a rhino and her calf or a giraffe family perfectly lit by the morning sun. Or he’d squeeze my hand, to say without words: this is awesome. It really was.

Big thanks to South Africa Tourism and Virgin Limited Edition for this once-in-a-lifetime, father-and-daughter-in-the-wild experience.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Wild (underwater) kingdom - The world's best swim-with experiences

I've always loved the water. When I was growing up, it would rain on my birthday EVERY YEAR, but that didn't stop me having my annual pool party (remember when your hair used to turn green from the chlorine? Happy days). Then I grew into surfing, one of the loves of my life. I've swum in Antarctica, in icy tarns in New Zealand, in bath-warm waters off Thailand, all over Australia.

I love wild animals too (did you know I studied Zoology at uni?) and when you put me in the sea with a (preferably harmless) marine creature or two, I'm pretty much swimming over the moon.

Who's swimming with whom?
So my latest published story, in this month's WellBeing magazine, is close to my heart. It's about 10 of the best swim-with experiences you can have in the world's oceans - from curious minke whales to Galapagos sea lions (the labradors of the sea) to man-sized tuna, whale sharks, dolphins, dugongs... Here's a preview:

A minke whale, by Bruce Paterson
(Eye to Eye Marine Encounters)
Marine encounters of the incredible kind
Now and then, we humans need a reality check, a reminder of our true place in the world - not at the top of the food chain, seemingly in command of our environment, but part of the cycle of life and the community of beings we all belong to, whether we're aware of it or not.

One of the best ways to do this is to get into the water with a marine creature or two, or more, preferably ones large enough to wake us up to our inherent vulnerability in the sea. It's humbling, it's exhilarating. It also reminds us of our responsibility to these magnificent animals and their ocean habitats. Read the full story.

What are your favourite swimming experiences? (Everyone's got at least one. It doesn't even have to be outdoors...)

Tuesday 22 October 2013

I won, I won! (said with glee not gloating)

This is me on the inside at the moment: running full pelt along an empty beach, cartwheeling occasionally, splashing through the shallows, barefoot of course. If I could bark, I would be yelping at seagulls. If I had wings, I would run at the wind and take flight. 

Zen and the sea - the beautiful
Hyakuna Garan in Okinawa, Japan
It's partly due to the fact that I spent all of last week playing in the outdoors on Lord Howe Island (again? Stay tuned for a new post on why I went back so soon to my favourite little island on Earth). 

And partly because, I'm just going to come out and say it, I won three awards at the Australian Society of Travel Writers' annual awards night on 12 October. (Yay!)

(My writer friend Rob McFarland, a fellow finalist for this year's big award, emailed me from New York after the event to call me an "award-winning writing machine", which I'll take as a compliment, thanks Rarb.) 

I am utterly honoured to have won, for the fourth time, the ASTW Travel Writer of the Year award for a portfolio of my three best published stories for the year. 

Two of the stories also won individual awards: for Best Responsible Tourism Story (the story about charitable tourism in Cambodia) and Best International Story over 1000 words (Temple for the Senses, about a Zen-inspired luxury hotel in Okinawa). 

Not the cat that swallowed the canary,
the goanna that ate the rabbit
- on the Arkaba Walk
The third story - Leaving no footprints - was about a tourism-funded conservation project cleverly disguised as a three-day walking trip, the Arkaba Walk in South Australia.

It's great to see travel stories about the positive side of travel getting some attention, and eco stories winning major awards (not just eco-writing ones). It's rewarding too, to be recognised by one's peers, people who know first-hand that behind the glossy exterior of our profession there are, as in any job, grindstones and both-ends-burning candles.

(I'm writing this from my latest abode, for instance, a hotel room in my hometown of Manly, but that's another blog post...)

Congratulatory hugs to all the other 2013 award winners. Larger-than-life thanks to all the award sponsors and to YHA Australia for the accommodation over the AGM/awards weekend. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a beach to mentally gallop on...

Monday 9 September 2013

Is this Bali's most unusual hotel?

I'm (temporarily) back in Sydney - home from Ubud, about to leave for South Africa - but before my head fills with new things, I wanted to write about the place in Bali that will linger longest for me: Michi Retreat.

Gate to "the way"
Michi's backstory, briefly: a complex of villas and rooms, it was built beside the rushing Wos river (and about 15 minutes south of Ubud by scooter) more than a decade ago as a place for creatives to gather, swap ideas, relax and make art. 

