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.