A year ago, Aart van Bezooyen and Paula Raché decided to embark on a unique project focusing on sustainability in materials and design. Instead of the usual desk research they started planning a creative journey around the world. After a lot of thinking and pinpointing countries to visit, it was time to get an around-the-world ticket and to start writing friends and colleagues for local contacts and country information.
When we arrived in Bali, Indonesia the cab driver asked us how long we are going to stay. Four weeks we said and he burst out laughing. "What are you going to do here for four weeks?", he asked. We did not really understand his amazement. After two weeks, the server at our favorite restaurant even had to ask us whether we had business in Bali. Contrary to what locals assumed, by the end of our four weeks we got used to the mind changing way of life on Bali and were sad to leave this beautiful island.
Indonesia is the first Asian country we visited ever. During the first days in the city of Ubud we were busy getting used to the street vendors and the chorus that followed us on the street. "What are you doing today?" "You need transport?" "You want a massage? Maybe tomorrow?" "Discount for you—good morning price for good luck..!" No matter whether you are a designer, teacher, nurse or plumber, on Bali visitors are all the same—tourists! With its swarms of street sellers and desperate taxi drivers we realized that a garden café that is both lovely and quiet is a unique proposition in Ubud. From the local newspapers we learned that the Ubud area is experiencing a growth in Eat-Pray-Love tourism, referring to the book and subsequent movie where Julia Roberts visits Bali to "find herself." We didn't see this movie but this is what we found.
Invisible technology meets tangible crafts
During our stay in Bali we continued our list with animal sightings, or what we called, our "daily pet." Living in bamboo huts is a different thing than our compact flat in Hamburg. Unlike doors and walls, the bamboo huts are semi-open structures that allow for natural cooling. Of course, these structures that allow air to go flow through the huts also give animals free reign, and we experienced a lot of night activity. One of the first friends we met was a frog that lived in our first accommodation. After we put out the frog the first night, he (or she?) was back on the same spot the next day.
One of our first roommates in our bamboo hut
Getting to know more animals such as birds, snails, butterflies, dragonflies, spiders, bats, and the common house gecko in our hut we learned that these animals were there long before us and didn't disturb us. Even better, after two weeks we were entertained with their daily bug catching activities and it felt like we were all living together. Honestly, it took time to appreciate these "pets" but this respect for animals and closeness with nature felt like a very harmonic and sustainable lifestyle.
One of our main goals on Bali was to visit the Green School which received a lot of attention when founder John Hardy presented a TEDx talk about "My Green School Dream" in 2010. Since then, the school has been overwhelmed with both students and teachers who want to go green which is both a blessing and a curse. After a short tour by Ben Macrory we enjoyed the "Wizard of Oz" theatre night in the midst of proud pupils and even more proud parents. The theater show was fun but the school building is amazing. The Green School is currently the largest bamboo structure in the world.
A quick shot from the backyard during Ben's (fast forward) Green School tour
All together, the Hardy's have proven that they know how to build a beautiful school. What still is unproven is its academic credibility since the school's first senior class won't graduate until 2013. We admit that no school on earth beats their Green Studies program that includes lessons on taking care of a pig, cultivating rice and making your own chocolate from one of the 200 home grown cocoa trees. We learned that the school is still grow and parents should be aware that the educational system is still an experiment for some 250 students. In other words, let's hope Green School will mature soon and grow up in a steady way, just like its students.
Green School classroom with curved tables made of bamboo
During our stay, we get in touch with Anna Sutanto, campaign coordinator of the Plastic-Free Bali organization. Accordingly, plastic waste is one of Bali's biggest environmental problems. Bali creates over 1650 tons (the weight of some 367 trucks!) of plastic waste every day, most of which is burnt or ends up in illegal dumping sites, rivers and the ocean. Anna and her supporters are putting all efforts in reducing the use of oneway plastic bags with activities such as local discussions, students doing a plastic diet, visiting a waste management facility and more.
Visiting Anna Sutanto at Plastic-Free Bali's headquarters in Ubud
Unfortunately, the growing consumption, is partly due to the growing number of tourists. A recent article in Time magazine, "Holidays in Hell: Bali's Ongoing Woes," explains the situation very well. During our stay on Bali we learned that this particular article has woken up a few governmental ministers but so far the government has not taken this waste management problem seriously enough to really do something about it. We were shocked to see how seemingly harmless plastic bags are slowly destroying one of the world's most beautiful islands.
