3 Years Gone: Lessons Learned About America

Our journey to Bali and Europe was supposed to be about learning a different culture.  It was.  But our travels also helped us reflect about our own country. Here are a few of those lessons.


I love freedom.

I mean, I really LOVE FREEDOM!! Freedom to criticize your leaders. Freedom to practice your religion without government bureaucrats looking over your shoulder. Freedom to demonstrate, protest, complain, organize, petition, and kick the bums out. Freedom to privacy from sneaky NSA information thieves. Freedom for reporters and bloggers to report whatever they think is important — even if it’s nonsense from MSNBC or Fox News. Living in countries where they want to make it a crime to insult the President or to say something about the corruption makes you realize what a special gift the Constitution is. Our system may not be perfect, but at least we have the right to voice our grievances and question our government leaders.

But we must be ever vigilant! Returning today, I’ve been reading about politicians wanting to read everyone’s email and Facebook pages in the name of fighting terrorism…and do other dumb stuff to act like they are dealing with the problem, but in reality leaves us less free. Don’t let them do it.

I love the certainty of the rule of law.

God knows our legal system has flaws, but it beats other places we’ve visited by a country mile. The fact there are real rules, more often than not transparently enforced just makes life a little more stable and less stressful. I was bewildered by the often changing laws, rules, etc. based on the whim of a police officer or bureaucrat that we had to deal with. And it happens at every level of government.

I hate corruption.

Sometimes just handing over the bribe is the easiest and only way to deal with being stopped by a policeman, obtaining approval for a project or just about anything else in other places in the world. But it’s a terrible way to run a country. It just eats away at the legitimacy of a government, makes people despise rather than respect their leaders. There is still corruption in American governments, but it’s not as widespread and it is often hunted out and exposed. That would never happen in many other countries in the world.

 America isn’t the only big dog in town.

The world is changing. Many think America’s empire is waning. Even with its ailing economy, China’s economic power and cultural influence is growing. In Asia, people rarely think of the USA first, second or third when thinking about business partners or customers. We don’t even seem to be terribly important to Europeans. That’s fine. We aren’t the only big player in the world anymore. We don’t need to be an empire, but we can be an important player. That should mean shared responsibility and costs. We can all grow to meet our needs, but we aren’t going to be able to dictate anymore.


People all over the world wonder why we tolerate gun slaughter.

Maybe a hundred times, an Australian, Austrian, Indonesia, Italian,…asked: So what’s up with the gunfights in America? Why are you letting people walk around with automatic weapons? I try to explain about the Second Amendment, our culture of independence, hunting…None of it makes any sense to my friends, and less and less sense to me. Why are we putting such powerful weapons in the hands of kids, people with mental problems? Why can’t we stand up to the NRA?

There is room for smart, hardworking people to create wonderful new ideas.

There really is no place in the world that supports innovation and entrepreneurship like America. Google, Facebook, Apple….This is exciting and creates huge economic opportunities for millions here and abroad. But are people too focused on the IPO and forgetting their spirits?

Does America still have its spiritual mojo?

Sometimes I wonder if the nation’s religion isn’t about creating a new killer app to make millions.  Is our church the mall or Amazon.   But then I returned and see people practicing Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, meditation, Hindu. I have more faith that spirituality is not lost in America…just a little more diverse and taking a less visible role.

Cell phone service and Internet is bad and costs are too high compared to other countries.

In Bali, I can make a cell phone call to the USA for 3 cents per minute. Get data on my phone for $5 per month. There are a half dozen providers to choose from. There is real competition. Why are there only Comcast and AT&T to choose from here?

Health care is way more affordable and often on par or better outside of the USA.

It’s crazy how much we pay for medical care in America. The medical service we received in Bali, Singapore, Thailand and Croatia was just as competent, but a fraction of the price.

Our government has done great things in our name.

Japan, and Asia in general, is a better place thanks to our post-war program. Europe has had no more wars and is richer and more stable thanks to the Marshall Plan. As Americans, we should be very proud of these achievements.

Our government has done terrible things in our name.

During the 1960’s the CIA helped to execute nearly half a million people in Indonesia under the excuse of stopping Communism. The bloodbath still stains the Indonesia psyche. In the same café, you would see the killers at one table and the family of their victim ate at the next table.


