demons of the deep fry – nyepi & nuptials in bali

Ok Bali, I get it. It’s taken me two months, but I think I finally get it.

Everyone here is always going on about the ‘M’ word…that Bali magic that has a tendency to cast its spell on expats. They arrive from the far reaches of the western world, rent a motorbike, bang out a few sun salutations, shoot back some young coconut water, and BAM, faster than you can say sama sama, they’re getting their hands on a freehold and opening an import-export business…or a woodcarving studio…or a raw cafe/yoga studio/retreat centre/B&B…and staying here forever and ever because the Island of the Gods is their one true home in the universe.

The magic didn’t work on me. Let me explain.


Bali: a monstrous first couple of months

The first few weeks were a black hole of jetlag and back pain. It was lonely and draining, getting acclimatized to the heat and humidity, adjusting my expectations to meet the reality of my life in Bali, and trying to fit in to a community that appeared welcoming at first glance but in fact made me feel more invisible and shut out than I’d ever felt before.

My motorbike - Independence laced with danger.

My motorbike – Independence laced with danger.

Then the infamous Bali Belly churned me up and liquefied me for a week. The first month ended with a motorbike accident that crushed my right foot – painful under normal circumstances; debilitating when your commute to work involves hiking down a muddy track, climbing a couple hundred uneven stone steps, and weaving along jagged lava rock pathways.

Just as I thought I was getting better, I fell off the bike again, re-traumatizing the same foot and adding some road rash to the mix.

I was feeling useless at work, socially inept, and frustrated with the string of physical maladies that seemed to have no end. So if Bali was waving a magic wand over my head, I didn’t see it on account of the massive grey thundercloud that hung over me from January until March.

But this week the cloud of toxic smoke from burning garbage cleared, and the sky looked blue for the first time in nearly two months. I’m still not entranced or enthralled, but I do have a kind of middle school crush on Bali. I don’t really get it, and it’s a feeling I’m almost embarrassed about after thinking it was icky for so long, but I kinda like it and want to stalk it’s Facebook wall til it pays attention to me.

Preparing a rooster for a cock-fight near Padang Padang beach

Preparing a rooster for a cock-fight near Padang Padang beach

This past weekend was indisputably awesome. Saturday I drove (yes, on the motorbike) down to the Bukit, the little tonsil-like hangy ball at the south end of the island. I met a Jakartan guy from Couchsurfing in Jimbaran, and together we cruised around to a few beaches. I witnessed the striking contrast in a Balinese day – equal numbers of locals participating in a Melasti purification ceremony on the beach at Padang Padang, and betting on a cock-fight on the cliff overlooking it. These apparent contradictions coexist everywhere in Bali; they keep me on my toes and remind me not to make surface judgements. Visitors to Bali commonly typecast the locals as carefree, innocent, spiritual people -a generalization that can be true but also risks being condescending, infantilizing and misses these contradictory nuances that are a vital part of life here.

Anyway, back to my awesome weekend…we caught a great surf-side sunset from the high cliff at Uluwatu, and I drove back home, two hours of peace in the cool night air.

Sunset from Uluwatu cliffs

Sunset from Uluwatu cliffs

Sunday, I did the bule (westerner) in Ubud thing. My foot was healed enough to go to my first ecstatic dance session at Yoga Barn – a MUST if you happen to be in Ubud needing a release at 11am on Sunday. I shimmied, twirled, and sweated out two months of pent-up BLARGH, then treated myself to a raw lunch and a $10 hour-long massage. Even though I’m here working for free, it’s easy enough to justify a totally indulgent splurge day; all-in, it costs about as much as seeing a movie in a theatre back home. In the evening, I  made my house finally feel like home by inviting a few friends – and even more strangers – to a pot-luck dinner party (slash new moon gathering). After feeling isolated for a couple of months, it was great to cook and eat with people.

Pretty good so far. But this weekend was a long weekend – Tuesday was the Balinese Hindu new year – Nyepi, the silent day. My co-worker invited me to celebrate with his family, so I bought some ceremonial garb (a kebaya, sarong and sash) and headed to Newman’s house. His wife, mother, and 3 daughters stuffed me silly with nasi goreng, mie goreng, ketipat, betutu, gado-gado and once – just to show they were down with Western cuisine – spaghetti. Their house is on the outskirts of congested Denpasar, but their neighbourhood is bordered by a tranquil rice paddy, with clear views of the mountains from their second-floor temple.

