By Lindsay Burns, EBPP Volunteer
It was 6am on 22nd of September 2011 and a thin crescent moon perched above a volcano-shaped lilac cloud framed by palms still vivid in the silvery morning light on the edge of Denpasar, Bali’s capital city.
Maybe it was because it was so early – or maybe it was because I had walked into the glass door of my hotel for the second day in a row – but I had no idea I was looking at Mount Agung, the volcano that erupted in 1963 killing hundreds and leaving the land on the eastern slopes virtually barren.
It may as well have been a volcano shaped cloud looming over Bali, for all the world knew about the isolated sick and malnourished communities scraping out an existence on its dry, hot slopes.
But the mountain I was about to visit is a very different place now, thanks to new roads, fresh water supplies, education, healthcare, training facilities and environmentally sustainable innovations that are allowing these communities to flourish.
The first place we came to was the new bamboo art gallery built in Cegi hamlet by EBPP’s Cegi School students, with art taught by Wayan Merta, an artist from the area who returned to teach art to a community who didn’t even know what it was.
The children had been taught to paint “what you see and feel” and their pictures were being sold to help the local economy and kick-start a creative industry that would continue to sustain their families.
The vibrant artworks had so much depth, it was hard to believe they were painted by children and David Booth (EBPP founder) said they instantly absorb new techniques taught by professional artist volunteers from all over the world.
David explained that once the hills had been reforested with enough bamboo and native trees, the water table would rise, fresh springs would seep out of the ground, the air would become more humid and a tropical paradise like this would be born.
This dream was anticipated in their art as whole spectrums of colour filled blooming landscapes, testimony to the decades of dormant potential, unleashed by fresh water, good nutrition, education, and hope.
The next school we visited was in Jatituhu hamlet and we were shown the little library, a collection of treasured books now also borrowed by children from government schools, and a shelf-full of gleaming trophies awarded to the best students.
But these children were not just excelling in their community – they are among the brightest youngsters on the whole island.
In the corner of one room, one little girl smiled shyly as David explained that her recent exam results had been among the top in the whole of Bali.
In the next school in Darmaji, we watched two young singers and their tutors, who were once pupils themselves, accompanying them on guitar.
They sang with an extraordinary passion that belied that belied the motivation of all the kids we met to grasp every opportunity with both hands, after the years of suffering their families had endured.
The song was about their hopes and dreams for the future and how the EBPP has changed their lives – and it seemed so polished it was hard to believe it had only just been written.
Later we were treated to a display of traditional Balinese dance, singing and music by the children, performed with a soulfulness and harmonious skill I’ve rarely seen among kids of their age.
The children were watched over by a gnarled, milky-eyed elderly lady whose huge, beaming smile was framed by groove of lines like the whorls in a cross-section of wood.
This was a woman who must have seen many children buried and I wondered if that extraordinary smile had grown so large over only the last decade, as the new generations here began to thrive.
Later in Jatituhu, we met Mangku Pasek, the 1987 Indonesian Karate champion who had started running karate classes in for all children at EBPP’s 6 remote hamlet schools since January 2007 and helped three of the boys gain their black belts.
In a make-shift dojo up a series of new concrete steps in their village a group of youngsters kicked and punched the air, their clean white INKAI Karate uniforms gleaming in the bright sunlight.
There was a sense of discipline, focus and real enjoyment from the children and Mangku, who seemed to teach in a firm, but calm and relaxed manner.
After speaking with Mangku for a few minutes I noticed that one girl had been standing to attention with her fists clenched and arms outstretched the whole time, waiting keenly for the next move.
At the back of the group rows of tiny children eagerly copied their brothers and sisters, jostling in straight lines at the back.
Many of the staff in these hills are among the first children to be helped by the EBPP and the little ones I met all wanted to be teachers like them, so they could also return to help their community.
I was privileged to meet and interview some of the founding members of the EBPP, who worked with David for virtually nothing in the early days, giving up the little they had to help these people.
There was staff team leader Komang Kurniawan, also Chairman of EBPP Charity since 2002, who sold his only means of transport, his motorbike, so he could dedicate time to the EBPP; Made Sudarma, a villager whose childhood was spent carrying vast buckets of water, who now pours his time into managing fresh water projects and the first ever toilet projects in the most remote hamlets.
Ketut Suastika, who leads EBPP Bamboo Development Team, coordinates EBPP Daya Bamboo treatment and building training centre, where villagers will learn how to preserve the bamboo and erect buildings that will last for more than 150 years – equipping them with skills that will be in demand for many miles around.
As we left the village and headed down the mountains the roads became dotted with little shops and other signs of local industry and the dry hills gave way to lush paddy fields and artisan wood and stone carvers in Ubud.
Some of these communities were still very underdeveloped but they survived because there had always been roads connecting them to the rich spirit of Bali.
The roads are a direct reminder of how dependent we all are on this vast social fabric and it took a few miles of track first built by the EBPP to kick start a sea of change that will eventually see springs of commerce and creativity spill from these previously barren east Bali hills.
And it could just be that decades of isolation and destitution has given this community the impetus to pioneer sustainable local economies, protecting and nurturing the people and fragile ecosystems of Bali and beyond.