The Water Bearer…Miracle Worker… of Flores

Gilles Raymond

Gilles Raymond

The Ngada people in central Flores (eastern Indonesia) have decided they are not going to wait for a handout from the government or big business. They are just going to figure out for themselves how to provide the basics such as water, food and shelter.


And after that, they are going to figure out a way to build their way out of poverty and for good measure why not create an innovative way to clean up the environment and make money at it too.

They call themselves Project Otonomie, and they are led by an unassuming French Canadian named Gilles Raymond and village leaders from Ngada.

I met Gilles online because I saw a photo of one of the converted motorbikes the project uses for their recycling program….and lusted after one for our Klungkung based recycling effort.

But for Gilles, before recycling came the need for water. Many villages lack a water supply which means villagers were forced to walk several kilometers each day for a mere bucket full of water. Gilles and the village elders decided to try to remedy this by building a pipeline from the village to a mountain spring many kilometers away.

Before Project Otonomie villagers (mainly women) walked for hours every day to obtain water.

Before Project Otonomie villagers (mainly women) walked for hours every day to obtain water.

Great idea, right? But how do you organize to decide the route, find the manpower, raise the money for the pipeline, maintain it and then decide how to use the water supply once it arrives. Those are the complex questions that had stymied this and other villages from obtaining the water they needed. In other places in the world, such as California, these are the same kinds of questions that have led to decades of water wars.

But for Gilles, figuring out these challenges are his idea of a good time. Previously, he had honed his community development skills in remote areas of Quebec province. He flew east looking for a new challenge, and found it in Flores.


He criss-crossed the region building support from village leaders and farmers, and eventually built his first long water pipeline while his kids were in elementary school. Today there are many pipelines and many villages that have water. The key to his success is determination and a self-help philosophy that’s about getting things done instead of waiting for someone else or the government to do it for you. And most importantly it’s about the value of gaining the support and respect of the entire village over many hours and weeks of talks with the people he’s working with.

Nearly 15 years later, Gille’s boys are leading the water project, and dozens of villages throughout the region now have water. He has given himself the humble title of Water Bearer. Gotta love this guy.

But he didn’t stop with water. Poverty is endemic to this region.   So Gilles called the village leaders together and they developed a program called Loans for Dignity in which farmers are loaned money from outside partners to clear and cultivate a hectare of land for ginger production. Gilles has recruited partners from Canada, America and other parts of the world. The local Catholic Diocese serves as the banker and auditor. There were 13 families who pioneered the project.

Ginger seedlings

Ginger seedlings

Gilles reported:“In terms of income for those 13 families (who usually have an income averaging between Rp. 800,000 and Rp. 900,000 per year / or $ 800 to $ 900 annually), they obtained from their ginger harvest of roughly double that) to put on top of their usual annual income. Yes, our philosophy of the ‘’small steps that change life’’ gives concrete results. Suffice to say that some of those families are now planning to renovate their house, to build sanitation facilities or enjoy the fact that they are now able to afford the cost of electricity and even to buy a washing machine. However, more than all, the thought of the day concerns the ability to pay the secondary school fees or the access of a child to technical school and even, in some cases, to be able to come to terms with the cost of sending one of their children to University.”


The cost of becoming a partner is roughly $2,200. You can make a huge difference by contributing to this cause. (Our foundation, Ahimsa In Action, is a partner).


And finally, Gilles has helped organize Trash Banks in which local villages collect and recycle plastic, metal, etc. and in turn receive the proceeds of selling these products. The program has been so successful that Gilles tells the story of a film director arriving at one village to do a story about the program only to find the streets clean and free of plastic and other trash (a rare occurrence in Indonesia). Seeing that the director was disappointed that the streets were clean, a village boy offered to go to the trash bank, and find some recycled plastic that could be strewn around for the cameras. Gilles politely declined the offer.