View of the rice field from Newman's home temple

View of the rice field from Newman’s home temple

In the weeks leading up to Nyepi, the young men in each Banjar get together and craft amazing demon effigies called ogoh-ogohs. Some of the ogoh-ogohs are scary and demonic looking, with huge fangs, sharp claws and wild hair. Some are really vulgar, with huge genitals and pendulous breasts. The rape trope appears quite often, as does the bule gila (crazy foreigner). Drunken demons hide in the flames, and occasionally an ogoh-ogoh depicts Krishna or another Hindu god fighting a monster.

The idea is that the night before Nyepi, all these evil spirits are released for one last royal rumpus. The evening before Nyepi, the whole island takes to the streets parading the ogoh-ogohs around on bamboo daises. Illuminated by torches and street lamps, the ogoh-ogohs sway and rock to the sound of clashing gambelan music while kids and adults line the streets shouting and cheering. It’s Where the Wild Things Are on acid. At the end of the parade, they burn the ogoh-ogohs (yup, they’re made of styrofoam and all kinds of nasty toxic stuff) and the cleansing begins.


The island goes dark and silent for 24 hours so whichever demons were spared the previous night’s lynch-mob will think that Bali is deserted, and with nobody to spook, they’ll move on. Businesses are closed, the airport shuts down, and everyone has to stay indoors all day. It’s supposed to be a day of silent meditation, but at Newman’s place we still chatted, did arts and crafts, helped the kids with homework, and sneakily dashed back and forth to different neighbours’ homes.

At night, with all the lights in Bali turned off, the stars overhead were unreal. But not surprisingly, instead of taking the opportunity to quietly stargaze, everyone clung to the safe blue light of their smartphone screens. The kids ran up and down their street with flashlights, whispering and wary of the Pecalang (cultural police) who roam around busting people who break the Nyepi rules.

The day after Nyepi, Newman invited me to a relative’s wedding in Denpasar. The alleyway was closed off and partially tented, with plastic chairs set up for the procession and a table where people placed their gifts – baskets of rice for the new couple. Each house on the street was involved in the ceremony, courtyards full of women in colourful kebayas and men in udeng headdresses. The bride and groom received visitors in one house, with kids playing gamelan music in the courtyard. Next door, a dozen men arrived at 4:30am to start cooking enough mie goreng, chicken satay, and lawar to feed 800 guests. The buffet was set up in the next house down. People rotated through, coming and going all day. I kept waiting for ‘the wedding to start’ but these hours of unstructured schmoozing seemed to be the main event.

Finally, Newman grabbed me told me that the wedding ceremony was beginning and I should go watch. He ushered me up the stairs in the first house to a temple overlooking the neighbourhood’s tiled roofs, where a priestess was solemnly performing the wedding rites – making offerings, burning incense, and sprinkling water on the couple and the family. It was an intimate affair, literally just the priests, the couple, their immediate family, two photographers, and me. I felt like an intruder – I know if it was my wedding I wouldn’t want some stranger’s mug in all my photos. I tried to insist, tried to step down a few stairs, tried to duck in the background, but they kept pushing me in to the inner sanctum. Once I got over the awkwardness, it was really a beautiful ceremony.

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Afterwards, Newman brought me back to where the men were cooking, and we drank tuak (a drink made of fermented palm sugar) and chatted in a broken Indo-English hybrid for hours. In the evening, I hopped on the back of Newman’s bike and headed back home to Bamboo Village through streets littered with the remains of ogoh-ogohs.

Bali is starting to win me over. ‘Magic’ still feels like a stretch, but give me another few weeks like this one, and I just might sprinkle a little fairy dust over my next blog post. For now, I like it enough that I’ve decided to extend my contract and stick around until August – five more months of dodging demons and downing fried food.


to my faraway friends: I don’t miss you.

I’ve been home for exactly two months now, and I have something to say to all my friends in faraway places: I don’t miss you.

Toronto homecoming

Sure, I sometimes laugh out loud walking down the street, when I think of the time we nearly drowned bobbing for apples. Or the time we scoured the grocery store for mac and cheese dressed like someone’s fairy godmother in drag, then threw in some turmeric because the cheese wasn’t orange.

Every time I ride my bike, I think about how you sang at the top of your lungs as we pedaled through town with roadies. How we navigated our little pink rental car through the rain and fog.

