Rob Parsons

Bali Spirit

Ancient roots bear 21st century fruits

by Rob Parsons

New Years Eve on Bali

March 13, 2008

Bali is the most celebrated of the 13,000 islands comprising Indonesia. Well-known for its talented artists, sculptors and carvers, it's also steeped in culture, religion and ceremony, with most of its three million residents following a type of Balinese Hinduism.

The island also shares similarities to Maui. Though three times larger, the islands are of remarkably similar shape, including the 10,000-foot volcano Mount Agung on Bali's larger eastern end. Both islands are, of course, highly dependent on tourists and imported goods, and both share awareness for recent wake-up calls over limitations of mass tourism and the need to pursue a sustainable future.

The Indonesian economy took a nosedive in 1998 that led to a proliferation of illegal logging. Over the past decade, Indonesia has had the highest deforestation rate of any country in the world, according to United Nations Environmental Committee statistics.

While some places in Bali have made way for strips of luxury resorts, a Hard Rock Café and even McDonald's and KFC, much remains of the agrarian lifestyle of rice-farmers and of the unique island culture and art.

Recently I sat at a short wooden table in the corner of the bustling Bali Spirit Kafe in downtown Ubud, eager to talk story with Made Gunarta, known to friends as Kadek. Serving healthy foods and drinks, the Kafe is one of several businesses at his family compound and has become a favorite of expatriates visiting Bali, many of them taking advantage of the Wi-Fi hotspot to check in on the rest of the world via their laptops.

My intention was to talk with Kadek about his handmade furniture from recycled woods, and his part in conceiving of the first annual Bali Spirit Festival. But my bout with the local bugs and dysentery in the past few days brought about my initial question. "Do you have a favorite remedy," I asked, "for the 'Bali belly?'"

Kadek smiled. "I'll order you something that works for me," he said. Soon, two orange-colored drinks arrived. While patrons around us had their coffees and teas, we each sipped our "Belly Juice," consisting of fresh turmeric and aloe vera, blended with a fresh apple. Before long, my stomach somersaults subsided.

* * *

Kadek's great-grandfather founded the village of Ubud, so he naturally holds a responsibility for helping guide its wellbeing. He explained the family lineage of artisans. Great-grandfather was an undagi, or Balinese architect. As such, he incorporated spiritual aspects into the practice, including asking permission before cutting the trees and only moving into a dwelling on auspicious days. His grandfather also was a house-builder, while his mom, dad, and uncles were painters.

"I got my chisel when I was six years old," Kadek said. Nowadays, he wears a number of hats, including business owner, landlord, architect, builder, furniture maker, festival organizer and father to four-year old daughter Bella, along with his wife Meghan, a native New Yorker.

Barely able to speak English, Kadek first visited the U.S. in 1991, when he worked as an agent for an import/export business. Later he traveled often to nearby Java and filled containers with furniture and antiques for clients in San Diego, San Francisco, Taos and elsewhere. He made a number of connections that to this day provide sources of recycled wood from old houses and other structures, including railroad ties from a defunct sugar company railway.

Meghan, an art history major, helped open their first business at the family compound. Tegun Gallery is a museum-like menagerie of artifacts, antiques and tribal arts from Bali and throughout Indonesia.

The Kafe is indicative of the new wave in Ubud, a growing awareness of health consciousness and environmental stewardship. When the October 2002 bombing of a Kuta discotheque led to a travel ban, the critical blow to the tourist industry led to a flurry of properties for sale. "It was a big reality check on the mass tourism idea," Kadek said.

The Kafe is also home to non-profit organizations like the Sumatran Orangutan Society office, which fights rainforest habitat destruction. The corner where we sat featured SOS t-shirts, recycled shopping bags sewn with plastics tetra-pak containers and other products benefiting worthy organizations.