By now Gilles has probably done much more….but I’m exhausted. If you’d like to learn more about Project Otonomie please www.partnerfordevelopment.org or email him at info@partnerfordevelopment.org

Gilles describing the Water Bearer Program and More

Father-Son Road Trip to Abruzzo

Hotel Acquevere, Lake Scanno, Abruzzo, Italy

Hotel Acquevere, Lake Scanno, Abruzzo, Italy

Max (Fast Biker) and Dave (Slow Walker) managed to bag peaks, maneuver down steep mountain roads, eat delicious meals and make friends during a four-day road trip to Abruzzo, just 1.5 hours east of Rome.

One of the many amazing things about Rome is that you can find country-living 15 minutes from the city limits, and actual wilderness within 2 hours.


On the first day, we checked into the beautiful Hotel Acquevere on Lake Scanno.  After a short transition, Max took off the down road saying these kinds of mountain roads were what he was dreaming of ever since he arrived in Italy.  This was the maiden ride for the 35-year old road bike (Bottecchia for you bike geeks).  About 2 hours later I received a call from him, saying his pedal had broken.  I picked him up and we whisked down to a small town where excellent bike mechanics repaired the pedals and tweaked a few other things too.  We received some trail advice and carbonara pasta at dinner and a tasty Montepulciano red wine.

The 35-year old bike proved to be a little faster than the 60 year-old hiker

The 35-year old bike proved to be a little faster than the 60 year-old hiker

The next day, we drove a few miles out of Scanno to a statue of Pope Paul II.  Max departed for a 74 km ride towards our next town.  I began a 5 hour hike into the Appenines.  The trail started through a cattle farm where I was attacked by a half dozen sheep dogs which were as big as wolves and as mean as Bali dogs.  Fortunately after two years of warding off the mean dogs of Klungkung I knew what to do: Pick up some rocks and they scatter.  Afterwards the route climbed through deciduous forests into a beautiful mountain meadow.


My hiking partner…for a morning

At the head of the meadow was a stone hut for hikers to spend the night or eat lunch.  I met a couple of local guys (Pasquale and Serge) who were from Scanno who were out for a day hike too. They were about 70 and really knew how to hike, bringing an Abruzzo white wine for lunch.  I supplied prosciutto and a local cheese, and we feasted while exhausting our supply of English and Italian words in about 5 minutes….and the food about 10 minutes after that.  I said goodbye to Pasquale and Serge and climbed on ridge tops and snowed in valleys.  I walked through the cattle ranch without disturbing the dogs…whew.

Abruzzo's mountain roads are made for cycling

Abruzzo’s mountain roads are made for cycling


Park refuge hut


Look carefully, and you’ll see Pasquale at the door.


Italian trail marker

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When I arrived at the car, Max called to say he was done after cycling 74 km up and down mountain roads.  He had stopped at a restaurant which was closed, but opened up for him, made him a sandwich and gave him a beer which they refused to accept payment for.

We drove to a park hostel that night in a town called Faro San Martino next to the Park Nazionale Maijelle.  The ranger met us and gave us directions for the next day’s hike which we did together for a while.  We found lots of bear and deer scat and tracks, but no animals except for a large black snake.  It was fun to hike together after going our separate ways the last two days.  Good bonding over hiking, biking, eating and drinking.

The final night we spent in the town of Popoli on the north side of the park.  A beautiful riverside town.  The last day, we made it a round trip.  Max rode up the rode from Sulmona to Scanno while I drove to Scanno and then hiked up the mountain to a small church where I did puja.  Max had the ride of his life up the staggeringly beautiful curvy road returning to Hotel Acquevere where his adopted grandmother and auntie hugged him and gave him beer until I arrived.  We were both happy campers for our trip back to Rome.

Max with the ladies of Hotel Acquevere before his 74km bike trip

Max with the ladies of Hotel Acquevere before his 74 km ride.

Road Trip to Regreen Bali

Kadek Gunarta tends to his newest children: 5,000 bamboo plants

Kadek Gunarta tends to his newest children: 5,000 bamboo plants

Having fun and doing good…That’s a lesson I’ve learned from Kadek Gunarta.  I joined Dek and his team from Bali Regreen on a road trip to a very poor village in north Bali where they are helping to improve the welfare of hundreds of families.