In true "retreat" style, it has a meditation pagoda over a lotus pond, a yoga studio, a spa (and salon, complete with beehive-hairdryers) and Buddhist and Hindu sculptures all over the grounds. Its name even means "the way" in Japanese.

Mermaid by the sparkling pool
These days Michi is run as a hotel (it's on Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Agoda and Wotif), albeit one that draws seekers of all persuasions and is a work of art in itself - with everything from fruit painted on walls and mermaids by the pool, to Gaudi-esque sculptures and praying-frog statues. 

It's definitely one of the most unusual places I've stayed - and one of the most well-travelled, thanks to Michi's reclusive owner, a retired professor originally from Manchuria who has lived everywhere from Kathmandu to Krakow, and now writes history books (his latest is about America in the early 20th century) in Japanese.

My Turkey room
For two weeks, I stayed in the bamboo-walled Japan-room called Hotaru, which means "firefly" in Japanese, before moving next door to Turkey (a light-filled, mosaic-mirrored room called Anadolu) for another two weeks.

There are rooms called Mekong, Feng Shui, Only Yesterday (reminiscent of Paris in the 1920s). There's a Zen villa with shoji walls. A Rajasthani room called Merra. A blue-walled Mediterranean room with Grecian mosaics. 
Cafe Michi

One of the reasons I felt so at home at Michi was its refreshing and very un-hotel-like lack of rules. 

You won't find a compendium in your room explaining which number to call for housekeeping or what time you can have breakfast. Or any signs saying when you can use the pool. You can wander wherever you like (peeking in unoccupied rooms, their doors wide open for airing). There are no daily yoga classes or activities. 

My daily breakfast table
Michi's restaurant too is more like a common room, a place to sit at the mosaic-topped tables and read, work, chat to fellow guests about matters of the spirit, mind and body (this being Ubud) or gaze at the parallel lines of the rice fields across the river. 

And there can't be many hotels that have a resident professor. He rarely sleeps, and welcomes guests to his attic-like apartment between 9pm and 11pm any night of the week. 

The prof
The first time I visited him, his speckled sausage-dog Bubu announced my presence with a few yaps. “Come in, come in,” the professor said, ushering me to a chair among the papers and handing me a glass of palm wine infused with snake. (Other guests get grappa, or cognac.)

I listened to him, rapt, for almost three hours, as he told me stories from his unwritten memoir. About Istanbul, where he taught and stayed in a hotel a few doors up from Agatha Christie, who was writing Murder on the Orient Express at the time. About living in a hotel in Kyoto for 20 years (“Why not? Clean sheets, restaurants, two bars, no need to cook!” he said). About honeymooning with his second wife on a cargo ship as it crossed the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco. 

He's 83 this year but feels “about 60” and says he'd like to have “one last love affair” before he steps into the void. One night I saw him dining in Michi's restaurant with a 20-something Russian guest; when he came over to my table to give me a glass of Argentinian wine, ever the generous host, he whispered to me, "Her father used to work for the KGB!"

Michi's kindly staff
There are sustainable aspects to Michi too. Its setting couldn't be greener, literally. Most of Michi is made out of recycled materials. Drinking water comes from an on-site spring (I didn't buy a single plastic bottle of water in the month I was there, yay). There’s no air con, just fans and the cooling trade winds that blow along the valley. 

It's not all rainbows and lollipops. Every new guest seems to have the same double-barrelled first impression: wow, this place is incredible and boy, is it run-down. The rooms are kept clean, tidy and lovely. But the place is so detailed - every surface, indoors and out, has been painted, mosaic-ed or inlaid with stones, marble or mirrors - it needs regular upkeep, which it hasn't been getting lately.

Mosaic in the
Mediterranean room
But Michi’s star is rising, it seems, as it attracts more people who catch its spirit and want to help restore it to a new glory. There's talk of a new manager, creative work-parties to spruce the place up a bit, long-term rentals for artists. 

I loved staying at Michi - for the simplicity and sense of freedom I felt there. For the professor's presence, working in his bookish nest every day and night, inspiring me to write. For how it arouses wonder and curiosity in everyone who comes down its driveway, and reminds us of the things that matter more than material perfection.

Leaving Michi was like leaving home all over again. The professor gave me a present (a book of Tagore's poems) and the staff stood in the driveway to wave me goodbye. May it brush off the cobwebs soon and become one of Ubud's quietly shining stars. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

On being an un-tourist in Ubud

Almost at the end of my month-long sojourn in Ubud, Bali, and I've got that end-of-summer feeling when suddenly I realise this isn't going to last forever. I've also been thinking about how different this trip is, compared to my usual way of travelling.

