Thursday, 11 December 2014

Arabian Nights - in the arms of Green School

Two hours, they said.  Two hours of a high school play. Uh oh, this could be a long night…

But then it was beginning, gentle, exotic drumming floated over the humid night as a line of robed actors walked through us, with a confidence and grace that comes with knowing. “Asalam Alaikum” calls their leader, “Alaikum Asalam” intone the others, in unison, in rhythm.  We were in, I was spellbound.

Arabian Nights, the stories of the thousands and one nights, stories within stories, mysteries and comedies, tragedies and philosophies; acts within acts, all masterfully put together so we always knew where we were, who was who. The passion was palpable; I could feel the hours of preparation in the choreography as scenes and actors changed places or characters. Props? Who needs them? At one point they created a journey across mountains, through rivers and oceans, just by the movement of their bodies, the waving of the sea, the shape of a boat (arms linked together, the shape of a leaf). 

And how they unfolded each tale! I have rarely been so engrossed, charmed, inspired, amused and thrilled at a group of people working together on some scripted lines, some suggested scenes. 

Enthralled, enraptured we sat, perhaps 80 of us, parents, children, friends of friends, on cushions around the floor or along the amphitheatre steps under the leaf-like umbrella that forms the roof of this remarkable theatre and morning assembly hall (now transformed into the realm of original mysteries).

And how the school, this collection of incredible buildings, each exquisite and unique, that are host to a throng of passionate people from around the world, who we see in the day, busy in their comings and goings, in the never-ending endeavour of teaching, of learning, is transformed at night, the curved walls, the bamboo structures beautifully crafted together into a whole, like a basket, surrounded by over-storey coconuts and living bamboo. Dark green everywhere, the boisterous clouds overhead, the occasional howl of a forest creature.  This is quite a place.  And this night belongs to Ibu Sarita, our school’s drama teacher who has brought this performance to light and created a kind of magic.  And these young adults whose lives are surely enriched now, their memories of this time, this night and one other they’ll perform, which they will keep for their forevers.  

How great is this? To see that learning is more than memory, that memories are made from creating something that is beyond the one, part of a collaboration of efforts that weave light and sound and words.
“And the nights of Baghdad shone bright like day” they soared, in defiance and joy at once.  Joy and tragedy together, as we all know too well the bitter history of yesteryear, wrought by Western leaders who still live and breathe today. And so, from a thousand-year-old enchantments we are dumped into the folly of today. With the echoes of incredible wisdom in the original book that inspired this play – of love, the meaning of prayer, of sunset, God, the words that define an empire, death and infinite joy – the lights went down, the story done, the moment complete.  Like the outraged King at the beginning of this tale who only wanted the stories to continue, I only wanted more. Until dawn if need be, and beyond. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

To live in Bali... first impressions anyway

Immediately struck by light and sound, colour and smell, arriving in Bali, almost a month now..  Kira and I plus about four thousand other foreigners who happen to be in this particular slot of new arrivals.  Mostly tourists you'd think.  Who knows? Are we tourists? What are we doing here anyway? Well we are yet to figure that one out. For now we're here for school: the green school, a unique arrangement of outstanding bamboo buildings in the middle of a forest, where an exciting new approach to education is underway.  Right now we're not feeling very green haven flown half-way around the world and surrounded by concrete and car fumes at the airport.

Bali is, so far, a cacophony of different experiences. The ocean, open between here and Antarctica pulsates with waves every day, without fail, there's always something to ride.  The beaches are totally diverse - some black, others brown, some white, some covered in shacks selling grilled corn and fresh coconuts, others empty and desolate, farmland stretching right up close to the shore.

August is windy. So it's kite season.. look up to see a few dozen bizarrely-shaped specs shimmering there, often static on some kind of fixed lines into the middle distance, like stepping stones into the sky.

We ride by motorbike, until Monica arrives.  Two on a bike OK.  The school is maybe 25 mins inland across paddy fields which shine in morning light, and on the right day the volcanoe mountain looms in the background, cocunut palm pasted into the frame. Idyllic, or classic tropical scene. Until the junction...
A hundred, a thousands speeding cars, trucks and bikes. all at once, in a continual flow like  river of metal and fumes.  Eeek. and we have to cross into that? We wait.. see a break, follow some other nutter who's making the leap, and we're in, like jumping into a river, nipping around the slower moving mighty wagons, or cars. How slow are cars in this chaos?  Soon enough we're back to the side roads, and the air is fresh again.