Dek talking to the head of one of the banjar's at Songket B

Dek talking to the head of one of the banjar’s at Songket B

The Bali Regreen Project is led by Dek and sponsored by the Bali Spirit Festival Team.  It’s mission is to help improve the lives of villagers by helping them plant and then maintain and harvest bamboo which can be used for village ceremonies and as a cash crop.  Also, replanting hillsides destroyed by lava flows and erosion helps to markedly improve the environment.

Dek with Ketut one of the Bali Regreen community organizers and Supardi from Kompos Pedang Tegal.

Dek with Ketut one of the Bali Regreen community organizers and Supardi from Kompos Pedang Tegal.

But the Regreen Project is as much about community organizing and empowerment as it is about planting.  Dek and his team work closely with village leaders and farmers to plan the project, implement it and to maintain it.  Dek’s Team provides the expertise on how to plant and maintain bamboo, and works closely with farmers over many months and years.  The villagers contribute some funding for the projects, but most importantly provide the loving care to the bamboo that it needs to grow.

In addition to bamboo, the Regreen Project recently helped the Songket B villagers build a 9.6 km water pipeline to serve their village.  One of the main reasons that this village is so poor is that it lacks adequate water supplies.  There has been only 8 liters of water per day per household which is barely enough for drinking and washing with no water available to raise livestock or anything else.  Dek put together a plan that included finding a water source, pumps, pipes, water storage, construction and maintenance.  The pipeline was built in less than a month, and is now supplying water.  When I asked how the water supply has changed their lives, one woman replied that now her family has enough water for everyone to have a bath, and she’s bought some pigs and other livestock which will add to the family’s income.

Taking a bath with water from new water pipe built by Bali Regreen

Taking a bath with water from new water pipe built by Bali Regreen

Of course no Balinese road trip would be complete without a lot of joking and eating.  We made at least 3 stops for food at delicious local warungs and ended the day with a feast of Durian, the first time I ate this pungent fruit.

The mighty, fun-loving team from Bali Regreen

The mighty, fun-loving team from Bali Regreen

SMA1 Semarapura Students Take the Recycling Pledge

SMA1 Semarpura's Principal kicking off our recycling education event

SMA1 Semarpura’s Principal kicking off our recycling education event

The Eco Club students at SMA1 Semarapura organized their first recycling event last Friday for the 11th grade class of 200 students.  They created a very compelling powerpoint presentation.  The school principal strongly promoted the event…and I did my thing as Head Cheerleader of Keep Bali Beautiful.

Getting Silly for a Good Cause

Getting Silly for a Good Cause


Our message was simple.  The plastic and other trash from 4 million Balinese and a like number of tourists is killing this beautiful island.  It’s poisoning the air and water, killing the animals and will eventually destroy the economy as the tourists opt for cleaner places to vacation.

We then ask who can solve this problem.  The students looked around at their teachers, their principal and finally at one another.  We told them they are the solution to Bali’s pollution problems and they could Keep Bali Beautiful.

Having Fun and Learning About Recycling

Having Fun and Learning About Recycling

They believed, and took this pledge:

Saya Berjanji Untuk Jauhkan SMA1 dan Bali Indah

Dengan Daur Ulang Sampah

“I promise to keep my high school and Bali beautiful by recycling plastic, paper and glass garbage.”

Eco Club Co-President Reny making her case

Eco Club Co-President Reny making her case

Our Eco Club leaders will go on a field trip next week to see where the garbage they collect is taken to be recycled, and to see a legal and illegal dump….We’re making progress here one high school class at a time.

If you’d like to help please, go to Keep Bali Beautiful.  

The Summit: Leave it to the Gods


Only the five best climbers were chosen from our group to challenge the summit.  I must have been number six.  I missed the cut and was bitterly disappointed.  But, the summit climb is very rugged and dangerous.  Two days before some hikers were literally blown off a ridge top.  When Wyasa told me he had tried the summit, but had to turn back I didn’t feel so bad since he’s about ten times stronger than me.

So instead of getting killed, I spent the day at the hot springs.  Thank God for being Number 6.


At the moment this photo was taken, I had this perfectly warm spring all to myself.  Minutes later I was joined by 25 villagers from central Lombok.   These villagers were Muslim and dirt poor.  They had brought some food, a few plates to share and a pot to boil their rice.  They were planning to catch fish at Anak Laut to supply the bulk of their food. They were ecstatic about their upcoming vacation.  Of course they were surprised to find a white guy occupying their spring.  But we talked and joked for an hour.

