Moving from urban life to Bali’s Green School for a sabbatical

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Juliet Kinsman and daughter - Bali’s alternative Green School

Temple-ready at Amandari, Ubud

At the start of last year, my personal and professional resolution was to be more sustainable. I wanted my travels to be making a positive contribution. And I wanted to inspire my daughter Kitty to have stronger eco-values and help shape a better future for all – so where better to instil some tree-hugging sensibilities than at a school built from bamboo in the heart of a forest? At first, a break from London was just a bit of a fantasy. But after a few months, this digital-nomad parent had successfully registered with Green School in the heart of the jungle in Bali for two semesters. Kitty was happy to have a break from urban life, and showing her images of maypoles and swings suspended from palms as an alternative to spending break in a concrete car park made the move an easy sell.

Inspired by a friend’s child who is a pupil at Green School and was invited to talk about sustainability at the UN, I headed to the website, and watched the founder’s 2010 TED talk. In ‘My Green School Dream’, John Hardy explains how as a child he wasn’t able to flourish in a traditional education system, and tells his story of being a Canadian art student who arrived in Bali in 1975 and never left.

We packed for Bali not really knowing what we should take, as a mum and nine-year-old daughter off to live in Southeast Asian jungle-clad hills. The Indonesian archipelago of 17,500 isles had always seemed so far away – and I’d allowed myself an image of Australia’s Costa del Sol, despite flicking through Eat Pray Love.

surfing lessons on sand - Bali’s alternative Green School

Learning to surf on Nihi Sumba Island

I’ve been to plenty of far-flung places, but I just didn’t know what to expect as we made the drive inland from the touristy beach hub of Seminyak – shacks, shops and surprisingly upscale bars punctuated by paddy fields. Signs in English were everywhere, but it was busy – not the typical postcard-perfect palm-tree idyll you might imagine. Traffic – that is the downside of mass tourism.

But there’s a charm to the hectic thrum of Bali’s arteries. The Balinese are extraordinarily proud and loyal to their traditions and Hindu customs, and nothing takes the edge off sitting stationary in the car like having front-row seats for a village’s joyful musical ceremonial procession, where everyone is dressed in their colourful sarongs and sashes. A friend had connected me with a driver, Wayan.

This would be a saving grace. Dodging packs of puppies, scooters and BALI sarong-clad ladies carrying baskets on their heads overflowing with flamboyant canang saris – floral Hindu offerings – was a stressful start to the day when I was behind the wheel of a hire car.

Ditches line the roads due to the irrigation system for the rice farming and my wheels ended up stuck in the subak’s troughs a few times – but there was always a sweet local happy to help push me out of my predicament.

‘So, will you basically be spending all day on the beach?’ friends at home had asked. In reality, being a Green School parent felt like a full-time job, getting her there, then being ready for pick-up at 3.15pm. Which wasn’t something this jobbing freelance journalist had realised when she signed up for a working sabbatical so her daughter could enjoy an exercise in ‘rewilding’.

Solo parenting and trying to pay for our exotic adventure as well as a mortgage back home was a challenge; but it was worth it for my daughter to experience learning in classrooms where shoes were left at the door and assemblies were as exciting as any music concerts I’ve been to.

outside school gate - Bali’s alternative Green School

Juliet and Kitty at the gate of the Green School

Thanks to Instagram, friends back home came on our journey, and were entranced by scenes of water blessings and meals made with homegrown ingredients cooked using sawdust as fuel, and served on banana leaves. It wasn’t a typical curriculum of English, maths and history at this iconoclastic place of learning founded by husband-and-wife silversmiths turned sustainability activists. Initially, the open-air classrooms served only 90 children, but a decade on, there are now almost 400 students, aged three to 18, comprising 35 nationalities. Kitty had friends from Holland, California, Sao Paolo and Bali itself. It was a fun adventure – even if, after a while, she yearned for her traditional timetable and more predictable school-uniformed life.

But the way she learned at Green School was invaluable and immeasurable; they cultivate an instinct for original thinking and problem-solving, which will be the most valuable skills in tomorrow’s computerised world. As idealistic as it sounds to be living somewhere you can spend days in a sarong, let’s address a few myths: Bali is not paradise.

It’s chaotic and, I’m sure, like so much of Southeast Asia, you could find examples of it being corrupt. For us, it was colourful and charismatic and good for the soul. We’d lunge from thinking on a mosquito-ravaged night maybe we’d rather be back home in London, to feeling passionately loyal and never wanting to leave.

Mother and daughter bamboo bridge - Bali’s alternative Green School

Back to nature at Bambu Indah – ‘beautiful bamboo’ – in Bahasa Indonesia

I never thought I’d yearn for a routine, but in place of predictability was meeting interesting people who had also upped sticks to enjoy the inspiration and a shift in lifestyle and their perspective. At times, I was lonely, 7,000 miles away from friends and family. Overall, though, I was welcomed warmly and felt part of a community which isn’t only forward-looking but also honours its hosts’ traditions. Green School reflects the ethos of its host islanders.

Preserving Bali’s own culture and incorporating its rituals, the staff, students and extended community here are creating their own inspiring way of living which the next generation is sharing globally. If, when you picture Bali, images of clichéd soft-sand beaches lined with palm trees pop into your mind, that can be found. But I am happy to have managed expectations about this very special island. I would urge all to find the time to explore. For me, it was the tableaux of ordinary Balinese life that were most heartwarming, and the leafy enclaves where you’d meet interesting characters who have floated here from all over the world.

walking through rice fields - Bali’s alternative Green School

On a jalan-jalan – walkabout – through Ubud’s rice fields

The lowdown: Bali

Green School and Village is among the most eco-friendly developments in the world. Each house is made entirely from sustainable bamboo. Take a tour to learn more about this remarkable campus – they call it a jalan-jalan (Indonesian for ‘a walk’). Tours don’t cost much and every rupiah goes to providing locals with scholarship places.

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies from Heathrow to Bali via Singapore; return flights from £605. To plan the perfect family-friendly Bali adventure, Turquoise Holidays tailor itineraries, such as two weeks in Bali, including return flights from Heathrow, from £1,995pp – pop into their offices in Battersea or Beaconsfield to chat through in person.

Where to stay

Eco-experience: Bambu Indah, Ubud. Perched along leafy Sayan Ridge, traditional Javanese cottages overlook the Ayung River. Swing on a rope across the natural pool. Get a crash course in John Hardy’s vision for a better world on a ‘trash walk’, which has you spearing garbage with a bamboo pole. Houses from £150; extra person, £25.

Cutting-edge design: Katamama, Seminyak. Andra Matin’s bold architecture used 1.5 million hand-pressed bricks in this 57-suite boutique hotel. There are few hotel spaces more aesthetically pleasing than here with the mid-century furniture, specially commissioned art and hand-dyed textiles. Suites from £220; children under 6, free; age 6-12, £11; 13-17, £22.

Quirk y and cultural: Hotel Tugu, Canggu. Crammed with Indonesian and Chinese curios, this distinctive family-run place has been by Canggu’s favourite surfing and sundown beach spot for years – long before the buzzy bars that now surround its pretty pocket of thatched teak suites. Suites from £220 a night; extra bed free for under-3s; then £23.

Remote luxury: Amankila, Manggis. Elegant thatched-roof suites set on stilts are made from coconut wood and connected by frangipani-lined walkways. Be sure to book a chaperoned bike ride through the gently sloping countryside and a laughing yoga class. Suites from £610; includes airport transfer. No charge for extra bed for under-12s, only for breakfast.

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