It’s not that I forget the way you’d sit in silence on your balcony watching the boats in Darling Harbour. Or the way  your voice formed otherworldly sounds in the shed-temple in Goonengerry. I have no trouble recalling the way you looked, calm and smiling as a Buddha as the Indian ocean crashed around us at Canal Rocks, and I can still taste that last pavlova at the Augusta Motel.

But I don’t miss you.

That phrase has been rendered meaningless by overuse. Friends I haven’t seen in a week, because we’ve both been busy with work and life, text, “I miss you.” Don’t take this to mean I love you any less, but that’s just not true.  What really bothers me about “I miss you” is not so much that it’s often thrown about without meaning, but what a meaningful usage of the phrase implies. It implies that somehow my life is less than complete when I don’t regularly see all your beautiful faces.

I wish the time differences weren’t so extreme, so we could talk more regularly. I wish I could definitively say that I’ll see you again soon…or at all.  But I am my whole self, whoever I’m with – or without. One of you taught me that knowing you’ve got a loving group of friends, rather than tying you physically to the people you care about, instead frees you up to be a bit nomadic. Having good friends in lots of different places keeps your heart rooted as you move around.

Last week, I was driving home from the cottage alone on a Sunday evening. Bob Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” came on – a song I’ve heard hundreds of times but never really listened to. I played it twice and really listened to the lyrics:

Perhaps it's the colour of the sun cut flat 
and covering the cross-roads I'm standing at. 
Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that, 
but mama you've been on my mind. 

I don't mean trouble please don't put me down or get upset 
I am not pleading, or saying "I can't forget you". 
I do not pace the floor, bowed down and bent but yet, 
mama you've been on my mind. 

Even though my eyes are hazy and my thoughts they might be narrow 
where you've been don't bother me, or bring me down with sorrow. 
I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow; 
mama you're just on my mind. 

I'm not asking you to say words like yes or no please understand me; 
I have no place I'm calling you to go. 
I'm just whispering to myself so I can't pretend that I don't know: 
mama you are on my mind. 

When you wake up in the morning baby look inside your mirror - 
You know I wont be next to you; you know I wont be near - 
I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear 
as someone who has had you on his mind.

That last line really gets me. Some of you helped me to see myself more clearly than I have in years. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been trying to keep that self-image in sharp focus before the light gets all blurry and warped with stress.

I hope my friends are as fully engaged in whatever they’re doing – be it working in an ADHD clinic, getting it on with a Dutch chick in the Balkans, or practicing violin in a campervan – as I am in my present life.

Here’s hoping we meet again…but in the meantime, you’re on my mind.

both sides now

Ice Cream Castles Everywhere

Whenever I hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now,’ I am transported to the early 1980s, a passenger in my mom’s old copper Audi. I hear her trying to mimic Joni’s range as I rest my forehead on the window and superimpose images of ice cream castles on the storefronts of my Toronto neighbourhood.  Some people change keys for effect…my mom is not one of them. But despite her less than perfect pitch, this song was a gift my mom gave me. Its lessons on perspective, on change, on “tears and fears and feeling proud” have comforted me throughout my child and adult life.

Now I am behind the wheel, and both the clouds and the lessons are more real. I just got back from a whirlwind two week trip to New Zealand. True to form, I booked a flight without researching my destination at all, and left it up to the fates to colour in my sketchy itinerary.

I was feeling heartsore and weary after six months spent away from home depending on the generosity of friends and strangers.  All I knew was that I needed to look at love and life from both sides. I figured that Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand meaning something like, “land of the long white cloud,” was the perfect place to do this.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: depending on others is not a bad thing. I was all down on myself for a while about being such a “taker” until a wise friend told me, “You’re not taking, you’re receiving.” For the last year, I have been receiving primarily through For those of you who don’t know about CS, at its most basic level it is a social network where people all over the world open up their homes and offer travellers a place to stay. There is no money involved, and no expectations on either end besides a safe space and a cultural exchange. Beyond that, people use it to connect with friends and to share rides, flats, activities and advice.

It has opened me up to places most travellers never see, freed up money for my over the top cheese budget, and provided valuable cultural exchanges with strangers who quickly become lifelong friends. My CS friend Lisbeth laughed at me when I told her it affirmed my faith in humanity, but I swear, this is not an overstatement. Couchsurfing has made me feel at home anywhere in the world.

Anywhere, that is, except New Zealand. I spent my first four hours in Auckland killing time and returning every once in a while to the lobby of my hosts’ building, pressing their (broken) buzzer. Finally, feeling abandoned, hungry and really needing to pee, I checked myself into an unfriendly and overpriced 8 person dorm room that smelled like 8 pairs of damp hiking boots. Strike one.  