Ubud is the cultural heart, where for decades a melting pot of creative types have been gathering. I stopped one day for a haircut.  Turns out to be a centre for therapy and massage, run by an elderly gent who was taught some ancient arts of meditation and massage passed down for generations.  Now it feels like the whole town is dedicated to this, with yoga and therapy retreats behind every garden wall.  Where surf lodges fill on the coast, travellers here come to stretch and breathe. And eat... the vegan cafes seem to outnumber the conventional. organic everything, dairy free banoffee pie - imagine? I've had food here i've never experienced before - and i'm not talking Balinese spice, but vegan creativity with the very same veg and nuts and fruit you find everywhere.

Everywhere bamboo, little baskets make of leaves with flowers and offerings, a little stick of incense wafting. in front of every shop, on street corners. And children learning how to weave and cut and make it all.  This I like.

Back to the sea - always the sea, warm and accessible, rock and sand.  This is where everyone goes to play. At weekends filled with locals from the towns and cities equally thrilled with the setting sun, selfies from every rock. Weddings and ceremonies.  Temples so near the beach, donging and haunting rhythms heard far out in the waves.

Friday, 4 July 2014

For Paolo Mellet - visionary, teacher, friend.


First off, I just can’t believe your’re not with us right now.  I am so used to being in touch pretty much all the time.

With crushing reluctance I’ve come to accept that one of my closest friends, mentors, ideas generator, building mate, fellow life adventurer has left us, for higher realms. We found out last week, middle of the night in our home in Islamabad, when our son Nikita called with the news.  We were all just stunned and speechless. It hardly seems possible, for someone who was so completely infused with boundless energy and ideas, as if they burst through his pores, his eyes …isn't just around the corner.

Completely gutted in every way.  Yet at the same time empowered by his life. 

And now by Ruth his incredible wife and equally inspiring partner.  Ruth somehow maintained  clarity and a capacity to share Paulo’s struggles to overcome a serious bout of malaria which kick-started a spiral of organ and system failure across his exhausted body; at 17 Paulo survived leukaemia but knew how his organs had taken a serious hammering, leaving him vulnerable, yet somehow with this octane-fuelled clarity of vision and direction.  Every few days Ruth would facebook updates in English and Portuguese (Brasileira, como ela), to muster us all into action to send positive images of a healing Paulo.  Hundreds of us would like and comment and share our love and hope and support.  Paulo had a LOT of friends, had reached a lot of people..

This is it.. Paulo has had a vision for this planet, a “design strategy” as he might say, to re-think the way humans live in the environment around them.  To transform the energy we put into destroying our ecology to repairing it.  A system of design that would increase people’s access to food through smarter use of their waste, cutting inefficiencies (that he saw everywhere, as if he had some eco-super-power to x-ray scan across communities and spot the numptified designs that have appeared around us).

struggling together with this 400kg oak beam...
He’s the only person I’ve ever met that could see the common thread between everything people do, from growing food, harnessing energy, dealing with waste, building homes, teaching children.  He had learned about permaculture way back, then he studied renewable energy, sustainable building and large scale water retention and management strategies.  He knew so bloody much stuff, and had this spider’s web of linkages going on constantly that connected strategies and designs from one part way over to the other.  For a while he became obsessed by mushrooms and fungi (well he was obsessed about everything..) and would insist you sit down for a two hour session watching some guy delivering a presentation on the stuff, then sit and watch you and say “so, you get it now, right?” then he’d explain how the waste coming off ethanol production could be excellent feedstock for fungi which in turn would provide goodies for fish, which would clean dirty water and provide irrigation for new plants for more ethanol, and on and on. 

This is Paulo's last presentation he sent me.  We'd been in constant touch about ways to deal with the disaster that human waste has become, but why it needn't be so. 

With Saffy, his sister Mary, and friends
We started chatting about all this in the green of Wales back in 2006, when we met, soon after we moved into small plot of land in Portugal completely covered in 30 years of brambles and spikey things, hiding old terraces, ruins and a massive renovation project.  Paolo liked this idea and offered to dive in with us.  And so he did.  Over the next couple of years we grafted away together tackling just about every concept and project that you can imagine, all the while Paulo chattering away an almost non-stop narrative of sustainability and compost, worms, gardens and water, mushrooms and underground life forms we know-so-little-about,  smoothies and aaargh!   I never went on a permaculture design course (2 weeks) because I think back on this time as a two year doctorate!