Tree necklaces:
Ubud is my kind of place
I can’t remember the last time I went somewhere, particularly overseas, and didn’t visit any of the local attractions. I've been here four weeks and I haven’t been to Ubud Palace or any museums or art galleries. I haven't been rafting, taken a cooking class, climbed Mt Batur at sunrise (though I did do that a few years ago). I went to Ubud market for the first time yesterday (and didn't buy a thing).

There it is again...
Much as I love Lonely Planet guides, I didn’t bring one this time. Nor did I re-read the "bible" of Ubud: Eat Pray Love (there are references to it everywhere here). I had a basic tourist map - until I lost it. I didn’t bring a phone that could Google maps for me.

This was all by design, not chance (except for the losing the map part). I wanted to travel differently, without an eye on stories I’d have to write (I might not write any stories about Bali, actually, besides these blog posts), and I really came seeking peace and time to work on a few writing projects that deadlines always kept me from starting back home.

Along for the ride, like a
gecko on a windscreen
I've been an un-tourist in Ubud, and it’s been surprisingly liberating. (Next I’ll try to stop taking a notebook and camera everywhere, but one change at a time...). 

It's been a dose of slow travel, quiet travel, even old-fashioned travel reminiscent of a time before TripAdvisor when it took much longer to reach faraway places and when you got there, you stayed a while. 

It's not so much a holiday, just life in a different place, at a different pace. I like it a lot.

I've spent whole days reading, writing and swimming at Michi Retreat, where I stayed for most of my month, the longest I've ever been resident at a hotel. I felt like a character in a Graham Greene novel, particularly at the eccentric, arty Michi, which was built as a creatives' retreat anyway.

My feet love Ubud
I rode my rented scooter to Ubud some days, through villages whose names I didn't try to find out. Had $4 foot massages that I just enjoyed. Went to yoga classes in the open-air, timber-floored studios at the very Ubudly named Radiantly Alive (in travel-writer mode I would've gone to Ubud's famous Yoga Barn too, but I wasn't, so I didn't).

Ubud graffiti-art
Sometimes whole afternoons would slink by while I hung out in organic cafes with new friends. When we got tired of talking, we eavesdropped on conversations at neighbouring tables (out of curiosity, not malice) - which was always edifying.

I'm open to most things but Ubud does wacky like nowhere else. Whatever you want, you can find it here: infrared saunas, magic-mushroom shakes, flaming hula-hoop performances, miracle coaches (a step up from life coaches). I overheard a girl saying she was going to get her hair "decontaminated" (um, what?) and every second person seemed to be on a 12-day detox. One of the nightspots here is even called Laughing Buddha.

Getting back to those cafes ... Eating well, preferably organically, is the number one pastime of un-tourists in Ubud.

From the “orange amazing healing” juice in Dayu’s Warung to the “Om omelette” at the uber-chic, shoes-off Clear Cafe, whose mantra is "Eat the food you wish to be" - Ubud's edible experiences are in a class of their own.

My favourite places here have drinking straws made of green glass or bamboo (so drinking your raw vegan tropical smoothie at Bali Buda - which is delicious, by the way - is like sipping a flute). But my top five edible Ubud experiences would have to be:
Cubby-house dining
at Warung Saya
  1. Clear Cafe's more-delicious-than-it-sounds vegan chocolate “mylk” shakes, made with coconut ice cream and locally harvested cashew nut “mylk”.
  2. The best little restaurant in Ubud, literally: Warung Saya, a cubby-house in Jalan Gautama and the toughest place in Bali to get a table because there are only two - tables, that is. Looks so pretty at night with fairy lights framing its open window that passersby stop to take photos. 
  3. The iced cappuccinos at Casa Luna, whose Australian owner Janet de Neefe runs Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival every October, which began as a healing project in the wake of the first Bali bombing 10 years ago. Also Seniman "coffee studio" for its recycled-bottle glasses and designer rocking chairs.
  4. A rice fields walk that ends at Sari Organik, a two-tiered cottage in the a sea of green with volcano views, and incredible salads. You can even pick your own ingredients and they'll make them into a meal for you. 
Circus-tent with a view
5. On the way to Sari, you'll pass the relatively new Cafe Pomegranate, a cafe-in-a-circus-tent with 360-degree views of those rice fields; I love that they give you a rattan fan and a small brass bell to ring for service.

It's my last day in Ubud tomorrow and I'm not ready to leave. It's not that I haven't seen or experienced everything; I know I haven't and one more day won't change that.