I consoled/distracted myself by deciding to go buy myself a proper meal. I speak 5 languages (badly) but am reluctant to use them. But I was feeling so alienated in Auckland that when I heard Hebrew (from a block away), I clung to it like a lifeline and turned around to ask the approaching posse of dreadlocked Israelis if I could join them for what turned out to be an incredibly entertaining sushi dinner.

I spent a half day in Auckland visiting the Art Gallery and wandering around “Auckland’s hippest strip,” grabbing a coffee at Agnes Curran and fish & chips on Ponsonby Rd. It was nice, but I wasn’t feeling the Auckland love and was excited to get out into the countryside.

Flower Chandelier At the Auckland Art Gallery

The next night I was supposed to meet a French CSer in a coastal town called Tauranga, where we were going to begin a 4 day road trip around the North Island. She had arranged hosts for us in a few towns, and had her own car. All I had to do was pitch for gas and keep her company. I showed up in Tauranga and my host was waiting for me. Male, mid 50’s, a bit sketchy looking, and right off the bat he tells me “Your friend isn’t coming tonight.” Strike two. 

I made sure to suss him out over falafels before agreeing to go back to his farm. Turned out to be a solid guy with no ulterior motives, lives on the family farm next door to Ma, sponsors Latin American kids through WorldVision…totally trustworthy.

My road trip buddy showed up the next day, all smiles, and we headed off. We visited the thermal pools at Rotorua, did a couple short hikes, drove through a relatively depressed part of the country with a large Maori population, wished it wasn’t freezing and rainy as we cruised along the beautiful beaches of the East Cape and Bay of Plenty, took pictures in front of a giant kiwi, and surfed with some wonderful hosts in Opotiki and Gisborne. She taught me to drive manual in her old beater hatchback, which it turned out was dangerously low on oil.

Giant Kiwi…check!
Turns out cars need oil to run properly…who knew.

Maori artist's workshop in Rotorua

Rotorua is one hot little number

It was pleasant enough, but the weather was crap and I was itching to be in control of my own destiny. I headed down to the South Island with a brief stop in Wellington where I surfed with a super classy host who fed me vegetable mash and recommended some excellent but inexpensive local wine. Before catching the Interislander ferry, I checked out the impressive Te Papa museum and had a great lunch at Fidel’s on lively & colourful Cuba St.

The mid-afternoon ferry ride was gorgeous. I stared out at the blue water of the Cook Strait as one of my favourite travel themed songs, Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al” ran through my head.

A man walks down the street

It’s a street in a strange world

Maybe it’s the third world

Maybe it’s his first time around

South Island

I arrived in Picton & grabbed my car – a sturdy mid-1990’s navy blue Nissan Sunny sedan. For some reason I instantly felt like her name was Penny. I rolled down the windows, turned on the radio and experienced a moment of serendipity as “Call Me Al” struggled through the static. I was so relieved I started to cry as I cruised toward Nelson and on, beside the setting sun, toward Motueka.

A few highlights:

I did part of one of NZ’s Great Walks in Abel Tasman National Park, camping in the rain but waking up to sunshine that warmed my toes and dried my pack. Unfortunately, on that stunning hike I forgot my camera in the car and am still waiting for my new friends to send me their photos when they get home to Bourgogne and Manitoba.

Happy to be reunited with the two items I forgot to bring with me camping in Abel Tasman – toothbrush & camera.

In Hokitika, I camped at a small seaside hostel and was moved by the sunset on the beach. Sometimes cliches are still powerful. The town itself was totally weird – dead quiet except for the ubiquitous jade stores and the quirky Sock Making Machine Museum. The hostel had a cosy fire in the living room and I made friends with a German woman who kept me company for the drive to Franz Josef the next day.

Sunset in HokitikaIn Franz Josef, I decided to forgo the expensive glacier tours and to do a couple of independent hikes. The first one was a 5 hour hike, a lot of which was up a poorly maintained rocky trail. It too slippery in the rain and I was afraid I’d lose sunlight considering I didn’t start until 2pm. When the only other people I encountered on the trail decided to turn back, I did the sensible thing and turned back with them. I was disappointed but as a solo hiker (without proper gear) it’s best to play it safe. I took my time getting back, bonding with the moss along the way.

Moss becomes her

Then I set out for a shorter hike to the foot of the glacier (actually a disappointing 500m away from the foot of the glacier), where I jumped over the rope to find a private rock to sit on and have a moment with Bjork, the queen of glacial music.