A few years ago, Kadek and Meghan started Balispirit.com, promoting healthy living, eco-consciousness, healing and spiritual practices, including yoga. They opened a small yoga space-12 feet by 24 feet-that drew increasing crowds. Soon they converted Kadek's export warehouse into The Kafe, featuring salads, soups, juices and coffees.

* * *

The Kafe gets organic greens from Sari Organik, a small experimental family-size farm growing chemical-free vegetables, fruits and rice. Situated in the middle of rice fields from one horizon to the other, Sari Organik provides salaries for 15 families with their gardens, food processing and an open-air restaurant for those willing to make the 10-minute walk up from Ubud. Motor scooters are also able to navigate the winding path amidst the dozens of rice paddies.

Under the direction of a charming Israeli expatriate named Oded, Sari Organik is creating a fair trade system where farmers sell directly to customers, and also grow indigenous, more nutritional varieties of rice, processing it themselves to ensure a whole-grain rice. Vegetables thrive under bamboo-framed shade houses, producing a range of healthy foods. Most of the farmers are young and proud of their work, and the enthusiastic customer response.

"The Balinese used to eat a lot of pork," Kadek said. "Now it's getting back to more vegetables."

The focus on healthy living has been a boon to Bali's visitors and people alike. Kadek and Meghan bought a larger space and built the Yoga Barn, using recycled materials. A stunning three-story creation, it provides a community space for music, dance, yoga and more.

The integration of all these things somehow gave birth to the Bali Spirit Festival, where visiting musicians, artists, teachers and workshop leaders carry out a week-long slate of activities. The kick-off event featured a benefit concert by Michael Franti, raising $25,000 for the Bumi Sehat Birthing Center-a clinic for Balinese women to have low-cost midwife and medical care.

The previous evening, Elle magazine had done an interview with Kadek and Megan. Today, they both seemed calm, despite juggling scores of festival details.

It's possible that Kadek found his flair for gala events when he and his uncle traveled to Seattle in 1995 for the Bumbershoot Festival. Creating a feature called Burning Spirit, they constructed an 18-foot tall paper mache statue. After acquiring city permits, they then set it ablaze, right underneath the Space Needle.

When asked if this could have been the seed for the Burning Man gatherings, Kadek laughed and said he didn't know. Yet, it was certainly similar to the New Year's Eve ceremony we witnessed a few nights earlier.

Young men of the various villages comprising Ubud spend two weeks constructing large bamboo-framed Ogoh-Ogohs, grandiose monsters symbolizing the inner demons of evil energies or uncontrolled desires. After parading them through town, accompanied by a fascinating cacophony of gamelan musicians, they are then burned, symbolizing purification and transporting the demons away.

The following day, Nyepi, is the Day of Silence. The previous night's purification ceremony allows one to begin the New Year "empty" and to meditate on the good.

"Religion is like a big frame for life," Kadek said. "Inside, you need a good picture. It should involve all the various talents."

Kadek is also on the town's development committee, and helps oversee planning for the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary of Padangtegal, an oasis of ancient trees home to 300 native long-tailed macaques. Revered as a sacred Balinese Hindu site, written records indicate a temple was built there in the mid-14th century. Other archaeological evidence indicates the site may have been a Shiva Temple dating as far back as the ninth century. Balinese Hinduism combines aspects of Animism, Ancestor Worship, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Kadek told me his great-grandfather helped rebuild the main temple in 1952. Now a popular tourist attraction, visitor entry fees have paid to expand the sanctuary by four hectares, or about 10 acres. Tree-planting certificates are available to expand the forested area with some of more than 115 species of trees identified in the sanctuary. Kadek believes it's beneficial to expand this area for educational and recreational purposes, as well as to allow the continuation of ceremonial practices. The monkeys, he says, are the guardians of this spiritual place.

Deeply rooted in its cultural past, Bali thrives today, integrating the old and new with a style all its own. In many ways, it provides a unique mind-body-spirit blueprint to find harmony in an increasingly crowded and cluttered world.