Drying fish

Drying fish



In America I might have been ticked off that 25 strangers invaded my space. But after living in Bali for 2 years, I’m used to the lack of privacy. It was fun in camp.  Everywhere I went people invited into their tents for coffee or a cigarette.  All these conversations started out exactly the same.  For the first five minutes it was all about exchanging information: Where did I live? Where was my wife?  How many kids?  Where was my wife?  When was I returning to Bali?  Where was my wife?  Did I like Lombok?  Where was my wife.  This is all pretty normal.  Indonesians want some basic information on where to place you.  Read Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani to get some funny insight on this.


But even though my language skills are still weak, I could have some conversations.  I talked to a young architect about the techniques he uses to prevent his buildings from falling down in an earthquake.  I asked everyone if they liked Indonesia’s dynamic new president, Jokowi.  Most did not.  80% of Lombok voted for Jokowi’s opponent.  I talked to a man who holds down two jobs as a teacher and hotel employee, and wants to learn the Hindu slokas (chants).  I talked to a young couple who brought their eight-year old daughter with them on the trek.  They are middle class, but still stressed about the basic economic needs of putting food on the table and sending their daughter to school.


Our final ceremony involved two fun events.  First, a group of brave young men jumped into the chilly lake.  They retrieved two stoppered bottles that had been placed in the lake the previous day.  The mystery would be to see if these bottles had filled with water. Miraculously, as they do every year, the bottles returned filled with holy water (tirta).  We cheered.

Counting the coin and jewelry offerings

Counting the coin and jewelry offerings

The second ritual involved collecting coins and jewelry amounting to several hundred dollars which would be given to the Gods of the lake as an offering.  We cheered again as another group of brave men swam out to give this gift.

Then we went to bed early for a 3am wake up call.  4am prayers…and 5am hitting the road.

The way out started with a two kilometer climb to the ridge top.  Wyasa and I started early, and avoided the traffic jams.  At the top one of the old guys yelled down: Stop Smoking and Keep Walking.  That’s because almost all of the young men would walk like rabbits for about five minutes and then stop for a cigarette break.  They are “Smoking Bunnies”, he told me.

Just five minutes before the end, the rain started.  We had achieved one of our key goals.  Our prayers had been answered.  It rained all the way back to Mataram, and I’m not sure if the rain has stopped since.  These guys really know what they are doing.  Places suffering drought, like California, might want to consult them.


We hopped back on the bus.  Smoked a couple of clove cigarettes. And then the young guys dropped off to sleep sprawling across each other.  They may be Smoking Rabbits, but at that moment they reminded me a lot of puppy dogs.

Our porter Made

Our porter Made

Father and son porter team who also helped us.

Father and son porter team who also helped us.




Fog rolling  into the lake

Fog rolling into the lake


Bali Tooth Filing and Cremation Ceremony

Putu, Komang, Father and Kadek in front.  Grandfather and uncle in back

Putu, Komang, Father and Kadek in front. Grandfather and uncle in back

Saturday was a very auspicious day for ashram members Kadek Ayu Ariani, Komang Ayu Juliantari and their sister Putu Ayu Astri.  Five years after their mother died, they were able to cremate her.  The mass cremation ceremony was sponsored by a Member of Parliament from the Karangasem area.

Big sister Putu, took charge of making sure her sisters were taken care of

Big sister Putu, took charge of making sure her sisters were taken care of

The sisters and their family worked all week long preparing offerings for the cremation.  After the ceremony they walked down to the sea where they released her ashes to return to the universe.  Very moving.

But wait that’s not all.  The same afternoon, there was another important ceremony for Balinese…tooth filing or mesangih.  This ritual is usually performed around 16 or 17 years old.  However, it’s expensive so many poor people cannot afford.  But the same organization sponsored the mesangih for more than 200 people including Kadek and her father.

Showing off their filed down teeth

Showing off their filed down teeth

Kadek praying before the ceremony begins

Kadek praying before the ceremony begins

Dad under the knife

Dad under the knife