At Milford Sound, Fiordland (sic) I splurged on an all day kayaking excursion, where I paddled past sunbathing fur seals, waterfalls, glacial peaks, and a cliffside shadow that was a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen.

Can you find Leonard Cohen?

We hiked a short part of the Milford Track and saw a fuschia tree whose fruits ferment and get the bush pigeons drunk. We also moved  as quickly  as possible through the place considered by Maori legend to be the birthplace of the sandfly.

Kayaking in Milford Sound

Kayaking in Milford Sound

The week was a blur of negotiating hairpin turns in the dark, waking up early to hike, and taking breaks whenever I turned a corner and was gobsmacked the views. I waded into many freezing turquoise streams and restocked my fuel and food in many underpopulated towns.

Lake Tekapo

Checking out the day’s route over a well balanced breakfast by Lake Wanaka

At 5’10, I push the upper limit of car-sleepability, and I dutifully tiger balmed my aching knees every morning after sleeping scrunched up across the back seat. I lived on PB&J and apples, smelled like a hobo…but I was free. I was alone by choice, operating on my time, following my inner compass. I talked to myself, saying some things I had never uttered out loud. On a few occasions, I made myself laugh; just as often, I made myself cry. I had imaginary conversations with unattainable crushes. I pulled over to scribble down lines of poetry or to draw images that popped into my mind.

In other words, I spent a week with my head in the clouds. Literally and figuratively. I saw Joni’s ice cream castles at sunrise from the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind. I saw clouds that looked like they were designed by Zaha Hadid from the ferry across the strait. The little fluffy clouds perched atop the southern alps looked like my Auntie Pearlie (z’l) after a visit to John the hairdresser. Others looked like they had been placed there simply to accentuate the vivid blues.

Golden Sunrise at Cape Foulwind

Late night fuel stop in Haast

Zaha Hadid clouds

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Both Sides Now

I reluctantly returned the car in Queenstown. Having fully inhabited it, it took a while to clean my stuff out of all the pockets and compartments  – rocks and shells, maps, scribbles on scraps of paper, peanuts and smelly socks. I met my CS host in town and went to his place for dinner. It was St. Paddy’s day and Queenstown had been green since the pubs opened. I had to go out for a Guinness or two – when in Rome…

By midnight I was bored and starting to get self righteous and cynical about the drinking culture, so I took my host’s keys and let myself in while he stayed out to party. I was awakened at 3:30 by him, quite drunk and trying to force himself into my bedroom. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he cursed and yelled at me and threw me out on the street. Strike 3.

After a week of feeling strong, independent, and in control, I fell into a place of fear and darkness.  It was deeply upsetting. Even though I had stood up for myself and refused to take any blame for this horrible situation, I still felt disappointed in humanity and upset that no matter how confident and experienced we are, female travellers are always vulnerable. It’s unfair that I can so easily be made to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, defensive, and objectified.

I started to wander into town, gripping my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket and sobbing. As I pounded on the door of a hostel, a woman walking home from her bartending shift approached and asked if I was OK. I told her what happened, and she took me home, poured me a glass of water, and gave me a warm and safe place to sleep.  Mary and her roommates offered me to stay on with them but at this point, I did not want to depend on people anymore, and checked in to a hostel the next morning.

My energy was slowly rising, and was boosted by some of the great people I met in the hostel – Irish brothers who shared a civilized dinner of green lipped mussels, and the two middle aged women in my room who sat cross legged on the floor until midnight talking and laughing about life’s ups and downs.

The last couple of days were transit days. My only experience of Christchurch is sleeping with all the other backpackers on the airport floor before catching our early  morning flights.

New Zealand was exactly what I wanted. The lows kept me in check, reminded me that life isn’t all well-maintained trails opening up to dazzling blue vistas. Sometimes we slide downhill in the freezing rain, and arrive to find clouds obscuring the view. Abusive jerks make us appreciate that most strangers are kind and trustworthy. Loneliness is a reminder of  how important  it is to be self sufficient. We need both sides to appreciate how good life can be.

But don’t take my word for it; I really don’t know life at all.

Cloud Illusions

how to go camping in australia

Rent a car and set off Saturday morning. Drive 200km north (or in my case, sleep in the backseat while a friend drives). Arrive Nelson Bay, wander around the grocery store like a bunch of zombies looking for pancake batter. Locate pancake batter.

So many beaches!