Daily life on Bali is much more laid back and not that driven by full agendas, if any agenda's at all. On Bali almost everyone has a second agenda full of Hindu rituals which are listed in a 210 day Balinese calendar, also known as the pawukon. Unlike our few Christian holidays back in Europe, the Balinese calendar has ritual values for almost every day. A big part of the island's activities are dedicated to these religious acts as illustrated by teenage girls making flowery wreaths for the frequent temple ceremonies. Besides the prayers and extensive offerings for the Gods, we learned that the calendar also provides auspicious dates for activities such as: "Today is a good day for castrating a cat."
Balinese woman placing daily offerings with foods and incense in the morning
To understand all about the local culture and rituals we should have stayed much longer on this beautiful island. We met a few Europeans that did, and they smiled when we talked about our observations and tried to understand the local habits. For instance, the famous "good morning price for good luck" in shops might sound like a joke but no. Balinese truly believe that making a sale to the first customer in the morning will bring their business and good luck for the rest of the day. Shop owners touch other items with the money to spread the good karma in their store.
GOOD KARMA - Unfortunately most dogs live a poor streetlife on Bali
The crafts on Bali are amazing! Bali is home to many craftspeople that know how to transform a single piece of rock, wood or metal in a beautiful sculpture by hand. We admit that most of the craft activities result in kitsch objects end up in tourists houses but if we look beyond these souvenirs, there is a lot to be learned. Veny Lydiawati, a local product designer, invited us to witness the preparation of a wedding ceremony which is a ceremony itself. Over a few days, men build large structures and woman prepare food and transform simple palm leaves into beautiful decorations.
Family making decorations for their sister's wedding, a lot of work and laughs
Thanks to Stefan Sagmeister we got in touch with Karim Charlebois Zariffa one of the few designers who recognizes this beauty and uses it. For this Canadian designer Bali has become a second home where he collaborates with local crafts people to design and develop unique designs. Unlike CAD files, Karim works with drawings and sketches that give the local artisans enough design freedom to make, as Karim calls it, "Bali style." We love his work and recommend you take a look for yourself at his website.
In Bali's crowded capital Denpasar, we visited the Wonderground exhibition where initiator Arief 'Ayip' Budiman explained that the exhibition brought together the works of 18 artists and designers from Bandung, Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bali. The exhibition demonstrates prototypes for a more sustainable future featuring ideas and products made from waste or organic materials.
Wonderground exhibition: Smile Stool made from waste wood by Fitorio Leksono
Wonderground exhibition: Mushroom inspired floor lamps made of reused glass by Desain9
David Berman, who presented his book Do Good Design, was one of the international speakers that supported the exhibition with a series of lectures and events. Also we were happy to share our experiences and sustainable solutions discovered in South-America, New Zealand and Australia. It was a great experience to do our slideshow presentation in the middle of a beautiful garden. Based on location alone, this was definitely our greenest talk so far.
Wonderground exhibition: Open air lecture at the beautiful site of Balinese architect Popo Danes
On our last day, we again travel to the Denpasar International Airport in the south of Bali. We were sad to leave our bamboo hut at Nioman's guesthouse that we enjoyed for some three weeks with daily pets in the night and a flower-decorated breakfast in the morning. At the same time, we had already been doing a lot of preparation for our next destination, Singapore, where we are invited to host a sustainable design workshop.
On our way to the airport we told the taxi driver that some of our friends might come to Bali soon. Being a good entrepreneur he starts searching in his car and to give us his business cards. When we take a closer look at his card he proudly tells us that he has a second job making business cards out of recycled bottle caps. With a smile I put the card next to our latest gift, a sticker saying: "Travel Warning: Indonesia, Dangerously Beautiful." We don't question that Bali is probably one of the most beautiful islands in the world... what we asked ourselves is: "But for how long?"
Aart van Bezooyen is a Dutch optimist and motivator for materials in design. He lives and works in Hamburg where he founded Material Stories (2005) to inspire and enable the best use of materials to make design more competitive, creative and sustainable.
2011 he explored sustainable solutions from around the world...
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[This text was previously published in print, in Interactions Magazine and IDSA's Innovations Magazine, exclusively available online from Cranbrookdesign.com]
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