It's more like leaving someone you've only just met but know you want to spend more time with. I don't just mean Ubud, it's the whole un-tourist thing. I'm not sure I can ever go back to the other way of travelling now, not completely. Part of me will always be looking for the un-tourist way, just as Ubud taught me. So we stay up talking into the wee hours, linger over coconut smoothies, swap email addresses at the airport. Come back soon, Ubud says. I know I will.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Greenest School on Earth - right here in Ubud, Bali

Ubud is full of surprises. Even without trying (and I'm really not) you come into contact with inspirational people and places - like Green School. 

Green School's bamboo mothership
Imagine an environmentally friendly school that has “eco” and “earthy” at its core. Now turn up the green. Make it the whole thing out of bamboo. Design it to maximise holistic learning for heart, soul and spirit, as well as body and mind. 

That's Green School, a revolutionary concept just outside Ubud, Bali, and the reigning Greenest School on Earth.

To promote green living and education, it runs free public tours every weekday at 2.45pm - actually tours start at 3pm but arriving early gives you time to grab an organic coffee (I can recommend the iced mochas) from F.R.E.A.K, a zero-waste cafe near the school entrance set up by two parents to sell Balinese coffee grown in the Kintamani mountains. 

Our triple-latte-sipping guide, Ben Macrory, was a fast-talking New Yorker who moved “from the tiny island of Manhattan to the much larger island of Bali” when Green School opened in 2008 and has been talking about it, as head of communications, ever since. Here's Ben on the Green School story:

(You can also watch Green School founder John Hardy's TED talk, one of the most inspirational I've seen.)

What is a "green school"?
Green School is basically an international school - with about 320 students from all over the world, including 32 Balinese students and, for the first time this year, Romania, Mexico and Turkenistan, all ranging in age from pre-kindy 3-year-olds to year 12 adolescents - where everything is designed to be sustainable, "green" and low-impact. 

Open-air meeting rooms
Eighty per cent of Green School's power comes from its solar farm; when a new vortex-power project (a form of hydro-power, pretty cool) is up and running, the school will go entirely off-grid. 

The school grows its own food, for student and staff lunches, in permaculture gardens. It has a raw food cafe. The toilets are composting. Every class plants, harvests and cooks its own crop of Balinese rice each year. Of course it's all organic - neem oil is used as a biopesticide. Even the fences are green: plant a stick in the ground around here and Bali's rich, volcanic soil turns it into a living thing. 

There are ongoing conservation projects too: we see an aviary that's a temporary home to hornbills and endangered Bali starlings being bred here by the Begawan Foundation before they're released into the wild.

Green School kindergarten
Bamboo architecture
One of the most impressive things about Green School is that it's built from local, natural, renewable materials - particularly bamboo. 

Bamboo classroom
The classrooms are open-air with high ceilings and bamboo furniture as curvaceous as it is comfortable (and nothing like those clunky bamboo-frame couches that inhabit holiday shacks around the world). Put simply: they're naturally beautiful. 

The curriculum teaches reading, writing and arithmetic - and so much more. We pass an aquaculture pond built by a year 6 class. And a traditional Balinese mud-wrestling area - where kids can also play in the mud in their swimming costumes, to connect with the earth. 

Hands-on learning crystal
There’s a yoga studio, a healing circle around a massive block of smoky quartz crystal, a gift to the school. “We have meditation circles here, and the kindy kids come here for their teddy bear tea parties,” says Ben. 

More than a "hippie school in the jungle"
Like any school, Green School has facilities: a sports field, a computer room, a library. There’s a strong focus on developing entrepreneurial skills. 

It’s also a showcase for bamboo designs. “One of our goals here is to spread the gospel of bamboo, or promote the bamboo revolution,” says Ben. 

A river runs through it
Our last stop is the Ayung River, where we cross an exquisitely elegant bamboo bridge to look at the school's deep, green natural swimming pool on the other side. Locals bathe nearby, nature leaps back into view.

The tour ends at the main building on campus, the massive Heart of School. "There’s seven kilometres of bamboo in this place," says Ben. John Hardy describes it in his TED talk as a "bamboo cathedral": a cathedral to green, and to green education.

Green School is an “earth ship” in the truest sense: made of the earth, from local, sustainably grown and fairly harvested bamboo, sailing across it with the least environmental impact possible, transporting everyone - students, teachers, parents, tourists and anyone else fortunate enough to come into contact with it - to a greener and infinitely richer future. 