Set up tents at Melaleuca Backpackers campsite and listen as Mick, the friendly proprietor, lays out the perfect 2-day itinerary, including what time to watch the sunset. Walk 5 minutes to One Mile Beach, past a koala snoozing in a tree. Set up shade tent and dip various things in hummus. Apply sunscreen when shade tent is disassembled after nearly blowing away. Frolic on dunes. Frolic in the shallow water, do 360s in gentle waves, lie under said waves and watch them break overhead. Read a book about Western Australian pioneers and fall asleep under a big felt Akubra.

paddle game!


Wake up. Drive to Birubi Point, to watch the sun set behind the largest sand dune system in Australia at Stockton Beach. Ditch shoes behind a bush. Find burnt out car and have dramatic photo-shoot for way too long. Continue to wander along a small fraction of the 32Km long dunes. Walk backwards so as not to miss a moment of the sunset as it turns the sky from blue to gold to fuchsia.

sunset over the dunes

Return to campsite and use the hostel’s kitchen to cook a feast that leaves you sitting on the patio unable to move. Fall asleep in the tent awakening every so often in fear that the hostel’s domesticated ‘roo, Josephine, will play the game where she sticks her toenail through the wall of your tent. Wake up and make pancakes with white chocolate chips, banana, blueberries and real Canadian maple syrup.

Throw tents in the trunk and drive to Tomaree Lookout, walk (you really can’t call it a hike when it’s a 1Km long paved brick path) up to the former radar station and take in the panoramic view. Walk back down – this time not backwards. Have a coffee at Fingal Bay and continue on to the nearly deserted Zenith Beach. Swim and read more about pioneers.

View of Tomaree Hill from Zenith Beach

Grab fish n’ chips at Aussie Bob’s in Shoal Bay. Drive back to Sydney and try to get the sand out of everything.

That was easy.


it’s all good at milkwood

Why should a high school English teacher care about land contours?

That’s exactly what I asked myself as I worked on my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) at Milkwood over the past two weeks. I filled pages with doodles as the teacher mapped out swales and sketched aquaponic systems at the front of the class. The truth is, I don’t care much about land contours at the moment.

What I care about as a teacher – and now a certified Permie – is what permaculture can do for education. In order think about those big ideas, I decided to dedicate some time to studying the technical details of permaculture design. Two weeks later, along with a notebook full of gorgeous doodles, I also have a head full of knowledge. The things I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks might not be directly relevant to my professional life but are fascinating nonetheless. And more – this new insight is shaping the way I look at the landscape around me and at the people who act within and upon it.

The PDC involved more frontal classroom teaching than I had expected. I signed up thinking there would be more time spent outdoors learning through doing. While we did have sessions walking around the property observing, for example, how the swales and dams collect water throughout the property, most of our time (8:30-4:30 daily) was spent in the Woolshed – our classroom/dining hall/social space.  The lessons were engaging and sometimes interactive, and the final design projects challenged us to synthesize our understanding and apply it to workable model of permaculture design.

If you’re going to spend 8 hours a day listening to someone talk, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Nick Ritar. Dude knows a LOT. He peppers his lessons with entertaining and instructive anecdotes, drawing from his experience in permaculture design but also from his background in the arts and in the corporate world. Nick and his co-teacher Floyd Constable taught us about the principles of permaculture, the design process, and the various elements that make up this holistic system (energy, trees, water, soil etc.).

Nick teaching us about hot compost: onion, donut, lasagne

I got to spend two weeks as part of a diverse community of learners. I’m a newbie in more than one sense of the word – new to Australia, new to country living, new to ecological systems thinking – and I learned heaps from conversations over meals and campfires with my classmates. They come from places like Tasmania, Barcelona, and Canberra! They are market gadeners, cattle farmers, festival coordinators, and chook fanciers!

Studying, eating, camping and working together through morning chores, hailstorms, and late-night design sessions, we created a strong community. It’s amazing how close you get to 28 people when you’re sharing two composting toilets.

So while I might not care about land contours, I care about the power inherent in activated, intelligent people, creating communities and working together to bring about positive solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing issues. And this is where permaculture can be so hugely beneficial to our crippled education system.

It’s about making connections between fractured knowledge bases and segregated disciplines. Valuing long-term thinking and accepting failure and feedback on the road to growth. Recognizing and nurturing symbiotic relationships between parts of the big picture.