We grew together.  Our children Nikita and Kira must have been 13 and 7.  They absorbed too – and won’t forget. 
Under Paulo's spell Kira dives in to the
lime plastering too:)
How many times Nikita, Paulo and I would be the only ones around holding up some half-framed structure, Paolo rapidly slipping into a mood that emerges from having to work with such turkeys who take-so-long to get it.  Well Nikita got it pretty quick, I’m still in turkeysville but that’s another story).

With Nikita, bringing up this massive pre-fabricated structure that was to become the terrace for the Alambique

He would disappear for weeks on various missions.  To Croatia with Ruth to desing some mega straw-bale warehouse for his new umbrella company LUSH. Or to obscure communities of German inventors in Southern Portugal, come back bouncing with excitement about their new creations that turned sun rays into ice (the hotter it is outside the cooler the fridge).  I’m pretty much obsessed by anything low-tech and radical too, so we’d be there for hours plotting how we’d incorporate these into the aid world, into communities devoid of power and jobs, and how sun & ice could change the picture completely.  Especially if we included biogas, rainwater collection, constructed wetlands, and so on.  Integrated smart design.  Yes… I’m working on that. This has become my mission too. 

Paulo designed this entire straw bale section on the house, and led the construction with our family and friends.

We went crazy watching the local rivers change through the seasons, and Paolo let slip that kayaking was another of his hobbies (how many can a guy have!!??).  A few months later we had all the gear, and Nikita, Paulo and I would drive our van way up some secluded river and charge down, waterfalls and all.  These were great moments, staring over at each other in a strange mix of terror, exhilaration and what-the-hell let’s just do it screech, as we hurtled towards some new waterfall we hadn't had time check out first. In the pouring rain. (Argggh. where's the photos of these missions!??)

When we moved to Pakistan Paulo and Ruth used England as a pit-stop to the oasis that their Brazil was to become.  It sounded amazing there.  And I could read between the lines of messages and many skypes how he was infecting yet more ordinary mortals with his vision for a better world. 

With our multi-national team of beam-movers from Romania, England, Portugal, New Zealand, Scotland
from left - Nikita, me, Nik, Paulo, Shrek (Carlos), Hewel, Petrus, Ilie and Manuel (Neo). 

In Pakistan I became humanitarian “advisor” to the UK Government’s efforts to support post mega-flood recovery. Subsequent years brought equally intense rain and destruction.  Almost four years on I’m still there, supporting one of the largest shelter reconstruction projects ever – at over 120,000 homes and counting.
One of hundreds of amazing families i worked with in
Pakistan, discussing building with lime, how I'd learned
from Paulo and Hywel in Portugal. 
Almost everything I learned from Paulo I imparted here: the value of lime, appropriate shading and slaking of the stuff (this is a huge deal for the uninitiated – and has enabled people to build fully flood resistant homes for less than £300 each, meaning we reached 70% more families or saved about £50m compared to the conventional way of building houses).  I found myself stomping around lecturing anyone in hearing distance of the magic like qualities of this ancient material, as if I had become an ambassador for Paulo’s forest empire.  Yes, Paulo, your legacy is marching on, I carry it proudly every day and as the fates would have it I found myself advising one of the largest and most progressive donors in the world, who are really supportive of our work – and enabled your vision to go really far.

We return to Portugal tomorrow, where you appear in just about every picture, in every part of the building and gardening process.  You are as much part of our land there as we are and as you planted half the trees you will grow on with us there.  Quite fitting really, as Paulo was many parts elfen creature and part-man.  He seemed more at home in a mossy corner between rocks or high in the canopy of some tree.  A quiver full of carved arrows over his back and slightly pointed ears would have raised no alarm.  I’d find him stuffing fresh cut grass into his blender, together with powder of some coco bean, sun-filtered water and some fruits. I asked him if he had become part-goat; he looked at me from under his eyebrows, frowning, to say “grass and weeds are just phenomenal mineral accumulators, how do you think sheep survive?”.  I’d settle down with my all-too-human scrambled egg and bread, feeling more like an ork beside this ethereal being sipping his plant juice. (Annoyingly, he would then carry a jug of this stuff around for the next half hour, like an IV, sipping, glowing). 

I’m going to feel a bit lost for a while – any time I had a problem or an idea I’d take it to you and you’d send me a drop-box full of vids and docs and links and names and case studies.  I have Gigabytes of the stuff now, guess I’ll have to start reading it…  God-damn that malarial piece of shit bug…

Ruth, I can’t imagine how you’re coping. You are SO many times stronger than me to have held it together so long.  Please come and see us whenever you can – we are here with you as your extended family. 

Go well Paolo, my friend, it’s been a great privilege to fly together a while.