Just spending a couple of hours there made me want to be a pre-kindy kid again, so I could move to Bali and learn about sustainability (and other things) in an open-air bamboo classroom. 

But until I can find a time machine to take me back to me, aged 3, I’ll shout from Green School’s bamboo-clad rooftops: support Green School, build more like it, sponsor an Indonesian student, do a free tour when you're next in Bali. Vive la bamboo revolution!

Wednesday 14 August 2013

A monkey at my table - week one in Ubud, Bali

A few days ago, a monkey ate my breakfast. I was sitting at a mosaic-topped table at Michi Retreat, just outside Ubud, looking across a small river valley at a hillside of terraced rice fields, when he swung down from the roof, island-hopped between tables and helped himself to my bowl of fruit salad and yoghurt. 

Michi monkey
While I ran to get Michi's chef, Iluk, hoping she’d have more success than I’d had at shooing him away (he just bared his two-inch canines at me), the monkey shook the flowers out of a nearby vase and raised it to his lips like a flagon of wine. 

I could have sworn he wiped the back of his hand across his lips (or is that my imagination talking?) before disappearing into the bushes below.

That’s life in Ubud - where nature is lush and on the loose - even when you're nowhere near the famous Monkey Forest. 

Michi Retreat, which I booked on Airbnb and where I’ve been for just over a week now, is about 10 minutes by scooter from Ubud’s hubbub, which is one of the things I like about it (its proximity and distance from Ubud).

Michi Retreat
and the Wos River
It’s quiet - except for the sounds of the local village, Jukut Paku, in the morning and at night. Seems there's always something going on: chainsaws at dawn (cutting wood for carvings), the same Indonesian pop song played loudly over and over, weddings that go on for days. 

A few nights ago, the warm night air was alive with the haunting sounds of a "gamelatron” - a robotic gamelan orchestra in Michi's art gallery that had been left on after a blackout earlier in the day. I didn't mind; it reminded me where I am.

Michi deserves a blog post of its own (coming soon) but I will say this: it’s like nowhere else I’ve ever stayed. Built more than a decade ago as a retreat for artists, writers and other creatives, it’s a work of art itself, an endearing shambles of Buddhas and frogs and mermaids and themed rooms and collected things from around the world. 

Sea-replacement therapy
And it has a beautiful pool - if I can't be near the sea (Ubud is about two hours from Bali's south coast), I can at least swim every day.

My room, Hotaru (it means “firefly” in Japanese), is a little Japan of bamboo panels, shoji-screen walls and a balcony. 

I fall asleep with the overhead fan quietly whirring, wake up to the morning sun on the stone Buddha head on my balcony and, beyond, the rice paddies and palm trees. 

Buddha on my balcony
In the absence of a real home (is it really only two weeks since I moved out and dropped out of Sydney life?), I feel surprisingly at home here. 

The plan is to stay a month in or near Ubud, on a self-imposed writing retreat. Only I haven't done much writing so far.

California and Slovakia
on a Balinese beach
It's hard to resist the siren call of this steamy green and wholesome place. And there have been so many interesting people to talk to or to go into Ubud with for lunch or a yoga class, most of whom I've met at Michi. It's like an enormous, multi-national share-house that way.

There's Alfonso, the thoughtful Spanish surfer and IT guru who works here. Dominika the gentle soul from Slovakia who lives in London. Dipesh from Mumbai, now based in Singapore, who's into yoga and meditation. Kayleigh the fellow Piscean from California who came here for a 12-day detox.

Bali me
For all my travel-writing travels in recent years, I'd forgotten how easy it is to make friends when you're on the road, particularly in a place like Ubud, Bali's earthy, arty heart. It helps that I feel friendlier and happier too, on this break from big-city life. 

And I love that with barely any planning, you get to do fun things. Last Sunday, six of us piled into Michi's van for an all-day surf trip. After four hours of getting lost and checking various beaches, we ended up near Medewi, on Bali's south-west coast. As luck would have it, the beach we'd come to was in front of a posh resort, Puri Dujama.

Wandering in through the "staff only" gate, we made for the restaurant (where lunch cost us $10 each instead of $5 as in Ubud) then a few of us paddled out while the non-surfers relaxed by the pool.

The waves weren't great, but we had them to ourselves, and spent a heavenly, lazy afternoon in hammocks and walking on the black-sand beach. Before leaving, we watched the sun melt into a hazy horizon, folded ourselves back into the van and began the long drive back to Ubud, and home to Michi.