Nelson Lebo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, is eons ahead of me in his application of permaculture ideas to education. This is someone I’d like to talk to. He talks about teachers needing “more nuanced approaches…for them to want to embrace some of the ideas surrounding permaculture. Those ideas include ethical decision making, applied science, sustainable living, and systems thinking. One strategy is to use permaculture design as the process for engaging teachers and students, not as a desired outcome.”

This is exactly what I’ve been talking about all year. It’s more than growing veggies at school. For one, school gardens have been successful around Australia, but  are a bit harder to do back home where the ground is frozen for most of the school year. Also, permaculture needs to be an overarching framework, not an add-on, in order for it to be adopted by teachers.

Learning permaculturally, not learning about permculture. Make sense?

After learning so much at the Milkwood PDC, it makes sense to me. The PDC is over but the grand permaculture design for my life is just beginning…

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Oh yeah…and I rapped at the talent show on the last night:

I’m a break it down like fungus on a stump
While Billions of bacteria do the humpty hump
Thermal mass like a dinosaur
10 tonnes, maybe more
I’m a heavy hitter
like a dark painted concrete floor
And, no, I ain’t quitting
my rhymes are hard hitting
Dropping bombs in your wheelie bin
It’s like real sh*ting

I’m a big city girl 
rockin’ lipstick heels and pearls
climbing fake plastic trees 
in a styrofoam world
Day after day 
I’m up up & away
Drop a quarter in the meter
Half an hour to play 
I’ve been racing ’round like Flo Jo 
People to see, places to go
Restaurant opening art show,
Who are you and who do you know?

Had bourgeois issues
Grab a box of tissues
Crying from the pain
But you can’t explain what bit you
Tried psychoanalysis
Emotional paralysis
I would sing along 
but I don’t know what this ballad is
And it don’t make a sound
Stress builds underground
Take a fifty ton machine
To excavate this mental mound

What I need are some solutions
Left the urban the noise pollution
I have an attraction to action
Came to join the revolution
Feel the sun on my face
my pulse pumping the bass
Spreading knowledge like organic mulch
All over the place
We got ideas brewing like compost tea
Only one life to live before they compost me
We’re in each other’s business like OPP
It’s all good at Milkwood, rock the PDC

weekend warrior, the other way around

As a kid who spent summers canoe tripping around the Canadian wilderness, I used to look down on the Weekend Warriors. These urbanites would load up their cars with gear, don some stupid hat and a lifejacket that didn’t yet smell like mildew, and spend 72-hours max connecting with nature.

At the end of the weekend, sunburnt and satisfied, they’d blast the AC all the way down the 400 and settle back into their colourless urban existence.  Sure, I lived in the city 10 months out of the year, but I got to feel superior to them because I was out there for all of July and August with the mosquitos and the bug juice and the starry night skies.

This month, I am a weekend warrior…in reverse. I’m spending my weeks working at Berridale, an organic farm in the Blue Mountains, a couple of hours west of Sydney. I pick berries and weed garden beds for 8 hours a day, “shower” in a swimming hole and sleep in a tent in the Megalong Valley. I subsist  on a peanut butter-heavy diet and wear the same thing every day.

On Friday afternoons, I haul my backpack and my filthy aching body onto a commuter train, pass out for a couple of hours with Sigur Ros on my headphones, and arrive in Sydney to spend 72-hours max connecting with culture.

Exhausted after week 1, waiting for the train in Blackheath

Balanced in the Blue Mountains

I’m a reverse weekend warrior. And it works. I feel more balanced this month than I ever have before. I used to say I wanted to work at something where I’d use my brain for six months of the year and my body for the other six months, and this is about as close as I’ve gotten to actualizing that lifestyle.

I get my fill of sunshine and eucalyptus scented mountain air during the week. There is lots of quiet reflective time, without cellphone reception or a computer. The kookaburras laugh as I weed endless rows of blackcurrants and kangaroos dart out in front of the car on the way home from work. Alpacas munch on the compost heap. The berries are delightful: tiny strawberries that taste like bubblegum, raspberries so ripe their kernels crumble when you pick them. It’s an antioxidant smorgasbord! There are a few other workers on the farm, and we alternate between friendly conversation and meditative silence as we work.

Ginger the alpaca munching on some gourmet organic greens

On the weekends, I stay on the pull-out couch at my friend’s luxurious apartment. I bust through the door and head straight for the shower before I can even talk to him.  Swap my mud-caked blunnies for wedges, and I am transformed from a country girl into a city girl. Instead of being outed as a Weekend Warrior by pasty white skin with more glare than an aluminum canoe, my farmer’s tan outs me as an Urban Weekend Warrior.

I spend two or three days soaking up the city – eating in the Chinatown foodcourts, going to clubs and concerts, brunching with friends. I stay out late and sleep in. I swim laps in chlorinated water. I drink lots of coffee and fiddle with my iphone on the subway.

tUnE yArDs plays the Sydney Festival @ Hyde Park Barracks

Perfectly poached egg at Mad Spuds in Surry Hills

Laneway art in Sydney

But on these urban camping trips, I notice I’m pounding the pavement with a slightly slower step and a more tranquil gaze. Even in downtown Sydney, the mountains have a hold on me. Sunday evenings, I head back to the Blue Mountains, with my one outfit freshly laundered and a restocked bag of muesli.

Like a Weekend Warrior throwing the tent in the garage until next year, I turn my cell phone off and stash it in my backpack, already nostalgic but ready to settle back in to daily life on the farm.

Resolved to Party: New Years @ Peats Ridge Festival

New Years Eve 2011 was forgettable. I spent the week leading up to December 31st going back and forth with 3 friends trying to decide what to do. A promising party cancelled due to a bedbug infestation. Not interested in paying $75 for a champagne flute and overdressed 905ers.  The improbability of hitting one party on Roncy and another in Leslieville. The fear of starting the new year on a downtown street corner, shimmying to stay warm on numb feet without a cab in sight.

Once the nasty little critters infested Plan A, a million Plan B’s were tossed around. My gmail archives show a chain of  22 emails, including one that reads simply:

Yes, this is quite a quandary.

I knew which party I wanted to go to, but nobody else would decisively commit to it. I finally opted to stick with my indecisive little crew and ended up having a very mediocre night of texting, waiting, and wandering around Little Italy & Kensington trying to figure out where to go next. At the end of the night, feeling vaguely resentful and unfulfilled, I made a new years resolution. I resolved that I would stop waiting around for other people to do the things I want to do. 2011 was going to be the year of going places alone instead of not going at all.

I thought of this resolution last night, as I sat on the grass drinking a jug of Pimm’s watching the last rays of summer sunshine kiss the tops of the gum trees on the hills surrounding the Glenworth Valley. I looked around at the painted faces of my new Peats Ridge mates, and realized that for once in my life, I’ve truly fulfilled my New Years resolution. Whether it was deciding to check out a TIFF movie, drive up to the cottage for a day, or move half way across the globe for “no good reason,” my inner voice has not been drowned out by a cacophony of social pressures. All year, I have tried to ignore the drive to seek external validation of my desires.

And look where it got me!

New Years 2012 is one that I will not forget (except for the parts that I can’t remember). I rang in this apocalyptic year surrounded by strangers but feeling at home in the world. Instead of waiting around for someone to suggest a Sydney New Years plan, I was proactive and signed up to volunteer at Peats Ridge Sustainable Arts & Music Festival. I found a rideshare through a Facebook group, and headed up before sunrise on December 27th, two days before the festival began. I joined a dedicated team of vollies (they shorten everything here…getting used to it) decorating a tent with sparkly hearts and disco balls, mustering cars through dust choked paddocks, building bamboo structures, and swapping stories over meals in the crew tent.

I was dismally prepared, with a broken tent pole, a dead flashlight, and no BYO, but everyone I met was happy to lend a hand or share a bottle. By the time the festival began, I was walking around with my feet caked in mud, feeling like I owned the joint. Everywhere I went, one rag tag crew or another beckoned me to join their mob.

We spent our days soaking up heavy doses of sunshine and new music, swimming in the mucky river, doing laughter yoga and dance workshops. At night we danced our faces off, absorbed the psychedelic carnivalesque atmosphere on the festival grounds, and sat around in the wee hours sharing a hookah with crew of body painters. I went to Peat’s Ridge alone, but as soon as I unzipped my tent each morning, I was surrounded by friends.

Last night, Gotye counted down to midnight on the Bellbird stage and the crowd went nuts. I hugged my new Aussie friends in their feather boas and glittering facepaint, feeling sure of myself and proud of my decisions.

Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and fulfilling new year. I’m still in the market for a shiny new 2012 resolution…hit me with some ideas!

For the Seventh Generation (via Teach ’em Good)

Here’s my post  from Teach ’em Good about the end of the permaculture youth program I’ve been working with out here in Byron Bay…featuring two videos of me performing a spoken word piece that I wrote for the occasion!

For the Seventh Generation

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